The Kentucky Derby is a little over a fortnight away, and the anticipation and the hype are building fast. Between now and the big day there will be enormous amounts of speculation over the Derby runners and everyone will make their personal choice about which horse they favor in the ‘Run for the Roses’.
In our weekly overview of the Run for the Roses scene, we look back down the ‘Road’ to where it all started, review the possibilities for late withdrawals and arrivals into the race, and take a quick statistical, historical snapshot of what the 2022 Kentucky Derby winner might look like.
Reaching the end of the Road
The Road to the Kentucky Derby began back in the mists of time, on September 18, when the G3 Iroquois at Churchill Downs was won by Major General, who earned ten Kentucky Derby standing points for his efforts. In a neat symmetry, Major General was also on the scene in the final Derby prep last weekend, finishing runner-up in the G3 Lexington at Keeneland and earning eight RTKD points, a total of 18 that is nowhere near enough to take him to Louisville.
Along the way we’ve had 48 races in the US, Dubai, Britain, Ireland and Japan, embracing plenty of thrills and spills, the discovery that the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was a very moderate race indeed, the Bob Baffert factor, some brilliant performances, some pretty poor efforts, and some interesting questions raised – should the G3 Jeff Ruby Steaks really be a 100-point race? Answer: No; What is the point of the European element of the Road to the Derby? Answer: Nobody knows.
At the end of it all, we now know the identity of the 20 colts and geldings who will line up in the gate on May 7 for the Run for the Roses ( KY Derby) and a crack at racing immortality. Until one or two of them inevitably drop out between now and then, of course.
The final pieces of the puzzle were clicked into place in the Lexington, when Tawny Port (30-1) proved his suitability for racing on dirt after some sterling efforts on synthetics, finishing his race off well to score by a length from the aforementioned Major General. That victory locked Tawny Port into the Derby field and also sealed a place for G1 Florida Derby runner-up Charge It (20-1).
A few hours earlier, news had broken that G3 Sunland Park Derby winner Slow Down Andy would come off the Derby trail with a fever, and when eventually all the dealing was done it meant that Happy Jack (100-1), a distant third in the G1 Santa Anita Derby behind Taiba (6-1) and Messier (8-1), squeezed into 20th place on the RTKD points standings and took the final available slot.
Of course, there is still just over two weeks to wait until Derby day and a few ins and outs can be expected. It appears increasingly likely that G2 Wood Memorial runner-up Early Voting (33-1) will switch from the Derby to the Preakness, and there is still a doubt over the participation of G3 Gotham winner Morello (25-1), who lost his unbeaten record when running down the field in the Wood Memorial.
Any defections would enable those just outside the cutoff line to draw in to the Derby. First off the bench would be Pioneer Of Medina (125-1), third in the G2 Louisiana Derby, and behind him are G2 Fountain of Youth runner-up In Due Time (75-1), G2 Rebel runner-up Ethereal Road, and G3 Jeff Ruby Steaks third Rich Strike (125-1). There will also be a four-horse also-eligible list when the post positions are drawn on the Tuesday before big-race Saturday.
Parsing the Derby field
Now, with the final field at our fingertips, the time for serious appraisal is at hand. There will be 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby, but a few of them are just padding out the gate, several more will need to make significant improvement to figure, and the rest have a big chance to win America’s greatest race.
In recent times, the Kentucky Derby has been a race for well-fancied horses and contenders with strong last-time-out form. Since 2000, only two Derbys have been won by horses who didn’t finish first or second in their final prep, and those were the 50-1 outsiders Mine That Bird and Giacomo. Moreover, 15 Derbys have been won by last-time-out winners, so followers of statistics will know where to begin their search.
The nine last-time-out winners in this year’s race are Epicenter (Louisiana Derby), Taiba (Santa Anita Derby), Zandon (Blue Grass), Mo Donegal (Wood Memorial), Cyberknife (Arkansas Derby), Tawny Port (Lexington), White Abarrio (Florida Derby), Crown Pride (UAE Derby) and Tiz The Bomb (Jeff Ruby Steaks).
That list includes all the big prep winners and it might be quite sensible to believe that the winner will come from this group, which accounts for almost half the field.
Perhaps this early reckoning of the Derby runners can be refined further, for 14 Derby winners since 2000 were sent off at single-figure odds. This factor is impossible to predict before the day of the race, but it seems unlikely that Tawny Port (30-1), Tiz The Bomb (22-1) and Crown Pride (20-1) will end up at short enough odds to fit the statistical model. That brings us to a round half-dozen candidates.
A little further refinement? Experience is important, and lack of experience may be crucial. Taiba was unraced as a juvenile, has run only two races in his life, and would break a record stretching back to 1883 if he were to prevail at Churchill Downs. Can he win? Yes. Is he a typical winner? No.
Of course, this is not a completely sound way of arriving at a choice of Derby winner, as it only takes note of a few – albeit very important – factors, and should not form the sole analytical tool at a bettor’s disposal. But it does make the task a little more manageable, and it would be no surprise to anyone if one of Epicenter, Zandon, White Abarrio, Mo Donegal and Cyberknife were to win the Kentucky Derby.
Between now and Derby day, we will be assessing the field in a more widely focused way, taking into account class, previous opposition, stamina, running style and other factors in an attempt to crack the Derby code. The five horses mentioned in the previous paragraph will no doubt be near the top of any final list, but there are plenty of others to consider.
Kentucky Derby Odds
6-1 Taiba, Zandon
8-1 Messier, Mo Donegal
12-1 White Abarrio
13-1 Smile Happy
20-1 Charge It, Crown Pride
22-1 Simplification, Tiz The Bomb
25-1 Morello, Zozos
30-1 Barber Road, Tawny Port
33-1 Early Voting
65-1 Summer Is Tomorrow
75-1 In Due Time, Un Ojo
100-1 Happy Jack
Italics: horse outside the top 20 in RTKD points standings
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