2017 Kentucky Derby Preview: Horse-by-Horse Analysis (Part 1)

2017 Kentucky Derby Preview

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

By Peter May

Hey cool kids, beginners and Kentucky Derby novices that wanna dress up and drink mint juleps on the first Saturday in May- I do a Kentucky Derby beginner guide every year to get you the low-down on each of the 20 or so contenders running in the race every year.
I’d like to think I actually know what I’m talking about in terms of horse racing in general. But as far as the Kentucky Derby is concerned, I’m terrible at picking winners and more importantly cashing winning tickets on it. I’m pretty much cursed. The last thing you’d wanna do is use my crummy picks. So the following breakdown is intended to be a fairly UNBIASED, simplified description for each horse, so you can make up your own mind on who you’d like to bet on/cheer for the Derby. I’ll give you a bunch of reasons why each horse can win the race, and why each horse could fail.
If you’re a beginner, I’m not trying to throw too much jargon/weird terminology at you. I’m trying to make the descriptions so you can easily understand what the heck I’m talking about. You’ll also get Youtube clips of the major preps they’ve raced in, so you can see how they’ve run in a given race to give you a general idea of things. If you have any questions about anything I’ve posted, feel free to post a question/comment or message me. Same for if you’ve never bet on a horse race before. I can help guide you through your options for that as well.
THE BASICS
[*]The Derby is on Saturday 5/6 (always the first Saturday in May).
[*]It’s for 3 year-olds only. Every horse collectively turns 3 years old on January 1st (for racing purposes), so none of the horses that ran last year can come back and compete again this year.
[*]There will be 20 horses in the race, which can make it a complete crap-shoot/traffic jam (there is only 1 horse in the Derby field that has run against more than 14 horses in a race before).
[*]The race distance is a mile and a quarter, and none of the entrants have run that far in their young careers. So not only are you dealing with a 20-horse traffic jam, but you’re also unsure if they can handle running that far. A lot can’t.
[*]It’s at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY
[*]It’s the first race in the Triple Crown. The Preakness and the Belmont are the other 2 races, run in the next 5 weeks after the Derby.
The 20-horse field is determined by designated Derby Prep races held in the months before the Derby. But most horses qualify for the race in March and early April. The other big “unknown” going into these races- A lot of these horses haven’t run against each other. The Derby prep races happen everywhere from Florida to New York to Louisiana to California to Dubai…. yes… Dubai.
This year has been pretty much anarchy in the preps. Arkansas (Oaklawn) had 4 Derby preps- 4 different winners. California (Santa Anita) had 3- 2 different winners. New York (Aqueduct) had 3- 3 different winners. Florida (Gulfstream & Tampa Bay Downs) had 5 preps with 5 different winners. On top of that, when a horse would lose a prep race at one track, they would go to another track in a different state and win. Or in some cases there were horses that would win earlier in the year at a certain track, and ship to another track for their next prep race, and lose. In a nutshell- it’s been a lot of everyone beating everyone so far this spring.
If you know how to read a past-performance guide, here’s a very preliminary one from Brisnet which lists all 20 of the Derby Contenders + Alternates
If you’re a beginner that doesn’t know how to read these, no sweat. That’s what the following posts are here for. To give you basic, yet more in-depth analysis of each horse. So as I said, you can make up your own mind.
The following posts will give analysis of each horse grouped by the prep race they ran in as opposed to going 1-20. So it’s easier to list the horses that have run in each major prep, and give the breakdown from there. You’ll see what I mean in the following posts. But I’ll also have a link for each horse if you’re looking for a description of one specifically.
Alright, time for me to shut up and get to the analysis. Hope I haven’t lost y’all yet.
