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Home » Derby Culture » LATT’s Top Early Derby Contenders 3/8/17

LATT’s Top Early Derby Contenders 3/8/17

By Casey Laughter

This week, the Kentucky Derby (GI) picture is even more muddled. Holy Bull Stakes (GIII) winner Irish War Cry threw in a dud, Withers Stakes (GIII) winner El Areeb got outrun, Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII) hero McCraken is missing this weekend’s Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) and champion Classic Empire is still a mixed bag of ailments and personality quirks. Who is going to win the Kentucky Derby? I have absolutely no idea, but these ten horses are all seemingly progressing in the right direction and the top horse is now appearing for the first time in that top spot.

Did your Derby favorite make this list?


Gunnevera Wins the Fountain of Youth Stakes. 3/4/17. Photo: Coglianese

Gunnevera (Dialed In – Unbridled Rage, by Unbridled) – While I figured he would perform well in the Fountain of Youth, I never anticipated this strapping young colt from the first crop of Dialed In would win with such authority. Winning by an official margin of 5 ¾ lengths, the chestnut colt is progressing best of all and is doing everything like a classic-bound horse should do. He was purchased for only $16,000 as a yearling, but has already amassed over $1 million in earnings. He isn’t confirmed for the Florida Derby, but that it is likely the most logical step as having three preps before the Kentucky Derby has always seemed best. Remember, he doesn’t have to win the Florida Derby to be a contender on the first Saturday in May.

McCraken (Ghostzapper – Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold) – After some filling was found in his ankle following a gallop, the Tampa Bay Derby was ruled out in order to give the colt ample time to recuperate and train. The April 8 Blue Grass Stakes (GI) at Keeneland is the goal and with trainer Ian Wilkes giving the colt only two prep races, nothing else can pop up in this colt’s path if he wants to be in the starting gate. Otherwise, this colt has done nothing wrong and should be a top choice in May.


Gormley. Photo: Jim Safford

Gormley (Malibu Moon – Race to Urga, by Bernstein) – His “wow” work, as described by trainer John Sherriffs, seems to have him set to face one of the most exciting prospects on this list in Mastery. Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes (GII) is coming up and this colt is such a workman-like horse and he truly seems to thrive on the work. His versatility is another one of his assets that makes him so exciting. His sire already has a Kentucky Derby winner and broodmare sire Bernstein has stamina influences throughout his pedigree. If this colt can settle like he did when winning the Sham Stakes (GIII) last out, he has a shot at not only winning the Sam Felipe, but also the Kentucky Derby. Jockey Victor Espinoza described the colt as, “quickly getting into stride, then settling,” which is just another check in the plus column.

Mastery (Candy Ride – Steady Course, Old Trieste) – Candy Ride has another top Kentucky Derby prospect in this undefeated colt, who trained by Bob Baffert and preparing for his 2017 debut in the San Felipe. He had an easy 2-year-old season, running his competition off their feet without breaking a sweat. In a previous interview, Baffert described the horses as a, “big, rangy type,” and being a late foal, the extra time to mature is a welcome tactic. In his latest work, he went six furlongs in a solid 1:12 3/5, which was the bullet for the distance on the day. He doesn’t have to win the San Felipe to move forward, but will need to get the most out of his two preps.

American Anthem (Bodemeister – Indy’s Windy, by A.P. Indy) – With Baffert sending this colt to the March 18 Rebel Stakes (GII), it gives us the idea that he believes this may the better colt. If he makes a good account of himself in both the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby (GII), he would be making only his fifth start when he loads into the Kentucky Derby starting gate. With inexperience not boding well in the Kentucky Derby, he is going to have to get a lot of education out of his next two starts. His Sham Stakes was extraordinary, considering he had only a maiden win at six furlongs to his credit.

Gormley and jockey Victor Espinoza duel with American Anthem in Sham Sakes (GIII) at Santa Anita 1/7/17. Photo: Jim Safford

Gormley and jockey Victor Espinoza duel with American Anthem in Sham Sakes (GIII) at Santa Anita 1/7/17. Photo: Jim Safford

Royal Mo (Uncle Mo – Royal Irish Lass, by Saint Ballado) – With Royal Mo likely for the Rebel, he gets an extra week to prepare and should get a real class test there. In winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (GII) last out, he defeated small field with less than stellar horses but he did it in the right way. He is a massive horse with a huge stride and if he can use his tactical speed to get into a nice position in the Rebel, he has a strong chance to perform well.

J Boys Echo (Mineshaft – Letgomyecho, by Menifee) – A breakout performance in the Gotham over El Areeb, who finished a distant third, has already earned him enough points to garner his spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. After the retirement of stablemate Not This Time, trainer Dale Romans and the Albaugh Family Stables gets their Kentucky Derby hopeful with this $485,000 son of Mineshaft. Never finishing worse than fourth, J Boys Echo seems to display tendencies indicating he will be a horse to develop with time and experience.

Girvin (Tale of Ekati – Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon) – Tale of Ekati has been an underrated stallion for a long time and has a reputation for siring distance-limited offspring. His son Tale of Verve finished second to American Pharoah in the 2015 Preakness Stakes (GI) at huge odds, however. Girvin won the Risen Star Stakes (GII) last out with authority and kept his ears pinned well past the wire, perhaps indicating he does have quite the competitive nature. He seems to be moving forward off his efforts and is such an athletic individual.

One Liner breaking his maiden at Saratoga on July 23, 2016. Photo: NYRA

One Liner breaking his maiden at Saratoga on July 23, 2016. Photo: NYRA

One Liner (Into Mischief – Cayala, by Cherokee Run) – Trainer Todd Pletcher already has said this horse is likely to skip the Rebel and go straight to the Arkansas Derby and then the Kentucky Derby as long as he performs well. One Liner is inexperienced, but undefeated as well. In 9 ½ months, he will have had two sprints and two two-turn races, which I don’t think gives him enough foundation.

Practical Joke (Into Mischief – Halo Humor, by Distorted Humor) – While he is one of the most resilient horses in this crop, I truly believe he is best at one turn. I would also like to see him on the grass, and with Chad Brown as his trainer I think that is a real possibility. The colt made a fantastic move in the Fountain of Youth and battled in the stretch with Three Rules, who was pressured the entire way by Irish War Cry. However, Gunnevera made an even stronger move and blew right past the battle. I think this will give him great foundation and he may even gain enough points with one more start to be in the Kentucky Derby starting gate, but I don’t think he will be anywhere near the front at the finish of the classic race.

Keep an eye on…

Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile – Sambuca Classic, by Cat Thief) – Following a hoof abscess and then a strain in his back, Norman Casse posted a video of this guy springing around his round pen like the Easter Bunny. If he is back to his old self by the Blue Grass Stakes, he is likely to be in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. While I don’t think two preps is enough, both of his preps will be around two turns and he has a good 2-year-old foundation to hold him up. Can he do it?