Keeler Johnson’s Kentucky Derby Top 10

By J. Keeler Johnson (“Keelerman”) Twitter: @J_Keelerman

As we approach the final days of 2016, a new year of racing looms just over the horizon; a year filled with excitement and potential. On January 1st, a new crop of Thoroughbreds will turn three years old, and the road to the Kentucky Derby will really begin.

To celebrate the arrival of another year and another Kentucky Derby season, let's take a look at my first Kentucky Derby Top 10 list for 2017!

1. Classic Empire (Pedigree)

A lot can change between now and the first Saturday in May, but at the moment, I believe that Classic Empire is a step above his rivals and a deserving early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. With the exception of an unfortunate loss in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), when he lost his rider at the start, Classic Empire is a perfect 4-for-4 with three graded stakes wins to his name, including an impressive triumph in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). The margin of victory wasn't eye-catching--just a neck--but he finished nearly eight lengths clear of the third-place finisher (two-time Grade 1 winner Practical Joke) and earned a powerful 102 Beyer speed figure. With Juvenile runner-up Not This Time having been retired, Classic Empire arguably stands alone among the leading two-year-olds right now.

For many years, it was wise to avoid getting too excited about the Kentucky Derby aspirations of promising two-year-olds, but it appears that times might be changing. After watching two straight two-year-old champions prevail in the Derby (American Pharoah and Nyquist), we might be seeing the start of a new era, and Classic Empire certainly has the credentials to be a star.

2. Mastery (Pedigree)

Racing for the powerful team of trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith, Mastery has done nothing wrong in three starts, winning each one with ease, including the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I). In that race, which marked his two-turn debut, Mastery dueled for the lead through testing fractions of :23.37, :45.65, and 1:09.53, then took command and briefly appeared to idle on the lead before Smith asked the colt for more run. The response was impressive, as Mastery pulled away to win by 7 ¼ lengths. He wasn't facing the toughest field, and his finishing fractions weren't very fast, but visually, Mastery has given the impression that he hasn't shown us his best yet, and I think we'll see bigger things from him in the future.

3. McCraken (Pedigree)

Hailing from the barn of Ian Wilkes, best known as the trainer of 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Fort Larned, McCraken might be bound for similar stardom after going 3-for-3 during his juvenile season. After unleashing a big rally to win the one-mile Street Sense Stakes by 3 ¾ lengths, McCraken was even more impressive in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), in which he rallied from ninth over a speed-favoring track to wear down the Grade 1-placed colt Wild Shot and win going away.

The form of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes received a boost when sixth-place finisher Shareholder Value came back to win a quality allowance race at Fair Grounds, which was particularly notable since Shareholder Value received the same setup as McCraken in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and was unable to match strides with the eventual winner. Given McCraken's strong pedigree (by Ghostzapper out of the Seeking the Gold mare Ivory Empress), you get the feeling that more distance will be just fine for this talented colt, who is currently at Palm Meadows Training Center gearing up for his 2017 campaign.

4. Irish War Cry (Pedigree)

I discussed this colt in detail on Unlocking Winners a few weeks ago (click here to read), and my thoughts haven't changed since then. Trainer Graham Motion has already mentioned the Kentucky Derby as a long-term goal for Irish War Cry, and we'll get another look at this colt when he runs in the seven-furlong Marylander Stakes on Saturday at Laurel Park. It's worth noting that Irish War Cry did not race on Lasix in his debut and will race without it in the Marylander Stakes as well.

5. Saint's Fan (Pedigree)

Saint's Fan is another colt that I discussed in detail a few weeks ago (click here to read), and my excitement for him has grown since he came back and won the Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile Stakes despite breaking slowly and conceding a couple of lengths at the start (click here for a recap). Trainer Dallas Stewart has had some luck on the Triple Crown trail with horses like Macho Again, Golden Soul, Commanding Curve, and Tale of Verve, but Saint's Fan has started his career on a more successful note than any of his predecessors--will he be the colt to give Stewart his first win in a Triple Crown race?

