By Bill Oppenheim
The preps are done, as of today we're 2 1/2 weeks out from one of the most open-looking editions of the GI Kentucky Derby in recent years. The win by Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile) in last Saturday's GI Arkansas Derby makes him one of three more or less joint favorites as of now (with apologies to T.D. Thornton's excellent review yesterday, click here), along with GI Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, from Bodemeister's first crop, and GII Wood Memorial winner and 'TDN Rising Star' Irish War Cry, by Curlin. One striking thing about this year's race is the dominance of Florida form among the contenders. Four of the last five winners were trained in California, but this year the Florida form looks best going in, with probably the top five in the betting having wintered in Florida and having run there at least once. The British bookmakers love novelty bets, like who will be the favorite in the 40-runner Grand National, and this year they could just about create a market for who will go off Derby favorite. There are quite a few probable runners who could be classified as 'live longshots', which we'll get to in a minute, but first let's look at the likely top six betting choices as of now.
The year 2000 was the last time the Wood Memorial winner (Fusaichi Pegasus) went on to win the Kentucky Derby, whereas the Florida Derby has produced five winners since then, including Nyquist (Uncle Mo) last year and Orb (Malibu Moon) in 2013. That statistic would suggest that Always Dreaming should edge Derby favoritism over Wood winner Irish War Cry and Classic Empire, winner of the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile (has produced Derby winners Street Sense 2007 and Nyquist 2016) and Arkansas Derby (Derby winners Smarty Jones and American Pharoah have won it since 2000). With 2 1/2 weeks to go but no prep races left, the two factors which could still affect the betting are the dreaded injuries and how horses are reported as training in Louisville, especially the last 10 days before the Derby. Three-year-olds improve in the spring and sometimes one or two horses will just thrive at Churchill and train 'lights out'; that can, and probably should, affect the odds. But for now:
Always Dreaming (Bodemeister): Won the best prep, the Florida Derby, decisively. Beyer Speed Figure: 97. Predicted Odds: 5-1.
Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile): Won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (Beyer 102), then rebounded from his well-documented troubled winter to score decisively in the Arkansas Derby last Saturday, time 1:48.9, but came back only a Beyer 94. Predicted Odds: 6-1, but if he looks great on the track he could get hot on the tote too.
Irish War Cry (Curlin): Ran the best last-race major prep Beyer (101) in the Wood. Showed he didn't have to have the lead, which will be a big plus. Predicted odds: 13-2 (6.5-1).
McCraken (Ghostzapper): The unbeaten Derby favorite until running third in the GII Toyota Blue Grass S., but, as has been widely mentioned, including by us, trainer Ian Wilkes's mentor, Carl Nafzger, won the Derby with Street Sense after losing the Blue Grass. The 'TDN Rising Star''s best Beyer is a 93 in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. Predicted odds: 10-1.
Gunnevera (Dialed In): Second in the GII Lambholm South Holy Bull S., he won the GII Xpressbet Fountain of Youth S. (Beyer 97), and was a closing third in the Florida Derby. Very significantly, Javier Castellano sticks with him over GII Rebel S. winner and Arkansas Derby close fifth 'Rising Star' Malagacy (Shackleford). Besides Castellano, this colt has the advantages of plenty of seasoning and ran in the Florida Derby like he would get that 10th furlong no problem; but he was taking a long time to get there. Predicted odds: 10-1.
Girvin (Tale of Ekati): He merits respect as the winner of both the GII Risen Star S. and the GII Louisiana Derby, though his best winning Beyer going two turns is a 93. Predicted odds: 12-1.
What makes this such an intriguing Derby is there are a number of other colts who aren't very far behind the top six, which means there could be some massive exotics payoffs with horses you look at afterwards and say, yeah, that could have happened: GI Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley (Malibu Moon), who ran a 93 Beyer winning the GIII Sham S., but ran only an 88 Beyer in winning the Santa Anita Derby; Blue Grass winner Irap (Tiznow), Beyer 93; GIII Sunland Derby winner Hence (Street Boss), whose winning Beyer was upgraded to 97 after GI Preakness S. bound Conquest Mo Money (Uncle Mo) ran second in the Arkansas Derby; State of Honor (To Honor And Serve), who placed in all three Florida Classic preps (Beyer 91); Practical Joke (Into Mischief), who's run second in both the Fountain of Youth and Blue Grass (Beyer 92); and Santa Anita Derby runner-up Battle of Midway (Smart Strike) (Beyer 87).
