This has been a day I have dreaded for a while. There is a finality about announcing your final selections and wagers that hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks. For months, you’re coming up with different angles, new horses you like, and longshots and overlays who you feel could surprise. But once you put your money down there is no turning back.
First let me say, regardless of how good or bad this crop of 3-year-olds is, there is no denying it’s been a fun, but often frustrating group, who have provided more twists and turns on this year’s Derby trail than any in memory. Between the fast races, the slow races, the inexplicably horrendous performances by big-name horses, the dramatic rebound victories of those same horses, the form collapse of the Blue Grass Stakes, the surprisingly formful result of the Sunland Derby of all races. the huge efforts back east by a pair of California maidens, the agonizingly slow time of the Santa Anita Derby, the injury to Mastery, champion Classic Empire’s bizarre antics, physical setbacks, and relocation to a farm to train, the minor, but ill-timed injury to McCraken that forced him to miss a race, the late hour quarter crack suffered by Girvin, and a powerful invader from Dubai, we have pretty much seen it all. Oh, I forgot about the forecast of rain for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and the possibility of an off track.
So, with all that craziness, we now have to pick a winner of the Kentucky Derby. Because of all the setbacks and shocking performances, I have had several horses ranked No. 1 throughout the year. But for the past five weeks I have stuck with Always Dreaming for the simple reason I believe he is special and has the potential to be a major star. But I have to admit I try to make it a habit every year not to fall under the spell of a brilliant Todd Pletcher-trained horse who runs lights out at Gulfstream. They always look like world beaters at Gulfstream and often win the Florida Derby, but they either peak too soon or prove too inexperienced and seasoned to stand up to the rigors of the Kentucky Derby.
So the question is, am I getting suckered into liking another one of those horses who is going to take a lot of money only to fizzle out on the first Saturday in May? On top of that, the Always Dreaming I have always applauded for his class, professionalism, and overall demeanor, came to Churchill Downs full of spit and vinegar and galloped the first few days as if there were a swarm of hornets around his head. Although he turned in another of his brilliant works and powerful gallop-outs, he still was too wound up in his post-work gallops, prompting Pletcher to put on a more experience exercise rider and equip him with draw reins to keep his head down and give the rider more control.
There was improvement, but the colt still was a it too aggressive for a horse about to run a mile and a quarter. Using draw reins is like taking medicine that controls your illness, but doesn’t cure it. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you stop taking it, just like we don’t know what’s going to happen when the draw reins come off on race day. Will he be still be too aggressive in the stampede of horses that will be trying to get a good position going into the first turn? Will he be able to settle once he does get position? Drawing the 5 post with speed on both sides of him, we just don’t know what’s going to happen, but with his natural speed he could wind up in terrific position. Obviously there is no way to tell.
With that said, why in the world would I stick with him as my top choice? Because I believe that class I observed months ago will come out on Derby Day and he will somehow work out a good trip and wind up in a striking position, which will allow him to use all that natural talent I still believe he possesses. Maybe I’m always dreaming myself and defying all the logic of handicapping a race like the Derby. But I am going to put my faith in the colt and the skills of John Velazquez and stick with him. There is just something about this colt that inspires confidence and I believe he may be something special. Never before have I seen a horse run so fast and so slow to win in back-to-back races, which shows he can adapt to anything and run blazing fast if he needs to or crawl along at a snail's pace if that's all it takes to win. You just don't see fast horses with the ability to turn it on and off at will like he has shown. So even with the undesirable aggressiveness he's shown, I still believe his class and talent will win out on Derby Day and we'll see something special. And if he doesn't, then lesson learned for next year.
Some still like him a lot and others are throwing him out of the mix or relegating him to their fifth or sixth choice. But the facts are he ran a mile and an eighth in 1:47 2/5, three-fifths off Arogate’s track record, and, of course, the track was quick; all record or near-record times are recorded on fast tracks, and he was increasing his lead at the wire, coming home his final three-eighths in :36 1/5, the fastest closing three-eighths by any winner of a major prep. As far as a speed-favoring track, the majority of dirt races that day were won by closers, including the Gulfstream Park Oaks and Sir Shackleton Stakes.
