Keeler Johnson's Kentucky Derby 148 Selections

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

A stellar field has been entered in the 148th running of the $3 million Kentucky Derby (G1) on Saturday at Churchill Downs. The historic 1 1/4-mile race has drawn 22 horses (including two also-eligibles), including 14 graded stakes winners and four Grade 1 winners.

There are so many ways to go in handicapping a race this competitive. It's arguably one of the deepest and most wide-open Derbys since 2012, when established Grade 1 winners I'll Have Another, Bodemeister, Dullahan, Creative Cause, Liaison, Union Rags, Hansen, Gemologist, and Take Charge Indy waged battle.

Considering the Kentucky Derby is typically the most intensely scrutinized race of the year, it might seem ridiculous to choose a horse based off a single handicapping factor. Yet that's pretty much exactly what I'm going by supporting #10 Mo Donegal (10-1) as my top choice in the 2022 Run for the Roses.

Now, to be fair, there are actually many reasons why I like Mo Donegal. I like the grit and determination he showed when rallying from behind a very slow pace to beat Kentucky Derby favorite Zandon in the Remsen S. (G2) at Aqueduct last fall. I like how he rallied through traffic off an illness-induced two-month break to win the Wood Memorial (G2) last month. I like how the Kentucky Derby will mark his third run of the season, setting the stage for a career-best performance.

But above all, I love the way Mo Donegal finished in the Wood Memorial, and that's why I'm picking him in the Kentucky Derby. Some late runners succeed when the pacesetters tire in front of them, making it easier to catch up. But Mo Donegal succeeds because he possesses a sensational turn-of-foot.

In the Wood Memorial, the pace was steady with fractions of :23.86, :47.75, and 1:11.59. It was controlled enough that front-running Withers S. (G3) winner Early Voting had plenty of gas left for the final three furlongs, which he rocketed in:36.42 seconds per Trakus.

Such a fast finish would win most editions of the Wood Memorial, but Early Voting had the misfortune to encounter Mo Donegal on a day when the latter ran out of his skin. Mo Donegal trailed Early Voting by 4 1/2 lengths at the three-eighths pole, but somehow accelerated the final three furlongs in an epic :35.61 to get up and win by a neck. According to Trakus, Mo Donegal ran the final furlong in :11.97.

Fractions like these are almost never seen in Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers, and Mo Donegal was rewarded with a suitably large 121 Brisnet Late Pace rating, the highest figure in the Kentucky Derby field. Who do you suppose owns the second-highest figure? That would also be Mo Donegal, who threw down a 117 in the Remsen.

I don't normally support deep closers in the Kentucky Derby. The last to cross the finish line first was Orb in 2013. But there's a fair amount of speed on paper in the 2022 Kentucky Derby, and I'm optimistic Mo Donegal will get the setup he needs to shine. A pace meltdown might not be necessary; any sort of solid tempo (like in the Wood Memorial) should give Mo Donegal a fighting chance to unleash a winning rally.

Who are the other key contenders in the Kentucky Derby? Louisiana Derby (G2) winner #3 Epicenter (7-2) and Blue Grass S. (G1) hero #10 Zandon (3-1) are obvious threats, though I'm a little concerned about the speedy Epicenter getting a clean trip from post 3. Drawing inside of the other key speed horses probably isn't ideal for Epicenter, who may have to sprint hard early to avoid getting boxed in behind rivals.

I'm also keen to support the Santa Anita Derby (G1) 1-2 finishers #12 Taiba (12-1) and #6 Messier (8-1). I loved the relentless rally Taiba unleashed in his lone start on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, grinding down Messier to win by 2 1/4 lengths. But Taiba only has two starts under his belt and might be a little hard to trust while wheeling back just four weeks after a hard effort in his two-turn debut.

In contrast, Messier was returning from a two-month break in the Santa Anita Derby and ran deceptively well in defeat. He kept key rival Forbidden Kingdom honest up front and led into the homestretch before succumbing to Taiba's late charge. If Messier moves forward in the Kentucky Derby (as recent fast workouts suggest he might), I'm optimistic he can vie for victory under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. Messier is bred to relish racing 1 1/4 miles, so if Velazquez puts Messier on the lead (as he did with recent Derby firsts-past-the-post Authentic and Medina Spirit), Messier may prove tough to run down.

Mo Donegal, Taiba, and Messier should all offer enticing odds in the betting, but if you want to include an even bigger longshot in exotic wagers, #7 Crown Pride (20-1) is worth a look. I've been waiting to play a Japanese horse in the Derby ever since Master Fencer outran all expectations to run seventh across the finish line in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, gaining a ton of ground late to finish just 2 1/4 lengths behind upgraded winner Country House.

Japan is known for producing top-class turf horses, but their dirt runners are also on the rise, as evidenced by Marche Lorraine's 49-1 upset victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) last year. Crown Pride was a decisive winner of the UAE Derby (G2) in Dubai and has turned in a bevy of encouraging workouts (including a pair of bullet half-mile moves) since arriving at Churchill Downs, so don't be surprised if he outruns his odds and snatches a piece of the Kentucky Derby purse.


1st: Mo Donegal
2nd: Messier
3rd: Taiba
4th: Epicenter

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in 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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