TDN Kentucky Derby Top 20 for Apr. 26

Epicenter | Coady Photo


These rankings are in “likeliest winner” order, and they are different from the points leaderboard Churchill Downs uses to determine starting berths. Access that list here. The GI Kentucky Derby can have a field of 20 with four also-eligibles.

1) ZANDON (c, Upstart–Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause) O-Jeff Drown. B-Brereton C. Jones (KY). T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $170,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 4-2-1-1, $713,000. Last Start: 1st GI Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 114.

Right after the final nine-furlong preps were complete, I felt certain bettors would gravitate toward Zandon (Upstart) rather than Epicenter (Not This Time) as the Derby favorite. Now I'm not so sure. My rationale was that the wagering public tends to be all over visually impressive horses who win in dramatic fashion, especially if the effort is fresh in the public's mind (recency bias). Although that scenario describes this athletic $170,000 KEESEP colt's narrative, the price on the more seasoned Epicenter is likely to be skewed downward by the annual betting/hedging endeavor by furniture magnate Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who has pledged to plunk down between $3 and 4 million on this year's Derby favorite.

Last year in a similar promotion, McIngvale was responsible for 25% of the win pool on the (losing) Derby favorite, and it is plausible that his own series of bets are what will make the difference in establishing which of the even-matched colts goes off as the chalk. Writing for Horse Racing Nation, Travis Stone, the Churchill Downs announcer (who has experience as a respected morning-line oddsmaker), summed it up like this: “It's hard to imagine someone being a market mover in the biggest pools of the year, but [McIngvale] is. So given the Mack factor, I believe Epicenter must be lowered to 3-1 [favoritism]. I was tempted to go 5-2, the same odds that Essential Quality closed at last year, but the competitiveness of Epicenter's main rivals caused hesitation.” That's good news if you like Zandon–it presents the rare opportunity to back the most likely Derby winner at odds a touch above his true chances of winning.

2) EPICENTER (c, Not This Time–Silent Candy, by Candy Ride {Arg}) O-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC. B-Westwind Farms (KY). T-Steven M. Asmussen. Sales History: $260,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 6-4-1-0, $1,010,639. Last Start: 1st GII Louisiana Derby. KY Derby Points: 164.

Epicenter has only lost once within the past six months, and that January defeat in the GIII Lecomte S. foretold quite a bit about his even-keeled character and understatedly powerful makeup. He forced the issue on the front end, swatted back a wall of horses at the top of the lane, repulsed a prolonged bid from the favorite through the length of the Fair Grounds stretch, then got nailed the wire by a fresh 28-1 shot before quickly surging back in front several jumps after the finish.

In two subsequent Grade II starts over increasing distances, this $260,000 KEESEP colt by Not This Time has fine-tuned the flow of his races, showing he is confident controlling the tempo without necessarily needing the lead. His ability to be a focused, committed presence through fast splits while still having plenty left to fight off challengers late is something no other horse on this list has mastered over such a broad body of work.

But at what price are you willing to find out if Epicenter's consistency holds true in the 20-horse Derby? As discussed in Zandon's write-up above, the potential exists for the favorite's odds to be pari-mutuelly depressed. So the question of bettability could come down to whether you will accept 3-1 odds on a horse who more realistically figures to be a 5-1 proposition.

3) MO DONEGAL (c, Uncle Mo–Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit) O-Donegal Racing. B-Ashview Farm & Colts Neck Stables (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $250,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 5-3-0-2, $621,800. Last Start: 1st GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 112.

Your opinion on Mo Donegal ($250,000 KEESEP) in the Derby might come down to whether you think he's the type of horse who routinely “finds” trouble or if he's just consistently unlucky and always seems to be needing to extricate himself from disadvantageous positioning. The truth is probably a little bit of both. And to his credit, this Uncle Mo colt does have a knack for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Irad Ortiz, Jr. will be back in the irons for the Derby (after Joel Rosario opted to stick with Epicenter). Jerry Crawford of Donegal Racing told Jennie Rees in a Kentucky HBPA video interview that that partnership will be a big plus in a crowded field.

“Obviously, you've got to be worried about traffic. I'm thrilled that we have Irad,” he said. “If anybody can find a couple of seams, which we'll need to be successful, I think Irad's the person. We've had a lot of 'freight-train' horses–Arklow for example–where you couldn't afford to let the horse get stopped. This horse is a little more athletic; a little more agile. We saw that in the [GII] Wood [Memorial S.], where he went in and he came out pretty effortlessly without losing any momentum. That's an important asset, too, I think, in the Derby.”

4) SMILE HAPPY (c, Runhappy–Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Lucky Seven Stable. B-Moreau Bloodstock Int'l Inc. & White Bloodstock LLC (KY). T-Kenneth G. McPeek. Sales History: $175,000 wlg '19 KEENOV; $185,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 4-2-2-0, $549,810. Last Start: 2nd GI Toyota Blue Grass S. KY Derby Points: 70.

