Kentucky Derby favorite Zandon gallops on the track during a morning workout Monday to prepare for the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo
May 2 (UPI) -- After more than seven months of preliminaries, Zandon and Epicenter emerged Monday as the clear morning-line favorites for Saturday's 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
Mike Battaglia, making the morning line for the 48th time, surprised a few observers by installing Zandon as the 3-1 favorite after the son of Upstart drew the No. 10 gate, right in the middle of the field. Epicenter, by the hot young sire Not This Time, got the No. 3 slot and was listed at 7-2.
Epicenter won the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans on Feb. 19 in New Orleans, with Smile Happy second and Zandon third. Zandon then won the Grade I Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 9, while Epicenter won the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 26.
Battaglia put Messier, an Empire Maker colt who will start from the No. 6 post, at 8-1 on his line. with all the others at double-digit odds. Smile Happy, a Runhappy colt, finished a good second in the Blue Grass, but was left at 20-1 odds for Saturday's race.
There were no big surprises, winners or losers in the post-position draw.
Mo Donegal, winner of the Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in his last start, got the inside gate, but that slot is not the virtual kiss of death it was before Churchill Downs acquired a new, 20-stall starting gate that allows the lowest-numbered entries a bit more space in the first 50 yards of the 1 1/4-mile race.
"Even with the new gate, people don't want draw the 1," said Mo Donegal's trainer, Todd Pletcher. "But he was able to win from the rail in Wood Memorial, so I'm not going to worry too much about him."
Ethereal Road, who drew into the Derby thanks to Monday's scratch of Un Ojo, got the outside stall.
Derby favorite Zandon is trained by Chad Brown, with Flavien Prat set to ride. Joel Rosario will ride Epicenter for Steve Asmussen, who seeks his first Kentucky Derby win.
Asmussen, who saddled Curlin to finish third in in the Derby in 2007 in a Horse of the Year campaign and Gun Runner also to finish third in the 2016 Run for the Roses, a year before he was named Horse of the Year, said he's not bothered by the No. 3 draw for Epicenter.
"You just want a nice, clean break. Epicenter's got plenty of racing. He's got a lot of seasoning in him," Asmussen said. "It's how long it takes them to load. You want to get away from some anxious moments in that. You want him to stand up good there in the gate, get away cleanly and we expect him to run his race."
"With victories and with success, he's very proud of himself and goes about like he can handle what he's doing."
Trainer Brad Cox has three Derby starters, all drawn outside. Cyberknife got the No. 16 gate, Tawny Port No. 18 and Zozos No. 19. Zozos and Cyberknife are 20-1 with Tawny Port 30-1 on the morning line.
Zozos, Cox said, "ran a big number" in finishing second in the Louisiana Derby. He's had time between the Louisiana Derby and the Kentucky Derby, so if he can move forward from that, I think he's definitely a player. He should be able to put himself in position early and we'll see how it goes."
The two foreign entries in the race drew gates that seem to suit their running styles.
Crown Pride, a Japanese-bred colt with a gilt-edged American pedigree, won the Group 2 UAE Derby in Dubai in his last start with an off-the-pace effort and should be perfectly situated for a similar run Saturday after getting the No. 7 gate.
Summer Is Tomorrow led the way in the UAE Derby, surrendering late to Crown Pride, but holding onto second place in a good effort. He is trained by Buphat Seemar, a former assistant to six-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert.
The 148th Derby will be run without any horse officially trained by Baffert, who is suspended by Churchill Downs this year and next after a series of drug positives involving his horses, including last year's first-place finisher, Medina Spirit, who subsequently died during a workout at Santa Anita.
Baffert handed off two of his top 3-year-olds, Taiba and the aforementioned Messier, to another former assistant, Tim Yakteen. They proceeded to finish first and second, respectively, in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.
Taiba is 12-1 on the morning line, even though he wore down Messier to win the California race by a widening margin.
Churchill Downs on Monday also drew the field for Friday's Grade I Kentucky Oaks with Nest, a Curlin filly trained by Pletcher, installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite after three straight wins, including the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland in her most recent start.
Nest, cleverly named, is out of the A.P. Indy mare Marion Ravenwood.
Rich Strike, with jockey Sonny Leon aboard, crosses the finish line to win the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby
at Churchill Downs on May 7, 2022, in Louisville, Ky. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo