Jon White: Louisiana Derby Picks, Plus Strikes Season Arrives

The 148th running of the coveted Kentucky Derby is just around the corner. With that in mind, Fair Grounds’ Grade II Louisiana Derby, which will be run this Saturday (March 26), kicks off the eight races this year in which 170 qualifying points are up for grabs for horses trying to get into the starting gate for the May 7 Run for the Roses.

Each of the eight 170-point events offers 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The eight races are listed below:

Date Race (Track)

03-26-22 Louisiana Derby (Fair Grounds)
03-26-22 UAE Derby (Meydan Racecourse)
04-02-22 Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park)
04-02-22 Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park)
04-02-22 Jeff Ruby Steaks (Turfway Park)
04-09-22 Blue Grass Stakes (Keeneland)
04-09-22 Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita)
04-09-22 Wood Memorial (Aqueduct)

Epicenter tops a field of nine assembled for Saturday’s 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby. The Kentucky-bred Not This Time colt is coming off a front-running win in Fair Grounds’ Grade II Risen Star Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 19.

My selections for the Louisiana Derby are below:

1. Epicenter
2. Zozos
3. Call Me Midnight
4. Rattle N Roll

Epicenter has been installed as the 7-5 favorite on Mike Diliberto’s morning line. Following his 2 3/4-length Risen Star triumph in which he recorded an excellent 98 Beyer Speed Figure, Epicenter looms a tough dude this Saturday.

There does not appear to be much early speed in the Louisiana Derby other than Epicenter. He was able to pretty much roll along as he pleased on the front end through the early stages in the Risen Star. The way the pace shapes up, he might be able to do that again in the Louisiana Derby.

Should Epicenter win the Louisiana Derby, his stock with me would rise if he were able to do so from off the pace this time. It would prove that he can stalk and win. He has yet to do that.

In the recent Grade II Tampa Bay Derby, Classic Causeway had an easy time of it on the front end through the early stages. When able to control the early pace without being hard-pressed, Classic Causeway had plenty of gas left in the tank for the final furlong when he registered a 2 1/2-length victory.

There are those who hold the view that Classic Causeway needs the early lead in order to win. That’s understandable insofar as the one time he stalked early, he got beat. That was when he finished second to Smile Happy in the productive Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last Nov. 27.

As I’ve stated before, I believe Classic Causeway will be able to sit off the early pace, if he must, and still succeed. But the truth is he hasn’t done that yet. And at this point, Epicenter still must prove it, too.

The reason it’s important for Epicenter and Classic Causeway to show that they can win from off the pace is because all indications are nobody is fast enough to outrun Forbidden Kingdom early in the Kentucky Derby.

As far as the main threat to Epicenter this Saturday, I see it being Zozos. He is listed at 8-1 on the morning line.

Daily Racing Form’s Marcus Hersh believes that 8-1 morning-line price for Zozos is off the mark. Hersh has never been shy to voice his opinion regarding morning lines. He seems to go out of his way to do so. When his opinion that the morning-line price for a horse is off, sometimes Hersh is right, sometimes he’s wrong.

When it comes to morning lines, disagreement is frequent, while compliments are rare. Believe me, I know, having performed this rather thankless task at Santa Anita for over a decade, at Del Mar for a couple of years and for a total of seven Breeders’ Cups.

To cite an example of Hersh’s opinion of a morning line not panning out, consider what he once wrote regarding a race at Santa Anita. In Hersh’s “Weekend GamePlan” feature for the Unusual Heat Turf Classic, he led off his thoughts on the race by expressing his disagreement with the morning line that yours truly had crafted.

“I don’t really agree with the line in this race, which has too many horses bunched in the 4-1 to 6-1 range, and I think Ward ‘n Jerry, dropping from three graded stakes, second at 2-1 in this race a year ago, and getting Flavien Prat, will emerge as the solid favorite,” Hersh wrote.

Did Ward ‘n Jerry “emerge as the solid favorite” in the race, as Hersh predicted? No. Ward ‘n Jerry did not even emerge as the favorite, let alone a solid favorite.

Acclimate was a 5-2 morning-line favorite on my morning line. It turned out that Acclimate was indeed sent away as the 9-5 favorite. At 9-5, one might even go so far as to say that Acclimate, not Ward ‘n Jerry, wound up being a “solid favorite.”

