The biggest race of the year is also the biggest handicapping puzzle of the year. This year’s Kentucky Derby is as wide open as a Derby gets, certainly not a surprise after a roller coaster of a prep season.
Thus, isn’t not a race where we want to take a short price (5-1 in the Derby is a short price) on anyone.
Related – Handicapping the Kentucky Oaks
Our history of Derby handicapping is pretty awful, but in a wide open race like this, if we’re right, we’ll get paid.
As the great Grantland Rice wrote, “Those two minutes and a second or so of Derby running carry more emotional thrills, per second, than anything sport can show.”
We’ll have some stakes spot plays and multi-race plays for the outstanding card coming later.
Let’s get to it:
1 – Lookin At Lee (20-1) – This Steve Asmussen trainee is one horse that won’t be impacted negatively by drawing the rail post since he’ll just drop back anyway. I actually thought his Arkansas Derby was perhaps his best since he dove back inside in the lane and was maybe impacted a bit by being behind horses – had he been outside in the clear like Classic Empire, maybe he could have been closer. He gets a big rider switch to Corey Lanerie, and will like the 10 furlong distance of this race. I wouldn’t use him higher than third in a trifecta, but he’ll be running late.
2 – Thunder Snow (20-1) – Goldolphin brings in this Irish-bred for his third career dirt start after two wins in Dubai. His win in the UAE Derby makes him the only member of the field with a win at a distance greater than 9 furlongs (that race is at the Preakness distance of 9.5 furlongs). You could make the case that this Derby is wide open enough to take a shot with a newcomer like this, but shipping halfway around the world and coming back in six weeks to beat 19 rivals seems like a bit too tall of a task. Remember, he beat Master Plan by 1.25 lengths in the UAE Derby and Master Plan is 50-1 in here.
3 – Fast and Accurate (50-1) – He’s run once on dirt, a Parx maiden special weight race, and was beaten 11 ¾ lengths and is here off a slow synthetic win in the Spiral at Turfway Park. The owner did say they were going to the front, and being drawn inside forces his hand there anyway. He’d be an enormous upset and turf racing seems like his future.
4 – Untrapped (30-1) – We liked this horse’s Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January and bet him in the Risen Star when he was second to Girvin but he did have a good trip that day and just hasn’t moved forward in his last two starts. In fact, he’s run like a horse that is crying for a turn-back to one-turn races. After he sits mid-pack and fades, I hope they turn him back to seven furlongs for the Woody Stephens on the Belmont undercard.
5 – Always Dreaming (5-1) – Todd Pletcher’s best chance is the second choice on the morning line after a fairly eventful week of training that has included him reportedly being fairly tough to handle on several occasions, though he’s been better as we get closer to the race. The case for him is basically made on one race – the Florida Derby. He ran very well in that race, but had a very good trip stalking slowish pace and drawing off to win easily in a race that did set up well for him. His prior race, an allowance race on the Fountain of Youth card, was such a slow-paced race (51.65, 1:16.82 [!!] fractions) that the final figure came back a slow 71, but realistically couldn’t have been faster considering the slow fractions. How does this race set up for him? The pace should be at least solid and he’ll be a part of that. His inside draw doesn’t really help him either – he wants to be in the clear – and John Velazquez will try to hustle him forward and either set the pace or stalk outside. He can win, and if they let him go early, he might just run away, but he’s not such an obvious favorite that you should take a short price on him. We’ll let him beat us.
6 – State of Honor (30-1) – Mark Casse has two runners in this Derby, favored Classic Empire and State of Honor, who pressed the moderate pace in the Florida Derby before finishing five lengths behind Always Dreaming. His two previous races, both at Tampa Bay Downs, were pretty good in that he set fast paces in both and ran well behind two contenders in this race. However, he’ll again likely be a part of the pace and is a definite question going the 10 furlong distance. We could see him in the mix until late, but probably fades down the lane.
