Does Anyone Want to Win the Kentucky Derby?

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:

1.Girvin

2. Gormley

3. Irap

4. Irish War Cry

5. Thunder Snow

6. Always Dreaming

7. Gunnevera

8. Practical Joke

9. J Boys Echo

10. State of Honor

11. Tapwrit

12. Malagacy*

13. Hence

14. Fast and Accurate

15. McCraken

16. Battle of Midway

17. Patch*

18. Battalion Runner

19. Cloud Computing

20. Untrapped

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!

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Confusion Reigns Supreme

Three of the last four Kentucky Derby prep races are complete and not a thing has cleared up!

Race One, April 9th–The Wood Memorial Stakes–1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct.  This race was won by Outwork, who when last seen was finishing second in the Tampa Bay Derby.  He held off a stout late closing move by…80-1 (!!!), maiden (!!!) Trojan Nation.  And Adventist finished third, AGAIN, in his third and last New York-based prep. It was yet again another closing move that made you think with just a little more distance… That remains to be seen as Adventist sits #20 w/32 points to get in the Derby gate.

But back to Outwork. I’m convinced the horse knows his name and what it means, because in the two solid efforts I’ve seen him race he gives his all and flat outworks the other horses to the best of his ability.  Despite his second place finish, I have no idea of what to make of Trojan Nation.  He could be a late bloomer just figuring things out, he may have liked the off going of the sloppy Aqueduct track or his performance might be throwing shade on the overall quality of the field.  Well-thought-of Gotham Stakes winner Shagaf tanked, was never a factor in the race, and finished fifth. In his defense, he may not have liked the off going, but if you’ll recall, I thought his Gotham performance left a bit to be desired.

Race Two, April 9th–The Bluegrass Stakes–1 1/8 miles at Keeneland. This race restored Brody’s Cause’s reputation and got him the points necessary to get to Louisville after a poor first start of the year in the Tampa Bay Derby where he’d finished seventh of nine entrants.  Having sat well back (next to last early in the race) he made a sustained, grinding run to the lead to hold off fellow late closer My Man Sam by 1 3/4 lengths. Cherry Wine (fourth in the Rebel Stakes) finished third. Fountain of Youth second-place finisher Zulu finished 12th, beat by 23 3/4 lengths, leaving him without enough points (without a lot of defections) to run in the Kentucky Derby.

Race Three, April 9th–The Santa Anita Derby–1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita Park.  This race provided two surprises for me.  First it was a sloppy track at Santa Anita and it’s the first time I can recall seeing a wet track in Southern California for this race.  Second, Exaggerator, who I’d pretty much decided from his two earlier races this year wasn’t going to go for a mile and an eighth or more won and won stunningly, by six and a quarter lengths.  Without a doubt he appeared to be loving and thriving in the slop (by Curlin that’s to be expected).  Sitting well off the lead, at least 12+ lengths back, Exaggerator just exploded on the final turn, blazed past early pacesetter Danzing Candy and won going away.  Mor Spirit hung on for second, Uncle Lino was third, and San Felipe winner Danzing Candy faltered to fourth.

So where are we 27 days away from the 142nd Kentucky Derby?  Honestly, my feeling right now is Who knows?  I sum it up this way as of today: It’s Nyquist and everyone else.  At seven for seven and having defeated the unofficial East Coast favorite Mohaymen handily last week in the Florida Derby, Nyquist has shown himself the best of this crop so far. He’ll be the Derby favorite, but for whatever reason I’m not 100% sold on him yet (kinda 75-80% there).  The rest of the horses have either not shown that breakout brilliance like an American Pharoah or a solid body of work where there has been a steady string of wins and/or improvement from race to race…with one exception, a horse I’m increasingly warming up to as the Derby looms and that’s Gun Runner.  Gun Runner, winner of the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby is a horse, while not flashy, has come on in 2016 and won both starts convincingly; basically he appears to be a solid citizen.  And for this Derby that may be just the skill set needed to take the day. He also won his first race at Churchill Downs.

Many of the horses that have earned their way into the Derby are doing so off very light racing experience, in what have been their third and fourth lifetime races.  The few horses that are showing me something so far, Nyquist, Gun Runner, Exaggerator, and yes, still, Mohaymen will go into the Derby as their eighth, sixth, eleventh, and seventh race respectively. Even in an era of lightly-raced Derby entrants, I think there’s something to be said for racing experience.

