There is absolutely no sporting event that compares to the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been around the Super Bowl, CFP Championship, Final Four, NBA Finals, Indy 500 and even an AAA Minor League Baseball championship series. Absolutely nothing compares to the energy around Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby week. Derby day is as close of a feeling as I get to feeling like a kid on Christmas morning again. I spend weeks every year studying, watching replays and trying to pick up every tidbit I can on horses, knowing that I will probably get my heart broken. I’ve been on the cusp of major scores in the Kentucky Derby so many times that I think it is starting to break my psyche. I’ll never quit though. If I hit big on Saturday, you best believe I’ll have my friends douse me in Bud Light and pull an imaginary monkey off of my back like I am Steve Young in the Super Bowl. When handicapping a major race like this, I like to break the horses up into tiers. It gives me an idea of how I view each and what I think their chances are, from there we can build tickets and bets based on what we perceive the probability of each running well is, compared to their relative odds. Here is how I view the 148th edition of the Kentucky Derby.

Win Contenders

#3 Epicenter (7-2) – In a Kentucky Derby field short of horses great on paper, Epicenter checks a lot of boxes. Trained by Steve Asmussen, Epicenter has done little wrong in his career thus far. The horse has won at a distance similar to that of the Derby, something all but one other contender can say. He has won with multiple running styles. Most of the chatter around this horse will revolve around his trainer, Steve Asmussen, who has yet to win the Kentucky Derby. Asmussen comes into the race with a career record of 0-24, but let’s dig into those numbers a little bit here. Of those 24 starters, only 4 went off with odds of 10-1 or lower. Of those four, two finished 3rd and one finished 2nd. When Asmussen has shown up with serious runners, the horses have all ran well. Drawing post #3 doesn’t bother me for Epicenter, I expect him to work out a similar trip to the one that he had in the Louisiana Derby, where he will sit off of the lead and be in a good position to make a run coming for home. Gun to my head, if I had to pick one horse to show on Saturday, it would be Epicenter. I will be using him on all of my exotics as well as multi-race wagers as a win candidate.

#12 Taiba (12-1) – The most polarizing horse in the race, he may also be the most naturally talented as well. A horse formerly trained by Bob Baffert, he only has two career starts to his name. While both races were monster performances, he would be overcoming a decent amount of history if he were to pull off the win in this year’s race. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby in only his or her third start since 1883. There will also be some noise about this horse only having one work between the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Personally, it does not bother me. Ever since the end of 2020, I have been hearing about how Bob Baffert and his team cleaned up at the sales and purchased pretty much every horse they wanted. Taiba is the cream of that crop. While only having raced twice, he was able to show two different dimensions. In his debut going 6 furlongs he set the pace and opened up on the field. His second career start, the Santa Anita Derby, he was able to sit off of the pace and run down the highly acclaimed stable mate, Messier, in the stretch. The most impressive thing about Taiba, from what I have seen in his races and his works, is that when he is asked to put his head down and go in the stretch, he always does. For such a lightly raced horse that is awfully impressive. That effort gave me enough confidence to believe he can win the Kentucky Derby. As long as he can break well from the number 12hole, he should be able to carve out the trip that it takes to wear the roses. If Taiba wins, prepare to hear all about Bob Baffert and the negative press that comes with it.

#6 Messier (8-1) – If you like Messier you have to love Taiba and vice versa. As mentioned in the previous paragraph regarding the promise of Baffert’s 3-year-old class, Messier has been the star of this class on the racetrack dating back to October of 2021. In six career lifetime starts, Messier has three wins and three-second place finishes. It’s fair to question the quality of horses he has faced thus far though; in six career races he has faced a combined total of twenty-five horses. The field on Saturday will consist of twenty horses. Here’s the thing about Messier that scares me, and it is something that I have yet to see anyone else touch on. Whenever the horse has faced an opponent with equal talent, he has lost. Slow Down Andy, who beat him in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in February, would have been in the Derby if not for other issues. Taiba didn’t have much trouble putting him away in the stretch last out in the Santa Anita Derby. Ultimately, I trust Bob Baffert (Tim Yakteen) to have the horse ready and for Johnny Velazquez to give the horse the best trip possible, but right now I view this horse more like Game Winner (5th in the 2019 Derby) than I do like Medina Spirit (2021 Winner but DQ’d). I do believe you have to use this horse on your exotics, although I will not question anyone who decides to play against him in multi-race wagers.