7 – Girvin (15-1) – Girvin came out of a turf race to upset the Risen Star, with a beautiful inside/out trip under Brian Hernandez, Jr., and then followed that up with a 1 ¼ length win in the Louisiana Derby, getting another solid trip. Still, he’s never run a race fast enough to win this race, and perhaps most importantly, missed a key workout and several days of training after being diagnosed with a quarter-crack. He never really seemed like a true win contender to us before the training issues, and we’ll pass here.
8 – Hence (15-1) – Here’s a very interesting and under-the-radar runner for Steve Asmussen and Calumet Farm. Hence broke his maiden in January and was thrown into the Southwest Stakes, where he made absolutely no impact whatsoever. They sent him to Sunland Park for the Sunland Derby and he blew the field away with a big off-the-pace move and earned a solid 97 Beyer Speed Figure that puts him right there with the other contenders. What really makes Hence interesting, however, is what happened after this race. While Hence sat back and awaited the Kentucky Derby, horses he defeated came back running. Second-place finisher Conquest Mo Money came back to finish second in the Arkansas Derby. Third-place finisher Hedge Fund was second in the Illinois Derby. And fourth-place finisher Irap won the Blue Grass. Plus, all three horses improved their speed figures from the ones they earned at Sunland. The pace scenario should help Hence too, but I just can’t put him on top after one representative race, a race that featured a big pace for him to attack. He’s usable underneath in multis, but I have just enough reservations that we can’t pick him on top.
9 – Irap (20-1) – The Blue Grass Stakes was clearly the toughest prep race on paper, but then confusion reigned after Irap sprung the upset at 31-1. That races featured Wild Shot setting a pretty moderate pace at 12-1 with Irap stalking on the outside. When Wild Shot stopped on the far turn, Irap took the lead and held off everyone else. It was a nice win, albeit with a very good trip, for Doug O’Neill runner that entered the Blue Grass as a maiden. There are a few positives: he’s been getting good marks from the clockers, his trainer has won this race twice, and he was part of the fast pace in the Sunland Derby. But still, his Blue Grass win was slow and he had circumstances in his favor.
10 – Gunnevera (15-1) – This $16,000 yearling purchase danced the three big dances at Gulfstream this winter and ran fairly well for trainer Antonio Sano. In the Holy Bull, he was stuck behind a very slow pace set by Irish War Cry, steadied, and re-rallied, which set him up perfectly for the Fountain of Youth, where he got a fast pace and blitzed the field impressively. Then in the Florida Derby, the pace did not materialize for him and he was a distant third behind Always Dreaming. He has no early speed, which will put him near the back in this race and force Javier Castellano to pick his way through the pack and hope the race comes back to him. He also has not been getting favorable marks from the Churchill clockers either. I wish he ran a little better in the Florida Derby. He would be a surprise to us on top, but he could close late and get on the bottom of trifectas or superfectas.
11 – Battle of Midway (30-1) – He ran a very good second in the Santa Anita Derby, being a part of a very fast pace which collapsed late like an accordion. That race, however, came back very slow and Battle of Midway has never run even a 90 Beyer in his four starts. He’s also trying to break the Appolo curse. No horse has won the Derby without a start at two since Appolo in 1882.
12 – Sonneteer (50-1) – The Desormeaux brothers team up with this maiden, albeit a maiden that has been beaten two lengths in both the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. Both of those races, however, featured big pace setups and he had good trips in both. In the Rebel, he rallied up a big inside opening. Then in the Arkansas Derby, he came wide but was with the race flow both times. He’s obviously improving and should get some pace, but is hard to put higher than third in a trifecta.
13 – J Boys Echo (20-1) – There hasn’t been a ton of buzz with him but I think he’s got a shot at a big price. He’s another that comes out of the quirky, slow-paced Blue Grass Stakes and he didn’t do much (any) running that day. That said, he broke a bit slow and was wide, and it wouldn’t be the first time Dale Romans jumped up at a big price in a big race. His two previous races were good. In the Gotham two-back, he won easily, albeit with a perfect trip behind a three-way speed battle and a fast pace. Still, it was fast enough to win this race. Three-back in the Withers, he was very wide against a good-rail track behind a slow pace. By Mineshaft out of a Menifee dam, this should be a good distance for him, and the pace should be solid enough to give him a shot at a big price.
