An overflow Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) field short on experience but long on competitiveness was drawn May 2 at Churchill Downs.
Seven of the 20 3-year-olds in the body of the field for the May 7 race have started four or fewer times, including the 3-1 morning-line favorite Zandon . Of the seven, graded-placed runners Charge It spirit Zozos have run three times, and Taiba the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner, just twice.
Many of that seven secured middle posts for the 1 1/4-mile first leg of the Triple Crown during the Monday afternoon post-position draw, with Charge It drawing post 8, Zandon post 10, and Taiba post 12.
Zozos drew widest of the lightly raced runners in post 19, just one inside the far outside-drawn Ethereal Road , who gained entry into the body of the field Monday morning. Ethereal Road, who just days earlier seemed a likely also-eligible, secured a starting position when Rebel Stakes (G3) winner Un Ojo was not entered because of a bruised left front foot, according to trainer Ricky Courville. Ethereal Road is set to become four-time Derby-winning coach D. Wayne Lukas’ 50th Derby starter.
Two other horses, Rich Strike spirit Rattle N Roll are also-eligibles and could move into the field if a scratch or two occurs before 9 am ET May 6. Under that scenario, one or both would join the field on the outside, with other runners moving inward to fill the openings of scratched horses.
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Two of the principal speed horses in the race, Summer Is Tomorrow spirit Epicenter drew inside in posts 4 and 3. Messier who dueled with the speedy Forbidden Kingdom early in the Santa Anita Derby, will start from post 6.
“I would be very surprised if (Epicenter) wasn’t in the first flight, off of his ability and where he’s been in all of his previous races,” said trainer Steve Asmussen.
The Dubai-based Summer Is Tomorrow is one of two foreign-based horses in the lineup, along with Crown Pride just the fourth Japanese-trained runner to compete in the Kentucky Derby.
Classic Causeway (post 17) and Zozos, two other speed horses, are drawn toward the outside, positions from which their riders may opt to focus on tucking in, more so than contesting the pace.
In the middle of the field is Jeff Drown’s Zandon, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G1) winner and the slight favorite over 7-2 Epicenter on oddsmaker Mike Battaglia’s morning line.
“Well, it’s a great position to be in, but at the end of the day, if you do not win, no one really remembers who’s favored,” Zandon’s trainer Chad Brown said of the odds. “But I feel lucky to have the favorite. I think it’s a close call between the two horses. Who knows by the time they actually open the gate who will be favored. But like I said, in the end, it really will not matter. Just the result will. “
Taiba seeks to become the first winner since Leonatus in 1883 to win the Derby with just two previous starts. Just three have captured the Run for the Roses after three outings, the most recent being eventual Triple Crown winner Justify in 2018.
Inexperience remains a hurdle, but seemingly less of one than in the past because so many are in the same position. A shift in training styles and the inception of the Kentucky Derby points system in 2013 have emphasized the importance of 1-2 finishes in final preps as spring 3-year-olds.
“Obviously the complexion has changed a lot,” said Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who will start Charge It, Mo Donegal and Pioneer of Medina . “They were asking me (April 30) about Mo Donegal, presenting the question that he’s one of the more experienced horses in the race, and he had five starts. Just kind of the sign of the times.”
He recalls his first Derby starters in 2000, a group of four that included More Than Ready , a colt that had raced five times before Aug. 1 of his 2-year-old year. He ran fourth in the Derby.
Irad Ortiz Jr. on Mo Donegal will have to work out a trip from the inside post.
“I do not think anyone wants to draw the 1, but Mo Donegal just won the Wood Memorial (G2) from the rail,” Pletcher said. “He’s got a lot of experience with kickback. Hopefully, he can save ground, and Irad can start to find his way through traffic down the backside.”
Last year, the Pletcher’s inside-drawn Known Agenda fell back to 17th early under Ortiz before rallying for ninth.
The trainer said “it did not help last year” but “it was not necessarily that Known Agenda did not get away well … Each year is going to be different and sometimes the inside will work out and sometimes it won ‘ t. “
Pletcher is a two-time winner of the Run for the Roses, as is Doug O’Neill, who runs longshot Happy Jack (post 2), a well-beaten third in the Santa Anita Derby.
Absent from the 2022 Derby is six-time winner Bob Baffert, the winningest active trainer in Kentucky Derby history and a two-time Triple Crown winner. Baffert is serving a 90-day suspension issued by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission after his trainee, Zedan Racing Stables’ Medina Spirit, tested positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone after crossing the wire first in last year’s Derby. Kentucky stewards fined Baffert $ 7,500 and disqualified Medina Spirit.
