By T. D. Thornton
This week's Triple Crown feature examines the trips of GI Kentucky Derby runners in detail from first to last:
1) Rich Strike (unranked also-eligible in TDN pre-race rankings)
There are three components of a metaphorical “black swan” event: The happenstance is highly unlikely; it has outsized consequences that almost no one sees coming, and people try to force a rationalization given the benefit of hindsight. That definition sums up Rich Strike's 80-1 shocker in the Derby. This former $30,000 maiden-claiming son of Keen Ice dropped sharply inside shortly after an uneventful break from post 20. Sonny Leon patiently kept him five paths off the rail while dropping to last, then advanced several positions through the turn and onto the backstretch while third from last and about three paths off the rail. Cued to quicken into the far bend, Leon had to make a quick decision regarding which way to go around a tiring Classic Causeway (Giant's Causeway), and when he chose the outside he pulsed through a narrow opening just before Simplification (Not This Time) tightened it up. Rich Strike was boxed behind two eventual also-rans at the quarter pole, but when they floated wide, Leon dove to the fence and got to work right-handed. It appeared as if he didn't initially gauge how suddenly Messier (Empire Maker) was tiring ahead of him, but despite having to yank Rich Strike off heels and back outside, the hard-charging colt didn't lose much momentum. Rich Strike had dead aim on the two leaders a furlong out, briefly stalled a few strides later while being urged left-handed, then took up the chase again in earnest a sixteenth out with Leon pumping and extending in powerful synchrony with this mount's forward momentum. Rich Strike earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure.
2) Epicenter (No. 2 in TDN pre-race rankings)
Epicenter's strengths heading into the Derby were his consistency and willingness to slug it out in the stretch, and nothing about those traits got blemished in his runner-up effort. He absorbed an inward bump leaving the gate but was unfazed, and Joel Rosario secured the rail a bit farther off the pace than we usually see this this $260,000 KEESEP colt by Not This Time (seventh and leading the second flight). Epicenter was striding confidently while incrementally advancing through the backside run, and Rosario nudged him to quicken after passing the half-mile pole. That action put Epicenter right on the heels of Messier, who was getting first run at the wilting pacemakers, but Rosario was taking a calculated risk based on not wanting John Velazquez's mount to get too big of a jump on the far turn. Although Epicenter remained “on hold” for a few strides three-eighths out, Rosario pounced when he saw daylight in path three off the turn, and Epicenter came over the top at the quarter pole. Zandon loomed as the main danger at the three-sixteenths marker, but it took him until the eighth pole to fully unwind, and the stage appeared set for those two to fight it out through the final furlong before Rich Strike unexpectedly arrived. None of the top three were shortening stride to the wire; Rosario described his trip as “perfect,” adding that “we ran too good to get beat.”
3) Zandon (No. 1 in TDN pre-race rankings)
As I've been harping on for weeks in Zandon's write-ups, betting a closer in a 20-horse field is always a dicey proposition because of potential traffic trouble. But Flavien Prat allayed any such fears with a deft ride that only came up short because this $170,000 KEESEP colt by Upstart got outkicked in deep stretch. Pinballed briefly a few strides out of stall 10, Zandon appeared to be playing a game of chase with Epicenter, following the favorite's move to the rail the first time through the lane, then never letting that rival out of his striking sights all the way through the far turn. As the cadence quickened three-eighths out, Prat's first tactical decision involved splitting foes. But when Epicenter made his quarter-pole move, Prat still waited a beat or two before thrusting his mount into contention four wide with a committed flourish. Zandon's response was not immediate however, and Prat had to flail and hustle to elicit the desired higher gear. At the eighth pole it looked like he had the win within his grasp, but Epicenter re-engaged and the two were all-out before Rich Strike blindsided them both. The top three finished up much more authoritatively than the rest of the field.
4) Simplification (No. 5 in TDN pre-race rankings)
Simplification was the juiciest overlay in the Derby, with his 35-1 odds far eclipsing his actual chances. And in the upper stretch, this son of Not This Time ($50,000 RNA at KEENOV) was truly in it to win it. Parked in 15th for a good portion of the journey, he was into the bit and responsive to Jose Ortiz's handling, advancing four deep through the final turn before being asked to slice inside rather than give up ground wider through that bend. What initially looked like a tight spot behind horses turning for home suddenly opened up into clear running room, and Simplification bulled through, not shying from foes who were spent and having trouble staying straight. A spurt of acceleration at the eighth pole looked like it could produce a winning bid, but Simplification didn't sustain that momentum past the sixteenth marker. He stayed on capably while winning the photo for fourth by a neck.
