J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
stage is set. The horses are ready. The question is, are the handicappers
143rd running of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) is the culmination of a
long winter of Derby prep races that were at times predictable and at times
inscrutable. A maiden won the Blue Grass Stakes. Another maiden finished second
in the Rebel Stakes at 112-1. Injuries and setbacks temporarily or permanently derailed
some colts from the Kentucky Derby trail.
comes the final test, both for the horses and the handicappers. Who will
prevail in the Kentucky Derby? And how might a wet track affect the outcome of
the race? Let's take a look at the entries!
#1 Lookin at Lee: He's
been one of the busiest Kentucky Derby contenders, competing in six qualifying
races dating back to last September. He's shown steady improvement this year
while competing in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III), Rebel Stakes (gr. II), and
Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park, and his performance in the latter race
drew a lot of attention since he was beaten just 1 ½ lengths while repeatedly
changing lanes and looking for running room in the homestretch. But while
Lookin at Lee is always putting in a run, he's also 0-for-6 in route races and
usually comes running too late to have a chance at victory. Then again, drawing
the rail could work out well for him and give him a chance to save ground and
rally up the inside, so Lookin at Lee looks like a colt that warrants
consideration for the trifecta and superfecta (particularly if the track is
wet), but maybe not the top spot or two.
#2 Thunder Snow: He's
one of the classier horses to qualify to the Derby through the Dubai route, as
he was a Group 1 winner in France prior to going 2-for-2 at Meydan this winter.
He showed a lot of grit in the UAE Derby, running down a very good horse in
Epicharis and holding off a late run from the U.S. stakes winner Master Plan,
but it's hard to overlook the fact that no UAE Derby runner has come close to
winning the Derby. Thunder Snow will likely face a much faster pace and
trickier trip in the Derby (there's a good chance he'll wind up boxed in with
dirt coming back in his face), and as a result, I think he's a horse to play
#3 Fast and Accurate: Although
this son of Hansen is 3-for-3 while racing on Lasix, those three wins have come
on turf and Polytrack, and his lone run on dirt yielded a fifth-place finish in
a maiden claiming race. The plan is to send him to the lead and keep him out of
trouble, but he was tiring at the finish of the Spiral Stakes (which he won
despite running the final three furlongs in about :40.74 seconds), and hanging
on for a spot in the Derby top five could be a tough task.
#4 Untrapped: This
son of Trappe Shot ran in four Derby preps this year, and after placing in the
LeComte (gr. III), Risen Star (gr. II), and Rebel Stakes (gr. II), he
disappointed a bit when sixth in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), beaten five
lengths by Classic Empire. You can make a case that he was compromised by a bad
trip--he had a wide trip and made a big mid-race move to challenge before
flattening out--but his sire was a sprinter, and my gut feeling is that
Untrapped might be at his best going a mile.
#5 Always Dreaming: I
came into this week wanting to pick Always Dreaming to win the Derby, and I
still believe he might be the most gifted horse in the race and one of the most
likely winners. After two easy victories at Tampa and Gulfstream, Always
Dreaming stepped up into stakes company for the Florida Derby (gr. I) and
crushed the field, tracking a fast pace before running the final three furlongs
in a rapid :36.56 to win by five lengths.
Dreaming's final pre-Derby workout was fantastic, as he went five furlongs in a
bullet :59 3/5 before galloping-out a full mile in 1:40 and change. But as has
been widely reported, he's been overly enthusiastic in his gallops, to the
extent that a rider change and the addition of draw reins was necessary to keep
him under control. While I'm not too concerned about this, it does introduce
the possibility that Always Dreaming could become rank in the Derby, and drawing
post position five--with speed horses to his inside and outside--could cause him
to get stuck uncomfortably in traffic if he breaks slowly.
the other hand, if Always Dreaming breaks cleanly and is willing to settle
behind the leaders, he might very well work out a perfect trip and parlay that
into victory. Always Dreaming is a colt that I'd definitely want to use in
multi-race wagers, but the post draw is just enough of a concern that I'll look
elsewhere for my top pick.
#6 State of Honor: Despite
placing in three major Derby prep races this year, State of Honor seems to be
overlooked coming into the Derby. After setting the pace to finish third in the
Sam F. Davis Stakes (behind McCraken and Tapwrit) and second in the Tampa Bay
Derby (behind Tapwrit), State of Honor employed rating tactics in the Florida
Derby and stayed on well to finish second behind Always Dreaming. He actually
ran the final three furlongs in a respectable :37.43, and you can't knock how
he's been training at Churchill Downs--he's made a really nice impression and
has caught the eyes of more than a few people at the track. While I'm not sure
that he'll stay ten furlongs well enough to have a shot at victory, I don't
think it's out of the question that he could finish in the superfecta.
