Kentucky Derby Day is Saturday May 6th and it’s the one day of the year everybody wants to be a horseplayer. There is more written about each of the 20 horses that will load in the starting gate at Churchill Downs than any other race during the year , which makes it easier to learn about the contenders and make prudent wagers from that knowledge.
Virginia residents can bet the Derby via one of four on line betting partner companies — TVG.com, XPressBet.com, TwinSpires.com and NYRABets.com. Most offer a matching bonus offer this time of year so if you don’t have an account, now’s the time to open one and reap the free benefits. The most exciting spots to enjoy Derby Day in Virginia are at the two new Off Track Betting Centers in Richmond — at Ponies & Pints downtown, and at Breakers Sports Grille in the west end. Both will have parties that feature mint juleps, fancy hat contests and of course, Derby betting! Post time for the Derby is 6:34 PM on Saturday May 6th.
Here’s a preview of Steve Haskin’s top 12 Derby contenders courtesy of bloodhorse.com.
Always Dreaming Todd Pletcher
Bodemeister—Above Perfection, by In Excess
I’m not interested in bouncing, Pletcher’s Derby record, a speed-favoring track in the Florida Derby, and his slow allowance race. All I see is a fast horse when he needs to be with pushbutton acceleration, beautiful action, class, an overall presence, and consistently impressive works and super gallop-outs. He also is the only horse with two victories at 1 1/8 miles. In other words, all I see is a horse with unlimited potential. We all know the Kentucky Derby can jolt you back to reality in a hurry and you don’t see the same horse after the race that you saw before the race. But sometimes you just have to go by your gut feelings and initial impressions, and there is nothing about this colt I don’t like or even question. No, he hasn’t faced adversity, but they said the same thing about American Pharoah. As for his allowance win, it’s easy for a fast horse to run fast, but it takes a special horse to be able to turn off that speed at will when he doesn’t need to use it and will run fast only when you ask him to. That’s called versatility. And as for the speed-biased track in the Florida Derby, based on the first race when they obviously watered the heck out of the track, let’s remember closers won the Gulfstream Oaks and Sir Shackleton Stakes and the times of 1:42 4/5 and 1:22 4/5 were OK, but nowhere near as eye-popping as that ridiculous first race and not in the same stratosphere as his 1:47 2/5 in the Florida Derby. I just think this horse can do whatever he needs to do and whatever is asked of him, and if Pletcher and Johnny V are ever going win a Derby together, this certainly looks like the horse that can do it for them. He has had no setbacks and is a horse who you can say has superstar potential.
Irish War Cry Graham Motion
Curlin—Irish Sovereign, by Polish Numbers
I paid him a visit at Fair Hill on April 22 and he looks fantastic. He seems to have really settled nicely into his old home, where it’s much quieter than Palm Meadows. He is scheduled to work April 29, as Motion always give his horses 3 weeks after a race, as he did with Animal Kingdom. He ships to Kentucky May 1. The key with him is getting him to relax early, especially with Kentucky Derby cavalry charge into the first turn. Once he settles into stride down the backstretch, he has the ability to relax on the front end or stalk the pacesetters. He’s always been a bit precocious and we have seen his good side and bad side, but it’s obvious the good far outweighs the bad, as the Wood Memorial made everyone forget about the Fountain of Youth debacle, for which there is still no explanation. Like Always Dreaming, he has a tremendous presence about him, and he will go into the Derby with the fastest Thoro-Graph figure, which he earned in the Wood, and because of his big number in the Holy Bull and pair of strong figures at 2, he could certainly win the Derby even if he “bounces” several points off the Wood. He does have pretty much the same running style as Always Dreaming, so there could be some cat-and-mouse between Velazquez and Maragh. He is another with star potential.
