In some ways the 143rd Kentucky Derby should be known as the big but. And we’re not talking about anything that would be music to the ears of Sir Mix-A-Lot fans.
This is all about the conjunction that ushers in a contrasting cause. As in: My friends were going to have a picnic, but it rained.
Or a certain horse was my choice for the Kentucky Derby, but then he turned in a clunker.
The last four months have been one of the most tumultuous periods on the road to the Kentucky Derby in recent history. Injuries, inconsistency, flashes of brilliance and widespread parity have combined to turn the Run for the Roses into the kind of guessing game that poses a nightmare for handicappers.
Take the likely favorite, 2-year-old champion, Classic Empire. After a highly impressive win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, when he made his 3-year-old debut, his 1-2 odds on the toteboard said he was supposed to breeze to victory in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 4. Instead he headed to the starting gate washy, failed to fire and finished a distant third behind Irish War Cry.
Upheaval was suddenly the order of the day on the Triple Crown trail.
A few days later, trainer Mark Casse discovered a foot abscess to explain the poor performance, but (and this is the first of many appearances by that three-letter word in this story) Classic Empire then came down with an achy back and also balked at training a couple of times. With time running out and the Kentucky Derby becoming a more distant dream, Casse shipped his Eclipse Award winner to the Ocala farm where the colt was raised. The move worked to perfection as Classic Empire started training with gusto and, on April 15, he won the year’s final Kentucky Derby prep, the G1 Arkansas Derby, to return to the top of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll for the first time since Jan. 30.
But – here we go again – does Classic Empire have enough seasoning at three to handle the stress of racing at a mile and a quarter against the best horses of his generation?
If the odds were inviting, say 10-1, the reward would offset the risk, but as the favorite? Not so much. Especially when you consider - if he is indeed the favorite - that currently four straight favorites have won the Derby and the betting choice has not been victorious five times in a row since 1891-96, when it happened six times.
Digesting all that, odds are that when May 6 rolls around it will be time for someone other than a favorite to win the Derby.
It if is, then where to turn?
McCraken spent the bulk of the year atop the NTRA poll, leading for eight weeks. He surely looked the part of a major player after winning the Sam F. Davis, but then a minor ankle injury forced him to miss the Tampa Bay Derby and kept him sidelined for about two months until he checked in third in the Blue Grass in his final prep for his first loss in five career starts.
That could be perceived as the kind of effort that will have him on edge for an improved effort at Churchill Downs, but the horse that beat him at Keeneland was a 31-1 maiden, raising doubts over the quality of the race.
Like Classic Empire, at a nice price McCraken would be attractive, but (I’m beginning to lose count of them) as one of the main contenders, it’s risky business to back him.
Other horses who took a rollercoaster ride to Churchill Downs include Irish War Cry, Gunnevera, Tapwrit and Gormley.
Irish War Cry was quite impressive when he won the Holy Bull and stamped himself as a major player on the Triple Crown trail. Yet, as quickly as his stock soared, it plummeted. In the Fountain of Youth, when he failed to gain the early lead, he called it a day and sank to seventh as a 6-5 favorite, nearly 22 lengths behind the victorious Gunnevera. He returned to top form in the Wood Memorial, winning by 3½ lengths, though that no-show in the Fountain of Youth can be troubling.
Gunnevera seemed poised to take over leadership of the division following his runner-up finish in the Holy Bull and a dazzling 5¾-length score in the Fountain of Youth. Then, in the G1 Florida Derby, where he landed the outside post in a field of ten, jockey Javier Castellano took a hold of Gunnevera at the break and spotted the field a few lengths as he darted to the rail. The son of Dialed In failed to mount a serious rally after that and finished third as a 6-5 favorite, 6½ lengths behind Always Dreaming.
Tapwrit was second to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis, then capitalized on his rival’s absence to win the Tampa Bay Derby. He followed that up with another of the year’s baffling performances as he finished fifth by 11½ lengths in the Blue Grass and now heads to Churchill Downs with a big, bright question mark on his saddlecloth.
