The final round of major preps is almost done and no clear-cut Kentucky Derby favorite has emerged with less than four weeks remaining until the first Saturday in May.
Previously unbeaten McCraken could have grabbed the favorite’s mantle in the Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland, but failed to offer a serious challenge in third as the maiden Irap posted a shocking upset.
Irish War Cry reestablished himself a leading candidate, rebounding with a 3 ½-length triumph in the Wood Memorial (G2) Aqueduct. Always Dreaming is also in the mix, scoring by five lengths in the Florida Derby (G1) two weeks back. Both posted a 102 BRIS Speed rating.
And 2-year-old champ Classic Empire can rise to the top of the pecking order with an impressive return in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1). He hasn’t won since early November and missed plenty of training in recent months due to physical issues, but the talented colt isn’t easily dismissed given the landscape.
Favorites have captured the last four runnings of the Kentucky Derby, with California Chrome (2014), American Pharoah (2015) and Nyquist (2016) all leaving the starting gate at 5-2 or lower, but it’s impossible to envision such a short price again, with this year’s top contenders having more holes than we’re used to seeing.
Right now, the 2017 Kentucky Derby has a similar feel to 2002 when the favorite left the starting gate at 6-1 and only five of the 18 contestants were greater than 24-1. Bettors had trouble identifying the first two finishers, with War Emblem (20-1) and Proud Citizen (23-1) generating a $1,300.80 exacta ($2).
2002 Kentucky Derby chart:
Irish War Cry is back.
By Curlin, the Graham Motion-trained colt opened his racing career with a pair of sprint wins at Laurel Park and rolled by 3 ¾ lengths when making his two-turn bow in the February 4 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park (G2), leaving Gunnevera and Classic Empire in his dust as he registered a 102 BRIS Speed rating.
His Kentucky Derby stature rose greatly but the wheels appeared to come off when returning as the even-money favorite in the March 4 Fountain of Youth (G2), with Irish War Cry checking out of the action by the far turn and retreating to be beaten 21 ¾ lengths in a dismal seventh-place effort.
That left us in the unenviable position of guessing which Irish War Cry would show up for the Wood Memorial. Motion felt the pressure, electing to skip the Florida Derby for a new environment and changing equipment to a Figure 8 bridle in order to give the jockey more control. Irish War Cry was rank from the start of the Fountain of Youth, rushing forward to chase the pace instead of settling, and he didn’t prove as headstrong last Saturday.
The chestnut advanced to be a stalking second entering the Wood Memorial backstretch and bided his time while edging closer on the far turn, waiting for his cue from new rider Rajiv Maragh before finishing with gusto.
It’s a terrific comeback story for Maragh, who was seriously injured in a fall during the summer of 2015 and needed nearly 18 months of rehabilitation before making it back to the races. He now rides a legitimate Kentucky Derby win contender.
“He was always in a smooth rhythm,” Maragh said. “He relaxed real easily. He did everything I wanted him to do without a lot of effort. He did it all in rhythm. He wasn’t rank at all. He settled beautifully. By getting on him in the mornings, I didn’t think I’d have a hard time getting to settle because he goes so easy and comfortable. We ran good together today.”
Irish War Cry has recorded two of the biggest performances this year and the 1 ¼-mile Derby distance appears within the wheelhouse if he shows up with his best effort. But he must keep his composure to deliver another big performance on Derby Day and the Fountain of Youth flop remains at least a minor concern, with Motion and his team putting all of their focus into the Wood Memorial.
“That was huge,” the trainer said. “I don’t remember having a situation like this, when I felt so much was on the line.”
The top 3 finishers from the Wood Memorial picked up enough points to make the Kentucky Derby field.
Runner-up Battalion Runner was bet down as the 2-1 favorite in his stakes debut for Todd Pletcher and set the pace from the start. He fought back briefly when challenged by Irish War Cry but gave way by midstretch, saving second because no other runners could make an impact. Cloud Computing held his place throughout but was done by the head of the stretch, finishing 3 ½ lengths behind Battalion Runner in third.
Battalion Runner may continue to be a pace factor in the Kentucky Derby but his Wood effort installs little confidence for 1 ¼ miles at this stage in his career. He was exiting a workmanlike victory in his first two-turn attempt, a 1 1/6-mile allowance at Gulfstream, and ran his fastest race when breaking his maiden sprinting in December.
