Banned Baffert still looms large at 148th Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby favorite Zandon takes a morning training run Thursday at Churchill Downs ahead of Saturday’s 148th running of the US Triple Crown flat racing classic at Louisville, Kentucky

Washington (AFP) – There will be a capacity crowd and full field of horses in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, but with legendary trainer Bob Baffert banned, the race is far from back to normal.

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Covid-19 safety measures saw the event moved from May to September in 2019 and run last year with about 60% of capacity in the stands and 25% in the infield.

But Churchill Downs will be packed Saturday for the 148th Run for the Roses over 1 1/4 miles in the first jewel of the American flat racing Triple Crown, which continues in two weeks at the Preakness and concludes at next month’s Belmont Stakes.

Zandon is fancied by oddsmakers at 3-1 out of the 10th gate with Epicenter at 7-2 and Messier third at 8-1 among 20 three-year-old thoroughbreds in the lineup for the $3 million showpiece.

“We’re ready,” trainer Chad Brown said of Zandon.

Baffert-trained Medina Spirit won last year’s Derby but failed a drug test after the race, the now-deceased horse testing positive for betamethasone, a corticosteroid not allowed in a horse on race days.

After a lengthy investigation, Chuchill Downs imposed a suspension on Baffert and banned him from the track for two years.

Baffert, 69, was suspended from all Triple Crown races, a June appeal hearing on his case coming after completion of all three races.

But two horses previously trained by Baffert will race in the Derby, including Messier in post three and Taiba in post 12.

Both were transfered last month and are being overseen by former Baffert assistant trainer Tim Yakteen with his first Derby entries seen by many as proxy entries for banished Baffert.

Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba, who will have veteran jockey Mike Smith aboard on race day, has won both his starts and could become the first horse to win the Derby in only a third start since Leonatus in 1883.

“He’s fine,” Yakteen said.

Messier, a son of Empire Maker named for retired NHL legend Mark Messier with three wins in six starts, has never placed worse than second.

“We’re happy,” Yakteen said of Messier’s training, which culminates with John Velazquez riding him on Saturday.

Zandon, who won the Blue Grass Stakes, will be ridden by French jockey Flavien Prat, who seeks a second Derby victory after 2019.

“Training-wise, we’ve done most of our serious work,” Brown said. “He’s fit for Saturday.”

Epicenter, with Joel Rosario as jockey, will depart out of the third gate.

“You want him to just make a nice smooth trip away from there and let the best horse win,” Epicenter trainer Steve Asmussen said.

“This is going to be new for him — 20-horse field, 150,000 people staring at him. But Epicenter’s very confident right now, training really well, and it’s a wonderful chance to win the Derby.”

Florent Geroux, who became the winning jockey of last year’s race aboard Mandaloun after the disqualification of Medina Spirit, will be aboard 20-1 Cyberknife out of gate 16.

The remainder of the field includes Mo Donegal and White Abarrio at 10-1, 20-1 entrants Smile Happy, Crown Pride, Charge It, Zozos and Simplification and 30-1 longshots Happy Jack, Summer Is Tomorrow, Tiz the Bomb, Pioneer of Medina, Barber Road, Classic Causeway, Tawny Port and Ethereal Road.

© 2022 AFP