The 148th running of the Kentucky Derby kicks off Triple Crown season. The race for the elusive crown begins this Saturday at Churchill Downs with Zandon as the 3-1 morning-line favorite.
Our focus moves to pari-mutuel betting, which is different from the normal sports betting futures we are used to seeing. All odds are based on bets of a particular type, placed together in a pool with payoff odds calculated by sharing the pool (after takeout) among all winning bets. Unlike sports betting futures, the odds are fluid and not final until the race gets underway.
Among the notable betting options are:
Win: picking the winning horse
Place: picking a horse to finish first or second
Show: picking a horse to finish first, second or third
Exacta: picking the top two horses in the exact order
Trifecta: picking the top three horses in the exact order
Box: in wagers such as exactas and trifectas, covering all permutations of the picked horses
Here is a breakdown of every horse in the Kentucky Derby field with suggested plays and picks.
Note: Horses, with morning-line odds, listed in order of post position.
Chris Fallica’s guide to the field
1. Mo Donegal (10-1)
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.
It has been a while since a Wood winner factored into the exacta — when Empire Maker finished second in 2003 to be exact — and I can’t see this one ending the drought. While there is a new starting gate, post 1 is no bargain and while his late-running style will help mitigate some of the trouble, I’m not sure the Derby sets up for a total closer. Only two rail runners have even cracked the trifecta since Ferdinand won in 1986. He also needs to make up about five lengths on White Abarrio and while he did beat Zandon by a nose in the Remsen Stakes, it’s pretty safe to assume the latter has improved leaps and bounds. He could sneak into third or fourth but that’s about it.
2. Happy Jack (30-1)
Trainer: Doug O’Neill
Jockey: Rafael Bejarano
Happy Jack won his first race at 24-1 and has been nowhere to be found against Messier and Taiba. He finished in front of seven horses in three races since he broke his maiden. Need I continue? He’s a total nonfactor and should be closer to 99-1 than 30-1.
3. Epicenter (7-2)
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Jockey: Joel Rosario
Epicenter was a head defeat in the Lecomte Stakes from entering the Derby on a five-race win streak. He got away with an easy lead and wired the field at the Risen Star Stakes and then showed a different tactic from a stalking position, winning a less-than-stellar edition of the Louisiana Derby.
My instinct is to try to beat him; 7-2 odds is a ridiculously short price in this race. The inside post may force Joel Rosario’s hand a bit early and make him part of a pretty decent pace up front. While he did beat Zandon in the Risen Star Stakes, he had zero challenges up front, had a better post and was at his home track. That was Zandon’s first race off a 2½-month layoff. Steve Asmussen has accomplished pretty much everything in racing other than winning the Kentucky Derby. He’s 0-23 with four in-the-money finishes, including second choice Curlin from post position 2 in 2007. He can certainly win, but I’m kind of on the fence with him, leaning toward the “mostly opposing” side.
4. Summer Is Tomorrow (30-1)
Trainer: Bhupat Seemar
Jockey: Mickael Barzalona
He has zero shot to even hit the board, but he will ensure a lively pace so long as he doesn’t pull a Mendelssohn at the starting gate. If you use the all button for third or fourth in trifectas and superfectas, so be it, but he should be 99-1 come post time.
5. Smile Happy (20-1)
Trainer: Ken McPeek
Jockey: Corey Lanerie
I can see why some will like Smile Happy as a long shot. He had a nice win at Churchill Downs as a 2-year-old over Classic Causeway and White Abarrio and has an off-the-pace running style. He has been competitive against Zandon and Epicenter, but at the same time, Zandon went by him like he was standing still in the Blue Grass Stakes and it feels like he hasn’t improved from 2 to 3 as much as others. There’s also the question of price. Will he even be 20-1? It sounds like Mattress Mack will bet him because he’s sired by Runhappy, whom Mattress Mack owned. That should make him a big underlay if that’s the case, so don’t expect anything close to true odds. It’s not impossible, Ken McPeek has won a Triple Crown race with a long shot before — Sarava — and I wouldn’t fault anyone who uses him on a spread ticket and wants to be deep in the race. It’s just going to take a perfectly timed ride from Corey Lanerie or a couple of main contenders to not fire and some racing luck.
6. Messier (8-1)
Trainer: Tim Yakteen
Jockey: John Velazquez
The first question about Messier and Taiba is whether you should treat them like Bob Baffert-trained horses despite Baffert’s suspension from Churchill Downs. In talking with most people, the answer appears to be yes.
The next question is whether Messier will do what Authentic and Medina Spirit did in the past, re-breaking on the lead and wiring the field. I’m not as sure about that as he had a public workout in a horrible edition of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and was swallowed up by Taiba in a short field at the Santa Anita Derby.
