By Bill Oppenheim
So now we’ve arrived: this weekend sees the first four North American and European Classics of the season: the GI Kentucky Oaks on Friday, followed by the G1 English 2000 Guineas Saturday morning US time, the GI Kentucky Derby Saturday afternoon, and the G1 English 1000 Guineas on Sunday at Newmarket. The Kentucky Oaks is dominated by ‘TDN Rising Star’ Paradise Woods, impressive winner of the GI Santa Anita Oaks by nearly 12 lengths and one of three Grade I-winning fillies from the first crop by Lane’s End’s Union Rags; and Farrell, by a top filly sire in Malibu Moon, winner of her last four, including a sweep of the three filly races at Fair Grounds, among them convincing wins in the GII Rachel Alexandra S. and GII Fair Grounds Oaks.
This year’s Kentucky Derby, as has been widely trailed, is a different kettle of fish, with a win by one of maybe 15 of the 20 probable starters within the realms of possibility (the last time the landscape looked like this, in 2009, I had 14 horses live in a Pick 3 and Mine That Bird won at 51-1, leaving a certain Pioneerof the Nile toiling in the slop). But wait: every year one or two horses seem to bloom at Churchill Downs and those horses are usually a danger to all. I was all set to declare five-length GI Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, from WinStar Farm’s Bodemeister’s first crop (the second and third were also from the first crop of 3-year-olds by their sires: State of Honor, by Gainesway’s To Honor And Serve; and Gunnevera, by Darby Dan’s Dialed In) the Derby favorite after his impressive :59:3/5 work last Friday, but subsequently he has evidently been very keen in his work. Seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, who trained a previous Derby winner in Super Saver in 2010, doesn’t have a lot of time to sort Always Dreaming out, and being too keen in the Derby is a sure formula to falter in that final 10th furlong. Bodemeister himself won the GI Arkansas Derby by nine lengths over nine furlongs, but couldn’t quite get the trip after setting a searching pace, in either the Derby or the GI Preakness S., and Always Dreaming’s female family has more sprinters and milers than two-turn horses in it. I still think he’ll be the favorite, but not by as much as I thought he would be just after his work.
Bodemeister is of course by Empire Maker, himself repatriated to Gainesway for the 2016 breeding season after a stint in Japan. Pioneerof the Nile, like Bodemeister a WinStar stallion, is also by Empire Maker, and Pioneerof the Nile is also the sire of 2016 champion 2-year-old colt and GI Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire, who should be vying for second favoritism with GI Wood Memorial winner and ‘Rising Star’ Irish War Cry (Curlin). If nothing else, Empire Maker (by Unbridled, by Fappiano) should end up as the grandsire of two of the top three favorites for the Derby. I’ve said before, Florida form looks best to me this year: all three probable favorites raced on the dirt in Florida this winter, as did fellow ‘Rising Star’ McCraken, Gunnevera, State of Honor, Practical Joke, and Tapwrit.
What second-crop sires are most likely to benefit from the exploits of their sons and daughters in the Classic season? Darby Dan’s Shackleford is the leading North American second-crop sire (with first 3-year-olds) by 2017 earnings, with 21 winners and the earners of $1,502,847 through Monday (click here). The bulk of that money came as a result of ‘TDN Rising Star’ Malagacy‘s win in the $900K GII Rebel S., but he is out of the Derby, so Shackleford could be caught for the title of Leading Second-Crop Sire. There are really three sires with runners with major chances this weekend: Bodemeister, of course, sire of Always Dreaming; Dialed In, sire of Gunnevera, who looks nailed on to stay the trip and thus becomes a good horse to use in the gimmicks; and Union Rags, sire of the GI Kentucky Oaks favorite Paradise Woods. We’d better throw in the European Darley sire Helmet, an Australian-bred reverse shuttler by Exceed And Excel, since Godolphin announced they are sending GII UAE Derby hero Thunder Snow to Kentucky. Because of that win, Helmet’s YTD progeny earnings are only just behind Shackleford’s, and he is the leading European second-crop sire by 2017 worldwide progeny earnings, ahead of Juddmonte’s Frankel (click here).
Only 12 colts were nominated for Saturday’s G1 English 2000 Guineas at Monday’s six-day entry stage, including four trained by Aidan O’Brien and two each by Saeed bin Suroor and Richard Hannon, although one of Hannon’s is G3 Greenham S. winner Barney Roy, now owned by Godolphin, so they have a total of three nominated. It’s going to be a small field, and only four horses are quoted under 10-1 on Betfair as of Monday. Coolmore’s Churchill (by Galileo out of Meow, by Storm Cat), beaten at six furlongs first time out, then winner of five straight at seven furlongs as a 2-year-old, including the G1 National S. and the G1 Dewhurst S., and the undisputed champion 2-year-old of Europe 2016, was trading at 8-5 on Betfair yesterday. Two others were trading around 4-1: the G3 Greenham winner, Barney Roy, from the first crop by the Coolmore sire, Excelebration; and Al Shaqab’s Al Wukair, by Dream Ahead, impressive winner of the G3 Prix Djebel for M. Fabre. Eminent, a Frankel colt out of You’ll Be Mine, by Kingmambo who won the G3 Craven S. at Newmarket on only his second career start, was 11-2. Frankel already has three GSW this year, and eight GSW from his first crop.
For Sunday’s G1 English 1000 Guineas, I will have to admit to a degree of unfamiliarity. Last year’s G1 Fillies Mile winner Rhododendron, by Galileo, is the 5-2 favorite. All I really know other than that, is that trainer John Gosden won both fillies’ preps for the same owner Mr. Abdullah Saeed Al Naboodah, the G3 Nell Gwyn S. by the Acclamation filly Daban, while Dabyah, from Sepoy’s second crop, won the G3 Fred Darling S. At last report, Daban was heading to Newmarket, with Dabyah redirected to France. Contact Bill Oppenheim at [email protected] (cc [email protected]).