Over the past few months, an exciting group of prospects pointing to the 2022 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve has competed for a spot in the 20-horse field by earning qualifying points in stakes around the country.
Since the last edition of this blog five weeks ago, all but one of the remaining Kentucky Derby qualifying races have been held, and the major preps offering 170 points to the top four finishers are done. Now, the Derby picture is nearly in complete focus as a couple dozen horses remain in position to contest the 148th run for the roses based on points they accumulated in the prep series.
Forecasting the field – and even taking a stand on a potential winner backed by a future wager – is an annual highlight of Kentucky Derby season, and the bookmakers at Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill are taking fixed-odds future wagers on the Derby, which will be held at historic Churchill Downs on May 7, 2022.
William Hill’s latest sheet has narrowed the list of contenders down to 25 horses, roughly corresponding to the current Road to the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard managed by Churchill Downs.
In addition to the Vegas futures, Pool 5 of Churchill Downs’ Derby Future Wager closed on April 9 at 4:30 p.m. ET, just before three 170-point prep races were held. Epicenter finished as the favorite in Churchill’s final futures pool at 9-2 odds, followed by Messier at 6-1.
April 10 Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill Odds Leaders to Win the 2022 Kentucky Derby:
1. Epicenter (5-1)
1. Messier (5-1)
3. Zandon (7-1)
4. Taiba (8-1)
5. Cyberknife (10-1)
5. White Abarrio (10-1)
The Favorites: Who’s Vulnerable?
Around 6 p.m. ET last Saturday, the Derby picture gained a lot of clarity following the running of the final “big three” preps: the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino; the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes; and the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. That clarity only applies to finalizing the Derby field, however – not in determining the winner.
Zandon and Mo Donegal won the Blue Grass and the Wood Memorial, respectively, making their second starts of the year. These two colts mirror each other in several ways – they rose to prominence last fall on the New York circuit, they squared off in one of the most exciting stakes races of 2021, and they each ran well in their 3-year-old bows before breaking through last Saturday. As it turns out the Remsen Stakes Dec. 4 at Aqueduct was, along with the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, a productive race from last year’s juvenile stakes schedule in determining the top echelon of 2022 Kentucky Derby contenders. Mo Donegal rallied to edge Zandon by a nose in that 1 1/8-mile prep, and after a late-running third in the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 5, the Todd Pletcher trainee once again showed a ton of fight in the Wood by closing furiously in the stretch to defeat Early Voting by a neck.
Mo Donegal is getting 12-1 odds on Caesars’ April 10 sheet, which should be in the ballpark of his post-time price come Derby day, perhaps a little higher. Zandon, on the other hand, now sits at 7-1 odds, down from 15-1 last week, after he blew past the field at Keeneland and won the Blue Grass by 2 ½ lengths. This highly regarded colt from Chad Brown’s barn needed to finish first or second in the Blue Grass to secure his Derby spot after running third in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford Feb. 19. Now, he’s one of the favorites for the May 7 classic.
Zandon’s win was more visually impressive than Mo Donegal’s, and he earned a higher Equibase Speed Figure (107 to 103) despite finishing in a final time that was 2.96 seconds slower. Wood Memorial winners have done nothing in recent Kentucky Derbys, either. But based on current odds, Mo Donegal is the better play, and not just because he nipped Zandon last December in the Remsen. While Zandon has a decent pedigree for route racing, as a son of young sire Upstart and a relative of recent turf route winner Cairo Memories, Mo Donegal is by a sire in Uncle Mo who is already represented by a Kentucky Derby winner (Nyquist in 2016) and he’s from a female family that includes Queen’s Plate winner Niigon.
As for the third of Saturday’s preps, a pair of former Bob Baffert trainees now overseen by Tim Yakteen are bound for Louisville after Taiba outfinished Messier in deep stretch and won the Santa Anita Derby by 2 ¼ lengths. Taiba did not make his first start until March 5 (a 7 ½-length blowout in a six-furlong Santa Anita Park sprint), which brings up the inevitable comparisons to Justify, the 2018 Baffert-trained Triple Crown winner who ended the “curse of Apollo” when he became the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without racing at age 2. Taiba is offered at 8-1 odds by Caesars, and I would not be surprised if his odds in the actual Derby are lower depending on how he trains in the next couple of weeks. There are sure to be numerous stories about Baffert’s current suspension and ban circulating in the national media, and that will elevate this colt’s profile. Taiba is obviously a major talent and he’s posted triple-digit Equibase Speed Figures in both of his starts, but can he successfully handle the jump from a couple of races with short fields into a 20-horse scrum on May 7? I think the lack of experience will prove too much to overcome for this son of red-hot young sire Gun Runner, which makes him an underlay in my view – and the same holds true for Messier, who’s getting 5-1 odds from Caesars despite giving up a clear lead late in the Santa Anita Derby.
Epicenter should vie for post-time favoritism in Derby 148 with Zandon and either Taiba or Messier, and he’s the 5-1 co-leader on Caesars’ book as well. Notably, his Equibase Speed Figures have topped out at 97; in fact, he’s earned that exact figure in his four most recent starts, all of them Derby preps at Fair Grounds including his last-out win in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. While his future-book odds are a bit low for my taste, it’s also important to note that Epicenter’s two main rivals projected to join him in contesting the Kentucky Derby pace – Classic Causeway and Forbidden Kingdom – are now going to pass on the Derby (see below).
