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Kentucky Derby: Wet track makes race more unpredictable

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Kentucky Derby: Wet track makes race more unpredictable
Kentucky Derby favorite Zandon gallops on the track during a morning workout Wednesday as he prepares for the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo

May 6 (UPI) -- In two minutes and a few seconds on Saturday at Churchill Downs, a 148th name will be added to the list of Kentucky Derby winners, while the backers of 19 other 3-year-olds will see their hopes dashed.

The glory will linger forever, but it will take only the first few seconds of the race to destroy the hopes of at least a few of the Derby runners -- a poor start, an early traffic jam or an unsuitable racing surface can eliminate some contenders right away.

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And a day out from America's most celebrated race, forecasters continued to suggest the sun will not "shine bright on My Old Kentucky Home" on Saturday, raising the possibility of a wet track -- yet another question mark for most of the field.

Scattered showers are predicted for Louisville on Saturday, which should bring out umbrellas to cover the elaborate bonnets many of the women spectators sport.

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None of that dampens the enthusiasm of the owners, trainers and backers of the colts who made it to the end of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby." And no wonder, as most of those colts have stellar credentials.

The field includes the winners of all the top prep races -- the Santa Anita Derby, Louisiana Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, Florida Derby, The Jeff Ruby Steaks, Arkansas Derby, Lexington Stakes, Tampa Bay Derby and UAE Derby in Dubai.

Also lining up in the Churchill Downs starting gate for the 1 1/4-mile test are several who finished behind those winners in their final prep for Louisville.

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Mike Battaglia's 48th official Kentucky Derby morning line makes Zandon, an Upstart colt trained by Chad Brown, the 3-1 favorite. That was a bit of a surprise, as the horse listed as second-favorite on the line, Epicenter, rather handily defeated Zandon in their only previous meeting.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Zandon and Epicenter are the only colts in the race who have won on a wet track.

"We're ready," Zandon's trainer, Chad Brown, said after Thursday morning workouts. Zandon, who starts from the No. 10 stall, is Brown's seventh Derby starter and would be his first winner.

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"I wanted him to draw toward the middle of the starting gate and we got just that," Brown said.

After those two, Santa Anita Derby runner-up Messier is rated third on the morning line at 8-1, with the other 17 all at double-digit odds.

Messier is one of two horses in the field formerly trained by six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert and now handled by his former assistant, Tim Yakteen.

Churchill Downs banned Baffert from this year's and next year's Derby because of several drug positives involving his horses, including last year's first-place Derby finisher, Spirit of Medina.

The other "former Baffert" in the Derby field, Taiba, won the Santa Anita Derby in only his second career start. Despite the California performance, Battaglia listed Taiba at 12-1 odds.

One of many old saws about horse racing holds that "pace makes the race." Some horses do their best while racing on or near the lead but their chances can be compromised if they have to fight hard early to get that spot.

Others' best chance is to wait behind the speed and make one run in the stretch. They suffer if the leaders go slowly, conserving energy for the stretch, or if they can't get a clear path around or through traffic.

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Epicenter and Zandon are perfect examples. Epicenter has never been worse than third at any point of call in any of his last five races. Zandon has come from in the back of the pack in finishing third in the Risen Star and winning the Blue Grass, although trainer Chad Brown says he hopes to be closer in the Derby.

Others whose form indicates they might be found near the front in the Run for the Roses are the aforementioned Messier and Taiba; Summer Is Tomorrow, runner-up in the UAE Derby; Tampa Bay Derby winner Classic Causeway; and Louisiana Derby runner-up Zozos.

Stout closers who could have a shot include Wood Memorial winner Mo Donegal; Blue Grass runner-up Smile Happy; UAE Derby winner Crown Pride, bred in Japan by the powerful Yoshida family; and White Abarrio, winner of the Florida Derby.

On the other hand, one of the old saws about war, equally applicable to horse racing, is, "No plan survives first contact with the enemy."

That's a lesson learned the hard way by the backers of many well-fancied Derby starters, none more so than one of last year's favorites, Rock Your World.

The Santa Anita Derby winner came to Louisville as one of the favorites and a "wise guy" pick. But when the gate opened, the Candy Ride colt was a step slow out of the No. 15 gate and was bumped so soundly that jockey Joel Rosario's foot was knocked loose from his left iron.

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Rock Your World was shuffled back to the rear of the field, never recovered and finished 17th.

That same Rosario will ride Epicenter on Saturday and, asked about drawing the No. 3 gate, he expressed a cautious, perhaps coy, optimism about his running plans.

"Maybe we'll just keep it a secret," Rosario said. "We'll get a good break and see what the horse wants to do. He always breaks well out of the gate, so we'll see how he does on Saturday."

Epicenter's trainer, Steve Asmussen, also seeking his first Derby win, was more up-front with concerns.

"I'm not crazy about the three hole with him," Asmussen said. "There is a lot of pace to his immediate outside. You just want [to get] away from there fast. You don't want to get shuffled back, covered up to a position he is not familiar with."

Crown Pride's rider, Christophe Lemaire, one of Japan's top jockeys, is looking even farther through the running of the race.

"The start is very important, and then it is all about the fractions," Lemaire said. "You ride him to where he is comfortable and then see what happens."

Post time is 6:57 p.m. EDT. The race will be televised live on NBC. Advance-deposit wagering is available in many states although Churchill Downs Inc. largely restricts that to its own platform, TwinSpires.com, which has lots of promotions for the week.

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Rich Strike wins 2022 Kentucky Derby

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

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