THE KENTUCKY DERBY FIELD:
1. LOOKIN AT LEE
2. THUNDER SNOW
3. FAST AND ACCURATE
4. UNTRAPPED
5. ALWAYS DREAMING
6. STATE OF HONOR
7. GIRVIN
8. HENCE
9. IRAP
10. GUNNEVARA
11. BATTLE OF MIDWAY
12. SONNETEER
13. J BOYS ECHO
14. CLASSIC EMPIRE
15. MCCRAKEN
16. TAPWRIT
17. IRISH WAR CRY
18. GORMLEY
19. PRACTICAL JOKE
20. PATCH

LOUISIANA DERBY: GIRVIN, PATCH

Date: April 1, 2017
Location: Fair Grounds (New Orleans, LA)
Distance: 1 1/8 Miles
Replay of Race:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAhrxBDMrRQ
GIRVIN
In a year where a lot of horses seem to be taking turns beating each other, arguably the most consistent performer on the Derby trail has been Girvin. But there have been plenty of really good looking horses that have come out of Fairgrounds/Louisiana Derby over the years to stumble in the Kentucky Derby. Can Girvin buck this bad trend, or will history repeat itself with him on the first Saturday in May?
POSITIVES 
[*]4 Career Starts (races): 3 wins. He’s undefeated on a fast (dry) dirt track. His lone loss he finished 2nd. Since he’s only raced 4 times, he’s still eligible to mature/improve physically.
[*]Horse is trained by Joe Sharp, who is one of the top Churchill Downs-based trainers annually. So not only does Girvin have a really good trainer, but also one that gets to train the horse in his own backyard.
[*]In each race that Girvin has run in, the distance has increased each time. He has seemed to handle the longer races without issue thus far.
[*]He usually stalks the pace or sits mid-pack in his races and uses a strong closing run to blow by his competition. Unlike a lot of the other late-running closers in the Kentucky Derby, Girvin has the advantage of sitting closer to the leaders than most of the others do. So he can get a jump on the other late-running types in the race.
[*]The video of the Louisiana Derby shows what he is likely to encounter in the Kentucky Derby. He raced wide all the way around the track (meaning there were horses inside of him throughout the race, so he had to run wider/further than most horses in the Louisiana Derby), and still found a way to comfortably win the race. In the Kentucky Derby, with 19 other horses all jostling for early position, he’ll probably be dealing with a similar race trip.
[*]He’ll be ridden in the Derby by Hall-of-Famer Mike Smith. “Big Money” Mike won the 2005 Derby on Giacomo, and is widely considered one of the best jockeys in the world. Smith is known for making big sweeping wide moves with his horses on the final turn so they can have a clear run into the stretch. Judging by what we’ve seen in the Louisiana Derby footage, that seems like it’s right up Girvin’s alley.
[*]Girvin’s daddy, Tale of Ekati, finished 4th in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Orb’s grandaddy on his mama’s side is Malibu Moon. Malibu Moon sired 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb. So both Derby/distance pedigree comes through in his bloodlines.
NEGATIVES
[*]Leading Churchill Downs rider Brian Hernandez Jr. has ridden Girvin in every race. Hernandez has also ridden Kentucky Derby contender McCraken in every race. Hernandez has chosen to ride McCraken in the Kentucky Derby over Girvin. At least in the opinion of Hernandez, he thinks McCraken gives him a better chance to win the Kentucky Derby. So as good a rider as Mike Smith is, is the horse good enough to win the race?
[*]The only horse that Girvin has beaten that has qualified for the Kentucky Derby is Patch. There’s serious questions about the strength/level of competition that the Fairgrounds Derby Preps offered this year.
[*]There have been so many hyped horses to come out of Fairgrounds/Louisiana Derby over the years, AND THEY’VE PRETTY MUCH ALL FAILED IN THE KENTUCKY DERBY. Grindstone in 1996 was the last horse to win the Louisiana Derby, and then win in Kentucky. Before him, you have to go back decades to find another horse that won both races. That’s a lot of history for Girvin and Patch to buck.
[*]He’s only raced at Fair Grounds. So how will he handle shipping to run at a different track for the first time?
[*]He’s only run on fast/dry tracks. There’s always a chance that it will rain on Derby Day. If so, how will he handle a sloppy/muddy surface and getting mud kicked in his face for the first time? A lot of horses hate it and won’t give their best effort when running in those conditions.
