While a few prep races have already been contested this year, the road to the Kentucky Derby gets into full swing this weekend with major races being held in New York, Florida, and California. However, the focal point of everyone’s attention will be at Gulfstream Park, where last year’s 2-year-old male champion, Classic Empire, makes his sophomore debut in the Grade 2, $350,000 Holy Bull.
Classic Empire will be attempting to become the third consecutive juvenile male champion to win the Kentucky Derby, following in the footsteps of Nyquist and American Pharoah. However, most horses have struggled to pull off such a double going back through the past several decades. In fact, Street Sense was the only other modern Derby winner who also earned a championship at 2. Prior to that, you have to go all the way back to Spectacular Bid to find a colt who accomplished such a feat.
For Classic Empire, it all begins anew Saturday in Florida, where he will attempt to prove that he still reigns supreme.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting that this race will feature a fast pace, set by Cavil (#8) and Fact Finding (#6), both of whom are stretching out to two turns for the first time. Classic Empire figures to be stalking them somewhere in the second flight of runners, with the late-running Delta Jackpot winner, Gunnevera, laying well back in the early stages.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, GUNNEVERA (9-2): This colt’s sire, Dialed In, won this race prior to taking the 2011 Florida Derby, putting together a résumé that propelled him to favoritism in the Kentucky Derby. Gunnevera has not yet measured up to that standard, but he is one of just two graded stakes winners in this field – the other being Classic Empire.
Coming off a surprising win in the Saratoga Special, Gunnevera proved that he was more than just a closing sprinter when rallying to victory in the Delta Jackpot to close out his 2-year-old season. He made quite the visual impression that day, looping the field around the second turn and going from last to first in just over a furlong. However, he didn’t stop once he hit the front, as he continued to draw away through the stretch with powerful strides past the finish line. While he did close into a strong pace on that occasion, he is predicted to receive an even more favorable setup here. The major question is one of class since he was no match for Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Futurity back in October. That said, he may be an improving horse, and he once again lures jockey Javier Castellano, who has won in both of his rides aboard this colt.
#2, PERRO ROJO (30-1): This runner has been dismissed at odds of 58-1, 62-1, and 229-1 in his last four starts and hasn’t gotten a whiff in any of those races. Even with a potentially favorable pace scenario, he appears to be overmatched.
#3, CLASSIC EMPIRE (3-5): The early favorite for the Kentucky Derby showed promise from the start but really stepped up his game once his connections stretched him out in distance last fall. He overcame a wide trip to take the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, then bettered that effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, holding off the promising Not This Time while drawing more than seven lengths clear of the rest of the field. His speed figures for that race – a 102 Beyer and 125 TimeformUS Figure – indicate that he is an exceptional talent, standing head and shoulders above his peers, especially after the premature retirement of Not This Time.
A fast pace is predicted, but that’s not of great concern for Classic Empire, who has proven to be equally effective pressing the pace as he is rallying from well back. He certainly doesn’t have to be ready for his best effort off the layoff, but even a subpar performance likely will be good enough to beat this field. I’m hardly the type who rushes to endorse short-priced favorites, but it will take an extraordinary effort by one of his rivals for Classic Empire to lose this race.
#4, TALK LOGISTICS (12-1): He’s lost to Sonic Mule in two straight stakes over this Gulfstream Park surface. While he gets away from that foe today, he doesn’t catch much of a break as he’ll start directly outside of last year’s champion 2-year-old. All things considered, I thought this horse performed admirably in the Mucho Macho Man. After racing up close along the rail early, Paco Lopez deftly eased him back off the pace before coming around the field into the stretch. He finished with interest and earned his right to try two turns here. That said, I’m not sure how strong of a race that Mucho Macho Man was overall, and I’m inclined to consider other options when looking for runners to fill out the exacta.
#5, IRISH WAR CRY (15-1): One of the more intriguing members of the field, Irish War Cry will attempt to translate his sprint form to a route distance. Notably, he is getting Lasix for the initial time, which is a very strong move for trainer Graham Motion (100 TimeformUS Trainer Rating). This colt was dazzling in his debut, making a prolonged rally to the lead while racing wide on the turn and into the stretch. He finished with vigor, running his final quarter-mile in just over 23 seconds. He followed that up with a less impressive effort as the 3-5 favorite in the Marylander Stakes despite being allowed to set a slow pace (indicated by the blue color-coding in TimeformUS PPs). The pedigree is there for him to handle the distance as a son of proven route sire Curlin and a dam who has produced a few route winners. He seemingly has all the tools, but it’s unclear if he’s ready to put them to proper use.
#6, FACT FINDING (6-1): He’s won each of his three starts by open lengths, but all of those races were contested around one turn. His dam had the stamina to handle route distances, but this colt is a son of The Factor, who has been more of a speed influence. Of greater concern is that he’s yet to face a horse of real quality and is now getting thrown into the deep end against Classic Empire. His win in the Smooth Air may appear impressive at first glance, but he clearly relished the slop that day when other runners did not, particularly in the case of the two horses who were supposed to be his main competition. I know Todd Pletcher is especially dangerous at Gulfstream Park, but I’m going to let this horse beat me.
#7, SHAMSAAN (20-1): His slow maiden win came against a weak field of turf horses, and he’s never raced over a fast track. Moving on.
#8, CAVIL (15-1): While I wasn’t enamored with the Mucho Macho Man, if there’s one horse coming out of that race who I think deserves another chance, it’s Cavil. He was really stepping up in class in that race, but the public nevertheless bet him down to 5-2 favoritism. The reason for that was the nature in which he won his prior dirt start, earning competitive speed figures – an 88 Beyer and 110 TimeformUS Figure – the second-fastest numbers in this field behind Classic Empire. While he finished well behind today’s rival Talk Logistics that day, I think this horse is more likely to step forward. After all, he had never taken dirt in his face before, and the kickback at Gulfstream can be especially brutal. Furthermore, he lost momentum at a key point near the top of the stretch when the leader, Recruiting Ready, suddenly stopped and Cavil was bumped hard between horses.
Cavil is certainly bred to handle two turns as a close relative to multiple stakes-winning router North Slope, also by Elusive Quality. The Pace Projector indicates that he could get caught up in a fast pace, but at least he’s drawn well outside of the other speed runners if Jose Lezcano decides that he needs to stalk, allowing him to avoid the dreaded kickback. At what should be a double-digit price, this is one runner whom I want to prominently feature in my exacta and trifecta wagers.
#9, FILE FOR EFFECT (20-1): This Dale Romans trainee certainly has a right to improve with more racing, but this may be too much for him in just his third start. He won last time with the help of a fast pace (indicated by the red color-coding in TimeformUS PPs) and now must better that effort over a fast track. I have to pass today.
If Classic Empire (#3) shows up, he’s supposed to win this race. However, there may be some value to be found in exactas and trifectas if we can get a longshot like Cavil (#8) into the mix and beat Fact Finding, whom I don’t view as a particularly strong contender. Gunnevera (#1) is the other runner whom I’ll key in exotic wagers since the projected pace scenario fits his running style perfectly.
Exacta Key Box: 3 with 1,8
Trifecta: 3 with 1,8 with 1,4,5,6,8
Trifecta: 3 with 4,5 with 1,8