That's another six, discounting Conquest Mo Money, whose connections opted to pay $150,000 to supplement to the Preakness instead of $200,000 for the Derby. Throw in Blue Grass also-rans Tapwrit (Tapit) and 'Rising Star' J Boys Echo (Mineshaft); as many as three more Pletcher possibles in Rebel winner and Arkansas Derby (close) fifth Malagacy, Wood Memorial second and fellow 'Rising Star' Battalion Runner (Unbridled's Song), and Louisiana Derby bridesmaid Patch (Union Rags); possibly Royal Mo (Uncle Mo) and Iliad (Ghostzapper) out of the Santa Anita Derby; and two or three others I haven't mentioned, and you'll understand why I am going to be seriously looking for angles in the previous couple of races so I can hit the 'All' button in the Derby.
Nothing is more important to second-crop sires than Classic form, and naturally horses which have been winning Classic preps are putting their sires at the top of the second-crop lists. In the year-to-date North American list, Malagacy's win in the $900,000 Rebel shot Darby Dan's Shackleford to the top of the list (click here), and he maintains a lead of nearly $300,000 over WinStar's Bodemeister (sire of Always Dreaming), with Darby Dan's other $15,000 second-crop sire, Dialed In (sire of Gunnevera), third by 2017 progeny earnings. Lane's End's Union Rags has moved up to fourth now–the top four all with 2017 earnings over $1 million–and though Louisiana Derby runner-up Patch is his only possible Derby colt, Paradise Woods became his third Grade I-winning filly a couple of weeks ago in the GI Santa Anita Oaks and could give him a big boost in the earnings race if she contests the May 5 GI Kentucky Oaks. Besides those, Gainesway's To Honor And Serve is the only other second-crop sire to have a 'live Derby longshot' in State of Honor.
In Other News…
There was a lot of it last weekend, too. Here are a few highlights. French sires: Haras de Colleville's Kendargent had his first decent-sized crop, after early successes, in 2013. Mme. Fabre bred to him that year and the resulting colt, Soleil Marin, who is therefore from Kendargent's sixth crop, won his fourth in a row, and his first in Godolphin colors, when upstaging my former G1 Epsom Derby fancy, Akihiro, in Monday's G3 Prix Noailles at Chantilly. The significance: this was 2100m (10 1/2 furlongs), establishing that, now given the chance, Kendargent is more than just a sire of precocious sprinters and milers. On the same card, the Le Havre team's Haras de la Cauviniere's Rajsaman, a/k/a 'The Last Linamix', had the winner of the G3 Prix de Fontainebleau, an important prep for next month's G1 Poule d'Essai des Poulains–French 2000 Guineas in Brametot (click here to read Andrew Caulfield on Rajsaman yesterday). Third in the race was Spotify, from the first French crop by champion Australian sire Redoute's Choice, when he stood at the Aga Khan's Haras de Bonneval. It takes a little working out, but he has had eight winners from that crop this year, also including Goldikova's half-sister, the G3 Prix Vanteaux winner, Gold Luck. His crop's 2017 progeny earnings would rank him ninth among European second-crop sires if he were included on that list, which is headed by Darley's Helmet, sire of G2 UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow, and Juddmonte's Frankel.
Attention knockers of War Front: did you notice his new 4-year-old Grade I winner at Keeneland last Friday, American Patriot in the GI Maker's Mark Mile? Pedigree Alert: most impressive winner of the whole weekend might have been last year's G2 Queen Mary and G1 Prix Morny winner Lady Aurelia in the 5 1/2-furlong Giant's Causeway S., against older fillies and mares on the Keeneland turf. She did not break on top and didn't have the cleanest trip, but once Velasquez got her wound up and pointed in the right direction, she shot by those fillies like they were standing still. She will be a huge player for Stonestreet and partners and trainer Wesley Ward in the G1 King's Stand at Royal Ascot. As you know, she is by the late great Scat Daddy and is inbred 4×3 to Storm Cat, as she is out of a Forest Wildcat mare. Also by Scat Daddy and inbred 4×3 to Storm Cat: Melody's Spirit, the dam of Whitmore, who is by Pleasantly Perfect and placed in the GIII Southwest, GII Rebel, and GI Arkansas Derby last year, but is now unbeaten in five starts at six furlongs after cruising in the GIII Count Fleet Sprint H. on the Arkansas Derby undercard. These two, Lady Aurelia and Whitmore, prove it: speed kills. By Scat Daddy, 4×3 Storm Cat: formula for killer speed. Contact Bill Oppenheim at [email protected] (cc [email protected]).