Here it is! My annual Kentucky Derby preview that talks about all 20 horses in the field

When the gates open at 3:57 p.m. PDT tomorrow at Churchill Downs for the running of the 148th Kentucky Derby, it might be the widest open field I have seen.

So wide open that I may not play a win ticket but focus on the exotics. At the end of this preview I will give you a win option but won’t be sure I’m going to play it until probably about 20 minutes before the race.

Friday, I gave out the winner of the Kentucky Oaks and hopefully will be supplying some winning tickets for the Derby! Cashing the ticket on Secret Oath Friday was a big highlight but the real stunning moment was seeing over 100,000 people at Churchill Downs and hearing the roar of the crowd!

This is a lengthy preview, so let’s get to it!

I will break up the 20-horse field into four categories: Favorites, Could Be There, Longshots, Stay Out of the Way.

One note, this is the least amount of horses in “Stay Out of the Way,” than what I usually list, and that speaks to the openness of the field.


Zandon (Chad Brown, Flavian Prat/ 3/1): Curious as to why he was the morning line choice as he has been beaten by both Epicenter and Mo Donegal. Did impressively win the Blue Grass and deserving to be in the top 3-4 runners for the morning line, but the top? He absolutely blew down the lane in the Blue Grass, coming from out of the picture to get the win. Looks to prefer the deep close but has shown speed in earlier starts. Just not that sold here.

Epicenter (Todd Pletcher, Joel Rosario, 7/2): Has every reason to be there at the end. Had a sloppy debut last September, but since then he has been very good, winning four of five starts. After running second by a head to Call Me Midnight in the Lecomte, he came back and won both the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby, including beating Derby morning line favorite Zandon in the Risen Star. Will look to set or be right off the pace and has shown to be strong at the end. A must on tickets.

Messier (Tim Yakteen, John Velazquez, 8-1): Belongs in this group. The horse was in the Bob Baffert barn until being moved to former Baffert assistant Tim Yakteen after winning the Lewis at Santa Anita by 15 lengths. Had one race to gain enough points to get in the Derby and did just that, running second to Taiba in the Santa Anita Derby, 10-lengths in front of the third place runner. One big question will be the horse has never been in a field of more than six horses so how he reacts to a group of 20 will be crucial for success. The California preps have not been as tough as past years for many, leaving me not a big fan here.

White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Tyler Gaffalione, 10/1): I think this is a bit of an overlay as the horse should be much lower. In his last two starts he has won the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby, both good races. I am not sure if it is the barn of Saffie Joseph that wasn’t doing anything for the morning line maker or something else. Not sure he will be my choice, but if I can get 10/1, be sure there will be some money placed here. Looks to be a stalker-type runner and that could play well here. Oh, and did I mention he is a grey horse as well? Another must on your tickets.

Taiba (Tim Yakteen, Mike Smith, 12-1): Loved this horse after the Santa Anita Derby win, but there is a big question as to his seasoning. Only has two career starts and those were seven, then six horse fields. He has the look as one of those late starting Baffert horses – he was in the Baffert barn until recently. He’s got that high cruising speed and then power in the lane – a lethal combination. The works back in Kentucky have been pedestrian so not sure what to think. Have a feeling it is going to be feast or famine with this one which doesn’t do much for the betting public.

Could be there

Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Irad Ortiz, 10/1): I was very close to putting this horse into the favorites category before dropping into here. This is the only horse in the field that wasn’t going to be punished by a rail draw. Can and will close from the parking lot and there will be plenty of speed to chase. Only slip up on his resume was running third behind White Abarrio and Simplification in the Holy Bull. Got a bad break that day and didn’t have enough to get it all back. He does make it thrilling with his three wins coming by less than two lengths total. Normally do not like New York runners in the Derby, but I am a fan of this one.

Smile Happy (Kenneth McPeak, Corey Lanerie, 20/1): I know some people that like this runner and I can see why. Four starts, two wins, followed by two second place finishes. Running second to Zandon and Epicenter in consecutive races is nothing to be embarrassed about. There is every reason to think this horse is still getting better and is another that will sitting closer to the pace than the deep closers.

Charge It (Todd Pletcher, Luis Saez, 20/1): I think this lightly raced runner is picking up support every day this week. Just three starts, with the debut coming the first week of January. Lone win was a maiden special weight, but ran second to White Abarrio in the Florida Derby, after hitting the gate at the start, then lugging in twice in the stretch. Lots of upside here. Figuring this horse will be drawing some bets tomorrow and should be a part of your tickets.

Simplification (Antonio Sano, Jose Ortiz, 20/1): After the win in the Fountain of Youth he was the Flavor of the Month and was probably set for a top five spot as a favorite. Then came the third in the Florida Derby behind White Abarrio and Charge It and he’s 20-1 here. So, which is the real Simplification? I am guessing somewhere in the middle. I would look to see the horse running through the early parts in 6-10th place and trying to stay out of trouble. If Ortiz can do so and he’s got an opening as they turn for home, he could factor. I just think that’s a lot to ask.

Pioneer of Medina (Todd Pletcher, Joe Bravo, 30/1): Been a big fan of this horse the since the beginning of the season and while he hasn’t been sensational, he hasn’t been bad either. The last two starts came at the Far Grounds in the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby.

In the Risen Star he was fourth behind Epicenter, Smile Happy, and Zandon, then came back to run third in the Louisiana Derby behind Epicenter and Zozos.

