One of the dilemmas handicappers encounter when analyzing the field for the 143rd Kentucky Derby is determining where to look for value. This is as wide-open a Run for the Roses as we have seen in years, with the favorite likely to go off in the 4-1 to 5-1 range – if not a higher price than that. Throw in the possibility of a wet track with variable amounts of rain in the forecast for Thursday through Saturday, and you’re looking at a pretty chaotic picture.
Given the evenly-matched nature of this field, the difference between success and failure will likely come down to trips. Which horse will see everything go his way and get that perfect setup on Derby Day? Much of what goes into those determinations comes down to pace and race flow, and this Kentucky Derby is forecasted to feature a fast early clip.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting that State of Honor (#6) and Irish War Cry (#17) are the two fastest horses in the early going, and they are predicted to be out in front by the half-mile pole, with Battle of Midway (#11) in close pursuit. All three have used aggressive early tactics successfully in their prep races but also are capable of stalking the pace if necessary.
One runner that is almost certain to be more forwardly placed than the Pace Projector indicates is Always Dreaming (#5). Our algorithm has him placed somewhere in midpack due to the fact that he’s been involved in relatively slow paces in his prep races. However, he has been extremely headstrong in his training and showed in his sprints as a 2-year-old that possesses the speed to be forcing the pace early. His inside draw down in post 5 may force John Velazquez to be aggressive out of the gate.
The connections of Fast and Accurate (#3) also have indicated that they plan to use their horse out of the gate in an attempt to secure the lead, though he has not yet shown that he’s quite fast enough to outrun the aforementioned colts.
Midpack runners like Hence (#8) and McCraken (#15) would stand to benefit from a quick tempo up front, as would closers and plodders like Gunnevera (#10) and Lookin At Lee (#1), who tie for the highest Late Pace Rating in the field at 117.
Let’s make our way through the entire field:
#1, LOOKIN AT LEE (20-1): This plodder was steered all over the track in an eventful run through the stretch in the Arkansas Derby and might have won had his rider been able to keep a straight path. He has been steadily improving while keeping company with the best in his division. Distance should not be an issue, but he absolutely needs a fast and contested pace to have a chance. Hard to envision him winning, but definitely one to use in superfectas.
#2, THUNDER SNOW (20-1): An Irish-bred by an Australian sire out of a English-bred dam, now headed for a start in Kentucky by way of Dubai – this colt certainly adds some international flavor to the race. He is an extremely talented turf horse, having won a Group 1 in France last fall by five lengths. The switch to dirt at Meydan did not seem to faze him as he wore down the highly regarded Epicharis to take the UAE Derby, despite drifting from the whip in the stretch. By virtue of winning that race, he is the only horse in this year’s Derby to have raced and won beyond nine furlongs. We’ve seen Meydan dirt form translate to American dirt success in recent years, but the Derby is a very tricky race to win, and his rider is inexperienced with American racing. Think twice before falling for this new face.
#3, FAST AND ACCURATE (50-1): His lone dirt race was awful, and he beat a fairly weak field in the Spiral. He could potentially influence the early pace if they ride him aggressively, but he may not even be fast enough to accomplish that. The favorite to finish last.
#4, UNTRAPPED (30-1): His Arkansas Derby effort was better than it seems given his wide trip and premature move up to challenge for the lead on the far turn. Yet, as has been the case in all of his two-turn races, he flattened out in the stretch after reaching contention. The Pat Day Mile would have been a more realistic target for this distance-challenged runner, but his connections had Derby dreams. I’ll pass.
