The 2017 Grade 1, $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs is full of stories and question marks, making for one of the most interesting Derby handicapping puzzles in years. Topping the list of horses, and to some extent question marks, are a trio of multiple stakes winners- Irish War Cry, Gormley and Classic Empire, who all rebounded off poor efforts to win key Derby preps last month. Irish War Cry won the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes, Gormley took the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, and Classic Empire was victorious in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. Adding intrigue to the field is Thunder Snow, who ships in from Dubai off a win in the Group 2 U.A.E Derby, along with Grade 3 Sunland Derby winner Hence. Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, Grade 2 Louisiana Derby winner Girvin, Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap and Grade 3 Spiral Stakes winner Fast and Accurate are four more key Derby prep race winners, but all falling into the "question mark" category to be discussed later. Then there are 10 more horses in the main body of 20 entrants who finished second, third or fourth behind some of the prep winners, all hoping to take the leap forward into the history books.
Irish War Cry won the first three starts of his career including his first try around two turns in the Holy Bull Stakes in February, dominating in "ridden out" fashion with a very strong and career-best 110 Equibase Speed Figure. Sent to post as the prohibitive favorite one month later in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Irish War Cry faded to seventh and was beaten more than 20 lengths with no visible excuse. After resting five weeks, the colt rebounded and then some when winning the Wood Memorial with a 109 figure effort. The early pace in this year's Kentucky Derby should be moderate at most, allowing jockey Rajiv Maragh to put Irish War Cry in a good position going into the first turn from where the colt can make a winning move turning for home to take Derby 143.
Battle of Midway took to two turns for the first time in his third career start in March when improving his Equibase figure to 103 (from 93 in his previous race) with a game victory by a neck on the wire. Moving immediately to stakes company and more seasoned horses for his next race, the Santa Anita Derby, Battle of Midway ran even better as he battled head-and-head for the lead for nearly the first mile before opening up by a half-length with an eighth of a mile to go before being passed late and beaten a half-length by Gormley at the wire. In that race, Battle of Midway improved to a 107 figure which is tied for the fourth best (fastest) in the field. On a pattern for further improvement, Battle of Midway opens at 30 to 1 odds, way too high to ignore as he should run much better than those odds suggest he will.
Gormley, like Irish War Cry, rebounded off a poor effort in his most recent race, the Santa Anita Derby. Two races prior to that, Gormley got on everyone's radar with a strong effort in January when winning the Sham Stakes with the best figure of his career and that any 3-year-old had earned during Derby prep season. Following a disappointing fourth-place finish in the San Felipe Stakes in March, his trainer made the decision that racing up close to the pace, as Gormley had done in his three wins until then, was not what the colt really wanted to do. So, in the Santa Anita Derby Gormley was taken back to mid-pack in the early stages, a strategy that paid off as he rallied steadily in the last quarter mile to win with a 108 figure. Now that he is moving in the right direction, Gormley has a nice shot to improve some more and run well enough to win the Kentucky Derby.
It may sound like a broken record, but Classic Empire is yet another horse who regressed one race before last then rebounded to take a key Derby prep race. Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner with a superb 116 figure, Classic Empire finished a disappointing third (beaten eight lengths) in his 3-year-old debut in February as the heavy favorite. Given more than two months off after that, Classic Empire found his old spark to take the Arkansas Derby last month with a 103 figure effort He is likely to improve upon in his second start off a layoff. As such, Classic Empire must absolutely be considered a contender to win.
I've been burned over the years by listing as one of my six Derby win contenders a horse, or horses, from Europe and the Middle East. Thunder Snow has both locations in his resume, as he was bred in Ireland and has raced in Great Britain as well as Dubai. His first six races were on turf but his last two were on dirt and he won both, including the U.A.E. Derby last month in a field of 16. Having earned the equivalent of 110 and 108 figures in his two dirt starts and showing a very nice late kick and mental maturity in coming from off the pace in both races, I feel it would be a mistake to discount the chances of Thunder Snow in this year's Kentucky Derby and it would mean a lot to see the Godolphin Blue silks of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who supports the horse industry around the world, in the winner's circle.
Hence rounds out my sextet of contenders. His last race was a career-best 97 figure earned winning the Sunland Park Derby and is pretty low compared to the other main contenders but he won with authority and can improve off the effort. In that race, Hence showed the kind of kick on the far turn that has been successful in the Derby many times over the years. Likely to be far back in the early stages, I expect Hence to be picking off tired horses one by one in the last quarter mile and to be near the wire at the end.
Other horses of note, particularly for wagers like the exacta and trifecta:
Gunnevera earned a 107 figure winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes in March but could only manage a third-place finish in the Florida Derby. Historically, nearly all recent Derby winners have finished first or second in their starts before the Derby and as such, although he can run well, I feel Gunnevera will be kept to a minor award. Similarly, McCraken, who was undefeated in five races before a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes last month, is not a win contender in my opinion but is a horse I will consider for exotic wagers made in the race. Always Dreaming won the Florida Derby decisively with a 100 figure but it has been reported that he has been very hard to manage in his morning gallops this week. We want a calm horse on the track in front of 150,000 people and he may not be capable of dealing with the crowd. Girvin is the only horse in the field to have won two prep races in a row, taking the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby with 102 figure efforts. However, he had a recent foot issue that, although minor, means he "might" be coming into the race at a slight disadvantage to others who have had no such issues. Sonneteer will attempt to be the first maiden (non-winner) to win the Derby in 84 years, but will be passing many of these late as he did one before last when second at 99-to-1 in the Rebel Stakes (with a 103 figure) and so he must be considered for exacta and trifecta tickets played. Practical Joke (98 figure when second in the Blue Grass Stakes), Patch (100 figure when second in the Louisiana Derby) as well as also-eligibles Royal Mo (107 best figure) and Master Plan (107 best figure) are three more to consider for exotic wagers in the race as they could easily pay in the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
The rest of the field, with their best recent Equibase Speed Figures is Fast and Accurate (93), Irap (99), J Boys Echo (103), Lookin At Lee (100), State of Honor (100), Tapwrit (106) and Untrapped (103).
My selections as win contenders:
Irish War Cry
Battle of Midway
You can get Ellis' full card detailed analysis and betting recommendations for all the races at Churchill Downs on Derby day, Saturday, May 6, at Equibase.com.