Keeler Johnson's Top 5 contenders to watch for the 2022 Kentucky Derby

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

May 1st, 2022

The Kentucky Derby (G1) is less than one week away, and post positions are slated to be drawn in less than 24 hours. Following the confirmation Early Voting won’t be entered, the 20-horse field is essentially set.

While it’s still too early to finalize my selections (the post draw is bound to have an impact), here’s where I’m currently leaning with my top five contenders for the 2022 Kentucky Derby:

5. Zandon

Jockey: Flavien Prat

Visually speaking, Zandon was terrific in the Blue Grass S. (G1), unleashing a dramatic charge from last pace to rally through the pack and win by 2 1/2 lengths with a solid 103 Brisnet Speed rating. The 114 Brisnet Late Pace rating Zandon posted is powerful, and the Kentucky Derby will mark his third run of the season, opening the door for additional improvement. A top-five finish is well within reach.

4. Epicenter

Jockey: Joel Rosario

Epicenter had no trouble defeating Zandon in the Risen Star S. (G2) during the winter at Fair Grounds, and he followed up with a decisive 2 1/2-length victory in the Louisiana Derby (G2). But Epicenter drifted in several paths down the homestretch of the Louisiana Derby, and the 101 Brisnet Speed rating he posted isn’t the fastest figure in the Kentucky Derby field. The expected morning-line favorite might have a couple chinks in his armor, though he remains a formidable contender.

3. Taiba

Jockey: Mike Smith

After posting a 100 Brisnet Speed rating in his winning debut at Santa Anita, Taiba improved to a massive 111 when rallying to beat stablemate Messier by 2 1/4 lengths in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). Taiba finished fast (earning a 109 Brisnet Late Pace rating) and clearly has a world of talent, but can he beat 19 rivals over 1 1/4 miles in the third start of his career? The only horse to win the Kentucky Derby off two career starts was Leonatus in 1883.

2. Messier

Jockey: John Velazquez

The runaway Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) winner ran deceptively well in the Santa Anita Derby, pressing a quick pace set by key rival Forbidden Kingdom before getting run down late by Taiba. However, Messier pulled 10 lengths clear of the rest while earning triple-digit Brisnet E1 (100), E2 (109), Late Pace (102), and Speed (108) ratings, a rare achievement. The Santa Anita Derby marked Messier’s first start off a two-month break, so he’s eligible to move forward in the Kentucky Derby and deliver a winning performance.

1. Mo Donegal

Jockey: Irad Ortiz

Winner of the Remsen S. (G2) last fall, Mo Donegal ran out of his skin when wrapping up his qualifying campaign in the Wood Memorial (G2), unleashing a tremendous finish (final three furlongs in :35.61) to get up and win by a neck with a 111 Brisnet Speed rating and a 121 Brisnet Late Pace rating. The quality of competition was solid (runner-up Early Voting had previously dominated the Withers [G3]), and the Wood Memorial marked Mo Donegal’s first run off a two-month break. Like Messier, he’s eligible to move forward in the Kentucky Derby, but even a repeat of his Wood Memorial effort would make Mo Donegal a serious win threat.