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Handicapping the Kentucky Derby with a field of 20 on a Monday morning? Without the post draw and knowing the weather it would just be a guessing game, which it may be anyway.

I will have an opinion later in this column and a better one Friday morning at the seminar at Palace Station at 8 a.m. in the racebook.

It was 1976 and I can remember it like it was last year. This was my fourth straight year going to the Kentucky Derby. I saw the great Big Red, Secretariat and the next year I get a horse by the name of Judger. I thought I lost my bet but my buddy said his stablemate Cannonade won. I had forgotten they had an entry, Cordero on Cannonade and Pincay on Judger.

Now that was an entry!

My buddies and I had a plan that seemed easy to carry out in a field of just nine. We loved a horse called Honest Pleasure and this was the year I found out what a good tip on a horse was.

Friday evening over dinner and cocktails at the top of the Galt House in Louisville at the table next to us sat the owner of Honest Pleasure, B.R. Firestone with his son and trainer LeRoy Jolley. My friend Craig Stern, who was a little tipsy to say the least, went up to wish them the best of luck and said our money was on Honest Pleasure.

The next morning we got on the elevator to head down for breakfast and in the elevator was Mr. Firestone’s son. We start talking about the race and out of nowhere he says, “Mr. Jolley and my dad say we can’t beat Bold Forbes.” Well, Bold Forbes, under a heady ride by Cordero, beat the speedy Honest Pleasure to the lead and went wire-to-wire with Honest Pleasure chasing him the entire 1-1/4, finishing second providing a cold exacta for the boys.

The next three years we got to see the magnificent Seattle Slew, the great battle between Affirmed and Alydar and the last Kentucky Derby of the great 70’s, Spectacular Bid. Now that was some racing.

By the way, in 1980 Mr. Firestone’s wife owned a little filly named Genuine Risk who beat the boys that year paying $28.60, and I still have a $2 ticket on her.

For this Derby on Saturday, we have a field of 20, including a maiden, Sonneteer, which means a writer of Sonnets. He is a deep closer and would have been much closer in his last start (the Arkansas Derby) when finishing a close fourth behind Classic Empire and a half a length behind Lookin At Lee.

There were two big defections last weekend with Todd Pletcher removing Battalion Runner and Malagacy. With these two runners out, the pace could take a dramatic change as both were front runners. Pletcher will now have just three runners going – the very speedy Always Dreaming, who could end up the favorite, Tapwrit, a Tapit colt who could move way up if the track is off, and Patch, who comes in with just three lifetime starts.

The last time a maiden won the Derby was back in 1933 when another tip horse won, a colt by the name of Brokers Tip, in one of the most controversial stretch runs ever. He beat Head Play by a nose with both jockeys fighting and hitting each other down the stretch with the horses side by side.

For this Derby, if you like Classic Empire use him, and also consider the two closers who ran behind him in the Arkansas Derby, Lookin at Lee and the Sonneteer. Classic Empire can be a head case at times and with the huge Kentucky Derby crowd he could get unhinged.

So we have a writer of Sonnets and a rapper in Irap, who was the first ever maiden to win the Blue Grass Stakes when beating the one time pre-Kentucky Derby favorite McCraken, and the steady Practical Joke who has never been off the board in his six lifetime starts. He finished third in the BC Juvenile behind Classic Empire and was gaining on Irap in the Blue Grass. The jockey and trainer combo of Joel Rosario and Chad Brown have been sizzling of late.

Trainer Doug O’Neill, the trainer of Irap, knows how to get a horse ready for the Derby as he won with I’ll Have Another and last year with Nyquist. We like the top three finishers in the Blue Grass Stakes – Irap, Practical Joke and McCraken.

Irish War Cry has the right style, will sit back in the first flight of runners in the top five and launch heading for home. He ran one puzzling bad race when finishing 7th as the even money favorite behind Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth.

The great Javier Castellano has been on Gunnevera in his last four starts. This is the bargain horse of the race as they paid only $16k for him. His good races will put him in the mix late.

The wise guy colt is Hence, the winner of the Sunland Derby that Irap came out of. The question is if that race was for real or will he revert back to his dismal effort in the Southwest Stakes.

The Santa Anita Derby was run very slow – or was it? The track was playing very slow with the winner Gormley getting the best of a gutsy effort by Battle of Midway, who looks to be the real deal but with no 2yo races he would need to break the curse of Apollo. The hot riding Flavien Prat will be aboard and is a must use in all the exotics. We look for a huge run by him and at this point he will be our key runner in this year’s Kentucky Derby.

Make sure you get up early and make our breakfast seminar at 8 a.m. in the Palace Station racebook. I will be hosting with Professor Gordon Jones and Dave “Track Phantom” Valento heading up the handicapping. We could all be walking around lucky and not even know it.

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