Kentucky Derby Futures: Fast Risers as the Prep Season Picks Up

Cheering home a potential Derby prospect. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Over the past several weeks, a handful of 2-year-olds pointing to the 2022 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and other Triple Crown races gained attention by earning qualifying points in stakes in Kentucky and New York or by winning maiden and allowance races all across the country.

Smile Happy won his second career race without a defeat with an impressive rally in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs two days after Thanksgiving, while just last Saturday Mo Donegal edged Zandon by a nose to win the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. Both colts picked up 10 Derby qualifying points with their respective victories.

The road to the 2022 Kentucky Derby will, as it always does, take plenty of unexpected twists and turns as contenders rise and fall with each passing prep race. Forecasting the 20-horse field – and even taking an early stand on a potential winner backed by a future wager – is an annual highlight of Derby season, and the bookmakers at William Hill are taking fixed-odds future wagers on Derby 148, which will be held at historic Churchill Downs on May 7, 2022.

As in years past, in this blog we’ll take a periodic look at William Hill’s future-book odds for the Kentucky Derby and profile some of the contenders. In addition to the Vegas doings, Churchill Downs held the first of five Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and the “All Other Colts and Geldings” option took the most money by far, ending at 3-5 odds. This group includes all 3-year-olds of 2022 save 22 individual runners and therefore contains horses from Bob Baffert’s stable including TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance winner Corniche. Baffert is currently banned from entering any horses in the 2022 and 2023 Kentucky Derbys. Smile Happy led all individual entries at odds of 8-1.

Dec. 5 William Hill Odds Leaders to Win the 2022 Kentucky Derby:

1. Corniche (6-1)

2. Messier (16-1)

3. Jack Christopher (20-1)

3. Smile Happy (20-1)

5. Rattle N Roll (22-1)

Notable Changes:

Mo Donegal (left) noses out Zandon. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Mo Donegal and Zandon: These two colts from the barns of top trainers Todd Pletcher (Mo Donegal) and Chad Brown (Zandon) dueled thrillingly through the Aqueduct stretch in the Dec. 4 Remsen, with Mo Donegal just getting the edge late while on the outside of his foe. Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. drew a stewards’ inquiry due to his aggressive riding on Mo Donegal, but the result stood (Ortiz was suspended for 30 days by NYRA on Dec. 5 for this incident and another, more egregious one on Dec. 3). Watching the Remsen again, you can make an argument that Zandon ran the slightly stronger race, as he was caught three wide on the first turn while Mo Donegal saved ground on the rail. Overall, though, both colts enjoyed good trips and, despite the slow early fractions, finished well when rallying from stalking positions in the Remsen, which at 1 1/8 miles is the same distance as many late-spring Derby preps and just an eighth of a mile shorter than the Derby itself. Mo Donegal is by champion Uncle Mo, who has already sired a Kentucky Derby winner, Nyquist, in his young stud career. He also has a solid bloodline for distance on his dam’s (mother’s) side. Check out Mike Curry’s in-depth look at Mo Donegal’s Derby prospects.

Zandon’s pedigree is less impressive as he’s by another young sire in Upstart who won the Holy Bull Stakes and finished second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby on the Kentucky Derby trail in 2015 but checked in 18th in that year’s run for the roses. He’s got some decent graded stakes winners in his dam’s extended family, but nothing that shouts “Derby winner.” Still, this colt won his debut impressively in early October and came back gamely when challenged by Mo Donegal and his flailing rider in the Remsen. Interestingly, Zandon is listed at odds of 25-1 on William Hill’s latest sheet, while Mo Donegal is at 35-1.

Smile Happy (Eclipse Sportswire)

Smile Happy: This Ken McPeek-trained son of champion sprinter Runhappy turned a lot of heads under the Twin Spires on Nov. 28 with a 3 ¼-length score in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Coming out of a 5 ½-length win at the same distance at Keeneland on Oct. 29, Smile Happy traveled three wide through the backstretch in the Kentucky Jockey Club. He was kept out of trouble by jockey Corey Lanerie while racing in fourth or fifth and then swung four wide for an impressive rally, his ears pricked at the top of the stretch. Smile Happy dispatched Classic Causeway (another highly rated contender who is currently 35-1 odds at William Hill) rather easily and drew clear late – and encouragingly, he appeared to have plenty of stamina left at the finish.