#7 Girvin: You
have to admire how professional this colt has been, as he won the Risen Star
with a ground-saving trip and overcame a wide trip to win the Louisiana Derby
with a perfectly-timed bid. But you can
also make a case that he got great pace setups in both of those wins, and he's
been dealing with a quarter crack that has interrupted his training. With a few
questions to answer, I'll lean against him in the Derby.
#8 Hence: I
have mixed feelings about this son of Street Boss. He looked great winning a
maiden race at Oaklawn back in January over a sloppy track, battling back to
win after ducking sharply toward the rail in the homestretch. He then failed to
menace when seventh in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III), but rebounded in a huge way
to win the Sunland Derby (gr. III), rallying from 11 lengths off the pace to
win going away by 3 ¾ lengths.
of the horses Hence defeated have come back to run well in major stakes races,
including fourth-place finisher Irap (who won the Blue Grass in his next start)
and runner-up Conquest Mo Money (who came back to be second in the Arkansas
Derby). But it's worth noting that those horses raced much closer to the fast
Sunland Derby pace than Hence, and on that day Sunland also seemed to be favoring
horses that rallied wide from off the pace. You certainly have to respect
Hence's sharp speed figures, and he's another horse that has caught eyes while
training at Churchill, but I'm tempted to lean against him for the top spots
and use him defensively for third or fourth.
#9 Irap: Can
the team of Paul Reddam, Doug O'Neill, and Mario Gutierrez win their third
Derby in six years? Irap launched himself into the picture following an upset
win in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II), in which he tracked a modest early pace
and held off Practical Joke to prevail. The race came back reasonably quick in
terms of speed figures, but Irap's performance was a big step up from his
previous runs and he didn't finish particularly fast despite being all-out to
maintain his lead. He's made a strong impression training at Keeneland and
Churchill Downs, but I have to take a stand against him repeating his Blue
#10 Gunnevera: Although
he could only finish a non-threatening third in the Florida Derby, that race
didn't set up well for him at all. After drawing the far outside post position
in a field of ten, Gunnevera was angled sharply toward the rail heading into
the first turn, losing a lot of ground in the process while winding up fifteen
lengths behind a modest pace. When the race sped up significantly in the final
three furlongs (timed in less than :37 seconds), Gunnevera had no opportunity
to close much ground, but did stay on well to finish third, just 1 ½ lengths
behind State of Honor.
Gunnevera had shown the ability to capitalize on a good setup when he won the
Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) by 5 ¾ lengths over Practical Joke, and he crushed
a decent field in the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III) by a similar margin
last November. My only concern is that Gunnevera's late-running style can put
him at a significant tactical disadvantage against rivals with more early speed--in addition
to his loss in the Florida Derby, Gunnevera was soundly beaten by Classic Empire
in the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) last year. His workouts have also slowed
noticeably over the last few weeks; his final pre-Derby work was five furlongs
in 1:03 3/5, a far cry from the sub-1:01 and even sub-1:00 works he was posting
during the winter. In and of itself that's not a huge concern--he's got plenty
of racing experience and should be very fit--but it also suggests that he's in "maintenance
mode" and might not be heading toward a peak run in the same way that some of
his other rivals might be. I definitely respect Gunnevera as perhaps the most
dangerous of the deep closers, but I'll likely lean against him for the top
spot or two.
#11 Battle of Midway: He's
made remarkable progress from an unraced maiden in January to a Santa Anita
Derby (gr. I) runner-up in April, and while he has the Apollo Curse to contend
with, there are a few reasons to believe he might outrun his odds. For one, he
never got a chance to relax while setting a fast pace in the Santa Anita Derby,
and despite having every reason to throw in the towel, he battled on to finish
second while beaten just a half-length. His pedigree suggests that ten furlongs
will be within his range, and as a son of Smart Strike, Battle of Midway
shouldn't mind if the track comes up sloppy. Expect to see him rate off the
lead in the Derby, and from there he might have a shot to hit the board.
