Taiba will rise above his inexperience

Ah, the traditions of Kentucky Derby Day. Mint juleps. Decorated hats. The garland of roses draped over the winner. They have all been part of the show at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for decades.

A kind of new tradition has emerged: distinctiveness.

The last three derbies have been anything but normal. Maximum Security was the first to cross the border, only to be disqualified in 2019 for interference. The first Saturday in May became the first Saturday in September 2020 thanks to the pandemic. And in 2021 Medina Spirit won the race, trainer Bob Baffert was subsequently embroiled in another drug testing scandal, the horse died in December after a training session and was killed earlier this year stripped him of the derby win.

Expect more of the unexpected at Churchill Downs on Saturday as the Triple Crown season begins. And here’s why.


— Rule #1: A horse that starts at the rail cannot win the derby.

Good point. Since Ferdinand in 1986, no horse has taken first place and won. (Even since Real Quiet in 1998, no horse has drawn 1, 2, or 3 and won.) It’s unsettling for horses to have so much traffic, with more than a dozen other massive beasts trying to get them to the first turn to beat. The horses pulling in often have nowhere to run at this point; The track is on your left, the faster horses have preceded them, those who tried and failed are on your right.

But Mo Donegal won the Wood Memorial off the rail, letting the field go forward early and then finding a better gait than anyone else at the track. He should fly in the end.

— Rule #2: Steve Asmussen cannot win the derby.

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


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

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

Unless you’re at least 139 years old — we suspect you aren’t — you’ve never seen a horse with only two career starts come to the Kentucky Derby and win. The 1883 Derby was won by a horse named Leonatus, who, according to legend, took the term “Run for the Roses” a bit too literally, as he ate a bouquet of roses after the race.

Which brings us to Taiba, who is 2 for 2 in his short career and wins the Santa Anita Derby. Mike Smith in the saddle deserves attention. That should also be the fact that Baffert trained Taiba until a few weeks ago. Derby-tied horses are not typically trained by Baffert unless there is serious reason to believe.


– Rule #4: Baffert can’t win the derby this year.

Baffert was ruled out of this derby (and also 2023) because of the drug-related problems with Medina Spirit. He unsuccessfully defended himself in court.

This is where Tim Yakteen comes in. Yakteen is a former assistant to Baffert and the one who did the conditioning for Taiba and Messier – two horses with serious chances of winning the Derby – when Baffert had to step aside.

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

— Rule #5: Jockeys’ past Derby appearances are irrelevant.

Honestly, that’s bullshit. Everyone studies what all horses have done in their careers. And coaches also get plenty of attention for their past successes or failures. For whatever reason, jockeys are not always part of this formula.

Flavien Prat will be on board 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 behind in this race. Not ideal. But if anyone can figure it out, Prat can.

— Rule #6: Ignore the rules this year.

The number of competitors this year could be as good as any in recent memory. The favorite will likely be Taiba or Epicenter, and post-time odds could be 4-1 or so at worst.

Payouts will be nice.

Wire-to-wire derby winners are rare; Only Authentic (2020) has done that in the last 20 years. Most winners get relatively close to the top early on, drop out and then hit the accelerator at the right moment.

Messier and Mo Donegal will have to dig very deep to pull it off. If all goes well, Epicenter will fly. Zandon will make a big run late.

But the choice is Taiba.

The inexperience is a factor, yes, but the talent is unmistakable. Smith is a legend. And Yakteen will benefit from Baffert’s absence.

Taiba, via epicenter and Zandon.



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Nate Jones

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