Although post positions for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby will not be drawn until Wednesday, I am going to share with you my current analysis of the 143rd running of America’s most famous horse race.
Scheduled each spring for 3-year-olds at the demanding 1-1/4 mile distance, this year’s Derby has 20 probable starters and is the most wide open in several years.
A good reason can be traced to the absence of Bob Baffert’s Mastery, impressive winner of the San Felipe stakes at Santa Anita on March 11. Unfortunately, a condylar fracture to Mastery’s left front hoof knocked him out of the running.
So, what we are left to analyze – and perhaps convince ourselves to make a sensible Derby wager – are more than a dozen realistic win contenders, plus a few – such as Lookin At Lee and Gunnevera – who could rally from far back to complete a juicy Superfecta.
That said, I have narrowed my possible win play to six finalists for reasons to be explained, along with the necessary post time odds I will need to consider a wager.
In reverse order of preference, here then are my current thoughts on six noteworthy contenders:
GORMLEY: Won a pair of Derby preps at Santa Anita without earning relatively high Beyer Speed Figures. Yet, Gormley likes to win races and clearly outworked a stable mate with fluid action on Sunday to indicate he’s approaching the race in fine shape for trainer John Shirreffs. Jockey Victor Espinoza, a proven Derby winner who recently was elected to Racing’s Hall of Fame, will ride.
At 12-1 or better, I might give Gormley serious consideration.
HENCE: After scoring in a slow maiden race at Oaklawn Park in January, Hence turned in a terrible effort in the Southwest stakes at that same Arkansas track. So, trainer Steve Asmussen wisely shipped Hence to the Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico, where he defeated a few who came out of that low profile race to run terrific in higher ranked Derby preps. Hence will be ridden by Florent Geroux and should be about 20-1 on Saturday while seeking to validate his class.
IRISH WAR CRY: Won the Holy Bull at Gulfstream and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, earning triple digit Beyer Speed Figures in both. Fact: Very few Derby horses this year have earned even one triple digit Beyer. Moreover, this son of Curlin has been working steadily for trainer Graham Motion and his Wood Memorial jockey Rajiv Maragh keeps the mount. I’ll consider at 10-1 or higher.
CLASSIC EMPIRE: He was this crop’s 2016 Juvenile Champion, but finished a distant third to Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull, before rallying from mid-pack to win the Arkansas Derby, April 15.
While I’m not convinced he’s reached top form, Classic Empire has the natural talent to be a win threat for trainer Mark Casse and jockey Julien Leparoux. Yet, he will be only 3-1 or 7-2 on Derby Day and I will need 8-1 to play him.
ALWAYS DREAMING: Showed promising form in Florida during the winter, including an eye-catching Florida Derby triumph where he chased a fast pace and had plenty left to score driving clear.
I also like it that Always Dreaming has won a pair of 1-1/8 mile races, which were the best of his three wins, all with jockey John Velazquez. While trainer Todd Pletcher is one of America’s best, he has a surprisingly weak overall record in the Kentucky Derby.
That, plus the wide open nature of this Derby, will make me look for 6-1 to consider a saver win bet.
THUNDER SNOW: This is my surprise selection to win this year’s 1-1/4 mile spring classic. I like him, (with no guarantees), for four reasons. First is the absence of a serious Derby standout. Second is the strong form he showed in Graded turf stakes in Europe last year, before he won two Graded stakes on dirt this year in Dubai.
Most recently, Thunder Snow won the $2 million United Emeritis Derby at a distance longer than 1-1/8 miles when ridden by current jockey Christophe Soumillon.
In that fine performance, Thunder Snow settled nicely behind a good pace before overpowering his rivals in the lane.
Reason number three is trainer Saeed bin Surror who has demonstrated superior skill winning several Breeders’ Cup races. That clearly shows Surror knows what is needed at this competitive level.
Finally, the Run for the Roses has been a special target for Godolphin’s International stable and the colt reportedly worked well enough to encourage his connections to ship to Louisville.
With his uniquely foreign credentials, I expect at least 12-1 on Saturday.
Added Note: I am co-hosting a free Derby handicapping seminar this Friday evening, 6-7 p.m., at the Sunset Station racebook. All are welcome, and good luck finding the right horse.