Which Kentucky Derby Runners Would Benefit from Wet Track?

The 2013 Kentucky Derby runners charge down the stretch after breaking from the starting gate on a sloppy main track at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands is rapidly approaching and closing even quicker on the outside is … Mother Nature?

An already muddled outlook for a highly competitive edition of the Kentucky Derby could soon turn muddy with weather forecasts raising the possibility of storms in the Louisville area that just might create a wet track for Saturday’s $2 million Derby.

If it happens, aside from a raincoat, it would be wise to bring some extra aspirin with you to Churchill Downs because an already tricky handicapping proposition will become an even bigger headache with a muddy track tossed into the equation.

It’s not as much of a mystery as predicting who will handle the 1 1/4-mile distance, but in a field of young horses there’s only a limited amount of wet track data – and it could be misleading.

The sad truth is that one good effort on a wet track is not reason enough to certify a young 3-year-old as a mud lover, but that’s the dilemma handicappers could be facing.

The problems a wet track can pose are at least two-fold.

Tapwrit winning Pulpit Stakes. (Lauren King/Gulfstream Park)

For one, with young horses, a single wet track race is hardly compelling evidence, even if it’s a winning effort. Yes, a win in the mud can be a sign that a horse relishes slop. Then again, in many 2-year-old races, everyone in the field could be running on a wet track for the first time. In those instances, a victory could be explained by one horse simply tolerating mud and everyone else loathing it.

A good example of that can be found in Tapwrit. He won the Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream Park on a sloppy track in his lone wet-track start. That sounds promising, except that the Pulpit Stakes originally was scheduled to be contested on the turf. After seeing rain in the forecast, trainer Todd Pletcher entered Tapwrit in the Pulpit just in case the race got washed off the turf. There’s clearly a future career in meteorology for Pletcher as the rains came, the Pulpit was washed off the turf and Tapwrit posted a one-length victory. Yet given the circumstances, it’s fair to wonder if Tapwrit moved up in the mud or if he beat a bunch of turfers who could not handle a wet track.

Your call.

Another problem is that muddy tracks can vary from one circuit to another. The consistency of a wet track at Churchill Downs is surely different than one at Santa Anita and there are no guarantees that a victory on one track bodes well for the chances of winning at one on the other side of the country.

With that being said, let’s take a look at the wet track form of the 20 starters who will fill the starting gate on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Immediately that leaves just 10 horses to consider as 10 have never raced on a wet track.

Of them, the two that stand out are Classic Empire and Lookin At Lee. Both of them have already raced on a wet track at Churchill Downs.

Classic Empire captured his career debut on sloppy track, notching a length-and-a-half triumph on May 4 of last year.

Lookin At Lee’s race on a muddy track in the Grade 3 Iroquois was a mixed bag. He did finish second, but he was 8 ¾ lengths behind Not This Time.

Of the other seven, the other three with a wet-track victory are Gormley, who took the Grade 3 Sham Stakes on a sloppy track at Santa Anita; Hence, who registered a maiden win by a little less than a length on a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park; and Battle of Midway, who posted a decisive 3 ¼-length victory on a wet-fast track in his career debut at Santa Anita.

As for the rest, Irap was fourth in a maiden race on a sloppy track at Santa Anita; Gunnevera was second by 3 ½ lengths on a sloppy track in his career debut at Gulfstream; Untrapped was second by a length and a quarter on a muddy track in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds; and Sonneteer was second by a length and a quarter on a good track in a Del Mar maiden race.

Irish War Cry (Adam Mooshian/NYRA)

Now comes the mystery 10 – the horses who have yet to race on a wet track.  In their case, the best options are to take into account breeding or workouts on a sloppy surface.

In that case, the ones to watch could be Irish War Cry, a son of Curlin, who won the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic in a sea of goo at Monmouth; and McCraken, who is by Ghostzapper out of a Seeking the Gold mare.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Girvin, who has been battling a hoof injury. As difficult as it can be to race a mile and a quarter with a quarter crack, that task becomes even more imposing on a wet track.

So that’s one forecast just in case another forecast - one about the weather – turns out to be correct.

Keep those umbrellas handy, folks.

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