Gunnevera Antonio Sano
Dialed In—Unbridled Rage, by Unbridled
It was time to get more serious in the morning and he responded with a solid 5-furlong work in 1:01 over the slower Gulfstream Park West surface, coming home his last quarter in :24 2/5. Working in blinkers, he was all business, and as usual had his ears pinned down the stretch to the wire, ah he does in his races. Sano said, never in his life has he had a horse work like this, adding that after a race or work he is never breathing hard and rarely has his head in the water bucket. He is the only 3-year-old who has a Thoro-Graph figure anywhere near Irish War Cry, and in fact it is only a quarter of a point slower, so he has already had his “bounce” in the Florida Derby, yet still managed to come home his final five-eighths in a sensational :58 4/5 and three-eighths in under :36. With Always Dreaming throwing in all four quarter-mile splits in :23 and change and closing in :12 2/5, Gunnevera had absolutely no chance to win or even get close to him after trailing by 15 lengths early. With Javier Castellano deciding to stick with him, he will again have the services of the Hall of Fame rider. If this year’s Derby were a feast, he would be considered the comfort food. You just feel good watching him run, no matter the surface or the distance. Because of his dependability, I just trust this horse.
Classic Empire Mark Casse
There is always some concern when a horse comes off a layoff and wins a grade I stakes in a hard-fought effort and then has to come back in 3 weeks to run in the Kentucky Derby. But judging from all his speed figures he has a left a lot in the tank and put himself in position to actually improve off this race. Remember, 3 weeks used to be considered a long time between a final Derby prep and the big race; back when the Blue Grass was run 9 days before the Derby and the other major final preps were two weeks out, and it is important to note that the Casse barn is known for running their horses more often than most of the major stables, and 3 weeks is nothing unusual for them. He did switch to he left lead several yards from the wire in the Arkansas Derby, but he didn’t do that in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile or Breeders’ Futurity, so it doesn’t seem like anything of importance. He had every right to get a little tired toward the end of the race, coming off a layoff and some missed training and having to run down a good horse. If he does move forward off the Arkansas Derby, he is the classiest horse in the race, having maintained top form since last July when he won his first graded stakes. People don’t realize what a mess he was coming off the van the day of the Holy Bull and in his stall before the race, and with the foot abscess thrown into the picture, he actually did well to finish third when many horses would have folded their tent. Let’s also not forget the natural speed he has. He did break his maiden going 4 1/2 furlongs and then thrown into the Bashford Manor Stakes, he came home in :23 flat, making up 4 lengths in the final furlong, covering the 6 furlongs in a blazing 1:09 1/5…both these races at Churchill Downs.
McCraken Ian Wilkes
Ghostzapper—Ivory Empress, by by Seeking the Gold
He looked happy to be back home on his favorite track, as he was very impressive working 5 furlongs in 1:00 3/5, with a final quarter in :24 1/5, galloping out a strong 6 furlongs in 1:13, pulling up 7 panels in 1:26. As in his :47 4/5 work last week he had jockey Brian Hernandaez pulling back on the reins trying to slow him down galloping out past the five-eighths pole. This horse would go around again of you let him. I loved that he was so far behind his workmate and had to make up some 7 lengths, which should help get him back to his usual style of running after the Blue Grass debacle. I am a firm believer that a horse’s performance at Keeneland often has nothing to do with how he runs at Churchill Downs, as I have seen too many horses run a terrible race at Keeneland and come back with huge performance at Churchill and vice versa. The fact that major stakes winners McCraken, J Boys Echo, and Tapwrit all showed nothing in the stretch in the Blue Grass and waltzed home as if on an assembly line, leads me to believe that none of them relished the track. If you feel he’s going to bounce back big-time he should be an enticing overlay considering he was atop the NTRA poll for most of the year. His Blue Grass also can be excused considering he missed the Tampa Bay Derby with a minor setback and went into the race off a 2-month layoff. On top of that he did not have a good trip and was way too close to the pace for his liking, yet still was able to show a good turn off foot, even if he was unable to sustain it.