Another that will be a pace factor but will need to get some position and relax so there is something in the tank when they turn for home.


Crown Pride (Koichi Shintani, Christophe Lemaire, 20/1): Normally I will take runners from outside the United States and toss them just based on the travel for the race. But with this one, I have a feeling he might factor in. He won the UAE Derby to earn his spot here.

Cyberknife (Brad Cox, Florant Geroux, 20/1): One of what seems like a million Brad Cox runners in this year’s field. Basically, came out of the optional claiming ranks to win the Arkansas Derby by holding off a late charging Barber Road. Running better now than earlier in the year but might be too much to ask in this field.

Zozos (Brad Cox, Manny Franco, 20/1): Lightly raced but you must take any horse serious that comes out of the Brad Cox barn. Earned his spot here with a second in the Louisiana Derby after setting the pace for much of the race before Epicenter went by easily for the win. Did win the start before – an optional claimer at Oaklawn by over 10-lengths. May turn out to be runner, but maybe further down the line. Has shown that he should be a pace factor.

Happy Jack (Doug O’Neill, Rafael Bejarano, 30/1): Ran third in the last two prep races, losing in the Santa Anita Derby to Taiba and Messier. Granted they were by 12-lengths, and 10 lengths, but there is his form that may be key. There is speed and it seems to set up for someone to come late. Happy Jack will be sitting closer to the pace than the deep closers and might get first run.

Tiz the Bomb (Kenneth McPeak/Brian Hernandez, 30/1): Might be a better turf or synthetic runner than on dirt. Has a pair of wins on the grass and one on synthetic, a surface that traditionally works for turf runners. Won last two starts, both on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park. Another horse that does not want the lead early.

Barber Road (John Ortiz, Reylu Guiterrez, 30-1): This could be a real fun one to watch as this is a horse that will close from way back. Here are the facts – there will be speed to chase, and he can go by horses in the lane. But there is that problem that if he gets too far back, 19 horses are a lot to pass, and the stretch turns into a slalom course.

Classic Causeway (Brian Lynch, Julien Leparoux, 30-1): Came into the Florida Derby looking like a horse to beat and then laid an egg, finishing a badly beaten 11th after coming out of the gate strong. Had a pair of stakes wins in Tampa before jumping over to Gulfstream. I expect more here, but top five – probably not

Tawny Port (Brad Cox, Ricardo Santana, 30-1): Hard for a wine guy like me not to like a horse named Tawny Port – my favorite port – but this is a big ask. Has run well in last two but had to wheel back in 14 days from the Jeff Ruby to the Lexington to secure enough points to get in the Derby. Has shown guts in the last two but faces a much tougher lot here.

Stay out of the way

Summer Is Tomorrow (Bhupat Seemar, Mickael Bazalona, 30/1): This runner comes from the UAE series of races and as I say every year, to these horses coming all the way to Kentucky, please stay out of the way and not cause problems for the horses with a chance to win. Will probably finish in the top eight as the jockey will ride all the way through and will pass tiring horses and those that are just not feeling it Saturday.

Rich Strike (Eric Reed, Sonny Leon, 30/1): Entered in late after the scratch of Ethereal Road on Friday. Came on late on the rail to finish third in the Jeff Ruby at Turfway to get to the also eligible, and then into the Derby with the late defection. A big time closer that will be fighting for racing room with a number of others. Hopefully nothing stupid happens and he gets in the way of someone charging for the win.

My plays

As I mentioned above picking a winner is tougher than usual in this field where I can make a case for 6-7 horses. That also complicates the exotics as going seven deep on an exacta or trifecta makes for a losing proposition many times.

Since I am playing on house money after the Oaks on Friday, I am going to roll the dice a bit today.

I am going to work with a six-horse boxes for the exacta and trifecta. Following are my five and my reasoning.

Epicenter – I need to have one of the and I think this is the best of top three runners. Ran against good fields and has won two straight.

Mo Donegal – The most overlooked horse in the field. Needs a real good trip, not something automatic in a 20-horse field. If gets through semi-clean by the top of the lane, look out.

Charge It – At this age the horses can improve big time from race to race and this one checks the boxes in that regard. A troubled trip and he was still good enough to run second in the Florida Derby. Very excited to watch him run.

Pioneer of Medina – Probably the riskiest play here, but it is one of those gut feelings. Has been gutsy in his races, a must if you are going to find any success in the Derby.

Taiba – Some red flags this week but would kick myself big time if I left the horse off my ticket and he punished me for doing so. There is the potential for this runner turn into a monster.

White Abarrio – Still think this is a bad morning line. The horse almost done everything asked of him and yet is getting little love. I got ya grey horse!

I can see me getting burned by leaving horses out of these tickets but these both should be well paying tickets. Here is what you are looking at depending how much you want to bet.

If you bet a $1 exacta box with those five it will be $20. Multiple up for amount, such as a $5 box will be $100 – five times the $1 wager.

In terms of a trifecta, a .10 cent box would be $6, with a $1 being $60.

Finally, as promised, if I had to make a bet on a horse to win, I would go with Mo Donegal, a horse who I think learned from the Holy Bull loss and has the running style that should work today. If you want one of the favorites, look at Epicenter – he just looks like and has performed like a Classic winner.

By Dennis Miller