PATCH
You have a right to be optimistic about the Kentucky Derby chances of PATCH based on the effort he put forth in the Louisiana Derby. But he also had a lot of circumstances go his way in that race that aren’t likely to repeat in the Derby. And… there’s this minor detail that he has 135 years of history working against him (just hear me out on the reasons why he can break this curse). But hey… the Cubs won the World Series off a similar drought, and American Pharoah won the Triple Crown when even I began to wonder if either would ever happen.
POSITIVES 
[*]3 Career Starts- a win and 2 seconds. So like Girvin, he’s never finished worse than 2nd in any race, and since he’s only raced a few times he’s still very likely to improve/mature physically.
[*]Also like Girvin, in each race he’s run in his young career, the distance has increased and has handled it fine.
[*]Girvin beat him in the Louisiana Derby, but it didn’t exactly look like Girvin was running away from him at any point. They seemed to be running stride for stride down the lane. With added distance or a little earlier closing run, maybe Patch can turn the tables on Girvin.
[*]Like Girvin, Patch seems to have a mid-pack/stalking running style. The video of the Louisiana Derby shows that for most of the race they ran side-by-side pretty even. If he can get in a similar position in the Kentucky Derby he could do some serious damage.
[*]Trained by future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher. If all 3 of Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby qualifiers make it to the race, he’ll tie trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ all-time record for most horses entered in the Derby (currently Lukas has 48, Pletcher 45). He won the Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver. Pletcher also trains Derby qualifiers Tapwrit, and Always Dreaming.
[*]Patch’s daddy is the hot young sire Union Rags. In his brief 8 race career, Union Rags ran in the Kentucky Derby and won the Belmont Stakes. The Belmont is the 3rd and longest leg of the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes) at 1 1/2 miles. He only finished out of the top 3 once in his career (although that lone finish out of the top 3 was in the Kentucky Derby). So there’s plenty of stamina in those bloodlines.
NEGATIVES
[*]Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse that was un-raced at age 2 won the Derby. I mentioned above that Patch has raced 3 times. But all 3 races were in 2017. All horses turn 3 on January 1st (for racing purposes). Since he didn’t run last year, it means by horse racing standards he didn’t run at age 2. He’s done little wrong thus far in his young career, but 135 years of history is working against him (but streaks and records are made to be broken… eventually, right?)
[*]Speaking of Pletcher: Even with all of those Derby contenders over the years, he only has 1 win to show for it. This race continues to plague/blemish an otherwise amazing resume for the trainer.
[*]Patch has had 3 different riders for his 3 career races. Solid South Florida-based jockey Tyler Gafflione rode Patch in the Louisiana Derby, (and will be again in the Derby) but has little/no experience riding at Churchill or in a race of this magnitude.
[*]Pletcher almost always goes with hall-of-fame riders John Velasquez or Javier Castellano as his first choices for riders. They are coincidentally the 2 other jockeys who have rode Patch in past races. But both have chosen other horses to ride in the Kentucky Derby. So in their opinion they feel that riding Patch doesn’t give them their best chance to win the Kentucky Derby.
[*]Patch hasn’t beaten any horse currently in the Derby field. A lot of that is due to the Louisiana Derby being the first stakes race he’s run in. But it also shows how big the increase in caliber of competition is about to be for him.
[*]If you watch the replay of the Louisiana Derby, Patch is running along the inner rail for most of the race. Which means he had a comfortable trip and literally the inside track in the race. He had to exert much less effort than Girvin did, who ran on the outer part of the track (so Girvin ran wider) throughout the race. Patch finally angles off the rail going into the stretch to get around a tired out front runner and it’s smooth sailing from there. Yet he was still beat by Girvin.
[*]Also, being on the inner part of a track can be a curse as much as a gift. The Kentucky Derby is known for being a traffic jam. If Patch sits on the rail in the Derby, what if there’s a horse immediately sitting to the outside of him? If there’s a tired out front runner in front of him, a horse running with him on the outside, and the rail to the inside, where can he go? It’s called being “boxed in”. You’re literally blocked from moving in any direction. If this happens he won’t be able to make the same strong closing run as he did in the Louisiana Derby. If Patch is forced to run wide in the Kentucky Derby, can he be just as effective when losing all the ground to horses running inside of him? I’m just saying that the race trip he got in the Louisiana Derby was about as perfect as you can get for a horse. I doubt he’ll have it that good again on Derby day. Can he overcome that?
