With Tawny Port racing to victory Saturday in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series is now complete. Now, the Run for the Roses is less than three weeks away.
While we don’t know the actual field yet, the picture is clearer regarding what 3-year-old horses will – and won’t – be at Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May. Owners and trainers of horses in the top 20 of the points standings may choose over the next couple of weeks to pull their horses from consideration, which would open it up to the next horse in the standings.
Currently, Circa Sports is down to offering odds on just 23 horses. The Las Vegas sportsbook offers fixed-odds futures betting on the Kentucky Derby. Odds on the race that will be posted at Churchill Downs and available at tracks, off-track betting parlors, and online advanced deposit wagering apps will be pari-mutuel.
Barring anything unforeseen, the favorite after the post positions are drawn two weeks from now will likely be one of the most rested horses in the race. Epicenter has won four of his last five races and finished second in the other.
His last race came on March 26, when he won the Louisiana Derby in record-setting fashion. Epicenter completed the 1-1/16th-mile race in 1:54.38, the fastest time at the distance recorded at Fair Ground Race Track in New Orleans.
Epicenter is already in Louisville training for the Derby. He ran five furlongs in 1:00.8 on Sunday.
“We’re just trying to put the building blocks and space for him to handle the mile-and-a-quarter in the Derby here,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “I couldn’t feel any better with how he’s doing here and how he loves Churchill Downs.”
Epicenter is the current favorite on Circa’s board at +490.
Taiba Emerges as a Strong Contender
Another colt drawing significant attention is Taiba. Just 10 days ago, he ran the Santa Anita Derby in just the second race of his career. He overtook highly acclaimed horses Forbidden Kingdom and Messier to win the prestigious Kentucky Derby prep by 2-1/4 lengths.
Taiba’s performance prompted jockey Mike Smith to say the “sky’s the limit” for the Gun Runner progeny. Should he win in two weeks in the Kentucky Derby, Taiba would be the first horse in 139 years to win the race in just his third career start.
Tabia is owned by Zedan Stables, which owned the late Medina Spirit – the horse that finished first in last year’s Derby, only to be disqualified after a failed drug test. Baffert and Zedan Stables, who stand to lose the nearly $1.9 million in winnings from the Derby, have appealed the case.
Medina Spirit died in December after a training workout.
The Medina Spirit DQ also led to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stewards issuing a 90-day suspension to trainer Bob Baffert. On Monday, the Kentucky Court of Appeals denied a stay in the case for Baffert and Zedan Stables, who must forfeit nearly $1.9 million in winnings if the appeal fails.
Because state racing commissions enforce reciprocity, Baffert’s suspension keeps him from entering horses in any race through early July. Churchill Downs last year issued a two-year ban on the Hall of Fame trainer, which Baffert is seeking to overturn in federal court.
Taiba was a Baffert-trained horse and won his first career race under Baffert last month. However, the colt needed to be transferred out of Baffert’s barn to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, as none of his horses were eligible for qualifying points.
While Taiba was considered a very good horse, he was not given much consideration for the Kentucky Derby because of his light racing history. Circa didn’t list Taiba until Zedan Stables moved him to trainer Tim Yakteen – a former Baffert assistant – and the initial odds were +6500.
Now, he’s the third choice at +685, behind only Epicenter and Messier (+575), another former Baffert colt Yakteen now trains.
Tawny Port May Get His Chance
Tawny Port was likely already in with 40 qualifying points before Saturday’s win. But trainer Brad Cox said some concerns about his ability to run on dirt tracks. Just two weeks ago, the offspring of Pioneer of the Nile finished second in the Jeff Ruby Steaks Stakes at Turfway Park. That race gave him the 40 points, but it was run on a synthetic surface. The Derby is raced on dirt.
After getting shuffled into eighth place and nearly four lengths back at the half-mile mark, jockey Florent Geroux found a lane on the outside to make his move. By the time they reached the top of the stretch, Tawny Port was a charging third. He took the lead as they reached the mile pole and beat Major General by a length in the 1-1/16th-mile race.
Since Tawny Port’s only other dirt race took place two months ago in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds – a race won by Epicenter – the colt’s connections wanted to run him on dirt again before entering the 1-1/4-mile Derby.
After the race, Cox said he wanted to see how his horse responded after the race before committing, but Geroux was ready to go.
“Looks like the distance should be no problem, and I hope the connections will take a swing,” he said.
Circa oddsmakers aren’t as convinced, as Tawny Port’s odds were +4500 as of Sunday night.
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