Whether upsets or injuries, the 2017 Kentucky Derby season has been topsy-turvy to say the least. Last weekend’s Fountain of Youth (G2) and Gotham (G3) added to the mayhem as Gunnevera and J Boys Echo posted resounding victories while heavy favorites Irish War Cry and El Areeb faltered mightily.
Gunnevera and J Boys Echo improved their stock but circumstances were advantageous for both late runners. We will get a better gauge in their final prep race.
Recent developments have flattered California-based prospects, with leading contenders out west gearing up for the San Felipe (G2) and Rebel (G2) over the next two weekends.
Fountain of Youth
Gunnevera dropped nearly 15 lengths off the early pace, last among 10 runners during the opening stages of the Fountain of Youth. Multiple Florida-bred stakes winner Three Rules, a close second as the favorite in the 7-furlong Swale (G2) on February 4, showed speed as expected establishing fast early splits, but I was surprised to see even-money favorite Irish War Cry chasing the action in second.
Irish War Cry was exiting a pair of wire-to-wire wins, including a 3 ¾-length romp in the February 4 Holy Bull (G2) over the track, but many (including myself) were quick to overstate his versatility given a last-to-first debut score at Laurel Park last November. However, the Curlin colt missed the break in his initial appearance, necessitating the rallying tactics, and didn’t settle readily when breaking properly in the Fountain of Youth, pressing the pace in second while racing well off the rail. He began to retreat on the far turn and weakened to seventh, beaten 21 ¾ lengths.
Trainer Graham Motion thought Irish War Cry may have come back too soon from his break-through performance in the Holy Bull four weeks earlier and indicated a preference to skip the April 1 Florida Derby (G1) in four weeks, utilizing an April 8 prep race (either the Blue Grass [G2] or Wood Memorial [G2]) five weeks out from the Kentucky Derby.
Headstrong behavior isn’t an admirable trait for the Kentucky Derby but Irish War Cry is eligible to rebound with a much-improved showing next time. However, Kentucky Derby history favors horses who don’t flop in the next-to-last prep race. Afleet Alex, easily the best 3-year-old of 2005, serves as a prime example. He finished last of six, beaten 12 ½ lengths, when making his penultimate prep in the Rebel (G2) (an entrapped epiglottis was to blame) and came back to win the Arkansas Derby (G2) by a record-setting eight-length margin.
Despite receiving an ideal ground-saving stalking trip behind a hot pace at Churchill Downs, Afleet Alex could not overcome the hiccup in preparations and came up short in third behind a pair of impossible longshots, Giacomo and Closing Argument. He went on to capture the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in authoritative fashion and the Rebel clunker arguably cost Afleet Alex the Triple Crown.
Gunnevera began passing horses with gusto on the far turn of the Fountain of Youth, drawing alongside Three Rules and Practical Joke by upper stretch, and blew away his rivals in the short stretch at the 1 1/16-mile distance, scoring by a widening 5 ¾-length margin.
Conditioned by Antonio Sano and ridden by Javier Castellano, the chestnut colt is from the first crop of the surging Dialed In, who was also represented by runaway John Battaglia Memorial winner It’s Your Nickel over the weekend. Dialed In is a son of the A.P. Indy stallion Mineshaft, sire of J Boys Echo. Little black-type can be found in the immediate female family but Gunnevera is out of a mare by 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and counts Graustark, a noted source of stamina, as his second maternal damsire.
Based in South Florida, Gunnevera made his first three starts at Gulfstream and now shows a 5-2-2-0 record over the track, the lone unplaced outing being a fourth to Three Rules last July while still a maiden. He was the only one finishing at the end of the Fountain of Youth, taking advantage of a hot pace and what appeared to be a tiring oval after a 90-minute gap between the last dirt race and the main event, and the most recent two-turn dirt route on Saturday’s program was won by Eastport from off the pace.
Gunnevera received a commendable 102 BRIS Speed rating, his first triple-digit figure in eight career starts, and a career-best 107 Late Pace. The Kentucky-bred colt recorded last-to-first wins in the Saratoga Special (G2) and Delta Jackpot (G2) at age 2, the same races won by Preakness winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Exaggerator a year earlier, but earned moderate BRIS numbers for those performances.
He has come on at age 3 but must keep moving forward over the next two months, with the Florida Derby serving as his final prep. Gunnevera will bring a deep-closing style to the Kentucky Derby.
Practical Joke settled toward the rear of the field and offered an eye-catching move into contention on the far turn before flattening out in the latter stages, edging past Three Rules by a half-length for second. A multiple Grade 1-winnng son of Into Mischief, the Chad Brown-trained colt was making his first start since a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and is a candidate to improve off the tightener, but Practical Joke has never posted a triple-digit Speed rating. He needs a big step forward next time.
Three Rules is a classy type who is probably best suited for distances up to a mile presently.
J Boys Echo settled into a clear fourth, seven lengths back after the opening half-mile as El Areeb wheeled along up front while being pressed by expected pacesetter True Timber. Cloud Computing was also in close attendance, tracking a taxing pace scenario over a slow Aqueduct inner track.
The final outcome was easy to envision by the end of the backstretch. Fast fractions began to take their toll on the front-runners as J Boys Echo rapidly closed the gap entering the far turn, accelerating wide into the stretch as he stormed to the front. The only question was by how far in upper stretch.
What threatened to be a 10+ length blowout wound up being 3 ½ in the end as the bay colt rolled home under wraps. Give credit to runner-up Cloud Computing – he dug in gamely when passed and fought determinedly to be 7 ½ lengths clear of third while never a threat to the winner.
J Boys Echo has eased some of the disappointment surrounding the early retirement of Not This Time, who established himself as a top prospect for the 2017 Kentucky Derby for the same owner/trainer/jockey connections (Albaugh Family/Romans Racing/Robby Albarado). Not This Time was unfortunately retired due to a career-ending injury after a neck second to Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), a race that has exacted an extreme toll on the top two finishers so far. Classic Empire is currently recuperating on the sidelines, trying to make it back for the Blue Grass at Keeneland.
Dale Romans appears likely to point his charge to the Blue Grass, which promises to be a serious class check. J Boys Echo didn’t appear to bear much in the Gotham with El Areeb performing so poorly.
After flawless victories in the Jerome (G3) and Withers (G3) at Aqueduct this winter, El Areeb displayed a major chink in his armor on Saturday. He rated comfortably just off the pace in those wins but behaved differently after stumbling at the start of the Gotham, taking off for the lead like his tail was on fire.
The 2-5 favorite was out of horse turning for home and wound up being beaten 11 lengths, saving third because the rest of the field had so little to offer. El Areeb could perform better in the Wood Memorial but the Exchange Rate colt probably wants no part of the 1 ¼-mile distance or deeper competition in the Kentucky Derby.
Out of a mare by 1999 Kentucky Derby runner-up Menifee, J Boys Echo doesn’t need to worry about distance. It’s just a matter of how good he really is. He parlayed a perfect Gotham trip into a career-best 104 BRIS Speed rating, the top figure from a 2017 Kentucky Derby qualifier, but I want to see him back up next time before getting too excited about his potential.
Cloud Computing is by the speedy Maclean’s Music and didn’t make his career bow until February 11, winning a 6-furlong maiden at Aqueduct. The Kentucky Derby can’t be considered a realistic goal but the lightly-raced colt could continue to show more for Brown down the road.
Others of interest
Unique Bella took off for the lead rounding the first turn of the March 4 Santa Ynez (G3) at Santa Anita, establishing fast early splits in the 1 1/16-mile test for fillies, and appeared to be in trouble when the Grade 1-winning Abel Tasman launched a serious challenge from off the pace, closing fast into contention by upper stretch.
Mike Smith was never worried aboard the talented filly and when he asked Unique Bella in midstretch, the gray lass immediately lengthened her stride and found another gear, leaving her quality rival in the dust as she won going away by 2 ¼ lengths. After posting a 106 BRIS Speed rating in the February 5 Las Virgenes (G2), Unique Bella registered a 104 for her second two-turn attempt.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer doesn’t want to run against males despite Unique Bella being potentially faster than any 3-year-old and nominated to the Triple Crown, and the May 5 Kentucky Oaks (G1) remains her likely destination. But it will be interesting to see if male counterparts can come close to matching the huge Speed numbers being accumulated by Unique Bella in Saturday’s San Felipe.
It’s Your Nickel offered a bold move on the far turn to quickly seize control in the March 4 John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway and cruised unopposed through the stretch to a 6 ½-length decision. The Dialed In showed a liking for the Polytrack in Northern Kentucky but Kenny McPeek won’t bring him back three weeks later for the local Spiral (G3), opting to wait two more weeks for the Blue Grass. That means It’s Your Nickel will make his lone attempt in a Kentucky Derby qualifier at Keeneland with a last-out 86 BRIS Speed rating.
The Kentucky Derby has a wide-open feel at this juncture and California-based runners like American Anthem, Gormley, Iliad, Mastery and Royal Mo have the opportunity to step up in the next two weeks. American Anthem and Royal Mo will wait for the March 18 Rebel at Oaklawn but the rest will be in action this weekend in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series.
The San Felipe at Santa Anita features the return of unbeaten Grade 1 winner Mastery, who opens his sophomore campaign for four-time Kentucky Derby scorer Bob Baffert. Iliad, an excellent winner of the 7-furlong San Vicente (G2), will make his eagerly awaited two-turn debut for dual Kentucky Derby winner Doug O’Neill. Juvenile Grade 1 winner Gormley, who opened the year with a fine win in the Sham (G3), adds more depth to the strong field and also had a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer in his corner, John Shirreffs.
The Tampa Bay Derby (G2), which won’t have McCraken due to an ankle sprain, lacks the star power of the San Felipe but looks like a good betting race. Tapwrit and State of Honor, second and third in the February 11 Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa, are top contenders in the 10-horse field.
Kentucky Derby Top 20
- MCCRAKEN: Recent results haven’t knocked him from top spot despite a physical setback; Churchill specialist could head a nice field in Blue Grass
- AMERICAN ANTHEM: Rebel an important test for well-regarded Baffert trainee
- GUNNEVERA: Convincing Fountain of Youth victor possesses big late kick
- ILIAD: Will find out if smashing San Vicente winner is real deal in San Felipe
- MASTERY: Plenty to like about juvenile form, San Felipe will show how much he’s progressed at age 3
- GORMLEY: Sham winner looks to confirm himself as a serious player in San Felipe
- J BOYS ECHO: Improving but received ideal set-up in Gotham; let’s see if he can back it up in final prep
- PRACTICAL JOKE: Eligible to improve off Fountain of Youth runner-up in 2017 opener
- TAPWRIT: Speedy female family a concern but expecting strong showing in Tampa Bay Derby
- GIRVIN: Risen Star winner possesses good turn of foot, needs to improve BRIS Speed ratings in Louisiana Derby
- CLASSIC EMPIRE: Connections hope he can make Blue Grass but will run out of time if he doesn’t return to worktab soon
- ONE LINER: Kentucky Derby distance looks like a stretch for impressive Southwest winner
- ROYAL MO: Beat little in Robert B. Lewis, seeks to enhance profile in Rebel
- IRISH WAR CRY: Interesting to see if he’s sent in final prep after Fountain of Youth flop
- MO TOWN: Showed talent as a juvenile but difficult to get excited about his chances after Risen Star flop
- LOOKIN AT LEE: Gets part often, returning from layoff with Southwest third, and eligible to keep improving for Asmussen
- PETROV: Southwest runner-up never worse than second in four career starts
- BATTALION RUNNER: Readying for stakes bow in Florida Derby for Pletcher
- REACH THE WORLD: Last-out maiden winner gets one chance to qualify if he wins Thursday allowance as expected
- EPICHARIS: Stamped ticket winning Feb. 19 Hyacinth Stakes in Tokyo and prepping in March 25 U.A.E. Derby