Five Kentucky Derby Horses Who Can Win Saturday
The Kentucky Derby is this Saturday and we pick five horses to win (or not) in the 148th Run for the Roses.
Let’s cut to the chase about Saturday’s wide-open 148th Kentucky Derby.
In the points era, speed kills. Have it and you have a chance. Lack it—and we’re talking about front-end, tactical, stay-close-to-the-front speed—and you might as well have run in the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard.
That’s the equine version of the NCAA basketball’s NIT for one-time Derby prospects who couldn’t handle the 10-furlong distance or a hundred other minefields on the Derby trail.
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The last closer to cross the finish line first was Orb in 2013, the first year of the points system. Since then, it’s been a conga line of pacesetters and pace-pressers wearing roses and posing for pictures.
Every winner in the last eight Derbies was no worse than third through four furlongs of the 10-furlong Derby. And according to the Daily Racing Form, 27 of the last 30 Derby winners came in with a Beyer Speed Figure of 95 or better. On the Brisnet speed scale, 18 of the last 22 posted BRIS figures of 100 or better.
With this, let’s take a look at our Top 5 Derby choices in order. We’ll break down why they can win—and bring in the devil’s advocate to show you why they can’t.
#1. Messier (8/1 morning line)
Why he can win: Start with Messier’s 103 Beyer Speed Figure, this son of Empire Maker turned in en route to the undisputed best outing by a 3-year-old in 2022: his 15-length blitzkrieg of February’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park. That’s the best figure in the field, and a clear example of how good this colt is at his best. Messier never finished outside of the exacta in six starts (3-3-0). Besides, California horses have crossed the finish line first in six of the last eight Derbies. That includes the last two: Authentic (2020) and the late Medina Spirit (2021)—both of whom came into the Derby in Messier’s spot as Santa Anita Derby runner up.
Why he won’t win: Well, there was that Santa Anita Derby runner-up to stablemate Taiba, who went by Messier rather easily to a 2 1/4-length victory. Getting passed in a deep stretch is never a good sign. That said, Messier got caught in a speed duel with Forbidden Kingdom. Now, front-runners such as Zozos, Classic Causeway, and Epicenter are in the picture. Can Messier avoid that minefield, by stalking and pressing instead of pace-setting?
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#2. Taiba (12/1)
Why he can win: Taiba’s the best horse in the field. This $1.7 million Gun Runner colt won his debut—a six-furlong sprint—by 7 1/2 lengths. For an encore, he merely won the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby with a frightening turn of foot. Taiba’s Beyers from both were 102s, so he checks that box and then some. You have the one horse in the field who could be a legitimate superstar: Justify 2.0.
Why he won’t win: What you see in those two wins is what you get. Two starts. The Derby is only Taiba’s third career start. He’s bidding to be the first horse since Leonatus in 1883 to win the Derby in his third start. Along with that, Taiba has had only one workout since winning that Santa Anita Derby a month ago. Did that take so much out of him that there’s nothing here? He could be Justify 2.0—or 10th-place Taiba 1.0.
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#3. Epicenter (7/2)
Why he can win: Like Essential Quality last year, Epicenter’s the most complete horse in the field. He has the speed (100 Beyer/101 BRIS). He has a win at Churchill Downs in a maiden special weight last November. He has won his four races in a variety of manners: from the front, pressing, and stalking. He comes in riding a four-for-five streak since that November win, with only a nose loss to 28/1 Call Me Midnight in January’s Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds breaking the chain. And he’s beaten five other Derby contenders, including morning line favorite Zandon.
Why he won’t win: There’s that No. 3 post position, which is not ideal. There’s also trainer Steve Asmussen’s Susan Lucci-esque record in Derbies: 0-for-23. This is the best opportunity North America’s all-time winningest trainer has to end that streak.
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#4. Simplification (20/1)
Why he can win: Like Epicenter, Simplification brings in a versatile running style that manifested itself in a variety of ways. He came from behind to win the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and he front-ran his way to the Mucho Macho Man Stakes in January. He ran arguably a better race than the 1-2 horses in the Florida Derby: White Abarrio and Charge It, who feasted on Simplification, turning aside two rivals in early speed duels. And his 96 Beyer/103 BRIS tick that box.
Why he won’t win: Realistically, Simplification isn’t as good as the other horses on this list and is largely gunning for a spot on the board. He’s lost to White Abarrio twice and nudging aside Mo Donegal for the place in the Grade 3 Holy Bull marks the only decent horse he’s beaten. A double-digit shot is almost a certainty and he’s the best of the bunch.
#5. Zandon (3/1)
Why he can win: Well, morning line author Mike Battaglia certainly thinks Zandon can win, considering he made the son of Upstart the morning line favorite. If you’ve read about Zandon’s lights-out workouts this week or watched Zandon win the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, you understand why. Jockey Flavien Prat executed the perfect ride: rallying from 10th, splitting two rivals at the top of the turn, then vaulting ahead at the eighth pole for a 2 1/2-length victory. Here, you have one of the world’s best riders in Prat partnering with another overdue, multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer in Chad Brown. That’s a lethal combination.
Why he won’t win: Did we mention Zandon came from 11th place at the three-quarters post to win that Blue Grass? Did we mention that a repeat of that will doom him here without a second thought? Did we mention Zandon is a closer? Did we mention that closers hit Derby boards, but don’t visit Derby winner’s circles? Zandon isn’t as good as three of the horses above him. He’s a nice horse with a bright future. And that future doesn’t include a garland of roses this Saturday.
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