5) Mo Donegal (No. 6 in TDN pre-race rankings)
This son of Uncle Mo ($250,000 KEESEP) came out of post one a touch awkwardly and then was relegated to the back of the pack. Considering his come-from-behind style, his nimble, athletic way of going, and the hot pace, this shouldn't have been any great adversity for him. But Irad Ortiz, Jr., kept Mo Donegal in “wait” mode all the way to the five-sixteenths pole before asking for run, and by the time that opportunity materialized at the head of the stretch Mo was fanned way out wide in the 13 path. He brushed with several rivals and looked like the more assertive horse in doing so, and even though Mo wasn't going to hit the board, his true-to-form acceleration inside the eighth pole can legitimately be labelled “sneaky good.”
6) Barber Road (No. 8 in TDN pre-race rankings)
Barber Road's sustained run from three furlongs out equates to a pretty decent effort. But by the time he uncorked that bid from last, Reylu Gutierrez had no other choice than to commit to the widest path, which ended up parking this colt 14 wide for the drive. Knocking shoulders with Mo Donegal in upper stretch seemed to embolden this Race Day gray ($15,000 KEENOV). But he lacked the power to polish off anyone in the top five, and he barely held sixth by a head. The GI Belmont S. has been mentioned as a next-race option. But Barber Road is now winless in the past six months, and this gritty stayer would be a formidable force in some of the lower-tiered Derbies (Ohio, Indiana, Iowa).
7) Tawny Port (No. 15 in TDN pre-race rankings)
Although seventh place sounds like a so-so effort, Tawny Port ($430,000 KEESEP) was beaten just 4 3/4 lengths for the win. That's pretty impressive considering that–like Rich Strike–he was 80-1. This son of Pioneerof the Nile got a better-than-it-looks schooling out of his Derby experience after running three of his first five races on Tapeta. His prolonged, well-within-himself rally from the half-mile pole home showed he can maneuver adeptly through thick traffic, and his move-within-a-move from the three-sixteenths pole until the final half-furlong had him right behind the leaders until he got tired in the final stages. Options abound deeper into the season for this versatile hard-tryer who is just now figuring things out.
8) Smile Happy (No. 3 in TDN pre-race rankings)
TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy (Runhappy) broke fluidly and saved ground, then attempted the same “follow the favorite” trip as Zandon, except he was a touch farther off the fence. This colt ($175,000 KEENOV; $185,000 FTKSEL) is unperturbed by racing in a tight pack, as evidenced by his willingness to hold his position under shoulder-to-shoulder pressure through the far-turn scrum. Corey Lanerie put it best: “I was right with Epicenter when we came to the quarter pole. I popped out to try to go around but just didn't have enough horse. He gave out on me a little bit, so just maybe the distance.”
9) Tiz the Bomb (No. 7 in TDN pre-race rankings)
Although the stated game plan for this $330,000 FTKSEL colt by Hit It a Bomb was to be a little closer to the early action, Tiz lacked both speed and a closing kick. His Derby is best described as “no impact” despite meticulous ground-saving by jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. “We didn't get away from the gate as cleanly as we would like,” he said. “We ended up a little further back. He ran a pretty good trip. He grinded it out and picked up half the field late.”
10) Zozos (No. 17 in TDN pre-race rankings)
'TDN Rising Star' Zozos (Munnings) had his head cocked toward the grandstand after leaving gate 19 and Manny Franco encouraged him to attain a prominent early position before putting him under a rating hold while third or fourth for most of the trip. This homebred for Barry and Joni Butzow was three wide on both turns and ran out of gas five-sixteenths out; he had spent all his energy just trying to tag on to that first flight of pacemakers, all of whom likewise wilted.
11) Classic Causeway (No. 12 in TDN pre-race rankings)
Classic Causeway (Giant's Causeway), a homebred for Kentucky West Racing and Clarke Cooper, had demonstrated through the prep season that he was the quickest gate-breaker of the bunch. But the lack of a clean start from post 17 took this speedster out of his element. He was six wide into the turn, 13th for most of the backstretch run, and when he backpedaled out of the far-turn melee with his head bent toward the infield, Classic Causeway did not look comfortable. It initially appeared as if jockey Julien Leparoux was just trying to ease him out of harm's way. But turning for home, right after Leparoux flipped up his goggles, Classic Causeway dove down inside and began digging back in with interest between the quarter and eighth poles. He was too far out of it to make an impact, but that late surge is commendable for a contender who seemed spent.
