Final 2022 Derby Rankings

This obviously is the final Derby Rankings and we’re reverting back to our old ways with a Derby Dozen to focus on our main win candidates. It’s been a fun ride with lots of twists and turns and interesting back stories. I hope everyone has enjoyed it and now it is time for the nitty gritty. I will analyze everything over the next few days, including post positions, and post my handicapping column on Thursday. ~ Steve Haskin

Final 2022 Derby Rankings

By Steve Haskin

1– Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

The buzz surrounding him keeps growing with every gallop and workout, and with all the rave reviews there is now a good chance he will go off as favorite, but it still should be close with Epicenter, who has been training at Churchill Downs now for several weeks. Zandon has been pure poetry out on the track whether galloping or working, or just his overall presence. Watching him work an effortless five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 with such long fluid strides you can understand all the praise he’s been receiving. In the work he came home his final quarter in :23 3/5 with the rider’s hands turned down loosely allowing him to do everything on his own. He then galloped out another eighth in :12 2/5 covering the six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 and pulling up seven furlongs in a strong 1:26 2/5. And he is one of few Derby horses who works by himself. If he gets a good trip there is no telling what he is capable of.


2– Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

He’s been working at Churchill Downs so long you can call him the house horse. His works have not been flashy, but he is just a professional, workmanlike colt who goes about his business, does what is asked of him, and basically never does anything wrong. We know now he can be on the lead or sit back off the pace. He is reminiscent of American Pharoah, who was a confirmed frontrunner until his final prep in the Arkansas Derby. Once he showed he could rate off the pace you knew the sky’s the limit. That is exactly what Epicenter showed in the Louisiana Derby, which now makes him doubly dangerous, especially with his high cruising speed and ability to come home fast. There was nothing to knock in his six-furlong work in 1:12 1/5, out in 1:26 1/5 in company. I’m sure many will still look at him as the deserving favorite, feeling he will put himself in perfect position just off the pace while Zandon will have to work out a trip from farther back.


3– Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

For a horse who was ranked No. 1 most of the year and was the favorite in the first four Future Wagers, he has become a bit of an enigma. I still think very highly of him and feel the Blue Grass Stakes was a race he desperately needed, and I liked when I heard he drank a lot of water after the race, indicating he wasn’t fit enough for the race and got tired and should now be ready to take a big step forward. But here is why he has been an enigma. He was out for a long time before returning in the mile and eighth Risen Star Stakes. Because of his issues over the winter, they took it easy with him, and Corey Lanerie just sat on him around the far turn and basically lost any chance of winning. By the time he asked him to run turning into the stretch Epicenter was long gone. He was a lot more tactical in the Blue Grass and moved early to chase the front-running Emmanuel after going five-wide on the first turn. He was able to put him away but had no answer for Zandon’s big closing punch. I don’t like seeing horses passed in the stretch in their final Derby prep, but he did the dirty work in a race that was meant to just get him fit and move forward. Then came his final work in company with Tiz the Bomb when the latter went off too fast and he fell way behind and never was asked to close the gap, as Lanerie decided to just let him work by himself and nailed the time anyway. I do know he is going to be a decent price in the Derby and if you still believe in him you’re going to get great odds on a horse who once was the clear-cut favorite.

4– Messier (Tim Yakteen, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

Like with Smile Happy he was passed in the stretch in his final Derby prep, and by a stablemate who had only one six-furlong maiden race under him. That alone will turn a lot of people off. But also like Smile Happy he chased a very fast horse in Forbidden Kingdom, was coming off a two-month layoff since his 15-length walk in the park in the Robert Lewis Stakes, and desperately needed the race. Working alone at Santa Anita he did everything smoothly and easily going six furlongs in a sharp 1:11 4/5 and I can’t help but feel he is ready to peak on Derby Day and is sitting on a monster race. I also love his Thoro-Graph pattern, which indicates he is ready for a good move forward following his pairing up fast numbers. So again like Smile Happy I am willing to overlook the fact that he was passed in the final eighth and will benefit a great deal from that race coming off a layoff. His namesake, hockey great Mark Messier, was one of the most clutch players in NHL history, and this colt might also be the type to save his best for the big moments.


5– Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

Yes he will have to work out a trip and get through the big field, which will require some luck, and closers have not won many Derbys in the last 10 years, but sometimes you can’t ignore what is right in front of you, and if you leave him out and he wins you will look back to his sensational :35 2/5 final three-eighths and :11 4/5 final eighth in the Wood Memorial, and his whopping 121 late pace figure on Brisnet and realize too late that he was touting you big-time and you ignored it. Although his half-mile final work in :48 3/5 in company with the speedy My Prankster was solid at best I did like the way he did it, with his rider way up in the saddle and doing virtually nothing with him. Unlike Pletcher’s other two Derby horses, Charge It and Pioneer of Medina, who ran five and six weeks prior to the Derby, Mo Donegal had that big effort four weeks out and didn’t need to do as much in his work. They did a lot more working in company and galloping out strongly. And Mo Donegal has had two hard-fought mile and an eighth races. He went into the Wood Memorial a fresh horse off a two-month layoff and now is fit and sharp and ready for a career-best effort.


6– Taiba (Tim Yakteen, Gun Runner – Needmore Flattery, by Flatter)

Everyone agrees he has looked like a freak in his two starts and clearly is the fastest horse in the field. As you well know by now I hate going into the Kentucky Derby off only two lifetime starts and rightly so since it’s been almost 140 years since a horse has won the Derby off so few starts. And on top of that he will have only one work in the four weeks between the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby, and that work was good, but nothing extraordinary. I know he had lots of works before his career debut and Bob Baffert had gotten him very fit, and nothing in racing surprises me anymore. You would think he’s done too much too soon and likely will regress going a mile and a quarter so soon, especially facing 19 opponents, and like with Justify, who had only three career starts, I will let him beat me rather than bank on him defying the history books. As I mentioned his speed figures have been through the roof and he could be a freakishly talented colt who can overcome all handicapping logic. But I will be a spectator and just enjoy the show.

7– White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

Whether it’s in his races or in his works he always seems to be in the right place, indicating a horse who will do exactly what you want him to do and be wherever you want him to be. In his three-furlong work in :34 2/5 at Gulfstream Park he showed off his athleticism by hugging the rail and cutting the corner beautifully turning for home and galloping out . In his most recent work, still at Gulfstream, which went late in the afternoon, he was a powerhouse in the stretch and galloping out, and was striding out beautifully. He is not a horse who is going to wow a lot people with his brilliance, but he has drawn off in the final eighth to win by open lengths in all four of his victories and somehow managed to get a sensational “1” on Thoro-Graph in the Florida Derby, the second fastest number run by a 3-year-old, topped only by Taiba’s Santa Anita Derby. Not many people are talking about him, partly because of the ridiculously slow closing fractions and mundane final time of the Florida Derby that still has not been corrected and doing all his racing and training at Gulfstream. And it looks as if those fractions are going to stay. I don’t know whether he’s good enough to win or has beaten horses of the caliber he will face in the Derby, but I do know it’s tough to leave him out of the exotics.

8– Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

He has pretty much fallen off everyone’s radar screen and his past performances and speed ratings are all over the place, but I have seen too many things I like about him to dismiss him. That is because I don’t know how he wants to run, how fast he really is, and most important how high his ceiling is. And for that reason I am going to strongly consider him in all exotic wagers and even as a win bet at a huge price. I know he’s fast (see the Mucho Macho Man Stakes) and can win on the lead, I know he can close from off the pace (see the Fountain of Youth Stakes), and I know he can win his races by daylight (see all three of his victories by 16, 4, and 3 ½ lengths). In the Florida Derby he reverted back to his old speedy ways due to strategy gone wrong and paid the price, getting caught in the middle of a three-horse speed duel, then a two-horse duel through a rapid Brisnet middle pace figure of 113 before tiring a bit in the stretch to finish third. I can’t help but feel that this colt is a far better than his overall record looks and he is capable of great things when allowed to run his race.

9– Cyberknife (Brad Cox, Gun Runner – Awesome Flower, by Flower Alley)

Although I’m still not sure he is ready take on the leading contenders, as I don’t believe he has beaten top quality fields in his last two starts I can’t ignore the way he’s been working and how he handles this track. He has been moving with great authority, especially in his six-furlong work in 1:12 1/5 in company, in which drew clear from his workmate and then galloped out another eighth in :12 2/5 to complete the seven furlongs in a sprightly 1:24 3/5. In his final work in company with Zozos, more of a maintenance drill, he matched strides with his stablemate, and although he did carry his head a bit high turning for home, he was moving very well in the final eighth to finish on even terms. There is no doubt this colt is coming into his own at the right time. I just don’t know if he’s quite there yet.

