By far, the biggest story of this year’s Derby is the absence of scandal-plagued trainer Bob Baffert who has dominated the race the past 25 years. Baffert has been banned by Churchill Downs and has a separate suspension issued by the state of Kentucky which is being honored in other states. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any Baffert horses here. Taiba and Messier were both trained by Baffert up until six weeks ago and then transferred to trainer Tim Yakteen, a former assistant to, you guessed it, Baffert. There is every reason to believe Baffert is calling the shots.
Taiba has raced only two times but both were brilliant. But no horse has ever run this race with such a limited background. Two of the biggest name trainers in the sport are Chad Brown and Steve Asmussen and neither has won the Derby. In Asmussen’s case that’s rather amazing because he has won more races than any trainer in thoroughbred history. One of them may get off the schneid this year as Zandon, trained by Brown, and Epicenter, trained by Asmussen, are the two race favorites.
In recent years, it always seems to rain on Derby day and a wet track is again possible.
No favorite won the race in a 20 year period in the 80s and 90s but the betting favorite has won ten of the last twenty races. This year, there are a remarkable number of no-hopers who seem to have no chance or very little chance. But horses like that often can come running late and finish third or fourth creating big payouts in wagers like the trifecta and superfecta.
In last year’s Breeders’ Cup and even more so in the big races earlier this year in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, Japanese horses have dominated. I believe Japan has the best horse racing in the world but racing there is almost exclusively restricted to horses based in that country, a parochial rule that has cost those horses the chance to prove how good they are. But their recent success in shipping to other countries and winning is forcing people to take notice. There is a Japanese horse in this year’s Derby named Crown Pride. He qualified for the Derby by winning the UAE Derby in Dubai. He is the wildcard in this race and can win.
#1 MO DONEGAL—Todd Pletcher trained winner of Wood Memorial, ridden by superstar jockey Irad Ortiz. The #1 post position isn’t as bad as it used to be since the introduction of the new starting gate. Still, it’s not ideal and traffic issues are possible.
#2 HAPPY JACK—-Badly beaten in all three of his stakes races.
#3 EPICENTER—-Has won four of his last five including a romp in the Louisiana derby at fair Grounds. This race is gradually becoming the most important Derby prep because of its six week break before the Derby. The post position isn’t ideal but jockey Joel Rosario is a master. The horse has tactical speed and will be close to the pace. He gets better every race as the distances get longer. That’s a very positive sign. Possible winner.
#4 SUMMER IS TOMORROW—-Set a hot pace in the UAE Derby in Dubai before fading to second. he’ll face much more pace pressure here and seems likely to wilt.
#5 SMILE HAPPY—-He’s run four times and every one has been a good one. In his only two races this year he has run second to Epicenter and to Zandon, the two likely favorites. He had to overcome a wide draw in his last. He actually got the lead with a strong middle move before being passed by Zandon. Horses that make that kind of move often sustain it in their next race. The rider is obsessed with staying on the rail which either works brilliantly or results in traffic trouble. His program odds of 20-1 would be a steal.
#6 MESSIER—-Possible front runner. He’s one of the two horses trained by banned Bob Baffert and transferred a few weeks ago to trainer Tim Yakteen. Nobody knows what to make of the situation. This horse is very reminiscent of Medina Spirit, the Baffert trainee who won last year’s Derby only to be disqualified for a drug positive.
#7 CROWN PRIDE—-The world traveler of the field. This Japan-based horse shipped to Dubai to win the UAE Derby, making him eligible for this race. Japan has the best racing in the world and proved it when their horses dominated the races in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. This one is bred to get the Derby distance and is ridden by the leading rider in Japan. Foreign horses often have pedigrees suited for the turf but this one is bred for the dirt. He’ll likely be mid-pack and will have to make a move on the turn. He has been trained much more aggressively for the Derby than the American horses as our trainers tend to baby horses. The Japanese are winning lots of global races right now and the Derby would be a massive accomplishment. Discount this one at your peril.
#8 CHARGE IT—-The best of the Todd Pletcher horses and a possible winner. Although he’s lightly race, he likely would have won the Florida Derby with a better break. He will forwardly placed and if he has the stamina to finish things off, he’s dangerous.
#9 TIZ THE BOMB—-He’s run eight times and his slowest three races have been on dirt. This race is on dirt.
