It has been a wild Kentucky Derby prep season, but the big race is finally here.
The past few months have seen head-scratching performances from some of the top contenders in Saturday’s race and the loss of a possible Derby favorite to injury.
The result is a seemingly wide-open field, and — after everything he’s been through so far — the morning-line favorite will be Classic Empire, last year’s 2-year-old champ.
So we’ve come full circle. The Derby favorite at the beginning of the year is the Derby favorite going into Saturday.
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Classic Empire’s antics and injuries will give many bettors pause, but everyone in this field has question marks.
Co-second choice Always Dreaming — the Florida Derby winner — has only one stakes race on his résumé. The other co-second choice, McCraken, was briefly sidelined this spring — never a great sign during Derby season — and didn’t do much running in the stretch during a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry — the only other contender at shorter than 10-1 odds — was beaten more than 20 lengths in the race before the Wood.
Mastery, who won the San Felipe Stakes in dominant fashion, might’ve been the clear Derby favorite, but the Bob Baffert-trained colt suffered a condylar fracture in his left front ankle that day, knocking him off the trail.
Fast and Accurate might be the longest shot on the board when the field of 20 hits the starting gate Saturday, and his connections have publicly said they plan to take the gray colt straight to the lead.
If that happens — and depending on who decides to chase him — there could be a pace meltdown that is advantageous to those who like to come from off the lead. Or not. We never know how the race will unfold until it’s actually run, and that’s part of the fun.
With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about each of Saturday’s contenders:
1 — Lookin At Lee (20-1)
Need to know: Coming from off the pace — as he always does — Lee followed Classic Empire into the stretch in the Arkansas Derby but found no room to make a run, weaving his way down the stretch and finishing third, 1½ lengths back. His late-closing style could make the dreaded No. 1 post a little more manageable. That’s the spot his dad — 2010 favorite Lookin At Lucky — broke from before having all kinds of early trouble, finishing sixth.
A good bet? No Derby contender has finished in the money from the inside-most post since 1988. If Lee can lay back at the start and avoid trouble — a big if — he has the late kick to be running at the end.
2 — Thunder Snow (20-1)
Need to know: He ran down Japanese-bred Epicharis with a gritty performance in the stretch to win the UAE Derby, a race that often provides a “buzz horse” at Churchill but has never produced one that has finished better than fifth on Derby Day. Thunder Snow, bred in Ireland, likes to be close to the leaders, and he’ll look to become the first European-bred to win the Derby since Tomy Lee in 1959.
A good bet? The recent history of international runners in this race says no, but this Derby looks open, and Thunder Snow has grit. Don’t leave him out of the exotics.
3 — Fast and Accurate (50-1)
Need to know: His owner — eccentric Dr. Kendall Hansen — recently told Blood-Horse, “If I was strictly handicapping this and wasn’t participating, I’d be crossing my horse out.” Fast and Accurate’s speed figures are dismal compared to the rest of the field, and his only start on dirt was the worst, by far, of his career. He won the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, at 24-1 odds on an artificial surface, to make the Derby.
A good bet? No. He might try to steal this race on the lead, but there’s nothing to indicate that he’ll be around at the end. Should probably be the highest price on the board at post time.
4 —Untrapped (30-1)
Need to know: He was sixth in the Arkansas Derby, third in the Rebel Stakes and second in the Risen Star, and he hasn’t won since breaking his maiden (in his only race at Churchill Downs) last November. His speed figures have decreased from race to race this year, and he doesn’t seem to want to run this far. Ricardo Santana Jr., the jockey for Untrapped’s only career victory, is back on board Saturday.
A good bet? Untrapped will be one of the longest shots on the board, for good reason. He had nothing in the tank at the end of the Arkansas and probably won’t be around for the end of this one.
5 — Always Dreaming (5-1)
Need to know: Always Dreaming is 3 for 3 since moving to trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn late last year, winning all three of his races in Florida this year by comfortable margins. He tracked the leader in the Florida Derby, his first stakes race, before romping to victory in one of the most impressive stretch runs of the prep season. He has benefited from a soft pace and clean trips. Both will be hard to find Saturday.
A good bet? His Florida Derby was as good as anything this spring, but is he ready to take the next step in a much tougher spot? Will he chase the pace and burn out early? Too many questions at this short a price.
