Analyzing Kenny McPeek's Derby Contenders

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Through the years, trainer Kenny McPeek has saddled a bevy of Grade 1 winners. He's won the Preakness S. (G1) with champion filly Swiss Skydiver. He's upset the Belmont S. (G1) with unheralded 70-1 longshot Sarava.

But one race McPeek has yet to win is the Kentucky Derby (G1). McPeek made his Derby debut in 1995, saddling Tejano Run to finish second behind Thunder Gulch. Since then, McPeek has sent out five additional Derby starters, most recently Java's War (13th) and Frac Daddy (16th) in 2013.

Could 2022 be the year McPeek completes his personal Triple Crown? Coming off a career-best year in terms of purse earnings, McPeek has a strong stable of talented two-year-olds aiming toward the 2022 Kentucky Derby. Several have already tasted success at the graded stakes level, but at least one other promising prospect is still flying under the radar.

Let's highlight four of McPeek's best juveniles and analyze their Derby credentials:

Rattle N Roll

It's hard to single out the most accomplished of McPeek's 2022 Kentucky Derby brigade, but if we judge strictly by the highest caliber of racing class achieved, then Rattle N Roll—a proven Grade 1 winner—is the stable star.

Rattle N Roll was beaten in his first two starts, but there were extenuating circumstances, and he showed significant improvement during the fall season in Kentucky. First, he trounced a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight at Churchill Downs, sprinting the final five-sixteenths of a mile in a quick :30.20 to win by three lengths. Then he jumped up in class for the Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, where he exploded from behind a fast pace to dominate by 4 1/4 lengths.

Visually speaking, Rattle N Roll looked terrific in the Breeders' Futurity. He subsequently missed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) with a hoof issue, but this setback shouldn't stop the promising chestnut from embarking on a productive Road to the Kentucky Derby campaign. As a son of Cigar Mile H. (G1) winner Connect out of Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Johannesburg, Rattle N Roll has a pedigree with the blend of miler speed and two-turn stamina that has proven so successful in recent editions of the Derby. His future looks bright.

Smile Happy

McPeek himself has stated he doesn't typically crank his juveniles to win on debut, so when they show promise right out of the gate, it's wise to sit up and pay attention.

Smile Happy is a perfect example. The son of champion sprinter Runhappy won his debut at Keeneland in impressive fashion, rallying boldly to smash a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight by 5 1/2 lengths. Then he stepped up in class for the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) at Churchill Downs, where he again unleashed a powerful finish (sprinting the final five-sixteenths in :30.69) to score by 3 1/4 lengths.

Two starts, two easy victories. Clearly Smile Happy has a serious engine under his hood. And while handicappers might be inclined to view Runhappy as a source of speed rather than classic stamina, the bottom half of Smile Happy's pedigree is packed with stout bloodlines, and mixing speed with stamina (rather than stamina with stamina) is usually the best approach for breeding a Derby winner.

Rattle N Roll might have a higher profile, but Smile Happy could well be the best of McPeek's Derby candidates.

Tiz the Bomb

It's easy to think of Tiz the Bomb as a grass horse. After all, the son of Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) winner Hit It a Bomb was easily the most accomplished U.S. turf two-year-old of 2021. After battling to victories in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Mile S. and Bourbon S. (G2), Tiz the Bomb unleashed a strong rally to finish second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, beaten only by European raider Modern Games.

But Tiz the Bomb might be more than just a turf star. Remember his maiden win racing on dirt at Ellis Park? Tiz the Bomb led all the way to smash his pursuers by 14 1/4 lengths, in the process sprinting the final two furlongs in :12.39 and :12.59. Talk about a strong performance!

Tiz the Bomb missed a slated start in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) with a leg issue, but the bay colt figures to join the Road to the Kentucky Derby sometime this winter. His dam sire is two-time Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner Tiznow, so there's plenty of dirt breeding in the bottom half of Tiz the Bomb's pedigree. Don't count this multi-surface threat out of the mix.

Dash Attack

Remember what we said about McPeek taking a patient approach with first-time starters? If Smile Happy is any indication of how a McPeek-trained debut winner can improve second-time out, then I can't wait to see what the future holds for Dash Attack.

A son of successful sprinter/miler Munnings out of a mare by Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun, Dash Attack delivered a winning effort in his Dec. 5 debut at Oaklawn Park. Racing one mile, the chestnut colt settled just off fractions of :23.46 and :47.41 in fourth place, then shifted outside for the stretch drive and rallied steadily to win by 1 1/4 lengths over a good and sealed track.

Dash Attack's final time of 1:38.27 wasn't anything to write home about, but he finished up nicely (sprinting the final furlong in just under :12.79), and history suggests Dash Attack will improve significantly off this effort. A productive winter campaign may be in the offing.

Which of McPeek's juveniles do you think has the best chance of winning the 2022 Kentucky Derby?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.

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