Based on what Hersh wrote, Ward ‘n Jerry surely must have started as the second favorite, right? Nope. The second favorite at 4-1 was North County Guy.

Hersh’s supposed “solid favorite” in the race, Ward ‘n Jerry, went off at 5-1.

As for Hersh’s belief that the morning line had “too many horses bunched in the 4-1 to 6-1 range,” no less than four horses started at from 4-1 to 7-1. They were North County Guy at 4-1, Brandothebartender at 5-1, Ward ‘n Jerry at 5-1 and Indian Peak at 7-1.

In terms of Zozos’ 8-1 morning-line odds for the Louisiana Derby, Hersh wrote that the Kentucky-bred Munnings colt “should be a considerably shorter price than that.”

In this particular case, I do agree with Hersh. So, here I am, knocking somebody’s morning line. I do not relish doing it. But to be perfectly frank, I envision Zozos’ price being much lower than 8-1. I feel this way mainly because Zozos is undefeated, hails from the powerful Brad Cox barn and comes off a 10 1/4-length win in which he received a 92 Beyer Speed Figure.

Additionally, Cox has spoken of Zozos in glowing terms. Such praise, to me, is significant. That’s because in this case it comes from someone who has received the last two Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer, plus from a person who trained two 2021 Eclipse Award winners in Horse of the Year Knicks Go and champion 3-year-old male Essential Quality.

In other words, Cox knows a really good horse when he sees one. Taking a page out of the E.F. Hutton commercials from back in the day, when Cox talks up a horse, people should listen.

1/ST BET analyst and handicapper Jeff Siegel is another who expects Zozos to be a much lower price than his morning line.

Concerning the Louisiana Derby card, Siegel wrote: “The week-in-advance draw provides horseplayers with more than sufficient time to do the proper research required for a serious opportunity to make a score.

“Though we doubt he’ll leave anywhere close to his morning line of 8-1, Zozos presents such a chance. This is not to say that Epicenter, the morning-line choice at 7-5, isn’t deserving of his strong favorite’s role. But based on the projected race flow, Zozos should have the opportunity to stake and pounce from his favorable inside draw and perhaps register a victory that vaults him into the Kentucky Derby conversation.”

I look at Call Me Midnight as a bona fide Louisiana Derby contender. He was neglected in the wagering to the tune of 28-1 when he rallied from 12 lengths back to win Fair Grounds’ Grade III Lecomte Stakes by a head on Jan. 22. That come-from-behind victory in a 1 1/16-mile race indicates the Kentucky-bred Midnight Lute colt will enjoy going even farther this time.

According to trainer Keith Desormeaux, Call Me Midnight has trained in splendid fashion in preparation for the Louisiana Derby.

Rattle N Roll, conditioned by Kenny McPeek, needs to improve on his lackluster 2022 debut in which he finished sixth in Gulfstream’s Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 5. Sharp recent workouts at the Florida track could be a sign that the Kentucky-bred Connect colt might run a whole lot better this time.

A 4 1/4-length win in the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland in his final 2021 start demonstrates what Rattle N Roll is capable of doing. Finishing third was the aforementioned Classic Causeway, whose chances were comprised that day due to having to be gunned early from the outside post in the field of 13.

Prince of Medina could prove a tough customer this Saturday. Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, the Kentucky-bred Pioneerof the Nile colt was credited with a career-best 93 Beyer Speed Figure when he finished fourth in the Risen Star.

MY CURRENT KENTUCKY DERBY TOP 10

Messier, who again is atop my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week, had another sharp workout. The Kentucky-bred Medaglia d’Oro colt, working by himself, stepped four furlongs in :48.60 last Sunday at Santa Anita for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. It ranked second-fastest of 61 works at the distance that day.

You can view Messier’s Sunday workout on the XBTV.com website using this link: https://www.xbtv.com/video/empire-maker/messier-worked-4-furlongs-in-48-60-at-santa-anita-park-on-march-20th-2022/

In a solo drill a week earlier, Messier was clocked in a bullet :59.40. It was fastest of 62 five-furlong works that morning.

You can watch Messier’s March 13 workout on XBTV using this link: https://www.xbtv.com/video/empire-maker/messier-worked-5-furlongs-in-59-40-at-santa-anita-park-on-march-13th-2022bob-baffert_sa_220313/

Messier is scheduled to make his next start in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 9.

