Major contenders emerge from final round of Kentucky Derby preps

Profile Picture: James Scully

April 12th, 2022

Mo Donegal, Taiba, and Zandon made a statement over the weekend, recording impressive wins in the final round of major qualifiers in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, and the races came back fast.

Epicenter had already established himself as a leading candidate for Kentucky Derby favoritism, displaying outstanding tractability recording a convincing win in the March 26 Louisiana Derby (G2), and he remains a major player for Steve Asmussen.

Epicenter’s main Kentucky Derby rivals are exiting last Saturday’s Blue Grass (G1), Santa Anita Derby (G1), and Wood Memorial (G2).

Unlike the Santa Anita Derby and Wood, the Blue Grass featured a moderate pace, and Zandon’s 103 Brisnet Speed rating came back lower than Mo Donegal (111) and Taiba (111), but the Chad Brown-trained colt still looks fast enough to win the Kentucky Derby.

Zandon was making only his fourth career start Saturday, improving significantly upon a third in his seasonal opener, the Risen Star (G2), and he displayed the versatility to overcome traffic trouble. The powerful late runner netted a 114 Brisnet Late Pace rating, and Zandon is eligible to benefit from a projected hot pace on Derby Day.

Mo Donegal earned a whopping 121 Late Pace number, reeling in a loose-on-the-lead Early Voting, who ran a big race over a track favoring horses with tactical foot. Now a two-time stakes winner at Aqueduct, Mo Donegal must prove he can transfer his form to Churchill Downs, and the possibility exists for a regression following an 18-point increase from his previous best Speed rating, but Mo Donegal may just be discovering his best form to two-time Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher.

The Kentucky Derby projects to set up well for a horse with a turn of foot in the stretch like Mo Donegal.

Of course, Orb is the last one-run closer to win the Kentucky Derby in 2013, and Taiba’s positional speed only aids his chances of winning on May 7. Making his second career start after a six-furlong maiden win on March 5, Taiba closely tracked in third before launching his bid into the stretch of the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby, and the Gun Runner colt displayed remarkable determination to run down Messier, who was last seen winning the Robert B. Lewis (G3) by 15 lengths.

Taiba won going away by 2 1/4 lengths, and while the talent is undeniable, his inexperience looms as a liability — no horse has won the Kentucky Derby in their third start since Leonatus in 1883. The lack of seasoning would be more of a concern for a stalker/late-running type given the bulky field size, but Taiba earned a 106 E2 Pace rating in the Santa Anita Derby (along with a 109 Late pace number) and has the speed to make his own trip.

Taiba outbroke the speedy Messier to the front in the Santa Anita Derby. “I let the other horse go up there,” said Mike Smith, who also served as the pilot aboard Justify, who became the first unraced two-year-old to win the Kentucky Derby in 135 years in 2018.

The final round of prep races did not disappoint, as Mo Donegal, Taiba, and Zandon all established themselves as serious Kentucky Derby win contenders.