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.
There were three Kentucky Derby prep races last weekend, the first of which being the UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai. Thunder Snow just got by Epicharis to notch a nose victory in the $2 million event. The win gave the colt enough points to secure a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs, and all indications are that Sheikh Mohammed will indeed ship the horse stateside to make a run for the roses. Epicharis had actually already earned a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby by virtue of earning the most points in the Japanese Road to the Derby – a new creation by Churchill Downs this year in an attempt to add more international flavor to the track’s signature event. However, connections of Epicharis have indicated that their colt is more likely to await the Belmont Stakes than compete in the 1st leg of the American Triple Crown.
Fast and Accurate took the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park as a 24-1 long shot. As the horse is not currently nominated to the Triple Crown (nominations cost only $600 if paid by the January 14th early nomination deadline), owner Kendall Hansen has stated that he will pay the $200,000 supplementary fee so that his colt can take his place in the Derby starting gate. The form and substance of the Spiral, run on polytrack, are questionable at best. The son of Hansen (the equine, named after his owner and winner of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) finished 5th, beaten 12 lengths, in his only start on a conventional dirt surface. His three wins have come on either turf or synthetic tracks. Given that, it is difficult to see Fast and Accurate being much of a factor in the Kentucky Derby.
Finally, at Sunland Park on Sunday, Hence, a Calumet Farm homebred, closed from well back and pulled clear of second betting choice Conquest Mo Money by almost 4 lengths to claim victory in the $800,000 Sunland Derby as a relative outsider at odds of nearly 11-1. Trained by newly minted Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, the horse was visually quite impressive against a suspect field. This is a horse to keep an eye on over the next several weeks to see how he trains, as he seems to be hitting his stride at the right time, but he will need to prove his mettle against much stiffer competition in the Derby.
On to this week’s Elite Eight:
# 1 — McCraken retains the top spot. The Ghostzapper colt put in a solid 3/4 mile work at Keeneland in 1:13 and change on Monday morning and continues to train forwardly for the Bluegrass Stakes on April 8th.
# 2 — Gunnevera put in his final preparatory breeze in advance of this weekend’s Florida Derby on Saturday with a 5 furlong move in 1:01 and 4. The Gulfstream Park feature will give us a good read on this colt’s progression and whether he is worthy of maintaining this spot.
# 3 — Tapwrit worked on Saturday for the first time since his Tampa Bay Derby win, going an easy half mile at the Palm Beach Downs training base of Todd Pletcher. A showdown with McCraken and Practical Joke in the Bluegrass looms.
# 4 — Practical Joke breezed 5 furlongs in tandem with last year’s Gotham Stakes winner Shagaf in just under 1:01 at Palm Meadows in Boynton Beach on Saturday. Trainer Chad Brown confirmed yesterday that the colt will bypass the Florida Derby in favor of the Bluegrass Stakes for his final prep.
# 5 — Malagacy took the normal week off from serious work following his Rebel Stakes victory and is still expected to make his final pre-Derby appearance back at Oaklawn Park for the Arkansas Derby on April 15th.
# 6 — Girvin finished his Louisiana Derby preparations with a steady 5 furlong move in 1:01 at the Fairgrounds on Saturday. If he can back up his Risen Star victory with another strong performance this weekend he will likely move up this list next week.
# 7 — Thunder Snow makes his debut in the Elite Eight following his UAE Derby victory. The Darley/Godolphin homebred is now 2 for 2 on the dirt including his win in the UAE 2000 Guineas in February. He was a top class 2yo in Europe last year, finishing 2nd in prestigious races such as the Vintage Stakes at Goodwood and the Champagne at Doncaster along with a respectable 4th in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket prior to winning the Group 1 Criterium International at Saint Cloud. Thunder Snow emerged victorious in the face of adversity in Dubai. After drawing wide to begin with, he was stuck 3 to 4 abreast around both turns and despite racing greenly through the stretch (jockey Christophe Soumillon said the horse jolted to the right to avoid the tracks left by the starting gate) was still able to prevail by a nose over Japanese Road to the Derby point leader Epicharis. Horses wintering in Dubai have not traditionally fared well at Churchill Downs, but in a year where the field seems as wide open as this, Thunder Snow may have as good a chance as any. The mile and 3/16th distance of the UAE Derby is the longest prep any of the Derby starters will run, and he was moving best of all at the end. A hard earned victory over an accomplished international field in addition to elite level 2yo European form is worth a spot in this week’s Elite Eight.
# 8 — Classic Empire finally showed positive signs following his relocation to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, where he fired off a 5 furlong move in :59 and change working from the gate yesterday. Trainer Mark Casse reported that the 2016 2yo champ will have one more work at Winding Oaks next week prior to shipping to Churchill Downs to prepare for an expected start in the Arkansas Derby.
There are two vitally important Kentucky Derby prep races this Saturday. A field of 9 will line up in New Orleans to contest the $1 million Louisiana Derby. Local Hero looks dangerous on the front end, but he is expected to face pace pressure early from Hotfoot, a dedicated rabbit entered by trainer Joe Sharp and owner Brad Grady to insure a swift pace up front for their late running favorite, Girvin. Who knows how long Hotfoot can apply that pressure, as he just ran this past Saturday and tired after a half mile in :47 and 4 against much lower level competition. Guest Suite will attempt to return to his Lecomte Stakes winning form after a dull 4th place effort behind Girvin in the Risen Star. New shooters Monaco and Patch are worth keeping an eye on for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Morning line favorite Gunnevera drew the challenging far outside post for the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. With a short run from the gate to the first turn, the Fountain of Youth winner has the deck stacked against him as the most accomplished runner in the field. Pletcher sends out the promising Always Dreaming for his stakes debut after an eye-catching 11 length maiden win at Tampa and an easy allowance score at Gulfstream. Also pay heed to State of Honor, poorly drawn on the rail, as he looks to build on his runner-up score behind Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby. Impressive Edge drew gate 8 for Dale Romans and rates as one to watch as a result of his facile 8 length allowance score at Gulfstream on March 5th. Hopefully these lucrative prep races will provide some much needed clarity on the developing 2017 Kentucky Derby field.