Overall, I feel the top five big-name horses – Classic Empire, Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry, McCraken, and Gunnevera are the five most logical horses, and there is a gap between them and the others; which doesn’t mean none of the others can win. Anything can happen in the Derby, because we really don’t know much about these horses, most of them are so lightly raced. But I still love the Florida Derby and feel we saw the two best horses in Always Dreaming and Gunnevera and they are the strongest 1-2 punch.
Some feel Classic Empire is still best of the crop, while others feel he hasn’t moved forward enough from 2 and has had too wacky and disjointed a campaign this year. Some feel Irish War Cry is a bona fide star with all the brilliance and stamina needed to win the Derby, while others still can’t get that puzzling 22-length drubbing in the Fountain of Youth Stakes out of their head. Some feel McCraken is a super horse at Churchill Downs, especially judging from his last sensational work, and he needed the Blue Grass Stakes after missing the Tampa Bay Derby with a minor injury, while others are not as forgiving of his Blue Grass performance and just have concerns that he is not robust enough to get through all those horses without being roughed up at some point. And some feel Gunnevera ran as good as can be expected in the Florida Derby after his monster effort in the Fountain of Youth and is now ready for a peak performance, while others believe he’s had a hard 2-year-old and 3-year-old campaign and the Florida Derby was a sign he’s tailing off.
I believe all these horses. are going to run well. I’ve always been a huge fan of GUNNEVERA and always feel confident he’s going to get the job done. I just love his style, his explosive turn of foot, and his ability to demolish his foes with one sweeping move. He hasn’t wowed anyone in his training, but he is another I have faith in and expect a huge effort from him. There is just something about him that inspires confidence, even though some of the experts believe he is tailing off. But let’s not forget that his :35 4/5 closing three-eighths in the Florida Derby is the fastest of any of the Derby starters, even though he was beaten six lengths. After running a monster Thoro-Graph figure in the Fountain of Youth, he was expected to regress, but he should be ready for an upward swing again, and he will love the mile and a quarter and is bred to relish the slop if it should come up wet. Let’s also remember his explosive moves on the turn in the Delta Jackpot and Fountain of Youth, in which he drew off to win by nearly six lengths on two of the shortest stretches in the country.
As for IRISH WAR CRY, I fell in love with him after watching him break his maiden at Laurel, coming from far back with a powerhouse of a move and drawing off at will. He has never run back to that race and has now turned into a stalker or frontrunner who has been a bit headstrong early in some of his races, but also has relaxed beautifully in others. Some may feel post 17 is bit too far out for him and that he will have to run hard to get position. I look at it differently. I think Rajiv Maragh can take his time and clock the horses inside of him, and if he finds himself back in seventh, eighth or ninth, then maybe, just maybe, that will give him the perfect excuse to return to that sensational maiden effort, in which he also broke from the outside in post 12 and was forced to take back off the pace. So if you see him farther back than you expect, don’t fret. Just think of the horse who came from ninth, eight lengths back, to blow away his competition. Even if Maragh decides to get a position closer up, he has absolutely no speed inside of him. You have to go six, possibly eight, spots to find a horse with speed. So Maragh should be able to dictate his own strategy. Also, after being a tad headstrong his first day at Churchill Downs, he has gotten better each day and looked awesome galloping on Thursday, showing a perfect amount of controlled energy.
OK, so we have five strong horses at the top, and that could be your race. There is no way anyone can knock MCCRAKEN, who has a clear home court advantage as indicated by his works, and CLASSIC EMPIRE, who looks to be back to his championship form, and both will be awfully tough. I have to wonder if a sticky track would affect Classic Empire, who has been wearing glue-on shoes. But from a wagering standpoint, I never bet favorites or short-priced horses in the Kentucky Derby, especially when my top-ranked horse hasn’t been able to settle the way you would have liked. So I want to touch base on a few others before coming up with my betting angles.