#5, ALWAYS DREAMING (5-1): He’s been visually impressive in all of his races since switching Todd Pletcher’s barn, especially so in the Florida Derby. He looked to be in command throughout that race and drew off with authority in the stretch. The 97 Beyer Speed Figure and 121 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned for that win represent two of the highest numbers in the field. Off such an effort, he figures to be among the shortest prices on the board – if not the outright favorite – but has he done enough to warrant such support? Pletcher is always more dangerous at Gulfstream than he is just about anywhere else in the country, so it’s fair to wonder if Always Dreaming will transfer his form to Churchill. He has been incredibly headstrong in his local training, which is a concern as he stretches out to 1 1/4 miles. The Pace Projector indicates that he has not had to run particularly fast in the early stages of his recent wins, and he may have to exert more energy to attain his customary forward position in the Derby. Unless they choose to change his preferred running style, his inside post position basically forces John Velazquez to be aggressive. That’s somewhat of a concern, especially considering that he’s worked out perfect trips in all three of his wins this year. Undoubtedly gifted, but the risk does not outweigh the likely reward.
#6, STATE OF HONOR (30-1): He was no match for McCraken, Tapwrit, or Always Dreaming in his three preps leading up to the Derby. It’s hard to envision him turning the tables on the top contenders. Will be a pace factor, but unlikely to be around late.
#7, GIRVIN (15-1): It’s well documented that Girvin’s preparations have been interrupted by foot issues. However, a strong five-furlong workout last week appears to have lifted the cloud of concern that was hanging over this colt’s connections and backers. Though, frankly, if I was thinking about supporting him, I’d be more worried about the fact that he’s simply not fast enough to win this year’s Derby. Both the Beyers and TimeformUS Speed Figures that he earned for his wins in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby are significantly slower than the numbers being recorded by most of the top contenders this field. Furthermore, he got perfect trips in those wins and is almost certain to face more adversity in this 20-horse stampede. Others will offer better value.
#8, HENCE (15-1): Here’s your wise-guy horse. He’s an enigma for speed figure-makers. A one-hit wonder. What do you do with a horse like Hence? When comparing the raw times on Sunland Derby Day, his win comes up unreasonably fast. Both the Beyer and TimeformUS Speed Figure were adjusted down to a seemingly realistic level to align with the participants’ prior form. However, both Conquest Mo Money and Irap have come out of that race to significantly improve in their subsequent starts, so perhaps it was indeed a stronger race than initially thought. It’s a feather in his cap that he handled a wet track so well in his maiden win, where he bolted to the rail at the eighth pole, almost costing himself the race. There are certainly things to like, but I still wish he had one more performance to back up that huge Sunland effort. He does sport the pedigree to get this distance, since he gets a ton of stamina from his dam’s family. He’s been pegged at 15-1 on the morning line, but he feels like one of these horses that could go off at anywhere from 10-1 to 25-1 on race day. You’d have to toss him at the lower price and throw him in at the higher price. A tough call, but some reasons to be optimistic.
#9, IRAP (20-1): Great trip or not, his Blue Grass effort was strong. His TimeformUS Speed Figure of 121 is tied with Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby for the highest number earned in the final round of prep races. As a half-brother to sprint champion Speightstown, one would assume he has speed, but he gets plenty of stamina from his sire, Tiznow. This colt has been knocking on the door against top 3-year-olds and may have finally turned a corner. I don’t believe he’s as hopeless as some might discern. Still, hard to envision a trip that lands him in the winner’s circle.
#10, GUNNEVERA (15-1): Was his Florida Derby a sign that he’s heading in the wrong direction, or a well-executed prep along the lines of Monarchos’s Wood Memorial or Thunder Gulch’s Blue Grass? I’m leaning toward the latter outlook. I have the utmost respect for Javier Castellano, but he did not give Gunnevera the savviest ride in the Florida Derby. He had the right idea about saving ground early, but he gave up so much early position in an attempt to get over to the rail and ended up 15 lengths off of what turned out to be a very moderate pace up front. Gunnevera had previously shown what he was capable of accomplishing in both the Holy Bull, where he was hindered by trouble on the far turn, and the Fountain of Youth, where he drew off by nearly six lengths. He has the ability to make the kind of long, sustained run that closers like Street Sense and Orb employed successfully in their Derby scores. He’s a small colt, but don’t let that fool you. He has a classic-distance pedigree, being out of an Unbridled dam who is the daughter of a Graustark mare. He’s flying under the radar coming into this race and would offer fantastic value at anything close to his morning-line price. A strong contender and a must-use in every exotics slot.
