It’s been kind of a yo-yo year. Reigning 2 year old champ Classic Empire threw some unexpected tantrums. Irish War Cry randomly forgot how to run. California kind of phoned it in when it came to producing the cream of the Derby crop this year. McCraken was on the verge of superstardom, then lost to a horse named after a medical procedure acronym.
There are a lot of years when the best plan for placing Derby best is to close your eyes and point. This one isn’t quite as open ended as that, but the horses who are at the top of the ladder have a lot of questions to go with their answers,
1 – Lookin at Lee
He does his best running late, which will suit him well here, but he has trouble finding the winner’s circle. Drawing the dreaded one-hole won’t help him – he’ll likely be trapped down in on the rail and have trouble finding a clear path to get in gear. Fun fact: his daddy, Looking at Lucky, suffered the same fate coming out of the #1 post in 2010
2 – Thunder Snow
He has one of the coolest names in the field, is well traveled and has run farther than anyone in the field (UAE Derby is 1 3/16 miles). However we’re still waiting for a Goldolphin horse to win the Kentucky Derby after prepping in Dubai. Throw in the #2 post, which actually has a bigger drought than the 1-hole when it comes to producing a Derby winner, and I’m inclined to leave him out of my wagers.
3 – Fast and Accurate
His dirt resume is less than impressive, and the Spiral Stakes on Polytrack is not the greatest of Derby preps. This horse is a front runner and his connections have indicated they want the lead, and he’ll need a clean break to get it. I don’t see him being a threat to hit the board.
4 – Untrapped
He hit the board in the Rebel and Risen Star this spring, but was a non-threatening 5th in the Arkansas Derby. His lone win is a 6f maiden race. He’ll be a huge longshot, but I think there are smarter plays.
5 – Always Dreaming
Every year there is a flashy, brilliant Todd Pletcher horse. Every year that horse looks good on paper, but I never have a good gut feeling about it. Same goes for Always Dreaming, even though he won the Florida Derby in style. It’s his lone stakes attempt, making the Derby a rather big leap. He’s been training with draw reins in the morning because he’s been too aggressive, which is not really what you want to see going into this race. But he has top jock John Velasquez in the saddle and is one of the few horses this year who has shown consistency. He will likely be one of the top 3 betting choices. Overlook him at your peril, though I will probably overlook him.
6 – State of Honor
You will likely see this horse gunning his way to the lead and setting the pace. He’s run second and third all spring, most recently second to Always Dreaming in the Florida Derby, which makes him consistent if not remarkable. His pedigree and performance suggests a preference for distances closer to a mile. The likelihood of him getting the lead and keeping it for a 1 ¼ seems slim. But if he does indeed set the pace, he could have a lot to say about the outcome.
7 – Girvin
Girvin boasts wins in the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star Stakes, making him one of the few horses in the race this year with more than 1 graded stakes win as a 3 year old. However, last week it was announced he’s battling another quarter crack. My previous line of work makes me very wary of horses with foot problems. Patching quarter cracks is exactly that – a patch, not a fix for the mechanics that caused the problem in the first place. This is also his second crack – in a second hoof – since January, which tells me he’s running on at least 2 flat tires and possibly three. Not to say that he can’t still fire off a big effort – his latest work at Keeneland was sharp – but the issue has disrupted his training schedule and forced him to do some of his exercise in the KESMARC swimming pool to maintain fitness (insider tip: water is not good for poor quality feet). I’ll pass on him.
8 – Hence
Mine That Bird showed everyone in 2009 that the Sunland Derby wasn’t just for scrubs. Hence is the winner of that race this year, and the foes he vanquished include Conquest Mo Money, who then went on to to run second to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby. Irap, who finished 4th, came back to win the Bluegrass over McCracken, Practical Joke, Tapwrit and J Boys Echo. Therefore, his resume is actually a lot stronger than you might think at first glance. Trainer Steve Asmussen’s win resume in short reads: Every Race But the Kentucky Derby, so he’s got to win it sometime, right? He’ll need to get clear running room for a stretch drive (he’s a closer), but if he gets it, watch out. Just be forewarned. If you think he’s a great wise guy horse, you’re not the only one.
9 – Irap
The only thing sillier about this horse’s name is how he got the name. America’s Best Racing reported that the van driver misread his papers after he was sent out for Interluekin-1 Receptor Antagonist Protein (IRAP) treatments and thought it was the horse’s name. Owner Paul Reddam was amused enough to make that his name, so here we are. His win in the Bluegrass was a total shocker, and could be a fluke. After all, it was his first win in 7 tries. But the Sunland Derby suggests he’s been running in good company, so who knows? Maybe he’s coming into form at a rather clandestine moment.
