With 9 runners entering the Kentucky Derby off of a win, 6 runners posting second-place finishes, two coming in from foreign countries, and no Bob Baffert, Kentucky Derby 2022 looks like a complicated puzzle. A Rubik’s Cube made of spinning mirrors and oozing smoke. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the result turned out to be EZ?
With Epicenter (the “E”) and Zandon (the “Z”) sitting atop the morning line at 7-2 and 3-1, respectively, most bettors will reach that conclusion. At Lazy Bettor Guides we half agree. And the half we don’t agree with opens the door to an outstanding score.
I’ll explain more after briefly establishing our street cred.
Viewing the Kentucky Derby Under the Bright Lamp of History
The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby has consistently simplified the Derby analysis without sacrificing accuracy. By applying the Gold and Silver standards detailed in the book (published November 2013), we came up with the following top picks in our annual previews:
- 2014: California Chrome, Kentucky Derby winner
- 2015: American Pharoah, Kentucky Derby winner
- 2016: Nyquist, Kentucky Derby winner
- 2017: Always Dreaming, Kentucky Derby winner
- 2018: Justify, Kentucky Derby winner
- 2019: Cutting Humor, finished out of the money
- 2020: Tiz the Law, finished second in the Kentucky Derby
- 2021: Hot Rod Charlie, finished third in the Kentucky Derby (placed 2nd via DQ)
In 2015 we not only pegged the winner, but our top three horses (American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund) came up as Gold Standard qualifiers. They filled the trifecta that year. In 2019, the only year in which our top pick failed to hit the board, our third choice was Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first but was disqualified.
NOTE: You can find our prior Kentucky Derby previews in the “Kentucky Derby” section at LazyBettorUSA.com.
Just as importantly The Lazy Bettor’s Guide eliminated highly regarded pretenders to the throne. The book did this by focusing on actual on-track performance. Once you shut out distractions such as trainer and jockey personalities, descriptions like “guts” and “class,” post positions and innumerable other secondary factors, the picture clarifies and the contenders list narrows to just a few.
For example, in years past the Guide steered readers away from the following horses, all of whom entered the Derby undefeated or with just one loss. Their stellar win record attracted lots of money, but they all failed to meet the Guide’s standards for early and late speed, and they all failed to win:
- 2021: Essential Quality, Soup and Sandwich
- 2020: Money Moves
- 2019: Roadster, Vekoma
- 2018: Audible, Noble Indy
- 2017: Classic Empire, Girvin, McCraken, Irish War Cry
- 2016: Gun Runner, Mohaymen, Outwork, Shagaf
- 2015: Carpe Diem, Materiality
- 2014: Chitu, Samraat
- 2013: Verrazano, Vyjack
- 2012: Gemologist, Hansen, Union Rags
- 2011: Dialed In
Zero for 25. You get the idea. A horse’s winning record prior to the Derby, like many other overbet factors, gets tossed aside in our evaluation of Kentucky Derby contenders.
Tossing Imposters: A Prelude to Picking the Winner
Because many Preview readers will be wondering about runners who don’t make our Top 4 List, we’ll quickly explain why we booted some popular horses from consideration:
- Zandon (3-1). He’s listed as the morning-line favorite, but he’s one of our least favorite entrants. This guy starts every race slowly, as if sitting down in a chaise lounge is his preferred starting-gate position. The fastest time he ever recorded for a 6-furlong split around two turns is a slovenly 1:13.1. His usual 5-length deficit at that point in the race will become at least a 10-length deficit in the Derby. And instead of blowing past distance-challenged runners like Smile Happy and Derby nonqualifier Emmanuel, the overbet Zandon will be chasing multiple winners of Grade 1 races. He’ll also be dodging traffic while trying to narrow a gap that’s too big to close even under ideal conditions.
- Mo Donegal (10-1). We could just cut and paste the description from Zandon. He’s another gate-dawdler whose late rally is bound to come up short. In the Holy Bull Stakes he failed to close much ground on the ever-game White Abarrio or the troubled child named Simplification. His winning time in the Wood Memorial was stellar, but you have to wonder if the fast-playing track made him look better than he is. Given that he defeated the inexperienced Early Voting by only a neck, we think the Aqueduct timer exaggerates his level of accomplishment. Even if we’re wrong about that, he’s another one who’ll find himself 5 additional lengths behind frontrunners as they carve out a pace of 1:11.0 or faster.