#11, BATTLE OF MIDWAY (30-1): You can make the case that he ran a stronger race than Gormley in the Santa Anita Derby considering the fast pace (indicated by red color-coding in TimeformUS PPs). Yet, do you really want anyone out of that ugly prep? He’s lightly raced, but he has never attained a 90 Beyer, and any horse lacking those credentials would be considered a significant upset.Looks to be a cut below the top contenders.
#12, SONNETEER (50-1): This late-runner would be first maiden to win the Derby since Brokers Tip in 1933. We’ve seen some longstanding Derby records fall in recent years (like Funny Cide ending the gelding drought), but this particular streak looks likely to continue. An outsider.
#13, J BOYS ECHO (20-1): This is the trip handicapper’s horse. He was hindered by a host of issues in three of his last four races – a wide trip in the Delta Downs Jackpot, an inside speed bias in the Withers, and a poor break in the Blue Grass. After getting bumped at the start last time out at Keeneland, he was never able to get solid early position, forced to rate at the back of the pace in a race dominated toward the front end. The only race where everything worked out – the Gotham – resulted in him earning the co-highest Beyer Speed Figure in the field (102). Some may dismiss that Gotham effort by pointing out that the runner-up in that race, Cloud Computing, came back to disappoint in the Wood. However, he was hindered by an against-the-bias trip that day and actually ran better than it seems. There are admittedly some distance concerns on the dam’s side of J Boys Echo’s pedigree, but Mineshaft should provide enough stamina to put those apprehensions to rest. While it’s unfortunate that Robby Albarado got hurt, jockey Luis Saez should be good a fit for this notoriously lazy horse. A longshot that I will definitely be using.
#14, CLASSIC EMPIRE (4-1): There are relatively few convictions that you can hang your hat on in this year’s race. Yet one belief that is shared by almost every sane handicapper out there is this: If the now 3-year-old Classic Empire improves on his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile triumph, he will be the Kentucky Derby winner. In a year where so few have delivered standout performances, that is exactly what this colt did at Santa Anita last November. Neither the 102 Beyer nor the 123 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he recorded in that win have been surpassed by any of his competitors. (Only J Boys Echo matched his Beyer in the Gotham.) The problem is that Classic Empire has not come close to replicating that performance in two starts as a sophomore. Yet the good news is that he was able to get his campaign back on track after some winter setbacks with a workmanlike win in the Arkansas Derby. At first glance, one might observe that he had to work harder than you’d like to see while running down inferior rivals that day. However, a closer inspection of his trip reveals that he was never in a comfortable position, especially for a horse that has done his best running when he’s allowed to stride freely without strong restraint. Given those circumstances, as well as the layoff, he had every right to flatten out in the lane but instead gamely found another gear in the last furlong. Perhaps it was the perfect prep. Not as dominant as past Derby favorites, but is nevertheless the horse to beat.
#15, McCRAKEN (5-1): Like Classic Empire, McCraken endured a setback in his training this winter. Yet, unlike that foe, he was unable to return to his winning ways in his final prep for this race. He was more forwardly placed than usual in Blue Grass, which was probably a sign that he was too keen off the layoff rather than a planned tactic on jockey Brian Hernandez’s part. He didn’t finish with his usual gusto that day, but he has closed so strongly through the stretch of his prior races that you’d expect he just needed the race. Trainer Ian Wilkes is a protégé of Carl Nafzger, and this colt is somewhat reminiscent of Street Sense in his ability to neatly slice through a pack and build momentum while racing through traffic. His dam’s speediness may lead some to be concerned about him getting 1 1/4 miles, but his push-button running style allays some of those concerns. The only problem with McCraken is his price. He has trained better than anyone this week, and that often translates to greatly reduced odds on Derby Day. Must be included in exotics, despite a likely lack of value.
