Kentucky Derby: Who are the best horses for bettors to back?

HORSE RACING: MAY 01 Kentucky Derby
LOUISVILLE, KY – MAY 01: Medina Spirit (8) ridden by jockey John Velazquez wins the 147th Running of the Kentucky Derby on May 1, 2021 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire)

After a tumultuous twelve months, the Sport of Kings gets its annual day in the spotlight as the Kentucky Derby rolls into town.

All the morning buzz for the Run for the Roses has been about the Chad Brown-trained runner Zandon. The Upstart colt and Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes winner has been the talk of the track following his impressive win at Keeneland on April 9 in the aforementioned Blue Grass Stakes. Since then, the dark bay colt has posted a pair of electric workouts, showcasing his speed in completing a five-furlong dash in just 1:00:40. Since then, he’s found himself instilled as the favorite, with odds compilers making him the 3-1 early favorite.

The favorite has a perfect draw in 10 – meaning that he can sit, as he did in the Blue Grass where he came through the pack to successfully challenge fellow Derby contender Smile Happy for the win, or stay forward if the pace is lacking the usual heat of a Kentucky Derby. However, it’s very likely he’ll be taken back as the pace looks a frenetic one on paper.

The accomplished French rider Mikael Barzalona will be coming over to the US for his first-ever ride in the Kentucky Derby. Barzalona, whose biggest career success was a memorable win in the Epsom Derby in the UK, is certainly no mug and is one bettors will have to be wary of as he rides the lightning-quick Summer Is Tomorrow. Instilled at 30-1 on the early line, he’s given little regard by the market but will be crucial to the race from a handy draw in post 4, ensuring a strong pace to suit favorite Zandon.

He’s not the only front runner, with Zozos, Messier, Pioneer of Medina and Charge It, all very likely to try and push the Emirati raider. John Velazquez is hunting for redemption, the 3-time Derby winner had made it 4 last year, until the well-publicized disqualification of Baffert’s Medina Spirit. He rides Messier who is likely to be the one to push Summer Is Tomorrow most on the lead thanks to his stall 6 draw. With other pace horses drawn in 8 (Charge It), 11 (Pioneer of Medina), and 19 (Zozos), we could be looking at a 4-wide-for-the-lead setup into the first turn.

Saving ground could be crucial, and if taken back, Epicenter and Smile Happy will both have their claims enhanced by any scrimmaging for the lead in front of them.

Smile Happy is notably a beloved horse of Jim ‘Mattress Mack’ McIngvale, whose bet will be one of the big talking points in the run-up to the race. Sired by Jim’s star horse, Runhappy, he’s been beaten three times this year, including when mowed down by Zandon in the Blue Grass Stakes. He looks like he could be a great value play, with 20-1 odds penciled in on the morning line, although finding a route into the race will be tricky for his jockey Corey Lanerie.

Epicenter is one many people expected to be favorite and with good reason. He is with one of the most assured handlers around in Steven Asmussen and Joel Rosario retains the ride on a horse he knows very well, having ridden him at Fairgrounds to two huge Grade 2 wins. He’s very much still and improving horse and should have a big say.

Japanese horses have enjoyed a remarkable run of success around the world – culminating in a tremendous success for Marche Lorraine at 50-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. That would make it foolish to rule out Koichi Shintani’s runner Crown Pride. Penciled in at 20-1, the Reach The Crown colt has already pushed out form that would make him competitive in this field, when he took the $560k UAE Derby at Meydan in March. In doing so, he showed great tenacity and staying power which will be vital. He also showed enough quickness to stay with the leaders on Meydan’s notoriously unforgiving dirt track. He is certainly not to be underestimated.

In the inside gate is Mo Donegal for Irad Ortiz Jr, who will be praying he can get a dream run through on the rail. He’s had two big wins at Aqueduct so far in his career, in December and April, when he narrowly beat the reopposing Zandon and also Early Voting respectively. Zandon is expected to turn the tables, but there’s never a sure thing in horse racing and it would be difficult to discount Mo Donegal if he gets the gaps with his inside draw. Of course, with plenty of speed horses looking to cross to the lead, it could be a case of hard luck for Todd Pletcher’s colt.

Betting picks

Win / Place / Show:

–        5 (Smile Happy)

–        7 (Crown Pride)

Exacta / Trifecta / Superfecta:

–        3 / 5 / 7 / 10

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Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire