Kentucky Derby 143 Analysis and Selections
By John DaSilva
The day everyone has been waiting for has finally arrived. The first Saturday in May. The 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.
It is always tough to pick the winner of the race. This year the task becomes tougher as at least two inches of rain hit the Louisville area and made the main track sloppy on Friday. Chances are the main track will definitely be muddy on Saturday and could end up sloppy depending on rain falling in the evening and continuing into the day.
Watching the Kentucky Oaks will give you an interesting perspective on how to handicap the Kentucky Derby. We saw favorite Paradise Woods set fast fractions while being pressed on the outside by Miss Sky Warrior. On the far turn Paradise Woods was done and Miss Sky Warrior took over the lead. But in the stretch Miss Sky Warrior was done and Abel Tasman came from last to gain the lead in mid-stretch and held off the fast closing Daddy’s Lil Darling for the victory.
The fractions set in Kentucky Oaks were the fastest fractions going two turns on the day Friday. The winners of the first three two-turn races were all ridden to victory by Kentucky-based jockeys, who sent their mounts to the front, got them to relax on the lead and never looked back. In race nine, East Coast-based Joel Rosario tried to wire the field with River Echo, but that horse tired and Task Force Glory, ridden by Kentucky-based jockey Miguel Mena (who was next-to-last midway through the race) was able to close well and gain the victory.
What can we learn from this race? It’s simple. Jockeys are human and will overcompensate when they think there is a severe speed bias and run their horses like it. Did Flavien Prat and Paco Lopez, two jockeys who don’t normally ride at Churchill Downs, overcompensate with their amounts thinking there is a severe speed bias? No doubt about it. So now the question is what will happen on Saturday in the Derby.
The first question we need to figure out is who will be the pacesetters of the race. With a probable off track, it would not surprise me to see Battle of Midway on the lead. The son of Smart Strike, who is out of a Concerto mare, was hard-used early and finished second in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby last out, which was his fourth career start. Purchased privately by WinStar Farm and Don Alberto Stable from Fox Hill Farm, the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee breaks from post eleven and will be ridden by Flavien Prat. Will Prat learn his lesson from Kentucky Oaks and not make the same mistake in the Kentucky Derby? No doubt Battle of Midway’s connections hope so.
Another horse who may set or race close to the pace is Always Dreaming. The Todd Pletcher trainee stalked the pace and drew off to win the Grade 1 Florida Derby when making his stakes debut and has worked very well since then. Breaking from post five, Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez should send Always Dreaming out to the front or at put him in good position right behind the pacesetters going into the clubhouse turn.
Irish War Cry is a very intriguing horse. The Graham Motion trainee looked to be a Derby pretender after pressing the pace and tiring badly in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes. But he came back in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, stalked the pace and drew off to win impressively. Could be he learned how to rate successfully while racing close to the pace. If he can employ similar tactics in this race like in his last, he will be very tough to beat here in the Kentucky Derby.
Now there are horses who will be the middle of the pack and could be very dangerous. One that has not gotten much play but who could be very dangerous is Gormley. The John Shirreffs trainee always ran very close to the pace when winning, but after tiring to fourth in the San Felipe Stakes a change of tactics was in order. It worked, as regular rider Victor Espinoza was able to get Gormley to race further off the pace than usual and run down Battle of Midway to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby last out. Everyone’s criticizing the Santa Anita Derby because the final time was very slow, but we have to look at big picture here. Gormley had never raced successfully this far off the pace before. Now that Espinoza knows he can do it, he has options with Gormley and could do more with him at any point in the race.
Classic Empire is a horse that has created a lot of buzz throughout his career. The reigning juvenile champion finished a disappointing third in the Holy Bull Stakes when making his seasonal debut and was to be pointed to the Fountain of Youth, but developed a foot issue that forced him to miss the race. Then he refused to train on at least two occasions and trainer Mark Casse had to send him to a training center in Ocala to get his mind back into training. Once he became focused again he was sent to Oaklawn where he came off the pace successfully to win the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. There have not been any major issues for Classic Empire since returning to Kentucky to finalize his Derby preparations. If he continues to be focused, he could be very tough to handle versus these.
McCraken it is a horse that everyone seems to love and follow. The Ian Wilkes trainee won the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February, but came out of it with a slight injury which forced in the miss the Tampa Bay Derby. He came back in the Grade 2 Blue Grass a month ago finishing a meaningful third to put himself in position to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately in the Blue Grass at no point was ever a serious threat to win the race. Everyone is giving him a pass for that effort and expects him to run a big race in the Kentucky Derby.
Of the closers in the race, the one everyone expects to run the best is Gunnevera. The Antonio Sano trainee was far back early and could only get up to be third in the Florida Derby. His last two victories came on tracks which have short stretches. At Gulfstream Park when he won the Fountain of Youth, the race ended at the sixteenth pole with the length of the stretch being just 565 feet. He won the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs where the length of the stretch is 660 feet. The last time he won a race with a regular stretch drive was at Saratoga when he won the Saratoga Special as a juvenile and the length of the stretch there is 1,144 feet. At Churchill Downs, the length of the stretch is 1,234 feet so regular jockey Javier Castellano will have to figure out where to keep Gunnevera in the early stages of the race and then when to make his run to the front.
Lookin At Lee drew the dreaded rail. The Steve Asmussen trainee closed to be third in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby last out. He was ridden that day by Luis Contreras, but in the Kentucky Derby he will be ridden by Corey Lanerie. A Cajun jockey, Lanerie loves to race on the rail whenever possible, drawing comparisons to another Cajun jockey that loves the rail, Calvin Borel. Some people even call him Calvin Borel Jr. Lookin At Lee will be far back early but if Lanerie can get Lookin At Lee to put in a rail-skimming run like Borel did to win the Derby with Street Sense, Super Saver and Mine That Bird, we’re going to be seeing plenty of people cashing tickets at the IRS window.
Fans deserve good price if they hit a bet on the Kentucky Derby this year because this is not an easy task. While anybody can say demand value, this race is so wide open that most horses will be value. As we saw in the Oaks, experience or familiarity with the racetrack could be very important here. With that in mind, the top choice is Gormley, ridden by three-time Kentucky Derby winner and 2017 Racing Hall of Fame inductee Victor Espinoza. Second choice will be Battle of Midway, the probable pacesetter of the race. The talented Irish War Cry will be the third choice with Lookin at Lee completing the superfecta.
Best of luck to all!