12) Taiba (No. 10 in TDN pre-race rankings)
'TDN Rising Star' Taiba ($140,000 FTKOCT; $1.7 million FTFMAR) was vastly underlaid as the 5-1 second favorite. He broke decently and had enough natural speed and interest to latch onto the back of the first flight with minimal encouragement from Mike Smith. But all of his energy went into maintaining that position, and at no point did Taiba launch a serious bid. Smith noted the colt ate a lot of dirt, but that immersion into an absolute wall of horseflesh through the far turn will surely be of benefit from a learning perspective. Taiba may have been a touch uncomfortable, but he never quit, and Smith judiciously chose not to overextend him from eighth pole home.
13) Crown Pride (Jpn) (No. 13 in TDN pre-race rankings)
This son of Reach the Crown (Jpn) was a willing forward factor into a sizzling pace, sitting second while pressuring the leader into the far turn. When the fresh and dangerous Messier moved, so did Crown Pride, and he was head-and-head with that new challenger, too, even briefly attaining the lead between chart calls. The taxing effort sapped him by the quarter pole, but the Japan-based Crown Pride was hardly disgraced in defeat, having taken on America's best on their own speed-centric terms.
14) Happy Jack (No. 20 in TDN pre-race rankings)
Jockey Rafael Bejarano reported that Happy Jack caught his tail in the gate and “started acting crazy,” which was the reason for the pre-race back-out. This Calumet Farm homebred by Oxbow saved ground and was last until the quarter pole, then picked off a few toiling horses late.
15) Messier (No. 4 in TDN pre-race rankings)
'TDN Rising Star' Messier was given every tactical opportunity to win the Derby. John Velazquez put him into the race straight from the gate, then backed off a beat and secured the rail when he saw the two imports were going to set a torrid pace. Stalking menacingly, this $470,000 FTKSEL colt looked primed to pounce a half-mile out, and although Velazquez might have moved slightly sooner than he wanted, he really couldn't pass up the opportunity of blasting through the hole afforded to him when Summer Is Tomorrow (Summer Front) called it quits at the fence and there was ample room to the inside flank of Crown Pride. But that 17-1 shot from Japan put up more of a fight than this Canadian-bred colt might have bargained for, and Messier was torched by the time Epicenter and Zandon were ready to take over at the head of the lane. “I'm not sure, but maybe we have to consider distance limitations with him,” said trainer Tim Yakteen.
16) White Abarrio (No. 12 in TDN pre-race rankings)
This Race Day gray ($7,500 OBSWIN; $40,000 OBSMAR) got lost in the shuffle the first time through the homestretch when a couple of bigger horses outmuscled him for position. He journeyed five wide through the first turn and backstretch, was in the seven path around the final bend, then got hooked 10 wide for the drive. He kept plugging away until the eighth pole when Tyler Gaffalione wrapped him up for safekeeping.
17) Charge It (No. 9 in TDN pre-race rankings)
'TDN Rising Star' Charge It looked a little lost out there, and Luis Saez chalked it up to the colt's relative inexperience. This Whisper Hill Farm homebred by Tapit was hustled out of the gate to grab a top spot, but then Saez backed off and tried to settle him at the fence. On the backstretch, Charge It vacated the rail in search of an uncovered outer spot in the five path, and he hit a decent rhythm before needing to fan ever wider through the far bend without ever truly blasting off.
18) Cyberknife (No. 16 in TDN pre-race rankings)
This Gun Runner colt ($400,000 FTKSEL) was a first-flight presence but not an impactful one. “I broke super sharp and was in a great position. [The] pace was very hot and I was up close,” said Florent Geroux, who was gearing down his colt by the three-sixteenths pole.
19) Pioneer of Medina (No. 14 in TDN pre-race rankings)
Pioneer of Medina “got hot in the paddock” according to trainer Todd Pletcher. This Pioneerof the Nile colt ($485,000 RNA at KEESEP) had a stutter-step start and was involved in some minor jostling the first time past the stands. He never gained a foothold at any point while midpack and was already being backed out of the action by the three-eighths pole.
20) Summer Is Tomorrow (No. 18 in TDN pre-race rankings)
With a six-sprint foundation at Meydan and Jebel Ali and a Derby gate draw of post four, it was no shock that this 36-1 son of Summer Front ($25,000 KEENOV; $14,000 RNA at KEESEP; $169,743 ARQDEA) tried to lead for as long as he could before getting out of the way. “He's a perfect six- to seven-furlong horse,” said jockey Mickael Barzalona. “Today, we got pressure early on and the backstretch and I couldn't save [his speed] as I did in Dubai last time.”