2017 Kentucky Derby Preview: Horse-by-Horse Analysis (Part 2)

2017 Kentucky Derby Preview

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

By Peter May

SANTA ANITA DERBY: GORMLEY, BATTLE OF MIDWAY
Date: April 8, 2017
Location: Santa Anita Park (Arcadia, CA)
Distance: 1 1/8 Miles
Replay of Race:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keLRgFlz8aY
GORMLEY
Gormley might be the most “All or Nothing” horse of this year’s Derby contenders. He’s either won, or it’s been ugly. So do we get to see “Winning” Gormley or “Ugly” Gormley in Kentucky? There are plenty of reasons to think either could happen.
POSITIVES
[*] 6 career starts: 4 wins.
[*] His jockey is hall of famer Victor Espinoza, who rode American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown in 35 years 2 years ago. The year before that he rode California Chrome to Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins.
[*] His trainer is one of the best on the Southern California racing circuit: John Sherriffs. He trained 2005 Kentucky Derby Winner Giacomo.
[*] The horse has a win over a sloppy race track. So if it rains on Derby day, he’d be likely to handle the muddy/sloppy conditions well.
[*] Gormley has won races where he went straight to the lead, and where he sat right off of the leaders. In the Santa Anita Derby he showed a new dimension where he sat much further back in the early parts of the race and closed in on the early leaders and passed them. Since the Kentucky Derby is a 20-horse traffic jam, having the versatility to take what’s given to him early in the race will be huge. Espinoza will have the choice to ride him aggressively early to gain position, or can sit back if the pace gets extremely hot early.
[*] Gormley’s daddy is one of the top sires in racing today- Malibu Moon. Malibu Moon sired 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb.
[*] Whether it’s something in the water, the way horses are trained in California, or if Southern California owners/trainers just have a better eye for picking out potential Derby winners lately: a California-based horse has won the Kentucky Derby 4 out of the past 5 years.
NEGATIVES 
[*] In his 2 career losses, he was trounced. The last loss was 2 races ago where he finished in 4th place, but was beaten by 9 (horse) lengths. Last November in the most prestigious race for 2 year olds, the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile, he finished 7th beaten 16 lengths. So there’s no examples of him getting a hard-fought 3rd. He’s either won, or he’s gotten smoked.
[*] 2 of the horses that smashed him in that race last November, are likely Kentucky Derby favorite Classic Empire and contender Practical Joke. A lot can change between November and May, but a lot will have to change for him to be competitive against those 2.
[*] The only horse he’s beaten that’s currently in the Derby field is Battle of Midway.
[*] He’s only run in California. How will he handle shipping across the country and running out of his home environment for the first time? There have been a lot of dominant California horses over the years that never seem to show up with their best effort once they ship east.
BATTLE OF MIDWAY
The Santa Anita Derby was a gutsy performance by Battle of Midway, who still seems like he has room to improve. But he has the dreaded curse of Apollo working against him, and also doubts that he can carry his speed for 1 1/4 miles. The odds should be more than right on him if you think he can take another step forward.
POSITIVES
[*] 4 career races: 2 wins. Never finished worse than 3rd in any race.
[*] In each race that Battle of Midway has run in, the distance has increased each time. He has seemed to handle the longer races without issue thus far.
[*] In the Santa Anita Derby, Battle of Midway got into an aggressive dogfight on the front end, which would normally zap him by the time he’d reach the final turn. But he kept on running. Pace makes the race, and if you’re a horse running on the lead early in a race, you want to slow it down as much as possible to conserve your energy for later. The complete opposite happened in the Santa Anita Derby. 3 horses were in an all-out battle to gain the early lead, and the pace was way hotter than it should’ve been for them to keep running strong all the way to finish. Yet he kept on running, and nearly won the race.
[*] He’ll be ridden by the talented young Southern California-based jockey Flavien Prat. He’s only rode regularly in the U.S. since 2015, and in that time he’s taken the Southern California racing scene by storm. In the past year he’s rode in major stakes and race meets out east, so he’s becoming more and more relied upon to pilot quality horses regardless of where they run. He has ridden Battle of Midway before.
[*] Maybe Battle of Midway doesn’t necessarily need the lead? In the race before this, he sat a few lengths off the front-runners, and pounced on them late to win. Having some versatility would really go a long way to improving his chances of winning the Derby. His jockey in that race- Flavien Prat.
[*] Trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer. He’s one of the best trainers in the game. He has over 7,000 wins in his career. Only 2 other trainers have accomplished that in U.S. Racing history.
[*] His daddy is Smart Strike. Smart Strike hasn’t sired any Kentucky Derby winners, but is considered one of the top sires annually. Smart Strike sired Preakness winners Curlin (who finished 3rd in the 2008 Derby) and Lookin at Lucky. Major distance/class/stamina pedigree.
[*] Whether it’s something in the water, the way horses are trained in California, or if Southern California owners/trainers just have a better eye for picking out potential Derby winners lately: a California-based horse has won the Kentucky Derby 4 out of the past 5 years.
NEGATIVES
[*] Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse that was un-raced at age 2 won the Derby. I mentioned earlier that Battle of Midway has raced 4 times. But all 4 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?)
[*] If he gets in another borderline suicide pace-duel like he did in the Santa Anita Derby, can he really carry his speed for 1 1/4 miles against a lot tougher competition? It would be extremely difficult to do. He needs to be able to ration his speed to carry it over longer distances. Getting in a battle for the lead early in the Kentucky Derby most likely would compromise his chances later in the race.
