Brian Nadeau is back this year to offer insight and analysis on this year’s road to the Kentucky Derby. A handicapper at Horseplayer Now and Capital OTB, he’ll analyze every official Derby points race and the three Triple Crown races, back at Brooklyn Backstretch for the sixth year.
Churchill Downs: The $2 million GI Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles
#1 Lookin At Lee (20-1): Deep, deep closer emulates his sire Lookin At Lucky with this abysmal rail draw, though he is one of the few in here that wasn’t really going to get too hurt by it, as he has no speed at all and is going to be upwards of 15-20 lengths back, depending on how hot the pace is. One of three in here for Asmussen has a bit of a wise guy label to him, as he was a much-improved third behind today’s ML favorite Classic Empire in the GI Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and had a bit of trouble that day, too, though the simple logic of it is that he’s yet to run remotely fast enough to win a race like this. If the pace is hot—a big if—and contested—not as much of an if—then he may come into play late, and we’ve seen deep longshot closers run second in this of late (think Golden Soul and Commanding Curve), but even if that’s the case, it’s tough to see him passing them all, especially when traffic could be a real issue as well; exotics fringe player at best.
#2 Thunder Snow (20-1): European invader will try to do the impossible and become the first from across the pond to win the world’s most famous horse race while adding Lasix for the first time, and this tricky inside draw did him no favors. Make no mistake, though, this is a legitimate group I horse who aired in the GIII UAE 2000 Guineas at Meydan in his dirt debut and even handled a muddy track when he gamely won the GII UAE Derby there last time, though both fields were a far cry from what he’ll face today. Son of turf sire Helmet (AUS) will likely be stalking early, and Godolphin and bin Suroor didn’t come here just to smell some fresh roses, so while a win may be too much to ask, the thinking is that he’s going to outrun his odds; not impossible for a share.
#3 Fast and Accurate (50-1): The longest shot in the field was supplemented to this for 200k after qualifying with his GIII Spiral win over the Polytrack at Turfway Park, but was up the track in his lone dirt start against MSW foes at Parx Racing, which kind of gives you an indication of just where he fits in with this group. Son of Hansen is rumored to be going to the front, and if nothing else, that would keep him out of trouble, but it’s not like he’s fast early, so even if they want to be there, there’s no guarantee. Respect Maker in Kentucky, and the Derby has been a race to deliver a bomber or two, but this guy won’t be adding to the lore; odds-on to be lounging in the caboose.
#4 Untrapped (30-1): The second from Asmussen has built a nice résumé running underneath in Louisiana and Arkansas this winter but enters off a middling sixth in the Arkansas Derby in which he wore blinkers, which will come off today. Tactical son of Trappe Shot is one of a group of several that will be looking to set up shop 6-8 lengths off the speed and in the second group, which may be a crowded position, though with speed to his inside and outside, he should be able to find a decent spot in the run to the first turn. All accounts indicate that he’s one of the better-looking individuals on the grounds the past 10 days or so, and the price will be right, but it’s tough to envision him doing much more than finishing in the middle of the pack; can’t endorse.
#5 Always Dreaming (5-1): The first of three from Pletcher and the most fancied of the group enters off a rousing win in the GI Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and has won all three of his starts this year in dominant fashion for a trainer looking to win his second Derby after countless failed attempts over the years. Son of Bodemeister has gotten a lot of local publicity, as he’s been extremely energetic in the morning, almost to the point of wanting to run off, which means he could be the pacesetter here and potentially his own worst enemy early, too. On the face of it he’s a logical contender, but we’ve seen this barn bring several well-regarded GP runners up from Florida year after year, only to see them bomb at underlaid prices simply because what happens in Florida stays in Florida; just not seeing it.
#6 State of Honor (30-1): Expected pace player had a “someone had to be second” feel to him when he followed Always Dreaming home in the Florida Derby and is clearly the lesser of the two Casse runners, though he has earned his way in off in the money runs in a trio of graded preps this winter. Son of To Honor and Serve has also lost ground in the stretch in those three runs, while finishing behind fellow rivals McCraken and Tapwrit in Tampa Bay Downs’ GIII Sam F. Davis and Derby, so he’s obviously looking up at a lot of them in here. This post and his style say he’s going to add some fuel to the fire early, but it’s highly unlikely he’s around when the real running begins; pace casualty.