Cloud Computing regressed off a fine second in his second career start, the March 4 Gotham (G3). He appears safely within the Kentucky Derby field with 40 total points and remains a promising prospect for Chad Brown, but the Maclean’s Music colt didn’t make his career debut until February 11 and probably isn’t capable of an optimal performance on May 6.
Irap was eligible to receive a plum trip on the front end of the Blue Grass but considering he had just been drilled 13 days earlier in a panned Sunland Derby (the winner, Hence, wasn’t deemed good enough to be among 23 individual interests in Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager), the maiden appeared to have no chance to defeat the likes of McCraken, Tapwrit, Practical Joke and J Boys Echo.
It turned out to be the kind of race that had observers talking about betting longshots in the Kentucky Derby.
Irap closely tracked pacesetter Wild Shot to the far turn and surged clear into the stretch, opening up by 1 ½ lengths with an eighth of a mile remaining to the Blue Grass wire. But Practical Joke and McCraken were both gaining on him as the crowd began to roar at Keeneland.
Stunned silence awaited Irap as he returned to the winner’s circle. Despite refusing to switch leads in the stretch for new jockey Julien Leparoux, he dug in determinedly to outfinish Practical Joke by three-quarters of a length as McCraken failed to sustain his rally in deep stretch. By Tiznow, Irap had finished second in three previous stakes attempts but was never a serious threat.
The bay colt has the right connections – owner Reddam Racing, trainer Doug O’Neill and soon-to-be-named jock Mario Gutierrez have won two of the last five editions of the Kentucky Derby – but Irap probably won’t reproduce his Blue Grass effort next time.
However, a tale of caution involves Charismatic, a former claimer who notched his first stakes win when upsetting the 1999 Lexington (G2) at Keeneland. He came back two weeks later at Churchill to give D. Wayne Lukas with his fourth Kentucky Derby winner, prevailing at 31-1, the same odds Irap overcame in the Blue Grass.
The top 5 finishers have the points to make Kentucky Derby field.
Practical Joke just missed in his second start of the year for Brown, recording an improved effort upon a well-beaten second in the Fountain of Youth. By Into Mischief, I’m not sure whether 10 furlongs will suit him and Practical Joke has never earned a triple-digit BRIS Speed rating. But the hard-trying colt could continue to show more if he handles the trip.
McCraken was taken under a snug hold early and forced to wait leaving the backstretch when Practical Joke accelerated past him into the far turn. He lost ground swinging extremely wide into the stretch, advancing to even terms with Practical Joke between calls before coming up short in the latter stages, finishing three lengths back of the runner-up.
Ian Wilkes was Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger’s top assistant for years, working with Kentucky Derby winners Unbridled and Street Sense, who both lost the Blue Grass before coming back to win the Kentucky Derby. And McCraken had every right to be little short after being sidelined briefly due to an ankle strain, missing a planned start in the March 11 Tampa Bay Derby (G2).
His affinity for Churchill Downs (3-for-3) could come through as McCraken tries to jump forward off the Blue Grass with a terrific late kick on Derby Day. But I would prefer to have seen McCraken post a triple-digit BRIS Speed rating before entering the starting gate.
J Boys Echo was forced to check entering the far turn and nearly ran into the hind end of Practical Joke in the stretch, altering course to be a wide fourth. He ran fast capturing the Gotham two back, registering a whopping 104 BRIS Speed rating, and J Boys Echo gained valuable seasoning after a perfect trip in the previous outing. The son of Mineshaft may not be good enough to win but he remains an intriguing exotics contender for Dale Romans with further improvement expected off a rough Blue Grass trip.
Tapwrit never fired after a good-looking win in the Tampa Bay Derby but is still under Kentucky Derby consideration for Pletcher.
Santa Anita Derby
Gormley changed tactics and rebounded in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), rallying to win by a half-length. The California division is obviously feeling the absence of the unbeaten Mastery, who headed to the sidelines after a brilliant win in the March 11 San Felipe (G2), because it was the slowest Santa Anita Derby in 60 years.
Gormley received an average 99 BRIS Speed rating and his 77 Late Pace number underscores the glacial finish, with the top two finishers needing more than 40 seconds to complete the final three-eighths of a mile.