- White Abarrio (10-1). What a great story! This modestly bred colt has overachieved his entire career, especially in his 3-year-old campaign. He has won 4 of 5 races, with his only failure coming in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November after being trapped on the rail through most of the stretch. But we expect him to join the list of failures presented earlier. He’s a stalking type who is nearly unbeatable if the pace is 1:12 or slower. In the Florida Derby he had to run 1:11.0 to maintain his usual position. The result was a final furlong completed in a dead slow 14 seconds. He won the race, but only because his rivals were running on four flat tires and he was only running on three. He’ll need to deal with a 1:11.0 or faster again while lasting an extra eighth of a mile.
- Taiba (12-1). With only 2 races lifetime Taiba arrives with red flags aplenty. First the good news. He posted the third-fastest winning time for the Santa Anita Derby since the race came back onto dirt in 2011. The two faster times are owned by Kentucky Derby winners I’ll Have Another and California Chrome. Now the bad news. Both those horses finished the Santa Anita Derby in much faster time than Taiba. And both had proven they could handle a very fast pace and keep on kicking down the stretch. Taiba’s 1:11.1 at Santa Anita is equivalent to about a 1:12.0 at most other major tracks. That means he, too, must find a way to deal with a pace 5 or so lengths faster than any he’s ever faced, while trying to hang on late for an extra eighth of a mile. The two horses setting the pace ahead of him in the Santa Anita Derby were Messier and Forbidden Kingdom, both of whom habitually turn into jelly late in a race. Taiba essentially won a 3-horse race in which the two horses ahead of him threw in the towel. He now faces 19 much more accomplished horses.
- Summer Is Tomorrow (30-1). He’s the likely pace-setter. In his first try around two turns, he screamed to the lead in the UAE Derby before giving way to Japan-based star Crown Pride. His trainer insists the horse got a lot out of that initial route try and will carry his speed further in Kentucky. In the UAE Derby his final furlong appears to have been very slow. One racing outlet converted meters to feet and came up with a time of 40-seconds for the final three furlongs. Such weak final splits almost never signal readiness for Derby success.
- Crown Pride (20-1). Most bettors, including us, have newfound respect for Japanese horses after their great success in last year’s Breeders Cup races and this year’s Dubai World Cup races. He’s well-bred, has just one loss and is working up a storm at Churchill. He seems to have good tactical speed, but he ran into early trouble in two of his four races lifetime. Given what appears to be a slow finish in his UAE Derby win, against a very weak field, we’ll wait for better opportunities to cash in on Japan’s emergence as a topnotch racing jurisdiction. Or we’ll use him in the Place and Show positions below our top picks.
- Charge It (20-1). This son of Tapit stumbled home second in the Florida Derby behind White Abarrio. That race was just his third lifetime start, and he pressed a very fast pace before running greenly in the stretch. We suspect he learned a lot and got more fit from that demanding early effort, but the very slow final furlong shows more work is needed. If he runs decently in the Derby, expect a huge effort from him when he stretches out to a mile and a half in the Belmont Stakes.
- Messier (8-1). He was yanked from the bosom of Bob Baffert and now boards with Tim Yakteen. “Messier” aptly describes his road to the Derby. All that noise aside, his on-track performance suggests his best efforts will be at shorter distances. His first failed stretchout came in the Los Alamitos Futurity, where he dueled through the slowest 6-furlong time in the past 5 Futurities before giving way to Slow Down Andy. He confirmed his dislike of long races when he surrendered a perfect setup and clear stretch lead in the Santa Anita Derby. We think added distance is the wrong way to go to bring out his best.
Examining the Top Prospects in the 2022 Kentucky Derby
Every year since 2014 we’ve published a Top 3 list in our Kentucky Derby Preview. This year we’ll list our Top 3 and include a wild-card longshot play.
With research dating back to the 1992 Kentucky Derby prep races, we found that horses meeting our Gold Standard seldom lose the Derby. We don’t see a Gold Standard horse every year, and we occasionally abandon the letter of the law to promote a horse to that standard. In years that produce no Gold Standard horses, you can usually count on a Silver Standard horse to take the top prize, often at a huge price.
This year we’re promoting two horses to the Gold Standard. So far our judgement on this matter has been spot on. In years past we promoted California Chrome, Nyquist and Justify to the Gold Standard even though each had fallen short on one count or another:
- California Chrome had run very fast early in one prep race and very fast late in many others, but he had failed to put both fast halves together in one race. Replays showed that he toyed with his competition in most races, just waiting to explode through the stretch. In one of his final Derby preps his connections sent him hard from the gate, and the display of early speed was astounding. That left us with no doubt we had yet to see his most complete effort. Gold it was!
- Nyquist qualified for our Silver Standard. He posted internal fractions and a final time in the Florida Derby nearly identical to those posted by Silver Standard qualifier Barbaro, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby. The key difference we noticed was that the lightly prepared Nyquist posted those times with ease, whereas Barbaro had done so in a prolonged all-out drive. We figured Nyquist could’ve run much faster if he had needed to or if he had another prep race. Nyquist proved us correct, winning the 2016 Kentucky Derby.