Messier beat the 4, 3 and 5 horses in his three wins — he’ll have to essentially wire 19 others here. I’m not feeling it, but then again I didn’t see it with Authentic or Medina Spirit either and we saw how that ended.
7. Crown Pride (20-1)
Trainer: Kochi Shintani
Jockey: Christophe Lemaire
The next UAE Derby winner that I back will be the first. If you are looking for reasons to like him, I guess one could say he’s 3-for-3 on a fast track and should get a stalking trip. But this is a massive step up in class, and I just can’t see him factoring into anything.
8. Charge It (20-1)
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: Luis Saez
I’m intrigued by Charge It. His off-the-pace trip might have been the result of the bad start in the Florida Derby or an educational experience for a potential run here. He has every right to improve in his second start against winners and be a pace factor. He should stay the 1¼ miles and the fact that he’s 20-1 and will likely be longer than that means he will be on my ticket, just in case Saez does the right thing and sits off the speed.
9. Tiz the Bomb (30-1)
Trainer: Ken McPeek
Jockey: Brian Hernandez Jr.
He won his first race as an odds-on favorite at Ellis Park in a short field, but that’s the only dirt win he has. His best run has been on the synthetics and turf, where he has won four of five starts. However, he had 9-2 odds against White Abarrio, Simplification and Mo Donegal in the Holy Bull Stakes. Coming off a three-month layoff, maybe he needed the race? Or maybe he didn’t like Gulfstream? There’s a really good chance he’s a turf/synthetic specialist. But there’s also reason you can forgive him for the clunker at Grants Pass Downs. And if you can do that, you’re getting a horse that has some tactical speed and can finish at a monster price. He’ll be on my tickets in all spots as he has a good bit of long-shot appeal.
10. Zandon (3-1)
Trainer: Chad Brown
Jockey: Flavien Prat
Zandon put it all together in an awesome win at the Blue Grass Stakes, where he pounced from off the pace and drew off. That running style suggests there shouldn’t be an issue with the 1¼-mile distance and his work at Churchill Downs suggests he will get over the surface quite nicely. He has arguably the best jockey in the country in Flavien Prat and landed a good spot in the post draw. The only thing to knock is Chad Brown’s relative lack of success in the Kentucky Derby — one in-the-money finish from six starters. I’m sure there will be those out there who can’t stomach betting the Derby favorite — and that is fine. There’s very little, if anything, to suggest he will not run his race Saturday and at the very least post a top-three finish. He will be the cornerstone of my wagering strategy here.
11. Pioneer of Medina (30-1)
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: Joe Bravo
This one has the look of a total vanity entry who is just there to run around the track. He should have been closer to the lead in both of his stakes tries, but wasn’t. Now the blinkers come off for a horse that has been pretty punch-less when the real running happens. I can’t imagine Pioneer of Medina was very highly thought of in the Pletcher barn from the start, being sent from Monmouth to the Calder meet at Gulfstream to Tampa.
12. Taiba (12-1)
Trainer: Tim Yakteen
Jockey: Mike Smith
You want to see racing fans angry? Put Taiba in the winner’s circle Saturday. He has the same owner/trainer (assuming Bob Baffert is still calling the shots) as Medina Spirit, who was disqualified due to a medical violation last year. Nothing against this horse, who is clearly talented, as evidenced by his two eye-popping wins to start his career. Now you must ask why he has one listed work since the Santa Anita Derby. Why did he wind up on the vet’s list as “unsound”? Is he being rushed along to start here by his owner? He’s clearly the lightning rod starter here and every bit of me wants to completely toss him based on the workout issues and this being his third lifetime start. But there’s also part of me that thinks it’s almost too obvious to completely toss him. He will be a big overlay as a result and he may be the most talented colt with the biggest upside. I’ll use him in a defensive/just-in-case fashion as I don’t want to miss out on a $25 winner simply out of spite.
13. Simplification (20-1)
Trainer: Antonio Sano
Jockey: Jose Ortiz
I really want to use Simplification with confidence, but will Jose Ortiz ride him the correct way and give him the trip he had at the Fountain of Youth Stakes, or will he be sent on the lead as he was before tiring in the Florida Derby? He had a bit of a bounce coming off a career-best finish at the Fountain of Youth. He had excuses in both races against White Abarrio, so I don’t think he should be double the price of that one. Maybe he’s not good enough, but at 20-1 I’m happy to invest and find out.
