Sidelines with John Clay

Story lines for each of the 20 Kentucky Derby horses

Kentucky Derby hopeful McCraken runs on the track during the workout session at Churchill Downs on Thursday, May 4, 2017.
Kentucky Derby hopeful McCraken runs on the track during the workout session at Churchill Downs on Thursday, May 4, 2017. Lexington Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE: A field of 20 horses will go to the post on Saturday for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.

A total of 20 horses means 20 different story lines.

Here’s a look, one by one:

Always Dreaming: The lightly raced son of Bodemeister blew away the field in the Florida Derby and could be just the ticket for long-suffering Derby perennials Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez. Pletcher, the trainer, is 1 for 45 in the Derby. His lone winner was Super Saver in 2010. Velazquez, the jockey, is 1 for 18 in the Derby. Velazquez is Pletcher’s regular rider, but his Derby win came aboard Animal Kingdom in 2011 for trainer Graham Motion. Pletcher and Velazquez would love to not only win a second Kentucky Derby, but win their first together.

Todd Pletcher will tie D. Wayne Lukas for most career Derby entries. Now if he just had more wins.

Battle of Midway: Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has more than 7,000 victories but has never come close in the Kentucky Derby. The California-based Hollendorfer is 0 for 5 in the Run for the Roses, finishing no better than fifth. He’s 70 years old and running out of chances. Meanwhile, Battle of Midway’s original owner, Rick Porter, has been battling cancer for two years and sold his Santa Anita Derby runner-up to WinStar Farm and Don Alberto Stables, the Chile-based operation that bought the Vinery in Midway. WinStar won the 2010 Derby with Super Saver.

Handicapping all 20 Kentucky Derby horses

Classic Empire: You probably already know the story. The reigning juvenile champion finished a dull third in the Holy Bull this year, then refused to work at the track. Trainer Mark Casse shipped him to a farm in Ocala, Fla., where Classic Empire finally got his mind right. An Arkansas Derby win followed. Will a Kentucky Derby win follow that? If so, Casse might go from trainer to horse whisperer.

Classic Empire can be great, if he wants to run

Fast and Accurate: Trainer Mike Maker is 0 for 9 in the Kentucky Derby. He’s never hit the board and he has the longest shot (50-1 in the morning line) in the field. If the Spiral Stakes winner pulls the monumental upset, look for a light show from owner Kendall Hansen, a Northern Kentucky pain physician who once had the tail of his previous Derby horse, named Hansen, painted blue. And, oh yeah, Olympic champion skier Bode Miller is a part-owner.

Girvin: Trainer Joe Sharp is only 32 years old but he might feel like 62 after nursing the Louisiana Derby winner through a quarter crack on the way to the Kentucky Derby. Sharp moved Girvin from Churchill Downs to Keeneland, had special bar shoes made by Dr. Raul Bras of Rood and Riddle and took the colt swimming at the Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehab Center where Girvin also spent time in a hyperbaric chamber. A Girvin win is a win for science. And, oh yeah, Sharp is married to former jockey Rosie Napravnik.

Will Girvin, the points leader, make it to the Kentucky Derby?

Gormley: Owner Jerry Moss turns 82 on May 8 and is one of the coolest guys alive. Moss started A&M record with Herb Alpert. He won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo, named for Sting’s son. He owned the legendary fillie Zenyatta, named for The Police’s 1980 “Zenyatta Mondatta” album. Now he has Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley, named for the British sculptor Antony Gormley. How cool is that?

John Shirreffs relishes another chance at Derby win

Gunnevera: Trainer Antonio Sano was kidnapped not once but twice in his native Venezuela, where kidnapping is more of a business than a crime. The second kidnapping, Sano was held for 36 days and lost (a) 40 pounds and (b) his desire to stay in that country, where he won the Triple Crown three times. He ended up in America with the Fountain of Youth winner, who was foaled at Jim and Pam Robinson’s Brandywine Farm in Bourbon County only to be orphaned 10 days later when his mother, Unbridled Rage, died. Talk about a comeback story.