#10 Zandon (3-1) – In a move I found somewhat surprising, Zandon was instilled as the morning line favorite for this year’s edition of the Kentucky Derby. 3-1 odds are a little light, if I was betting this horse to win, I would want at least 5-1. When people discuss Taiba, they question if the 6F maiden sprint to a 1 1/8th mile stakes race was too big of a leap, yet that is exactly what Chad Brown did with Zandon, except he did it as a two year old. It led to Zandon losing by a nose to Mo Donegal in the Remsen Stakes last November, but it established him as a major player in this class. In his first race as a three year old, he lost to Epicenter and Smile Happy before turning the tables on Smile Happy last month in the Blue Grass Stakes. That resume is usually not enough to solidify a horse as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. To touch on the Blue Grass, I thought it was a race that had three standouts: Emmanuel, Smile Happy and Zandon. Those three completed the trifecta, yet only Smile Happy will be running in the Derby as Emmanuel will take some time off. Zandon will need to take a step forward to win, but that is not out of the question. His trainer Chad Brown does a great job of making sure horse’s progress from one start to the next, and a horse’s third start as a three year old is usually a spot where you see a peak performance. Flavian Prat, who is at least the 3rd best jockey in the United States, will ride Zandon. Running style creates a bit of an issue here for Zandon though. The Derby is a race where you want to be on or near the lead turning for home. In the Blue Grass, Zandon was almost six lengths off of the lead for much of the race. I do expect Prat will have him closer, as those are the tactics he used with Country House and Zandon was closer in his first two races than he was his last two. Another horse I will use in exotics, but absolutely will not fault anyone for playing against him.

#15 White Abarrio (10-1) – This is the longest shot that I think has a realistic chance of winning. Strictly just on speed figures and past race fractions White Abarrio doesn’t fit the bill. There is more to the story, however. Leading up to White Abarrio’s last two races, he missed training time before each race due to fever and other minor issues. In both of those races, the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby, White Abarrio posted Beyer speed figures of 97 and 96, respectively. What that means is that he has posted speed figures good enough to make him a top contender despite not being 100% in either race. The horse has not missed a work and has been training well since the Florida Derby. Predicting a horse to run a peak race in the Kentucky Derby is usually a foolish endeavor, but more on that later. This is a special set of circumstances that I believe make the horse worth playing. The horse has also won in two different ways, both on the lead and from sitting off the pace.  He’s also already beat Mo Donegal and Charge It this year, both horses who will probably be popular at the wagering window on Saturday.  The connections of this horse said the best starting post gate for him would be gate 14. They drew 15. If you are looking for a horse to blow up your multi-race wagers or you want a win bet that will be 10-1 or higher, this is your guy.

Exotics Candidates

#14 Barber Road (30-1) – Looking for a long shot candidate who can make your trifecta or superfecta bet pay boxcars? Here is my favorite of the group. In his last seven races, Barber Road has never finished worse than third, with two wins and four third place finishes. He does come from the Arkansas circuit, which hasn’t been as good this year as it historically has been, but I am willing to look past it. The horse has gradually improved in every race he has run. Barber Road has also been closing ground on the leader at the end of pretty much every race he has ran as well, even as the distances have gradually gotten longer. He has experience running in big fields and is used to closing through traffic. That is invaluable in a race like the Kentucky Derby. This horse gives me major Looking At Lee vibes, which finished second in the 2017 Kentucky Derby at odds of 33-1. 

#1 Mo Donegal – This horse was done no favors drawing the #1 post. With the new gate at Churchill it may not be as detrimental as it was, but getting pinched on the rail is a serious concern. For a horse that is a closer like Mo Donegal, he has experience with running late and through traffic, just like Barber Road does. Irad Ortiz will also be his jockey, who may be the best jockey in the United States at this moment.  Mo Donegal shares the same sire as 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, Uncle Mo. The distance shouldn’t be a problem. He has a lot of hurdles to overcome to win the race, but it isn’t hard to envision him closing ground late down the stretch to finish in the trifecta or superfecta.

#16 Cyberknife (20-1) – One of three entries for superstar trainer Brad Cox, this is a horse that he has liked for a while. As early as 2021, Cox has mentioned Cyberknife as the one horse in his barn that he thought would be a Kentucky Derby horse. Cyberknife had a rough start to his career, winning on debut but ultimately being disqualified. He then took two more starts to break his maiden and finished up the track when he faced Epicenter in the Lecomte Stakes in January. They took the blinkers off the horse after that race and he returned to form, winning his last two, the most recent of which was the Arkansas Derby. I expect this horse to be two to three lengths off the lead for most of the race, which would put him in a good spot for an in the money finish when they turn for home. He’s a cut below the top contenders but the trifecta and superfecta are very much in play. If he’s 20-1 or higher on Derby day, I will not be the one talking you off this horse.

