By Bob Hill, TSV Staff Writer —-
With four major Derby prep races still to run, it’s time to start paying close attention to how things are shaking out for this year’s Run for the Roses. We’ll start with major prep races that already have been decided and then move to the four yet to be contested.
Florida Derby: Three of the most recent 10 winners of the Kentucky Derby have exited as winners of the Florida Derby. On April 1, Always Dreaming won his first attempt at stakes racing with an impressive victory at Gulfstream, beating State of Honor and post-time favorite Gunnevera All three colts coming out of the Florida Derby will have sufficient points to make the Derby field, so it is not a stretch to conclude that the race merits scrutiny as we look for winners and others to fill out exotics bets. Always Dreaming did not break his maiden until late January so he is clearly running against the history book in trying to win on May 6 in only his second start in a stakes race. He will be on the lists of many handicappers as one of a bevy of colts trained by Todd Pletcher. The veteran trainer has not had the best of luck in Triple Crown races so some will downgrade the chances of any of his entries. Gunnevera made a strong late run in closing to finish third. He has been near the top of most Derby contender lists for months, but he too will run against precedent by trying to win as a deep closer. A vast majority of Derby winners have been closer to the lead leaving the final turn than Gunnevera has been in his winning effort. His chances would be enhanced by a very fast pace early in the race
Louisiana Derby: Girvin won both the Louisiana Derby and the Risen Star in convincing style at Fair Grounds. The strong showing of Gun Runner over the course of the past year after he won the Louisiana Derby in 2016 may embolden some to bet against the negative trend of horses exiting the Louisiana Derby when they get to Louisville. Even if Girvin is not your pick to win, he merits consideration for other spots.
UAE Derby: I have said for many years that when a horse ships into the U.S. to win the Kentucky Derby I will not cash the winning ticket that year. With that said, we all would be well served to watch how Thunder Snow works when he gets to Churchill Downs. He beat decent competition in Dubai, and if he comes to North America he will draw some attention. As I said earlier, he won’t be my top pick.
Wood Memorial: The Wood Memorial has slipped badly in recent years as a major prep race for the Derby. The connections of top contenders have chosen other roads for their best horses when getting them ready for the big race. There are several likely entries in this year’s Wood Memorial field that have shown some talent, but it would be fair to say a win at Aqueduct in this prep race is unlikely to propel one of them to the top of any list of contenders. Todd Pletcher, who is likely to have as many as one-fourth of the entries in the Derby field, skipped the Florida Derby with Battalion Runner in favor of the Wood. Given how strongly Always Dreaming ran in that race Pletcher’s decision looks to be a wise one. Irish War Cry was the upset winner of the Holy Bull this winter, but he then bombed badly in the Fountain of Youth. After some rest and re-tooling, Graham Motion enters Irish War Cry in the Wood hoping for a rebound. A third top trainer, Chad Brown, points Cloud Computing to the Wood after his second place finish in the Gotham. This colt may have the most upside of this trio, but a Derby win seems like a stretch at this point.
Santa Anita Derby: This race has produced two Kentucky Derby winners in the past 10 years, but the injury to Mastery in the San Felipe weakens the West Coast contingent considerably. Iliad, trained by Doug O’Neill, looks best of likely entries for the Santa Anita Derby, but he will have to step up big time to gain the attention of top handicappers. O”Neill, by the way, is the only trainer to win two Derbies in the past 10 years. Gormley is another California-based colt that showed promise early, but he has not progressed as his connections had hoped. A win in the Santa Anita Derby would rejuvenate interest in this well-bred colt.
Blue Grass Stakes: This race, which lost its luster during the years when it was run on synthetics, stacks up to be one of the most interesting and contentious of the prep races. The winner of this race may well become the favorite on Derby Day. McCracken has been steady in his progress, winning graded stakes races at multiple sites. His best races have been at Churchill Downs. The only knock against him is some missed training time. Tapwrit, perhaps Pletcher’s best three-year-old, exits the Tampa Bay Derby with his sights set on winning the Blue Grass. The same is true of J Boys Echo, the winner of the Gotham for Dale Romans. When seeking value, it is always important to remember that Romans’ horses are over-bet when they run in Kentucky. Watch out if j Boys Echo wins the Blue Grass, but he will have to transfer Aqueduct form to Keeneland.
Arkansas Derby: The final major prep race is the second one with what appears to be a loaded field. Classic Empire has proven to be a head case much of his three-year-old season after winning the BC Juvenile and the Eclipse Award for two-year-olds in 2016. He will be watched at Oaklawn with anxious anticipation. If he excels, he will move back up this list where many thought he would reside all spring. Classic Empire is trained by top Canadian handler Mark Casse. Todd Pletcher will send out winners of two prep races run on this track this year. One Liner was best in the Southwest, and Malagacy won his inaugural stakes race in the Rebel Stakes last month. Malagacy’s win was more impressive in the Rebel, but time will tell how good these two Pletcher trainees are. Lookin At Lee is a late running colt out of the Steve Asmussen barn that could benefit from a fast pace and a longer race. If Lookin At Lee makes the Derby field he will join stablemate Hence in the starting gate for Asmussen; Hence was the surprise winner of the Sunland Derby.
Conclusion: Since the point system now used to qualify entrants was first implemented, the Kentucky Derby has become a race dominated by favorites and near favorites. California Chrome was a Cal-bred that many doubted who won the Derby and went on to an outstanding career. Prominent sire lines continue to signal Derby winners overall, but no dominant sire pattern has been present in the past decade. Calvin Borel has retired as a Derby riding legent, so jockey bets are not a strong angle, as is the case with trainers. That leaves us with the task of watching these final prep races and see which ones emerge in top form. This year’s crop is being described by many as evenly matched and/or lacking in star quality, thus making for a tough handicapping puzzle. For those who think the trend pointing to favorites is bound to break sometime, a longer odds pick may be a good play this time around.