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Baffert’s absence among many storylines for Kentucky Derby

In many ways the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday represents a return to normal. A capacity crowd is expected at Churchill Downs after two years of COVID-19 disruptions and Nevadans are again able to access a full wagering menu on races from the Louisville track after resolution of a contract dispute.

But the party-as-usual atmosphere surrounding America’s most-famous horse race will be at least slightly disturbed by the absence of the most recognizable figure in the event’s recent history: Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

The 69-year-old conditioner with the silver mane, who has a record-tying six victories in the Run for the Roses, is serving a 90-day suspension and will not be in the saddling ring before the race for the first time since 2017. Kentucky regulators imposed the penalty after the Baffert-trained Medina Spirit failed a drug test following the colt’s apparent victory last year’s Derby, resulting in an eventual disqualification.

Baffert still might play a role in the outcome of this year’s race, as his former assistant, Tim Yakteen, will saddle Taiba and Messier, the one-two finishers in the Santa Anita Derby and until recently were in Baffert’s care. A win by either would be credited to Yakteen, but you can bet that Baffert would be seen as the mastermind behind such an upset.

Backstage drama aside, this year’s Derby has plenty to recommend it. Contention runs deep among the 20 3-year-olds expected to face the starter, meaning the payoffs should be generous for those able to connect the dots.

Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter, owned by Las Vegas businessman Ron Winchell and his mother, Joan, is likely to vie for favoritism with the Chad Brown-trained Zandon, sharp winner of the Blue Grass Stakes in his last start. The latter was installed as the 3-1 favorite on the morning line, with Epicenter right behind at 7-2. Third choice Messier was listed at 8-1.

Others likely to take action include Wood Memorial winner Mo Donegal (10-1), Florida Derby conqueror White Abarrio (10-1) and Taiba (12-1), who beat stablemate Messier in the Santa Anita Derby.

The weather could come into play, though it appears more likely to affect the Kentucky Oaks card Friday (86 percent probability of thunderstorms) than Derby Day, with a 36 percent chance of morning showers and a high of 60 degrees in the weather.com forecast.

As always, there are a number of interesting threads at play in this year’s Derby. Here are a few for which to watch:

— Epicenter, the colt with the Las Vegas connections, will attempt to end long streaks of futility for Ron Winchell, who with his late father Verne has gone 0-for-12 in the Derby, and Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, the winningest conditioner ever in North America but 0-for-23 in the race.

— Taiba aims to become the first horse to capture a Derby in just his third lifetime start since Leonatus first did it in 1883. Two other starters – Charge It (20-1) and Zozos (20-1) – will be making their fourth starts.

— U.A.E. Derby winner Crown Pride (20-1) is seeking to become the first Japan-bred colt to capture the Kentucky Derby. He has been the talk of the Churchill Downs backstretch over the past week after putting in several focused training sessions in the mornings. Given Japan’s recent success in winning prestigious international races, he has some intrigue as a possible live long shot, though he will likely drift lower from his morning odds.

— Mike Smith, 56, will seek to become the oldest jockey to win the Derby aboard Taiba, topping Bill Shoemaker, who guided Ferdinand to victory in 1986 when he was 54. Smith has won two previous Derbies aboard 2018 winner Justify and Giacamo in 2005.

— D. Wayne Lukas, 86, will saddle his 50th Derby starter in Ethereal Road (30-1) as he pursues his fifth victory. He would easily snap the “oldest winning trainer” record held by Art Sherman, who was 77 at the time of California Chrome’s Derby win in 2014.

Who’s going to win the 1¼-mile race for 3-year-olds, the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown?

Epicenter is the horse to beat despite his disadvantageous inside draw (No. 3) in the starting gate. The son of Not This Time has good early speed and jockey Joel Rosario, last year’s Eclipse Award winning rider, should be able to establish a ground-saving stalking trip behind likely pace-setters Classic Causeway, Pioneer of Medina and Summer Is Tomorrow (all 30-1 on the morning line).

Rosario should find a seam turning for home and power by the tiring front-runners, with Messier, Mo Donegal, Smile Happy, Zandon and maybe Crown Pride in hot pursuit. At the wire, Epicenter has enough to narrowly hold off his rivals and give the Winchells and Asmussen their first victories in the Run for the Roses.

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