[*] He’s only run on fast/dry tracks. There’s always a chance that it will rain on Derby Day. If so, how will he handle a sloppy/muddy surface and getting mud kicked in his face for the first time? A lot of horses hate it and won’t give their best effort when running in those conditions?
FLORIDA DERBY: ALWAYS DREAMING, STATE OF HONOR
Date: April 1, 2017
Location: Gulfstream Park (Miami, FL)
Distance: 1 1/8 Miles
ALWAYS DREAMING
That was a statement win by Always Dreaming in the Florida Derby. It should make him one of the Kentucky Derby betting favorites, and rightfully so. But his trainer’s track record in the Kentucky Derby leaves some room for doubt if he’ll put in a winning effort on the first Saturday in May.
POSITIVES
[*]5 Career races, the horse has never finished worse than 3rd. The horse’s owners transferred training duties to Todd Pletcher after his 2nd start, and he hasn’t lost since.
[*]Trained by future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher. If all 3 of Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby qualifiers make it to the race, he’ll tie trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ all-time record for most horses entered in the Derby (currently Lukas has 48, Pletcher 45). He won the Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver. Pletcher also trains Derby qualifiers Tapwrit, and Patch.
[*]Since Pletcher has trained him, he’s been ridden by hall-of-famer John Velasquez. Velasquez won the 2011 Kentucky Derby on Animal Kingdom. Velasquez usually gets first pick of Pletcher’s horses every year, so for him to choose Always Dreaming over Pletcher’s other 2 Derby horses, shows that he thinks this horse has the best chance to win.
[*]Horse has a versatile front-running style. He’s won races before where he was the pace-setter (the early leader), and he’s also won races where he sat right off of the leaders and pounced on them late in the race (like he did in the Florida Derby). Being one of the early leaders of a race means he should have a lot less traffic trouble to deal with in the Derby. If he’s in front of most of them he won’t have as many of them to pass, which should give him a clean run throughout.
[*]His daddy was Bodemeister, who was very fast and could carry his speed over long distances. He finished 2nd to I’ll Have Another in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2012 after setting the pace in both races.
[*] He beat both Gunnevera and State of Honor easily in the Florida Derby.
NEGATIVES 
[*] Speaking of Pletcher: Even with all of those Derby contenders over the years, he only has 1 win to show for it. This race continues to plague/blemish an otherwise amazing resume for the trainer.
[*] Velasquez’s resume is also blemished in the same way, due to his relationship with Pletcher. Pletcher gives Velasquez quality Derby mounts every year, and they’ve never won the Derby together. When Pletcher won the race with Super Saver, Calvin Borel was the jockey. When Velasquez rode Animal Kingdom to his lone Kentucky Derby win, the trainer was Graham Motion. Will these 2 ever team up to get a Derby win?
[*] His front-running style makes him vulnerable to a pace duel. Whether he’s setting the pace or sits right off the leaders, if they’re going too fast early he’ll expend too much energy that he needs for the final part of the race. There’s a general saying in horse racing- “pace makes the race.” For front-running horses, it’s their job to get the lead, but to go as slow as possible while on the lead, so they can conserve their energy throughout the race. If too many horses go for the lead early, they usually speed up the pace trying to wrestle the lead from each other. When they do that, they’ve expended too much energy early on and horses come from behind have a better chance to pass them late in the race. So can he sit close to the lead without expending too much energy, running at the longest distance he’s ever run before? Determining if he can run THAT fast for THAT far on the lead is the biggest question for this race, and won’t be answered until the race is run.
STATE OF HONOR
I watch the replay of the Florida Derby, and I feel like State of Honor could’ve been better this race. To me he seemed timid closing along the rail both in the turn and in the stretch (the final straightaway). But even if he’s better than what he showed in the Florida Derby, you see how much better he’d have to be competitive with Always Dreaming. He’ll be a big longshot if you think he’s sitting on an improved race in the Kentucky Derby. I have some reasons why I think this is possible.
