The 143rd Kentucky Derby is May 6th at Churchill Downs in Kentucky and a 70% chance of rain is in the forecast. Finding a good mudder in this group of 20 is nearly impossible. We thank Mike Battaglia, the odds maker at Churchill Downs, for giving us a morning line favorite at 4-1, Classic Empire, but come race day his odds will plummet from that enticing 4-1.
This is a very interesting and thought-provoking Derby. Missing are the obvious favorites like California Chrome and American Pharoah, instead we have a field of 20 horses with no clear domination in the Derby prep races. Every handicapper you talk to will give you a different group of horses. There’s money to be made in this Derby and the key is navigation. We have 20 young horses who have rarely raced in a field this size, in front of a crowd this size, and on a potentially wet surface. Yes, it’s all about navigation. And for that reason, I’m looking to the jockey. Experienced, veteran jockeys who are familiar with large fields and less-than favorable conditions, jockeys that have been on their horses before and know what moves to make.
Mudders with potential:
Classic Empire (4-1): Broke his maiden on a wet surface at Churchill Downs in 2016. Veteran rider Julien Leparoux has been aboard for all of Classic Empire’s starts.
Tapwrit (20-1): Also broke his maiden over a wet surface. My concern with Tapwrit is that his head is not in the game. He’s worth at look in a superfecta at this price and on Derby Day.
Gormley (15-1): Also has a win on a wet surface in California, but a wet surface in Southern California is very different than a wet surface in Kentucky. The only advantage for Gormley is his veteran jockey, Victor Espinoza. Gormley races well in California but the ship to Kentucky is a mystery.
Battle of Midway (30-1): Another California shipper who broke his maiden on a wet Santa Anita surface. Finished second behind Gormley in the Santa Anita Derby, has always been in the money in all of his four races. In a very scattered Derby, this horse deserves a look, especially at this price.
The Real Deals:
I have to admit, Girvin was my Derby horse going in. However, he recently suffered an injury and has not been able to work properly. With this type of surface on Saturday, I think I will have to look for another horse.
Classic Empire has been on my radar (and everyone else’s) since he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He’s kind of a sassy horse. He’s been known to train when he feels like it, but certainly shows up for the race. With his veteran jockey, consistent money finishes on his resume, and can run on a wet surface, Classic Empire lands on the top of my list. Besides all that, he’s American Pharaoh’s little brother. So the pedigree is perfect.
Gunnevera (15-1): Come post time, Gunnevera may be my top pick. I’d like to play an Exacta box with Classic Empire and Gunnevera. This two-year old has raced with multiple runners in the Derby and has the number one jockey in the country on his back, Javier Castellano. When Castellano got in the saddle, Gunnevera finished in the money four out of his last four races and they were all graded stakes races. Gunnevera finished third his last race, the Florida Derby, behind Always Dreaming and State of Honor, but he didn’t really need to win that race because he’d already punched his ticket to Kentucky with his win in the Fountain of Youth.
McCracken (5-1): McCracken finished third in his last race behind Practical Joke and Irap in the Bluegrass, but again, he didn’t need to win because he was already in with his win in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Until the Bluegrass, McCracken was undefeated, and veteran jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. has been with him from the first race.
Filling out the Superfecta:
Always Dreaming (5-1): Three wins in a row for Always Dreaming since veteran jock Johnny Velazquez took over, but only one graded stakes win, the Florida Derby, which he needed to get to Churchill Downs. A veteran rider, but little graded stakes experience and no races on a wet track. However, he’s been training well at Churchill and has put in some impressive bullet works since he arrived.
Ones to watch:
Thunder Snow (20-1): This is the European entry. Entering the gates as a multiple graded stakes winner in Europe with extremely impressing speed figures, but has no American racing experience and has ran most of his races at sprint distances. The check mark on this horse goes to the connections and that the fields in Europe are bigger than they are here. The UAE Derby, which Thunder Snow won, had 15 entries. He will not be shy of the 20 in the gate.
State of Honor (30-1): I wanted to make this horse my superfecta filler, but he has one knock: His jockey, Jose Lezcano. Julien Leparoux has been on State of Honor for his last four races, which were stakes races, and in which State of Honor finished on the board all four times. But, Leparoux is also the jockey for Classic Empire. (What a choice?) This Mark Casse trainee gets a definite look and will be taking superfecta money come post time.
Practical Joke (20-1) was doing fine until he got into races with the other Derby contenders then he couldn’t seem to get around Gunnevera, Classic Empire or Irap. He has no wet surface races, doesn’t like the distance or the crowds.
Patch (30-1): Uniquely named since he has only one eye. Also, the Pletcher horse has a very young jockey taking the reins on Derby Day, Tyler Gaffalione. Patch has a short resume, probably because he was sidelined for surgery to remove his damaged eye. Curious that Pletcher would go with a young jockey when navigation through the field of 20 on a rainy day will certainly be difficult, and even more difficult for a horse with one eye. Patch will rely heavily on the guidance his young rider.