Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down: 2017 Kentucky Derby Edition

Kentucky Derby contender McCraken is undefeated at Churchill Downs. (Coady Photography)

When it comes to handicapping the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the foundation of your opinion should come from what each of the entrants has accomplished on the racetrack, with recent race form most important.

But horses are animals and subject to ups and downs, so it’s important to pay attention in the weeks leading up to the first jewel of the Triple Crown to see how they look coming into the most important race of their careers. Typically, by this point I’ve whittled down to a small group the list of horses I’d consider picking to win and I like to use feedback glossed from the track to confirm the horse or horses I like appear to be in peak condition.

I don’t profess to be a clocker or any sort of expert on morning workouts, but I do value what those with a keen eye for improving 3-year-olds have to say leading up to the Kentucky Derby each year, and I follow the news closely as I hone in on my Derby selection.

Let's take a look at what I’ve picked up this week in our final edition of Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down before this year’s Kentucky Derby.


1. McCraken

After McCraken tasted defeat for the first time when third by 3 ¾ lengths in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, I had dropped him down to No. 4-5 on my Derby top 10. I’ve come back around on him. I trust Ian Wilkes, a protégé of two-time Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger, has him sitting on a big one. By all accounts, he’s dazzled at Churchill Downs in regular gallops and he’s put in three eye-catching workouts on the main track. He looks like he loves this track, which is not at all surprising given he’s unbeaten in three starts at Churchill, and I love the way he glided home in his final workout (five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.80 on April 30) with jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. straining to get him to slow down. He missed the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby with a slight strain to his left front ankle — described as a “minor hiccup” —and I don’t think he was close to his best in the Blue Grass Stakes. He looks like a finely tuned Maserati at Churchill, and I think he is a major contender to win the Kentucky Derby.

2. Irish War Cry

If you climb on board a 3-year-old’s bandwagon, you have to be prepared to stick with him through a bad race. I have no idea what happened to Irish War Cry in the Lambholm South Fountain of Youth Stakes, but I stuck with him through the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and was rewarded. Since that race, he has largely taken it easy as is the practice of trainer Graham Motion, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2011 with Animal Kingdom. He returned for his first workout since the Wood on April 30 at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland and exceeded expectations. He started out a few lengths behind a work partner and cruised through three-quarters of a mile in 1:13.20, easily besting his workmate without any encouragement from his rider. Irish War Cry was very relaxed early and just devoured the ground late with his long, powerful stride. Motion said after the workout that he saw some similarities between Irish War Cry’s final workout and Animal Kingdom’s, which was at Churchill, and was very pleased with what he saw. I think the 1 ¼ miles of the Derby should suit him and Irish War Cry appears to be sitting on a big race.

3. Hence

From what I’ve seen and from what I’ve read and heard, Hence appears to be on top of his game. He’s gotten a little hot in the morning on occasion, but multiple clockers reported he had a great week last week and then impressed in a half-mile workout in :48.80 on May 1 for trainer Steve Asmussen. That followed another strong five-eighths of a mile workout in 1:00.00 on April 24. He seems to like the racetrack at Churchill Downs, and coming off a career-best race in winning the Sunland Derby it makes sense that trainer Steve Asmussen doesn’t want to push him too hard. That said, he seems to be showing that there is plenty in the tank on his own and I expect him to run big on May 6.

Honorable Mentions: Of the other runners at Churchill Downs, clocker Gary Young was impressed with Sonneteer’s final workout — a half-mile in :47, fastest of 22 workouts at the distance — and also mentioned that he sees a racehorse who has really progressed in recent months. As ABR blogger Keeler Johnson mentioned in his Derby Data piece, Sonneteer had the fastest final three-eighths of a mile in his final Derby prep of all of the contenders. Yes, he’s still a maiden, but he’s improved by leaps and bounds, he appears to be in peak form and you know he’ll be flying late. … Lookin At Lee is a deep closer who appears to be sitting on a big race after rallying for third in the Arkansas Derby for trainer Steve Asmussen. From most accounts, he’s made a nice impression and, like Sonneteer, he should be doing his best running late. … I’ve also heard from quite a few sources that Untrapped has consistently looked terrific at Churchill Downs. He’d need to take a giant step forward to factor in the Derby off a sixth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby, but he’s training well. … I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Irap again. He was one of my longshots to consider last week, and while most reactions seemed to be that I had a screw loose, trainer Doug O’Neill has this one in peak condition. Whether he’s good enough remains to be seen.


Coady Photography

1. Girvin Louisiana Derby winner Girvin developed a quarter-crack (click here for a detailed explanation of the term quarter crack) in his right front foot and missed training time on the racetrack. Trainer Joe Sharp pushed back several times a planned workout while he used a pool at Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center to maintain Girvin’s fitness. Girvin finally turned in his final pre-Derby workout wearing two different bar shoes on his front feet, and it was a very promising drill going five-eighths of a mile in :59.60, second-fastest of 16-timed moves at the distance. It looks like Girvin, who enters the Derby off back-to-back win in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby, has not lost much from the time off. But when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, it almost always seems like almost everything must go right for a horse to have a chance. Granted, this is a year where there is no overwhelming favorite, but I just can’t back Girvin given his recent missed training and quarter crack. He’s a wonderful racehorse with an impressive resume, but I’ll let him beat me on May 6.

Eclipse Sportswire

2. Practical Joke

I came into this week expecting a lot from Practical Joke because I’d heard that Chad Brown was exceptionally high on him. Brown experimented with blinkers over the last week amid rumors he was testing them out to see if it might eliminate the Into Mischief colt’s tendency to hang (draw alongside an opponent but not accelerate past) late in races. His final pre-Derby workout in blinkers was not inspiring and Brown subsequently took them off for his gallop on April 30. I don’t think this colt is in bad form by any stretch, but the fiddling around with equipment before the biggest race of Practical Joke’s career worries me a bit. If the trainer thinks he needed blinkers to put him over the top but then pulled them off, it’s tough for me to feel really confident. Coming off a runner-up finish in the Blue Grass Stakes, he was in the mix for me when considering my top three, but I’ve found others I prefer who might offer a little more bang for the buck.

Coady Photography

3. Battalion Runner

I’m taking the easy way out with the third one here, but Battalion Runner was removed from consideration for the Kentucky Derby after he was essentially outworked by stablemate Made You Look, a very good racehorse in his own right, in his final pre-Derby workout. He could target the Preakness instead and it looked like perhaps his runner-up finish in the Wood Memorial Stakes took a bit out of him. Here’s hoping an extra two weeks of rest does wonders for this lightly raced 3-year-old.

Of note: By most accounts, Always Dreaming was very impressive in his final workout in preparation for the Kentucky Derby. Several experienced clockers said he looked exceptional in drilling five-eighths of a mile in :59.60, the fastest of 35-timed workouts at the distance. So why is he on the bottom half of this list? Well, he was pretty headstrong almost to the point of uncontrollable before the workout and it was expected that the drill would take a little of the starch out of him, but he was up to his old antics in his first post-workout gallop. Trainer Todd Pletcher changed the exercise rider and equipped him with new reins, which seemed to do the trick, but it’s worth following this week how Always Dreaming goes about his gallops. You’d prefer not to have the probable Derby second choice battling his rider every morning leading up to the race and rather save that fight for the first Saturday in May. Pletcher decided to bypass the Derby with Arkansas Derby fifth-place finisher Malagacy in favor of a bid in the Preakness on May 20, and likewise Brown opted to point Wood Memorial third-place finisher Cloud Computing to the second jewel of the Triple Crown rather than the Kentucky Derby.

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