It's the big day in US horse racing, the one day of the year when racing is truly in the public eye. Conscious of the stain on the sport when a winner returns a positive test, the powers that be at Churchill Downs have banned trainer Bob Baffert from competing this year, and understandably, that hasn't gone down well. Too bad, how sad...
The field this year looks particularly even with only a couple I'd class as having absolutely no hope. As the 12th Man would say, this is harder to pick than a broken nose!
THE KENTUCKY DERBY presented by Woodford Reserve
1 1/4 miles (~2000m), 3yos, Grade 1
Churchill Downs, Saturday May 7
1857 local, 2357 BST, 0857 AEST.
1. Mo Donegal - Todd Pletcher, Irad Ortiz Jr.
- narrowly beat today's favourite Zandon in the Remsen Stakes last December, ran third behind White Abarrio and Simplification in the Holy Bull in early Feb. After nine weeks off, he then beat a field with no other Derby runners in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. In those three races he drew 1,2,1 in much smaller fields, and not once did he lead. He's more inclined to miss the kick, and you can't do that in a Kentucky Derby, especially drawn the paint. Big worry that he will get shuffled back to midfield, on the fence and won't see daylight until way too late. Not sure the genius of Irad can save him from there. ML 10/1
2. Happy Jack - Doug O'Neill, Rafael Bejarano.
- not even in the same camera shot as the winner in his past three starts (when he wasn't using Lasix). Outclassed, his early price looks to be missing a zero. ML 30/1
3. Epicenter - Steven Asmussen, Joel Rosario
- got a cheap run behind the lead in the Louisiana Derby six weeks ago to comfortably defeat Zozos. Previously he cantered home in the Risen Star leading all the way. His only defeat this campaign came back in January when nosed out by a late closer. Stronger and more mature now, deserves to be in the main chances. ML 7/2
4. Summer Is Tomorrow - B Seemar, Mikael Barzalona.
- Dubai visitor who ran second, 28/1, in the UAE Derby (to Crown Pride), at his first run beyond 7f and thinks that will make him competitive here. I beg to differ. Has early pace but pace in at Meydan ain't the same flying from the bell at Churchill Downs. Another one that should be triple digits. ML 30/1
5. Smile Happy - Kenneth McPeek, Corey Lanerie.
- drew wide in the Blue Grass at Keeneland and was stuck out on a limb until taking over in the stretch. He also copped a decent bump from the tiring leader which made Zandon (the beneficiary of a pace collapse)'s winning margin a little flattering IMO. Started favourite against Zandon that day, so purely on that he deserves to be a much shorter price. Second behind Epicenter in the Risen Star before that, while he won a G2 here last year, ahead of Classic Causeway and White Abarrio. Worth a look as this early price looks big. ML 20/1
6. Messier - Tim Yakteen, John Velazquez.
- can't say I'd ever heard of this trainer before but the reality is this horse was trained by Bob Baffert until recently when Churchill Downs management (CDI) got sick of Baffert's multiple drug violations, particularly with Medina Spirit here last year, and banned him from racing there. In fighting the counter lawsuit, CDI made a striking statement, “His claims are meritless and consistent with his pattern of failed drug tests, denials, excuses and attempts to blame others and identify loopholes in order to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. These actions have harmed the reputations of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs and the entire Thoroughbred racing industry." No surprise that Yakteen is one of Baffert's former employees so he's in hands he can trust. Messier was run down by another ex-Baffert colt, Taiba, in the Santa Anita Derby, after destroying the field in the Robert B.Lewis Stakes at the same track nine weeks previous. More exposed than most in this field but runs at a consistently high level. ML 8/1
7. Crown Pride - Koichi Shintani, CP Lemaire.
- Japanese owned & trained UAE Derby winner who has suffered defeat just onice in four starts, when he was squeezed soon after the start and dropped out to last. Has plenty of class and likes to race on the pace. If he can handle the mad rush to the first turn, he's got a shot. ML 20/1
8. Charge It - Todd Pletcher, Luis Saez.
- started joint favourite in Florida Derby on the strength of a ridiculously easy maiden victory at his previous run. Was the least experienced of the leading contenders and it showed, he was unbalanced on the home turn, ran about a little in the stretch, ducking behind the leader when he could have challenged. With that under his belt, I can put him in contention, at the very least for place money. ML 20/1
9. Tiz The Bomb - Kenneth McPeek, Brian Hernandez Jr.
- star 2yo of last season (second in the BC Juvenile Turf) who flopped in the Holy Bull before rebounding with two convincing wins at Turfway Park. It's a step up back to Grade 1 class but his (RP) ratings are about equal to his best from last season. Comes from off the pace, race could set up well for him if they go hard in front. Chance at odds. ML 30/1