So now there’s only the Arkansas Derby to be run to send a horse or horses to the Derby.  The horses to watch in the race will be Cupid, Suddenbreakingnews, and Whitmore. Even with a definitive win by any of them, I don’t think the Derby forecast clears!  Yikes!

 

The End is Here

Saturday, October 31, 2015; 5:35 p.m.–The end of American Pharoah’s racing career begins.

Yep, folks the streaking comet ride that has been American Pharoah 2015 is in its waning moments as he makes his final start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland Race Course.  And this is a race that could prove memorable beyond it being the Triple Crown winner’s final start.  This is a deep, talented field that could produce a heck of an entertaining race.

The field:

1.Tonalist

2.Keen Ice

3.Frosted

4.American Pharoah

5.Gleneagles

6.Effinex

7.Smooth Roller

8.Hard Aces

9.Honor Code

10.Beholder

Here’s what I see.

Tonalist is coming off his second win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont.  Distance is his thing, but he can’t be allowed to hang back a long time off the pace as Joel Rosario let him do in the 2014 Classic.  If you look back at that race, Tonalist is the only horse closing any ground, but it was too late.  Fortunately, John Velazquez is riding him now and seems to have him figured out.  I think we’ll see a better run from Tonalist this year and I expect for him to have a bit of pace to run into.  If you’ve read my blog over the past two years, you’ll know Tonalist has my heart as a racehorse and I am picking him to win Saturday although it’s going to require his best effort.

Keen Ice is continuing to improve, but I don’t expect him to win Saturday (By the way, his connections DO. Do with that information what you will).  He caught a huge break in his win in the Travers Stakes with Frosted taking it to American Pharoah early and, I believe, American Pharoah being a bit of a tired horse going into that race.  With his off the pace style, he may be there to pick up some pieces, but in my opinion, this field is too deep for him to win.

Frosted. He’s a very nice horse, but as I’ve said before, I don’t think he’s a true mile and a quarter horse.  I’d play him for third or fourth in a Superfecta, but can’t get excited past that.

American Pharoah is tanned, rested, and ready to run.  As usual, he’s been training lights out and I believe is ready for one final magnificent effort. He can win, and as demonstrated in the Travers Stakes, if he doesn’t it won’t be for lack of effort!

Gleneagles–This year’s shot for the elusive Breeders’Cup Classic win from Ireland’s Aidan O’Brien and the Ballydoyle crew.  Hard to say.  He’s a world-class turf miler, but has never run on dirt.  His sire, Gaileo, ran a game race (6th) in the 2001 BC Classic, so more likely than not he can handle dirt by pedigree, but asking him to win on a different surface and at a distance he hasn’t conquered yet is a tall order.

Effinex–Nice horse who can be a bit quirky in his races, but is always well prepared and game.

Smooth Roller is the horse I know least about, but ran an impressive race in winning the Awesome Again Stakes last month at Santa Anita.

Hard Aces, I believe is well over his head in this race and this field.

Honor Code. Provided he can get the distance that he hasn’t run before, but has the pedigree (x A.P. Indy) to handle, he could well upset this field.  Don’t necessarily despair when you see, IF you can see in a full screen shot at all, Honor Code WAY dead last in the early stages of the race.  That’s his style.  And when he’s right, he has a mind-blowing, devastating late turn of foot and can start picking the field off, one by one with a move like the cliche runaway freight train.  And with the kind of kick he possesses, that momentum could get him the win.  It won’t be by daylight, but this horse knows where the wire is.

And then there’s the mare of the moment Beholder.  She’s already won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 2013 and the Juvenile Fillies in 2012.  This year, she took on the colts for the first time ever in the mile and a quarter Pacific Classic and all she did was stomp the boys by eight-plus lengths, becoming the first filly or mare to win the race in its 25-year history.  And while that’s an impressive accomplishment, Beholder has yet to win outside California.  She also briefly spiked a fever when she arrived at Keeneland.  Finally, this group of colts is head and shoulders above what she beat in the Pacific Classic.  Not quite sure what to do with her here; she’s a fabulous race mare.  As much as I’d love to see her win, I’m not fully on board believing she’ll be a winner this day.

So there’s the field and my thoughts.  Post time for the Classic is scheduled for 5:35 on NBC television. Safe trips for all and as always ENJOY the finest group of Thoroughbreds in training.