Though he won the G1 FrontRunner at two, Gormley was beaten by 16¼ lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to fall out of favor among leading Kentucky Derby candidates. He started his 3-year-old campaign on a high note, winning the Sham. Then he, and everyone else, was no match for Mastery in the San Felipe.
Yet, just when Mastery posted a 6¾-length win in the San Felipe and had observers touting him as a favorite for the Kentucky Derby, shortly after the finish of the race he suffered an injury that will force him to miss the Triple Crown.
Without Mastery in the field, Gormley posted a half-length win in the Santa Anita Derby, but without the West Coast’s brightest star in the field there’s sufficient reason to be skeptical about the quality of that race.
Falling into a different category is Always Dreaming. He was a convincing 5-length winner of the Florida Derby but that was his stakes debut and fifth career start. That performance could make him the betting choice on the first Saturday in May, but is the Kentucky Derby asking too much of him with such little seasoning in stakes company? We’ll see.
Patch, the runner-up in the Louisiana Derby and a stablemate of the aforementioned Always Dreaming and Tapwrit, has an even shorter resume with just three career starts.
Even the one horse who was moving forward nicely, Louisiana Derby winner Girvin, is now battling a quarter-crack in his hoof which is troubling at a time when a horse needs to be at his absolute best to run effectively in the longest race of his life.
Looking at some of the others, there’s Irap, the maiden who pulled off a stunning upset in the Blue Grass; Practical Joke, whose runner-up finish in the Blue Grass is muted by losing to a maiden; State Of Honor, who was second in the Florida Derby but owns a career record of 1-for-10; Hence, who won the Sunland Derby at 10-1 but lost by 13 lengths in the G3 Southwest before that; Thunder Snow, who is trying to become the first to pull off an improbable UAE Derby-Kentucky Derby double; J Boys Echo, who was fourth in the Blue Grass after winning the Gotham; and Conquest Mo Money, who was a promising front-running second in the Arkansas Derby, but can he carry his speed over ten furlongs?
There are others to consider, but do you get the picture by now?
After being spoiled in the last four years with Nyquist, American Pharoah, California Chrome and Orb, who were a perfect 10-0 at three prior to the Derby, asking for back-to-back wins is beyond the scope of most of the field.
A touch of forgiveness
So where do you turn?
Well, prior to Wednesday’s post position draw, we’ll forgive the Fountain of Youth and go with Irish War Cry.
His Holy Bull win was a top figure according to one of the premier speed figure services and the Wood was a useful enough step forward to have him poised to run as well – if not better – than he did in the Holy Bull.
With the help of a trainer in Graham Motion who already owns a Kentucky Derby win, there’s a good chance Irish War Cry will rate kindly under jockey Rajiv Maragh and become the first New Jersey-bred to win the Derby since 1934.
Since we’re in a forgiving mood, we’ll ignore the Florida Derby due to the horrible post and tab Gunnevera to complete the exacta. In a race with plenty of speed, there could be quite a few horses backing up into him when the running becomes serious, yet with Castellano in the saddle a great ride seems like a forgone conclusion.
To complete the trifecta, it’s wise to include the horse who could have the most raw talent of the bunch, Always Dreaming.
It takes a supremely gifted colt to win the Florida Derby in such an impressive manner and that talent might be enough to put trainer Todd Pletcher in the Derby winner’s circle for a second time. Yet Always Dreaming figures to be tested far more vigorously on the front end than he was at Gulfstream Park and a minor award seems a fair assessment for him.
Key to a gargantuan pay-off?
Classic Empire could win the Derby and there would be no surprise attached to it, yet after all he has been through this winter, putting him in a spot above the trifecta or superfecta offers no wagering value.
To round out the High Five, we’ll take a stab and try State Of Honor, who like Classic Empire is trained by Casse. If Always Dreaming is good enough to be in the hunt for the role of favoritism, then getting 30-1 or more on the horse who was second to him is great value. With that 1-for-10 mark, landing in the winner’s circle might be asking a lot of him, but including him in the exotics could be the key to unlocking a gargantuan pay-off.
So it’s Irish War Cry, Gunnevera and Always Dreaming and, yes, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it … for now anyway.