John Clay

Everybody loves a comeback, but who's the Kentucky Derby favorite?

Just when you think you might have this Kentucky Derby figured out, crazy stuff happens.

Like a maiden winning the Blue Grass Stakes for the first time in the history of the race. Like a colt that finished seventh in his last race suddenly finding his former form and winning the Wood Memorial. Like another comeback story in the Santa Anita Derby.

So who will be the favorite for the 143rd Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs?

That answer will have to wait a week. That’s when the Arkansas Derby is run at Oaklawn. That final Kentucky Derby prep features former two-year-old champ Classic Empire, so brilliant last year, so puzzling this year, who will attempt to write a comeback story of his own.

Saturday was a day of comebacks starting with Irish War Cry’s victory in the Wood Memorial. Trained by Graham Motion, Irish War Cry won the Holy Bull on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream only to follow with a dud of a seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth on March 4 at Gulfstream.

Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, returned Irish War Cry to his home base at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. Instead of returning south for last week’s Florida Derby, Motion shipped Irish War Cry to Aqueduct in New York for the Grade II Wood.

It was the right move. Irish War Cry rated well, then made his move to win by 3  1/2 lengths over favorite Battalion Runner. Motion will try to keep the momentum going in Louisville.

Approximately a half hour later at Keeneland, overlooked Irap upset the apple cart by taking the Grade II Toyota Blue Grass Stakes as a 31-1 shot before an announced crowd of 32,610. It was the first win in eight starts for the son of Tiznow, though Irap had run second in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita and the Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park earlier this year.

Was Saturday a fluke? Perhaps. Here’s the thing: Irap’s connections are familiar with the Derby day winner’s circle. He’s trained by Doug O’Neill and owned by Reddam Racing, which produced 2012 Derby winner I’ll Have Another and 2016 champ Nyquist.

“As a two-year-old last year he showed talent,” Jack Sisterson, who saddled the horse for O’Neill, said Saturday after Irap’s win. “We didn’t want to give up on him too quick.”

McCraken, the 3-2 favorite, finished third behind Practical Joke. It was his first loss in five starts. It was not a setback, however, considering McCraken had not raced since winning the Sam F. Davis on Feb. 11. He needed the work.

The day’s final comeback belonged to Gormley, who made a strong move in the stretch to overtake Battle of Midway and win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in California.

Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss and trained by John Shirreffs, the same people who brought you 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and the legendary filly Zenyatta, Gormley won the Sham Stakes on Jan. 7 only to run a dull fourth as the 2-1 second choice in the San Felipe.

Still, there are serious questions about the California crop. San Felipe winner Mastery is out with an injury. And Gormley ran seventh in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which was won by Classic Empire.

Since then, Classic Empire has faced nothing but questions. His 2017 debut produced a third-place finish in the Holy Bull. Then on March 19 he refused to break during a workout at Palm Meadows. Owner John Oxley and trainer Mark Casse moved him to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, where he reportedly has turned in a couple of terrific works. Next Saturday at Oaklawn, he’ll try to join the comeback club.

That’s not to forget Always Dreaming, so impressive in winning the Florida Derby last Saturday. Nor should we discount Louisiana Derby winner Girvin, who has three wins in four career starts.

And yet, after the events of this Saturday and the prospect of next Saturday, this Kentucky Derby has suddenly taken on a wide-open look.

Road to the Kentucky Derby

Date

Race

Track

Points

Winner

9/17/16

Iroquois

Churchill Downs

10

Not This Time

10/1/16

FrontRunner

Belmont Park

10

Gormley

10/8/16

Champagne

Belmont Park

10

Practical Joke

10/8/16

Breeders' Futurity

Keeneland

10

Classic Empire

11/5/16

Breeders' Cup Juvenile

Santa Anita Park

20

Classic Empire

11/19/16

Delta Downs Jackpot

Delta Downs

10

Gunnevera

11/26/16

Remsen

Aqueduct

10

Mo Town

11/26/16

Kentucky Jockey Club

Churchill Downs

10

McCraken

11/26/16

Cattleya Sho*

Tokyo Racecourse

40

Mont Saint Legame

12/10/16

Los Alamitos Futurity

Los Alamitos

10

Mastery

1/2/17

Jerome

Aqueduct

10

El Areeb

1/7/17

Sham

Santa Anita Park

10

Gormley

1/16/17

Smarty Jones

Oaklawn Park

10

Uncontested

1/21/17

Lecomte

Fair Grounds

10

Guest Suite

2/4/17

Withers

Aqueduct

10

El Areeb

2/4/17

Holy Bull

Gulfstream Park

10

Irish War Cry

2/4/17

Robert B. Lewis

Santa Anita Park

10

Royal Mo

2/11/17

Sam F. Davis

Tampa Bay Downs

10

McCraken

2/18/17

El Camino Real Derby

Golden Gate Fields

10

Zakaroff

2/19/17

Hyacinth*

Tokyo Racecourse

50

Epicharis

2/20/17

Southwest

Oaklawn Park

10

One Liner

2/25/17

Risen Star

Fair Grounds

50

Girvin

3/4/17

Fountain of Youth

Gulfstream Park

50

Gunnevera

3/4/17

Gotham

Aqueduct

50

J Boys Echo

3/11/17

Tampa Bay Derby

Tampa Bay Downs

50

Tapwrit

3/11/17

San Felipe

Santa Anita Park

50

Mastery

3/18/17

Rebel

Oaklawn Park

50

Malagacy

3/25/17

UAE Derby

Meydan Racecourse

100

Thunder Snow

3/25/17

Spiral

Turfway Park

50

Fast and Accurate

3/25/17

Sunland Derby

Sunland Park

50

Hence

4/1/17

Florida Derby

Gulfstream Park

100

Always Dreaming

4/1/17

Louisiana Derby

Fair Grounds

100

Girvin

4/8/17

Wood Memorial

Aqueduct

100

Irish War Cry

4/8/17

Blue Grass

Keeneland

100

Irap

4/8/17

Santa Anita Derby

Santa Anita Park

100

Gormley

4/15/17

Arkansas Derby

Oaklawn Park

100

 

4/15/17

Lexington

Keeneland

10

 

Kentucky Derby leaderboard

Race limited to 20 horses

Rank

Horse

Points

1

Girvin

150

2

Gormley

125

3

Irap

113

4

Irish War Cry

110

5

Thunder Snow

100

6

Always Dreaming

100

7

Gunnevera

84

8

Practical Joke

74

9

J Boys Echo

63

10

State of Honor

62

11

Tapwrit

54

12

Malagacy

50

13

Hence

50

14

Fast and Accurate

50

15

McCraken

40

16

Battle of Midway

40

17

Patch

40

18

Battalion Runner

40

19

Cloud Computing

40

20

Untrapped

34

21

Classic Empire

32

22

Royal Mo

30

23

Local Hero

30

24

Iliad

20

25

Master Plan

20

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