Truth be told, the run up to this year's Run for the Roses has been a muddled mess.
Inconsistent performances have been an epidemic. Win a nice prep race, run a dreadful one in the next. One highly touted colt refused to train, twice! And then there are injuries that knocked out Not This Time, One Liner, and Mastery. The top rated 3-year old, Mastery uncorked a scintillating prep race in the San Felipe Stakes in March only to be pulled up moments later with a condylar fracture of his left front leg.
In recent years, the Kentucky Derby has been a race largely dominated by horses favored to win, or in racetrack vernacular, “chalk.” The last four years we've seen Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah and Nyquist all shine on the first Saturday in May-- each a race day heavy favorite. Many pundits think it's a wide open contest. I'm not one of them. I think Derby 143 comes down to four classy, fast colts who have the ability to open up daylight off the far turn in the biggest race of their young careers on May 6.
With a dazzling stakes debut in the Florida Derby in late March, trainer Todd Pletcher's Always Dreaming is getting a lot of attention. The bay colt's winning time of 1:47.47 was the fastest Florida Derby since Alydar’s 1:47 flat in 1978. Though he won the Florida Derby by a decisive five lengths, he did not notch a triple-digit Beyer Figure, earning a 97. Over the past 25 years, no prep race has produced more Kentucky Derby winners than the Florida Derby, including Nyquist in 2016.
Winless in two starts as a 2-year old, Always Dreaming was a $350,000 yearling purchase at the Keeneland September 2015 Sale. One of the colt's six partnership owners is Vincent Viola, who owns the NHL's Florida Panthers. Ridden by Hall of Famer John Valazquez, Always Dreaming is the only Derby contender to capture two 1 1/8-mile races.
The colt has pushbutton acceleration, beautiful action in his stride, and seems to be peaking at exactly the right time. His sire is Bodemeister who won the 2012 Arkansas Derby and finished runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. The lightly raced colt is still learning the racing game. Always Dreaming's pedigree suggests that the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Derby should not be a problem and his stalking-the-pace running style and late speed should serve him well at Churchill Downs.
Trainer Mark Casse has had a rough go of it on the Derby Trail with two-year old champion Classic Empire. So far this year the quirky colt has suffered a hoof abscess and a minor back problem. He has also behaved badly. As the favorite he wheeled at the start of the 2016 Hopeful Stakes and pitched his jockey, and last winter twice refused to run in morning workouts. He also threw a tantrum behind the starting gate in the Holly Bull Stakes, though it could have been because of his injured foot.
Casse shipped the colt from the hectic scene at Palm Meadows training center to the peaceful settings of his Winding Oaks Training Center in Ocala where the colt thrived, delivering four strong workouts in a row. Getting his mind and body right, Classic Empire appeared to be a much happier horse headed into the Arkansas Derby on April 15. Purchased for $475,000 as a yearling, Classic Empire would be the richest horse to start in the Kentucky Derby with $2,120,220 in earnings.
The son of Pioneer of the Nile turned things around in a big way, rallying four-wide powerfully in the stretch to win the $1 million Arkansas Derby to score a hard earned half-length victory by a half-length, earning a 94 Beyer Speed Figure. After that hard fought victory the colt will have a short three-week turnaround to Derby Day. Making just his second start in 23 weeks, does Classic Empire have enough of a foundation for that grueling 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs?
If you toss out his Fountain of Youth debacle, Irish War Cry is as good a Kentucky Derby contender as anyone. The New Jersey-bred won his first three races, including an impressive score in the Holly Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Then came the Fountain of Youth where he finished a distant seventh.
After the Fountain of Youth, the colt was shipped to the bucolic setting at the Fair Hill Training Center (Md.), trainer Graham Motion's home base. Motion also made an equipment change by adding a figure-eight noseband for more control in the Wood Memorial in New York. Good calls.
With new jockey Rajiv Maragh in the irons, Irish War Cry was visually impressive drawing off to win the Wood by 3 1/2-lengths striding out beautifully at the wire. A homebred racing in the gold and maroon stripes of Isabelle de Tomaso, the colt recorded a big 101 Beyer Speed Figure. He is the only Kentucky Derby contender to have received two triple-digit Beyers this year.
It was an especially meaningful Grade-1 victory for Maragh who returned to racing only last fall after spending 16 months on the sidelines from a terrifying spill at Belmont Park in July 2015. The jockey suffered several broken vertebrae, a broken rib, and a punctured lung after his mount fell and landed squarely on the jockey.
Horsepower has played an important part in the life of owner de Tomaso, age 86. As a child de Tomaso would ride horses at the family’s farm in Middletown, N.J. She is a daughter of Amory L. Haskell, the longtime chairman of Monmouth Park in New Jersey and the namesake for the track’s premier $1 million race. In the 1950s de Tomaso helped pioneer the role of female drivers racing in British MGs and Maseratis against some of the best in races like Lemans and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Irish War Cry has a high cruising speed where he relaxes easily, racing in a comfortable rhythm before accelerating down the stretch with a tremendous stride. He also has a striking presence about him, another colt with star potential. A son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, his pedigree suggests he should handle the 1 1/4-mile distance in the Derby. Irish War Cry will carry the Garden State’s hopes for a third Kentucky Derby trophy. The legendary filly Regret triumphed in 1915, while Cavalcade won in 1934.
Finishing third in the Florida Derby has a lot of bettors jumping off Gunnevera's band wagon. Not so fast. The chestnut colt is still a three-time graded stakes winner and a millionaire in his young career. The extra distance and very long stretch at Churchill will certainly work in Gunnevera's favor. Standing tall at 17 hands, the colt has a long, efficient stride that delivers a potent kick, so he should be flying late for his Venezuelan connections.
Gunnevera boasts a prime pedigree with A. P. Indy on the sire side and Unbridled on the female line. Trainer Antonio Sano, who has more than 3,000 wins, purchased the colt for a scant $16,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September sale for his client Peacock Racing Stables, comprised of Venezuelans Solomon Del-Valle and Guillermo Guerra and Spaniard Jaime Diaz. The colt is ridden by another Venezuelan, Javier Castellano, who is heading to the Racing Hall of Fame this summer in Saratoga.
This year's Derby field has enough speed to set up deep closer Gunnevera who has scored stakes victories at three different tracks. A big and robust colt, he must navigate his way through a large scrum of horses, not easy when you're in a 20-horse field. If Castellano keeps him out of trouble and Gunnevera gets clear in the stretch to make his run, watch out. He just keeps coming and coming.