Secret Oath, who is No. 2 in my Kentucky Derby rankings, worked five furlongs in :59.40 at Oaklawn on March 17 for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. The Kentucky-bred Arrogate filly takes on the boys in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 2.

My Kentucky Derby Top 10 for this week is below:

1. Messier
2. Secret Oath
3. Classic Causeway
4. Simplification
5. White Abarrio
6. Morello
7. Smile Happy
8. Emmanuel
9. Epicenter
10. Forbidden Kingdom

Siegel’s “main players” this week in his Triple Crown rankings are: 1. Messier, 2. Smile Happy, 3. Simplification, 4. Epicenter, 5. White Abarrio, 6. Classic Causeway, 7. Secret Oath, 8. Forbidden Kingdom, 9. Early Voting, 10. Emmanuel, 11. Morello, 12. Zozos, 13. Charge It, 14. Zandon, 15. Mo Donegal, 16. In Due Time.

BUBBLING UNDER MY TOP 10 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

Azure Coast
Call Me Midnight
Charge It
Cyberknife
Early Voting
Ethereal Road
In Due Time
Major General
Mo Donegal
Pappacap
Pinehurst
Pioneer of Medina
Rattle N Roll
Slow Down Andy
We the People
Zandon
Zozos

TIME AGAIN FOR DERBY STRIKES

Whoever wins the Louisiana Derby almost certainly will not be racing again until the Kentucky Derby. Once a 3-year-old makes his or her final start before the first Saturday in May, their number of “Derby strikes” can be determined.

I developed my Derby Strikes System (DSS) back in 1999. This system at that time consisted of nine categories. When a horse did not qualify in one of the nine categories, the horse received a strike.

Various “rules” for the Kentucky Derby once were very popular. A “Derby rule” meant that a horse needed to have done this or that, or not done this or that, in order to win the Kentucky Derby. However, through the years, many of the so-called “Derby rules” were broken. This caused their popularity to wane.

I think what has distinguished my Derby Strikes System from any single “Derby rule” is the DSS is more comprehensive. The DSS consists of many factors that attempt to ascertain the chances a horse has to win the Kentucky Derby from BOTH tactical and historical perspectives. It is the merger of the TACTICAL with the HISTORICAL that might well make the DSS better than any single “Derby rule.”

A number of the categories in my DSS are tied to a Kentucky Derby being run on the first Saturday in May. As a result, when the race was switched from May 2 to Sept. 5 in 2020 due to COVID-19, it rendered my DSS unworkable for that particular year.

As it was originally constructed back in 1999, the DSS seemed to work well through the years. Because of that, I resisted making any changes.

But when the DSS returned last year after the Kentucky Derby reverted to its traditional date of being run on the first Saturday in May, I decided that the time had come to make a logical and appropriate tweak. This tweak was in reaction to this major change in the sport: Horses just do not race nearly as much as they did when the DSS was introduced in 1999.

One of the original categories was that a horse needed to have made at least six lifetime starts prior to the Kentucky Derby. It is abundantly clear that this no longer is relevant.

From 1973 through 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus was the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby having previously made fewer than six lifetime starts. He had made five starts going into the Kentucky Derby.

But from 2006 through 2019, seven horses won the Kentucky Derby having previously made fewer than six lifetime starts. They were Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008), Animal Kingdom (2011), I’ll Have Another (2012), American Pharoah (2015), Always Dreaming (2017) and Justify (2018).

What once had been a strike no longer deserved to be a strike.

Consequently, the category in the DSS specifying that a horse needs to have made at least six lifetime starts prior to the Kentucky Derby was dropped last year. My revamped DSS now consists of eight categories.

The eight categories are listed toward the end of this column/blog/article.

One of these eight categories is a horse needs to have raced as a 2-year-old to avoid getting a strike. This remains a category even though Justify in 2018 became the first Kentucky Derby winner who did not race at 2 since Apollo in 1882.

The fact that only one horse since 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without having raced at 2 does not come anywhere close to this particular category needing to be discarded.

The DSS can’t go back further than 1973 because that was the year in which stakes races in the U.S. were first graded. Two of my eight categories deal with graded stakes races.

