The 148th running of the $3 million, Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve brings together a full field of 20 Saturday, May 7 at Churchill Downs. In addition, there are two horses that are also-eligible and can run if any starters in the main body of the race withdraw by 9 a.m. ET on the morning of Friday, May 6. There’s not one particular horse that leads this Derby field in accomplishments, as all eight winners of major preps leading up to the “run for the roses” are present.
In terms of career wins, Tiz the Bomb has the most with five, including the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks on an all-weather surface last month. Epicenter has won four of six career starts including the Grade 1 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby near the end of March. The Louisiana Derby is one of two prep races for the Kentucky Derby that’s run at the distance of 1 3/16 miles, the closest distance to the 1 ¼ miles of the Derby itself. Cyberknife won the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in his most recent race, while Mo Donegal won the Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino last month, and both of these talented colts have three career wins to their credit. Taiba is the most lightly raced horse in the field, having started just two times. Both were dominant efforts, with the most recent coming in the Grade 1 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa winner White Abarrio is another colt proven at the level. Crown Pride won the Group 2 UAE Derby Sponsored by Mubadala near the end of March and traces his lineage back to a pair of Derby winners in Sunday Silence and Seattle Slew. Last but certainly not least among winners of the eight major “Road to the Derby” points races is Zandon, who rallied from last of 11 to win the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes four weeks ago.
Next are a number of horses that finished second or third in those same preps. In terms of their chances to succeed as compared to their odds, many will be undervalued by the betting public compared to the horses discussed above that won the big preps. Among that group, Tawny Port finished second behind Tiz the Bomb in the Jeff Ruby and then came back to win the Grade 3 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes one week later to earn a spot in the starting gate in Louisville. Messier was second in the Santa Anita Derby, while Smile Happy was second in the Blue Grass, and both are among a large group that hopes to turn the tables on the horses that beat them in their most recent races. Others in that group include Florida Derby runner-up Charge It, Louisiana Derby runner-up Zozos, UAE Derby runner-up Summer Is Tomorrow, and Arkansas Derby runner-up Barber Road. The last group consists of six horses who finished third or further back in their most recent starts – Happy Jack (third in the Santa Anita Derby), Pioneer of Medina (third in the Louisiana Derby), Simplification (third in the Florida Derby), Ethereal Road (fourth in the Lexington Stakes), also-eligible Rich Strike (third in the Jeff Ruby), also-eligible Rattle N Roll (sixth in the Blue Grass) and Classic Causeway, who finished 11th in the Florida Derby after winning the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby one month earlier.
Zandon is an improving horse that is set to peak at the right time in this year’s Kentucky Derby. In the Blue Grass Stakes run four weeks ago, Zandon sat relaxed in the early stages in a field of 11 when ninth after a quarter mile, 10th after a half mile and 11th after three-quarters of a mile. Closing under his own power into a moderate pace, Zandon was second with an eighth of a mile to go before drawing off to win by 2 ½ lengths. I love the way he put himself into contention in the critical stage of the Blue Grass, and he could find himself in a similar position in the Derby.
Last December, in only the second start of his career, Zandon showed his ability when battling head-and-head the length of the stretch before eventually missing by a nose in the Remsen Stakes, won by Mo Donegal. Returning in mid-February, Zandon finished third in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford without benefit of a sprint prep first as he had in the fall. Then in the Blue Grass, Zandon improved markedly, not only running the fastest race of his career (evidenced by a 107 Equibase Speed Figure), but also the fastest last race of any horse in this year’s Derby. He’s likely to continue to improve physically and mentally in his third start as a 3-year-old, and based on the way Zandon ran the last quarter-mile of the Blue Grass, it appears he will love the long stretch at Churchill Downs. He could be the one to beat in the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” this year.
Until fully analyzing the field, I had not considered Tiz the Bomb as a contender in this year’s Kentucky Derby. However, that all changed after watching a replay of his last two races. In his second start off a three-month layoff, Tiz the Bomb won the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes in March, earning a 98 figure. One month later in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, Tiz the Bomb ran even better when winning by two and one-quarter lengths, improving to a 105 figure. Not only can Tiz the Bomb improve in the same way I think Zandon can improve, his Jeff Ruby effort and figure wasn’t the fastest he had run. Last year Tiz the Bomb went from a 88 figure effort when first in the Castle & Key Bourbon Stakes to a 109 figure when rallying determinedly from 12th to second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. All four of those aforementioned stakes efforts were either on turf or all-weather surfaces, and in his only race on conventional dirt this year, Tiz the Bomb finished a poor seventh in the Holy Bull Stakes. However, he was returning from three months off in that race and I believe that race can be ignored as an aberration from every one of his seven other two-turn races, in which he has finished either first or second. Last summer in only the second start of his career, Tiz the Bomb won a two-turn race on dirt by 14 ¼ lengths and that is why I think he can run as well on the main track at Churchill Downs as he has run on turf and all-weather. A horse winning the Derby off a win in the Jeff Ruby (formerly the Spiral Stakes) is not unheard of: Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby following a win on all-weather, just as Tiz the Bomb is attempting to do.
