Los Angeles Times
This Derby has everybody guessing
There is no Nyquist, no American Pharoah, no clear favorite for Run for the Roses.
On Sept. 17 of last year, the Iroquois Stakes was run at Churchill Downs as the first Kentucky Derby prep. It was won by Not This Time. He was retired two months later with a soft tissue injury.
Two weeks ago, Senior Investment won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland as the last Derby prep. He didn’t have enough points to qualify for Saturday’s race.
Sandwiched in between were 34 other points-bearing races that have done little to clear up the picture as to who will win the Kentucky Derby.
Last year was easy. There was even Triple Crown talk as undefeated Nyquist strolled in to Louisville, Ky., as the clear favorite. He was victorious ... and it was also the last race he won.
This year, there was a superstar in the making when Mastery crushed a very good field in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. But 50 yards past the finish line he suffered a condylar fracture of his left front leg.
“I think it’s as wide open as we’ve seen in a long time,” trainer Dale Romans said of the Kentucky Derby, where he will be saddling J Boys Echo.
“I think you’re going to have some big odds on whoever the favorite is. I think you’ve got McCraken. I think You’ve got Always Dreaming. And, of course, Classic Empire. … I mean it could be any horse in this race.”
So with uncertainty the catchphrase, here are five story lines to watch this week at Churchill Downs.
1. Who will be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby?
Classic Empire should be the favorite when the gates open early Saturday evening.
At the very least, he’ll be the morning-line favorite.
“I was really impressed with the way Classic Empire was able to come back like he did in a 12-horse field and run such an awesome race,” Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia told Jason Frakes of the Louisville Courier-Journal after the Arkansas Derby.
“I think he’ll be cranked up for the Derby. I think he’ll be the favorite.”
The horse has had a star-crossed winter and spring. After winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he ran a lackluster third in the Holy Bull. It was discovered he had a foot abscess. Then he refused to breeze in training. He did redeem himself at Oaklawn with a halflength win.
2. The West Coast has dominated of late. Will that happen this year?
West Coast horses have won four of the last five Kentucky Derbys (Nyquist, American Pharoah, California Chrome and I’ll Have Another). But this year, with Mastery’s injury, the crop is a little thin.
Gormley has the best credentials having won four of six races, including the Santa Anita Derby, but lately the John Shirreffs colt has been inconsistent.
There is Irap, who shocked everyone by winning the Blue Grass Stakes as a maiden. Even trainer Doug O’Neill admitted he didn’t think the horse would win that race, but he got a perfect trip and showed heart down the stretch.
Battle Of Midway, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, got in with a secondplace finish in the Santa Anita Derby. He’s won two of four races and will have first-time Derby rider Flavien Prat aboard.
Sonneteer, for trainer Keith Desormeaux, was elevated to the race Saturday when Todd Pletcher decided not to run Malagacy and Battalion Runner. Sonneteer is winless in 10 starts but finished fourth in the Arkansas Derby. Lookin’ At Lee was also moved into the race.
Royal Mo, for Shirreffs, is currently the 21st horse in a 20-horse race. So his connections are waiting for one more horse to drop from the field.
3. If the best horses get the best jockeys, who should people be looking at?
It doesn’t always work that way at the Derby. Jockeys tend to tie themselves to the best horse early but then, sometimes that horse doesn’t run. Such is the case with Mike Smith, who became available when Mastery suffered his injury and was taken off the Derby trail.
Smith will be aboard Girvin, winner of the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. Smith has never ridden the horse.
“At the end of the day, it just came down to the fact that statistically I would feel like a fool for not riding him if I had that option,” trainer Joe Sharp said. “I can’t express enough how comfortable we are with Mike.”
The best from the East Coast is Jose Castellano, four time Eclipse Award winner. He’ll be up on Gunnevera, winner of the Fountain
4. Bob Baffert has won four Kentucky Derbys. Who’s he got?
Baffert had probably the best horse in Mastery, but he’s without a Derby starter for the first time since 2013 and the second time since 2009. He is considered by many the best trainer in the country and has the best horse in the world in Arrogate. He won the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015.
But he’ll still be in Louisville running Abel Tasman in the Kentucky Oaks.
Will he stay for the Derby?
“Actually, I’ll be coming home Derby morning,” Baffert said.
5. Will weather be a factor?
Last year the track was listed as fast but had a coat of water on it after an afternoon shower.
The Midwest is currently undergoing severe weather, but weather.com lists Louisville as partly cloudy with a 20% chance of rain Saturday. There is an 80% chance of rain Thursday.
But remember, weather, like this year’s Derby, can be very unpredictable.