J Boys Echo Dale Romans
Mineshaft—Letgomyecho, by Menifee
I have been waiting for my gut feeling about this horse to dissipate, but it refuses to go away. I cannot make a logical excuse for his uninspiring effort in the Blue Grass Stakes other than to say I have seen way too many horses run poorly at Keeneland only to come back with a big effort at Churchill Downs. Last week I stated all the reasons why I am throwing this race out, and in a crazy year like this, we need to always have a potential overlay in the back of our minds that people are simply going to forget about, and at around 15-1 I can certainly see him as that overlay, especially trained by the always dangerous Dale Romans, who has picked up pieces of the Kentucky Derby pot with several horses who either seemed distance challenged or were grass and/or synthetic horses. Unfortunately, he loses his jockey Robby Albarado to injury, which is never something you want to happen, especially at this late date. And I do have to add that I would like to see a stronger, smoother finish in his next work than he showed in his most recent 5-furlong drill in 1:02 1/5, in which he came home in :13, switching to his left lead and back to his right lead in the final sixteenth. But I do like the way he was striding out on the turn. If you believe in history repeating itself, the last time Albarado lost a Derby mount due to injury, his horse, Animal Kingdom, captured the roses. I also look back to 1957 when Calumet lost its big star Gen. Duke only to win the Derby with Iron Leige, who upset Gallant Man, Round Table, and Bold Ruler. And now 60 years later we have the Albaugh Family losing its big star Not This Time and still having a chance to win it with J Boys Echo. And for what it is worth, J Boys Echo’s sixth dam is by Bull Lea, the sire of Iron Leige.
Hence Steve Asmussen
Street Boss—Floating Island, by A.P. Indy
The Sunland Derby form keeps getting better. Although third-place finisher Hedge Fund was just nipped on the wire in the Illinois Derby, he did finish nearly 5 lengths ahead of the third horse, and added to Irap’s Blue Grass victory and Conquest Mo Money’s gutsy second in the Arkansas Derby, this has to be the most formful of all the preps. And that, of course, boosts the reputation of Hence, whose Thoro-Graph numbers keep steadily improving to where he is now poised to have a major say in the Kentucky Derby. Everything just seems to be falling into place with this colt, and he is quickly becoming the buzz horse who many people seem to be latching on to. He demonstrated his sharpness working 5 furlongs in 1:00 flat at Churchill in company with Local Hero, who is an excellent work horse, then galloped out 6 furlongs in 1:13, up in 1:26 3/5. I keep bringing up his remarkable maiden victory, but only to demonstrate just how athletic this colt is and his ability to recover from extreme adversity in a race and jump right back into the fray as if nothing had happened. It takes a special kind of horse to be able to do that. Even Asmussen said he was amazed how, after ducking in so badly, he was able to stop in his tracks and then start running again from a dead standstill. He added that what impressed him most about the Sunland Derby was the colt’s energy under the wire after separating himself from the field. His ranking just shows that this may be a much deeper field than most people think.
Practical Joke Chad Brown
Don’t go by the eighth-place ranking too much, as that is based mostly on the questions regarding his pedigree, which is enigmatic to say the least, and the fact he is winless in three attempts around two turns. But each race is getting stronger, and he was better at 1 1/8 miles than he was at 1 1/16 miles. In addition, from a physical and observational standpoint, I like what I’m seeing, from his powerful frame to the way he is moving on the racetrack; he really catches the eye. And I found it very interesting that Brown had him in front in his latest work, in which he breezed an easy half in :49 4/5, breaking off 2 lengths in front of his workmate and then holding him at bay down the stretch with his ears pinned. What makes the Blue Grass such a quizzical race was that he had demonstrated an exceptional will to win and the ability to out-duel his opponents at 2 in winning the Hopeful and Champagne. So it was surprising to see him unable to get his head in front of Irap in the Blue Grass, despite having the entire length of the stretch to do so, and in fact having Irap increase his advantage at the wire. Was it the distance that got to him in the final eighth or was he simply short coming off the one third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, in which he made a huge move on the turn only to have Gunnevera blow right by him in the stretch? He is the horse I am most uncertain of regarding how I perceive his chances of winning. But as a huge fan of the Champagne Stakes, I can’t help but note that only eight other Champagne winners since the distance was changed to a mile in 1940 broke 1:35 (he went in 1:34 3/5) and five of them are classic winners, including two Triple Crown winners (Seattle Slew and Count Fleet), four Kentucky Derby winners, three Preakness winners, and three Belmont winners. And seven of the eight were 2-year-old champions. There goes that gut feeling again.
