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Jarrod Horak’s Final “Exceptional Eleven” Kentucky Derby 2022 Contenders (5-3-22)

1 – ZANDON (Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

When I started my Derby list last year, Zandon was ranked fourth. He was on the board in two productive points races (Remsen, Risen Star), and had his coming out party in the Blue Grass (G1). He sure acts like he will relish 10f based on his strong finish at 9f on April 9. He has classic influences in his pedigree thanks in large part to grandsires A. P. Indy and Touch Gold, both Belmont Stakes winners. Flavien Prat rode him to perfection in the Blue Grass, and he partnered with Country House to win the 2019 Ky Derby via disqualification. Chad Brown’s best finish in the Ky Derby was a runner-up effort from Good Magic in 2018. He has shown plenty of energy in his pre-Derby training sessions. His strong 4f move at KEE on April 23 stood out, and he equalled or surpassed that in a 5f breeze in 1:00.40 at CD on April 29. He should give a very good account of himself if he is able to work out a clean trip on May 7. He ran well on a good track at Keeneland last time, and the track might come up wet on Saturday.

2 – EPICENTER (Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

Flashed sharp early speed in Gun Runner (1st), Lecomte (2nd), and Risen Star (1st), and proved his could stalk and pounce in the LA Derby (1st). Does he have another peak effort in him on the first Saturday in May? At this point he keeps running and winning, and his speed ratings remain strong and steady. His trainer Steve Asmussen has yet to sip the Derby champagne. He is 0-for-23 with a pair of runner-up finishes (Nehro, Lookin At Lucky). He has won the Preakness (Curlin, Rachel Alexandra) and Belmont Stakes (Creator). Joel Rosario rides the likely Derby favorite, and he guided Orb to victory in the 2013 Ky Derby for Shug McGaughey. Epicenter started training at Churchill Downs on April 10 and he was full of energy in his final pre-Derby work on May 1 (5f in 1:01 flat). Asmussen is really training him with a purpose and is pulling out all the stops to win his first Derby. He easily handled a track labeled good in his local maiden win last year, and from post 3 Rosario might put the pedal to the metal early, or he will save ground chasing the pace like he did in the LA Derby. Rating inside might end up being a mistake from an inner post, especially if the track is wet and others are aggressively handled.

3 – MO DONEGAL (Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

One of four original Derby list members to make the big dance. I had the Remsen (G2) hero ranked fifth when I started my list in 2021, and he remains in the top five after a late running show finish in the productive Holy Bull (G3), followed by a smart score in the Wood Memorial (G2). Todd Pletcher is his conditioner and he has struck twice in the Ky Derby (Super Saver, Always Dreaming). Rosario rode him in the Wood, but he is committed to Epicenter, so he will reunite with Irad Ortiz Jr (seeks first Derby score). He worked twice at CD on April 22 and April 30. He needs to avoid getting shuffled back from the inside post. He had a nice inner closing trip from the rail in the Wood, but he probably won’t get that lucky in this 20-horse field.

4 – WHITE ABARRIO (Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

He was 3rd in one of the most productive 2yo preps (Kentucky Jockey Club), and won the first key Derby prep this year. That was the Holy Bull (G3), a race that is responsible for four horses (White Abarrio, Simplification, Mo Donegal, Tiz The Bomb) winning five subsequent Derby preps (Florida Derby, Fountain of Youth, Wood Memorial, Battaglia Memorial, Jeff Ruby Steaks). He is trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. and ridden by Tyler Gaffalione. Both are looking to pick up their first Derby win. He is from the Tapit line on top, which is more indicative of Belmont Stakes success. His final Derby work on April 30 was on point (4f in 48.28). From post 15, he should be able to stalk while out in the clear, and that was the winning formula in both of his points race victories this year.

5 – SMILE HAPPY (Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

He was ranked second when I began my Derby list last year. He made it to the top briefly but could not sustain that lofty ranking after back-to-back runner-up efforts in the Risen Star (G2) and Blue Grass (G1). He won a strong 2yo Derby prep (Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes), and completed the exacta in what appears to be the strongest prep this year (Risen Star). His trainer Ken McPeek is still searching for his first Derby victory. He saddled Tejano Run to a runner-up finish in the 1995 Derby, and he has not had a starter since 2013. He did win the Belmont in 2002 (Sarava) and the Preakness in 2020 with filly Swiss Skydiver. Corey Lanerie was aboard for his last three starts and has been the leading rider at Churchill Downs many times. Smile Happy’s grandsire Super Saver won the Ky Derby in 2010, and he should get stamina from his female family (Pleasant Tap, Pleasant Colony, His Majesty, Graustark, Ribot, Flower Bowl). He has worked twice at CD including a half-mile move in 48 flat on April 30, and his morning activity continues to improve. He is flying under the radar and post 5 is probably fine. Lanerie likes inner trips when riding at CD a’ la Calvin Borel. He handled a track labeled good in the Blue Grass.

6 – MESSIER (Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

He has been on my Derby list all along. I had him ranked 9th last year, and he is just outside the top five after a clear runner-up finish in the SA Derby (G1). Bob Baffert was his trainer of record through the Robert Lewis Stakes (G3), but since he is barred from running in the 2022 Derby, they moved him to the Tim Yakteen barn. His new conditioner worked as an assistant for Baffert, and the late, great Charlie Whittingham. The 57-year-old trainer has been on his own since 2004. He has not had a Derby runner in his name until now, but worked for Baffert when he saddled Derby winners Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem. John Velazquez rode Messier in the Robert Lewis and SA Derby, and he has won the Ky Derby three times (Authentic, Always Dreaming, Animal Kingdom). He worked 6f in 1:11.60 at SA on April 29. Post 6 should not be a hindrance. He should be on or very near the early lead with a clean getaway. He can win this if he runs back to his scintillating score in the aforementioned Lewis.

