Key Storylines to Watch as 148th Kentucky Derby Comes Into Focus

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For years it has been said that thoroughbreds go through their biggest changes, in terms of growth and maturity, between the ages of 2 and 3. It is a primary reason why several 2-year-old champions have fizzled out when facing the rigors of the Triple Crown trail. In addition, the prep races for the Triple Crown provide tests that allow some 3-year-olds to emerge as major players while others prove that they cannot handle the competition as the waters get deeper.

Now that the prep races have been completed, there is some clarity to the storylines that have emerged for this Kentucky Derby. However, a detailed assessment of an 8-horse field is vastly different from an assessment of a 20-horse field, so a review of these storylines may help to bring this year’s Derby into focus. Here are some of those key Kentucky Derby storylines, as I see it

1. The Man Who Isn’t There

We cannot get away from the story of Bob Baffert. The fact that he has trained 3 of the last 7 winners of the Derby makes his absence a major factor. Two of his trainees, now in the hands of Tim Yakteen, will probably be in the field.  Nobody knows, however, what the import of not having a hands-on Baffert approach in the weeks leading up to the Derby will mean for Messier and Taiba.

2. Is this the year of Asmussen?

In the aftermath of the year in which he became the winningest trainer of all time, the Steve Asmussen machine just keeps on churning out winners. He is leading the nation in wins this year by a runaway margin and is close to Todd Pletcher for the lead in purse earnings. He trains the Derby points leader and probable favorite in Epicenter, and Echo Zulu is 2nd in points for the Kentucky Oaks. Both horses will have a 6-week span between their previous races and their big dates in Kentucky, which should give the trainer plenty of time to have them tweaked for their peak performances. The only major blot on the trainer’s record is an 0-for-23 mark in the Derby, and this could be the best chance he’s ever had to become a Derby-winning trainer.

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3. Will Brad Cox win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies?

The final adjudication of the 2021 Derby made the Cox-trained Mandaloun the winner and disqualified Medina Spirit. There’s no question that Cox would like to win the race by crossing the finish line first, and he has three chances to do so. Zozos was 2nd to Epicenter in the Louisiana Derby, which was only the 3rd race of his career, so he is likely to improve from that experience. Cox also trains Cyberknife, who was dominant against a questionable field in the Arkansas Derby.  As a son of Gun Runner, he will appreciate the extra furlong of the Kentucky Derby. His 3rd entrant is Tawny Port, whose best races prior to this past Saturday were on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park. His win on Saturday in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland showed that he can handle the dirt surface, so he is likely to be entered in the Derby.

4. Will Chad Brown add the Kentucky Derby to his resume?

He has won 4 Eclipse Awards as the top trainer in the U.S., but Chad has never won the Derby in 6 tries. This year he has two horses that have a legitimate shot to win the big one. Zandon, the Blue Grass Stakes winner, closed from last in that race to win by 2 ½ lengths. A strong pace in the Derby could set things up for his running style. His other horse is Early Voting, who led on the front end in the Wood Memorial only to be nailed at the wire by Mo Donegal. It was his first race in two months, and he should be sharper in Louisville.

5. Will Saffie Joseph, Jr. emerge on top?

 In his mid-30’s, Joseph was the dominant trainer of the ultra-competitive Championship Meet at Gulfstream Park this year. The accomplishments of the man from Barbados were led by Florida Derby winner White Abarrio, a horse who was sold for $7,500 as a yearling and then for $40,000 as a 2-year-old. He beat a lot of high-priced and highly-regarded colts in winning the Holy Bull Stakes and the Florida Derby, and it remains to be seen if this overachiever can succeed in the most competitive race of all.

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6. Will Todd Pletcher be an under-the-radar threat in the Derby?

His Kentucky Derby record of 2-for-59 says that many of his high-priced colts were entered into the Derby based on the wishes of their owners, and not the judgment of their trainer. After all, he has won 23% of his races in his career with over 5,300 wins. Both of his horses this year, however, are entering off excellent prep races. Mo Donegal put on a big closing effort to win the Wood Memorial, and he will like the mile-and-a-quarter distance of the Derby. In just the third race of his career, Charge It was an impressive 2nd to White Abarrio in the Florida Derby. The chart notes tell the story, indicating that he hit the gate at the start, had a wide trip throughout the race, and lugged in in the stretch. It was a race that indicated he has a world of potential.

7. Can Ken McPeek pull off an upset in his home state?

Lexington-born and Kentucky-based McPeek came very close with his first Kentucky Derby starter, finishing 2nd in 1995 with Tejano Run. He’s started 5 others in the Derby since then, and he hasn’t come close. His two probable entrants this year have a legitimate chance. Smile Happy was a solid stalking 2nd in the Blue Grass Stakes when he was overcome in the stretch by the late-closing Zandon. The drying-out track condition that day probably favored closers, and he could improve on a fast track. McPeek is also taking a chance with Tiz The Bomb, who won the Jeff Ruby Stakes on a synthetic surface at Turfway Park. His performances thus far have shown a preference for running on grass and synthetics, but you only get one chance to run in the Kentucky Derby.

8. Will Derby Day be Old Timer’s Day?

56-year-old Mike Smith should have the mount on Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba. He will use his lifetime of experience to guide the lightly raced colt in the biggest race of his career. In that Santa Anita Derby, Messier was a game 2nd after fighting for the lead most of the way with Forbidden Kingdom. Messier is likely to be the mount of 50-year-old John Velazquez, who is always on top of his game in the big races. Smith is a 2-time winner of the Kentucky Derby and Velazquez has won the race 3 times. In a 20-horse field in the biggest race of all, experience is an invaluable factor to have on your side.

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9. “Battle of the Young Sires”

Gun Runner is the leading 2nd-year sire in North America, and his offspring in this Derby will be Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba, Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife and Early Voting, who was a close 2nd in the Wood Memorial. Not This Time, the leading 3rd-year sire in North America, is a son of the great sire Giant’s Causeway, who died in 2018. He will be represented by Epicenter, the likely Derby favorite, as well as Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Simplification and possibly In Due Time, who could draw into the field. Trained by the always dangerous Kelly Breen, In Due Time was 2nd to Simplification in the Fountain of Youth.

10. Will an 0-fer streak be broken?

Some of these have already been mentioned in this article, but here is a recap of some key 0-fer records.

  • Trainers: Steve Asmussen (his 0-for-23 is the longest active streak among trainers), Chad Brown (0-for-6), Ken McPeek (0-for-6)
  • Jockeys: Javier Castellano (0-for-15), Jose Ortiz (0-for-6), Irad Ortiz, Jr. (0-for-5), Tyler Gaffalione (0-for-4)
  • First-time Derby winners are odds-on favorites to produce tears in their post-race interviews.

The 20-horse Kentucky Derby is always an adventure. Storylines abound, but the only certainty is that the connections of one horse will experience the pinnacle of achievement in the sport, while the other 19 will experience some level of disappointment. It’s “nervous time” for all involved as May 7th draws closer.

Al Bernstein has worked as a statistician on NBC’s horse racing telecasts since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984.