The biggest story of the week leading to Saturday’s 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby was yesterday’s post position draw, approximately 24 hours ago. So let’s get to it!
Listed by Post:
- Lookin At Lee
- Thunder Snow
- Fast and Accurate
- Always Dreaming
- State of Honor
- Battle of Midway
- J Boys Echo
- Classic Empire
- Irish War Cry
- Practical Joke
- Royal Mo (Also Eligible and would take the #20 gate should another horse scratch prior to 9:00 a.m. Friday morning.)
Overall, I don’t think any of the horses with a realistic shot at winning the Derby were grossly compromised by the posts they drew; most trainers and owners expressed being pleased (and relieved; Post 1 was still open when Classic Empire was waiting to be assigned a gate!) with where their horses will break.
If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you know I am death on posts 1 (just forget it), 2, and 3 for the 20-horse Derby field. Horses breaking from #1 are solid on the rail and unless they break like they were shot out of a cannon they will generally get badly squeezed and likely blocked early on as the rest of the field attempts to drop over to save ground. If, by chance the horse in the 1 does break hard and fast, more likely than not they’ve expended a lot of valuable energy that they’ll need and likely have fully expended for the final furlongs of a mile and a quarter race with that early burst. In the ultimate irony, Lookin At Lee (Post 1) is a son of Lookin At Lucky. In 2010, Lookin At Lucky was considered a big favorite for the Derby, that is until he drew the #1 post, got slammed and scrambled around shortly after the break and finished sixth. Then two weeks later he won the Preakness Stakes. Go figure. The same can pretty much be said for horses in # 2 and 3. So in my opinion those horses’ race is lost before it even begins. Posts 19 and 20 aren’t much better. You need to be basically a super horse to win from either. Big Brown was the first and only horse to date to pull it off out of #20, but Big Brown was also a man among boys in the 2008 Kentucky Derby field; none of these horses are that dominant this year. One-eyed Patch most definitely is not.
Now add an extra wrinkle that wasn’t as much in the picture at the beginning of the week, but is a possible factor now–Rain. Hey, it’s Kentucky in the spring!! As of this morning there is a 60-70% chance of rain for Saturday. And believe it or not, out of 22 major Derby prep races this season only three were run on muddy or sloppy tracks and of those three races, only one winner, Gormley, has made it into the Derby gate. So in an already muddled picture, what to do? For me, start by looking at pedigree; who sires mudders? In this field you can look to Irish War Cry (Sire–Curlin who could fly on mud and whose son, Exaggerator romped to muddy wins last year in the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Haskell Invitational); Classic Empire (Sire–Pioneerof the Nile, sire of none other than American Pharoah who ran a tour de force victory in the 2015 monsoon Preakness). Classic Empire also won his first race on a muddy track; Sonneteer (Sire–Midnight Lute another horse who could easily handle slop as in his 2007 Breeders’ Cup Sprint win at Monmouth Park); and Gormley (Sire–Malibu Moon who sired Orb, the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby over a muddy track in 2013) who has, as mentioned previously, won over a muddy track earlier this year in the Sham Stakes.
There were a couple of other key developments this week. Practical Joke, who had been working in blinkers this week, will not wear them in the Derby. Trainer Chad Brown has decided he doesn’t want to make that change now. Meanwhile, possible second choice for the race, Always Dreaming has been training very aggressively, on the muscle, at Churchill. So trainer Todd Pletcher opted to change exercise riders earlier this week and add draw reins. Draw reins provide a rider, among other things, greater leverage over a horse through his mouth, and by extension head and neck. You might recall Smarty Jones, a strong morning work horse wearing them as well. The bottom line is this is an attempt to get better control over a horse, so especially in a racehorse, they’re not just running off. They’re saying it has helped his training, but he cannot wear draw reins in the race. For me it’s a very short learning curve and with Always Dreaming breaking from the #5 post, there’s a very good chance he’ll be aggressive out of the gate because of the early race crush and/or the need for John Velazquez to hustle him up and out of there in an attempt to get clear running room. If that happens, in my opinion, race over. I don’t think he’s a mature enough racehorse to handle that kind of heat, rate, and carry on to win.
The owner of Fast and Accurate has indicated that their strategy is to gun for the lead from the gate. Good luck with that.
I am a bit disappointed that Thunder Snow got stuck in Post 2. I wanted to see what he could do, but that post position doesn’t give him much chance to do that. Should he somehow manage to win from there he is an exceptional horse.
Classic Empire has been made the morning line favorite at 4-1 (which is pretty high opening odds for a Derby favorite). That will fluctuate throughout the day and he might not even be the favorite once the horses enter the gate.
At this point my top picks are Irish War Cry and Classic Empire with long-shot selections of Practical Joke, Gormley, and Sonneteer. I also wouldn’t rule out McCraken because Churchill is his home track.
That’s it folks. You’re on your own now. Post time is 6:45 on NBC. This is a race where I believe anything (or horse) can happen.