Trainer John Shirreffs’ first Kentucky Derby saw his 50-1 shot, Giacomo, take the blanket of roses in 2005, the second-longest shot ever to win the first jewel of the Triple Crown.
This year, he saddles Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley, who is among six horses picked as co-fourth choice at 15-1 in what appears to be a wide-open Derby field. He’ll break from the 18th post Saturday at Churchill Downs.
“It’s just two different circumstances,” Shirreffs said Wednesday of then and now. “Giacomo is really special. It was our first trip to Churchill Downs. We were hoping we could get to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. And every race was ‘are we closer? Are we going to make it?’ Because up until the Kentucky Derby, Giacomo hadn’t won any of the preps.”
Gormley arrives with four wins in six starts, including three graded stakes, but he had some hiccups along the way, finishing seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November and fourth in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 11.
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“When he ran in the San Felipe, he was between two other horses and there was a horse right behind him, so it was like he was getting chased around the racetrack,” Shirreffs said. “He didn’t have another horse in front of him, which he could follow and not have that chase feeling. So, we knew that we had to get him back and behind a horse, so he wouldn’t be chased around the racetrack.”
Gormley likes to break fast out of the gate, but Shirreffs likes him more as a closer. Shirreffs said it took some time to find a repeatable racing style that the bay colt could count on.
In the Santa Anita Derby, jockey Victor Espinoza, a three-time Derby winner who rode American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015, kept Gormley off the pace and let the leaders stretch out all the way down the backstretch. Gormley drew them in around the turn and then unwound to win by a half-length.
Shirreffs and Gormley’s California-based owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, have seen their fair share of success with the likes of Giacomo and filly sensation Zenyatta, among others. And they might have two chances at glory Saturday if stablemate and also-eligible Royal Mo makes the field due to an early scratch. Royal Mo finished third in the Santa Anita Derby and was picked as a 20-1 shot Saturday. He will make the field if someone withdraws by 9 a.m. Friday.
“The Derby is the race that everybody hopes to get to,” Shirreffs said. “It’s what everybody dreams about. That’s why so many people are in the business, to have a Derby horse. When you say you have a Derby horse, that turns people’s heads. It’s a special race.”
West Coast bias
Gormley won the Santa Anita in the slowest time in 60 years (1:51.16), but Jerry Hollendorfer, trainer of runner-up and fellow Kentucky Derby hopeful Battle of Midway, said criticism of this year’s Southern California entries isn’t warranted.
“They can discount it all they want,” Hollendorfer said Wednesday. “The Santa Anita Derby has been a great indicator of horses that would run well in the Kentucky Derby, and that’s a proven fact. The time was not as fast as usual, but the track was off about two seconds, and I got that from Gary Stevens, who thought the track was real slow that day. We thought we ran pretty good considering all that.”
Battle of Midway will break from the No. 11 post with morning-line odds of 30-1.
Blue Grass winner pleased
Trainer Doug O’Neill didn’t have long to wait to learn the post position for Irap.
The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner was the first card out and will start from the No. 9 post Saturday as a 20-1 shot. He won the Blue Grass as a 31-1 shot.
O’Neill said because of the way the horses are loaded at Churchill, Irap will be one of the last ones in the gate.
“The starter here does a brilliant job, but still, it’s a real help to have your horse go in toward the end,” O’Neill said. “I think the 9 is a great spot for us.”
Girvin on track
Louisiana Derby winner Girvin, who has had questions about his fitness and has been training in a pool in Lexington and on the track at Keeneland, made his first steps on the Churchill dirt Wednesday morning.
Trainer Joe Sharp kept to Girvin’s regular 6 a.m. schedule instead of bringing him out during the Derby and Oaks’ runners’ window at 8:30 a.m. He had an easy gallop under former jockey and Sharp’s wife and assistant, Rosie Napravnik.
Girvin drew the No. 7 post later that morning at odds of 15-1.
“That would have been the post position I would have hand-picked if we were still doing it that way,” Sharp said. “We’re happy with it. I guess with it being a 20-horse field, it’s all the trip anyway, and he’s run well inside before. I’d rather have a little less distance to travel than some of the others.”
Patch to go the distance
On Tuesday, trainer Todd Pletcher said his one-eyed colt, Patch, is well suited to longer races as the son of Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags. The No. 20 post position gives the 30-1 shot potentially the longest run of the field.
“We’re OK with it,” Pletcher said Wednesday after the draw. “There’s nothing outside to bother him, so that’s good. He’s been a good gate horse, and I don’t see any problems. I’d rather have it than have the one.”
Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said he never considered that Patch would have the entire field to the inside of his missing left eye when he figured the odds Wednesday. When asked about it, he chuckled.
“I’m going to write that down as one of the things you have to watch for in the morning line: ‘How many eyes does the horse have?’” he said with a smile. “I’m going to remember that.”