14. Barber Road (30-1)
Trainer: John Ortiz
Jockey: Reylu Gutierrez
You could have had Barber Road for $30K when he won his first race in October. He’s a dead closer and while he has clunked up for pieces at Oaklawn, I just can’t see him better than fourth here for a trainer who hasn’t done much in graded stakes, and he was easily beaten by Cyberknife.
15. White Abarrio (10-1)
Trainer: Saffie Joseph Jr.
Jockey: Tyler Gaffalione
He won both the Holy Bull Stakes and Florida Derby, but he seems to be somewhat under the radar here. I like him because he’s versatile and while his worst lifetime race and Beyer Speed Figure came on this track last year, he may have just developed from 2 to 3 in the care of Saffie Joseph and that race can be thrown out. He has made up six lengths on Smile Happy, but can he beat the likes of Zandon? Maybe not, but he’s another one that can win and will be on my tickets.
16. Cyberknife (20-1)
Trainer: Brad Cox
Jockey: Florent Geroux
I like Cyberknife. I had him in the Arkansas Derby and I’ll have him here. I’m not expecting anywhere close to 20-1 though. He has improved since taking the blinkers off in his first try against winners in the Lecomte. His Beyer Speed Figures are a little light, but that’s fine, as it means he probably hasn’t reached the bottom yet. It could also mean he may not have it in him. Distance isn’t a question, but it’s just a matter whether he’s good enough and whether Florent Geroux can work out a good trip off the pace from Post 16. I think the answer to both is yes. He is one of the more likely winners Saturday. Remember that last year Mandaloun was 27-1 before eventually being declared the winner after Medina Spirit was disqualified.
17. Classic Causeway (30-1)
Trainer: Brian Lynch
Jockey: Julien Laparoux
Classic Causeway is a dedicated front-runner who won’t be around at the end. If he doesn’t send, then throw out any handicapping you’ve done, as the goal is to not finish last. My guess is that it will be more exciting for the owners to say they had the lead in the Derby. He will not be on my tickets in any spot other than an all button for third in one trifecta.
18. Tawny Port (30-1)
Trainer: Brad Cox
Jockey: Ricardo Santana Jr.
The second of the three Brad Cox runners will likely be the longest price and the farthest back of the bunch. Two of his three wins came at Turfway, he hasn’t really been close against Epicenter or Tiz the Bomb and he didn’t beat anyone at Keeneland. But he is still here, has a trainer who can pop at a price and should get a nice pace to run into. It still will not be enough to crack the exacta, but I wouldn’t be completely shocked if he clunked up to complete the superfecta.
19. Zozos (20-1)
Trainer: Brad Cox
Jockey: Manny Franco
Zozos is the fastest of the Cox trio. He has no shot of winning, or being around after 10 furlongs, but his first stakes try was pretty good and he holds the key to helping the other two Cox runners. An outside draw and send into a contested pace isn’t a recipe for victory on the first Saturday in May. However, if he does his job well, it will affect the chances of Cyberknife and Tawny Port. Look for this one to compete in some big sprint races this summer.
20. Ethereal Road (30-1)
Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas
Jockey: Luis Contreras
Good luck to you is all I have to say if you’re considering using this horse with zero speed from post 20.
Anita Marks’ picks
Charge It (20-1)
Marks’ pick: Charge it to win
Marks’ pick: Cyberknife to win
Exactas and trifectas with 8 and 16 on top — followed by 10, 3, 6, 12 and 7
There are plenty of favorites in the field of 20, including Zandon and Epicenter, but both will not provide value. When handicapping this year’s race, look for horses with a good “front foot,” meaning they are not off the pace at the turn, and that have drawn a good post — middle of the pack.
There are two horses with 20-1 odds that I will be betting to win Saturday. Charge It, a Pletcher horse, has Luis Saez as his jockey. Pletcher has said that he is his favorite 3-year-old and even though this will be only his third race (he finished second in the Florida Derby), he is starting to peak. This horse has all the pedigree, drew a great post position, and will only get better as the race goes on. The question is whether he can handle the intensity of the crowd on Derby day.
Cyberknife, a Brad Cox horse, has Florent Geroux as his jockey. They are coming off a win in the Arkansas Derby five weeks ago and Cyberknife has been training well over the past three months. He has the speed to be in a good position when needed — even though he drew the 16th post.
I will also be using both Bob Baffert horses in exactas and trifectas — even though he will not be in attendance. Tim Yakteen is listed as the trainer for Messier and Taiba, but he is Baffert’s assistant, and I believe those horses will be ready to compete Saturday.
Crown Pride is another horse I like. He won in Dubai and seems to have found the formula to win here in the States on dirt. Crown Pride has been in the U.S. for a while and is reportedly training well.