The two horses I feel are worth win bets as potential extreme overlays are J BOYS ECHO, who has been the forgotten horse, and THUNDER SNOW, who is the unknown factor and you don’t want to get caught with your pants down just in case this colt is the real deal. He has won at 1 3/16 miles and he’s shown he can beat you by open lengths or out-slug you in a street fight. He looks magnificent physically and has been moving beautifully over the track. My only concern is his greenness on dirt, mainly with his lead changes. And I’m not crazy about drawing post 2, so I go in with some apprehension. It all depends on his odds, whether or not he’s worth the gamble.
My main win bet for a price or box in the exactas is J BOYS ECHO, who still has the highest Beyer figure this year and is the only horse to earn triple-digit middle and late Brisnet figures in the same race. So he can make an early move and still come home fast. If you’re throwing out the Blue Grass for McCraken and Tapwrit, who is getting a lot of late buzz, there is no reason not to throw it out for J Boys Echo. But all anyone is talking about is McCraken and Tapwrit, and I’m a sucker for forgotten horses that people are totally dismissing. He is the splitting image of his sire Mineshaft, in looks and running style, with his head held low, and if the track comes up sloppy, Mineshaft won the Pimlico Special in a quagmire. He and PRACTICAL JOKE, who I'll get to later, are my two main win bets.
Another horse I would watch on the tote board is HENCE, who, along with Practical Joke, had perhaps the sneakiest good work of everyone. We all know that McCraken stole the show with his brilliant work, in which they couldn’t get him pulled up, but Hence’s work went relatively unnoticed. Steve Asmussen normally gives his horses fairly slow half-mile breezes in about :50 before a race, but Hence went in :48 4/5 and could not have done it any easier. Form-wise, the Sunland Derby stands out, and his big sweeping move was very impressive. And his remarkable maiden victory in the slop at Oaklawn is something I have posted about and linked to on Twitter, because I never saw a horse do what he did. It was one of the most amazing displays of athleticism I’ve seen in a while. How good he is we have no idea, but as I said, check the odds and see just how enticing they are.
Finally, two of the best gallopers I’ve seen who made a big impression are IRAP and PRACTICAL JOKE, with the latter also having a very good work that went under the radar. if you’re looking for price horses in the exotics who are coming up to the race in super shape, keep these two in mind. Practical Joke just may be able to use his 19 post as an advantage, as it could also turn him into a late closer, and we saw what he can do coming from way out of it in the Champagne Stakes, and only exceptional horses can win the Champagne in 1:34 3/5. He had been failing to complete his moves, so he may be more effective making one run, and this may help him do that. This horse just keeps nagging at me. Most question his stamina, and rightly so, but I can’t shake him; he’s just looking too good out there, and Joel Rosario, who I respect a lot, has no doubt he will get the mile and a quarter. He also has the most consistently fast Thoro-Graph figures, with his best figure in his last. He has never run even a mediocre figure and is only one of four horses in the field to run a negative figure, which came in the Blue Grass. I just can’t get away from this horse and feel he’s sitting on a big race even from the 19 post.
Irap has really muscled out and his gallops have been extremely strong, and he just doesn’t seem to get tired. The boy that couldn’t win might just be turning into a man at the right time. The Tiznows, like their sire, have a tendency to do that, so who knows how much confidence that Blue Grass victory gave him?
One horse I have to admit confuses me is Battle of Midway. His last work at Santa Anita was as impressive a work as I’ve seen leading up to the race, but he’s run only four times and never raced at 2 (remember Apollo?) and his Beyer and Thoro-Graph figures say he is too slow. I also have been a huge fan of Girvin’s and even moved him up to No. 4 after the Risen Star Stakes, but his quarter crack and missed workout came at an inopportune time, and he also has only four lifetime starts. But watch out for this guy down the road. Patch only has three lifetime starts and is hung out in post 20. Deep closers Lookin At Lee and Sonneteer are two horses who can certainly pick up a piece of it, but will need a pretty good pace meltdown to make up that much ground.