6. Mo Town (Pedigree)

Anthony Dutrow doesn't have a reputation for sending out ready-to-run first-time starters, so when Mo Town finished a strong second in his debut at Saratoga, it was clear that this colt might be something special. He hasn't lost since then, breaking his maiden by seven lengths at Belmont before stretching out to nine furlongs and winning the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) by a decisive 2 ½ lengths. It's been a while since the Remsen Stakes has produced a Kentucky Derby winner, and while Mo Town benefited from a slow pace in that race (1:14.02 for six furlongs), he accelerated the final three furlongs in a respectable :37 2/5, a solid fraction that suggests ten furlongs won't be an issue. He also has a strong pedigree, being by Uncle Mo out of a Bernardini mare, and appears to have a very bright future.

7. Good Samaritan (Pedigree)

For a colt with a thoroughly "dirt" pedigree (by Harlan's Holiday out of a Pulpit mare), it might come as a surprise that Good Samaritan hasn't yet run on the main track, but he's shown enough talent on grass to make him a horse to watch on the Derby trail. After turning in a powerful rally to win his debut at Saratoga (defeating a quality field that included Ticonderoga and J. S. Choice), Good Samaritan was equally impressive winning Woodbine's one-mile Summer Stakes (gr. II) while running the final quarter-mile in about :23 2/5. If not for a tough trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I), he might still be unbeaten, for he managed to finish third in that race despite encountering trouble early on and racing wide.

If Good Samaritan gives dirt a try this winter, watch out--the talent is there, and if he can handle the switch in surfaces, he could be a force to reckon with.

8. Practical Joke (Pedigree)

Although he was no match for Classic Empire and Not This Time in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Practical Joke ran well that day to rally and finish clearly third-best over a track that seemed to be favoring speed. Previously, he had produced strong late runs to win the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) and Champagne Stakes (gr. I) in narrow fashion, even overcoming a poor start in the latter race to prevail by a neck.

Trainer Chad Brown is primarily known for his success with turf horses, but he's also done well with dirt runners like Wavell Avenue, winner of the 2015 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (gr. I), and Normandy Invasion, who finished fifth in the 2013 Kentucky Derby after making an early move into a fast pace. Since Practical Joke is spending the winter in Florida, as is Classic Empire, there's a chance that we could see these two colts in a rematch before the Kentucky Derby.

9. Gormley (Pedigree)

Despite a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), I haven't given up yet on this well-bred son of Malibu Moon. Trained by John Shirreffs, Gormley began his career with two straight wins, including an impressive three-length win in the FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I) while defeating a solid field and earning a 93 Beyer.

In the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Gormley pretty much lost all chance with a poor trip; after a slow start, he found himself off the pace while racing wide, then made a bit of a rally into a quick second quarter-mile. Under the circumstances, it wasn't surprising that he got tired, and I suspect we'll see him rebound in a big way next time out. He's currently targeting a return to action in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) on January 7th at Santa Anita.

10. Iliad (Pedigree)

Bob Baffert has a very deep and talented group of potential Derby contenders, including Beach Bum, American Anthem, and Dabster, but one that has really caught my eye is Iliad. The son of Ghostzapper could only finish ninth in his debut at Del Mar on December 3rd (finishing 12 ½ lengths behind American Anthem), but came right back with a big win at Los Alamitos on December 18th, tracking fractions of :21.75 and :44.53 before taking command and drawing off to win by 3 ½ lengths. While he did appear to be carrying his head a little higher than most horses, Iliad finished strongly with a fifth furlong in :11 3/5 and a final furlong in :12 1/5, earning a Beyer speed figure of 92. Time will tell if he can stretch out in distance, but he looks like one to watch.

On a related note, I would keep an eye out for Hootie and Conscripted in Friday's Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita. Both have shown a lot of promise, particularly Hootie, who broke his maiden with a sensational late rally on October 1st at Santa Anita. Last time out, he finished a respectable fifth in an off-the-turf renewal of the Cecil B. DeMille Stakes (gr. III), and the return to turf in the Eddie Logan might be all he needs to return to the winner's circle.

Now it's your turn! Which colts have caught your eye at this early point on the road to the Kentucky Derby?


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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