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.
Saturday’s results in three of the final major Derby prep races did very little to provide any clarity to the increasingly muddled field for the 143rd Run for the Roses. Two runners coming off disappointing performances in their most recent races rebounded with solid winning efforts to secure their spots in the Churchill starting gate. Irish War Cry stalked the moderate pace set by Battalion Runner in 4th place early, moved into 2nd after a half mile and then pulled to even terms with the leader after three quarters of a mile in 1:11 and 4. He asserted himself in the final furlong and pulled away under a vigorous hand ride from Rajiv Maragh to win the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct by 3 and 1/2 lengths. On the west coast, Gormley sat patiently in the middle of the pack and fanned out four wide in the stretch with a determined rally that proved just enough to win the Santa Anita Derby by a half length from dueling frontrunners Battle of Midway and Royal Mo. Irish War Cry looked much more like the horse that won the Holy Bull in early February than the 7th place finisher most recently seen in the Fountain of Youth. Gormley benefitted from fresh tactics by laying back off the pace and then taking advantage of the tiring frontrunners in the stretch. In the San Felipe he had battled with Mastery for the lead early and collapsed late.
While those two races produced probable winners whose past performances certainly indicated they were capable of such efforts, the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland produced something far different. Irap, a southern California shipper for two-time Derby winning trainer Doug O’Neill, pulled off a 31-1 stunner under a heady ride from jockey Julien Leparoux. Irap sat just off the flank of the front running Wild Shot through a leisurely half mile run in :48 and 1, took command entering the far turn and held off a valiant challenge from Practical Joke by 3/4 of a length at the wire. It was the first victory of Irap‘s career. He had yet to visit the winners’ circle in 7 prior trips to the post, and he was entering the Bluegrass off a 4th place finish in the Sunland Derby just two weeks ago. Credit should be given to O’Neill, who had the confidence to ship the horse across the country after losing by more than 8 lengths in New Mexico to take on a much more accomplished field at Keeneland, and Leparoux, who took advantage of a slow pace to get first run on the previously unbeaten race favorite McCraken and 3rd choice Practical Joke. Irap simply had too much in reserve after the comfortable internal fractions, and the two most accomplished horses in the field were unable to completely close the gap.
This weeks elite eight:
1 – Always Dreaming takes over the top spot following McCraken‘s 3rd place finish in the Bluegrass. He’ll likely be the only horse in the starting gate at Churchill with 2 mile and an eighth victories under his belt. Following this weekend’s results, the final time and authority of his Florida Derby victory really stand out.
2 – Classic Empire vaults up to the 2nd spot by default. The slow times and lowly speed figures earned by this past weekend’s victors served to reaffirm the belief that this is simply not a very good crop of 3yo colts. The 2yo champ has now had three solid weeks of uninterrupted training in Ocala and will ship to Oaklawn Park this week seeking to take back his place at the head of this crop in the Arkansas Derby.
3 – McCraken did not run well, but he also did not run poorly on Saturday. He was more keen than usual early on and was always going to be up against it from a pace stand point in a race with no true speed horses. He certainly needed the race to improve his fitness after missing his scheduled start in the Tampa Bay Derby, and he now heads to Churchill where he is unbeaten in three prior starts.
4 – Gormley takes this spot just narrowly over the Wood Memorial winner due to the slowly increasing belief that perhaps the west coast horses have been slightly underrated to this point. The fact that Irap could not break his maiden in California but was somehow able to beat what was previously thought of as the toughest group assembled to date in the Bluegrass really forces one to reassess where the strength of this crop might lie.
5 – Irish War Cry reemerges as one of the top contenders to win the roses after his win in the Wood. Trainer Graham Motion was puzzled by the colt’s no-show effort in the Fountain of Youth and moved him to cooler weather at his Fair Hill training base. The New Jersey-bred son of Curlin responded nicely and will likely end up as one of the top choices on the first Saturday in May.
6 – Girvin is undefeated on dirt, but the quality of his Risen Star and Louisiana Derby wins is just so difficult to gauge as that group of horses has not ventured much into other jurisdictions.
7 – Gunnevera remains on this list due to the belief that he’s more likely than most to handle the mile and a quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby without much trouble. He may not be fast enough to win, but he will be picking up pieces in the stretch for sure and his best effort is right there with the rest of this group.
8 – Thunder Snow just nods out Practical Joke for the final spot. Practical Joke ran the best two-turn race of his life in the Bluegrass. After an early move to get into contention he made a bold run at Irap in the stretch and looked for several strides like he just might get there, but he flattened out in the last few jumps and could not make it past. Practical Joke is a very nice horse who may show further improvement in the Derby, but the 9 furlongs of the Bluegrass looked like it stretched him to the limits of his stamina. Thunder Snow won the stiffest stamina test of all the contenders when taking the mile and three sixteenths UAE Derby, which is a sixteenth of a mile farther than any other Derby starter will have ever raced. The Irish-bred colt rubbed shoulders with some of the best horses in Europe last year, winning the Group 1 Criterium at Saint Cloud prior to this season’s sweep of the UAE 2000 Guineas and Derby. Dubai-based shippers have not fared too well at Churchill historically, but in a year with such sporadic American form Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin team may very well have their best chance yet to capture the roses.
The final prep to determine the 143rd Kentucky Derby lineup is on Saturday at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Classic Empire will do battle with the undefeated Rebel Stakes winner Malagacy in the Arkansas Derby. The race will serve as a litmus test for both colts as Malagacy steps up against grade 1 competition for the first time and Classic Empire attempts to reassert himself at the head of the class following his disappointing showing in the Holy Bull and several training setbacks earlier this year.
In the following weeks we will closely monitor how the prospective Derby field is training leading up to the race. We will also dig a little deeper into the pedigrees and running styles of the top contenders in order to more astutely assess the pace scenario of the race and identify which horses are most likely to be around at the finish.