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Who Are the Top Derby Hopefuls Heading Into 2017?

By Casey Laughter

Over the past few weeks some horses have emerged to look like main contenders for the 2017 Kentucky Derby (GI) in May while others have either dropped off or are on the sidelines due to better looking youngsters emerging late in the year. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) winner Classic Empire, however, stays at the top of the list for the most likely to make it to Louisville in five months. However, he will have to mature well to maintain his top spot in the coming months.

Jockey Julien Leparoux and trainer Mark Casse elebrates with Breeders' Cup Juvenile (GI) winner Classic Empire. November 5, 2016. Photo: Jim Safford

Jockey Julien Leparoux and trainer Mark Casse elebrates with Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) winner Classic Empire. November 5, 2016. Photo: Jim Safford

Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile – Sambuca Classica, by Cat Thief) – The colt is looking good since returning to light training in Florida after a brief post-Breeders’ Cup break. With a line drawn through his debacle in the Hopeful Stakes (GI), he would be undefeated. He won the Bashford Manor Stakes (GIII) with a fight, the Breeders’ Futurity (GI) at Keeneland with some ease, and then won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in a tough stretch battle with Not This Time, who would be on this list had he not been injured and retired. Classic Empire will return to full training at the end of the month and looks like a main contender to make the Derby starting gate. (30 points)

Mastery (Candy Ride – Steady Course, by Old Trieste) – After logging visually impressive wins in the Bob Hope Stakes (GIII) and the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity (GI), Mastery looks like the main threat to Classic Empire cur

Mastery and Mike Smith work at Santa Anita 11/30/16.

Mastery and Mike Smith work at Santa Anita 11/30/16.

rently. The colt is a big, rangy looking horse who has a lot of upside. He is versatile and can adjust himself to any set of circumstances, as he has displayed thus far. He has classic winning horses throughout his pedigree and owns a large, ground=eating stride. He should have no problem as the distances get longer. (10 points)

McCraken (Ghostzapper – Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold) – Trainer Ian Wilkes normally brings his horses along with large amounts of patience, which makes McCraken that much more impressive. He is three for three – his maiden, Street Sense Stakes and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII) – and obviously handled his two-turn debut at Churchill Downs with ease. He looks like a horse who will only improve with more ground to extend his stride and his sire Ghostzapper has proven to be a versatile stallion. This colt looks like one with a ton of upside. (10 points)

Gunnevara at Keeneland, 2016. Photo: Casey Laughter

Gunnevara at Keeneland, 2016. Photo: Casey Laughter

Gunnevera (Dialed In – Unbridled Rage, by Unbridled) – While his late-closing running style could likely work against him, Gunnevera is an eye-catching horse. His preference is to fall well back in the early going and run down his competition in the stretch drive with his long, deliberate stride. He will always be at the mercy of the pace and traffic, but he will likely be a main contender for the spring preps. He is being aimed for the Holy Bull Stakes (GIII) and Florida Derby (GI) at Gulfstream Park this winter, most likely skipping the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) in between. (10 points)

Mo Town (Uncle Mo – Grazie Mille, by Bernardini) – This colt appears to be bred for the longer distances. Mo Town won the nine-furlong Remsen Stakes (GII) at Aqueduct over a closing No Dozing (Union Rags) to set himself up as one to watch. Young sire Uncle Mo had a Kentucky Derby winner from his first crop in Nyquist and Mo Town looks like the stallion’s best shot at a second in 2017. (10 points)

Three Rules (Gone Astray – Joy Rules, by Full Mandate) – Facing open competition for the first time, Three Rules left his previously undefeated record in Florida after finishing off the board in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Three Rules returned to Florida and is being pointed toward the Swale Stakes as his 3-year-old seasonal bow. His breeding shows ability to go two turns, and he has proven that he is competitive and loves to run. His connections will likely use the Florida Derby and supporting preps as his path to make it to Louisville. (0 points)

No Dozing (Union Rags – Stay Awake, by Pulpit) – This colt has only been worse than second once, picking up a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland behind Classic Empire. No Dozing recently closed into second in the Grade Remsen Stakes (GII) at Aqueduct and while he obviously did not have the speed to keep up with early leader Takaful and eventual winner Mo Town that day, he still ran a very respectable race. He has a pedigree that screams maturity will come as he grows up. (5 points)

Fact Finding (The Factor – Sweet Belle, by Deputy Commander) – It is unclear how far this Todd Pletcher trainee will want to go, but so far he has won at distances up to a mile and with ease. He captured the Smooth Air Stakes by seven lengths after surviving pressure throughout the race and has proven to be a tough customer in non-graded company. His sire The Factor has winners on both turf and dirt, but from just his first crop he is showing they have tenacity and the will the win. Fact Finding will need to stretch himself out, but with Pletcher at the helm that will be no surprise. (0 points)

Lookin at Lee (Lookin at Lucky – Langara Lass, by Langfuhr) – Lookin at Lee has been somewhat of a bridesmaid in his races; he managed to close into fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after finishing second in both the Breeders’ Futurity and Iroquois Stakes (GIII), races won by the Juvenile winner and runner-up. Lookin at Lee might be better suited for turf, but has shown he can be competitive on dirt as he has the pedigree. Overall he may be just a step below the best of his crop. (10 points)

Gormley (Malibu Moon – Race to Urga, by Bernstein) – After a front-running victory in the Grade FrontRunner Stakes (GI) over divisional standout Klimt, Gormley was off his game in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He bobbled at the break, moved up, raced four wide and remained a factor until the stretch. He could easily improve next out, after having a rough trip in only his third start. His pedigree should be able to carry him far enough to make it to the Derby, but he will need some education. His trainer, John Sherriffs is not known for his young horses though he did win the Derby in 2005 with Giacomo. (10 points)

Keep an eye on…

Running Mate (Creative Cause – Street Mate, by Street Cry [IRE]) – The team of Bret Jones and Larry Jones are at it again with this youngster. From the first crop by Creative Cause, this horse is likely to show up in stakes company soon. He is 2-for-2 in maiden and allowance company and since he is bred to want more ground and will get it soon. Keep an eye on this colt in the Kentucky Derby prep races at Fair Grounds. (0 points)

Beach Bum (Arch – Chili Cat, by Storm Cat) – Beach Bum was able to avoid the Breeders’ Cup craze and broke his maiden impressively on Nov. 6 at Santa Anita. The Gary and Mary West colt was purchased for $400,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling Sale and since trainer Bob Baffert was so impressed with the colt’s debut he will likely prep the colt at Santa Anita. (0 points)

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