7 – TAIBA (Gun Runner – Needmore Flattery, by Flatter)

Arrived on the Derby scene very late with a fast March 5 debut sprint win, and he followed that up with a stalk and pounce victory over his stablemate Messier in the SA Derby (G1) at 4-1 odds. He lacks experience but makes up for it with raw talent, but only two starts in a 20-horse Derby Calvary charge at 10f is a tall order indeed. His sire Gun Runner was 3rd in the 2016 Ky Derby. Bob Baffert was his trainer of record for his debut, and Tim Yakteen has him now. Mike Smith is his pilot and the Hall of Fame rider has won the Ky Derby twice (Giacomo, Justify). His lone Derby work was 6f in 1:12.80 on April 28. He is not the strongest morning worker and his workout on the 28th was nothing special. I can see him working out a comfortable stalking trip from post 12 if he gets out of the gate in good order. He has never seen a wet track, has faced a total of 11 rivals in two starts, and this is his first trip away from SA. His task really does seem just about impossible unless he is as good as Justify.

8 – SIMPLIFICATION (Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

This one is the personification of a hard trying overachiever, and he shows up for every dance. He wired the field in the Mucho Macho Man (Jan. 1), blew the break and rallied for the place in the Holy Bull (G3), closed wide to capture the Fountain of Youth (G2), and attended the pace and fought hard for 3rd in the Florida Derby (G1). You cannot help but root for this one to succeed. His trainer Antonio Sano saddled a similar Derby trail runner in 2017, and his name was Gunnevera. That one was 2nd in the Holy Bull, 1st in the FOY, 3rd in the Florida Derby, 7th in the Ky Derby, and 5th in the Preakness. Jose Ortiz is the pilot and he is hungry for his first Derby win. His final Derby work was a 5f bullet in 1:00.44 at Gulfstream Park on April 29. The Florida clockers have been impressed with all three of his pre-Derby works and he might be one to use in your Derby exotics. Will post 13 be lucky for the versatile overachiever?

9 – CHARGE IT (Tapit – I’ll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie)

He was 2-for-2 heading into the Florida Derby (G1), but his raw talent was not quite enough to overcome his greenness. The Florida Derby was his first graded stakes and initial two turn attempt. He took dirt for the first time after a less than ideal start, and he might have won if he kept a straight line in the lane. It was a nice education run and I might really like him for the Ky Derby if he had one more race under his belt. The feeling at this stage is he will be better later this year. He had a strong pre-Derby workout at Palm Beach Downs on April 15 (4f bullet in 47.77). As mentioned earlier with Mo Donegal, Pletcher has saddled the Derby winner two times previously, and his rider Luis Saez is seemingly knocking on the Derby door. He briefly thought he won the 2019 Derby aboard Maximum Security, but was disqualified for causing interference. He rode Essential Quality to a close 4th place finish last year (later elevated to 3rd), and that one made amends in the Belmont Stakes. He has worked twice at CD featuring a 4f move in 47.40 on April 30. Nothing wrong with post 8 for Pletcher’s lightly raced early-pressing colt.

10 – CYBERKNIFE (Gun Runner – Awesome Flower, by Flower Alley)

He always had the ability but was having trouble putting everything together mentally and physically. He was up and down and showed flashes of talent through his first four starts. After finishing 6th in the Lecomte (G3), he got a confidence boosting allowance win, and ran his best career race in the Arkansas Derby (G1). He sat a great stalking trip in the latter race and is coming up to the Ky Derby the right way. His trainer Brad Cox backed into his first Derby win in 2021 with Mandaloun after Medina Spirit was disqualified for a medication violation. Florent Geroux rode Mandaloun and also pilots this one. He was an early Derby arrival at Churchill Downs and has worked three times including a 6f breeze in 1:11.20 on April 30. I do not hate his post (16) but am concerned that the OP road to the Derby was seemingly the weakest path this year.

11 – TIZ THE BOMB (Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

Ken McPeek’s colt is 5-for-9 and has banked more than $1 million. He romped in his maiden win on dirt, but was no threat in the productive Holy Bull (G3) earlier this year. He won two stakes on turf last year and completed the exacta in the BC Juvenile Turf (G1). He won the Battaglia Memorial and Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) on all weather ground this season. Conventional dirt is probably his weakest surface but he is classy and packs a decent stretch kick. Brian Hernandez Jr. rides this one and he would like nothing more than to win his first Derby with McPeek. His three local Derby moves include a half-mile breeze in 48.00 on April 30. He got a good post (9), but I don’t know what to expect from him on dirt, especially if the track is wet.

Next Nine: (12) Zozos, (13) Pioneer of Medina, (14) Barber Road, (15) Crown Pride-JPN, (16) Tawny Port, (17) Ethereal Road, (18) Summer Is Tomorrow, (19) Happy Jack, (20) Classic Causeway

Article by Jarrod Horak

Jarrod Horak

Jarrod Horak posts stakes recaps from Del Mar and Santa Anita Park, along with full card recaps and free stakes picks from Southern and/or Northern California.