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Competitive Kentucky Derby field makes handicapping the race difficult

Taiba and jockey Mike Smith move past Messier and jockey John Velazquez to win the Santa Anita Derby.
Taiba and jockey Mike Smith move past Messier and jockey John Velazquez to win the Santa Anita Derby on April 9. The horses, previously trained by Bob Baffert, will run in the 148th Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
(Benoit Photo via Associated Press)
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Much to the chagrin of Churchill Downs, one of the major topics of discussion before Saturday’s running of the 148th Kentucky Derby is not who is in Louisville, but the one person who is not. All that could change once the gates open and up to 20 horses start their 1 1/4-mile journey in the world’s most famous horse race.

Then again, if one of two horses previously trained by Bob Baffert wins the race, then his seeming vice grip on the conversation in horse racing will once again be evident, even in absentia. There’s certainly a chance that could happen.

Tim Yakteen, a former Baffert assistant, has taken over the training of Taiba and Messier, who finished first and second in the Santa Anita Derby.

“I use the analogy that I’ve had a lottery ticket dropped in my lap and I’m trying to go to the window and cash it,” Yakteen said.

The road to the Kentucky Derby is a long slog beginning last September with 48 races that are worth qualifying points. Yet that is mostly marketing with low points races that really don’t matter. The Derby trail starts in earnest in early March with races worth 50 points to the winner and early April with races worth 100 points to the winner and 40 points for second. The current cutoff for making the field is 30 points.

This year’s field is considered among the more competitive, leaving handicappers trying to figure out which strategies will work to find the winner. Among the things to consider are these five storylines that will come up this Derby week.

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Why exactly isn’t Baffert here?

Bob Baffert walks a horse past several other horses in a stable.
Bob Baffert walks Justify upon arrival at Belmont Park ahead of the Belmont Stakes in 2018.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

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Picking the winner of three of the last four Kentucky Derby races has been easy: Bet the Baffert horse. He won in the first ever September Derby two years ago with Authentic and then again last year with Medina Spirit. But his win last year was overturned by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission some nine months after the race when the horse tested positive for a legal anti-inflammatory banned on race day. The case is on appeal and likely will spend a couple years in litigation.

As a result, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission suspended Baffert for 90 days, which is honored by every racing jurisdiction in the country. The suspension ends July 2, after the Triple Crown races. It’s almost routine that when a case is on appeal the suspension gets stayed, but in this case regulators and Kentucky courts ruled otherwise. However, even if he had been issued a stay, Churchill Downs has suspended Baffert for two years and made him ineligible to acquire Kentucky Derby qualifying points. That, too, is headed to litigation.

All of which means, through Taiba and Messier, betting Baffert is still a strategy, at least in spirit.

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Who will be favored in the race?

Guest are reflected in a window as they wait for a race to start at Churchill Downs.
(Associated Press)

The draw for the race will be Monday, up a day from the usual Tuesday. But the post position is unlikely to move the anticipated morning line, unless the horse draws the 1, but even that is not such a big factor since Churchill Downs built a special 20-horse gate that mitigates the disadvantages of the one hole and eliminates the gap in the middle.

All things being equal, the favorite likely will be Epicenter, who has won four of his last five and most recently won the Louisiana Derby by 2 ½ lengths. He likes to go to the lead but in the Louisiana Derby they rated him just off the lead and he came strong in the stretch, showing his versatility. Recent history has shown that deep closers do not usually win the Kentucky Derby, so he will get a lot of attention.

“What do I not like about Epicenter?” asked owner Ron Winchell, part of the family that started the doughnut chain. “He just keeps moving forward. When you get to this stage before the Derby, you want them to move forward with every step and he’s done exactly that.”

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Who’s a longshot to follow?

Crown Pride and jockey Damian Lane win the UAE Derby.
Crown Pride and jockey Damian Lane win the UAE Derby on March 26.
(Martin Dokoupil / Associated Press)

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There has certainly been some buzz about Crown Pride, a Japanese-bred horse that qualified by winning the UAE Derby in Dubai. Generally, one of the accepted rules of the Derby is to throw out the horse whose last race was in the Middle East. An example was Mendelssohn, who won the UAE Derby by more than 18 lengths in 2018. He went off as the third betting choice in the Kentucky Derby and, after a rough trip, was eased, finishing 70 lengths behind future Triple Crown winner Justify.

Yet Crown Pride seems to be riding a Japanese racing renaissance. Horses from Japan won five of nine races at the Dubai World Cup and two Breeders’ Cup races. On Wednesday, Crown Pride had the fastest half-mile workout at Churchill Downs, so he seem to like the track.

“Before too long, Japanese horses will be standing on top of the world,” Katsumi Yoshida, Crown Pride’s trainer, told the Kyodo News.

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How big a factor is experience?

Jockey Mike Smith celebrates aboard Pinehurst after winning the Runhappy Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 6, 2021.
Jockey Mike Smith celebrates aboard Pinehurst after winning the Runhappy Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 6, 2021. The veteran jockey will be aboard Taiba during the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
(Kelley Carlson / Associated Press)

It’s not as big as it used to be. When Secretariat won in 1973, it was his 10th race. When Affirmed won in 1978, it was his 14th. In Saturday’s Derby, of the horses currently projected to start, two (Tiz the Bomb and Barber Road) have eight starts, three have seven, five have six, three have five, four have four, three have two. Then there is Taiba, who has only started two times.

Leonatus is a name being bandied about lately as he is the only horse to win the Derby after only two starts. He did it in 1883. It was four years ago when another racing curse was smashed by Justify, who was the first horse to win the Derby after not having raced as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882.

Both Justify and Taiba have another thing in common, jockey Mike Smith. As the most experienced jockey in the race riding the least experienced horse, Smith says you never know.

“It’s a crazy day, some of them handle it well, others who have three, four, five, six, seven, eight starts don’t handle it at all,” Smith said. “We just have to wait and see.”

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Will weather play a factor?

John Velazquez rides Medina Spirit across the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby.
John Velazquez rides Medina Spirit across the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby. Medina Spirit was later disqualified after a legal drug banned on race days was discovered in a post-race test.
(Associated Press)

You can usually count on some form of bad weather to roll through Louisville in the days around the Derby. The last two years have been clear on race day, but the previous four had wet weather, including when Justify won after more three inches of rain had fallen. This year, the weather forecast calls for about a 30% chance of rain in the late afternoon.

Most of the horses have not run over a wet track, but three of them (Epicenter, Zandon and Classic Causeway) have won on an off track. As for a horse that apparently doesn’t like a wet track, Crown Pride’s only loss, a sixth, came over a muddy track in Tokyo.

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