Kentucky Derby storylines: 150th running clouded by who is not in race

Regardless whether you think this is Kentucky Derby 150, Kentucky Derby 150* or Kentucky Derby 149½, most of the animus around this year’s historic race will be forgotten, if only briefly, when the gates open at Churchill Downs on Saturday evening.

Somewhere around 20 of the best 3-year-old horses in the world will be hoping to win the most famous horse race on the planet and cement their place in history and lucrative fees in the breeding shed.

The reason the race doesn’t have a full octane endorsement among the public is because not all of the best 3-year-olds will be running after Churchill Downs expanded its ban of trainer Bob Baffert, who has won this race six times. It’s hardly an argument anymore that Baffert is the best trainer of Derby prospects currently in the game.

Churchill Downs banned him for two years after 2021 winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a legal medication banned on race day. The belief was that the ban was two years, but Churchill Downs left an out clause that said it could be extended. Despite no violations of any kind, Baffert was inexplicably banned for a third year because Churchill Downs didn’t believe he was contrite enough.

Despite failed last-minute litigation, Muth, who would have likely have been among the top three favorites, was not allowed to enter the race after winning the Arkansas Derby to acquire enough qualifying points. And that’s where it stands.

Now, maybe it’s time to discuss who will be in the Derby and look at the five storylines that should dominate this year’s conversation.

Who are the favorites in this year’s Derby?

The two horses getting the most buzz are Fierceness (5-2 morning-line odds) and Sierra Lione (3-1). Fierceness won the Florida Derby by 13 ½ lengths but has been pretty much an every-other-race horse and Saturday is the other race. In the game, that’s known as a “bounce” horse. He also drew post 17, the only post in 149 years that has never had a Kentucky Derby winner. Drawing from the outside means all the speed will be to his inside, so he should be able to get a good stalking spot. “I’m fine with the post,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “There’s enough run into the first turn to hopefully establish position.”

Generally you don’t want be too far inside or outside and Sierra Lione drew post 2. His running style, coming late from the back of the pack, could be hindered by this position since he could have a wall of horses in front of him when he is ready to make his move. “He’s in just a touch farther than I wanted but he didn’t get the 1 hole so I’m OK with that,” said trainer Chad Brown. “With this particular horse, what I didn’t want is the 19 or 20.”

As for who is going to win? The post-time favorite has not won the race since 2018 when Justify did it, concluding a streak of six straight winning favorites. Since then the favorite has finished second twice, third twice and fourth.

Doesn’t Churchill Downs have a safety issue?

Last year, one of the major stories surrounding the Kentucky Derby was the body count that was adding up in the 10 days before the big race. Seven horses died during that time, including two on Derby day. One of those was a prospective Kentucky Derby starter, Wild On Ice, winner of the Sunland Derby. So far, there have been no fatalities.

An investigation by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) found no singular cause for the deaths. Horses continued to die after the Derby and racing was eventually transferred to sister track Ellis Park, where things stabilized. In total, there were 12 fatalities, which includes one paddock accident and two sudden deaths.

The track has taken extensive measures to try to make racing safer, including adding a telemetric device to horses in an attempt to detect a sign of trouble before it happens by slight changes in their biometrics. Churchill Downs also added 2,200 tons of new dirt, giving the track a greater cushion.

Is this the year a horse from the Middle East wins?

Every year you hear the same thing. A phenom wins a huge 3-year-old race in either Saudi Arabia or Dubai and the buzz starts. They qualify for the Kentucky Derby and everyone believes this is the year one of these shippers wins the big prize. Well, until it happens, is the horse a toss? Forever Young (10-1), a Japanese bred, is undefeated in five starts and his last two wins have been in the UAE Derby and Saudi Derby. He has won more than $2 million.

Before you get sold on Forever Young, let’s look back to 2018 when Mendelssohn had won three straight races, including the UAE Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (in 2017) at Del Mar. He was trained by Aiden O’Brien and ridden by Ryan Moore, two of the best at what they do. The colt was bet down to the third favorite, just dollars off being second favorite. He got banged around at the start and was eased on the second turn and finished last, some 73 ¼ lengths behind the winner, Justify.

It seems until a horse can prove they can be successful on three continents, enormous amounts of air miles and the stress of running in a 20-horse race, you might tread cautiously.

Will Bob Baffert ever run in the Derby again?

Try as you might, you just can’t talk about the Kentucky Derby without Baffert’s name coming up, even if he doesn’t have a horse running in it. The fact of when he will be reinstated remains a question that can only be answered by Churchill Downs. Baffert has dropped lawsuits against the company, been very careful about what he says and stayed clean of medication violations. But is that enough or has Churchill Downs just made it too personal?

Baffert’s clients have been very loyal to him and they spend a lot of money allowing him to buy the best young horses for them. So, it comes down to if Bill Carstanjen, the chief executive at Churchill Downs, believes that a penance has been paid or if, according to a recent court filing by Baffert owner Amr Zedan, Carstanjen is “pursuing a crazed vendetta at the expense of letting fair, healthy competition run its course.”

The suit to get Muth into the Kentucky Derby was unsuccessful but the judge urged the parties to reach an agreement so this situation never comes before the court again. Will that happen?

Does a Southern California horse have a chance?

Southern California came perilously close to not having a horse in the Kentucky Derby in … well, a very long time. Research takes you back 70 years before data becomes suspect, but Stronghold (20-1) takes that stat off the table. The Phil D’Amato trainee had to finish at least third in the Santa Anita Derby to have enough qualifying points to make the Kentucky Derby field. He did better than that, he beat an ineligible Imagination by a neck, setting up both a jubilant and teary Winner’s Circle.

Can Stronghold win the Derby? Of course, if you are in it, you can win it. But he certainly is not one of the favorites. People will point to his 89-high Beyer figure and say he just isn’t fast enough. But he has been improving with every race after first winning the Sunland Derby.

It will be the first Kentucky Derby start for D’Amato, jockey Antonio Fresu and owners Eric and Sharon Waller.

“It’s been my dream to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby,” D’Amato said. “And to finally achieve that, I’m still taking it one day at a time. I can’t really put it into feelings. And to be able to share it with my friends, family and owners, it’s just a good feeling.”

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