Cyberknife is named for a non-invasive treatment for tumors, and the colt has proven himself on the track by winning or finishing second in five of six races. Similar to Tiz the Bomb having run poorly in the Holy Bull, Cyberknife finished a dull sixth in the Lecomte Stakes in January. Returning to form one month later, Cyberknife earned a career-best 100 figure easily winning an allowance race around two turns. Next, in the Arkansas Derby on April 2, he won again. Although earning a slightly lower figure (95), Cyberknife won very professionally after running four to five paths wide for much of the race. When asked to pick up the tempo, Cyberknife accelerated without really being asked and was in front with an eighth of a mile to go, before coasting home by nearly three lengths. It’s important to remember that most of the time in the Kentucky Derby, securing one of the top three positions in the stretch is a key to success. This colt has the kind of tactical speed and ability to respond and accelerate when asked by his jockey, and that makes Cyberknife a top contender in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Epicenter is another who has done little wrong to date in his career and who enters the Derby off a strong win. After a lackluster sixth-place debut in a sprint last summer, Epicenter has found longer distances to his liking, and if not for a head defeat in the Lecomte Stakes in January he’d be entering the Derby seeking his sixth straight win. Most importantly, in his most recent start at the end of March in the Louisiana Derby, Epicenter showed a new dimension when relaxing in third in the early stages instead of setting the pace. He remained in a patient stalking position in the far turn before passing the top two horses to be in front with an eighth of a mile to run. After that, he coasted home to an easy win. The Louisiana Derby was run at the distance of one mile and three-sixteenths, which is only 110 yards short of the distance of the Derby. With the exception of UAE Derby winner Crown Pride, no other horse has won at this distance, and that could be an important factor. There is only one potential issue, however, and that is in his last four races Epicenter has earned the exact same 97 Equibase Speed Figure. Normally, we expect horses to run faster throughout their 3-year-old campaign, which will lead up to a peak effort when it counts in the Derby. But, considering the fact that Epicenter ran so well when stalking the pacesetter in the Louisiana Derby, I think he can run well enough to contend for top honors in this race.
Smile Happy is one of those horses that will be mostly ignored by bettors in the Derby by virtue of the fact he did not win a prep race. On the other hand, this colt has finished first or second in all four career starts, and he shouldn’t be overlooked as a contender. Smile Happy did something rare last year when winning a two-turn race in his career debut, earning a 95 figure. Four weeks later, he proved that first win was no fluke when defeating 10 rivals in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, improving to a 100 figure. In the Kentucky Jockey Club, he beat a number of other horses which trained on to win their next starts, including Classic Causeway and White Abarrio. Given time off to mature, Smile Happy finished second behind Epicenter in the Risen Star while giving away recency to the winner, who had run one month earlier compared to nearly three months earlier for Smile Happy. Six weeks later, Smile Happy ran in the Blue Grass Stakes, and after stalking the pace in third early, he made a nice move to lead with an eighth of a mile to run. Although Zandon ran by him easily in the late stages, Smile Happy still finished nearly four lengths in front of the third-place horse. More importantly, he improved to a 104 figure and like most of the other top contenders in this year’s Derby, Smile Happy is on a very identifiable pattern for further improvement. As such, he should not be taken lightly when considering our wagers in this race.
Mo Donegal won the Remsen Stakes at a mile and one-eighth as a 2-year-old in the third start of his career. Like others in this year’s Derby, the plan was for him to grow up and begin his road to the Derby preparation in January or February, which he did when finishing third in the Holy Bull Stakes. For whatever reason, Mo Donegal did not run in any of the Derby prep races in March, but he was certainly ready when returning to 1 1/8 miles for the Wood Memorial Stakes in April, where he rallied from last of eight to win by a neck on the wire. I am not concerned about the narrow margin of victory given he had not raced for more than two months, and the fact he improved to a career best 103 figure in that race suggests he’s moving in the right direction. As such, Mo Donegal rounds out the top group that I feel has the best chance to win this year’s Kentucky Derby.
The rest of the Kentucky Derby field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures is Barber Road (95), Charge It (103), Classic Causeway (104), Crown Pride (110), Ethereal Road (94), Happy Jack (98), Messier (107), Pioneer of Medina (96), Rattle N Roll (100), Rich Strike (96), Simplification (99), Summer is Tomorrow (106), Taiba (102), Tawny Port (102), White Abarrio (102) and Zozos (94).
Tiz the Bomb
You can get Ellis' full card detailed analysis, including more detailed comments on Kentucky Derby entrants, as well as and betting recommendations for all the races at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, Saturday May 7, at Equibase.com.