Smile Happy's stock has tailed off a bit, but I sense he's going emerge as a “wiseguy” horse as we get closer to Derby day. As a juvenile he was 2-for-2 with a pair of eye-catching far-turn moves to mow down the competition, and this 'TDN Rising Star' was rated No. 1 on this list back in early February. But when this son of Runhappy ($175,000 KEENOV; $185,000 FTKSEL) waited too long when trying to rate off the pace behind Epicenter in the GII Risen Star S., and then got tired on the lead when Zandon ran him down in the deep stretch GI Blue Grass S., it took a little shine off his status.

The fact that Smile Happy hasn't won in five months doesn't seem to ruffle trainer Kenny McPeek, who has consistently underscored that he wants a Derby contender who will also be fresh for the GI Preakness S., too. Smile Happy closed at 8-1 odds in each of the first three Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools, then at 6-1 in Pool 4 and 9-1 in Pool 5. His overall chances haven't been too badly blemished. But now it's likely he'll go off at 12-1 or better in the Derby itself, significantly higher than how bettors projected his chances through the winter and spring.

5) TIZ THE BOMB (c, Hit It a Bomb–Tiz the Key, by Tiznow) O-Magdalena Racing, Lessee. B-Spendthrift Farm LLC (KY). T-Kenneth McPeek. Sales History: $330,000 Ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: MGSW & GISP, 8-5-1-0, $1,044,401. Last Start: 1st GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks, TP, Apr. 2. KY Derby Points: 110.

This $330,000 FTKSEL colt by Hit It a Bomb could be the juiciest overlay in this year's Derby. While the handicapping world grapples with whether or not he'll adapt to dirt based on one poor showing off a three-month layoff at Gulfstream, I'll take my chances that Tiz the Bomb will, at the very least, outrun inflated odds based on his portfolio of eight races, proven ability to negotiate large fields, and versatility in running style. He's won stakes in fields numbering 10, 12 (twice) and 14 horses, and he's scored on the lead, stalking, and rating from well back. Trainer Kenny McPeek has said he wants Tiz the Bomb closer to the pace in the Derby in an effort to avoid traffic. I won't try to make the case that he's as dominant as some of the proven dirt contenders–that's not the case. But the price on this Grade II grass and Grade III Tapeta winner is likely to drift upward relatively unchecked by the betting public.

6) SIMPLIFICATION (c, Not This Time–Simply Confection, by Candy Ride {Arg}) O-Tami Bobo. B-France & Irwin Weiner (FL). T-Antonio Sano. Sales History: $50,000 wlg '19 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 7-3-1-2, $515,350. Last Start: 3rd GI Curlin Florida Derby. KY Derby Points: 74.

If you had the foresight to bet Not This Time in the Derby Sire Future Wager that closed way back on Thanksgiving weekend, you're now holding a 23-1 ticket that gets you both the likely starting fave, Epicenter, and the well-regarded Simplification. Both were just MSW winners at the time of that bet. Although he finished third in the GI Curlin Florida Derby, this colt ($50,000 RNA at KEENOV) ran a losing race that resonates better than the efforts of the two rivals who beat him, chiefly because Simplification got embroiled in two separate speed skirmishes that he won at the expense of losing the overall battle. He has five 90+ Beyer performances, and the only two races that Simplification didn't attain that number were in his career debut and in a Nov. 13 sprint in which he bashed his head on the starting gate and required surgical staples to close the wound. Jose Ortiz will retain the mount on Simplification in the Derby, having made the commitment last week even though he starting status of Ortiz's other possible Derby mount, Early Voting, is still in limbo.

7) MESSIER (c, Empire Maker–Checkered Past, by Smart Strike) 'TDN Rising Star' O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert E. Masterson, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine M. Donovan, Golconda Stable & Siena Farm LLC. B-Sam-Son Farm (ON). T-Tim Yakteen. Sales History: $470,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 6-3-3-0, $435,600. Last Start: 2nd GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. KY Derby Points: 40.

Although Messier has been trained by Tim Yakteen for the past month, the Derby foundation for this 'TDN Rising Star' was laid down by now-suspended trainer Bob Baffert. And there was something different about how Messier was aimed for the Apr. 9 GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby that is worth considering in light of his slightly disappointing second-place effort.

Baffert has won a record nine Santa Anita Derbies. But every one of those winning horses made his last start in March, making Messier's attempt off an eight-week break an anomaly for a Baffert-prepared sophomore. Through the prism of that out-of-the-ordinary angle, you can make the case that this $470,000 FTKSEL colt actually ran pretty well considering he was likely not wound too tightly for that Apr. 9 prep. Yes, he still lost to a just-graduated maiden stablemate. But Messier vied with the favored pacemaker and hung in for most of the stretch run when challenged anew. As preps go, that effort is now becoming more likeable the farther away it gets in the rear-view mirror.