14 – Classic Empire (4-1) – This year has been a bit disjointed for the 2016 two-year old champion. He ran in the Holy Bull, but didn’t fire, missed training time due to injury and a small bout where he refused to train, and then rebounded in the Arkansas Derby where he grinded out a half-length win against a weaker field. Remember, he had to have needed that start. It was in some ways his first representative race since the Breeders Cup on November 5th – which, for my money, is the best race that anyone in his field has ever run. If he runs back to his Breeders Cup, he is going to win. But do you want to take 4-1 on him today, hoping that he runs back a race from six months ago? No, I don’t. There are four horses in here that are 6-1 or less. Of those, he’s one of two (Irish War Cry the other) that won’t knock us out of a multi, but we’ll oppose on top.
15 – McCraken (5-1) – He’s 3 for 3 at Churchill and a major player in this Derby, but like Classic Empire, missed some training time this spring and had two preps – a win in the Sam Davis and a third place Blue Grass finish – instead of the three that trainer Ian Wilkes has originally plotted out for this son of Ghostzapper. When I first watched the Blue Grass, I thought maybe he was taken out of his game and closer to the pace early because the pace was slow that day. But in watching it back, it looked like he made his move, was about to run by Practical Joke at the top of the lane, and then had nothing late and actually lost ground to Practical Joke down the stretch. Yes, he likely needed the race, and that was a means to an end (this race), but at 5-1, it seems like a bit of a stretch to take a horse that has one race that is close to fast enough, 3-3 on this track or not. He’s bred for this and has a great trainer pointing him for this spot, but 5-1 just seems like an underlay to me.
16 – Tapwrit (20-1) – We’ve been a little skeptical of his $1.2 million son of Tapit this spring. His Sam Davis was good but we thought the trouble was overstated – he basically saved ground and angled out. Then the Tampa Bay Derby win, where we bet against him incorrectly, was good, but he had another good trip behind a fast pace to attack, and that was a softer field too. Then in the Blue Grass, he did zero running, slow pace in front of him or not. If the Blue Grass never happened, you would see an improving Todd Pletcher runner, and he would be 8-1 instead of 20. So if you like him, you just trust Pletcher has a good reason for the Blue Grass debacle (didn’t handle the track, slow pace, etc). But we’ve just never been his biggest fan. Still, we’ll toss him underneath because of the big price.
17 – Irish War Cry (6-1) – You have a love a good Jersey-bred! This is a Jersey-bred by Curlin, as opposed to usual Jersey-bred sire Hey Chub or Don Six. Had Isabelle de Tomaso bred to Hey Chub, however, the ensuing foal Irish Chub might not be in the Derby and a dual-graded stakes winner. So we have Irish War Cry, who has been a promising runner since a smashing debut score at Laurel on November 11th. He got his first taste of the big time in the Holy Bull, where he set a very slow pace and wired the field, though he did earn a 101 Beyer Speed Figure that day. Then he was awful in the Fountain of Youth, pressing a fast pace and dropping back (perhaps he didn’t like the cuppy nature of the track that day). They re-grouped and he buried the field in the Wood Memorial on a day that was kind to speed at Aqueduct. That was still a big performance, and he earned another 101 Beyer (he’s the only horse in the field with two triple-digit Beyers). It’s worth noting that on Wood Day, Miss Sky Warrior won the Gazelle in a race domainted by speed, Green Gratto wired the Carter at 50-1, and Tu Brutus nearly wired the Excelsior and earned a 118 (!) Beyer. That doesn’t significantly diminish Irish War Cry, who drew very well outside where he can stalk the pace (don’t take seriously the stat that the 17 post has never won the Derby – posts 16 and 18 have won and post 17 being 0-for is a statistical anomaly). What does concern me a little bit is the field that he beat last time might be a cut below. But he ranged up early, was wide, and won the right way. He’s definitely a part of our play.
