Keeler Johnson’s Kentucky Derby 143 Selections

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

The stage is set. The horses are ready. The question is, are the handicappers ready?

The 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.

Now 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 against.

#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.

Always 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.

On 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.

Several 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 Grass run.

#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.

Previously, 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 each occasion.

In 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.

While 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 November.
  • 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 the mud.
  • 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.

With 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.

My 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.

It's 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.

One 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 Empire.

#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 chances.

#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.

To 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 wagers.

When 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 slow.

Now 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

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