Trainer John Shirreffs did a commendable job teaching Gormley how to rate. The Malibu Moon colt led wire-to-wire when capturing the FrontRunner (G1) in his second start and the front-runner appeared to lose all chance when bobbling at the break of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). He raced close when opening 2017 with a nice win in the Sham (G3) at Santa Anita, but Gormley was out of gas by the conclusion of the far turn after chasing Mastery in the San Felipe, weakening to be beaten nearly 10 lengths in fourth.
Battle of Midway managed to save second after dueling on a hot pace and will bring early speed to the Kentucky Derby field. The son of Smart Strike may continue to show more down the road for Jerry Hollendorfer trainee, but he appears up against it at Churchill off a pair of slow races.
Third-place finisher Royal Mo will need some help to make the Kentucky Derby field, sitting in 22nd presently with 30 points, but he could still make the line-up with attrition expected.
Classic Empire will try to restore his reputation against 11 rivals in the Arkansas Derby. He was dogged by a foot abscess earlier this season and trainer Mark Casse sent him to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala for his last three workouts, with Classic Empire drilling a pair of 5-furlong workouts from the gate in preparation.
The son of Pioneerof the Nile posted a 108 BRIS Speed rating winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) but he’s running out of time to meet enormous expectations.
The top four finishers from the March 18 Rebel (G2) will return. Malagacy proved best by two lengths and is the likely second choice Saturday behind Classic Empire. Sonneteer, Untrapped and Petrov, the second-through-fourth finishers, are also back.
Kentucky Derby Top 20
- ALWAYS DREAMING: Impressive winner of Florida Derby in stakes debut, eligible to show more in Kentucky Derby
- IRISH WAR CRY: Wood Memorial winner has posted two of the fastest performances this year, will be forward factor in Kentucky Derby
- CLASSIC EMPIRE: 2yo champ reportedly training well for return, chance to regain Kentucky Derby favoritism with Arkansas Derby victory
- MCCRAKEN: Less-than-favorable trip & probably a little short returning from freshening in Blue Grass; Unbridled & Street Sense lost their final preps when Wilkes served as Nafzger’s top assistant
- GUNNEVERA: Didn’t run back to Fountain of Youth romp closing belatedly for third in Florida Derby, looks to offer much bigger late kick at Churchill Downs
- GIRVIN: Must step up against deeper competition but brings winning attitude to equation, improving to 3-for-3 on dirt with convincing tallies in Louisiana Derby & Risen Star
- HENCE: Class concerns but headed in right direction for Steve Asmussen off big win in Sunland Derby; chance to outrun long odds
- J BOYS ECHO: Posted fast score in Gotham (G3) two back but little went right in troubled 4th-place effort in Blue Grass; exotics contender has potential for better showing next time
- PRACTICAL JOKE: Blue Grass runner-up making steady progress for Brown, seeking further improvement in third start back from layoff
- THUNDER SNOW: Classy colt took to dirt in Dubai and UAE Derby winner will be one to follow in preparations at Churchill
- PATCH: Inexperience legit concern but Louisiana Derby runner-up could make up plenty of ground in latter stages
- STATE OF HONOR: Honest colt may not take to added ground but wouldn’t be a shock to see him gamely hold for minor award
- TAPWRIT: Better than he showed at Keeneland but history shows it’s difficult to rebound after no-show performance in final prep
- BATTALION RUNNER: Still like his long-term prospects but Wood Memorial runner-up doesn’t appear far enough along to merit serious consideration on May 6
- BATTLE OF MIDWAY: Santa Anita Derby didn’t feature deep field but speedster held gamely for second after registering BRIS 114 E1 and 122 E2 Pace ratings
- IRAP: Half-brother to champion sprinter Speightstown unlikely to repeat Blue Grass upset
- GORMLEY: Santa Anita Derby winner must improve significantly to challenge in Kentucky Derby
- CLOUD COMPUTING: Unraced juvenile now 0-for-2 at a route after one-paced third in Wood Memorial
- MALAGACY: Rebel winner has enough points to qualify but let’s see if he handles stretch out in Arkansas Derby
- FAST AND ACCURATE: Spiral winner possesses the points but not a viable contender at this level