LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Twenty eager colts escaped the starting gate, a full house for the first time in three years and a Kentucky Derby without a dominant favorite.
Things could get interesting on Saturday at Churchill Downs, where the 2019 and 2021 winners were disqualified.
The biggest question for these 3-year-olds is whether they can run 1 1/4 miles while jostling to position themselves in front of the biggest crowd they will ever see and hear.
“Things can get a little sketchy throughout the race, having to cross holes, pick up dirt and take bumps along the way,” said coach Chad Brown. “You never know what’s going to happen when you open the door.”
Zandon is the early 3-1 favorite and is breaking away from the No. 10 position, which has produced the second-most winners with nine. The dark bay colt is trained by Brown, seeking his first Derby victory after six defeats.
“That would mean everything” said Brown, who had his own stable for 15 years. “It’s so hard to get those Derby horses, especially the favourite.”
After two years of COVID-19 restrictions, the Derby returns in all its loud and colorful glory. Attendance is back at full capacity, meaning around 150,000 people crammed into Churchill Downs, dressed in new clothes and fortified by mint juleps served in souvenir glasses. Publication time is 6:57 p.m. EDT.
“You want to embrace the philosophy that it’s just another race, but of course it’s definitely not just another race,” said Barbados-born trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who rides White Abarrio.
In 2019, the winner of Maximum Security was disqualified for interference and Country House wore the garland of red roses.
In 2020, an eerie silence enveloped the track as no fans were allowed due to the pandemic and the race was pushed back to September. Last year the Derby returned to its usual location on the first Saturday in May with attendance limited to around 52,000.
Steve Asmussen has won more races in North America than any other trainer, but he has never won the Derby in 23 tries. He will saddle Epicenter, the 7-2 first pick who picked up his first career win at Churchill Downs last fall.
“You have no control over how 20 3-year-olds are going to handle this volume of crowds for the first time,” said Asmussen. “None of them obviously participated in a race that brought together so many runners.”
The 148th Derby misses the household name in horse racing: Bob Baffert. The Hall of Fame coach with a record six wins was banned by Churchill Downs this year and the following year after last year’s winner Medina Spirit failed a drug test after the race.
Baffert’s shadow still hangs over the Twin Spires. Two colts previously trained by him will be in the starting gate: Messier, the 8-1 early third pick nominated for Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier, and Taiba 12-1.
Taiba, the least experienced colt on the field, has the most experienced jockey on his back, Mike Smith, 56. He could break Bill Shoemaker’s record as the oldest winning jockey.
“If I can give him a good clean trip, then inexperience won’t be so troublesome,” said Smith.
Taiba will attempt to become the first horse to win the Derby on just his third start since Leonatus in 1883, and the first horse to win on his third start after not racing as a 2-year-old. Messier and Taiba are coached by Baffert’s former assistant Tim Yakteen.
“We are going to need luck, like all Derby horses,” said Yakteen.
Baffert told The Associated Press he plans to watch the race from a distance with family and friends.
UAE Derby winner Crown Pride could go down in history as the first Japanese horse to win the Derby. The dark bay colt has won three of coach Koichi Shintani’s four career starts.
“I want to see the same race from start to finish that we saw in the UAE Derby,” Shintani said, “including being the first to cross the wired portion.”
Two-time Derby winner Todd Pletcher saddles three runners: Mo Donegal, Charge It and Pioneer of Medina.
Louisville-born Brad Cox won his first Derby late on when Mandaloun was elevated to first place after Medina Spirit was disqualified in February. Cox has three shots to make the winner’s circle in person this year: Cyberknife, Tawny Port and Zozos.
“I don’t think it will be a breakneck pace,” said Cox.
Two-time Derby winner Doug O’Neill saddles 30-1 on Happy Jack.
“Touch wood, we’re going to shock the world” he said.
Saturday’s forecast calls for a 30% chance of morning showers, then mostly cloudy skies and a high of 64 degrees (17 degrees Celsius).