Finding a Last-Minute Longshot
First things first: Classic Causeway (40-1), Emmanuel (65-1), and Forbidden Kingdom (35-1) are all listed on Caesars’ latest sheet, but they all have been removed from Churchill’s Derby Leaderboard based on recent comments from connections that they will not target the Derby. Furthermore, Morello (22-1), who got off to a rough start in the Wood Memorial and never contended as the 1.90-1 favorite, will ship to Churchill Downs per trainer Steve Asmussen, but a final decision about starting him in the Derby will be made later.
That still leaves an interesting group of Derby contenders that are on the margins but have the potential to run big on the sport’s grandest stage and maybe, just maybe, score the upset. Here are four to consider:
Tiz the Bomb (24-1): Tiz the Bomb flopped in his first start of the year when trying dirt, checking in seventh in the Holy Bull Stakes and 20 ¼ lengths behind winner White Abarrio. Since then, he’s earned enough points to make the Derby by winning Turfway Park’s two qualifying preps on a synthetic track, most recently picking up 100 of them when taking the Jeff Ruby Steaks by 2 ¼ lengths on April 2. Assessing this colt’s chances all boils down to whether you’re willing to accept his Holy Bull no-show as just an off day or truly revealing about his distaste for dirt. Set that race aside, and Tiz the Bomb looks like one of the most talented runners in his age group, finishing second to European star Modern Games last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and winning two other stakes on grass last year. He earned a 105 Equibase Speed Figure in the Jeff Ruby, which as noted above was contested on “fake dirt,” in this case Tapeta. Trainer Ken McPeek is pointing him to the Derby and his current Caesars odds are good enough to take a flyer on, although his post-time odds on May 7 might actually be a few digits higher.
Early Voting (45-1): If you rate Mo Donegal’s effort in the Wood highly (and as noted above, I do), then 45-1 odds on Early Voting are enticing indeed. This Chad Brown-trained son of Gun Runner suffered his first defeat in the Wood but ran lights-out, earning a 102 Equibase Speed Figure. He entered the Wood off of a win in the Withers Stakes Feb. 5 at Aqueduct, where he earned a 81 Equibase Figure in a race that was subsequently downgraded by many due to its slow time. In retrospect, the Withers (held on a muddy track) has proved to be a quality prep, as runner-up Un Ojo and fourth-place Grantham came back to run well in their next starts. Add this colt’s pedigree into the equation – his dam (mother) is a full-sister (same sire [father] and dam) to millionaire router Irap and is also a close relative to champion and versatile sire Speightstown – and you have the best value play remaining on Caesars’ futures sheet. Early Voting could be sitting on his best race yet in the Derby, and he likes to be forwardly-placed, too. His odds come Derby day should be around 15-20 points lower than what Caesars is offering (he finished at 29-1 in Churchill’s final pool).
Un Ojo (75-1): There’s no doubt that Un Ojo will be one of the top two or three fan favorites in the Kentucky Derby; he’s got “little guy” connections, only one eye, and he’s a gelding. Whether he’s worth taking 75-1 odds on as a future wager depends on how much stock you put into his rough-trip eighth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby on April 2. After upsetting the Rebel Stakes at 75.40-1 odds on Feb. 26, Un Ojo was gearing up for an off-the-pace rally entering the final turn at Oaklawn Park when he was slammed against the rail twice by eventual Arkansas Derby runner-up Barber Road (offered at 36-1 odds by Caesars). He retreated immediately after that incident and had a gash on his shoulder stapled up in the days following. Whether he would have continued on with a clean trip and hit the board in the Arkansas Derby won by Cyberknife is a good question. Overall, Oaklawn Park’s Derby preps were underwhelming this year, in my opinion, and Un Ojo’s career-best Equibase Speed Figure of 91 earned in the Rebel is not competitive with the top tier of contenders. On the other hand, he’s very likely to go off at odds of around 30-1 to 40-1 on Derby day – as noted above, he’ll get a lot of support from “one day per year” horse bettors based on his fan appeal.
Tawny Port (135-1): Tawny Port currently sits at 20th on Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby leaderboard with a total of 40 points, all earned when he was runner-up to Tiz the Bomb in the Jeff Ruby Steaks. Trainer Brad Cox told broadcaster Steve Byk on April 11 that the Pioneerof the Nile colt would run in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland April 16 – the final qualifying points prep for the Kentucky Derby – with the goal of further cementing his spot in the starting gate. The Lexington distributes 20-8-4-2 points to the top four finishers, and two horses horse that already have 20 points – Ethereal Road and In Due Time – are entered. If either of them wins and Tawny Port does not finish in the top four, he would be pushed out of the 20th spot due to less graded stakes earnings. Tawny Port’s two wins and his solid second in the Jeff Ruby have all come on Turfway’s Tapeta track. In his only dirt start, he finished fifth of 10 in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford, where he had to shuffle back at the top of the stretch before grinding his way to the finish, ending up 7¾ lengths behind Epicenter and 3 ½ lengths behind third-place Zandon. His performance Saturday in the Lexington will go a long way toward determining whether Tawny Port belongs in the Kentucky Derby, but right now he’s in and he’s got a good chance to stay in… and 135-1 is 135-1.