Derby Trail Update – 2/23/22 – By Eric Solomon

Epicenter Takes Command

We saw a serious throw down from some top notch three year olds on Saturday, February 19th, at the Fair Grounds. Five horses that were included in the most recent Derby Future Wager, Smile Happy, Epicenter, Zandon, Pappacap, and Slow Down Andy were all entered in the first Derby Points race of the season that awarded the winner 50 points. 


Going into the race, I thought there were two possible scenarios for how this race would play out. There wasn’t a ton of early speed signed on, so Epicenter had the look of a horse that could get away on a loose early lead. I did think there were signs that Pappacap could have been aggressively ridden to try to get the lead from the rail post while adding blinkers. While he was forwardly placed, Epicenter was able to secure the early lead without any real struggle. He set reasonable fractions on the front end and was able to move away from those sitting just off his tempo at the top of the stretch. Smile Happy came through with an inside rally and Zandon caught the eye with a wide move on the turn, but both horses were pace compromised and ended up finishing 2nd and 3rd, respectively.


Epicenter moves to the top of the Derby Points standings list with his 2 and ¾ length victory, which earned him a 98 Beyer Speed Figure. I think he got a lot out of his defeat in the Lecomte where he was hounded every step of the way, before just yielding late. He’s planning on staying at the Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby for his final prep on March 26th, but at this point, he looks like the best runner that Steve Asmussen has had on the Derby Trail in a while. His running style has been playing well on the first Saturday in May over the last several years, so he feels like he could be a big player in Louisville. 


In defeat, Smile Happy and Zandon ran useful races that should prepare them for decent efforts in their next starts. Smile Happy may not have loved being down inside on the backstretch. He had to wait a bit before uncorking his best run, but with the reasonable pace that was set in front of him, I’m not sure he was going to get to Epicenter on Saturday, even if he had a better trip. Zandon showed great acceleration into the turn with his five wide bid. He was away last, after a bit of a bobble at the break. Coming from last was not ideal considering the pace and the track profile over the last few days. His effort, in only his third career start, was solid, and he should be one of the favorites for the Blue Grass on April 9th, when he plans to make his last start before the Derby. 


Las Vegas agrees that the top three finishers all ran races that you’d want to see from a contender for the Kentucky Derby. Futures numbers came down on all three, with Epicenter and Smile Happy available to 10-1 through Circa right now. Zandon came down to 20-1 through Circa and is at 15-1 through Caesar’s/William Hill. 


Pioneer of Medina applied mild pressure to Epicenter in the early going, but hung around at long odds to finish 4th, beaten less than 4 lengths. He has shown significant improvement over the last few races, and this was another career top figure for him. He’ll need points to get into the Derby and at this point, he’s a fringe horse at best. However, he’s trained by Todd Pletcher, and he’s certainly trending in the right direction. I could see him being a major player in a race like the Wood Memorial on April 9th. His effort was good enough to be listed on the Derby Future List from Circa, opening at 150-1. While he still has some work to do, that number is a little intriguing to me when you’re talking about a horse that has continued to improve at longer distances, trained by a two-time Derby winning trainer. 


Slow Down Andy and Pappacap were the disappointments from this race. Slow Down Andy was wide pretty much every step of the way, so he’s a horse that I could consider giving another chance to. A race like the Sunland Derby on March 27th, might be a good spot for him to make his next start. Typically, the competition for that race is softer than the other preps since it’s not a 100 point prep race. However, by winning the Los Alamitos Futurity, he already has ten points in the bank. Finishing first or second in that race would likely get him enough points to make it into the field for the Kentucky Derby, if that is the goal. Pappacap had no visible excuse, other than the experiment with adding blinkers didn’t work. He had a better trip than Epicenter in the Lecomte, and his trip in this race was about as good as you could ask for. Epicenter didn’t have the cleanest break, so the lead was there for the taking if Gaffalione wanted it. However, he was allowed to sit off a comfortable pace, and never fired when he was called upon. After his last two efforts, I’m inclined to think that he’s not good enough to compete at this level right now. 



On the Undercard

Brad Cox sent out Cyberknife to a convincing three length win to clear the N1X condition in Race 8 on the Risen Star card. He broke his maiden at the Fair Grounds in December and tried graded stakes company in the Lecomte when facing winners for the first time in January. He had a tough trip that day and finished a non-threatening 6th. He dropped in class and handily beat a decent field of well-meant runners in this 1 Mile and 1/16 contest. The final time was not too far off the track record time that Olympiad set in the Grade 3 Mineshaft Stakes two races later in the card. His Beyer figure of 87 is solid enough for him to take a shot in another Derby Points race. His odds came down at 60-1 through Circa, and 50-1 through Caesar’s/William Hill in the future book, which honestly offers further evidence you’re able to get decent value on Pioneer of Medina at the moment. 


Coming This Week

The focus shifts to Arkansas for the million dollar, Grade 2 Rebel Stakes next week. That field was drawn Monday, and it’s led by the winner of the Southwest Stakes last month, Newgrange for Bob Baffert. Runner up in the Southwest, Barber Road is back for another round, along with the winner of the Smarty Jones, Dash Attack. Some of the new faces here include; recent allowance winner, Chasing Time, Withers runner up Un Ojo, and a recent maiden winner, Ethereal Road. I’ll have the full report on that race later in the week. 


Each week, we’ll have an update on horses and races from the previous week that may produce starters for the 148th Kentucky Derby on May 7th, 2022. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.

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