Much to the chagrin of Churchill Downs, one of the main talking points ahead of Saturday’s 148th Kentucky Derby is not who’s in Louisville, but the one person who isn’t. All that could change once the doors open and up to 20 horses will begin their 1 1/4 mile journey in the world’s most famous horse race.
Then again, if either of the two horses previously trained by Bob Baffert wins the race, his apparent sway over the conversation in horse racing will once again be evident, even in absentia. There is definitely a chance of that happening.
Tim Yakteen, a former assistant to Baffert, took over the lineup from Taiba and Messier, who finished first and second in the Santa Anita Derby.
“I use the analogy that I had a lottery ticket fall in my lap and I try to go to the window and cash it in,” Yakteen said.
The road to the Kentucky Derby is a long grind that began last September with 48 races worth qualifying points. Still, it’s mostly marketing with weak point races that really don’t matter. The Derby track starts in earnest in early March with races worth 50 points for the winner and early April with races worth 100 points for the winner and 40 points for the runner-up. The current threshold to make the field is 30 points.
This year’s field is considered one of the most competitive, leaving handicappers to try to figure out what strategies will work to find the winner. Among the things to consider are these five scenarios that will come up this Derby week.
Why exactly is Baffert not there?
Picking the winner of three of the last four Kentucky Derby races was easy: Bet on the horse Baffert. He won the very first September Derby two years ago with Authentic, then last year with Medina Spirit. But his victory last year was overturned by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission some nine months after the race when the horse tested positive for a legal anti-inflammatory drug banned on race day. The case is on appeal and will likely spend a few years in litigation.
As a result, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission suspended Baffert for 90 days, which is honored by every racing jurisdiction nationwide. The suspension ends on July 2, after the Triple Crown races. It’s almost common that when a case is on appeal, the suspension is dropped, but in this case, Kentucky regulators and courts ruled otherwise. However, even though he was granted a reprieve, Churchill Downs suspended Baffert for two years and made him ineligible to acquire qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby. This too is heading towards litigation.
All of this means, through Taiba and Messier, betting on Baffert is still a strategy, at least in spirit.
Who will be favored in the race?
The draw for the race will take place on Monday, up a day from the usual Tuesday. But the position of the post is unlikely to move the predicted morning line unless the horse pulls the 1, but even that isn’t such a big factor since Churchill Downs built a special 20 horse gate that alleviates the disadvantages of a hole and eliminates the gap in the middle.
All things being equal, the favorite will likely be Epicenter, which has won four of its last five and recently won the Louisiana Derby by 2½ lengths. He likes to go in the lead, but in the Louisiana Derby they rated him just off the lead and he came strong in the stretch, showing his versatility. Recent history has shown that the closer usually doesn’t win the Kentucky Derby, so it will attract a lot of attention.
“What don’t I like about Epicenter? asked owner Ron Winchell, a member of the family who started the donut chain. “He keeps moving forward. When you get to that stage before the Derby, you want them to move forward with every step and that’s exactly what he’s done.
Who is long to follow?
There has certainly been some buzz surrounding Crown Pride, a Japanese-bred horse that qualified by winning the United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai. Generally, one of the accepted rules of the Derby is to eliminate the horse whose last race was in the Middle East. An example was Mendelssohn, who won the United Arab Emirates Derby by over 18 lengths in 2018. He became the third betting choice in the Kentucky Derby and, after a difficult journey, was relieved, finishing at 70 lengths behind future Triple Crown winner Justify.
Yet Crown Pride seems to be surfing on a revival of Japanese racing. Japan’s horses have won five of nine Dubai World Cup races and two Breeders’ Cup races. Crown Pride had the fastest half-mile practice at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, so he seems to be loving the track.
“Soon, Japanese horses will be on top of the world”, Katsumi Yoshida, Pride of the crown’s coach, told the Kyodo News.
How big of a factor is experience?
It’s not as big as before. When Secretariat won in 1973, it was his 10th race. When Affirmed won in 1978, it was his 14th. In Saturday’s Derby, of the horses currently scheduled to start, two (Tiz the Bomb and Barber Road) have eight starts, three have seven, five have six, three have five, four have four, three have two. Then there’s Taiba, who has only started twice.
Leonatus is a name that has been talked about lately as he is the only horse to have won the Derby after just two starts. He did it in 1883. It was four years ago when another racing curse was broken by Justify, who was the first horse to win the Derby after not racing at the age of 2 years since Apollo in 1882.
Justify and Taiba have another thing in common, jockey Mike Smith. As the most experienced jockey in the race riding the least experienced horse, Smith says you never know.
“It’s a crazy day, some of them are handling it well, some who have three, four, five, six, seven, eight starts are not handling it at all,” Smith said. “We just have to wait and see.”
Will the weather play a role?
You can usually count on some form of bad weather to drive through Louisville during days around the Derby. The past two years have been clear on race day, but the previous four have had wet weather, including when Justify won after more than three inches of rain fell. This year, the weather forecast predicts about a 30% chance of rain in the late afternoon.
Most of the horses did not run on a wet track, but three of them (Epicentre, Zandon and Classic Causeway) won on an off-track. As for a horse that apparently doesn’t like a wet track, Crown Pride’s only loss, a sixth, came on a muddy track in Tokyo.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.