#16, TAPWRIT (20-1): What happened in the Blue Grass? He did have to overcome a very wide trip, but ground loss alone does not fully account for such a dull effort. He was visually impressive in winning the Tampa Bay Derby, but he did so over some suspect competition in retrospect. He has the appearance of a horse that should get 1 1/4 miles and has trained well this week, but it’s hard to take a runner coming off such a poor performance. Another difficult one to judge.
#17, IRISH WAR CRY (6-1): Which version of Irish War Cry will we get? When this colt shows up, he’s as a talented a horse as you’ll find in this year’s Derby. Yet it’s hard to completely trust a colt that ran as poorly as he did in the Fountain of Youth. He remains the only horse in this race to have surpassed the triple-digit Beyer threshold on two separate occasions, but it must be pointed out that he got fantastic trips in those two major wins. He was allowed to set a measured pace in the Holy Bull before pulling away from a troubled Gunnevera. Then last time in the Wood Memorial, he was able to take advantage of a track bias that was favoring horses with speed. His sire, Curlin, is an excellent source of stamina, and this trainer, Graham Motion, conditioned Animal Kingdom to win the Derby just six years ago. The post position draw may not have mattered for many of the runners in this race, but him drawing outside in stall 17 may be critical to his success. After all, he doesn’t seem like the kind of runner that appreciates early restraint, and he should be able to chase freely outside of the main speeds. The stars could be aligning for this top contender.
#18, GORMLEY (15-1): If you want anyone out of the Santa Anita Derby, I suppose this is the right horse. However, I’m not sure I can take the horses exiting that race. The field was so bunched through the lane and they came home very slowly. Gormley did show a new dimension as he rallied from off the pace under Triple Crown winner Victor Espinoza, but he still got a great trip. One positive thing I can say is that he has run faster races in the past, and we may not have seen his very best effort last time. Would move up on a wet track.
#19, PRACTICAL JOKE (20-1): He is one of three multiple Grade 1 winners in the field, along with Classic Empire and Gormley. However, all of his wins at that level came as a 2-year-old. While he’s been winless at 3, he has nevertheless run well in both of his starts. Joel Rosario gave him a clever ride in the Blue Grass, where he stayed closer to the pace than usual, but some may criticize him for failing to run down Irap. Questions about his distance limitations have plagued him since last year, and he’s yet to prove that he really wants to go this far. Chad Brown had toyed with the idea of changing his equipment and adding blinkers for this race, but ultimately decided against it. Getting mixed signals from this one.
#20, PATCH (30-1): The one-eyed colt has garnered more attention for his physical appearance than his résumé. He won a fast maiden race at Gulfstream and stepped right up to hold his own against Girvin at Fair Grounds. Yet, like Battle of Midway, he has failed to surpass that 90 Beyer threshold, which is a concern heading into the toughest test of his short career. On the other hand, few runners in this race sport a better pedigree for the distance. He is by a Belmont Stakes winner out of heralded stamina influence A.P. Indy, and his female family traces back to champion mare Banshee Breeze. Intriguing for the second half of the year, but this may be too much too soon.
#21 ROYAL MO (AE): He may have run the best race of all in the Santa Anita Derby, considering the pace and his wide trip, but we’ve already discussed the problems with that prep. His lone trip out of California was a total disaster. It’s tough to show speed from this post position and still be around late, and he needs to be forwardly placed. An outsider, in every respect.
#22, MASTER PLAN (AE): He closed steadily through the lane in the UAE Derby, getting within 1 1/4 lengths of winner Thunder Snow at the wire. However, that’s been his only start since January as his preparation for this race has been extremely unconventional.Unlikely to be a factor if he gets in.