#5 Smile Happy (20-1) – This horse spent some time as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby over the winter at sports books in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the horse has really improved much as he has aged from 2 to 3. However, that level of ability still makes him one of the top horses in this race. He is battle tested, as he has already raced against the likes of White Abarrio, Epicenter, Zandon and Classic Causeway. In four career starts, he has never finished worst than second, with two wins. This is another horse that has a closing running style and could be making up a lot of ground down the stretch. Jockey Corey Lanerie is perfect for a horse with that running style and trainer Kenny McPeek is known as a long shot artist. This horse is roughly 16-1 at offshore books right now, odds could go lower than that on Derby day because this horse has a connect to legendary degenerate gambler, Mattress Mack.

#7 Crown Pride (20-1) – This horse is listed here off of a principle at this point. Japanese horses have ruined big scores for me for over a year now, I am not letting it happen again. Truthfully, I don’t know what to make of him here. He is in the race because he won the UAE Derby, which may have been the worst field of any prep this year. It is honestly a crime that not one but TWO horses get into this field from Dubai. Crown Pride has a tendency to be slow at the start, which isn’t exactly great for a 20-horse field. He also didn’t switch leads when running down the stretch in Dubai, another red flag. With all of that said, people keep raving about how good he has looked since he arrived in Louisville. All I have heard about is how much energy he has when training. I’ll spend the extra few dollars to put him on my tickets. If this horse wins, I probably lose, but I will have a friend who is probably incredibly happy. Sometimes you just have to root for your friends.

Wise Guy Horses

#19 Zozos (20-1) – Another entry for Brad Cox, I just have a hard time seeing this horse be competitive here. He received a Beyer speed figure of 98 for finishing second in the Louisiana Derby last out, where he was put away by Epicenter. Epicenter had no problems with this horse. Now he starts wide in just his fourth race and I am not sure how close he will be able to get to the pace. Manny Franco, whom I consider to be a liability, also rides him. Zozos is sired by Munnings and I have doubts about this horses ability to close and win a race at a 1-1/4th mile distance. This horse will get play based off of the trainer and the speed figures, but he isn’t for me.

# 8 Charge It (20-1) – I had this horse pegged as the “wise guy” horse as soon as the Florida Derby ended. What do I mean by that saying? Every year there is a horse that the TV analyst and gamblers who only bet horses four times a year all seem to love. Usually it is the horse that Chris “The Bear” Fallica likes. Charge It had every opportunity to beat White Abarrio in the Florida Derby and he couldn’t get close. He swerved all over the stretch, which is a sign of immaturity. As I previously mentioned, betting on a horse to make a huge leap in the Derby is a sucker’s bet. Per Thorograph, on average, only 2 to 3 horses set new career best speed figures in the Kentucky Derby. If you like Charge It, you can bet a much better version of him named Taiba. More than happy to let this horse beat me.

#11 Pioneer Of Medina (30-1) – Yet another horse who is getting a lot of love from the public handicappers and I am struggling to see why. He was beaten easily in his last two by a few different foes in this field and he hasn’t been finishing well at the end of his races either. He’s just a horse who has ran near the lead and then kind of stuck around as others pulled away at the end. He also hasn’t been able to attract the same jockey twice in six career starts, a rarity for a horse who is considered to have Kentucky Derby potential. Again, this is another horse that I will gladly lose to.

Tosses

#13 Simplification (20-1) – The fields that this horse has won against just do not impress me. I also think the distance of the Kentucky Derby is too far for Simplification to go. He is admittedly a cut above the other horses I will mention here, and I think he would have a big shot if he were running in the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard. Classic example of me liking this horse but just not in this spot.

#20 Ethereal Road (30-1) – Trained by D Wayne Lukas, I really hope this horse takes sentimental money, because there is no other reason to bet this horse. This may be hard for casual fans to believe, but at one point Lukas was at the same heights that Bob Baffert is at this moment. Now, Lukas is 86 years old and he has raced this horse 3 times in the last 6 weeks trying to get it into the starting gate. I am not sure what this horse has left in the tank. His speed figures are a cut below and he starts from gate 20. I can’t find a single positive with this horse.

#17 Classic Causeway (30-1) – A horse that set the pace for much of the Florida Derby and then just stopped, the connections have gone back and forth on whether or not he would run here. While Classic Causeway has 0 chance of winning, how fast he runs early may play a pivotal role in who actually does. He should be prominent for the first 3/4ths of the Kentucky Derby and then fading from the picture when the winner is getting decided.

#2 Happy Jack (30-1) – Props to Calumet for taking the California road to the Derby and capitalizing on accumulating points in six horse fields. This horse is in the Derby because he was able to finish ahead of a few other horses while losing by ten plus lengths in two prep races. Calumet is a legacy breeding operation and one of the most storied names in horse racing. It is a nice footnote but this horse has no chance at winning the Derby and finishing in the trifecta would be a major shock.

