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.
The class of Derby 143 finally produced an authoritative pro tem leader on Saturday when Mastery dominated an accomplished field by nearly 7 lengths in the San Felipe at Santa Anita. Unfortunately, that clarity was short lived as jockey Mike Smith pulled the colt up several jumps past the wire. Mastery was vanned off the track, and it was later reported from Bob Baffert’s barn that the son of Candy Ride suffered a condylar fracture requiring surgery and 90 days off from training. His departure from the Derby trail leaves a chasm at the top of this crop of 3yo colts. My personal opinion is that the best 3yo (currently in training) in the land is the filly Unique Bella, but her connections have firmly stated that she will not be competing in any races against colts in the near future. That leaves us with a group that has thus far produced a lot more questions than answers. There is still a decent chance that the eventual Derby winner could emerge from the shadows in one of the final prep races to be run over the next several weeks. Absent a fresh face entering the foray in one of the final preps, I believe one of these ELITE EIGHT will be wearing the roses on the first Saturday in May:
# 1 – McCraken has done nothing wrong in four lifetime starts. His three wins over the surface at Churchill will alleviate any concerns about his ability to handle the track in Louisville. Most recently he handled the Sam Davis field at Tampa with aplomb. The second, third, and fourth place finishers from that effort came back to take the top 3 spots in the Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday — further cementing McCraken’s spot among the top of the class. The son of Ghostzapper missed a scheduled start in the Tampa Bay Derby with a minor ankle strain, but was back on the track with a solid half mile work over the weekend. He is now expected to make his final pre-Derby appearance in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
# 2 – Gunnevera has always been near the top of this class, having won both the Saratoga Special and million dollar Delta Jackpot as a 2yo. He made a giant leap forward winning the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park by almost six lengths on the heels of a runner-up effort in that track’s Holy Bull Stakes to begin the year. Gunnevera certainly has the feel of an improving horse. His final Derby prep is expected to come in the Florida Derby, where we will see how he bounces back from his break-through performance in the Fountain of Youth. The biggest concern with this colt at this point, perhaps, is his running style. He is a deep closer and his biggest challenge on Derby day may well be negotiating a clean trip as he rallies from near the back of the pack.
# 3 — Classic Empire is the returning champion juvenile of 2016, having scored Grade 1 wins in both the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita. He was unquestionably the best colt of his generation last year, but nothing has gone right for him in 2017. Something was clearly amiss with the colt prior to his non-showing in the Holy Bull when he seemed agitated in the paddock and post parade. He emerged from the race with a foot abscess that required some brief time off. Following that malady, the 2yo champ missed a work due to discomfort in his back that required a chiropractic adjustment. He has since returned to the work tab with a solid half mile breeze, and trainer Mark Casse reports that the son of Pioneerof the Nile is now doing well and progressing nicely. However, timing is now very tight, and this horse needs everything to go his way in order to make a final prep race (most likely the Blue Grass at Keeneland) in order to be ready for the Derby. If all goes well between now and May 6th, the early season troubles may prove to be a blessing in disguise as the reigning champ will enter the Derby as a fresh horse with a solid 2yo foundation. However, at this point, he cannot afford another hiccup.
# 4 — Practical Joke is another colt with impressive 2yo form, having won both the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and the Champagne at Belmont prior to his 3rd place effort behind Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Cup. He kicked off his 3yo campaign with a solid 2nd place effort behind Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth. My gut tells me this colt is most effective as a late running one-turn type, but his two-turn efforts have been nothing to sneer at thus far. His next start at a mile and an eighth will give a better indication regarding his ability to handle the Derby distance. If this son of Into Mischief does have the stamina to negotiate a mile and a quarter, Chad Brown is definitely the right trainer to get him to reach that potential.
# 5 – Tapwrit made a bold move forward on Saturday, separating himself from the Tampa Bay Derby field by a widening 4 ½ lengths. The colt is regally bred, by champion sire Tapit out of the Grade 1 winning mare Appealing Zophie, and certainly improving at the right time. Trainer Todd Pletcher is now forced to decide whether or not to give the colt another start prior to the Kentucky Derby. Last year, he opted against another start for his Tampa Bay Derby winner, Destin. The colt went on to finish sixth in the Run for the Roses prior to a runner-up effort in the Belmont. Eight weeks is a long time to go between starts and would be a lot to ask of a horse attempting to see out the ten furlong Derby distance for the first time. However, the Pletcher barn excels spacing starts six to eight weeks apart, so it will be interesting to see how things play out with this talented 3yo.
# 6 — American Anthem is very light on experience, but very high on potential. With only two starts including a hard fought 2nd in the Sham Stakes, the son of 2012 KY Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister is approaching the Derby similarly light on seasoning to his sire — whose immense talent was enough to overcome his relative inexperience. The Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn this Saturday will give us a strong indication as to whether this young colt is up to the challenge. Trainer Bob Baffert is simply the best in the business at developing a young 3yo toward a peak performance on the biggest race days, and following the loss of Mastery in the San Felipe, this colt will now be getting all the attention in his conditioner’s barn.
# 7 — Royal Mo broke through with a facile score in the Bob Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita last month. His sire, Uncle Mo, produced last year’s Derby winner, Nyquist. Trainer John Shirreffs is known for his patience, having conditioned the great race mare Zenyatta to championship seasons as a 4, 5, and 6yo. For Shirreffs (who pulled off a major upset in the 2005 Derby with Giacomo) to have a stakes winning 3yo on the Derby trail speaks to the talent and precociousness of this colt. He faces a major test against American Anthem in the Rebel on Saturday.
# 8 – Iliad was a distant second behind Mastery in the San Felipe in his first start around two turns. We will see if he can assume the role of “Best of the West” in the Santa Anita Derby. This colt certainly has talent. The primary question at this point appears to be whether the mile and a quarter distance is within his scope. Trainer Doug O’Neill has won 2 of the last 5 runnings of the KY Derby, with I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist last year. The Santa Anita Derby should give us a strong indication as to the probability of O’Neill winning the roses for the 3rd time in just six years.