10. Zandon - Chad Brown, Flavien Prat.
- became favourite after running home strongly to win the G1 Blue Grass Stakes a month ago. He did have all the favours that day, sitting last in a very bunched field and getting a dream run through the field while the favourite Smile Happy was stuck wide without cover around both bends. An impressive colt but surely flattered by his last win. Won't get that sort of dream run ever again. Finished third behind Epicenter in the Risen Star at his previous run, having to run home off a well-rated pace. Finished a nose ahead of Pioneer of Medina that day, and he's one of the outsiders here. Big unders for mine. ML 3/1
11. Pioneer of Medina - Todd Pletcher, Joe Bravo.
- has been campaigning at Fair Grounds, running third in the Louisiana Derby (behind Epicenter and Zozos), and fourth in the Risen Star (behind Epicenter, Smile Happy and Zandon, and ahead of Tawny Port). Runs on the pace but not classy enough to keep on going. ML 30/1
12. Taiba - Tim Yakteen, Mike Smith.
- just two starts to his name having only debuted in March, but bolted in at his maiden start then won the Santa Anita Derby, a six-horse field where the favourite, Forbidden Kingdom, flopped, so his main rival was stablemate Messier (won by 2.25L). Stalked the pace that day and was too strong in the closing stages. Looks very well educated but he's only faced two small fields to date. This is another level completely from what he's seen so far. Ex-Baffert horse now with one of his protegees. The X factor in the race - couldn't have him too short in odds, but similarly, could be something special and romp in. ML 12/1
13. Simplification - Antonio Sano, Jose Ortiz.
- has raced exclusively at Gulfstream to date, winning the G2 Fountain of Youth and placing behind White Abarrio in the Holy Bull and Florida Derby. There's more to do here. He's adaptable and can race forward or midfield but needs luck to step up here. ML 20/1
14. Barber Road - John Ortiz, Reylu Gutierrez.
- ran on late in the Rebel Stakes to finish a close third after never seeing much room. A little slow out in the Arkansas Derby and was forced to sit near the tail. Came through the field and got blocked in the straight, running home nicely to finish second. I doubt he'd have won but deserved to be a little closer. Should be running on at the end, might sneak a place. ML 30/1
15. White Abarrio - Saffie Joseph Jr., Tyler Gaffalione.
- has won the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby this season but neither of those races were deep in contenders. Drawn wide, usually sits off the speed but will have to do it tough from out there. Chance but needs the breaks. ML 10/1
16. Cyberknife - Brad Cox, Florent Geroux.
- won the Arkansas Derby after getting a cosy run through the field. In his other graded run, he finished well behind Epicenter in the Lecomte Stakes. Trained by a star, has to be in the mix but draw makes it tough. Curious about the name? It is the lifesaving device that helped treat the prostate cancer of his owner, so put him on the 'feel-good story' list. ML 20/1
17. Classic Causeway - Brian Lynch, Julien Leparoux
- surprised they continued the campaign after he flopped in the Florida Derby. Ran second in the G2 Jockey Club Stakes here in November behind Smile Happy so he can compete at this level but his two wins this season at Tampa Bay have been against weaker fields. Irad Ortiz Jr. has jumped ship to Mo Donegal. Good luck to the Aussie trainer with his first KD runner! ML 30/1
18. Tawny Port - Brad Cox, Ricardo Santana Jr.
- fifth, beaten 8L behind Epicenter in the Risen Star but that was his first run in Graded company and has since improved markedly, running second to Tiz The Bomb in the G3 Jeff Ruby Steaks and winning the G3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Entitled to be a price but not hopeless. ML 30/1
19. Zozos - Brad Cox, Manuel Franco.
- might have been a serious contender if it wasn't for the horror gate. He made his debut in January winning his maiden, followed by a 10L romp at Oaklawn in an allowance race. He then took on Epicenter in the Louisiana Derby, beaten 2.5L. An extra furlong and the experience under his belt puts him in the race but it'll be tough unless he goes hard early to cross. The name comes from the owners' favourite restaurant in the US Virgin Islands. Did someone say tax dodgers? ML 20/1
20. Ethereal Road - D.Wayne Lukas, Luis Contreras.
- shouldn't ignore one with this trainer's name one but looks to have his work cut out. Finished behind Un Ojo (would have been a big price) in the Rebel Stakes, and Tawny Port (is a big price) in the Lexington Stakes, both weaker company, but in his one test against this type of grade, was beaten over 11L behind Zandon in the Blue Grass. Put a zero on the early price, at least. ML 30/1
This is wide open as the odds suggest. There's no superstar colt this year to focus on and as such, just about anything could happen. I don't confess to being any sort of US form expert but at the prices and based on the replays, my darts have landed like this:
Tiz The Bomb
Will back the top three all each-way at 15/1+ and probably a few exotics. It could be a big day for Kenny McPeek!
Meanwhile over at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, the first authorised fixed-odds wagering on horse racing in the US in over 100 years will take place. Obviously it won't quite be the same as the repeal of PASPA which opened up sports betting but it could be the massive injection of new life into racing that America needs!