Kentucky Derby pick: Taiba will outgrow his inexperience


Ah, Kentucky Derby day traditions. Mint Juleps. Decorated hats. The garland of roses that will be draped over the winner. These have all been part of the show at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for decades.

Ah, Kentucky Derby day traditions. Mint Juleps. Decorated hats. The garland of roses that will be draped over the winner. These have all been part of the show at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for decades.

A new kind of tradition has emerged: specialness.

The last three Derbies have been anything but normal. Maximum security crossed the line first to be disqualified for interference in 2019. The first Saturday in May became the first Saturday in September in 2020, thanks to the pandemic. And 2021 saw Medina Spirit win the race, trainer Bob Baffert then found himself embroiled in yet another drug-testing scandal, with the horse dying in December after a practice session and then having the Derby victory stripped away at the beginning of this year.

Expect more of the unexpected on Saturday at Churchill Downs when the Triple Crown season kicks off. And here’s why.

— Rule n°1: A horse that starts on the ramp cannot win the Derby.

There is something to that. No horse has drawn the No. 1 post and won since Ferdinand in 1986. (No horse has drawn 1, 2 or 3 and won since Real Quiet in 1998, either.) That’s troubling for the horses to have so much traffic, with over a dozen other massive animals trying to beat them in the first round. Horses inside the post-draw often have nowhere to run at this point; the rail is to their left, the fastest horses have outstripped them, those who have tried and failed to advance are to their right.

But Mo Donegal won the Wood Memorial from the rail, letting the peloton go early to the front, then finding better gear than everyone else on the stretch. It should fly at the end.

— Rule n°2: Steve Asmussen cannot win the Derby.

The numbers don’t lie: Asmussen sent 23 horses into the Derby and never won. No coach has had more Derby starters without a win.

But there’s a lot to like about Epicenter, even if it starts from post #3 (see rule #1). He broke his first at Churchill Downs, the start of four wins in his last five outings, and he would be 5 for 5 if the Lecomte Stakes in January had been around 5 feet shorter.

— Rule n°3: No horse with only two career starts can win the Derby.

Unless you’re at least 139 — we’re guessing you’re not — you’ve never seen a horse with just two career starts come to the Kentucky Derby and win. The 1883 Derby was captured by a horse named Leonatus, who legend has it took the term ‘running for the roses’ a little too literally as he ate a bunch of roses after the race.

That brings us to Taiba, who is 2 for 2 in his brief career and is coming off a victory in the Santa Anita Derby. Mike Smith in the saddle should deserve attention. The same goes for the fact that until a few weeks ago Taiba was coached by Baffert. Derby-related horses are generally not trained by Baffert unless there is serious reason to believe.

— Rule n°4: This year, Baffert cannot win the Derby.

Baffert was banned from this Derby (and the 2023 one as well) due to drug-related issues with Medina Spirit. He fought it in court, to no avail.

This is where Tim Yakteen comes into the story. Yakteen is a former assistant to Baffert, and was the one who took charge of conditioning Taiba and Messier – two horses with serious Derby chances – when Baffert had to step down.

So, no, Baffert can’t win. But Yakteen might as well.

— Rule No. 5: Past Derby performances by jockeys do not matter.

Frankly, that’s bullshit. Everyone studies what all horses have done in their careers. And coaches also get a lot of attention for their past success or lack of success. Jockeys, for some reason, are not always part of this formula.

Flavien Prat will be aboard Zandon on Saturday. Prat has been in the Derby four times before – and has been in the money on three of those occasions, including the (still debated) win aboard Country House in 2019.

Zandon could be far, far, far at the start of this race. Not ideal. But if anyone can figure it out, Prat can.

— Rule #6: This year, ignore the rules.

The depth of contenders this year could be as good as any in recent memory. The favorite will likely end up being Taiba or Epicenter, and the odds per tee time could be 4-1 or higher at worst.

Payments will be adorable.

Wire-to-wire Derby winners are rare; in the past 20 years, only Authentic (2020) has succeeded. Most winners close in on the front relatively early, drag, and then hit the accelerator pedal at the right time.

Messier and Mo Donegal will have to dig very deep to achieve this. Epicenter, hopefully, will fly. Zandon will make a big run late.

But the choice is Taiba.

Inexperience is a factor, yes, but talent is unmistakable. Smith is a legend. And Yakteen will take advantage of Baffert’s absence.

Taiba, on Epicenter and Zandon.

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