It's been a LONG TIME since I've used this space, so welcome back!
A handful of friends have texted for thoughts on the 2022 Kentucky Derby, and on top of that I'll participate as usual with roughly a $150 budget, so watching a few hours of replays on the entire field saves me time in the long run. Feel free to spread the word.
I'll post selections later in the week on both the Derby and the Pick 5 sequence, but am inclined to call Epicenter this year's winner, with Taiba perhaps the only other contender I'll use on the win end.
Thereafter I see a mix of five horses capable of finishing in the trifecta, and a few others that could complete the superfecta by finishing fourth.
Here's my analysis.
(Notations next to morning-line odds: EE = Early or else; E = Early/pacesetter; E/S = likes to run from the lead but can also stalk/sit behind others and pass; S = stalker that wants to sit midpack, make later run; C = slow starter, inclined to close from the back of the pack; NM = not material).
3. Epicenter (3-1; E/SE): Best in the field. Smooth from the gate, can secure a ground-saving position into the backstretch and be on or near the lead, and seems to have another gear when asked in the stretch. Tactical. Geared down late in decisive Risen Star and Louisiana Derby wins at Fairgrounds and has enough stamina and heart to get the blanket of roses on Saturday. Experience edge vs. Taiba.
12. Taiba (12-1; E/SE): As little stock as I put in fellow Californian Messier's (see below) win prospects, I'd consider going all in at 12-1 on this ex-Bob Baffart horse now in replacement trainer Tim Yakteen's barn. The Derby will be only this horse's third lifetime race; he obliterated maidens wire-to-wire on debut in early March at a sprint distance, then looked professional in winning the 9-furlong Santa Anita Derby, cruising past Messier in the stretch with relative ease. I'll speculate this guy goes off closer to 6-1 or 7-1 as he seems to be a serious contender. Owners paid $1.7 million for this one, and with "Money Mike" (Smith) in the saddle, Taiba's in a position to win.
10. Zandon (3-1; C/S): I think the odds would flip-flop if you swapped post positions with Mo Donegal on Saturday; that's how bad the rail draw is for the Derby. To me, there are so many similarities between Zandon and Mo. Both will have to fire from the back, which is why I think a 3-1 morning line is too short for Zandon. I like trainer Chad Brown a ton and the course he has charted after a nose beat late in the 2-year-old season at Aqueduct in December. The 3-year-old debut in the Risen Star, finishing third, was decent enough; then he exploded late in the Toyota Bluegrass, though I think the track announcer's call about all sorts of traffic was overdone. Zandon ran in company but was never bumped or harmed, then got a clear lane through tiring horses to draw away for the win. I'll use 2nd through 4th on my tickets. Wish he had a little more early speed to contest the pace, but I'm not so sure.
8. Charge It (20-1; E/SE): A really intriguing longshot making only his fourth start and that didn't run as a 2-year-old for trainer Todd Pletcher. My gut tells me to be patient and keep an eye on this son of Tapit in the late summer, perhaps at Saratoga or maybe the Haskell. Looked green in the stretch of his second-place Florida Derby effort but has talent and ran strong once straight. Visually, just feel he's not mature enough yet. I could see him pressing the pace and wilting, but will use defensively underneath. Good learning experience for later in 3-year-old campaign.
6. Messier (8-1; E/SE): Perhaps at my own risk, but I can't take this Californian too seriously as a win contender in this spot, considering the lack of depth in Santa Anita's 3-year-olds this season outside of Taiba. I've got nothing against this ex-Bob Baffert trainee or replacement Tim Yakteen, but there's no way I'd play an Ontario bred to win the Kentucky Derby who beat some Cali tin cans in 4- to 5-horse fields. Could see being coaxed from the gate to keep up but to me distance a concern. May use in the bottom of trifectas and superfectas but nothing beyond.
4. Summer Is Tomorrow (30-1; EE): Interesting early foot; might be the pacesetter and a potential rabbit for Epicenter. I generally toss UAE shippers and horses trying something for the first time (like shipping to the U.S.). Yet Summer handled two turns and almost a mile and a quarter as well as could be expected his first time in the UAE Derby in late March, wilting late in the stretch but holding on for second. If Churchill's a carousel on Saturday, this one might hang on for minor awards.
11. Pioneer of Medina (30-1; S): Get the sense he's either a 7-furlong or marathon-type horse. I hated how his two non-stakes victories looked; seemed to hang on by a thread and run in place. But the more I watched his two stakes efforts, it's clear this guy tries hard and is the consummate plugger. I doubt he's talented enough to win, but he has just enough gate speed to attend to the pace, and there's no quit. Could see him finishing in the top 10; may play defensively in the fourth spot of superfecta.
Leaving Off My Tickets
13. Simplification (20-1; S): The bullish case for this one is a game, trouble-ridden win in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. I'm concerned, however, that the field was soft. This Florida-bred hit the board in the Florida Derby but to me he looked wilted, particularly with the aforementioned Charge It rolling by in the stretch. Just don't see the upside here and am inclined to pass.
16. Cyberknife (20-1; S/E): Get the same vibe as Simplification but will be more forwardly placed. Weaved in and out during the stretch drive of his Grade 1 Arkansas Derby win, and time not particularly electric. Seems like he might have beaten softer to get here. Probable pass.
5. Smile Happy (20-1; S): Not the sort of Derby horse I love. Won his debut at Churchill around two turns, a clear feather in his cap. Since then, however, a so-so second where he wasn't close vs. a geared-down Epicenter in the Risen Star, then had a perfect trip in the Toyota Bluegrass at Keeneland but finished second after Derby co-favorite Zandon blew past after fighting thru traffic. Maybe hits the ticket underneath but I'm inclined to pass.
9. Tiz the Bomb (30-1; C/S): You may remember this one as the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf runner up in November that was named winner for bettors after Modern Games was inexplicably a gate scratch but ended up running and winning the race for purse money only. Looked atrocious on 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull Stakes and, to me, doesn't like dirt. Recovered to win two straight on the Turfway Park synthetic track to get to the Derby, but would rather play this one on grass down the road. Passing.
14. Barber Road (30-1; S/C): A plugger who does some late running and continually hits the board but hasn't won a stakes and seemed a bit outclassed in those. Looks like a useful Grade 3 horse who'll run evenly here but probably won't hit the board. Big moment for young jockey too. Pass.
7. Crown Pride (20-1; NM): Rolled past Summer Is Tomorrow to win the UAE Derby, but I summarily toss shippers from Japan in the Derby. Seen too many come with promise/hype and flop; and this is his third country and track since late February, which is a lot to ask of a young 3-year-old. So be it if he wins. Not buying here.
17. Classic Causeway (30-1; E): Been there, done that trying to buy into Tampa Bay Downs stakes winners. It's a second-tier Derby prep track. CC should be in the early mix but can see fading closer to home. Regular rider Irad Ortiz goes to Mo Donegal; signal he knows that horse is way better.
18. Tawny Port (30-1; NM): Peachtree Stable can say it had a 2022 Kentucky Derby runner. Congrats.
2. Happy Jack (30-1; NM): Would be better served staying in California against lesser competition. Lucked into a dream trip debut win at 24-1 when the seas parted near the rail and the horse was ridden hard in the stretch. Then tried stakes 3x and couldn't stay within 10 lengths of the winner. Pass.
0. Ethereal Road (30-1; NM): Takes a special horse to win from the widest post. Needed four tries to break maiden, and is 0-3 since and was never a factor. Pass. SCRATCHED
21. Rich Strike (30-1; NM): Complete reach for a horse that was claimed for $30,000 in September and is 0-5 in a few miinor stakes races. Pass.