8) EARLY VOTING (c, Gun Runner–Amour d'Ete, by Tiznow) O-Klaravich Stables, Inc. B-Three Chimneys Farm, LLC (KY). T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $200,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $321,500. Last Start: 2nd GII Wood Memorial S. KY Derby Points: 50.

Early Voting remains the highest-ranked contender whose connections have yet to fully commit to a start in the Derby. This $200,000 KEESEP colt projects to be a part of the Derby pace, and his Wood Memorial near-miss was notable for holding well against the more experienced Mo Donegal after setting a spirited tempo. He's 2-for-3 with only a neck loss to the No. 3 horse on this list, and his ascending Beyer pattern (76, 87, 96) allows for room to improve based on a pedigree that suggests 10 furlongs is within his grasp.

9) BARBER ROAD (c, Race Day–Encounter, by Southern Image) O-WSS Racing, LLC. B-Susan Forrester & Judy Curry (KY). T-John Alexander Ortiz. Sales History: $15,000 wlg '19 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: GISP, 8-2-3-1, $650,720. Last Start: 2nd GI Arkansas Derby. KY Derby Points: 58.

A number of Derby-aspiring horse owners have unrealistic expectations. Bill Simon, who bought this Race Day gray for a bargain $15,000 as a KEENOV weanling, isn't among them. “I know a lot of people say that it's been their dream,” to win the Derby, Simon told TDN's Katie Petrunyak last week. “It honestly wasn't a dream for us because we never imagined that we could do it.”

Barber Road nearly always outruns his odds despite routinely encountering trip trouble, or losing a shoe like he did when second in the GI Arkansas Derby.

“He could have won any one of those,” Simon said. “More importantly, he thinks he won every time because he gallops out ahead in every single race so he comes back all happy. Through all his works and races, he's never been tired… I don't know what's going to happen, but I can promise that at the end of the race he's going to be running as hard as he can and he'll be moving forward.”

10) CHARGE IT (c, Tapit–I'll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie) 'TDN Rising Star' O/B-Whisper Hill Farm (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Lifetime Record: GISP, 3-1-1-0, $230,400. Last Start: 2nd GI Curlin Florida Derby. KY Derby Points: 40.

This Whisper Hill Farm homebred by Tapit earned 'TDN Rising Star' honors in his mile MSW win, then ran a very credible second despite some greenness through the lane in the Florida Derby. But it's still a big ask for this colt to step up against far more seasoned competition over 10 furlongs in the Kentucky Derby, and a bet on Charge It pulling off the upset rides strictly on what you guess he might be capable of delivering, as opposed to anything concrete in his three-race past-performance block. Trainer Todd Pletcher has cited Charge It's good disposition, the fact that he's training well, and his impeccable breeding to cover a distance of ground as positives heading toward May 7.

11) TAIBA (c, Gun Runner–Needmore Flattery, by Flatter) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Zedan Racing Stables Inc. B-Bruce C Ryan (KY). T-Tim Yakteen. Sales History: $140,000 Ylg '20 FTKOCT; $1,700,000 2yo '21 FTFMAR. Lifetime Record: GISW, 2-2-0-0, $490,200. Last Start: 1st GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 100.

   Daily Racing Form's Jay Privman broke the news over the weekend that Taiba will have only one published workout between his Runhappy Santa Anita Derby win and the Kentucky Derby, with “strong gallops” instead comprising the bulk of his training. It's yet another against-the-grain angle as this 'TDN Rising Star' attempts to defy convention by winning the first leg of the Triple Crown off of two blistering triple-digit Beyer wins in a career arc that dates only to Mar. 5.

Taiba benefitted from his stablemate Messier doing the dirty work to crack the pacemaker in the Santa Anita Derby, but this son of Gun Runner ($140,000 FTKOCT; $1.7 million FTFMAR) was very much into the bridle and relentless in his pursuit of that more seasoned rival the entire length of the stretch. Too much hype and not enough experience? Probably. But the wild-card nature of Taiba's meteoric rise will be one of the most compelling story lines in this year's Derby.

12) WHITE ABARRIO (c, Race Day–Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief) O-C2 Racing Stable LLC & La Milagrosa Stable, LLC. B-Spendthrift Farm LLC (KY). T-Saffie A. Joseph, Jr. Sales History: $7,500 ylg '20 OBSWIN; $40,000 2yo '21 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-4-0-1, $823,650. Last Start: 1st GI Curlin Florida Derby. KY Derby Points: 112.