McPeek, who also trains Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity winner Rattle N Roll, said that Smile Happy may target a Derby prep at Oaklawn Park for his next start. His female family includes popular 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, but it’s hard to take 20-1 future odds on a horse sired by a sprinter, even one as sensational as Runhappy (to say nothing of the 8-1 odds he closed at in Churchill’s pool). That said, Smile Happy is one of the most visually impressive contenders to emerge so far on the 2022 Derby trail and is absolutely worth keeping tabs on as he progresses over the winter. Read more about him in Mike Curry’s Derby contender profile.

Three to Watch:

Rocket Dawg (Coady Photography)

Rocket Dawg: You couldn’t have asked for a better debut effort than Rocket Dawg put together on Nov. 19 at Churchill Downs. The Classic Empire colt broke near the back of an 11-horse field in the seven-furlong race and cruised up to be in contention under Florent Geroux late in the backstretch before taking second on the turn. He effortlessly moved to the front at the top of the stretch and churned on under minimal urging by his rider to win by 5 ½ lengths, earning an 89 Equibase Speed Figure.

Rocket Dawg is trained by Brad Cox for owners Frank Fletcher and Ten Strike Racing (Marshall Gramm and Clay Sanders). He’s from the first crop of champion Classic Empire, who currently ranks fourth among sires whose debut runners are competing this year, and his dam’s side of the family is solid enough, if not spectacular. Look for this talented colt, who is offered at 100-1 odds by William Hill, to show up at Oaklawn Park or possibly Fair Grounds for his next start.

Trafalgar and Naval Aviator: Trafalgar, a Lord Nelson colt, finished a well-beaten second to Classic Causeway in his debut last summer at Saratoga but then romped by 2 ¼ lengths in his second start at Churchill on Oct. 2. He broke slow in that one-turn mile race but rallied strongly, which set him up for an added challenge – racing 1 1/16 miles around two turns – in his most recent start on Dec. 2 at Fair Grounds. Trafalgar raced just behind the pacesetter through the backstretch and far turn in that race and took over at the top of the stretch to briefly separate from the field, only to be challenged in the final strides by a rallying Naval Aviator. Trafalgar responded immediately when headed and outfought his rival to win by a head – a very positive sign for a 2-year-old in his third career start.

What is less positive is this colt’s pedigree. Lord Nelson was a stakes-winning sprinter whose first foals are racing this year, and he ranks 21st in earnings on the list discussed above of 2021 first-crop sires (where Classic Empire sits at fourth). Trafalgar’s pedigree on his dam’s side is also uninspiring from a stamina perspective, and his Equibase Speed Figures are stuck in the mid-80s range through three starts. That makes his current 90-1 odds on William Hill’s sheet a bit suspect, but he’s shown enough precocious talent to follow as he develops. Look for trainer Al Stall Jr., who is an expert at managing his horses and putting them in position to win, to keep Trafalgar at Fair Grounds for his stakes debut, possibly in the inaugural edition of the Gun Runner Stakes (a new addition to the Derby prep series) on Dec. 26.

Naval Aviator may actually be a better long-term Derby prospect based on two factors: first, he won first out at Keeneland in a 1 1/8-mile race on Oct. 29, and then employed a similar come-from-behind style to just miss against Trafalgar. Second, he has a more suitable pedigree for stretching out, as a son of leading sire Tapit (who’s sired four Belmont Stakes winners) and out of a dam who won seven stakes races on turf ranging from 7 ½ furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. Naval Aviator, who like Rocket Dawg is trained by Brad Cox, is not currently offered on William Hill’s sheet. He boosted his Equibase Speed Figure 11 points at Fair Grounds (from 71 in his debut to 82), and a similar jump in his next start should put him in the winner’s circle, on the Derby trail, and also on William Hill’s future-book ledger.

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