18 – Gormley (15-1) – The Santa Anita Derby winner started his year with a stirring victory in the Sham Stakes, where he chased American Anthem through very fast fractions and just caught him in the last strides for the win. Neither horse has come close to replicating that race since, though at least Gormley made it here. In the San Felipe two-back, he was the first to give way behind the injured Mastery (he wasn’t winning that day but clearly ran poorly). Then last time, he won a very slow Santa Anita Derby with a perfect inside-out trip behind a very fast pace. His trainer knows how to win this race, but we have no confidence that he’s good enough to spring the upset.
19 – Practical Joke (20-1) – He tipped his hand early when he won a Whitney Day maiden special weight at Saratoga by five and has been among the best in his crop since. He was a distant (7 ¾) lengths behind Classic Empire in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, but has come back with two solid races as a three-year old. His first race of the year was the Fountain of Youth on March 4th at Gulfstream, a race that featured a very fast pace which fell apart. Practical Joke, making his first start off a four-month break, made the first move after the pace, but was run down by Gunnevera, who had started in the Holy Bull a month prior. It was still a solid race. Then, in the Blue Grass, while Irap was pressing the moderate pace and got the jump on Practical Joke and the others, Practical Joke was chasing wide, made an early move for position on the backstretch (Joel Rosario sensed the slow pace and acted early, a smart move), and kept trying all the way down to the wire. He was even gaining in the stretch for the first time in his three two-turn races. We also liked how, in that race, he was confronted by McCraken at the top of the lane and shrugged that one off and was gaining on him down to the wire. It was a promising race for a talented runner that seems like he has another move forward in his third start of the year. The strength of the Blue Grass is certainly up for debate, but if there was one horse you want out of that race, it’s probably this one. There is a big question – the 10 furlong distance. Still, we’ve seen horses get this distance that maybe didn’t have the best 10-furlong pedigree or the look like they were 10-furlong runners before. If he were McCraken at 5-1, that would be one thing, but at 20-1 in a wide open race, we’re betting him.
20 – Patch (30-1) – This three-time starting Todd Pletcher runner (who has one eye, hence the name), was a decent second in the Louisiana Derby last time. He was briefly caught in behind horses at the top of the lane in there, but largely benefitted from the flow of the race, which featured a solid pace. I do think he’ll really like the 10 furlongs but the competition will likely prove too tough.
Pace Analysis – The pace should be solid enough to allow everyone a fair shot. Always Dreaming is going to have to be used early from his inside draw. Fast And Accurate’s connections say they are going, though they might not even be fast enough. State of Honor has some speed (though not the most aggressive rider in Jose Lezcano). Irap will be up close to the pace. Battle of Midway likely won’t be on the lead again but should be close. Classic Empire will be stalking from the second flight. Irish War Cry will be pressing wide. Even Gormley has enough tactical speed to be close up early on. There are no Trinnibergs or Songandaprayers in here, but the pace should be solid enough.
The Pick – The Derby is often like this, but this year’s version is so wide open that we don’t want to take a short price on top. The question, of course, becomes which of the bigger prices do we want to take and for us, that will be #19 Practical Joke. He will need to take a bit of a step forward on figures, but his gap isn’t overwhelming and both of this races so far this year have been sneaky good ones in which he was the first to attack the pace. There are distance questions, but the price will help make up for that.
#17 Irish War Cry is the one we want of the four favorites. Two of his three races this year are among the fastest in the field. He is reportedly training very well for a trainer that has won this race before.
#13 J Boys Echo has a running style that should suit the projected flow of the race. His Gotham, good trip or not, was a strong race, and you can make excuses for his Withers (wide trip, gold rail, slow pace) and Blue Grass (slow pace). Plus, he’ll be a big price.
#14 Classic Empire is our fourth choice. At 9-2 or 5-1, we don’t have a lot of interest in betting him on top but do want to be protected in a mutli if he runs back to his Breeders Cup Juvenile.
50-Cent Trifecta Play
Here’s a 50-cent trifecta play that requires one of Practical Joke, Irish War Cry, or J Boys Echo to win the race.
13, 17, 19 /// 13, 14, 15, 17, 19 /// 1, 5, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19 for a total of $60.