The “greatest 2 minutes in sports” will again occur this Saturday, May 7, as 20 thoroughbreds enter the Churchill Downs starting gate for the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby.
After three abnormal runnings in a row, horse racing fans are looking for a little normalcy and a safe race, and hoping to win a few bucks while watching a new Derby champion crowned a little before 6 p.m. on this first Saturday in May.
The 20 horses qualified for the big race through points they earned in the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races run from last October through this past April. Notable entrants include Epicenter, a dominant winner from the Louisiana racing circuit; Taiba and Messier, two speedy horses from the West Coast; Zandon, the morning-line favorite who won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland; White Abarrio, the Florida Derby champion and winner of five races in six starts; Crown Pride and Summer is Tomorrow, two horses based in Japan who earned their Kentucky Derby berths by finishing one-two in Dubai’s UAE Derby; and Etherial Road, a long-shot trained by 86-year-old Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.
The 148th running of the Kentucky Derby
Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY
Post time: 5:57 p.m. ET
TV: NBC (coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. ET)
Get a risk-free bet of up to $200 by playing the Kentucky Derby with TVG.
Mo Donegal caught Early Voting (not entered) in the final strides of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack in his most recent race, but drawing the 1 post in the Kentucky Derby could serve to doom his chances. Because of his come-from-behind style, he’ll likely get a good spot at the rail, but face some serious traffic in the race’s first quarter-mile.
The same could be said for Epicenter, although his victories in the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star Stakes at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds earlier this year proved he can win either on the lead or by stalking the front runners. Summer is Tomorrow could vie for the early lead along with Classic Causeway. The two could possibly lock up in a speed duel in the first quarter mile, with Epicenter and several other front-running entrants (Messier, White Abarrio, Zozos) potentially joining the fray.
A hot early pace (first quarter under 23 seconds, first half under 47 seconds) could set the stage nicely for Zandon, who made powerful strides late around the far turn and in the stretch in the Blue Grass Stakes last out. Given a fast opening half-mile and a good trip, Zandon could be right in the thick of the leaders at the top of the quarter-mile Churchill Downs stretch, then make a similar final furious drive to the wire.
Other closers who could benefit from a potential speed duel include Mo Donegal, Crown Pride, Tiz The Bomb, Simplification, Cyberknife and Tawny Port.
One thing that could change the race dynamic is an off-track. Forecasters predict rain on Friday and Saturday. Most of the field has not run on a sloppy track, but Epicenter, Zandon and Classic Causeway each have victories on good tracks.
History on the line
History always rides into the Kentucky Derby every year, whether it’s with a jockey or trainer looking for their first classic victory, or in a horse looking to break a jinx.
Taiba is looking to do something that no Kentucky Derby entrant has done since 1883 – win the run for the roses in just his third career start. He’s certainly worth considering, given his two outstanding races at Santa Anita Park — including a win in the Santa Anita Derby — in which he garnered Beyer speed figures of 100 or better both contests.
Trainer Steve Asmussen is the winningest thoroughbred trainer in America, with more than 9,446 victories, including wins in the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and the Breeders Cup Classic — but he’s never won the Kentucky Derby. He’ll look to finally hoist the Derby trophy with Epicenter. Another top trainer, Brad Cox, has three chances to earn his first Derby winner with Cyberknife, Tawny Port and Zozos.
Two brother jockeys based on the NYRA circuit who rank among the top riders in America — Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz — are also looking for their first Derby winners. They’ll ride Mo Donegal and Simplification, respectively.
Flavien Prat won the 2019 Kentucky Derby with Country House, even though his mount finished second to Maximum Security — the first-place finisher who was disqualified for interference in the stretch. Prat will try to cross the wire first this time aboard Zandon.
They gave me $100* to play. Here’s how I’m using it.
Handicappers often turn to the Beyer speed figure as a measure of a horse’s quality, and as noted on Horse Racing Nation, 27 of the last 30 Derby winners have entered the big race with a career best speed figure of 95 or higher.
By that measure, the following horses figure to be in serious contention for a Derby victory this Saturday: Mo Donegal, Epicenter, Smile Happy, Messier, Zandon, Pioneer of Medina, Taiba, Simplification, White Abarrio and Zozos. No need to throw out all of the other runners, though; you can consider them for your exotics (exactas, trifectas, superfectas, etc.).
Three of the horses with a 95 or better Beyer figure scored a figure of 100 or higher: Epicenter, Messier and Taiba. Either of the three would be worth dropping a win bet on, and based on the morning line odds, it’s worth the gamble. They’re my top three picks in this race.
Epicenter has improved in every race, and his last two runs were especially intriguing, as they showed off his tactical speed. If he can avoid being caught in traffic trouble near the rail and a fast speed duel early, he could get a dream trip all the way around the Churchill Downs oval before making a final drive to victory.
Taiba, for the obvious reasons of his light racing career, is a wild card. He stretched out from a 6 1/2 furlong allowance win in March to a 9 furlong victory in the Santa Anita Derby last month, and he beat a quality horse in Messier. The Derby may only be his third start, but he seems to have the profile of a champion in the making.
Messier ran his fastest race two starts back in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, winning by open lengths. He had no answer for Taiba in the Santa Anita Derby, however, and couldn’t keep up with him. Still, Messier has the speed to contend and bounce back with a stronger effort and a clean trip.
One dark horse in the running is White Abarrio. Though he hasn’t run nearly as fast as Epicenter, Messier and Taiba, he’s won quite often — 5 of 6 career races, to be exact. A good stalker with an outside post in the Derby, White Abarrio can get to a rating position into the clubhouse turn, sit off the pacesetters, then make his move at the top of the stretch.
The down side to White Abarrio? All five of his wins have come at Gulfstream Park, but his only loss came at, you guessed it, Churchill Downs — where he finished third in the Kentucky Jockey Club last November.
Why no love for Zandon? He’s a solid horse and a logical threat to win the Derby, but it’s hard to play a favorite in this race who could go off at 3-1 or lower. Also, his late running style and breaking from the middle of the 20-horse field gives me concern he’ll get squeezed early by an onslaught of horses from the outside jockeying for position. There might be too much traffic and bumping for him to overcome.
Let’s put $10 to win on Epicenter, White Abarrio and Messier ($30) and $15 to win on Taiba, whose 12-1 odds are too good to pass up — a $45 ticket. As for return on investment, just based on the morning line, wins on any of these bets would get you $45 for Epicenter, $90 for Messier, $110 for White Abarrio and $195 for Taiba.
For an exacta play, let’s do $5 straight bets of Epicenter, White Abarrio and Taiba on top, with White Abarrio, Mo Donegal, Zozos and Crown Pride on the bottom — a $55 ticket. The will-pays for each combo figure to be at least $100.
* – the money in question is fictional.