Kidnapping, an orphan colt and a great Kentucky Derby story

Hence: Calumet Farm has won eight Kentucky Derbys, but none since 1968. Since Brad Kelley took over in 2012, the farm has made a heavy investment in thoroughbreds, focusing on Triple Crown horses. Hence is one of three Calumet homebreds in this year’s race. Patch and Sonneteer are the other two. Hence has the best shot of winning. His win in the Sunland Derby has been enhanced what happened since. Conquest Mo Money, second in the Sunland, was second to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby. Irap, fourth in the Sunland, won the Blue Grass Stakes. Could this be Calumet’s year?

Calumet Farm is a Kentucky Derby presence again

Irap: In the past 66 years, only Penny Chenery’s Meadow Stable (Riva Ridge and Secretariat) and Bob and Beverly Lewis (Silver Charm and Charismatic) have won as many Kentucky Derbys as Paul Reddam (I’ll Have Another and Nyquist). Now Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill are back again with Irap, maiden winner of the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 8. Last year, Nyquist was the favorite. This year, Irap is a longshot. If Reddam wins again, he must know something the rest of us don’t.

Irap becomes first maiden to win the Blue Grass Stakes

Irish War Cry: The Wood Memorial winner is owned by Isabella de Tomaso, an 86-year-old former European race car driver whose late father, Amory Haskell, founded Monmouth Park in New Jersey. The Haskell Invitational is named for him, in fact. The joke goes that Irish War Cry is using the Kentucky Derby as a prep race for the Haskell. Meanwhile, jockey Rajiv Maragh was in a body cast for nine months after a 2015 spill at Belmont Park broke eight of his vertebrae. He’s lucky to be walking again, much less riding one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby.

Irish War Cry wants to win the Derby, but would love to win in New Jersey

J Boys Echo: Trainer Dale Romans had just watched his Blue Grass Stakes winner Brody’s Cause finish seventh in the Kentucky Derby when he was involved in a scary traffic accident that totaled his car and sent several passengers to the hospital. One year later, he’s back with Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo, Romans’ eighth try to get his first Kentucky Derby win in his hometown of Louisville. Yes, getting a horse to the Derby is an accomplishment, but Romans says he’s ready to win.

Scary wreck after last year’s Derby gave Dale Romans perspective

Lookin At Lee: The third-place finisher in the Arkansas Derby drew the dreaded the No. 1 post position for trainer Steve Asmussen. Ferdinand was the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby out of the one hole. That was 1986. Risen Star was the last horse to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby out of the one hole. That was 1988. It’s Lookin At Lee against history.

Kentucky Derby post position draw gives trainers case of the nerves

McCracken: In 1990, Ian Wilkes, then an assistant trainer for Carl Nafzger, watched his boss tell 91-year-old owner Frances Genter that her horse Unbridled was about to win the Kentucky Derby. it was an iconic moment. Now Wilkes could have one of his own as the trainer of McCraken, owned by 85-year-old Kansas native Janis Whitham, who won the 2012 Breeders Cup Classic with Fort Larned, but has never been to the Kentucky Derby much less won one.

McCraken needs a race more than a win in the Blue Grass

Patch: Four legs are required to win the Kentucky Derby, but you only need one eye. And Patch has that. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt lost his left eye to an infection last year. No problem. In three career starts, Patch has a win and two runner-up finishes, including a second to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby. He also has the outside post in Saturday’s 20-horse field. That and the backing of all Derby sentimentalists.

Patch is the one-eyed longshot that doesn’t need your sympathy

Practical Joke: After a successful two-year old campaign, the Chad Brown-trained entry has been always the groomsmen and never the groom at three. He was second in the Fountain of Youth and second in the Blue Grass Stakes. He won the Hopeful and the Champagne at two, so he’s capable. Getting over the hump to win the Kentucky Derby would be quite the accomplishment.