#12 Sonneteer: Call
me crazy, but I think this 0-for-10 maiden is a legitimate contender in the
Derby. After spending seven of his first eight starts competing against a
rock-solid group of California maidens (including Royal Mo, Term of Art, Reach
the World, Kimbear, and Irish Freedom), Sonneteer made a couple of trips to
Oaklawn Park and produced strong late rallies to finish second in the Rebel
Stakes (gr. II) and fourth in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), beaten two lengths on
those races, Sonneteer showed the ability to produce a big run from anywhere--he
rallied in between horses and up the inside in the Rebel and fought on gamely
despite squeezed toward the rail late in the stretch, and in the Arkansas Derby
he came very wide around the final turn while running his final three furlongs
in about :36.48 seconds, the fastest such fraction recorded by any of the Derby
contenders in their final prep race.
it's true that Sonneteer tends to flatten out late in his races and has a
pedigree that says "miler," his pedigree also suggests that he could thrive on
a sloppy track. Since Churchill Downs has a tendency to favor inside runners
when the track is wet, my hope is that three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey
Kent Desormeaux guides Sonneteer toward the rail and takes his chances trying
to find a clear path up the inside. To seal the deal, Sonneteer breezed four
furlongs in a bullet :47 flat on May 1st, looking great while doing
so and signaling his readiness for a big run. If the pace is quick enough, and
if Sonneteer stays inside, I don't think it's impossible that he could stun the
world with a 50-1 upset in the Derby.
#13 J Boys Echo: I've
liked this colt ever since he shrugged off some significant traffic trouble to
break his maiden at Keeneland by 5 ½ lengths, but since then, this son of
Mineshaft has been a little inconsistent. He fired off an eye-catching 102
Beyer when parlaying a perfect trip into a 3 ½-length romp in the Gotham Stakes
(gr. III), but he was a bit dull in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II), finishing
fourth after encountering a bit of trouble during the race. He's got the
pedigree for handling a sloppy track and has drawn well in post thirteen, but
even if he rebounds to his Gotham form, I'm inclined to think a spot in the
trifecta or superfecta might be the best he can muster.
#14 Classic Empire: In a
Derby that has been billed as wide-open and competitive, it's not very creative
to pick the favorite, but at this point Classic Empire is the only horse that
seems to check all the boxes for me. Consider the following:
He's fast enough--he posted a 102 Beyer and a
108 BRIS speed figure while winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last
He's versatile--he's won tracking the pace
(even a fast pace) and has won while closing from well behind the leaders.
He's proven that he can handle traffic, as he
received a very awkward trip in the Arkansas Derby (getting steadied in traffic
and racing in very tight quarters) but shrugged it off to rally and win.
Speaking of the Arkansas Derby, he won that
race despite having his training schedule interrupted by various issues during
the winter. He was surely short of peak fitness for the Arkansas Derby and
could be poised for improvement in the Kentucky Derby.
The Arkansas Derby has also been among the
most productive Triple Crown prep races over the last dozen years or so.
He's 2-for-2 at Churchill Downs.
He's proven over a sloppy, sealed track
(breaking his maiden in such conditions at Churchill last May), and his
sire--Pioneerof the Nile--finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby over a
sloppy track and has also sired American Pharoah, a two-time Grade 1 winner in
He's drawn perfectly in post position
fourteen, which should allow him to adapt to whatever pace scenario unfolds.
He contested just two Derby prep races this
year, a strategy that has worked for eight of the last ten Derby winners.
all of this in mind, I have to side with Classic Empire to win the Kentucky
Derby. There are certainly concerns about some of the antics he has shown in
the past (refusing to train on a few occasions at Palm Meadows and losing his
rider at the start of the Hopeful Stakes), but he's been fine during training
at Churchill Downs. If he goes off at 4-1, that might even be considered a fair
price compared to the odds available on a few other recent Derby winners.
#15 McCraken: No
horse has drawn more positive buzz during training hours than McCraken, the
once-beaten son of Ghostzapper that has a perfect 3-for-3 record at Churchill
Downs. After missing the Tampa Bay Derby with a slight ankle issue, the
late-running McCraken was surely short of his best for the Blue Grass Stakes,
where he finished third after racing much closer to the early pace than usual.
His workouts since that race have been eye-catching and suggest he's coming up
to the Derby poised for a career-best effort.
only hesitation is that McCraken has yet to face the toughest competition
(Tapwrit, State of Honor, and J Boys Echo are the most notable horses he's
beaten), and he's always been known as a very good work horse, making it harder
to gauge if his sharp workouts at Churchill are a sign that he's improving. If
his morning line odds hold up at 5-1, I think he'd be an underlay in regard to
his actual chances of winning, though I wouldn't want to leave him off any
serious multi-race wagers.
