Each week leading up to the first Saturday in May I will assess the leading contenders for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, ranking the “elite eight”, recapping the most recent prep races, and looking forward to the upcoming race(s) of the weekend. Follow me on Twitter @chadlashbrook for additional thoughts on KY Derby preps and other major thoroughbred races.
Classic Empire, overwhelmingly the class of last year’s 2yo crop and a deserving winner of the Eclipse Award for Champion 2yo Colt, had easily been the most disappointing 3yo of 2017. After a lackluster 3rd place effort in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, the son of Pioneerof the Nile was plagued by back issues and subsequently refused to break off for several scheduled morning work-outs in south Florida. A change in scenery to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala seemed to cure whatever was ailing him as he proceeded to complete his next four breezes as planned and in impressive fashion. Questions still loomed as the colt vanned to Hot Springs, Arkansas for a tilt in the Arkansas Derby – his final chance to earn enough qualifying points for a berth in the Kentucky Derby. Was he fit enough, having not raced since February 4th? How would he behave in front of a crowd of 60,000+? Would his own antics cost him another race? The champ answered each question with aplomb. Trailing a wall of leaders in 6th place early on, he began to advance into the clubhouse turn but remained blocked inside horses taking a ton of dirt in the face. He emerged clear when fanned six or seven wide by jockey Julien Leparoux straightening for the drive to the wire. Still with work to do at that point, Classic Empire began reaching out and closing ground on the leaders. It took every last bit of the Oaklawn stretch to get by the impressive runner-up Conquest Mo Money, but the champion called on all his class and emerged victorious by a half-length at the wire. It’s been a tumultuous three months for the 2016 champ, but he made everything right on Saturday and heads to Louisville as one of the top 3 choices for the Kentucky Derby.
This weeks elite eight:
1 – Classic Empire finally showed his class on Saturday. While he is deserving of this spot, he is certainly not a mortal lock to take home the roses. He has just 3 weeks to recover from what was undoubtedly a very hard effort in Arkansas. He was pinned behind horses at several points in the race, and when he finally got clear had to call on all he had in reserve to reach the wire in time. Can he bounce back and run another bang up race at Churchill? Also, how will he react to a crowd of 150,000 or so on Derby day? At the top of his game and with his mind on the business at hand, he is the best this crop has to offer, but it’s fair to ask whether both of those will be the case just 2 1/2 weeks from now.
2 – Always Dreaming got back on the work tab with an easy half mile at Palm Beach Downs last Friday. The guess is that he will have at least one more breeze there before shipping to Louisville for perhaps one work over the surface at Churchill prior to the Derby.
3 – McCraken‘s 3rd place effort in the Blue Grass doesn’t bother me too much. He has too keen early and had to need the race from a fitness perspective after missing the Tampa Bay Derby. Love to see that Ian Wilkes got him right back on the work tab yesterday at Churchill with a solid half-mile in :47 and 4.
4 – Irish War Cry showed a new stalk and pounce dimension in the Wood Memorial that culminated with an authoritative victory. Trainer Graham Motion will keep the colt at his Fair Hill base for all the serious training and ship to Churchill the early part of Derby week.
5 – Gunnevera put in a very nice 5 furlong drill in 1:00 and 3/5th on Saturday. He also secured the services of regular pilot Javier Castellano for the Derby. That is key as it will take an ace rider to knife through the 20 horse field with this colt’s running style. If I had to pick one horse right now just to hit the board, he would be the one. You can bet he’ll still be moving forward when most of the others are backing up.
6 – Hence debuts in the elite eight over three weeks since his last race. Why? Ignore the form of the Sunland Derby at your own peril. Fourth place finisher Irap came out of the race to win the Bluegrass Stakes. Runner-up Conquest Mo Money nearly took the Arkansas Derby, just getting outgained in the shadow of the wire by Classic Empire. Hence, the winner of the race deserves some respect. He has come back since his aforementioned victory with two respectable drills at Churchill Downs for Steve Asmussen, including a 5 furlong move in 1:00 and 2/5ths to earn the bullet on Monday.
7 – Girvin fired the bullet work at Churchill Downs last Saturday, putting in a half mile in :47 and 4. While he continues to train forwardly for Joe Sharp, the form of his Risen Star and Louisiana Derby triumphs remains suspect.
8 – Gormley will be one of only 3 multiple Grade 1 winners in the field (Classic Empire and Practical Joke are the others) and deserves respect for showing up with his best effort more often than not. It’s been difficult to get a clear read on the California form, and the Santa Anita Derby was a very slowly run race. Gormley will be making his first start outside southern California in the Derby.
Now that all the prep races have been run, we will use the final two editions of the elite eight to look closer at the pedigrees, speed figures, and running styles of the top contenders. Remember to check back next week.