By Bob Hill, TSV Staff Writer —-
We approached last weekend’s trio of major Kentucky Derby prep race with reasonable expectations that the results of those races might shed some light on the lineup for May 6th. Any hope for clarity was met with results that make the picture even murkier. The Arkansas Derby, to be run this coming weekend at Oaklawn, offers the last chance for most in the field to make the Derby field. It offers handicappers one last glimpse at the evolving possibilities in this year’s Triple Crown races. Here’s a recap of last week’s results and a look ahead to the Arkansas Derby.
Wood Memorial: This is the one prep race last weekend that offered at least some semblance of clarity. Irish War Cry, a son of Curlin, stalked a decent pace and won convincingly. If we throw out his one clunker in the Fountain of Youth, this Graham Motion trainee has strong credentials. By earning a 101 Beyer figure in the Wood, Irish War Cry now has posted two 100+ figures routing this year. I expressed the opinion last week that I remain dubious about Wood winners going forward, but Irish War Cry’s performance was the strongest of any horse in the three prep races on April 8th.
Runner-up Battalion Runner and third place finisher Cloud Computing were not disgraced in this race. Both sit at 40 points on the Derby eligibility list, ranking 18th and 19th respectively. The outcome of the Arkansas Derby could impact one or both as they sit on the points bubble.
Blue Grass Stakes: Let’s start here with McCracken. This son of Ghostzapper was undefeated going into the race. He had missed some training due to a minor ankle injury, and his trainer Ian Wilkes made it clear prior to the race that his charge might need the race. He had somewhat of a troubled trip and was running late when beaten by the maiden Irap. We will be left to pay close attention to his works in the next three weeks at his home track Churchill Downs. He is undefeated in three tries on that track. He has not fallen off any major lists of contenders at this point.
Practical Joke closed ground on the eventual winner, running into a very moderate pace. His performance grades out as at least a B+. The winner, Irap, has run some good races against top competition, but his breakthrough in the Blue Grass still represents a bit of a surprise. He did not fare well in the Sunland Derby, and he was beaten handily at Santa Anita by Royal Mo (third place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby) only a couple of months ago. If there is any trainer capable of a big surprise on Derby Day, Doug O’Neill is the man. J Boys Echo could manage only a fourth-place finish in the Blue Grass after his big win in the Gotham at Aqueduct last month. Because he is trained by Dale Romans he will still get a lot of ink and love from the Louisville faithful.
Santa Anita Derby: Gormley, the winner of California’s top Derby prep race, earned an 88 Beyer figure in a contest that seemed to take forever to end as the top four literally walked home down the stretch. To me, the race may have been nothing more than a glorified second-level allowance race. The second and fourth place finishers, in fact, were exiting a first-level allowance race. Some observers have praised third place finisher Royal Mo for his gutsy run from the 13th post position. Jockey Gray Stevens added to the hype by comparing that one to Silver Charm. I advise extreme caution with any of the runners in this race on Derby Day.
Arkansas Derby: The racing world is anxiously awaiting the return of 2016 Juvenile Eclipse Award winner Classic Empire in this race. He has run only one time as a three-year-old, and that effort was subpar. His work tab is strong heading into the Oaklawn race. If he wins or runs a convincingly good race he will stay near the top of the list of contenders. If not, he will rate as the major disappointment of this Derby class. Classic Empire is on the points bubble, needing only a fourth-place finish to qualify for the Derby field, but one is left to wonder what his connections would do if he finishes no better than fourth in the Arkansas Derby.
The Pletcher-trained Malagacy, winner of the Rebel Stakes at this venue last month, already is assured of a spot in the starting gate on Derby Day. A big run in this race would cause his stock to go way up. Something less will put a question mark by his name.
Any horse in this field that finishes first or second will earn enough points to make the Derby field. Four entries have 20 points or fewer and are considered as potential candidates to run well on Saturday. They are Sonneteer, Petrov, Lookin At Lee, and Silver Dust.
After the Arkansas Derby is in the record books the final standings on the eligibility list will be determined. We will then be down to appraising pre-race works and watching for any that defect from the list. The connections of one on the list with the points needed to make the field, Thunder Snow – winner of the UAE Derby – will soon make their intentions known. In the past I have downplayed horses shipping to the U.S. to run in the Kentucky Derby, but this year I do hope that Thunder Snow is in this field.