#16 Tapwrit: This
son of Tapit did little wrong during the winter, winning the Pulpit Stakes over
a sloppy track, running second to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, and
crushing nine rivals to win the Tampa Bay Derby by 4 ½ lengths. He was shaping
up to be among the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby until he finished
a surprising fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes, beaten 11 lengths without any
apparent excuse. If you're willing to forgive that run, a case can be made that
Tapwrit will be a threat from off the pace, but I find others a bit more
appealing in this race.
#17 Irish War Cry: Ever
since his eye-catching maiden win at Laurel Park last November, Irish War Cry
has looked like a colt with a chance to be a major player in the Derby. He
delivered on those expectations by winning both the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II)
and Wood Memorial (gr. II) in dominating fashion, earning Beyer speed figures
of 101 each time, but sandwiched those efforts around a disappointing
seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth.
hard to say what happened in the Fountain of Youth, but in any case, Irish War
Cry's effort that day seems like an aberration in an otherwise unbeaten career.
He settled nicely in the Wood Memorial before reeling in the front-running
Battalion Runner, who had the advantage of setting the pace over a
speed-favoring track, and while Irish War Cry didn't finish particularly fast
(he ran the final three furlongs in :38.98 seconds), the track was tiring and
not very conducive to fast times.
of the biggest advantages for Irish War Cry might be his pedigree, as he's a
son of Curlin (who has already sired Triple Crown race winners Exaggerator and
Palace Malice), and from a pedigree perspective there's no reason to think
Irish War Cry won't love a wet track. In the event that rain leads to a sloppy
track for the Derby, I would upgrade Irish War Cry's already strong chances and
view him as one of the most likely winners--perhaps my second choice behind Classic
#18 Gormley: Regular
readers of this blog know that I've been a big fan of Gormley since last year,
and the transformation he has undergone this winter and spring has been
eye-catching. He's much more professional than he was before the Breeders' Cup
Juvenile, and he successfully employed rating tactics for the first time while
winning the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) by a half-length. But while I still
believe there's much more to this colt than meets the eye, he benefited from a
perfect trip in the Santa Anita Derby (a race that fell apart late with the
final three furlongs going in more than 40 seconds), and drawing post eighteen
leaves him with limited opportunities to work out a good trip. I'll reluctantly
side against him here, though his odds might be high enough to warrant a small
win bet if the track comes up sloppy, which he should relish.
#19 Practical Joke: You
have to respect any horse that has won two Grade 1 races and has never finished
out of the trifecta, but Practical Joke is 3-for-3 around one turn and 0-for-3
around two turns, and he's shown a tendency to flatten out in his route races.
He may very well have the talent to hit the board, but drawing post nineteen
almost ensures that he'll get a wide trip, which could severely compromise his
#20 Patch: Like
Battle of Midway, he'll have to break the Apollo Curse if he's going to win the
Derby, but he's come a long way since finishing second in his debut on January
15th. Last time out, he rallied to finish a solid second in the
Louisiana Derby (gr. II), beaten just 1 ¼ lengths by Girvin in a solid effort.
However, Patch received a perfect ground-saving trip while taking advantage of
a fast early pace, and he'll likely need to take another big step forward to be
a factor in the Derby.
put it simply, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the
Kentucky Derby... but then again, that's always the case. While my selections in this
Derby are pretty chalky and far from creative, I have confidence that the Derby
winner will be Always Dreaming, Classic Empire, or Irish War Cry, with a preference for the latter two given the post
position draw and the possibility of a wet track. Since the Derby is a race
where every handicapper and horseplayer is supposed to have one pick to win, I'll side with Classic
Empire, though I would use Irish War Cry in equal strength for all multi-race
it comes to live longshots, I believe both Lookin
at Lee and Sonneteer can be
threats from off the pace if the track is sloppy. If one of them is able to
work out a ground-saving trip coming up the rail, I think they'll have every
chance to hit the board at a big price. McCraken,
Hence, and Gunnevera are others to consider on larger tickets, while I have
slight interest in Gormley and Battle of Midway since they'll both be
solid prices and have solid form overall, even if the Santa Anita Derby was rather
it's your turn! Who do you like in the Kentucky Derby?
The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!
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 www.theturfboard.com.