The opening race of the Triple Crown season at Churchill Downs is fast approaching, as horses hoping to compete in the showpiece, Kentucky Derby on May 7th have been involved in captivating qualifying prep races.
The ante-post market for the huge race has altered drastically throughout 2022 to this point, with a third favorite in six months now at the top of the betting. But, who are some of the leading contenders for the huge Grade 1 for three-year-olds at Churchill Downs?
Trainer: Kenneth McPeek
The last couple of weeks has seen Smile Happy jump to the top of the betting. Strangely, this isn’t anything to do with a performance he has put in recently, but mainly the stunning display by Classic Causeway.
Classic Causeway landed the G3 Sam F. Davis in stunning fashion in the middle of February, which makes Smile Happy’s win over the three-year-old in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club in November all the more impressive.
Smile Happy is currently a deserving favorite, but all eyes will now be on his reappearance, as he looks to rubber-stamp his clear Kentucky Derby credentials with a victory in the first 50-point qualifying race at Fair Grounds.
The Risen Star Stakes will be the first big test for Smile Happy this calendar year, as he looks to join the lines of War Emblem and Country House, who ran in the Grade 2 before landing the Kentucky Derby later in the season. However, success in the Risen Star looks far from assured, with Pappacap and Epicenter among the leading contenders.
You can check here if Smile Happy has climbed up or down the odds of Kentucky Derby: https://www.bovada.lv/kentucky-derby
Trainer: Bob Baffert
There are still a number of Bob Baffert-trained horses in the betting for the Kentucky Derby, despite the fact that the Hall of Famer isn’t eligible to enter the race. Messier is one that almost certainly looks to miss out, as he hasn’t been able to pick up qualifying points to this point.
However, should the unthinkable happen and Churchill Downs reverse their decision, this three-year-old is showing all the form that you would expect from a Triple Crown winner.
He is putting talented fields to the sword at present, and that was evident last time out, as he won over 1 1/16 miles in the G3 Robert B. Lewis. He finished well clear of Cabo Spirit, with Wharton back in third.
His only defeat since debut came in the G2 Los Alamitos Futurity in November, as he finished behind Slow Down Andy, who looks set to line up in the Risen Star alongside Smile Happy. How he performs in that race could be an excellent measuring stick when comparing Messier and Smile Happy.
Still, Messier has beaten some solid horses that are already on the Kentucky Derby trail, including Forbidden Kingdom, Blackadder and Barossa.
Trainer: Richard Mandella
For many, they will be looking for some value in the betting before the Kentucky Derby, and one horse that has dropped considerably in the odds is Forbidden Kingdom. The three-year-old for Richard Mandella has been excellent across his four starts to date. He broke his maiden over 5 ½ furlongs at Del Mar last August, beating Rhetoric and Kamui.
An immediate step up into stakes company followed, and he finished well to claim third in the Speakeasy. The three-year-old was then stepped up in the direction to seven furlongs and the Derby trial became the goal.
A solid second in the G3 Bob Hope highlighted a clear taking to the extended distance, as he finished just behind Messier. The first victory in stakes company dually arrived at the end of January, as he landed the G2 San Vicente at Santa Anita.
He beat Pinehurst and McLaren Vale on that showing, which put down a huge marker ahead of the G2 San Felipe. Forbidden Kingdom has already been cut in price from 200/1 to 25/1. Another big win in the graded company could see him halved in price again.
Trainer: Steven Asmussen
Only three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby in the past, with the latest winner being Winning Colors in 1988. That long wait for the female winner of the opening Triple Crown race could be coming to an end in May.
It hasn’t yet been decided whether Echo Zulu will go down the Derby trail, but a growing number of supporters are hoping that she does. The three-year-old has only competed against the girls so far in her career but boasts a perfect 4-0 record.
She has landed three straight victories in Grade 1 company, ranging from distances of seven furlongs to 1 1/16 miles. The Kentucky Derby is more open than ever this year, which means a superstar filly, such as Echo Zulu, could be an intriguing addition.
Her performance in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies was simply sensational, and I would be fascinated to see her running against the boys because on that showing, she could more than hold her own.