There were three Kentucky Derby prep races today — two designated as such by virtue of offering 85 qualifying points and another that took on added significance when favorites faltered in the points contests.
Following physical setbacks to top prospects Classic Empire and McCraken, El Areeb in the Gotham (G3) and Irish War Cry in the Fountain of Youth (G2) could have taken big steps forward on the Triple Crown trail, but it’s impossible to spin their performances today as anything but setbacks.
El Areeb was no threat to J Boys Echo late after the pace collapsed, weakening to be a well-beaten third, and Irish War Cry was unable to win the battle with Three Rules much less the war ultimately won by Gunnevera and Practical Joke, retreating to more than 20 lengths behind in seventh.
Nothing against the winners of those races, but I’ll take a lesson from the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) — when Irish War Cry “upset” Classic Empire — and discount winners over big favorites as the “now” horse. That’s not to say they didn’t run well. They did, and I’m excited to see J Boys Echo and the Gunnevera and Practical Joke in their next starts, but I didn’t see anything that was anything better than what Irish War Cry did in the Holy Bull or One Liner in the Southwest (G3) or Girvin in the Risen Star (G2).
Again, that’s not to say these weren’t good performances—they were; it’s to say I sort of feel like we’re still on square one as far as sorting this crop out from a Kentucky Derby perspective.
Which brings us to the Battaglia, the local prep for the Spiral Stakes (G3). I’m a homer when it comes to Turfway horses, but why not Battaglia winner It’s Your Nickel, who had the race in complete command and easily ran down trainer Mike Maker’s pacesetters En Hanse and Hunka Burning Love.
Given the at least short-term defections of McCraken and Classic Empire from the trail and the clunkers by big favorites today, finding the Derby winner on May 6 at Churchill Downs might involve reading the tea leaves to determine who is ready to run his best race. That has not necessarily been the case the past five years, as well in-form horses have performed best on the win end, including four consecutive favorites.