LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby leads off the first Triple Crown season in decades without the chance of Bob Baffert officially winning one or more of the three races.
Baffert’s absence while suspended shadows over the race, particularly because two horses he trained for a significant period of time are among the top contenders. Former assistant Tim Yakteen would get the credit if Taiba or Messier wins after taking over training duties.
"It’s a talking point, but it’s not a distraction other than that," retired jockey Jerry Bailey said. “To me, the only thing that’s going to be different is the record books.”
Taiba could become the first horse since 1883 to win the Derby with two or fewer previous starts. Baffert-trained Justify won it on the way to sweeping the Triple Crown in 2018 after racing just three times before the first Saturday in May.
“Times have changed in that regard," NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss said. "Horses run much less often now leading into the Kentucky Derby in general, so it was just a matter of time.”
This is Bailey's 34th Derby and Moss' 41st, with many of them on the NBC Sports set and around the Churchill Downs barns and track together for more than a decade. They tend to agree more often than not, with the notable exception of 2014 when they disagreed about the ride jockey Victor Espinoza gave California Chrome in losing the Belmont with the chance to end the sport's lengthy Triple Crown drought.
Asked if there was a potential Triple Crown winner in this crop of 3-year-olds, Moss said it was impossible to say and pointed to plenty of near-misses over the years. Bailey thinks lightly raced Taiba could be the one.
“If he were able to do this and win the Kentucky Derby, he still only has three starts this year,” said Bailey, who won the Derby twice. “With others maybe having peaked or close to being peaked to try and get to the Kentucky Derby and win it, he might be one that is just on the ascension.”
Among the 10 horses who entered the Derby with as little racing experience as Taiba over the past century-plus, none have come close to winning this race.
“The average margin of defeat’s been 25 lengths,” Moss said. “But the difference is none of those horses were given any chance at all to win. And this horse is completely different. This horse is in with an outstanding chance to win.”
Taiba faces a different challenge in a crowded, 20-horse field than his first two races with much more room to maneuver. Bailey said the challenge is for Mike Smith to try to replicate the trips Taiba got his first two times out of the starting gate to keep the colt comfortable.
“He hasn’t run against large fields, and he’s had very, very clean trips, no traffic,” Bailey said. “For Mike Smith, his biggest job is to get him out of the starting gate, which the horse does have some early speed and put him in a position where there’s not that many new things happening to him early in the race.”
A victory by Taiba would make Smith, 56, the oldest jockey to win the Derby. In his way are a record five jockeys from France and a few trainers not named Baffert looking to capture the first jewel of the Triple Crown for the first time.
Steve Asmussen, who has the most wins of any trainer in North America, has the expected favorite in Epicenter. Chad Brown's Zandon is another serious challenger who is training well and could give the champion trainer his first Derby victory.
Crown Pride would be the first Japan-based horse to win any Triple Crown race. He won the UAE Derby in March in Dubai.
The post position draw is Monday in Louisville.