#7 Girvin (15-1): New Orleans star rolled home in Fair Grounds’ GII Risen Star and GI Louisiana Derby and enters undefeated in three starts on dirt, though he also enters under a lot of question marks, too, as he’s been battling a quarter crack that has forced him to miss some valuable training time leading up to this. Tale of Ekati colt has a nice stalking style, and Sharp was able to get a good work into him at Keeneland, but this is clearly not the right way to enter what is by far the toughest assignment of his career. And that’s before we even mention how slow his figures were in those two prep wins, which further clouds his standing in here; confidently tossing.
#8 Hence (15-1): One of the “buzz” horses is getting a lot of attention this week, not only for his breakthrough win in the GIII Sunland Derby, but also for the appearance that he’s made on the track, as Asmussen’s third has reportedly flourished since arriving at Churchill Downs. Stretch-running son of Street Boss has come a long way in a short period of time, as he bombed at 23-1 in Oaklawn’s GIII Southwest two back, then rolled home in Sunland after a suicidal pace early. But that’s the rub, as while he seemingly delivered a devastating closing kick that day, upon further review it may have been an optical illusion, as the frontrunners were going in slow motion late, which made his sustained run look a lot better than it may have been; mixed signals here.
#9 Irap (20-1): Improving runner by Tiznow picked the right time to break his maiden, as he tracked a slow pace and held off some heavyweights in Keeneland’s GII Blue Grass, in what was by far a career-best run after he threatened but failed to win a few stakes. And while he may be getting overlooked here, he drew perfectly for his style and could fall into a nice outside, up-close stalking trip, which would enable him to get first run off the far turn on the stalkers and closers. Plus, O’Neill, Reddam and Gutierrez have already teamed up to win this race twice, so you know they know what it takes to get a horse to peak on the first Saturday in May; not the worst price stab in the world.
#10 Gunnevera (15-1): Deep closer is clearly at the mercy of the pace but anyone who saw him roll home in GP’s GII Fountain of Youth two back knows he’s got a potent stretch punch and will be picking up a lot of pieces through this long stretch. And don’t be too hard on that meek third in the Florida Derby, as Sano hardly had him cranked, and the race flow and track were obviously against his style that day, so with that regression behind him, he’s potentially ready to peak again today. Dad Dialed In couldn’t see out the 10 furlongs of this race a few years back, but this colt is rock solid, though when you have to basically pass the entire field, it’s not exactly the cleanest blueprint to a win; logical exotics contender.
#11 Battle of Midway (30-1): Game runner-up in the GI Santa Anita Derby was a potential pacesetter, but Hollendorfer is on record as saying they are taking back, which seems odd as this son of Smart Strike seemed fastest early and could have seemingly cleared if sent. There is some versatility here, however, as he stalked and won a SA optional-claimer two back, though all of his runs have been in slow time, which leaves him looking up at a lot of these. He’s also been privately purchased from Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm since his last, which is an odd move for an owner who has run second in this race a few times and presumably would love to get the trophy; playing against.
#12 Sonneteer (50-1): The lone maiden in the field is not without his merits, as he’s run well while passing several to be second in Oaklawn’s GII Rebel two back and a close fourth in the Arkansas Derby last time, though he’s another who is going to be way, way out of it early. Desormeaux-trained son of Midnight Lute isn’t really bred for this but gives the impression the longer the better, and the expected race flow will suit his style as well, so in a race where a lot of these could be staggering late, he’s going to pass a lot of them. How many is up for debate though, and a win seems out of reach, but you could do worse than giving him a bomber’s look in your exotics; not impossible for a share.
#13 J Boys Echo (20-1): Sharp winner of Aqueduct’s GIII Gotham had no chance when fourth in the Blue Grass, as he likely bounced, plus didn’t get the right pace scenario for his mid-pack style and wasn’t really cranked, anyway, as he had already punched his ticket in his NY win. And with Romans being a Louisville native, you know this was the goal all along for this son of Mineshaft who is bred top and bottom to love the 1 1/4 miles (damsire Menifee was second in this race in 1999). Detractors will say the Gotham may be more the exception than the rule, and that it’s the only time he’s run remotely fast in his life, while fans will counter by saying that win is as good as anyone has done all year and he’s going to be upwards of four times the price of the other perceived favorites, which, in the world of risk/reward, seems like a pretty good spot to be in; upset special.
#14 Classic Empire (4-1): Reigning 2yo champion has been putting his connections through their paces this year, as he’s had quite an interesting time of it and proven to be a real problem child after running a distant third in GP’s GII Holy Bull, then developing a foot issue and refusing to train as well. The good news is that he’s seemingly put it all behind him, as he won the Arkansas Derby with a strong late push and hasn’t had any issues since for Casse, who is clearly having to earn the day rate on this son of Pioneerof the Nile. The bad news is that you’re taking about 4-1 or so on a horse that is a reputed bad actor and shows only one slow breeze since the Oaklawn race, which was in the cover of darkness at Churchill and reportedly on the slow and slower side, too, so when you’re talking about a 20-horse field and you don’t really know what you’re going to get, at a small price, too, there are just too many questions looming to land here; playing against.