Girvin Joe Sharp
Talk about calling an audible, Sharp canceled his Monday work at Keeneland after originally looking at a Saturday work and instead will now wait until Friday to work him, giving him only one more work instead of the originally scheduled two works. That is a pretty drastic change in plans, and normally you don’t like to see such drastic changes at this late stage. His only explanation was that he decided at the last minute to give him only the one work. This is a horse who hasn’t run in 5 weeks. Sharp also said the colt will remain at Keeneland until the required 72 hours before the Derby, shipping in as late as possible. Turning to the Thoro-Graph figures for those interested, he did not improve his number from the Risen Star to the Louisiana Derby and still needs to improve a good 4 to 5 points to be competitive. And he does not have an extensive resume with only 4 career starts. But there is still something about this colt I like a lot. With him it’s not about speed figures or even bucking history with so few starts; it is strictly visual, and I still see a horse who has gotten 6 races worth of experience in those 4 races and who simply knows how to win and will run as only as fast as he has to in order to do so. The Louisiana Derby form, considered suspect, did get a boost when sixth-place finisher Senior Investment just got up to win the Lexington Stakes at 11-1. Bottom line, with only 4 career starts, I would have preferred to have seen him get in a couple of works leading up to the race.
Gormley John Shirreffs
Malibu Moon—Race to Urga, by Bernstein
It is apparent what Shirreffs is attempting to accomplish with him, breaking him off 4 lengths behind his workmate in his 6-furlong work in 1:15 4/5 and then having him drop 6 lengths back before closing in and purposely cutting sharply to the inside rather than stay outside his workmate as most horses would do. This is vintage Shirreffs, who always seems to have something cooking as he tries to get inside his horses’ heads. Gormley now looks like a totally different horse than the speedball we were used to seeing. Shirreffs is a thinking man’s trainer and has had great success getting horses to peak for a particular race. No one ever accomplished that better than he did with Giacomo in the 2005 Derby, as he was more than satisfied with losing all his preps as long as the colt was ready to run the race of his life on the first Saturday in May. Gormley has shown an almost machine-like inconsistency, alternating good efforts with bad ones, and it will be very interesting to see if Shirreffs can get him to run two good races in a row, even though most people dismiss the Santa Anita Derby as being a subpar race.
Battalion Runner Todd Pletcher
He breezed a half in :48 4/5 on the Belmont training track in his first work since finishing second in the Wood Memorial. I liked the way he was moving over the Churchill Downs track Tuesday morning, and he seems to have taken to it immediately. If you follow or are influenced by Thoro-Graph numbers, your big question is whether he can pair up his career-equaling best figure, something he failed to do after his second career start, as also indicated by his Beyer numbers. With only four career starts and more than a two-month layoff after his workmanlike allowance victory on February 3, you just have to wonder how much foundation he has in regard to stretching out to a mile and a quarter. But there is no doubt he needed the Wood to move forward Also, his one or near the pace running style is similar to a number of the major players, so you also have to ask yourself if he’s ready to withstand that kind of heat. His connections have elected to run him back in the Derby, even though the owner also has Always Dreaming, so they must have great confidence in him to overcome all he will have to. There is no questioning his talent, but we’ll see if he is ready for this kind of challenge.
Irap Doug O’Neill
Tiznow—Silken Cat, by Storm Cat
If there is one thing you don’t even want to attempt to analyze it is Doug O’Neill’s training procedures and how he works his horses. So when you see this colt work a mile in 1:44 after fractions of :53 for the half and 1:06 for 5 furlongs, you don’t sweat it. You just watch it and see how much the horse is getting out of it. And Irap, after two-minute licking to the pole, seemed to be moving very well and just kept going and going, indicating this was an excellent stamina builder. We already know this colt has tactical speed and is tough as nails, taking after his sire, and he certainly looked strong in the closing stages of the Blue Grass Stakes, despite being on the wrong lead the length of the stretch. There is no doubting this colt’s ability to get the mile and a quarter, and it’s just a question of whether O’Neill and Reddam can pull another rabbit out of their hat, in which lucky rabbits seem to breed at an alarming rate.