It feels nostalgic to be back at the Churchill Downs for the 148th running of the Woodford Reserve Kentucky Derby, described as the greatest two minutes in sports, the most prestigious race in the USA which also drives a three-billion-dollar industry. I was here three years ago when the Bill Mott trained Country House was awarded the race controversially in the Stewards room while the original winner Maximum Security was relegated to the 17th place for the dangerous drift at the final bend thereby impeding the progress of several horses.
The 2020 edition of the Derby had to be postponed from the traditional first Saturday of May to September due to the dreaded Coronavirus pandemic which threw the world upside down. The event was held without fans. The 2021 Derby went through as scheduled with limited capacity but yet again controversy haunted the premier event with Bob Baffert trained, the ill-fated Media Spirit who won the race in style, was in breach of medication rules and faced disqualification. Bob Baffert, the six-time winning trainer, has been banned from Churchill Downs for two years. The subsequent death of Media Spirit due to a heart attack at Santa Anita was a dark cloud for the sport which has in the recent past has lost some of the glamour it enjoyed.
To quote a poignant tribute to the amazing Media Spirit by Joe Drape: ``Medina Spirit`s story has an almost Shakespearean arc, but it also befits the contemporary drama of the sport. He was fortune`s fool: born in obscurity in the paddock of a small-time breeder, auctioned off as a yearling for $1,000, sold again on the cheap, then entrusted to a snowy-haired trainer who led him to unexpected greatness but ultimately to infamy.
Just as abruptly as he had reached the top of the sport, the feisty colt collapsed during a workout at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. A thoroughbred typically lives 25 years. Medina Spirit was dead before he turned 4.``
The good news though after all the gloom is that this year the event will be held in a better environment and the enthusiasts hope to leave the controversy in the past. The curbs due to coronavirus have been eased completely and a full house is expected. The weather though is gloomy. Rain and Kentucky Derby go hand in hand and the race is expected to be run on a rain-soaked track. The Oaks Day on Friday which was won by Wayne Lukas trained Secret Oath was gone through in inclement weather.
While the success of Country House provided champion trainer of Churchill Downs Bill Mott his first-ever Kentucky Derby success, another highly acclaimed trainer Steve Asmussen is hoping to break the Derby jinx. Asmussen has sent out more winners than any other trainer in Northern American racing history but has found the Derby elusive despite having had two runners in the line-up who subsequently went on to win the Horse of the Year titles.
To win a Derby, you need an outstanding horse no doubt but more importantly, the critical ingredient which is an ounce of luck! And it is quite possible that his Epicenter which ticks all the boxes could well end Asmussen`s frustrating wait. Epicentre is coming off dominating wins, the most impressive being the runaway win in the Gr 1 Louisiana Derby. The trainer believes that Epicenter has the ability to get him the elusive Derby. He says that Epicenter is faster than both his champion horses Gun Runner and Curlin who ran as strong fancies in this race. Epicenter has also impressed in his preparatory workouts on the Churchill Downs track. Since the pace of the race is going to be hectic, it remains to be seen if he sustains his speed in a race where one cannot hope for a soft lead.
Epicenter is quoted at 7/2 on the Derby morning line. Gr 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Zandon has cornered support being quoted at 3 to 1.
"Epicenter has taken a lot of training extremely easily," Asmussen said. "I also thought he took the Louisiana Derby extremely easily—in terms of how he came back from the test barn and went into the barn. That`s why his training and his works since have been faster and stronger," added Asmussen exuding confidence. ``He`s very professional. Very consistent with his temperament and his stride. We are just wanting more of the same, just a little faster which is what he has done in every one of his starts this year and there is no reason he shouldn`t carry on."
Chad Brown, the trainer of Zandon, has this to say about his ward: "Zandon was so visually impressive in the Blue Grass and he has continued to do very well since arriving at Churchill Downs.`` The trainer believes that even though his horse had not worked as quickly as many others in the morning workouts, he feels that they are smart enough.
Despite Baffert being banned from the race, two of his former horses have a good chance of being right there at the finish. Messier and Taiba are among the contenders having been passed onto Baffert`s former assistant Tim Yakteen who has been training the horses for this weekend`s showpiece for little over a month.
Yakteen says he hasn`t had any communication with Baffert in the lead-up to the race but has faced extra attention with many firmly believing that the horses are in his name and the control is elsewhere.
"I`ll be honest, I didn`t realize it was going to be like this, but I would have never hesitated," Yakteen told reporters when asked if he would have taken any other decision about letting the horses into his barn given the controversy surrounding Baffert?
All said and done, Epicenter and Zandon look to be the two standout picks heading into the race with both horses boasting great potential and market enthusiasm.
An interesting sidelight of the Derby is the effort that the co-owner of Mo Dongeal who is the CEO of Donegal Racing had to make to accommodate the scores of partners of the horse. Apart from being focussed on the colt trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, he is engaged in finding ways to accommodate the needs of a horde of more than 300 Donegal partners and their family and friends that will be in attendance!