10 – Gunnevera
You don’t get much more consistent than Gunnevera, who hasn’t run worse than third in three graded stakes appearances this year. As with all closers, he needs a fast pace and a clean run to get there in the end, which is always a challenge when you’ve got a race guaranteed to cause traffic jams. However he’s held his own against the likes of Irish War Cry, Practical Joke and Classic Empire, though the latter was admittedly not himself in the Holy Bull, which means he can run with the best horses in the field. If he gets his trip, look for him in the lane.
11 – Battle of Midway
The West Coast usually churns out Derby horses in droves, but this year it hasn’t really produced a lot of standouts. Battle of Midway was second in the Santa Anita Derby after setting the pace, and his pedigree suggests he can carry his speed over the distance. Sounds like Jerry Hollendofer may be aiming for more of a stalking trip in the Derby. If you’re looking for a longshot he will probably be overlooked, and I have certainly heard worse ideas.
12 – Sonneteer
Hard to get excited about a horse who has never won a race, especially when it’s not from lack of trying. Sonneteer is 0 for 10, and despite having 3 time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux in the irons, this horse is one of those worse ideas I just mentioned above.
13 – J Boys Echo
His big win this year was in the Gotham, though I can’t name a single horse that he beat. Most recently he ran 4th in the Bluegrass. Don’t really see him being a factor.
14 – Classic Empire
Last year’s 2 year old champ has been a bit of a wild card this year, after an abscess and led to a subpar performance in the Holy Bull and his quirky antics resulted in disruption to his training schedule. However his solid win in the Arkansas Derby seems to have silenced most of the critics. Two year old champs have done will in the Derby as of late (they’re 2 for 2 in the last two runnings), and this horse is certainly capable of adding to that tally. The questions is whether his unconventional spring has put him at a disadvantage. The Derby is definitely not a race where you want hiccups in your schedule. But of the favorites in the race, this is the one I’m sticking with.
15 – McCraken
Had he won the Bluegrass, McCraken would be the overwhelming Derby favorite. He’s already won 3 races at Churchill Downs, including the Kentucky Jockey Stakes as a 2 year old, and he’s got loads of talent. His loss at Keeneland may actually help him, all with the benefit of a higher price at the windows. Jump off his bandwagon at your peril.
16 – Tapwrit
His clunker in the Bluegrass was disappointing after a stellar win in the Tampa Bay Derby. So which Tapwrit will we get Saturday? If it’s the same horse we saw in the Bluegrass, not a lot. But if it’s the horse that ran away from State of Honor and was gaining on McCraken in the Sam F Davis, you could be cashing in a nice ticket. Word on the street is he is training well, so if you want another wise guy horse who isn’t as obvious of a wise guy horse, Tapwrit might be it. Plus, he’s grey!
17 – Irish War Cry
After bursting onto the scene with a decisive win in the Holy Bull, he ran an inexplicably awful 7th in the Fountain of Youth before getting back to business with another dominating win in the Wood Memorial. If you look at everything but the Fountain of Youth, he’s 4/4 with a slew of triple digit Beyer speed figures and a general superstar. I don’t see a lot of reason to hold that race in Florida against him. He’ll be one of the favorites and deservedly so.
18 – Gormley
Gormely has an adorable face, the connections of Zenyatta and the jockey of back-to-back Derby winners, and is a proven multiple grade 1 winner. But. He’s not the most consistent kiddo in the race. He followed up his win in the FrontRunner with a clunker in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. His win in Shame was followed by a 4th in the San Felipe. So if he holds to his pattern, a win in the Santa Anita Derby isn’t necessarily going to yield success in the Derby. Add that to the criticism that the SA Derby was slow, and it’s harder to make a strong case for him. But his face is so darned cute.
19 – Practical Joke
He’s never been worse than third and has shown up to every dance. As a 2 year old he bagged two grade 1 wins in the Champagne and Hopeful. This year he’s run second in both of his prep races. The biggest question he faces is the Derby 1 ¼; his pedigree suggests that’s going to be more than he wants. But given how solid this horse is, it’s hard to bet against him.
20 – Patch
Patch will be the sentimental pick of the field, given his story (having only one eye and all). And while he has a lot of talent, the Derby will be only his 4th race, and his only stakes appearance was a game second in the Louisiana Derby to Girvin. I’m not as down on the outside post as some (see this great article breaking down Derby post positions by the numbers), but this is going to be a lot to ask of him, and not because he’s only got one eye. Considering how popular he’ll be at the window he’ll probably be a bit of an underlay. Maybe not the smartest bet in the field, but also not the dumbest (see #12).
- Classic Empire
- Irish War Cry
- Practical Joke
- Patch. (What? I’m sentimental.)
Also, I will be yelling louder than anyone if Gormley pulls it off. Because seriously, that face.