#10 ZANDON—-He’s run strongly in all four of his races with a powerful breakthrough win in the Blue Grass at Keeneland last out. His workouts the last few weeks have been excellent and his jockey, Flavien Prat, is the best I’ve seen in this country since the now retired Jerry Bailey. As a closer, he will have to navigate through traffic but prat is great at that. he should be aided by a strong pace. A lot of people are touting this horse and expect to hear people cheering “Let’s Go, Zandon.”
#11 PIONEER OF MEDINA—-He’s been third and fourth in his only two stakes races.
#12 TAIBA—-The most interesting horse in the race. He’s run only twice but the last was a smashing win in the Santa Anita Derby. He was trained by Cheater Baffert who turned the horse over to Yakteen (same situation as Messier) in order to be eligible for the race. But the horse missed a workout after the Santa Anita race and not horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby in only its third start.
#13 SIMPLIFICATION—-Florida based horse always runs well and is impeccably bred but doesn’t seem to be improving. Veteran trainer has lots of horses but rarely wins big races.
#14 BARBER ROAD—-He’ll come from way back and has never run anywhere close to fast enough to win this race. he is the type that could clunk up late for third or fourth.
#15 WHITE ABARRIO—-He won both the Holy Bull and Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park near Miami this winter but has a lot of doubters. I’m not sure he’s bred to get the Derby distance. The trainer has aroused suspicion with his methods and gave the horse all of his timed workouts in Florida before shipping to Kentucky. There’s always one Derby horse that puzzles me and this one is it. He could win or finish last and I wouldn’t be shocked.
#16 CYBERKNIFE—-He won the Arkansas derby but with a slowish speed figure. Trainer Brad Cox’s horses always seem to fire in the Derby, however.
#17 CLASSIC CAUSEWAY—-This horse looked great last year asa two year old and also early this year but he simply hasn’t improved. Word is that his owners are forcing the trainer to run CC here.
#18 TAWNY PORT—-The third of the Brad Cox trainees. His rider in his last race has jumped ship to ride Cyberknife.
#19 ZOZOS—-Not to sound like a broken record, but this is the fourth of the Brad Cox trainees. This one is well rested after a strong second to Epicenter in the Louisiana Derby. The wide post position is a definite negative and the horse seems to be bred for shorter races but there’s a lot of talent here.
#20 ETHEREAL ROAD—-Trainer D. Wayne Lukas is back in the Derby! But there’s an asterisk. The horse hasn’t done much and only got in because a number of horses with more qualifying points decided to skip the race.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
HORSE PROGRAM ODDS
#10 Zandon 3-1
#5 Smile Happy 20-1
#3 Epicenter 7-2
#7 Crown Pride 30-1
#6 Messier 8-1
The key to making money on races is to bet the horses whose odds reflect the greatest disparity with their actual chances of winning. In this race, while the possible favorite, Zandon, may be likelier to win, I believe Crown Pride and Smile Happy represent the best value.
Bet $10 to win place and show on #5, #7 and #10 (adjust up or down according to your budget)($90)
$5 exacta box 3-5-7-10 ($60)
50 cent trifecta 5-7-10 with 3-5-6-7–10 with 1-3-5-6-7-8-10-11-12-13-15-16-18-19 ($72)
$1 superfecta box 3-5-6–7-10 ($120) This is a swing for the fence wager and is only for those willing to accept that the wager will likely lose. If it hits, the payout will be huge
In Friday’s race for three year old fillies, I like #4 Nest (5-2), #11 Cocktail Moments (30-1) and #7 Echo Zulu (4-1) in that order. #11 is a major longshot.
Two other Saturday plays at Churchill Downs:
In Race 2, #8 Osbourne (8-1). The horse is named after Ozzy
Race 11, the Grade 1 Turf Classic, #8 Adhamo (9-2)
HOW TO BET
If you want to bet in person, you’ll have to travel. Potawatomi apparently isn’t going to reopen its off-track betting room. There are several OTBs in northern Illinois and live racing at Hawthorne near Midway Airport.
An easier way is to bet online. It is legal and secure. I do not endorse any of these but urge you only to use legal American operations where the money bet goes directly into the racetrack pools. In no particular order, some of these are: 1st Bet, Twin Spires, NYRA Bets, TVG, DRF Bets.