It’s been described as a “wide-open” Kentucky Derby with many trainers feeling like they have a legitimate shot to join their colt in the winner’s circle on Saturday.
“When you look at it just on numbers, it’s very evenly matched,” said racing analyst Mike Battaglia after announcing his morning-line odds for Churchill Downs on Wednesday. “There’s no … freakish 2-year-olds that have continued on as a 3-year-old.”
In fact, every Derby horse seems to have a chink in the armor. But there’s a lot to like about the contenders, especially the favorite, Classic Empire.
Five things to consider Saturday:
Too much adversity?
Classic Empire, trained by Mark Casse, was the 4-1 morning-line favorite. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion and 2-year-old horse of the year would be considered a lock had it not been for his 70-day training layoff during the heart of the prep season. A hoof abscess and some back problems that remained undetected until he refused to work earlier this year threatened to derail his career.
Then came a remarkable Arkansas Derby.
“That Arkansas Derby race, that was a great comeback race,” Battaglia said. “He didn’t have to win that race. He’d missed five weeks of training, he broke bad, he got stuck in between horses and still got up to win.
“There’s no way that horse was 100 percent and he got up to win that race. That was huge. And he’s looking great on the track (this week).”
Not enough adversity?
If adversity has caused some critics to second-guess the other favorites, a lack of adversity has become the knock on co-second choice Always Dreaming.
One of Todd Pletcher’s three entrants Saturday, he turned in an impressive Florida Derby win, beating a field that included fellow contenders State of Honor and Gunnevera. But that was his only stakes race and he had an untroubled trip.
The lack of action might have left the dark bay colt a little too wound up as Pletcher put draw reins on him to start the week to keep him at a steady pace in his gallops. Pletcher dismissed that concern Thursday.
“The draw reins have taken care of him doing too much on a daily basis,” said Pletcher, who has had more Derby entrants than any trainer and one win. “The question is how is he going to settle in the race. I don’t think we’ll really know that until he gets into the flow of the race. I don’t think he totally needs to settle in order to be effective. He’s going to have a pace presence if he’ll cooperate with (jockey) Johnny (Velazquez) and ration it out gradually.
“He gives me the impression he’s sitting on a big race.”
Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap led a pack of six horses at 20-1 morning-line odds, and he beat three of them and McCraken at Keeneland last month.
Irap trainer Doug O’Neill experimented with blinkers on the bay colt by Tiznow in the run-up to the Sunland Derby on March 26. The experiment was short-lived after a fourth-place finish.
Jockey Mario Gutierriez said Irap bobbled when a horse came up on the outside. “He kind of overreacted and backpedaled out of it, and it was hard to get his momentum back going,” O’Neill said this week. “Mario suggested, ‘You’ve got to get the blinkers off of him.’”
So, with blinkers off and Julien Leparoux up, Irap stunned a loaded Blue Grass field that also included J Boys Echo, Practical Joke and Tapwrit.
“We were all so disappointed (after the Sunland),” O’Neill said. “But he had so much energy after the race … (Owner) Paul (Reddam) said, ‘What about pulling the blinkers off and coming back in 13 days?’ So, we said, ‘Let’s just try it.’ But to actually do it? To do what he did? It just shows you how impressive of a horse he is.”
▪ Another contender whose vision could be a factor is Patch, who lost his left eye to an ulcer, and will race from the outside-most post position. A sentimental betting public had moved his odds from 30-1 to 15-1 by Friday afternoon.
Dale Romans, who grew up at Churchill Downs as the son of a trainer, has J Boys Echo in the lucky No. 13 post, and he’s thrown out the disappointing fourth-place finish at the Blue Grass. Romans said his Albaugh Family Stables colt is peaking this week.
“I know he’s a blue-collar horse,” Romans said Thursday. “He shows up to work every day and does his job. So, he’ll be out there running.”
Romans could have had two horses running, but Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Not This Time had to be retired due to injury, ramping up the expectations and emphasis on J Boys Echo. When he won the Gotham Stakes March 4, those efforts paid off.
“We knew J Boy was talented, he just hadn’t put it together yet,” said Jason Loutsch, the Albaugh general manager who is the “J” in J Boy. “We really needed to see something in the Gotham to show that he belonged in this kind of league. I thought he ran a tremendous race and gave us a lot of confidence that he could compete at this level.”
A damp Thursday gave way to a soaking Friday, and a sloppy track for Kentucky Oaks Day.
According to Accuweather, the rain was to break Friday night, but return sporadically on Saturday with precipitation estimates below 50 percent most of the day and about 33 percent near post time.
Half the Derby field has never faced a wet track. Among those who have are favorite Classic Empire who won his debut on a sloppy Churchill track a year ago. Tapwrit, Gormley, Hence and Battle of Midway have also all won on wet tracks.
While Girvin might not be the best choice in the mud coming off a quarter crack injury, he could be a swimmers choice if the rain gets serious. He spent the last several weeks training in an equine pool in Lexington. Those racing goggles could certainly be repurposed.
6:46 p.m. Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville (NBC-18)
Odds for the Kentucky Derby through 1 p.m. Friday:
Lookin At Lee
State of Honor
Battle of Midway
J Boys Echo
Irish War Cry