Twenty eager colts breaking through the starting gate, a full house for the first time in three years, and a Kentucky Derby lacking a major 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 running for position in front of the biggest crowd they’ll ever see and hear.
“Things can get a little monotonous throughout the race, going through holes and taking dirt and some bumps along the way,” said trainer Chad Brown. “You never know what’s going to happen when you open the gate.”
Xandon is the starting 3-1 favorite and has broken out of the No. 10 post, having produced the second-most number of winners with nine. The Dark Bay colt is coached by Brown, who seeks his first Derby win after six losses.
“It would mean everything,” said Brown, who has had his own stables for 15 years. “It is very hard to get these Derby horses, especially the favourites.”
After two years of COVID-19 restrictions, the Derby returned to all its noisy, colorful glory. Attendance has returned to full capacity, meaning some 150,000 people jammed into Churchill Downs, dressed to the nines and served in souvenir glasses fortified by mint juleps. Posting time is 6:57PM EDT.
“You want to adopt the philosophy that it’s just another race, but of course it’s not just another race,” said Barbados-born trainer Saffy Joseph Jr.
In 2019, winner Maximum Security was disqualified for interference and the country house wore a garland of red roses.
In 2020, an eerie silence covered the track when 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 of May, with attendance limited to around 52,000.
Steve Asmussen has won more races than any other coach in North America, but he has never won the Derby in 23 tries. He will saddle Epicenter, the opening 7-2 second choice that secured his first career win at Churchill Downs.
“You have no control over how 20 3-year-olds will handle this amount of crowd for the first time,” Asmussen said. “None of them have clearly been in a race that had that many runners.”
Horse racing’s household name in the 148th Derby: Bob Baffert is missing. This year the Hall of Fame trainer was banned by Churchill Downs with a record six wins and after last year’s winner, Medina Spirit, failed a post-race drug test.
Baffert’s shadow still looms large over Twin Spiers. The two colts he previously coached would be in the starting gate: Messier, 8-1 third choice named for Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier, and 12-1 shot Taiba.
The least experienced colt on the field is the most experienced jockey in the form of 56-year-old Mike Smith on Taiba’s back. He may break Bill Shoemaker’s record as the oldest jockey.
“If I could make a nice clean trip for him, the inexperience wouldn’t be so much,” Smith said.
Taiba would go on to become the first horse to win the Derby on his third start since Leonatus in 1883, and the first horse to win on his third start after not racing at the age of 2. Both Messier and Taiba are coached by Baffert’s one-time assistant, Tim Yakatin.
“We will need some luck, like every horse in the Derby does,” said Yakatin.
Baffert told The Associated Press that he plans to watch the race remotely with family and friends.
The UAE Derby winner could make history as the first horse from Japan to win the Crown Pride Derby. The Dark Bay colt has won three out of four at the start of trainer Koichi Shintani’s career.
“I want to see the end of the same race that we saw in the UAE derby,” Shintani said.
Two-time Derby winner Todd Plechter made three starts: Mo Donegal, Charge It and Pioneer of Medina.
Louisville-born Brad Cox won his first Derby late when Mandaloun was relegated to first place following a disqualification from the Medina Spirit in February. Cox has three shots to round out the individual winner this year: Cyberknife, Tawny Port, and Zozos.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a blazing, blazing hot pace,” Cox said.
Two-time Derby winner Doug O’Neill defeated Happy Jack 30-1.
“Touch wood we’re going to shock the world,” he said.
Saturday’s forecast calls for a 30% chance of morning showers and then mostly cloudy weather with a maximum of 64 degrees (17 Celsius).