Talk about a tough act to follow. Last year, we not only tabbed the Kentucky Derby winner for the third consecutive year, Nyquist, but nailed the top four finishers in exact order.
We’d be pleased as punch if we could just keep the win streak going after an outright confusing year of Derby preps and the possibility of a wet track adding a huge unknown.We agonized over the first- and third-place finishers in the Florida Derby as our top pick and opted to put the winner, Always Dreaming, first, and the third-place finisher, Gunnevera, second. There are at least five additional horses with a solid chance of winning the Run for the Roses and another group with enough credentials to pull off a major upset.
In order of preference:
The Top Seven
ALWAYS DREAMING — His five-length Florida Derby victory, including a fast final three furlongs in :36 3/5, was his third consecutive triumph. His five-furlong bullet work and strong gallop-out since suggests he’ll handle the quirky Churchill Downs surface. His exuberance in his recent gallops caused trainer Todd Pletcher to switch exercise readers and his horse’s reins, which seemed to calm him down. We think he’s sitting on a huge race, if he doesn’t lose his cool because of the mammoth crowd.
GUNNEVERA — Sent off the even-money favorite despite a horrible post in the Florida Derby, Gunnevera did well to finish third, 6 1/2 lengths behind Always Dreaming. He’s the proven, quality deep closer whose chances ultimately depend on the early fractions and his ability to get a clean trip. His 15-1 morning line odds seemed extremely generous, and he projects to be the best value if he’s anywhere close to that number.
McCRAKEN — He’s four-for-five lifetime and holds a huge home field advantage off his 3-for-3 record at Churchill Downs. The rest of the field has three victories combined. His third in the Blue Grass to a maiden winner, Irap, was uninspiring, but he needed the race off a near two-month layoff because of a minor injury. His tactical speed makes him extremely dangerous.
CLASSIC EMPIRE — Last year’s talented 2-year-old champion, who is 5-for-7, is a head case. In last year’s Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, he wheeled coming out of the starting gate. More recently, he refused to work out. He won the Arkansas Derby gamely, and is 2-for-2 at Churchill Downs, but he’s going to be way too short of a price for a horse who could have a meltdown.
IRISH WAR CRY — His victory in the Wood Memorial, which hasn’t produced a Derby winner in a long time, made him 4-for-5 lifetime. His lone loss was a seventh in the Fountain of Youth to Gunnevera, a horse he had previously beaten in the Holy Bull Stakes. Our concern is that he won the Wood by running his final three furlongs in a glacial :39.
GORMLEY — He followed a distant fourth to unbeaten Mastery in the San Felipe with a game score in the Santa Anita Derby. He’s a legit four-for-six and has Victor Espinoza, who is seeking his third Kentucky Derby win in four years.
GIRVIN — The winner of the Louisiana Derby is 3-for-4 with one second. But he had a quarter crack and missed training time, never a formula for success in the Kentucky Derby.
The Other Contenders
PRACTICAL JOKE — He won his first three starts, then finished third once and second twice. His pedigree doesn’t suggest he’ll improve stretching out to a mile and a quarter, but he could make his presence felt.
TAPWRIT — The Tampa Bay Derby winner two starts back finished a distant fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes. Jose Ortiz maintains the mount.
IRAP — Came into the Blue Grass 0-for-7 and won the Grade I stakes, defeating Practical Joke and McCraken. He could be getting good now.
BATTLE OF MIDWAY — He was only beaten a half-length by Gormley in the Santa Anita Derby at 7-1. He’s hit the board in all four starts.
STATE OF HONOR — He’s finished in the money in six straight, but the only win was in a maiden race. He did well finishing second in both the Tampa Bay Derby and Florida Derby.
J BOYS ECHO — He was impressive winning the Gotham Stakes, then a dull fourth in the Blue Grass. He was hammered by Gunnevera last year.
HENCE — He won the Sunland Derby impressively in his last start, but finished behind Lookin At Lee the race before.
Say a Prayer
PATCH — He was second in the Louisiana Derby in just his third lifetime start. The 20 post is a concern.
THUNDER SNOW — He is adding Lasix off a nose victory in the UAE Derby that made him 2-for-2 on dirt.
UNTRAPPED — Sheds blinkers off a sixth in the Arkansas Derby.
LOOKIN AT LEE — This long shot had the misfortune of drawing the dreaded rail, which hasn’t produced a horse hitting the board in 13 straight Derbies.
SONNETEER — His fourth in the Arkansas Derby made him zero-for-10 lifetime. Good luck.
FAST AND ACCURATE — Is 0-for-1 on dirt.
Bill Heller is The Daily Gazette handicapper for Saratoga Race Course.
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