SEVEN WEEKS TO THE DERBY
By Dick Jerardi
When the brackets appear for the NCAA Tournament, that can mean only one thing: it is less than 8 weeks until the May 7 Kentucky Derby.
This has been an especially bizarre prep season because Bob Baffert-trained horses are winning or running well in many of the preps, but none are technically Derby contenders. Baffert is in court trying to get a stay of his 90-day Kentucky suspension and trying to overturn a separate two-year ban from running horses at any Churchill Downs tracks. He is running out of time so I will just be focusing on the non-Baffert horses unless the courts rule in his favor twice.
Steve Asmussen has won every significant horse race in the world – except one. He is Dale Earnhardt without the Daytona 500. Perhaps, this is the year he finally wins the Kentucky Derby like Dale finally won Daytona.
Risen Star winner Epicenter is very talented and may finally be the one for Asmussen. We will know more after his final prep race.
In fact, that is true of all the contenders as we are just a few weeks from the final major preps – Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Wood Memorial. Some horses that look like contenders now won’t make the final cut. Others may yet emerge. Pay close attention to everything.
In addition to Asmussen, there are several prominent trainers with serious contenders that have never won the Derby. Richard Mandella has the very talented San Felipe winner Forbidden Kingdom. Like a few of the other contenders, Forbidden Kingdom is all speed.
Kenny McPeek has won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but not the Derby. In his 2022 debut, Smile Happy was a solid second to Epicenter in the Risen Star. This horse is very much a major contender if he gives a big effort in his final prep.
Trainer Chad Brown is known for his grass horses, but he is increasingly concentrating on 3-year-old dirt horses. So it’s just a question of when he wins his first Derby. Early Voting and Zandon need breakthrough preps to be major contenders, but each is getting better and could be ready for a top performance on the first Saturday in May.
The Florida prep winners, White Abarrio (Holy Bull) and Simplification (Fountain of Youth) ran fast and true. I make each of them very serious contenders at this stage. In Due Time, second in the Fountain of Youth, came with the kind of late run that suggests he is not far away from the best.
Mo Donegal certainly appears to have the ability to give Todd Pletcher his third Derby, but he missed the Fountain of Youth and is playing catch up, never a good thing at this time of year.
Hard to think of the Gotham as a serious Derby prep anymore, but Morello was so impressive and ran so fast winning it, you can’t dismiss the horse’s chances either.
Tampa Bay Derby winner Classic Causeway is yet another speed horse who wins his races up top. This suggests there might be an interesting and perhaps quick Derby early pace. But keep in mind that what looks like a lot of speed often is not as jockeys have a tendency to ride more cautiously in the Derby. It’s an annual mistake, but it keeps happening. Regardless, don’t see Classic Causeway as a serious contender as the horse has not hit 90 on the Beyer scale yet. And if a horse has not gotten past that milestone by mid-March, it’s usually too late.
So that’s where we are, with the second round of preps in the rearview mirror and the final round coming up quickly on the road to the 2022 Kentucky Derby.