POSITIVES
[*]If you start watching the video at about 1:20 and let it play for 10-15 seconds, State of Honor is the #1 horse running along the rail in 3rd/4th. The announcer says “State of Honor! He has horse, but needs some place to go…” and then you see plenty of room to open up along the inside rail for him to run through. So he darts inside and he kinda gets timid when the horse to the outside of him swerves in towards the rail too. Once State of Honor gets clear from the horse to the outside of him, he has open running space and starts to lengthen his stride (run stronger/faster). It’s pretty common when horses get intimidated inside and don’t run as hard as they can. It’s almost like a type of claustrophobia where they have the rail on one side, and if they have a horse on the other, they feel like the walls are closing in on them. What I’m getting at- if State of Honor can be kept more towards the middle of the track with some clear running room, there’s a chance for big improvement from this solid 2nd place finish in the Florida Derby.
[*]One of the things a lot of experts like to look at in evaluating a horse’s chances in doing well in the Derby, is how much “foundation” he has. When they say “foundation”, they mean has he raced enough times to build up his stamina, maturity, race sense, etc. For State of Honor, he definitely has the foundation. He has more career races than anyone else in the Derby field: 10. He’s raced 6 times at age 2, and another 4 times this year (he hasn’t finished worse than 3rd in any of his 4 races this year). He has 7 top-3 finishes in those 10 starts. He’s also raced in both Canada and Florida, on different racing surfaces with success. There’s precedent to show that he can handle shipping to a different track and running well.
[*]He has a versatile running style which can put him on the lead (as shown in both the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby posts) or sit right off the front-runners and pounce like he did in the Florida Derby. He ran really well doing both. This might help him get the clear run I talked about above, because he should have minimal traffic issues being on or near the lead in the Derby.
[*]He’s trained by Mark Casse, who has successful racing operations everywhere from Canada to Florida, including at Churchill Downs. This means Casse should be able to train this horse at Churchill in the weeks leading up to the race. Casse also trains likely Kentucky Derby betting favorite Classic Empire.
[*]Solid New York-based jockey Jose Lezcano will ride him in the Derby.
[*]His granddaddy was Bernardini, who won the Preakness, and won the Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and finished 2nd in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Those last 3 races are all run at 1 1/4 Miles (the Kentucky Derby distance). Another Grandaddy is Elusive Quality, who sired 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones.
NEGATIVES
[*] Beyond getting trounced by Always Dreaming, he’s also lost pretty convincingly to Tapwrit and McCraken in his past 3 races. He’s going to have to show major improvement to beat these horses in the Derby.
[*] He’s shown the versatility to be effective running on the lead, and sitting right off the lead and closing on the front runners. But while running on the lead, Tapwrit and McCracken easily passed him in the stretch in his 2 races at Tampa Bay Downs. While sitting right off the lead, he had every chance to move when Always Dreaming did in the Florida Derby. Always Dreaming pulled away from him. Regardless of his running style, is State of Honor able to keep up with the big dogs?
[*] Jockey Julien Leparoux rode him in his last 4 races. But he’s also the regular rider for the likely Kentucky Derby favorite Classic Empire. Leparoux has chosen to ride Classic Empire in the Kentucky Derby. He thinks Classic Empire gives him a better chance to win the Derby than State of Honor (and Irap).
[*] As successful as Jose Lezcano has been, most of his accomplishments have come in New York and has little experience/success at Churchill Downs
[*] For all the top-3 finishes in his 10-race career, he only has 1 win to show for it. That lone win actually came over a synthetic racing surface called Tapeta (see the Spiral stakes post for more information on this) at Woodbine in Canada. This means he’s never won a race on a traditional dirt surface.
[*]He’s never won a race at a mile or longer, which is concerning since the Derby will be the longest race of his career. In both of the Derby preps at Tampa Bay Downs (see the posts on McCraken and Tapwrit for video and more info on those races), he went straight to the lead and was passed easily after tiring late in both efforts. Does he have the stamina to run this far?