This Race Day gray ($7,500 OBSWIN; $40,000 OBSMAR) has only lost once from four starts. He enjoyed clear sailing in his two graded stakes scores over his home court at Gulfstream, racking up 97 (GIII Holy Bull S.) and 96 Beyers (Florida Derby). He was also third in the most meaningful juvenile prep race from last autumn (GII Kentucky Jockey Club S.). A legit concern is the tepid final furlong from the Florida Derby. The :14.09 clocking was the  second-slowest final eighth among all nine-furlong preps in 2021-22, and White Abarrio won't be afforded a similarly lethargic late-race stretch run in the Kentucky Derby.

13) Zozos (Munnings): Zozos hasn't gotten out much in the afternoons (just three races). But he keeps good company. The runner-up and third-place horse from his Jan. 23 MSW score both won their next starts. His Feb. 11 allowance victory yielded a next-out winner among the also-rans. And the stakes debut of this 'TDN Rising Star' in the GII Louisiana Derby equated to a decent second-place showing behind Epicenter. But his relative inexperience, six weeks between starts, and sprint-slanted pedigree might be too much for Zozos to overcome at 10 furlongs.

Zozos | Coady Photo

14) Classic Causeway (Giant's Causeway): Three weeks after an inexplicably poor last-place showing in the Florida Derby in which this former No. 1-ranked colt faltered badly on the front end, trainer Brian Lynch on Monday declared Classic Causeway back in the Derby, citing a desire to “put a line through that race” and “roll the dice.” This homebred for Kentucky West Racing and Clarke Cooper had previously wired both the GIII Davis S. and the GII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, but earned soft Beyers in each (88 for the Davis, and his original 84 for the Tampa Derby has since been readjusted to an 86). “I looked for every excuse not to run him in there after he threw craps at the Gulfstream race,” Lynch told Horse Racing Nation. “I've got two old boys between them with 160 years of living. Their dream has been to run in the Kentucky Derby. I argued and tried to make a case for not running. After watching him work the other day and seeing how he had come out of it, I guess the horse deserves a chance to run.”

15) Crown Pride (Jpn) (Reach the Crown {Jpn}): Christophe Lemaire has been dominant riding in Japan since switching his tack there full-time five years ago, and he'll partner with the Japan-based GII UAE Derby victor in Louisville for the first time. He figures to seek a stalking trip, and Crown Pride has more experience than most Stateside horses in negotiating sizable fields. Japan-based horses have gone 0-for-3 in the Derby; winners of the UAE Derby are 0-for-11.

16) Tawny Port (Pioneerof the Nile): Can you name the only horse ever to parlay wins in the GIII Lexington S. and Kentucky Derby? That would be Charismatic. He was 31-1 when he won the 1999 Derby, and this $430,000 KEESEP colt will likely go off higher than that when he attempts the same feat this year. But long Derby odds are nothing new for owner Peachtree Stable, whose colors were carried by Invisible Ink to a 55-1 second in the 2001 Derby. Tawny Port is a little light speed figures-wise, having earned a 90 Beyer only once from three Tapeta tries and a pair of dirt races that clocked in at 86 and 89.

17) Cyberknife (Gun Runner): This high-energy $400,000 FTKSEL colt won his qualifying points against a subpar group in the Arkansas Derby by barreling through the pack and swerving through the lane. Cyberknife's overall body of work and career-best 92 Beyer don't leap off the past-performance page screaming, “Bet me!” But he's improving at the right time, and maturity might add some swagger and polish to his reputation as a hard-to-handle horse.

18) Un Ojo (Laoban): This gelding is parked pretty far down the likely to win list. But the reality is Un Ojo should be able to drop back, save ground, and start picking off stragglers who are spent by the far turn. Exactly how many horses this one-eyed New York-bred ends up passing is what's up for debate. Un Ojo would need to run the race of his life while a slew of better credentialed contenders all fail to fire in order to end up draped in a blanket of roses. That's not very plausible based on his past performances–but it's exactly how perceived no-hopers Mine That Bird and Giacomo orchestrated 50-1 upsets in 2009 and 2005.

19) Summer Is Tomorrow (Summer Front): He's fast, but can he last? Late Triple Crown supplement and three-time auction entrant ($25,000 KEENOV; $14,000 RNA at KEESEP; $169,743 ARQDEA) led for as long as he could in the G2 UAE Derby. But this six-time sprinter will have to deal with markedly ramped-up early pressure at Churchill with multiple waves of closers coming from behind. Mickael Barzalona will again be aboard in Louisville.

20) Happy Jack (Oxbow): Pie-in-the-sky longshots have always been a part of Derby lore. In this qualifying-points era, a colt like Happy Jack gets in on the basis of a distant third in a short-field Grade I stakes. An RNA at KEENOV, this colt won sprinting at first asking at 24-1 odds while racing on Lasix and has been beaten an aggregate 49 1/2 lengths in three subsequent non-Lasix stakes routes.

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