Baffert is also currently barred from the 2023 Derby, owing to Churchill Downs Inc. issuing a private-property suspension of the trainer from racing at its tracks through the middle of next year.
While Baffert will not be at Churchill Downs Saturday, two horses trained earlier this year by him will be — Taiba and Santa Anita Derby runner-up Messier (post 6). Both are now trained by Tim Yakteen, a former Baffert assistant who launched his training career in 2004.
Yakteen, who began training the pair shortly before the Santa Anita Derby, has maintained Baffert-like conditioning practices with the duo — giving them fast, lengthy workouts that often continue past the finish line. Some of Baffert’s regular exercise riders and grooms now work for Yakteen.
Yakteen said he “sort of had a lottery ticket dropped in my lap” when he received the opportunity to train the pair this spring. They will be his first Derby starters.
Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan or Zedan Racing Stables, Taiba races. The partnership of SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert Masterson, Jay Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital, Catherine Donovan, Golconda Stable, and Siena Farm campaigns Messier. Some of Messier’s owners were co-owners in Baffert’s sixth Kentucky Derby winner, 2020 victor Authentic .
Multiple Derby-winning jockeys Mike Smith and John Velazquez are aboard Taiba and Messier, respectively. If Smith, age 56, were to cross the line first with Taiba, he’d become the oldest rider to win the Kentucky Derby.
While Pletcher and O’Neill each pursue their third Derby victory, other trainers seek an elusive win, among them Asmussen. A Hall of Famer and North America’s all-time winningest trainer, Asmussen is 0-for-23 in the race.
After coming close previously, with four horses hitting the board, his representative this year, Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Epicenter, is one of his best chances. The winner of the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) has Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Joel Rosario aboard.
Epicenter wins the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds Race Course
Should Epicenter, a colt by Not This Time remain at or below 7-2, he would be shorter odds than the prices on Asmussen’s eventual Horses of the Year, Curlin spirit Gun Runner . Curlin was 5-1 in 2007, running third. Gun Runner, at 10-1 odds in 2016, also showed.
Longshots Lookin At Lee spirit Nehro gave Asmussen his two runner-up finishes. The trainer has captured the other two legs of the Triple Crown.
Jeff Down’s Zandon, an Upstart colt, has impressed observers with his training in Kentucky since the Blue Grass, first at Keeneland and later at Churchill Downs. He wrapped up his pre-Derby breezes with a five-furlong drill in 1:00 2/5 April 29 beneath the Twin Spiers that Brown called one of the best works he has witnessed from one of his horses in his 15 years of training.
Like Asmussen, Preakness Stakes (G1) -winning trainer Brown has not yet won the Derby, with his best finish being a runner-up finish by Juvenile champion Good Magic to Justify four years ago.
“There was always a little bit of a question mark if that horse was going to get a mile and a quarter,” Brown said of Good Magic. “I do not think anybody is questioning if (Zandon) can get a mile and a quarter. He might not win but it’s not going to be because he can not run a mile and a quarter.”
A sharp break from the starting gate in the Derby, essential for every participant, seems particularly crucial for Zandon, who has been slowly away in his two starts this year. He hopped at the start when third to Epicenter in Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford (G2) and was slowly into stride in the Blue Grass before launching a last-to-first rally on the second turn after shuffled back in traffic.
Riding is Flavien Prat, who won the 2019 Derby on Country House upon the disqualification of Maximum Security.
The inside post is widely considered the most disadvantageous draw in the Kentucky Derby due to the massive size of the Derby field. A scramble for early position often ensues and horses toward the outside typically angle inward, impeding or slowing down inside runners not quick enough to be among the leaders in a dash of a little more than a quarter-mile to the first of two turns.
Although eight horses have won from the inside post since the starting gate was first utilized for the Kentucky Derby in 1930, none have won from the inside post since Ferdinand in 1986.
A custom-made, 20-stall starting gate designed by Australian-based Steriline Racing made its debut at the 2020 Kentucky Derby, which replaced the use of the 14-horse gate and an auxiliary gate for up to six horses. With the continuous gate more compact than two gates in tandem, it is not positioned as close to the rail, meaning inside-drawn horses start from a position farther off the inside as during the two-gate era. Similarly, wide posts are not as far outside.
Horses from post 20 are 1-for-17 in the Derby, with Big Brown in 2008 its lone winner.
The Kentucky Derby, which will be televised on NBC, is slated as race 12 on Saturday with a 6:57 pm ET post time.
Entries: Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1)
Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 07, 2022, Race 12
- Grade I
- 1 1 / 4m
- $ 3,000,000
- 3 yo
- 6:57 PM (local)