[*] He’s only run on fast/dry tracks. There’s always a chance that it will rain on Derby Day. If so, how will he handle a sloppy/muddy surface and getting mud kicked in his face for the first time? A lot of horses hate it and won’t give their best effort when running in those conditions?
[*] Did he really get Gunnevera’s best shot in the Florida Derby? Gunnevera had already qualified for the Kentucky Derby by winning the Fountain of Youth a month earlier. He was uncharacteristically so far back in the Florida Derby. He made a late run, but he never came close to touching Always Dreaming. Was that by design?
FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH: GUNNEVARA
Date: March 4, 2017
Location: Gulfstream Park (Miami, FL)
Distance: 1 1/16 Miles
Since I just got done analyzing/writing up the Florida Derby, it’s probably fair to do the Fountain of Youth next. The Fountain of Youth is a Kentucky Derby prep race with less points offered to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. It’s considered a prep race for the Florida Derby. Most owners/trainers running in the Fountain of Youth use it as a stepping stone to see if their horse is good enough to run in the Florida Derby a month later.
GUNNEVERA
Which Gunnevera is gonna show up? The one that smashed the competition a month and a half ago in the Fountain of Youth? Or the one that ran itself so far out of contention early in the Florida Derby, that it didn’t matter how hard he came running late in the race? The one good thing that running a non-competitive 3rd in the Florida Derby did for betting on Gunnevera, is if you think he’s due for a rebound in the Kentucky Derby, you’re getting betting value that you never would’ve gotten if he ran a good race in the Florida Derby.
POSITIVES 
[*] 9 career races: 7 top-3 finishes, 4 wins. Has the foundation to be a serious Kentucky Derby contender. Raced 6 times at age 2 and 3 times this year.
[*] He’s beaten J Boys Echo, Irish War Cry, Practical Joke, and likely Kentucky Derby favorite Classic Empire in previous races.
[*] He’s ridden by hall-of-fame jockey Javier Castellano. Castellano is widely regarded as one of the best jockeys in the world. Although Gunnevera didn’t run his best race in the Florida Derby, it’s a definite positive that Castellano has chosen to stick to riding him over any of the available Todd Pletcher-trained Kentucky Derby horses. Pletcher gives Castellano his choice to ride almost any horse he trains. So to turn down any opportunity to ride one of Pletcher’s 2 available Derby horses shows the confidence Castellano has in Gunnevera to win the Kentucky Derby (the Pletcher-trained Always Dreaming wasn’t available due to John Velasquez riding him).
[*] He’s a back-of-the-pack deep closing type of horse. As shown in both the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby clips, he made a sweeping late move on the final turn and was flying late down the stretch. A repeat of this run makes him dangerous in the Derby.
[*] Gunnevera has raced in Florida, New York, Louisiana and Kentucky in past races. So it’s safe to say he can ship anywhere and run a solid race.
NEGATIVES
[*] Always Dreaming and State of Honor both had him pretty well beaten in the Florida Derby. Irish War Cry and Classic Empire have both beaten him convincingly in past races. So which horse shows up? The one that has beaten most of these horses, or the one that has lost to these horses?
[*] Trainer Antonio Sano is a solid mainstay on the South Florida racing circuit, but has never trained a Kentucky Derby horse before. Does he know what it takes to have his horse fully prepped for the biggest race of his life?
[*] Jockey Javier Castellano has never won a Kentucky Derby. It’s the one big blemish in his amazing career.
[*] What if the front-runners are able to slow the pace down enough that they’ve conserved enough energy to keep running strong throughout the race? “Pace makes the race” applies equally to the back-of-the-pack deep-closers too. If they don’t have a hot, fast pace to run into, it makes it so much more difficult for them to pass the front-runners.
[*] Horses that sit towards the back of the pack in the early part of races have to deal with all the traffic that the front-runners normally don’t have to deal with. When he’s ready to make his strong finishing run, will he be able to find a clear path around/in-between 19 other horses to do so.

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