Sonneteer: The last maiden to win the Kentucky Derby was Brokers Tip in 1933. Sonneteer is the only Derby horse this year that can break that drought. The Calumet Farm homebred is 0-for-10 lifetime, including 0-for-5 this year. He ran a respectable fourth in the Arkansas Derby for trainer Keith Desormeaux, who won last year’s Preakness with Exaggerator. Stranger things have happened.

How the Kentucky Derby horses got their names

State of Honor: So often a trainer brings a favorite to the Kentucky Derby only to win with his second choice. It happened with Thunder Gulch in 1995 for D. Wayne Lukas, who also saddled favorite Serena’s Song. It happened with Real Quiet for Bob Baffert, who also saddled favorite Indian Charlie. Could happen this year for Mark Casse, who will also saddle morning-line favorite Classic Empire?

Tapwrit: You could say the same thing for trainer Todd Pletcher with his Tampa Bay Derby winner. Always Dreaming is the star of the Pletcher barn. Patch is the sentimental favorite of the Pletcher barn. If Tapwrit can find his form after a disappointing fifth place finish in the Blue Grass, he could be the winner from the Pletcher barn.

Printable: Post positions and silks of the Kentucky Derby starters

Thunder Snow: Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin has sent several horses from Dubai to the U.S. in search of a first Kentucky Derby win only to come up empty. Thunder Snow, who has won twice on dirt, could be a different story. His UAE Derby win was his third straight and he will get Lasix for the first time on Saturday. His No. 2 post position is unfavorable, but one of these years Godolphin is going to break through.

Untrapped: No trainer has entered more horses in the Kentucky Derby without a win than Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. He’s 0-for-15. He was second with Nehro in 2011, third with Curlin in 2007 and Gun Runner last year. (He did win last year’s Belmont with Creator.) Asmussen has three horses in this year’s Derby -- Hence, Lookin At Lee and Untrapped, who ran sixth last time out in the Arkansas Derby. He tried blinkers in that race. Didn’t work. It was Untrapped worst finish in six career starts. One of these years, Asmussen is going to win the Kentucky Derby. Is this the year?

Kentucky Derby 143








Lookin At Lee

L and N Racing

Steve Asmussen

Corey Lanerie



Thunder Snow


Saeed bin Suroor

Christophe Soumillon



Fast and Accurate

Kendall E. Hansen

Michael Maker

Channing Hill




Michael Langford

Steve Asmussen

Ricardo Santana Jr.



Always Dreaming

Brooklyn Boyz Stables

Todd Pletcher

John Velazquez



State of Honor

Conrad Farms

Mark Casse

Jose Lezcano




Brad Grady

Joe Sharp

Mike Smith




Calumet Farm

Steve Asmussen

Florent Geroux




Reddam Racing

Doug O’Neill

Mario Gutierrez




Peacock Stables

Antonio Sano

Javier Castellano



Battle of Midway

WinStar Farms and Don Alberto Stable

Jerry Hollendorfer

Flavien Prat




Calumet Farm

Keith Desormeaux

Kent Desormeaux



J Boys Echo

Albaugh Family Stables

Dale Romans

Luis Saez



Classic Empire

John C. Oxley

Mark Casse

Julien Leparoux




Whitham Thoroughbreds

Ian Wilkes

Brian Hernandez Jr.




Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Robert V. LaPenta

Todd Pletcher

Jose Ortiz



Irish War Cry

Isabelle de Tomaso

Graham Motion

Rajiv Maragh




Jerry and Ann Moss

John Shirreffs

Victor Espinoza



Practical Joke

Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence

Chad Brown

Joel Rosario




Calumet Farm

Todd Pletcher

Tyler Gaffalione



Royal Mo

Jerry and Ann Moss

John Shirreffs

Gary Stevens



Master Plan

Al Shaqab Racing, WinStar Farm and China Horse Club

Todd Pletcher



x-Royal Mo and Master Plan are “also eligible” horses who get into the Derby only if another horse scratches before 9 a.m. Friday. Royal Mo would get in first, then Master Plan if a second horse scratches.