According to the DSS as now constituted and excluding the Kentucky Derby of 2020 when the race was run in September, 83% of the Kentucky Derby winners (40 out of 48) have had zero strikes or one strike going back to 1973.

The seven Kentucky Derby winners with two strikes were Cannonade (1974), Ferdinand (1986), Sea Hero (1993), Funny Cide (2003), Giacomo (2005), Justify (2018) and Country House (2019).

Only one horse, Mine That Bird in 2009, has had more than two strikes. He had four.

WINNER’S STRIKES GOING BACK TO 1973

Many years after I developed my Derby Strikes System in 1999, racing enthusiast Ryan Stillman suggested that I should take a look at the number of strikes for Kentucky Derby winners prior to 1999. Again, because stakes races in this country were not graded until 1973, I could not go further back than that year. That’s because, as mentioned earlier, two of my eight categories deal with graded stakes races.

Maximum Security finished first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby. He had zero strikes. But the stewards disqualified Maximum Security and placed him 17th for committing a foul when he veered out sharply nearing the five-sixteenths marker to cause interference to War of Will, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy. Country House was declared the winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

Medina Spirit finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. He had zero strikes. But earlier this year, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission announced that the three stewards in the stand for the 2021 Kentucky Derby had issued a Feb. 21 ruling stating Medina Spirit “is disqualified and all purse money forfeited” because of a medication violation. Mandaloun was thereby declared the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Baffert and his legal team are fighting the disqualification.

Based on the Derby Strikes System and its eight categories, the strikes for each Kentucky Derby winner going back to 1973 are below:

2021 Mandaloun (1 strike) Category 4*
2020 race run in September
2019 Country House (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 3**
2018 Justify (2 strikes) Categories 1 and 7
2017 Always Dreaming (1 strike) Category 1
2016 Nyquist (0 strikes)
2015 American Pharoah (0 strikes)
2014 California Chrome (0 strikes)
2013 Orb (0 strikes)
2012 I’ll Have Another (0 strikes)
2011 Animal Kingdom (0 strikes)
2010 Super Saver (1 strike) Category 4
2009 Mine That Bird (4 strikes) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 9
2008 Big Brown (0 strikes)
2007 Street Sense (0 strikes)
2006 Barbaro (0 strikes)
2005 Giacomo (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 5
2004 Smarty Jones (0 strikes)
2003 Funny Cide (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 8
2002 War Emblem (0 strikes)
2001 Monarchos (0 strikes)
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (1 strike) Category 6
1999 Charismatic (1 strike) Category 5
1998 Real Quiet (0 strikes)
1997 Silver Charm (1 strike) Category 4
1996 Grindstone (0 strikes)
1995 Thunder Gulch (0 strikes)
1994 Go for Gin (0 strikes)
1993 Sea Hero (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 5
1992 Lil E. Tee (0 strikes)
1991 Strike the Gold (0 strikes)
1990 Unbridled (1 strike) Category 3
1989 Sunday Silence (0 strikes)
1988 Winning Colors (0 strikes)
1987 Alysheba (1 strike) Category 2
1986 Ferdinand (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 4
1985 Spend a Buck (0 strikes)
1984 Swale (0 strikes)
1983 Sunny’s Halo (1 strike) Category 1
1982 Gato Del Sol (1 strike) Category 3
1981 Genuine Risk (1 strike) Category 1
1980 Pleasant Colony (0 strikes)
1979 Spectacular Bid (0 strikes)
1978 Affirmed (0 strikes)
1977 Seattle Slew (0 strikes)
1976 Bold Forbes (0 strikes)
1975 Foolish Pleasure (0 strikes)
1974 Cannonade (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 4
1973 Secretariat (0 strikes)

*Medina Spirit (0 strikes) finished first but was disqualified and all purse money forfeited

**Maximum Security (0 strikes) finished first but was disqualified and placed 17th

MY DERBY STRIKES SYSTEM’S CATEGORIES

What are the eight categories in my Derby Strikes System? They are listed below:

1. THE GRADED STAKES CATEGORY. (The horse ran in a graded stakes race before March 31.) This points out horses who have competed against tough competition prior to March 31 rather than at the last minute in April, enabling the horse to be properly battle-tested. (Exceptions: Going back to the introduction of graded stakes races in the U.S. in 1973, only Genuine Risk in 1980, Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Always Dreaming in 2017 have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 2 or early at 3 before March 31.)

