By Dick Jerardi
A year ago, I undertook a study of how the decade-old points system affected the way the Kentucky Derby was run and its results. The conclusion was that early position meant everything as the meltdown paces under the old system were no more. After the first quarter mile, the last eight winners were 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1. The results, with favorite after favorite winning, all made perfect sense.
And then, 80-1 Rich Strike happened.
The early pace of the 2022 Derby was historically fast (:21.78, : 45.36). What happened after that was predictable. The horses that were 1, 2, 3, 4 after a quarter mile finished 20, 13, 10, 15. The horses that were 17, 8, 13, 15 after a quarter mile finished 1, 2, 3, 4.
That scorching pace had given a horse like Rich Strike a chance he would not have had in any other recent Derby.
This year, beyond the fact that the top contenders look very evenly matched (where have you gone California Chrome, American Pharoah and Justify?), there is almost no quality early speed. In fact, the 20 horses have combined to start 119 times, but just 12 times has any of the horses been in front at the first call. And it’s unclear how fast any of that group really is and what the jockey intentions will be on what passes for speed in this Derby with Verifying, Two Phil’s, Confidence Game, Kingsbarns, Reincarnate, Mage, Jace’s Road and Derma Sotogake.
I think Reincarnate is the most likely early leader, but that will require jockey John Velazquez to ride much more aggressively than in the colt’s last two starts. No doubt, Velazquez has not forgotten he went wire to wire to finish first in the 2020 and 2021 Derby.
There is no argument about the most accomplished horse in the race. It’s Forte. The field has combined for seven Grade I wins. Forte has four of them. The colt has won five straight. He was the 2-year-old champion. Todd Pletcher has started 62 horses to the Derby, but Forte has a better resume than any of them.
The issues with Forte are that he has not gotten any faster than he was 6 months ago, he will be favored and he will have to pass a bunch of these horses. If it’s not Forte for Pletcher, it could be impressive Blue Grass winner Tapit Trice or Louisiana Derby winner Kingsbarns, giving Pletcher the winner from three of the final six major Derby preps.
If it’s not Pletcher, it certainly could be Brad Cox. His four horses give those two trainers 35 percent of the field. Cox’s crew is not nearly as accomplished as Pletcher’s, but no horse was any more impressive in a final Big Six prep than Arkansas Derby winner and Pennsylvania bred Angel of Empire. Jockey Flavien Prat had a choice of Kingsbarns or Angel of Empire. He chose the Pa. bred and he is very smart.
The wild card is the Japanese horse Derma Sotogake. I would not be concerned about the dreadful record of UAE Derby winners in the KY Derby. I would look at this colt through the lens of recent Japanese international success. And consider this: his UAE Derby time computes as faster than the $12 million Dubai World Cup time later on the same card.
Not sure if the form will translate from Tapeta, but I was super impressed by how Two Phil’s won the Jeff Ruby Steaks. And when I looked back at his dirt races, I saw an improving colt who kept running well after the finish line every time.
So, there it is: Derby 149. Could be Forte. Could be some impossible longshot. Could be something in between. Can’t wait to find out.