Expert Travis Stone projects Kentucky Derby 2022 odds

The 2022 Kentucky Derby morning line takes on two distinct challenges: How short to make Epicenteran obvious morning-line favorite on paper, and how do you separate the rest?

For starters, it’s hard to imagine Epicenter not going favored. His credentials are stellar. He’s run fast races in the deepest preps throughout the winter and spring. He’s multi-dimensional, showing more professionalism in his Louisiana Derby (G2) win than in his prior starts, and he figures to be fine with the added 16th of a mile.

On credentials, Epicenter fits as well as any favorite from the last several years. And when you consider the average final odds of post-time favorites and the relative competition this year, odds of 7-2 are where I settled – but only temporarily.

Enter Mattress Mack.

Well known Houstonian James McIngvale, known as Mattress Mack, is using his brilliant marketing and promotional acumen to use the Kentucky Derby as leverage in a furniture store promotion. Simply put, if the favorite wins the Kentucky Derby, customers will be refunded the purchase price of furniture they bought in the weeks leading up to the race. The liability to Mack is in the millions and so to hedge, he is poised to plunk a giant sum on the Derby favorite.

Last year during the same promotion, Mack reportedly bet $ 2.4 million on Essential Quality to win the Derby. Without his wager, Essential Quality would have been a narrow 4-1 favorite over Rock Your World. With Mack’s plunge, he went off as the 2.9-to-1 favorite (displayed as 5-2 through tote).

It’s hard to imagine someone being a market mover in the biggest pools of the year, but he is. So given the Mack factor, I believe Epicenter must be lowered to 3-1. I was tempted to go 5-2, the same odds that Essential Quality closed at last year, but the competitiveness of Epicenter’s main rivals caused hesitation. Specifically, for the role of second choice.

Second choice: Zandon or Taiba

To help settle on the favorite when building a morning line, it helps to ask yourself: “If not Epicenter, then who?” And therein lies the challenge this year. I think there are two very strong candidates for second choice: Zandon and Taiba.

Zandon is an improving 3-year-old with popular rider Flavien Prat and popular trainer Chad Brown, both of whom tend to draw significant support at the windows. Zandon also is quite good. He has improved this year and run races fast enough to win this Derby. Zandon’s Blue Grass (G1) was so impressive that Marty McGee, who follows the Derby trail as much as anyone, made him the 4-1 favorite in the Daily Racing Form‘s weekly Derby Watch column.

Then there’s Taiba. Yes, he’s lightly raced and, yes, the Derby is asking a lot. But each year, one of those famous Derby curses becomes yet another broken rule. In this new era where points trump earnings and days between starts are valued more than the starts themselves, Apollo and the like are soon forgotten.

Taiba is arguably the most talented horse in the race. His speed figures are among the fastest, he has tactical speed and he’s undefeated (the wagering public loves that). I’m torn as to whether the lightly raced profile is penalized strongly by the public. He’s the best horse from the West Coast and frankly, if he runs back to the Santa Anita Derby (G1) form, he is a serious threat to Epicenter.

While I’m tempted to slide Taiba in as the outright second choice, I’m going to punt and make him and Zandon co-second choices at 9-2. They compliment each other well, and I believe it’s a toss-up who tightens up the most come post time.

Other major contenders

Mo Donegal’s Wood Memorial (G2) win was perfection in the saddle for jockey Joel Rosario. But credit goes to Mo Donegal as well, who was more professional than his prior starts. Distance and ability are no concern, his trainer has won the Derby twice and he’s likely to have Irad Ortiz Jr. guiding him. If he was tabbed by a well-respected horseplayer, would you snicker? Hardly. Again, the competition for Epicenter runs deep.

And then there’s Messier. Perhaps he needed the Santa Anita Derby since his blowout Robert Lewis (G3) score in early February. The Lewis, by the way, was one of the fastest races on the trail for many figure makers. And while Bob Baffert is not the trainer of record, you have to assume his influence will persist in the market. Finally, if you like and respect Taiba, which I do, then Messier naturally falls in behind him.

So we’ll take the “second best” of both coasts, Mo Donegal and Messier, and put them at 8-1 in this year’s Derby.

Other thoughts

One theme you might sense is my skepticism of this year’s Florida- and Arkansas-based contenders.

The Fountain of Youth (G2) has proven to be a negative key race, and the Florida Derby (G1) didn’t offer much visually. White Abarrio has improved and is within range on speed. But in the spirit of “you can’t pick them all,” I think he’s one of the major contenders that drifts upward. I am making him 12-1.

The distribution of talent on the Derby trail is often random, and the Arkansas contingent feels like this weakest link this year. The Smarty Jones, Southwest (G3), Rebel (G2) and Arkansas Derby produced sluggish speed figures, big pace collapses, tighter finishes and random results – all hallmarks of weaker races. Cyberknife, at 20-1, is the lowest I could go.

With the above scaffolding of opinions in mind, the line is now about making the math work. My line is bloated because of the number of runners included. Early Voting, for example, is not a confirmed starter but odds of 15-1 take up 6.25 points. The goal is to keep the line between 120-130 points using the formula of 100 / (odds + 1) for each starter.

A wacky post position could rattle this line quite a bit. And inevitably, some random contender is likely to take a lot of unforeseen money. Maybe Happy Jack is this year’s My Boy Jack? Forecasting such things two weeks out is hard enough when trying to decipher yet another fascinating puzzle that is the Kentucky Derby. Good luck!

Travis Stone’s early Kentucky Derby morning line

Horse Trainer Last race Odds
Epicenter Steve Asmussen 1st, Louisiana Derby (G2) 3-1
Zandon Chad Brown 1st, Blue Grass (G1) 9-2
Taiba Tim Yakteen 1st, Santa Anita Derby (G1) 9-2
Messier Tim Yakteen 2nd, Santa Anita Derby 8-1
Mo Donegal Todd Pletcher 1st, Wood Memorial (G2) 8-1
White Abarrio Saffie Joseph Jr. 1st, Florida Derby (G1) 12-1
Charge It Todd Pletcher 2nd, Florida Derby 15-1
Early Voting Chad Brown 2nd, Wood Meorial 15-1
Tiz the Bomb Ken McPeek 1st, Jeff Ruby (G3) 20-1
Cyberknife Brad Cox 1st, Arkansas Derby (G1) 20-1
Smile Happy Ken McPeek 2nd, Blue Grass 20-1
Zozos Brad Cox 2nd, Louisiana Derby 20-1
Crown Pride (JPN) Koichi Shintani 1st, UAE Derby (G2) 30-1
Simplification Antonio Sano 3rd, Florida Derby 30-1
Pioneer of Medina Todd Pletcher 3rd, Louisiana Derby 30-1
Tawny Port Brad Cox 1st, Lexington (G3) 30-1
Barber Road John Ortiz 2nd, Arkansas Derby 50-1
Un Ojo Ricky Courville 8th, Arkansas Derby 50-1
Happy Jack Doug O’Neill 3rd, Santa Anita Derby 50-1
Summer Is Tomorrow Bhupat Seemar 2nd, UAE Derby 50-1
In Due Time Kelly Breen 3rd, Lexington 50-1
Ethereal Road D. Wayne Lukas 4th, Lexington 50-1
Rich Strike Eric Reed 3rd, Jeff Ruby 50-1

Travis Stone is in his eighth year as the track announcer at Churchill Downs.

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