6 — State of Honor (30-1)
Need to know: He was a well-beaten second place to Always Dreaming in the Florida Derby and to Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby, and he finished behind McCraken and Tapwrit in the Sam F. Davis. He’s hit the board in his last six starts but has won only one of 10 career races. He’s among the likely candidates to be on or near the lead early. José Lezcano rides him for the first time.
A good bet? This colt always tries hard at the end, but he hasn’t had much left as the distances have increased during prep season. The mile and a quarter is probably too much.
7 — Girvin (15-1)
Need to know: Girvin has starred at Fair Grounds — home of all four of his career starts — winning the Louisiana Derby and the Risen Star Stakes in his last two out. He likes to lay off the lead and make his run from the middle of the pack. He has had foot problems that threatened to knock him out of the race, but he’s in Louisville and apparently ready. Derby winner Mike Smith rides for the first time after regular jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. decided to stick with McCraken.
A good bet? There have been a lot of questions surrounding him in recent days, and he didn’t scream “Kentucky Derby winner” before those came up. There will be better options elsewhere (at longer prices).
8 — Hence (15-1)
Need to know: He was impressive in winning the Sunland Derby over a group of horses who went on to run big races their next time out (including Irap, who was fourth at Sunland before winning the Blue Grass Stakes). His last-race Bris speed figure is the highest in this bunch. He also broke his maiden with a wild stretch run over a sloppy track. Hence was beaten 13 lengths (and finished seventh) in the Southwest Stakes before shipping to Sunland.
A good bet? He seems to be improving from race to race, he has a versatile running style and — on paper — he’s as fast as anything here. At anything close to 15-1, he’s a great value.
9 — Irap (20-1)
Need to know: This guy was 0 for 7 before he came to Lexington and won the Blue Grass Stakes — what was supposed to be the deepest Derby prep of the season — at 31-1 odds, becoming the first maiden to take Keeneland’s signature 3-year-old race. Irap likes to be close to the lead early and is trained by Doug O’Neill, who won the Derby in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and last year with Nyquist.
A good bet? Irap showed grit to hold on in the Blue Grass and might be finding himself at the right time, but with so many other options here, you have to bet against lightning striking twice.
10 — Gunnevera (15-1)
Need to know: After his come-from-behind romp in the Fountain of Youth Stakes two months ago, Gunnevera looked the part of a possible Derby favorite. He was again at the back of the pack — that’s his running style — in the Florida Derby and just couldn’t catch up to the soft pace — and Always Dreaming — in that one. Still, he was running at the end and managed a third-place finish. Javier Castellano — maybe the best jockey in America these days — looks for his first Derby win.
A good bet? If the pace melts down, he has a great shot to win. If it doesn’t, he should be running at the end. Don’t forget about him Saturday.
11 — Battle of Midway (30-1)
Need to know: He battled on the lead at a fast pace in the Santa Anita Derby, then battled some more to grab second place — a half-length behind Gormley — in a cluster of a finish. He had success settling a little off the pace in a victory the race before, and that’ll probably be the plan Saturday. He never raced as a 2-year-old. Apollo, in 1882, is the last Derby winner with that distinction. Career-best Beyer speed figure of 88 is second-lowest in the field.
A good bet? Being on the lead in the Santa Anita was a surprise, but the fight he showed in the stretch was encouraging. He could sweeten a trifecta if he finds his rhythm.
12 — Sonneteer (50-1)
Need to know: He has never won a race. Sonneteer has run 10 times in his career and five times in 2017 — both are tops in this field — and he has never been in the winner’s circle. The last maiden to win the Derby was Brokers Tip, in 1933. Sonneteer has shown talent in the stretch, however, closing for a fourth-place finish — just two lengths behind Classic Empire — in the Arkansas Derby and a second-place finish in the Rebel Stakes.
A good bet? Call me crazy, but I like him. Not to win the whole thing, but an in-the-money finish wouldn’t be a surprise. He should be running at the end under jockey Kent Desormeaux.
13 — J Boys Echo (20-1)
Need to know: He won the Gotham Stakes impressively — with the best Bris speed figure this year among the horses in this field — then finished fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes after a bit of a rough trip. He’s likely to lay a few lengths off the lead for trainer Dale Romans, who’s searching for his first Derby win. Luis Saez rides for the first time after regular jockey Robby Albarado was injured at Keeneland a couple weeks ago.