#4 Summer Is Tomorrow (30-1) – The other entry from the UAE Derby, I have a hard time seeing this horse being competitive in this spot. He may play a huge role in who wins the race though, as I expect this horse to have early speed. If his past race is any indication, and they usually are, he will most likely be on the lead and setting fast fraction. This field is just much, much better than anything he has raced against in Dubai. I expect him to set fast fractions and then drop the anchor by the time they turn for home.

# 18 Tawny Port (30-1) – The third Brad Cox entry in the Derby, I do not see this horse being competitive on Saturday. He has gradually improved, but he is in this field because he won the Lexington Stakes three weeks ago. That field wasn’t impressive. He had his chance versus Epicenter, Smile Happy and Zandon in the Risen Star back in February and he was never competitive in that race. This is a horse that is probably better-suited running on turf or synthetic surfaces going forward.

#9 Tiz The Bomb (30-1) – This is probably the horse I struggled with the most on what to do with. In eight career races he has amassed over one million dollars in career earnings. However, most of his success has come over turf and synthetic surfaces. He completely no showed in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream in February. The running line for that race says “no apparent mishap” but that doesn’t tell the story. Tiz The Bomb washed out awfully bad before that race. For those unfamiliar, that is when a horse gets so hot before the race they work up lather. Usually that is an awful sign and you get a non-effort from the horse and that is exactly what happened. If someone wanted to give this horse another try, I wouldn’t talk you out of it. I decided to toss him because I have heard the connections say he doesn’t like the dirt kickback, and that is not exactly something you can avoid in a field of 20 horses. If you want to bet him, try to get a good look at him pre-race to see how he is behaving and how he looks.

#21 and #22, Alternate Entries – In the event that one of the aforementioned 20 horses scratch, #21 Rich Strike would draw into the field first. He is a horse who has one career win, in a maiden-claiming race in September of last year. He would be a huge shock to even hit the board. He is another one that I prefer on a surface other than dirt. #22 Rattle N Roll is a horse that had a really nice two-year-old season but just hasn’t improved into his three-year-old season. In his three starts this season, he has finished no better than fourth. I do not see that changing here if he gets into the field. If they want to run both of these horses in a Triple Crown race, they would be better served waiting until the Preakness in two weeks.

Wagers: .50 Tri 3,12/1,3,5,6,7,10,12,14,16/1,3,5,6,7,10,12,14,16 = $72

Most people are familiar with “boxing” a trifecta but using the “with” button or “wheeling it” as some say is a much more cost effective method. This bet is saying that we think either Epicenter or Taiba is winning the race and that two of our ten favorite horses will round out the trifecta. If you want to put down a single bet on the race that offers a higher ROI, this is the play. With a 20-horse field, the trifecta should pay decent, even if favorites come in for second and third.

Win/Place on #12 Taiba

When I play a Win/Place bet, I usually double the denomination for place that I put down to win. For example, a $10 win bet would be accompanied with a $20 place bet on the same horse. We are essentially betting he’s going to come in at least in the Top 2. A win bet on Taiba will probably pay around 7-1 and the place bet will pay around 3-1 if I had to guess. This is the best for someone who wants something a little more simplistic.

KENTUCKY OAKS

While the Kentucky Derby on Saturday gets all of the fan fair and media attention, the Kentucky Oaks is ran on Friday. It is essentially the Derby but for fillies, or female horses. This year they have a loaded field, with three undefeated the horses, including the filly that was the two-year-old champion, Echo Zulu. A lot of times, the Oaks is a better betting race and can be more friendly to long shot runners. Churchill Downs also offers a wagering menu where you can bet an Oaks-Derby double, essentially parlaying the winner of the main event on Friday with the main event on Saturday. The #1 Secret Oath is trained by D Wayne Lukas and could have ran in the Derby, if they so decided. She does her best running from off the pace and this race looks to setup well for her on paper. I will be keyed in on the #4 Nest. This is a filly I have loved all year; she should be able to sit off of the pace and has experience on a sloppy track, which is key with showers in the forecast for Friday. I think this spot sets up well to beat #7 Echo Zulu. She will probably be the favorite, but she has always run on the lead and I expect there to be plenty of other early speed in this race. The #2 Nostalgic has a chance at an upset as well too, if you are looking for an upset.  I will be playing Nest to win, as well as an Oaks double; #1 Secret Oath, #2 Nostalgic, #4 Nest with #3 Epicenter and #12 Taiba in the Derby. Good luck to anyone who plays! As always, feel free to reach out on Twitter with any questions.

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