NAVIGATING THE ROAD TO THE 143RD KENTUCKY DERBY
The 143rd renewal of The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports is only a month away and it’s time to get the whips cracking. It’s been a particularly difficult season to analyse given so many factors, usually by the start of April we have at least a top selection given everything goes right from here on in. In 2017 I wish that was the case, here’s a breakdown of the likely field and there reasons for and against success at Churchill Downs.
Classic Empire – has all the ability in the world but will have to overcome quite a bit to get to the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May. This colt has behavioral issues at times, suffered a foot abscess, has a bad back and some mornings flat out refuses to train.
McCraken – also has a world of talent and was clearly the pro-tem Kentucky Derby favorite up until a few weeks ago but he “sprained his ankle” and had to be scratched from the Tampa Bay Derby, which could prove to be a key race for him. Instead of going into the Kentucky Derby with three prep races, he’ll have just two…..will that be enough to have him ready? How much will the missed race and missed training hurt him? According to trainer Ian Wilkes, this colt has “grown and filled out, so it was a blessing in disguise”.
Gunnavera – possesses a solid late run as we saw in his maiden win last July, the Delta Downs Jackpot last November and, most recently, in the Fountain of Youth. Here is a colt who can win going long or short and on a fast track or in the mud. Overall, he won 4 of his last 7 races. The part that bothers me is he was beaten soundly by Classic Empire last fall and by Irish War Cry (who has since disappointed big time) in the Holy Bull last month.
J Boys Echo – won the Gotham very impressively in his last start, but was that because the pace scenario played right into his hands or is he improving at the right time? Because his other races were not all THAT good. So, to me, the jury is still out sort of speak.
Iliad – I thought this colt ran very well while chasing Mastery while going two turns for the first time in the San Felipe. I thought he rated very well early on, made a huge move on the turn but just couldn’t get by the winner, which was understandable. His next race (April 8, Santa Anita Derby) will tell us a lot. I can’t say anything bad about him other than he definitely needs another two turn race (which he will get) and I don’t like the way he swishes his tail while being hit (by his rider).
Practical Joke – is fast and has the heart the size of Texas but I’m not seeing how he is going to get 10 furlongs in the Derby especially as he’s has all but quit running his last two times out from about the three-sixteenths pole to the wire. I can tell you right now, some 5-6 weeks before the Derby, if he makes it in, no way I play him.
Gormley – is a “need the lead” type horse or at least he is right now. If you look at his defeats, they all have that fact in common. So either they teach him how to rate or, if not, he will most likely have to go way too fast too early in the Derby (there is a ton of “speed” in the three-year-old division this year) to have any gas left in the tank down the lane. Like Practical Joke, if nothing changes with him, no way I play him on Derby Day.
El Areeb – rattled off three very impressive wins in NY this winter but disappointed in the Gotham in his last. Did he peak too soon? We know the competition he’s run against has been questionable…or did he just have a bad day and deserve a “mulligan” in his next race?
Mo Town – showed nothing in his 2017 debut in the Risen Star and won his 2 prior races in NY very nicely. The fact still remains; did he need the Risen Star or has he not come back the same way this year? I’m willing to bet that it’s he just needed the race but he is still another that we will know more after his next race, which at this writing, is unclear.
Untrapped – is improving leap and bounds. I thought he ran very well in Risen Star when finishing second and again in the Rebel (3rd). By watching him it appears the further he goes the better he’ll get. But that 4-1-3-0 record also has me think “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”
Royal Mo – broke his maiden and won the Robert B. Lewis in California in his previous two races but showed little in his 2017 debut (Rebel Stakes). Nowhere to go but up for him but he needs to improve significantly to start to get me to pay attention to him and he is running out of time.
Girvin – won the Risen Star Stakes (at 8-1) in just his third lifetime start. They will run him back in the Louisiana Derby then head to Churchill. But even if he wins there, can he win the biggest race in the world with just 4 career starts?
One Liner – is unbeaten in three career starts and won the Southwest in his last. But see Girvin, I mean, is it possible he wins the Kentucky Derby with just 4 career starts? That’s asking a lot.
Untrapped – has a good closing run and is consistent. The thing with him is he had a great trip in the Rebel but he wasn’t catching the winner (Malagacy) plus he is 0 for 3 this year and just 1 for 5 in his career.
Malagacy – is also unbeaten and surprised a few people (including trainer Todd Pletcher) when he stretched out to 8 ½ furlongs (after his first two career wins/starts were lopsided sprint wins) and won the Rebel. He has enormous talent but there were several things that I didn’t like about the Rebel. Like say the final time (1:43) was tied for the second slowest of the 15 Derby preps so far this year at that distance, making his speed figure in that race a paltry 91. I am in no way “all in” on him for the Derby, I mean just because he can win at 1 1/16 miles doesn’t mean he can win at 1 ¼ miles.
Uncontested- is no longer being pointed for the Derby and will instead pursuit a career as a sprinter.
Three Rules – is being pointed for the Preakness and will also bypass the Derby.
Sonic Mule – is not good enough…plain and simple.
Ann Arbor Eddie – Could not keep up with Mastery or Iliad in the San Felipe.
Tapwrit – is improving leaps and bounds and I can’t say anything bad about him especially with the progress he’s made over his last 3 or 4 races. He looked very good in winning the Tampa Bay Derby in his last, but remember, McCraken was on the sidelines for that race and McCraken beat him twice previously.
Irish War Cry – has mega-talent, but his disappointing run in the Fountain of Youth (7th) was inexplicable to me and to his trainer.
American Anthem – clearly did not handle the surface at Oaklawn and finished 10th in the Rebel as the 8/5 favorite. This is a very nice horse but what happens if he doesn’t handle the notoriously quirky surface at Churchill?
Lookin at Lee – disappointed in the Rebel. You obviously want to see your horse getting better as the Derby approaches (Tapwrit), not go in the opposite direction.
Guest Suite – disappointed in the Risen Star but I might give him a “mulligan”.
Syndergaard – is blessed with a lot of speed but won’t be ready in time from my understanding.
No Dozing– has done very little to enhance his chances lately.
Battalion Runner – is highly regarded and looked fantastic in winning an allowance race in his last. The Florida Derby, his next start, should tell us more but he too does not have a lot of experience.
Hence– grabbed my attention with his remarkable maiden win, disappointed in the Southwest and came back to win the Sunland Park Derby very nicely in his last three races. But what happened in the Southwest remains a mystery and the SP Derby set up perfectly for him after super-sonic early fractions. So, if he needs a perfect “setup” to win races, the Kentucky Derby is not an ideal spot for that sort of thing.
Fast and Accurate– seems to be improving, especially with the addition of blinkers. Although he has won over the dirt, the fact still remains his Spiral Stakes win (at 24-1) was over a synthetic surface, he ran in a $30,000 claimer two races before that and the second place finisher in the Spiral was 35-1. So, who did he beat?
As suggested earlier it’s very tough to be super confident about any of these at this point in time perhaps maybe someone from overseas will swoop in and grab the prize like say Churchill, who can run but it would be unprecedented if he pulled it off. Although it’s a 99-1 shot, maybe trainer Jerry Hollendorfer will see the “watered down” crop of three-year-old males, have a change of heart and enter super filly Unique Bella in the Derby.
The good news is the Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Bluegrass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial are all still yet to run and make for great viewing and analysis before May 6th.