Messier, named for Hall of Fame NHL center Mark Messier, will try to become the third Canada-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, following Northern Dancer (1964) and Sunny’s Halo (1983).
To make sure the horse would be eligible for Saturday’s Run for the Roses, embattled trainer Bob Baffert — serving a two-year suspension at Churchill Downs — transferred Messier to Tim Yakteen, a former Baffert assistant who went out on his own in 2004. In his first and only start for Yakteen, Messier ran a game second in April’s Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, finishing 2¼ lengths behind Taiba. Jockey John Velazquez has ridden Messier in his past two races and will be back in the saddle for the Derby. That consistency is key because it appears Velazquez knows how to take advantage of the horse’s best traits: his speed and versatile running style.
Messier won from just off the pace in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity in December and raced similarly when he placed in the Santa Anita Derby. He also went wire-to-wire in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, run at 1 1/16 miles, and won by 15 lengths. The stalking running style has been found in 75 percent of Kentucky Derby winners since the points system was adopted in 2012 despite being used by a little more than a third of all horses entered. In other words, stalkers such as Messier win far more than their share of Kentucky Derbies. (This analysis excludes the 2020 Derby, which was run in September.)
Speed is also not an issue. Messier has improved his speed figure for six straight races, earning a career-best 108 Brisnet figure in the Santa Anita Derby. That gives him three 100-plus speed figures to date, including two during his 3-year-old campaign. He also earned a 103 Beyer speed figure from the Daily Racing Form, one of the highest marks in the field.
Earning top figures from two different rating systems is noteworthy. Since 1992, 27 of 30 Kentucky Derby winners have entered the race with a career-best Beyer speed figure of at least 95. Had Maximum Security not been disqualified in 2019, it would be 28 of 30. A healthy number of Derby winners, 19 of the past 22, recorded a Brisnet speed figure of 100 or more before the race. (Different outlets use different methods to calculate speed figures and to adjust for track conditions, but most are calibrated so that a higher number is better.) It’s also worth noting that Messier earned a career-best pace figure to the half-mile mark in the Santa Anita Derby, a sign of improving form.
In addition to having speed, a winning horse needs the stamina to carry it for 10 furlongs. Because all these horses are going 1¼ miles for the first time, the only way to attempt to gauge how suited they are for the distance is to look at their pedigrees, and Messier is stacked with bloodlines teeming with Triple Crown success.
His sire, Empire Maker — a son of Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled — was the runner-up in the 2003 Kentucky Derby before winning the Belmont Stakes. Unbridled’s grandsire, Mr. Prospector, is a legend in American horse racing. His male-line descendants have won almost half the Triple Crown races since 1990, with almost an even split among the Kentucky Derby (14), Preakness Stakes (16) and Belmont Stakes (15).
In fact, Mr. Prospector appears on both the sire and dam side of Messier’s pedigree. Messier’s dam, Checkered Past, is a daughter of Mr. Prospector’s son Smart Strike. Smart Strike’s progeny includes Curlin, a two-time horse of the year winner, plus Lookin At Lucky, a champion 2-year-old and 3-year-old.
That’s not all. Checkered Past’s dam is Catch the Flag, a daughter of A.P. Indy. A.P. Indy was sired by Seattle Slew, a Triple Crown winner, and won the Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic as a 3-year-old in 1992. He’s also a known source of stamina in horse pedigrees, none more famous than his grandson Tapit, the sire of Belmont Stakes winners Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016), Tapwrit (2017) and Essential Quality (2021).
The other contenders don’t check all the boxes. Zandon’s pedigree doesn’t show enough inherited stamina to compete well at the classic distance of 1¼ miles, and his closing running style could also be a detriment. Epicenter has the speed, yet his No. 3 post position might cause him to expend most of it out of the gate early to avoid traffic. Taiba has a nice blend of speed and stamina but is largely untested, having raced just twice in his young career. Simplification didn’t finish well in the Florida Derby at 1⅛ miles, suggesting an extra furlong might be difficult Saturday.
There is no other horse in the field that can name-drop more classic winners in its lineage than Messier, which, combined with his speed and running style, gives him everything he needs to put together a winning performance Saturday.