#15 McCraken (5-1): The house horse is getting a lot of attention and rightfully so, as he’s 3-for-3 over the local oval and, unlike ‘Empire next door, who still has some lingering questions to answer, he’s put behind him the foot issue that caused him to miss a start in the Tampa Bay Derby and shows three sharp breezes over the track in preparation for this. Ghostzapper colt saw his unbeaten streak end at four when he was a modest third in the Blue Grass, but Wilkes really had no reason to crank him that day, as he was coming off a minor injury and was a short horse, not to mention that he didn’t get the right kind of race flow for his closing style. Well, all that goes out the window here, as the pace will be to his liking, over his home track, with the ideal schedule leading up to this, so you better darn well think it’s all systems go in here; the horse to beat.
#16 Tapwrit (20-1): The second from Pletcher has taken advantage of optimum circumstances to get here, as he won the Tampa Bay Derby when McCraken was forced to miss the race and looked pedestrian to him when second in the Davis, and now enters off an absolutely dreadful fifth in the Blue Grass. And while fans of this barn will say ‘Echo and the guy next door didn’t fire in Lexington, either, take note that this son of Tapit was beaten over 11 lengths, at 2-1, too, so it’s not as easy to forgive the no-show that day. Plus, the gut says that he’s second-tier anyway, and has beaten up on State of Honor to get here, so when you’re entering off a complete dud while facing by far the toughest field of your career, it’s not the ideal spot to get back on the beam; easy toss.
#17 Irish War Cry (6-1): Major player looked stunning wiring the Holy Bull then basically came to a stop when beaten a furlong in the Fountain of Youth, but got back on the beam in a big way when he won Aqueduct’s GII Wood Memorial, while showing a new rating gear, too, which is going to come in handy here. Son of Curlin goes for a Motion barn that knows what it takes to win this race and enters with two of the fastest figures this year, which is not to be taken lightly when the rest of these have been painfully slow for the most part. The Wood has been a negative prep of late, and post 17 is 0-for-38 in the Derby, but this colt comes in on the top of his game and off a wicked 6F work at Fair Hill, and he should trip out beautifully from close range while getting first run on the mid-pack stalkers as well; won’t fault anyone looking this way.
#18 Gormley (15-1): Game winner of the SA Derby is another who has seemingly built a résumé beating up on weak competition, as he was nowhere when given a big chance behind Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and then didn’t fire in the wake of Mastery’s domination in SA’s GII San Felipe, yet won their GIII Sham (in the slop) over a weak field. So, even though this is a two-time GI winner and Shirreffs has won this race in the past, there are some serious class reservations in this corner, and that’s before getting into this outside draw, which will hurt since he wants to be involved early. The price is also on the low side for a Malibu Moon colt who is slow on paper and figures to be wide every step of the way; can’t endorse.
#19 Practical Joke (20-1): Potential underlay is looking to win his first two-turn race in the most difficult one in the world to win, which is one heck of a task, especially when he couldn’t run by a maiden in the Blue Grass and came up completely empty in the Fountain of Youth after making a sharp middle move towards the lead entering the far turn. Son of Into Mischief has yet to miss the board in six starts, but has also lost three straight since stretching out and getting to two turns, and Brown tinkered with the idea of adding blinkers before nixing the idea, which is a bit odd leading up to a race like this. This post is also a negative, as he’s likely going to be strung out wide into the first turn, which isn’t going to flatter his chances when he was behind the eight-ball to begin with; needs shorter to threaten.
#20 Patch (30-1): The last of the Pletcher triumvirate is trying to buck the one Derby faux-pas that has yet to be erased, in that he’s looking to become the first horse since Apollo—in 1882—to win the roses without running as a 2yo, and while he is talented, there have been countless others with far better résumés who have tried and failed. Lightly-raced son of Union Rags has come a long way in a short period of time and was a game second to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby, but we’ve already mentioned how average the time was, so from a tough draw with a lot going against him, it’s tough to see him making a dent. If you’re spreading deep, then maybe he can lay back and make a run and get a small slice, but the reality is that splitting the field would be an achievement; tough to tout.
#13 J Boys Echo
#17 Irish War Cry