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.
Always Dreaming became the newest member of the Kentucky Derby Elite Eight with his impressive victory in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. After stalking a comfortable pace set by front-running Three Rules, Always Dreaming took command entering the stretch and powered clear of the field under jockey Johnny Velazquez to win by a convincing 5 length margin. State of Honor, runner-up in the Tampa Bay Derby, filled that same slot at Gulfstream – a length and half to the better of favored Gunnevera who ran on late to show.
Girvin made it back-to-back victories at the Fairgrounds with a workmanlike rally from mid-pack to wrest the lead from Local Hero and then hold Patch a length clear at the wire in the Louisiana Derby. Girvin now heads to Louisville undefeated in three starts on dirt for trainer Joe Sharp.
On to this week’s Elite Eight:
# 1 — McCraken put in an easy half mile work that looked more like a gallop at Keeneland on Sunday. He drew post 2 for the Bluegrass Stakes on Saturday, and trainer Ian Wilkes seems confident his charge is prepared for a strong effort.
# 2 — Always Dreaming‘s dominant performance in the Florida Derby on the heels of impressive maiden and allowance scores is enough to earn him this high ranking debut spot in the elite eight. He now has 5 weeks to recover from that effort, and trainer Todd Pletcher has indicated the colt will likely ship to Churchill early in order to get 2 works in over the surface prior to the Kentucky Derby.
# 3 — Tapwrit did not work over the weekend, meaning he will likely only have one breeze in between his Tampa Bay Derby victory on March 11th and his Sam Davis rematch with McCraken in the Bluegrass on Saturday. Fitness, however, should not be an issue as the colt has been training and racing consistently since September.
# 4 — Practical Joke did put in a solid workout at Palm Meadows on Saturday, going 5 furlongs in one minute and two fifths of a second for Chad Brown. He should benefit from his primer in the Fountain of Youth and the 3 breezes he has posted since. He will need to show his best in an absolutely loaded Bluegrass Stakes field this weekend to advance on to Louisville.
# 5 — Girvin is now a perfect 3 for 3 on dirt with 2 straight stakes victories in New Orleans, so it is difficult to find fault with his form. However, his final time in the Louisiana Derby was more than two seconds slower than Always Dreaming ran at Gulfstream. Add to that Patch, only a maiden winner to this point, ran second beaten just a length – and it is fair to question the quality of the competition in Louisiana.
# 6 — Malagacy got back on the work tab at Palm Beach Downs with an easy half mile maintenance move. The undefeated son of Preakness winner Shackleford will face his sternest test to date in the Arkansas Derby on April 15th.
# 7 — Classic Empire has thrived since his move to Winding Oaks in Ocala. He posted another 5 furlong gate breeze in :59 and 3, and the ease with which he did it left trainer Mark Casse enthused about his colt’s progression. The son of Triple Crown producing sire, Pioneerof the Nile is set to tangle with the undefeated Todd Pletcher duo of Malagacy and One Liner in the Arkansas Derby.
# 8 — Gunnevera drops from 2nd to 8th following his somewhat disappointing 3rd place effort behind Always Dreaming in the Florida Derby. He was far back in dead last early on, fanned 6 wide around the home turn and closed resolutely through the stretch to just get up for the show position. The Dialed In colt retains a spot on this list because he is a very honest horse that shows up with a strong effort every time, and he appears more capable than most in this class of handling the demanding mile and a quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby.
The second Saturday of April brings with it three significant prep races for the 143rd Run for the Roses. The Wood Memorial at Aqueduct features two once highly regarded colts on the Derby trail in Mo Town and Irish War Cry. Mo Town won the Remsen Stakes as a 2yo over the same course and distance of the Wood. That victory stamped him as one to watch this year. He resurfaced in the Risen Star at the Fairgrounds and finished a dismal 5th, beaten ten plus lengths by Girvin. Trainer Tony Dutrow is hopeful the horse will rebound back in the familiar surroundings of his prior stakes success. Irish War Cry was all the rage after a dominant, front-running victory in Gulfstream’s Holy Bull Stakes, but then flopped finishing 7th of 10 behind Gunnevera and company in the Fountain of Youth. Graham Motion believed the colt was not doing well in south Florida, so he shipped him back to his training base at Fair Hill in Maryland to prepare for the Wood. Cloud Computing broke his maiden at first asking in February, then returned just over 3 weeks later to finish an impressive second in the Gotham Stakes (behind Bluegrass entrant J Boys Echo). The dark bay son of Maclean’s Music has been training well at Belmont and will try to win the Wood in just his 3rd lifetime start. Battalion Runner invades from south Florida for trainer Todd Pletcher. He broke his maiden by nearly nine lengths at Gulfstream in December and promptly followed that effort with an easy allowance score in his first start around two turns. He makes his stakes debut on Saturday and is likely to take plenty of action from the betting public given he hails from arguably the hottest barn in the country at the moment.
As mentioned here several weeks ago, the 3yo group on the west coast lost its clear frontrunner when Mastery was injured winning the San Felipe. The wide open division will line up in the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday headed by Iliad, runner-up to Mastery in the San Felipe. Bob Baffert is expected to send out 3 starters in American Anthem, Reach the World, and Irish Freedom. American Anthem looks to rebound from an abysmal performance in the Rebel at Oaklawn Park when he was reported to have lost a shoe during the race. He has had two superb works at Santa Anita since, including a bullet half mile in a blazing :46 and 4. The son of the brilliantly fast Bodemeister (runner-up in both the KY Derby and Preakness in 2012) could rebound in a big way on Saturday. Others expected in the starting gate at the great race place on Saturday include Battle of Midway, a recent allowance winner against Reach the World, and the John Shirreffs trained duo of Sham Stakes winner Gormley and Bob Lewis winner Royal Mo, both trying to rebound from subpar performances in the San Felipe and Rebel respectively. The race should bring some much needed clarity to a crop of Californians that seems as lacking in major players as any in recent memory.
The Bluegrass Stakes is shaping up to be the highlight of not just this weekend, but the entire final round of Derby preps. McCraken will once again put his unblemished record on the line in a rematch with Sam Davis foe Tapwrit, impressive winner of the Tampa Bay Derby in his most recent start. Practical Joke ships in from Florida for Chad Brown looking to prove that he does indeed have the stamina required of a Derby horse. Louisville native Dale Romans has high hopes for Gotham winner J Boys Echo. John Battaglia Memorial winner It’s Your Nickel, Tampa Bay Derby 3rd place finisher Wild Shot and the maiden Irap complete the field. Should any of the top 4 choices emerge victorious, they will surely challenge Always Dreaming for favoritism on the first Saturday in May.
Be sure to check back in on Fridays during the Keeneland meet as I preview the weekend of racing action at the prestigious Lexington track.