Racing Roundtable: Who we're watching in the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks

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May 3rd, 2022

We're keeping it simple for the biggest week on the racing calendar: What horses do our experts most look forward to watching in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Kentucky Oaks (G1), and on Saturday's Derby undercard? editors Kellie Reilly, Vance Hanson, and Ashley Anderson opine in this week's Racing Roundtable.

Kentucky Derby

Kellie Reilly: While Zandon has stormed to the top of my Derby rankings, I retain a soft spot for the colt who once held that position — Messier. He's managed to get beaten when the race shape or tactics didn't pan out, but in the right circumstances, Messier is a high-class operator. That's why I'm especially intrigued by how the Derby unfolds for him. From post 6, the son of Empire Maker could settle into an ideal trip for Hall of Famer John Velazquez, and then we'll see if he can capitalize.

Vance Hanson: Given the unsettled forecast heading into the weekend and after seeing the post position draw, I might be re-evaluating who my top selection will be in the next 24 to 48 hours. Regardless of who it is, the race seemingly goes through Epicenter, the Louisiana Derby (G2) and Risen Star (G2) winner, who has the foundation, speed, and pedigree for mud (if necessary) to deliver a winning performance while providing Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen a long-coveted first Derby triumph. He arguably enters with the fewest weaknesses or concerns, and I'm greatly interested to see how he handles everything.

Ashley Anderson: Mo Donegal. While the inside post is a concern, the son of Uncle Mo won the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct from post 1 and flashed a career-best 121 Late Pace rating in the feat. He and Taiba are both on my radar, but I'm most intrigued by the Todd Pletcher pupil, who will have three-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz in the silks. Ortiz's best finish in five Kentucky Derby starts is fourth (Improbable, 2019), but the leading jockey by earnings in 2022 is due for a trip to the winner's circle. Ortiz has finished top three in 63% of his starts this year and figures to have Mo Donegal in the mix coming down the final turn in the fastest two minutes in sports.

Kentucky Oaks

KR: Nest always promised to progress from two to three, but her degree of improvement at this stage has surpassed even my expectations. Dare I say she has something of a Rags to Riches vibe about her? If Nest continues her swath of conquest in a terrific Kentucky Oaks, the Triple Crown-nominated filly would be a fascinating contender in the Belmont (G1). Thus the stakes on Friday could be pretty high, with implications beyond her own division.

VH: Not only is Nest intriguing for all of the reasons Kellie stated above, but if the forecast pans out and the Oaks is run over a wet track, we could be witness to a potentially spectacular performance. Nest's mud pedigree is off the charts — sire Curlin famously romped in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) in the slop, while broodmare sire A.P. Indy ran one of the fastest Belmonts in history over a track labeled good. Her Ashland (G1) tour de force last month occurred over a track that was essentially somewhere between good and muddy, so there's every reason to believe she'll excel over the footing. Nest will also likely get a big jump on early second choice Kathleen O., a confirmed closer.

AA: Secret Oath. The Arrogate filly came home third against the boys in her last start, the Arkansas Derby (G1), following a commanding performance in the 1 1/16-mile Honeybee (G3), which she won by seven lengths. The chestnut will give Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas a shot at his fifth Kentucky Oaks win and first in more than 30 years. Her morning line odds of 6-1 make her all the more intriguing.

Kentucky Derby undercard

KR: The 2021 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) form hasn't held up too well, arguably because the best colt had to be scratched — Jack Christopher. I've long thought that he would have clinched the divisional championship that day, if not for the shin issue that forced him onto the sidelines. Now the unbeaten Champagne (G1) winner returns in the Pat Day Mile (G2), and I hope we see him back at his brilliant best. Trainer Chad Brown sounds confident, saying that Jack Christopher is even better at three.

VH: I concur with Kellie that Jack Christopher is a must-see in the Pat Day Mile. As one of only 12 that cast their Eclipse Award ballot for him as champion juvenile colt last season, I have perhaps an inordinate interest among the electorate in seeing how he progresses this season and whether he'll ultimately have the scope to stretch out, which presumably was the hope his connections had for him before the shin issue derailed any chance of him making the Triple Crown. The Pat Day Mile is not an easy spot, but it's a good starting point.

AA: Jackie's Warrior. The 2021 champion male sprinter rebounded from his sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) to triumph in the Count Fleet Sprint H. (G3) on a sloppy track at Oaklawn in mid-April. Regular rider Joel Rosario will guide the four-year-old in the Churchill Down S. (G1), where he'll get a rematch with Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) winner Aloha West (7-2). Jackie's Warrior is 2-for-2 at Churchill and 3-2-1-0 at seven furlongs.