Well of course there are owners, trainers, jockeys, and breeders who do, but the horses? Even this deep into the prep season, 25 days out from the Run for the Roses, I’m not so sure there’s a horse who’s ready to win the Kentucky Derby.
So here’s the story, as prep races, all the way back to fall 2016 go, it’s been a pretty dismal and wildly inconsistent affair. There is no real star. There has been very little in the way of outstanding and consistent performances by this crop of colts. There has been drama in the way of physical setbacks and peculiar behavior and in the case of one colt, both.
Coming into 2017, all eyes were on the very promising two-year-old champion, Classic Empire, facile winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Alas, the year for him to date has turned into one issue after another. Classic Empire has yet to post a win, has run in only one race, and currently doesn’t have the points necessary to get into the gate for the Kentucky Derby. He is scheduled to run in the last major prep of the year this Saturday, the Arkansas Derby. If he finishes in the top four he’s in, although the way his year has gone, he’d generate a lot more confidence if he finishes first or second. What’s the deal? In his first and only start to date in the Holy Bull Stakes (February 4) at Gulfstream Park, Classic Empire came to the gate cranky and washed out and it just went downhill from there as he finished a well-beaten third behind Irish War Cry. The next day it was determined that he had an abscess in one hoof, so there was a clear and valid excuse. But since then his training for his next race has been interrupted by two instances where he refused to train. Like went out to the track essentially planted his feet and refused to even canter, let alone gallop, around the track. After the first time, again a physical excuse was determined; he was treated by a chiropractor for back troubles. The second time there appears to have been no physical excuse, which leaves us at mental (and this is a horse that as a two year old racing at Saratoga last summer broke from the gate and promptly took a sharp turn, dumping his rider in the process). He’s since moved to a quieter training center and is reported to be training brilliantly. Well, all I can say is he’d better be to make the Derby gate.
Mastery jumped into the Kentucky Derby picture in March in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita in what was the best prep race performance of the season by far as he dispatched the rest of the field to win by nearly seven lengths. And it was fabulous while it lasted, like about 10 strides past the finish line where jubilation quickly turned to valid dismay as jockey Mike Smith quickly pulled the winner up and he was loaded onto the ambulance for the trip back to his stall. The next morning it was confirmed that Mastery had sustained a condylar (cannon bone, the long bone of the leg) fracture. He has since had surgery and is recuperating.
In the meantime, the outcome of the other preps has been a free for all and racing reporter Randy Moss summed it up sweetly when he said Saturday that mostly it has been a case of wildly inconsistent colts scoring a win and then in their next race “not being able to be found with a search warrant.”
At this point, and actually throughout the prep season, the horse that has impressed me the most and that I believe has the most potential is Irish War Cry (Disclaimer: I have a bit of a special interest in Irish War Cry; more later). He was impressive in his two wins this season where he defeated Classic Empire and Delta Jackpot (and later Fountain of Youth) winner Gunnevera in the Holy Bull Stakes and even more so this past Saturday when he won the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. However, in between, he inexplicably crashed and burned in a seventh place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Nonetheless, he’s a beautiful, long-striding colt, who when he’s right is a delight to watch run. A son of Curlin, he should have what it takes to get the Derby distance.
Girvin has emerged from the southeast as the victor of Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby. He’s not flashy, but he grinds away to the finish line. Winning two preps this year is a true accomplishment. As I write, Mike Smith has committed to ride Girvin in the Kentucky Derby.
Gormley got himself into the Derby gate following a win in the Santa Anita Derby also run Saturday. Much like Irish War Cry, Gormley had an impressive victory in the Sham Stakes where he fought American Anthem down the stretch to the wire, but then finished very dismally, fourth behind Mastery, in the San Felipe. Trainer John Shirreffs changed Gormley’s running style for the Santa Anita Derby to stalking instead of on the pace and it paid dividends. Gormley is ridden by Victor Espinoza who knows where the Derby finish line is (California Chrome, American Pharoah).
Always Dreaming is the well-thought-of winner of the Florida Derby (off an allowance win), trained by perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher. In the Florida Derby he defeated Gunnevera (third). He’s a nice horse, but I think the leap into a Derby win might be a big ask.
McCraken is another well-thought-of colt. He won the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay and then wrenched his ankle and was briefly out of training and missed a planned race (the Tampa Bay Derby) in the process. He returned to the races this past Saturday in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, finishing a respectable third in his first career defeat. Still, it could be just enough to set up the son of Ghostzapper for his Derby run. He already has a win over the Churchill Downs track, winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall.
Other (kinda) notables this year are Bluegrass Stakes winner Irap (who in the process got his first-ever win at 31-1), J Boys Echo (Gotham Stakes winner, fourth in the Bluegrass), Tapwrit (Tampa Bay Derby winner in stakes and track record time for a 1 1/16th-mile race, fifth in the Bluegrass), and Practical Joke (second in the Bluegrass).
As of Sunday morning the top 20 colts in terms of qualifying points are:
4. Irish War Cry
5. Thunder Snow
6. Always Dreaming
8. Practical Joke
9. J Boys Echo
10. State of Honor
14. Fast and Accurate
16. Battle of Midway
18. Battalion Runner
19. Cloud Computing
21. Classic Empire (racing in the Arkansas Derby Saturday, April 15)
*Colts that did not race as two year olds. Only one horse, Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a two year old.
The standings will likely change a bit after the Arkansas Derby is run and, as always, there will probably be a few defections before May 6 due to injury or connections deciding to go in another direction. My advice this year, more than any past year is, if you can, bet the field to win. I think there’s a good chance that with a simple $2 wager on every horse you could cover your $40 outlay as I think there’s a very good chance a longshot wins the 2017 Derby. I don’t expect any horse to go off at odds shorter than 2-1; the favorite could go off at 3- or 4-1.
This. Race. Will. Be. Wide. Open!