How to pick a winner in the Kentucky Derby
Ah, the traditions of Kentucky Derby day. Mint juleps. Ornate hats. The garland of roses will be draped across the winner. Those have all been part of the show at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for decades.
A new tradition of sorts has popped up: Peculiarity.
The last three Derbies have been anything but normal. Maximum Security crossed the line first only to get disqualified for interference in 2019. The first Saturday in May became the first Saturday in September in 2020, thanks to the pandemic. And 2021 saw Medina Spirit winning the race, trainer Bob Baffert subsequently getting embroiled in yet another drug-testing scandal, the horse dying in December following a workout and then getting stripped of the Derby win early this year.
Expect more unexpected on Saturday at Churchill Downs when the Triple Crown season gets underway. And here’s why.
— Rule No. 1: A horse that starts on the rail can’t win the Derby.
There’s something to this. No horse has drawn the No. 1 post and prevailed since Ferdinand in 1986. (No horse has drawn 1, 2 or 3 and won since Real Quiet in 1998, either.) It’s unsettling for horses to have such much traffic, with more than a dozen other massive animals trying to beat them to the first turn. The inside-post-drawing horses often have nowhere to run at that point; the rail is to their left, the faster horses got ahead of them, those who tried and failed to get ahead are to their right.
But Mo Donegal won the Wood Memorial from the rail, letting the field go to the front early, then finding a better gear than everyone else did down the stretch. He should be flying at the end.
— Rule No. 2: Steve Asmussen can’t win the Derby.
The numbers don’t lie: Asmussen has sent 23 horses into the Derby and never won the thing. No trainer has had more Derby starters without a victory.
But there’s a lot to like about Epicenter, even though he starts from the No. 3 post (see Rule No. 1). He broke his maiden at Churchill Downs, the start of four wins in his last five outings, and he’d be 5 for 5 if the Lecomte Stakes in January had been about 5 feet shorter.
— Rule No. 3: No horse with just two career starts can win the Derby.
Unless you are at least 139 years old — we’re guessing that you aren’t — you’ve never seen a horse with just two career starts come to the Kentucky Derby and win. The 1883 Derby was captured by a horse named Leonatus, who, according to legend, took the term “run for the roses” a bit too literally since he ate a bunch of roses after the race.
This brings us to Taiba, who is 2 for 2 in his brief career and is coming off a win in the Santa Anita Derby. Mike Smith in the saddle should merit attention. So should the fact that, until a few weeks ago, Taiba was trained by Baffert. Derby-bound horses typically don’t get trained by Baffert unless there’s some serious reason to believe.
— Rule No. 4: This year, Baffert can’t win the Derby.
Baffert was banned from this Derby (and the 2023 one, too) because of the drug-related issues with Medina Spirit. He fought it in court, to no avail.
This is where Tim Yakteen enters the story. Yakteen is a former assistant to Baffert, and he’s the one who took over the conditioning for Taiba and Messier — two horses with serious chances to win the Derby — when Baffert had to step aside.
So, no, Baffert can’t win. But Yakteen very well might.
— Rule No. 5: Past Derby performances by jockeys don’t matter.
Bluntly, this is hogwash. Everybody studies what all the horses have done in their careers. And trainers get tons of attention as well for their past success or lack of success. Jockeys, for whatever reason, aren’t always part of that formula.
Flavien Prat will be aboard Zandon on Saturday. Prat has been in the Derby four previous times — and been in the money on three of those occasions, including the (still-debated) win aboard Country House in 2019.
Zandon could be way, way, way back early in this race. Not ideal. But if anyone can figure it out, Prat can.
— Rule No. 6: This year, ignore the rules.
The depth of contenders this year might be as good as any in recent memory. The favorite will probably end up being Taiba or Epicenter, and the odds by post time might be 4-1 or so at worst.
Payouts will be lovely.
Derby wire-to-wire winners are rare; in the last 20 years, only Authentic (2020) pulled that off. Most of the winners get relatively close to the front early, hang out, then hit the gas pedal at the right time.
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