10– Charge It (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – I’ll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie)

If this colt only had one more start I would rank him higher based on all the positives I saw in his first two starts and the way he’s been training at Churchill Downs. Working inside stablemate Pioneer of Medina in his final Derby drill he was doing everything well within himself and was just gliding over the ground. It was his mechanics that drew me to him in those first two starts, and I was surprised how greenly he ran in the Florida Derby. But it was a big step up for him and he still was good enough to finish second to White Abarrio, beaten only 1 ¼ lengths, despite hitting the side of the gate at the break. I have no doubt this colt has a very bright future and will win his share of big stakes. But I am still dubious about horses with only three starts unless I am convinced they are a freak, as were the only two horses to pull it off – Big Brown and Justify. And they did not face strong fields in the Derby. So we’ll see what he can do under the circumstances and go from there.


11– Tiz the Bomb (Kenny McPeek, Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

I am saving my two huge longshots for last, although I’m not sure just how big a longshot Crown Pride is going to be. I said a few weeks ago following Tiz the Bomb’s impressive victory in the Jeff Ruby Steaks on a synthetic surface that I want to see how he trains at Churchill Downs. Well, he has shown absolutely no signs of disliking the dirt and in fact seems to relish it. In fact you can blame him for his work in company with Smile Happy going awry, as he was so keyed up early he basically sprinted clear of his workmate who was supposed to be right up there with him. Brian Hernandez was not about to strangle him and just let him roll while Corey Lanerie, finding himself some four or five lengths behind, just let his horse work on his own, paying no attention to Tiz the Bomb, who finished three lengths in front. But this was not a horse running off. It was more a horse with controlled energy who just was too fast for his stablemate in what was supposed to be a maintenance work. Both horses actually turned in the same time of :48 for the half; they just did it in different ways. McPeek has always been extremely high on this colt and if you can throw out his dismal effort in the Holy Bull Stakes I believe you’re looking at a horse firing on all cylinders now and capable of upsetting this race at a big price.

12– Crown Pride (Reach the Crown – Emmy’s Pride, by King Kamehameha)

And now we come to the most intriguing horse in the race and the one I feel you have to place a win bet on just so he doesn’t jump up and bite you in your wallet as so many of his compatriots have done in major races all over the world. The Japanese, with their unique training methods, have arrived and we better accept them. As for Crown Pride, I love what I’m seeing every morning, especially the way they have him accelerating on the turn after crossing the wire. He’s been doing his calisthenics on the chute every day and has been calm during parts of his gallops and aggressive during others. He wants to go and I love his energy level, which is high, but well in control. When they really let him open up in a work he went his half in an eye-catching :46 2/5, but was never being urged. He is coming off a very impressive victory in the UAE Derby going 1 3/16 miles and was relentless in the stretch going after the loose on the lead Summer is Tomorrow in what was a two-horse race down the stretch. I will be betting him to win, but wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a lot more money than you think. He has caught the eye of a lot of people.



Yes, there is still a door on which to knock. But at this late date I’m not sure anyone will let you in. I love finding longshots to play in the Derby, but after the top 12 I cannot separate the rest, and while anyone can find their way into the exotics I’m just not seeing any of the others as win candidates.

Sure, ZOZOS is very talented horse who can carry his speed a long way, especially for a son of Munnings, but again we have a horse with only three starts, and I feel his best races are down the road. BARBER ROAD would be the most likely deep-closing longshot to hit the board, but he still needs to figure out where the winner’s circle is one of these days. He is persistent and keeps knocking on the door every race. One of these he’s going to squeeze his way in, but I would think it will be against lesser company in a smaller field. But for now I wouldn’t discourage anyone who wants to include him in their exotics. He is as honest as they come.

PIONEER OF MEDINA is another who is going to win his share of big races and he’s been running well against top company, mainly Zandon, Epicenter, Smile Happy, and Zozos. But at this stage of his career he looks to be more of a one-paced grinder who just keeps coming. He just needs to either try to wire his field or find a stronger closing punch. He will give them a run for their money and could hang around for piece of it.

 If we’re in a forgiving mood and wish to overlook CLASSIC CAUSEWAY’S implosion in the Florida Derby then you can say he belongs in the race. But how he’s going to win is another matter. He will be on or right off the pace, but how far he can cay his speed is the main question. He looked good at Tampa Bay Downs, but this is a different story, and we know trainer Brian Lynch was not keen on this path. But the owners deserve a shot so here he is.

TAWNY PORT is a horse on the rise, but not quite there yet, finding his way into the Derby at the last minute with a victory in the Lexington Stakes. Coming back in three weeks doesn’t bother me in the slightest.  Rebel Stakes winner UN OJO will have his following and he does have a good closing kick, but all his numbers say he is just too slow. SUMMER IS TOMORROW looked like a sure winner in the UAE Derby before Crown Pride corralled him in the final furlong and he should be a pace presence for quite a long way. Remember, all his previous starts had come in sprints so he should be stronger with that race under him.


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