Hyperbolic sportscasters will tell you to throw out the records for a rivalry game. They’ll sell you on raw emotion and the promise that a likely mismatch will make for great television viewing.
Smart handicappers know to separate the heart from the mind. Process raw data, not raw emotion.
When the Kentucky Derby is renewed for the 148th time Saturday, you actually should throw out the history book and trends. You must focus on the individual horse records and matchups, more than ever, because this storied race’s trends have been hijacked.
— In 2019, Maximum Security became the first winner disqualified for interference. Country House was promoted to victory despite never being impacted by the traffic.
— The 2020 Derby, in the midst of the pandemic, was moved to September and was run after the Belmont Stakes and the Travers. Had it been run in May, few think Authentic would have won (heavily favored Tiz the Law was already burned out).
— In 2021, Medina Spirit won the roses and lost the post-race drug test. Months later, the name Mandaloun was painted on the side of Churchill Downs for history to remember — though he never led a step of the race.
If you want to profile what’s been successful in the Kentucky Derby in recent years, you can’t even start on a trusted baseline. Seasoned horseplayers and historians alike make valid arguments on multiple sides as to the unofficial, yet official, recent outcomes of America’s great horse race.
So how do we handicap this year’s Run for the Roses? Like it’s the sixth race on a Wednesday at Anytrack USA. The fundamentals of speed, pace, class and connections (jockeys and trainers) remain constant even as this unique race’s trends have gone the way of the payphone. Here’s a quarter, kid. Let’s get handicapping.
Horses aren’t race cars, so it’s never as simple as the fastest horse wins the race. But it never hurts to have a top-end ability that outshines your competition. The fastest members of this class are Epicenter (102 Beyer Speed Figure) and Taiba (102, 103 Beyer Speed Figures), winners of the Louisiana Derby and Santa Anita Derby. Messier, second in the SA Derby, showed elite speed in his prior victory on the West Coast (103 Beyer). Mo Donegal’s Wood Memorial clocked fastest of all, though raw times don’t tell the complete picture (96 Beyer, though BRISNET gives him a 111, tied with Taiba for the field’s fastest race lifetime). Zandon’s Blue Grass win (98 Beyer) was on the cusp of the fastest in this field.
The tempo of any horse race tells the tale of how it will be won. Easy early fractions help front-running horses hold their edge, while fast early fractions give late runners a chance to rally. The late addition of Tampa Bay Derby winner Classic Causeway to this field could have a drastic impact on how fast they’ll go in the first half of the Derby. Among the favorites, Epicenter and Messier figure to be closest to the early lead and, therefore, challenged by a faster pace. Faster would likely benefit Mo Donegal and Zandon among the main players, as well as several long-shot closers who will need a pace meltdown to factor. Taiba, with only two career starts, is a wild card as to how close to the front he’ll be when charged up among 150,000 strong.
Strength of schedule in team sports is comparable to class. Since these 3-year-olds in the Kentucky Derby come from various regions of the country, it’s similar to conference strength in college sports. Epicenter’s races in Louisiana were the strongest this year, witnessed by the fact that Zandon and Smile Happy were comfortably beaten by him in the Risen Star Stakes before finishing 1-2 in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. By the same token, the Wood Memorial win by Mo Donegal was a feather in the cap of his Florida conqueror White Abarrio, who added the Florida Derby crown as Mo Donegal left town. The Arkansas Derby trail was its weakest in years, and the Santa Anita Derby’s top-two finishers were fast and talented, but the crop out west was extremely thin.
Epicenter’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, has won more races than any in U.S. thoroughbred history but is 0-for-23 in the Kentucky Derby, the worst active mark on record. But in a year to throw out the records, that might be one to consider. Asmussen has won the Preakness, Belmont and 9,700-plus races; a Derby can’t be too far away. Zandon’s jockey, Flavien Prat, could be the key to the Derby with this late-running threat. Can he work out a trip? Prat has had four Derby mounts in his burgeoning career, officially credited with a win, a second and a third (though the win came aboard Country House via disqualification). Zandon’s trainer, Chad Brown, was America’s champion trainer from 2016-19, and this looks to be his best chance to notch his first Kentucky Derby win. Finally, Mo Donegal’s tandem of multiple-time U.S. champion jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. and two-time Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher may be the field’s deepest match. White Abarrio’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, has been the leading Churchill rider the last six meets.
And then there’s the Baffert factor.
You can’t just circle Bob Baffert’s name this year as he sits out a two-year ban from Churchill Downs and a concurrent 90-day suspension nationwide from the Kentucky Racing Commission. Baffert trainees Taiba and Messier hit the transfer portal, if you will, a month ago and landed with former Baffert assistant Tim Yakteen. Key Baffert employees also made the transition, and it was Taiba and Messier both punching their ticket in the Santa Anita Derby for Yakteen. He’s never trained horses at this level on his own, so it’s natural to question whether this pair will run as good for Yakteen as they would have for Baffert. The answer is: We don’t know. So demand a few points extra in tote price to find out.
Putting it all together
Based on the fundamentals, Mo Donegal and Zandon — the latter posting workouts as strong as any on display in recent mornings — have run fast enough to be considered among the elite of this class, should get a fast early pace to set up their late-running styles and have connections among the very best in the sport. The rail post draw could be a huge detriment for Mo Donegal to work out the trip. They’ll need to avenge defeats to White Abarrio and Epicenter to be victorious. White Abarrio is trending the right way to this eye, and Zandon appears highly reliable. Despite the post position, Mo Donegal still remains in the plans. Zandon and Mo Donegal will comprise the bulk of my wagers.
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