OK, so how do you put all this together in a somewhat sane manner?
It must be said that who I like and who I bet are two totally different matters. Trying to make big bucks with very low budget (Hey, I’m not employed any longer), I can’t afford to bet low-priced horses.So we're separating the two. Now we turn to the handicappping and wagering portion.
So I will repeat, Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry, and Gunnevera are my top three-ranked horses and I’ll stick to that, despite the questions now surrounding Always Dreaming. McCraken and Classic Empire are also right up there, forming what I consider the Big Five, who could separate themselves from the rest of the field. But there is no money to be made betting on or boxing those horses.
So what trifecta angle can I use in which I can make a case for each horse to at least hit the board. Why not go back to the very beginning? Of my original Top 12 horses back in January, five of them are in the field – CLASSIC EMPIRE, GUNNEVERA, MCCRAKEN, GORMLEY, and PRACTICAL JOKE. By being in the Top 12 in the beginning it means they all have the 2-year-old class and foundation and have carried it all the way to the Derby, where there are many horses with little foundation and no 2-year-old form at all. So I will box these five horses in the trifecta.
My other angle is all about the one prep most everyone felt was by far the strongest of all the preps, and that is the Blue Grass Stakes. But when that race fell apart and gave us a crazy result, everyone dismissed it. But those were all very good horses, three of whom were high on everyone’s lists, with each one more than capable of winning the Derby, and I feel by boxing the first five finishers in the exacta – IRAP, PRACTICAL JOKE, MCCRAKEN, J BOYS ECHO, and TAPWRIT – there should be excellent value, especially since four of the five horses are 20-1 on the morning line. Not bad considering four of the five were ranked No. 3, 5, 6 and 7 in my Top 12 going into the Blue Grass. Now three of those are 20-1 in the Derby.
So my main win bet – J BOYS ECHO and PRACTICAL JOKE and check the odds on GUNNEVERA to make sure there is enough value.
Saver win bets – Also check the odds on THUNDER SNOW and HENCE and see if there is big value there -- 15-1 or higher. I like these two, but not as much as the top three.
For exotic betting angles, see the above trifecta and exacta boxes and for bombs away, I will do a small box with my three live win bets, J BOYS ECHO, PRACTICAL JOKE, and GUNNEVERA in the exactas.
One final note, if the track comes up sloppy, GUNNEVERA is a must bet.
On a more personal note, I do have a future bet on Irish War Cry at 85-1. I don’t bet futures in order to remain objective, but when I touted someone who lives in Vegas on Irish War Cry back in November he was kind enough to buy a ticket on him for me. I will try to increase it a bit with a $1 trifecta key of Irish War Cry with Always Dreaming, Gunnevera, McCraken, Classic Empire, Practical Joke, and J Boys Echo. And I have to do a $1 trifecta key just in case with Always Dreaming on top of several price horses -- Gunnevera and the four 20-1 shots from the Blue Grass, Irap, Practical Joke, J Boys Echo, and Tapwrit. My total bets come out to $200.
As far as track condition, don’t worry about it. The race is complicated enough, so just go with the flow and don’t start getting cute looking for slop horses. Hence, Classic Empire, Tapwrit, and Gormley are the four horses who have won in the slop and Gunnevera finished a fast-closing second behind the speedy Three Rules. Focusing too much on the slop will make things more complicated, and you have no idea how the others are going to handle it. Pay more attention to how the track is playing; if the speed is holding or if it’s a tiring slop and favoring the closers.
That’s about it. Most of you are going to lose, so just enjoy the race and hope everyone gets through it safe and sound and we have a great story behind the winner. Will Always Dreaming or Irish War Cry emerge as racing’s next potential brilliant superstar? Until they beat Always Dreaming I am sticking with him. And I love Gunnevera too much to not include him in most bets. Or will we have another megabomb explode? It will all be answered soon enough.