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.

RELATED: When is the 2022 Kentucky Derby? Date, start time, distance, race coverage info

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.

RELATED: How to watch Kentucky Derby 2022: TV channel, start time, live stream online, full race schedule

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.

RELATED: What to know about the 2022 Kentucky Derby

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.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.