Keeping Score: Scouting the Derby

Published: 5/6/2022 6:50:07 PM

Good morning!
Today at Churchill Downs, a 3-year-old colt named Zandon is the lukewarm 3-1 morning line favorite to win the 148th Run for the Roses.

The 3-year-old Kentucky-bred has hit the board in all four of its starts and Churchill oddsmaker Mike Battaglia considers him the horse to beat off his recent workouts.

Minnesota contractor Jeff Drown purchased Zandon as a yearling for $170,000 and named him after his favorite hunting guide (as per Jon Hale of the Louisville Journal Courier). Trainer Chad Brown settled on jockey Flavien Prat after Zandon prevailed in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Prat won the 2019 Kentucky Derby aboard Country House after Maximum Security was disqualified for interference. Chad Brown’s winless in six tries but Good Magic placed second behind Justify in 2018.

Handicappers expected Battaglia to lay the mantle of favoritism on the No. 3 horse Epicenter, one of just three in this race with a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure. Trained by Steve Asmussen (0-23 at the Derby) and ridden by Joel Rosario, Epicenter broke his maiden at Churchill on Nov. 21 and won the 13/16-mile Louisiana Derby on March 26 in record time and at even money.

Battaglia made him the 7-2 second choice.

Three-time Kentucky Derby winner J.R. Velazquez slides over to the six post and will ride the 8-1 third choice Messier, named for former New York Rangers captain Mark Messier. He’d be the third Canada-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the first in 39 years.

Messier has three wins and three runner-up finishes in six starts. On Feb. 6 at Santa Anita he won a Grade III stakes race by 15 lengths at 3-5 odds. His 103 Beyer Speed Figure matches stablemate Taiba’s for the highest BSF in today’s field.

Both colts were Bob Baffert trainees until Churchill Downs hit him with a two-year suspension for doping last year’s winner Medina Spirit. Consequently, Baffert transferred both hopefuls to his longtime assistant Tim Yakteen.

Named for owner Amr Zedan’s hometown in Saudi Arabia, Taiba seeks to become the first horse in 139 years to win in only his third career start. In February he broke his maiden by 7½ lengths and five weeks later ran past the 7/5 favorite Messier in the final sixteenth to win the Santa Anita Derby under Mike Smith.

There’s no denying the colt’s bonafides, the $1.7 million purchase price, the sizzling triple-digit speed figures and the best money jock in the business on his back, but is it enough to offset the colt’s utter inexperience?

He could pull an Arrogate and set the track record, or pull an Arazi and finish eighth.

As for the other contenders, Iowa attorney Jerry Crawford got Derby fever when his longshot Paddy O’Prado finished third in 2010. Crawford partnered with Mike Repole to buy Mo Donegal for $410,000 and the 3-year-old colt won Aqueduct’s Grade II Remsen and Grade I Wood Memorial.

He was listed at 10-1 today after drawing the dreaded one post, meaning jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. will need to deal with 19 horses breaking toward him on the rail. “He’s going to have to work through some traffic,” trainer Todd Pletcher acknowledged.

Florida Derby winner White Abarrio’s speed figures keep improving since his third place finish at Churchill Downs in November. Trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. and ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, his workouts included a bullet best-of-41 at Gulfstream Park three weeks ago.    

Pletcher’s other two entrants today are Charge It under Luis Saez from the eight post at 20-1, and Pioneer of Medina under Joe Bravo from the 11 post at 30-1. Neither colt won its final prep race and likely wouldn’t be here if not for their owners’ insistence. It’s why Pletcher has entered 59 horses into the Derby but has only two wins.

The Florida-bred Fountain of Youth winner Simplification is trained by Antonio Sano and will be ridden by Jose Ortiz. Despite his 20-1 longshot status, Simplification is the only horse to have registered BSFs in the 90s in his last four starts.

Another 20-1 longshot, Crown Pride, will exit the seven post seeking to be the first Japanese-bred colt to wear the bed of roses. Yes he won the United Arab Emirates Derby, but UAE winners are 0-for-15 in the Kentucky Derby and none have finished in the money.

Trainer Brad Cox has three entered today. Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife will wear the No. 16 blanket and is listed at 20-1. Lexington Stakes winner Tawny Port drew the 18 and La. Derby runner-up Zozos the 19, and both are 30-1 longshots.

“We’ve got five weeks to prepare,” Cox said after Cyberknife won at Hot Springs. “This is good stuff.”

One-time Kentucky Derby futures favorite Classic Causeway had back-to-back stakes wins at Tampa Bay Downs but finished 11th in the Florida Derby. He’s 30-1 and drew the 17 post from which no Derby horse has ever won.

Trainer Ken McPeek’s Smile Happy, the Blue Grass runner-up under Corey Lanerie, is 20-1 after finishing behind Zandon, and Etheral Road is 30-1 and entered only because everyone loves trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

An intriguing parallel between Taiba and Baffert’s Triple Crown winner Justified is that both won the Santa Anita Derby by 2½ lengths with Mike Smith aboard.  

Baffert bragged about Justified’s potential but is letting Yakteen talk about Taiba and Messier. So far his only response to reporters’ queries has been, “That’s a good question.”

The winner’s share of today’s purse is $1.86 million, meaning that Zedan could recoup Taiba’s price tag in one fell swoop. The second and third place finishers garner $600K and $300K, and fourth place nets $150K.

Yakteen’s shiny new car with the low mileage is tempting, but I’m a hockey guy and Messier’s my play, with Epicenter, White Abarrio and Mo Donegal filling out the exotics.

“Boy is this Derby brutal,” said our favorite handicapper John Dobrydnio. “The horses are not good, I mean they’re just not good. It’s not like the old days when I’d call and say, ‘Boy I think I got a winner.’”

Despite his misgivings Dobrydnio decided “I’m betting White Abarrio straight up and boxing him with Epicenter and Crown Pride.”

NBC’s coverage starts with the Derby City Distaff at 2:30 p.m. and will continue with the American Turf Stakes, Churchill Downs Stakes, Turf Classic and the Kentucky Derby. Post time for the Run for the Roses is 6:57 p.m.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at


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