2. THE WIN IN A GRADED STAKES CATEGORY. (The horse has won a graded stakes race.) This points out horses who have shown they have the class to win a graded stakes race. (Exceptions: Ferdinand in 1986, Alysheba in 1987, Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo in 2005 are the only exceptions going back to the introduction of U.S. graded stakes races in 1973; Alysheba in 1987 did finish first in the Blue Grass, only to be disqualified and placed third.)

3. THE EIGHTH POLE CATEGORY. (In either of his or her last two starts before the Kentucky Derby, the horse was either first or second with a furlong to go.) This points out horses who were running strongly at the eighth pole, usually in races at 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles. By running strongly at the same point in the Kentucky Derby, a horse would be in a prime position to win the roses. Keep in mind that 53 of the last 56 Kentucky Derby winners through 2021 have been first or second with a furlong to run. Since Decidedly won the Derby in 1962 when he was third with a furlong to go, the only three Kentucky Derby winners who were not first or second with a furlong to run were Animal Kingdom, third with a furlong remaining in 2011 when only a half-length from being second; Giacomo, sixth with a furlong to go in 2005; and Grindstone, fourth with a furlong to run in 1996. (Exceptions: Going back to 1955, the Kentucky Derby winners who weren’t either first or second a furlong from the finish in his or her last two starts have been Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Cannonade in 1974, Gato Del Sol in 1982, Unbridled in 1990 and Sea Hero in 1993, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)

4. THE GAMENESS CATEGORY. (The horse’s finish position in both of his or her last two races before the Kentucky Derby was no worse than his or her running position at the eighth pole.) This points out horses who don’t like to get passed in the final furlong. (Exceptions: Going back to 1955, the exceptions have been Venetian Way in 1960, Cannonade in 1974, Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Ferdinand in 1986, Silver Charm in 1997, Mine That Bird in 2009, Super Saver in 2010 and Mandaloun in 2021, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)

5. THE DISTANCE FOUNDATION CATEGORY. (The horse has finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the proper foundation and/or stamina for the Kentucky Derby distance. (Exceptions: Going back to 1955, the only exceptions have been Kauai King in 1966, Sea Hero in 1993, Charismatic in 1999, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009.)

6. THE NO ADDING OR REMOVING BLINKERS CATEGORY. (The horse has not added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her final start at 3 before the Kentucky Derby.) This seems to point out that, if a horse is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, the trainer is not searching for answers so late in the game. (Going back to 1973, no horse has added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her last start at 3 before winning the Kentucky Derby.)

7. THE RACED AS A 2-YEAR-OLD CATEGORY. (The horse made at least one start as a 2-year-old.) (Exceptions: Apollo in 1882 and Justify in 2018. Going back to 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old now are a combined 1 for 65 in the Kentucky Derby through 2021. During this period, the only horses to finish second or third in the Kentucky Derby without having raced at 2 were Hampden, who finished third in 1946; Coaltown, second in 1948; Agitate, third in 1974; Reinvested, third in 1982; Strodes Creek, second in 1994; Curlin, third in 2007; Bodemeister, second in 2012; and Battle of Midway, third in 2017.)

8. THE NOT A GELDING CATEGORY. (The horse is not a gelding.) (Exceptions: Funny Cide in 2003 and Mine That Bird in 2009 are the only geldings to win the Kentucky Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.)

NTRA TOP THROUGHBRED POLL

The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll is below:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 344 Life Is Good (32)
2. 282 Letruska (1)
3. 205 Express Train (1)
4. 204 Hot Rod Charlie
5. 200 Colonel Liam
6. 152 Flightline (1)
7.   91 Mandaloun
8.   77 Midnight Bourbon
9.   66 Country Grammer

NTRA TOP 3-YEAR-OLD POLL

The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll is below:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 286 Epicenter (9)
2. 274 Forbidden Kingdom (8)
3. 248 Classic Causeway (2)
4. 205 Simplification
5. 199 Messier (11)
6. 163 Smile Happy (2)
7. 128 White Abarrio
7. 108 Secret Oath (3)
9.   82 Morello
10. 52 Zandon


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