Next Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1) is sure to shake up the Kentucky Derby (G1) leader board a tad more, but in general the field for the 143rd running of the American classic is nearly complete, not including a possible defection or two over the next three-plus weeks.
After the disappointing news of One Liner’s removal from the Derby trail and some generally uninspired performances in the Blue Grass (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1), the conventional wisdom that this year’s Run for the Roses is wide open appears on the money. Here are quick thoughts on the current top 20 point earners, plus a few looking to earn the last tickets at Oaklawn this weekend.
1. Girvin — Has picked up Mike Smith for the Kentucky Derby after Brian Hernandez Jr. opted for McCraken. Hard to fault on own form, but Fair Grounds path to the Derby did not appear particularly strong nor did he seem to take a significant step forward from the Risen Star (G2) to the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2).
2. Gormley — Hot-and-cold type won a rather undistinguished renewal of the Santa Anita Derby in slow time. A survivor of the California classic path more than anything, he didn’t exactly fill a shoe left vacant by the much-missed Mastery.
3. Irap — Shockingly broke his maiden in the Blue Grass (G2) when none of the major contenders fired their best shots. Hard to see that being repeated over 1 1/4 miles at Churchill.
4. Irish War Cry — The one bright light from this past weekend was his rebound performance in the Wood Memorial (G2). Memories of his Fountain of Youth (G2) effort still linger, though, and he could be the lukewarm favorite come Derby Day.
5. Thunder Snow — In a year when the American-based sophomores have, after some defections, seemed so-so, why not? Dirt and distance do not seem to be issues. However, he barely squeaked by Epicharis in Dubai, and that rival would presumably have been a big price in this.
6. Always Dreaming — Won by a big margin on a fast-playing Gulfstream strip, but not exactly battle-tested in the Florida Derby (G1). The heavy favorite was never a threat, while four of his nine rivals started at triple-digit odds.
7. Gunnevera — Perhaps not primed for his very best effort in the Florida Derby, but given the relative weakness of the field on paper I expected to see more. Very much pace dependent come Derby time, and there might be better closers to choose from.
8. Practical Joke — Had every chance to win the Blue Grass with only a maiden to beat in the stretch and the rest spinning their wheels. He couldn’t do it, and not convinced an extra furlong in Louisville is what’s needed.
9. J Boys Echo — Didn’t enjoy the best of trips in the Blue Grass, but his Gotham remains one of the more intriguing performances of the prep season. Would have a big chance in the Derby if he were to replicate it.
10. State of Honor — Hard-knocker has picked up some nice checks and sufficient points along the way, but hard to envision him making amends against McCraken, Tapwrit or Always Dreaming. Still N1X and Queen’s Plate eligible.
11. Tapwrit — Like J Boys Echo, he could afford to not run up to snuff in the Blue Grass having secured a Derby spot the previous month in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2). Better than the Keeneland performance suggests, but how much is open to debate.
12. Malagacy — Rebel (G2) winner is in for now, but will be tested for sufficient stamina in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday. We’ll have a better idea of where and how he fits if he passes a nine-furlong test with flying colors.
13. Hence — Certainly got a favorable setup in the Sunland Derby (G3), and flattered a little when third-placed Irap won the Blue Grass. Relative class seemingly exposed in the Southwest (G3), and getting another hot pace at Churchill not a sure thing.
14. Fast and Accurate — Ex-claimer will probably be one of the longest shots in the Derby having won a slow renewal of the Spiral (G3) on Polytrack. Lone dirt appearance left much to be desired.
15. McCraken — Reportedly came back from his Blue Grass as if he needed the race. If, like myself, you’ve been with him the whole time, it might not be wise to jump ship at this point now that he’ll be heading to a track over which he’s three-for-three. On the other hand, losing in that matter to a maiden has cooled the enthusiasm.
16. Battle of Midway — A game second in the Santa Anita Derby after pressing or leading most of the way, but that was the slowest running of the race in 60 years. Needs a huge step-up.
17. Patch — Carries the same “baggage,” so to speak, as Girvin, who he didn’t have an answer for in the Louisiana Derby. Has come a long ways rather quickly after an early-life injury cost him an eye, but has the “Apollo Curse” to overcome now.
18. Battalion Runner — Talented colt was no match for Irish War Cry late in the Wood Memorial. Has the look of a Derby pacesetter that won’t necessarily see out the 1 1/4 miles against a collectively stronger group.
19. Cloud Computing — Like Patch, he was unraced at two, and no unraced juvenile as won the Derby since the 1880s (the aforementioned Apollo). Relative lack of experience showed against the Wood top two. Not sure that gap can be closed in sufficient time to wear the roses, but could be a good one later in the year.
20. Untrapped — A fourth or better in the Arkansas Derby would be enough to cement his position in the Churchill starting gate, but honestly needs a win to suggest he’d have a big shot in Louisville. Minor awards thus far in the Lecomte (G3), Risen Star, and Rebel.
The Arkansas Derby also includes juvenile champion Classic Empire, who is presently on the outside looking in. I’d be slightly surprised if he won Saturday given the layoff since early February and the interim issues he’s had with his training, but an encouraging top-three finish will have him bound for Louisville. We already know the underlying talent exists, it’s just a matter if he still has it at this crucial time.
The maiden Sonneteer could sneak into the Derby field with a third or better at Oaklawn, while horses like Petrov, Lookin At Lee, Silver Dust, or anyone else for that matter, are eyeing second or better on Saturday.