LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After delaying the Kentucky Derby to September in 2020 and running it last May in front of a limited crowd, Saturday will be the first back-to-normal Run for the Roses in three years.
A huge crowd of 150,000-plus is expected to watch the 148th edition of the race, though it won’t be completely like it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s because Bob Baffert, the six-time Derby winner, had his seventh victory last year stripped when Medina Spirit was disqualified after a positive test for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory that is banned on race day.
As a result of that transgression, which Baffert has denied and fought vigorously but unsuccessfully through various legal remedies, he’s been banned from running horses at Churchill Downs for two years. Two horses that started in his barn are here, though, in Taiba and Messier. They are currently in the care of Tim Yakteen — a former Baffert assistant who is a rookie when it comes to training for the Derby.
That dynamic is quite clearly the biggest storyline of Saturday’s race. But here are five other storylines worth watching:
Impossible task for Taiba?
Experience has become less and less of a factor in the Derby recently. The days of horses like 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed running nine times as a 2 year old and then four more times leading up to the Derby are over. Now, most of these 3 year olds only have a handful of starts before the first Saturday in May, so it’s not a huge knock to come in without a lot of seasoning.
However, what Taiba is trying to do is basically unprecedented. The son of 2017 horse of the year Gun Runner did not make his debut until March 5 in a six-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita, then came back a month later in the Santa Anita Derby and won that race to stamp his ticket to the Kentucky Derby.
Though two horses this century have won the Derby with three starts under their belt — Big Brown in 2008 and Justify in 2018 — very few have even tried with just two career starts. You’d have to go back to 1883 and a horse named Leonatus to find a Derby winner with such little experience.
The mere idea of going from maiden race to Kentucky Derby in the span of two months is so audacious that most owners and trainers wouldn’t even try. But owner Amr Zedan, the head of a Saudi Arabian engineering conglomerate, isn’t easily deterred. Zedan, by the way, also owned Medina Spirit. One can imagine how eager Zedan would be to get back in the winner’s circle this time.
“Mr. Zedan has a severe obsession with the Derby by his own admission,” said Gary Young, the racing manager for Zedan’s stable. “We thought the horse had ability all along. I’m not surprised what he did, I’m just surprised with as little preparation as he had that he did what he did. He’s a very talented horse. Much has been made of his inexperienced but if he breaks good and goes into that turn second or third, inexperience goes right down the toilet.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME? Kentucky Derby favorite has intriguing story behind human namesake
SPORTS NEWSLETTER:Sign up now to get top sports headlines delivered daily
Speaking of Taiba, the least experienced horse in the field will have the most experienced jockey on his back in two-time Derby winner Mike Smith.
Smith was 52 when he climbed aboard Justify in 2018, making him one of the oldest jockeys to ever win the race. Now he’s 56, and if Smith wins another Derby — whether it’s this year or in the future — he’ll set the record that is still held by Bill Shoemaker, who was 54 when he won it on Ferdinand in 1985.
After more than 34,000 career mounts and $339 million in purse money, Smith doesn’t ride nearly as many races as he used to. Last year, he had fewer than 200 starts for the first time in his career, focusing more on quality than quantity.
But “Big Money Mike” is still a rider that you’d like to have on your horse in a significant race, and the carrot of winning a third Derby is a big reason why he’s still going.
“It would be amazing,” he said this week in an interview with the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “To be the oldest one to do it and beat Shoemaker’s record – just to be mentioned with his name gives me goosebumps. It would be extra special.”
On the training side, 86-year-old D. Wayne Lukas will saddle his 50th Derby starter in longshot Ethereal Road. Lukas has won the race four times with Winning Colors (1988), Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone (1996) and Charismatic (1999).
The forgotten favorite
If the Derby had been a couple weeks ago, Epicenter might have been the consensus favorite. Nothing has really happened since then to take him down a peg, other than Zandon putting in some strong work in the mornings to surpass him in the eyes of many handicappers and the morning-line oddsmaker at Churchill Downs.
But based on past performance, it’s kind of hard to figure why Epicenter isn’t a big favorite in the Derby. In his last five races, Epicenter has won four times — losing only in the Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 22 when he got passed a couple jumps before the wire. Since then, he responded with strong wins in the next two Louisiana prep races — including a dominant performance in the Risen Star on Feb. 19 when Zandon finished a non-threatening third.
Also, when comparing them head-to-head, Epicenter has a more preferable running style where he’ll be forwardly placed and more likely to avoid traffic trouble. Zandon prefers coming from off the pace, bringing more variables into the equation.
Despite all that, Epicenter has been somewhat forgotten this week. There’s just not been much buzz about him. But trainer Steve Asmussen has been pretty confident that Epicenter is going to run his race.
Will that be good enough? Who knows? Asmussen, the all-time winningest trainer in North America with more than 9,700 race victories, has brought several great horses to the Derby including Curlin and Gun Runner. But for whatever reason, it’s never quite come together for him on Derby Day, leaving Asmussen with an 0-for-23 record.
That’s bound to change at some point. And if this Saturday is the day Asmussen wins the roses for the first time, we’ll all be wondering Sunday why Epicenter didn’t go off as the favorite.
Is this Japan’s time?
Foreign-based horses aren’t usually taken seriously in the Derby — and for good reason. Beyond the suspect quality in a race like the UAE Derby, which has become the de facto overseas prep race because it offers as many Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the biggest American preps, the long travel and quarantine experience adds one more layer of obstacles to an already difficult race.
But there does seem to be a lot of intrigue this year around Crown Pride, a Japanese owned and bred colt who won the UAE Derby and has looked pretty spectacular in the mornings around Churchill Downs. He’s also had the benefit of being on the grounds here since the end of March, which should take acclimation off the table as a factor.
Crown Pride’s final breeze on Wednesday was a very fast 46.60 seconds for a half mile with a gallop out time of one minute flat for five furlongs, the kind of move that turns the heads of experienced clockers during Derby week.
In fact, his entire training regimen has been a bit unconventional relative to American horses. Not only has Crown Pride breezed faster and more frequently than his competitors, he also spends a lot more time on the track during regular gallop mornings with kind of an extended warm-up that some have compared to dressage-style training.
There’s no way to know until Saturday whether Crown Pride is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, but he certainly has worked like a horse with a real chance.
Vive La France!
French jockeys have won two of the last three Kentucky Derbies, and there’s a decent chance it will happen again this year. That’s because there’s a record five French jockeys among the 20 in this field.
In addition to the three who have become mainstays in America — Florent Geroux, Julien Leparoux and 2019 Derby winner Flavien Prat — two more are shipping in from overseas to ride in their first Derby.
Christophe Lemaire, who is based primarily in Japan the last few years but has won major races in Europe, Australia and Hong Kong as well, will be aboard Crown Pride. Meanwhile, Michael Barzalona is one of the top jockeys in Europe and will ride Summer Is Tomorrow.
“I think it’s pretty cool to have five French jockeys to participate in the most prestigious race in America,” said Geroux, who was credited with the 2021 Derby win aboard Mandaloun after the disqualification of Medina Spirit. “It just shows French jockeys around the world can adapt to any kind of situation and show the creativity of riders we have in the country.”
Geroux said starting in jockey school as a young teenager and the variety of racetracks in France gives his compatriots a leg up coming to America, where the racing is relatively standard on a counter-clockwise oval.
“(In France), some are left-handed, some are right-handed, some are straight courses, so I think it’s easier to adapt coming here than the opposite,” Geroux said. “If you ask a jockey to go left all his life to go right the guy might be a little bit lost. We are used to doing it and changing on a daily basis.”