A good bet? If he returns to his Gotham form, he’ll have a real chance at a great price. Don’t think that’ll happen. There’s some buzz behind this guy, but others look more intriguing.
14 — Classic Empire (4-1)
Need to know: Ah, where to begin? He won his first two starts — both at Churchill Downs, one in the slop — then wheeled out of the gate and threw his rider next time out at Saratoga. Since then, he has won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and laid a dud in his first start of 2017. A foot abscess was discovered after that race. He refused to train a few weeks later, showing discomfort in his back. A couple weeks after that, he refused to train again. Finally straightening up after a trip to Florida, he resumed training and won the Arkansas Derby three weeks ago.
A good bet? When he’s of sound mind and body, he’s the best in this bunch. He could win by five lengths Saturday or just stop running, and neither would be much of a surprise. If you think he’s right, the price is likely to be longer than it should.
15 — McCraken (5-1)
Need to know: Another talented colt whose Derby schedule hit a snag. McCraken, who won his first three starts at Churchill Downs, began his 3-year-old season with a victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, emerging then as the possible Derby favorite. A minor ankle injury stalled his momentum, and he had to wait two months until his next start, an uninspiring third in the Blue Grass Stakes. Trainer Ian Wilkes, an assistant trainer when Street Sense won the Derby 10 years ago, says McCraken needed a race more than a victory that day.
A good bet? He loves Churchill, and that has been apparent over the past few weeks. Wilkes remains confident, and McCraken has the talent to wear the roses. Won’t be a surprise if he’s wearing them Saturday.
16 — Tapwrit (20-1)
Need to know: He was a game second to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis, then — with McCraken sidelined — won the Tampa Bay Derby with a dominant performance. Next time out, he was beaten 11 lengths and finished fifth as a complete non-factor in the Blue Grass Stakes. He’ll probably be coming from a little off the pace and has drawn rave reviews at Churchill Downs in recent days.
A good bet? His curious clunker in the Blue Grass — with no real excuse — makes him hard to trust. Looking elsewhere to fill out the trifecta ticket.
17 — Irish War Cry (6-1)
Need to know: In a prep season filled with uneven performances, Irish War Cry takes the cake. He beat Gunnevera and Classic Empire in the Holy Bull Stakes in February, then finished seventh — 21 lengths behind Gunnevera — in the Fountain of Youth a month later. He went home to Maryland after that, then came back to romp in the Wood Memorial with a 101 Beyer. He’s likely to be close to the pace, and he’s the only one here with more than one triple-digit Bris speed figure (he’s done that in three races).
A good bet? If he can lay a little off the pace and has room to make his big move coming into the stretch, he has a chance. Tough to leave him out of the exotics.
18 — Gormley (15-1)
Need to know: Gormley, who was beaten nearly 10 lengths by Mastery in his previous race, took advantage of a pace meltdown to win the Santa Anita Derby and goes into Saturday with relatively little buzz. Trainer John Shirreffs won this race 12 years ago with long-shot Giacomo, and jockey Victor Espinoza has won the Derby three times.
A good bet? Shirreffs can’t be taken lightly, but Gormley just doesn’t seem to be at the level of some of the others here.
19 — Practical Joke (20-1)
Need to know: Practical Joke won two Grade 1 races as a 2-year-old before finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, nearly eight lengths behind Derby favorite Classic Empire. He hasn’t won in two races this year — second-place finishes in the Fountain of Youth and Blue Grass Stakes — but he’s has never finished out of the money. He shows grit in the stretch, but it doesn’t seem like he wants to go this far.
A good bet? He’s a classy colt with lots of fight, but the distance question is a big one. Too big of a question to play him here.
20 — Patch (30-1)
Need to know: The one-eyed wonder comes to Louisville off a solid second-place performance in the Louisiana Derby, but he’ll have to buck history to win this one. Like Battle of Midway, Patch was unraced at 2 and will be fighting Apollo’s curse on Saturday. His three career races are the fewest in this field, and only Big Brown (2008) and Regret (1915) have won the Derby since 1900 with so few previous starts. Tyler Gaffalione will ride in his first Derby.
A good bet? It’s impossible to root against a one-eyed horse, but that doesn’t mean you have to bet him. Don’t think he’s ready for this.