The Kentucky Derby is finally back at full capacity at Churchill Downs

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Twenty eager studs break out of the starting gate, a full house for the first time in three years and a Kentucky Derby missing a dominant favorite.

Things could get interesting on Saturday at Churchill Downs, where the 2019 and 2021 winners were disqualified.

The biggest question for these 3-year-olds is if they can run 1 1/₄ miles while jostling for position in front of the largest crowd they will ever see or hear.

“Things can get a bit dodgy throughout the race when you have to go through holes and take dirt and some bumps along the way,” said trainer Chad Brown. “You just never know what will happen when you open the gate.”

Zandon is the early 3/1 favourite, breaking away from the No. 10 post which has produced the second-most winners at nine. The dark bay stallion is trained by Brown and is aiming for his first Derby win after six defeats.

Kentucky Derby contestant Zandon

“That would mean everything,” said Brown, who has had his own stable for 15 years. “It’s so hard to get these Derby horses, especially the favourite.”

After two years of COVID-19 restrictions, the derby returns in all its loud, colorful glory. Visitor numbers are once again at full capacity, meaning some 150,000 people are crammed into Churchill Downs, dressed to the nines and fueled by mint juleps served in souvenir glasses. Post time is 6:57 p.m

“They want to adopt the philosophy that it’s just another race, but of course it’s definitely not just another race,” said Barbados-born trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who saddles White Abarrio.

In 2019, winner Maximum Security was disqualified for meddling and Country House wore the garland of red roses.

An eerie silence hung over the track in 2020 as fans were not allowed due to the pandemic and the race was postponed to September. Last year, the Derby returned to its usual venue on the first Saturday in May with attendance limited to around 52,000.

Steve Asmussen has won more races in North America than any other coach, but he has never won the Derby in 23 attempts. He will saddle Epicenter, the early 7/2 runner-up who claimed his first career win at Churchill Downs last fall.

“You have no control over how 20 first-time 3-year-olds deal with this crowd,” Asmussen said. “None of them obviously competed in a race where so many runners competed.”

The 148th Derby is missing horse racing’s well-known name: Bob Baffert. The Hall of Famer coach with a record six wins was suspended from Churchill Downs this year after last year’s winner, Medina Spirit, failed a post-race drug test.

Baffert’s shadow still looms large over the Twin Spiers. Two stallions previously trained by him will be in the starting blocks: Messier, the early 8/1 third choice named after Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier, and 12/1 Shot Taiba.

Taiba, the least experienced colt in the field, has the most experienced jockey on his back in 56-year-old Mike Smith. He could break Bill Shoemaker’s record as the oldest winning jockey.

“If I can put him on a good, clean ride then inexperience won’t get in the way that much,” Smith said.

Taiba will seek to become the first horse to win the Derby in just his third start since Leonatus in 1883, and the first horse to win in his third start after not racing as a two-year-old. Both Messier and Taiba are coached by Tim Yakteen, Baffert’s former assistant.

“We’re going to need some luck, like any horse in the Derby,” said Yakteen.

Baffert told The Associated Press he plans to watch the race remotely with family and friends. The Kentucky Derby is finally back at full capacity at Churchill Downs

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