- Justify nearly equaled our “superfast” standard, which only a few horses had done since 1992. Those few horses included Derby winners Sea Hero and Silver Charm. Justify proved to be their equal speedwise in only his second career start! To us, he was clearly a monster in the making.
Our top honorary Gold Standard horse this year is Epicenter. He resembles California Chrome in the way he toys with his competition early and blows them away late. His 6-furlong splits come in around 1:12, but you can see from his quick bursts and tireless stretch runs that he’s capable of much more. And like Justify, he has powerful strides that make him look like a man racing against boys.
The question that remains is whether he can still dominate late if forced to run closer to 1:11.0 through the opening 6 furlongs.
Because of his natural early speed, we believe he can. His 6-furlong split in a one-turn mile at Churchill Downs last year was a stellar 1:10.2. In the Lecomte Stakes, Joel Rosario hustled him to the lead in fractions of :23.2 and :47.0. Again, these times rank as very fast for 3-year-olds in January.
In the Louisiana Derby Epicenter set a new track record for a mile and three-sixteenths. That’s a fairly new distance at the Fair Grounds, so the record at that distance was easier to break than most others. Still, his final time was much faster than the prior record, set by Hot Rod Charlie last year. To underscore how fast Epicenter’s effort was, we can estimate his 9-furlong time. It comes in around 1:48.30. That would be the fastest Louisiana Derby ever run at a mile and an eighth!
That’s as close to pure gold as you’re likely to see in a Kentucky Derby prospect.
In just his third lifetime start, Zozos fell just one-fifth of a second short of the Gold Standard with his placing in the Louisiana Derby. His estimated time through a mile and an eighth was 1:48.60, which is second only to Epicenter as the fastest 9-furlong time ever registered in that race. Quite an achievement for an inexperienced horse.
If Zozos improves off of his most recent start, he could turn the tables on Epicenter.
We expect Zozos to be positioned closest to the early speed of Summer Is Tomorrow. That should keep him out of trouble and give him the first, and possibly best, shot at running down the leader late.
Adding to the competitive nature of this year’s race, we see two Silver Standard stars. Note that Gold Standard horses nearly always outperform our Silver Standard qualifiers. That said, if the Gold Standard horses run into trouble, Silver will probably prevail.
Cyberknife, a Grade 1 winner who is now 3 for 4 around two turns, met our pace and final time requirements for the Silver Standard. He did so in an allowance race at the Fair Grounds prior to winning the Arkansas Derby.
In that race he patiently pressed the leaders and then blew away the field by a widening 3 lengths. He exhibited the same blend of patience and speed to win the Arkansas Derby, even though his final furlong was slightly weaker than the Gold Standard allows. If you look at the race as one in which Cyberknife did only as much as needed to win, you can excuse the somewhat slow finish.
Florent Geroux, who rode all three Brad Cox entrants on their way to qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, chose to stick with Cyberknife. The horse has been working out exceptionally well by all accounts and seems poised for another move forward.
CLASSIC CAUSEWAY (30-1)
Classic Causeway lines up as our other Silver Standard qualifier. He earned that honor with an impressive win in the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
Lazy Bettor Guides soured on this guy after his ugly meltdown in the Florida Derby. In years past several horses qualified for the Silver Standard with strong performances at Tampa Bay Downs. Almost all proved uncompetitive in races outside of Tampa and in the Kentucky Derby.
One reason trainer Brian Lynch gave for re-entering him, after previously stating Classic Causeway wouldn’t run, is that the owners have never had a Derby entrant. In truth that might be the only reason. Either way it’s not a good reason to be here.
So Classic Causeway has a few big strikes against him. His post-time odds will be huge, though, so he might catch some minor action from us. Or he might not. Most likely we’ll toss him from consideration.
TIZ THE BOMB (30-1)
Tiz the Bomb falls well short of the standards in The Lazy Bettor’s Guide. His running style is the opposite of what we typically look for. So why is he our wildcard longshot?
He shows amazing versatility. He has won races on dirt, synthetic and turf. His win last time out in the Jeff Ruby Steaks was the fastest running since speed freak Balto Star clobbered his rivals in the 1990s.
The downside is that his races on dirt have been his slowest. But 30-1 or higher on such a talented horse seems like a bargain too good to pass up.
To summarize, our top 4 contenders in the 2022 Kentucky Derby in order of preference are:
- Epicenter (7-2)
- Zozos (20-1)
- Cyberknife (20-1)
- Tiz the Bomb (30-1)
Maybe this year’s edition will be much like most other years from the Lazy Bettor Guides perspective. Maybe it will all be E-Z!