[*] Battle of Midway got about a good of a trip as you could ask for in the Santa Anita Derby. If you’re going to try and get the early lead in a race, you want to save as much ground as possible. He literally had the inside track the whole race (he ran along the inside rail all the way around). Chances are he won’t be so lucky with 19 other horses in the Kentucky Derby. Can he carry his speed as far if he has to run outside of other speedsters and/or on an outer part of the track next time?
[*] Although the result of the race was close, was there really any doubt that Gormley wasn’t pulling away from him at the end? Is he good enough to turn the tables on Gormley, while running at a longer distance?
[*] Hollendorfer has won 3 Kentucky Oaks (the 3 year old filly version of the Derby), but has never won a Kentucky Derby. It’s about the only thing he has left to accomplish.
[*] Prat has never ridden in a Kentucky Derby before, and has very limited experience riding at Churchill Downs.
[*] He’s only run in California. How will he handle shipping across the country and running out of his home environment for the first time? There have been a lot of dominant California horses over the years that never seem to show up with their best effort once they ship east.
[*] 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.
[*] Battle of Midway hasn’t beaten any horse currently in the Derby field. A lot of that is due to the Santa Anita 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.
SUNLAND DERBY: HENCE
Date: March 26, 2017
Location: Sunland Park, Sunland Park, New Mexico
Distance: 1 1/8 Miles
Replay of Race:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0HtHUgqwvE
So I’ve decided to use the Sunland Derby as the beginning of this dizzying sequence of horses that lost bad to other derby horses, but then turned around and beat other derby horses, who lost to this derby horse in New York, but won this race in Kentucky against a different Derby horse… who was considered a main contender in Florida. Just bear with me throughout the various Derby Prep posts to help best try and untangle the web that is this year’s group of Kentucky Derby qualifiers.
HENCE
Hence looked pretty impressive in winning the Sunland Derby. But was he able to smash the competition due to getting a dream pace setup? There’s mixed signals about who he beat in the race as well. Regardless, he should be flying late in the Kentucky Derby.
POSITIVES
[*] 6 career starts: two wins, one 2nd, one 3rd.
[*] Has raced everywhere from New York to Kentucky to Arkansas to New Mexico. Has shown the ability to ship to any track and run successfully. His lone race at Churchill Downs, he finished a solid 2nd.
[*] Has a win over a sloppy/muddy track, so he should be able to handle the wet conditions if it rains on Derby Day.
[*] Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. Has trained many Kentucky Derby contenders and has won 2 Preaknesses and a Belmont Stakes. Asmussen also trains Untrapped and Lookin At Lee.
[*] Will be ridden by Florent Geroux, who is based at Churchill Downs and is always at the top of the jockey standings for their race meets. Him and Asmussen team up at Churchill in the summer/fall and at the Fairgrounds in the winter for a lot of wins. When a hall of fame trainer wants you to regularly ride his horses, that shows ultimate confidence in the rider’s ability. Geroux piloted Gun Runner to a solid 3rd place finish in his first ever Kentucky Derby ride last year.
[*] He mainly likes to sit towards the back in the early parts of races, conserve his energy and come with a strong closing run down the stretch (as shown in the clip above). But he’s also shown an ability in previous races to run effectively closer to the lead if the pace slows down. This kind of versatility could really help him out depending on how fast the pace is in the early part of the race.
NEGATIVES 
[*] Hence got the best pace set-up you could ever hope for if you’re a late-running closer. The pace was insanely hot in the Sunland Derby. In a perfect world, the pace-setter in a race that long would wanna set fractions of 24 seconds for a quarter mile, 48 for a half mile, and 1:12 for 3/4 of a mile. In the Sunland Derby the fractions are 22, 45, and 1:10. It’s why you see all the early leaders in the race drop out of contention by the final turn. They were all gassed. Will Hence get it this good in the Kentucky Derby?
[*] The only Kentucky Derby contender that Hence has beaten is Irap. At the time when this race was run, Irap was a maiden (meaning Irap had never won a race before).
[*] Hence was trounced in a minor Derby prep back in February called the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Oaklawn has 2 more Derby preps after the Southwest: the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby. It’s interesting that Asmussen decided to send Hence out to Sunland after getting smoked at Oaklawn. Hence was based at Oaklawn all winter, and could’ve ran him in those 2 remaining Derby preps. The Sunland Derby is a Kentucky Derby prep race that offers less qualifying points and less money. So (fairly or unfairly) it usually gets a lot of racing circuit’s 2nd-tier Derby contenders. What I’m getting at- did Asmussen send Hence to Sunland, because he didn’t think the horse could hang with the big dogs at Oaklawn? The 2nd and 3rd-place finishers in this race aren’t running in the Derby, and Irap was a maiden at the time. This leaves me with serious questions about who he’s actually beaten… The waters get a lot deeper in the Kentucky Derby.
[*] Steve Asmussen has done about everything he could possibly accomplish in his impressive hall-of-fame training career… except win a Kentucky Derby. It’s a win that continues to elude him. \
BLUE GRASS: IRAP, PRACTICAL JOKE
Date: April 8, 2017
Location: Keeneland (Lexington, KY)
Distance: 1 1/8 Miles
Replay of Race:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOZn3Gu1bVc
IRAP
Wait… Wait… Wait… Didn’t I just say in the previous post (the Sunland Derby post) that Irap was a maiden (a horse that’s never won before)!? When the Sunland Derby was run, that was the truth. Fast forward 2 weeks later– he pretty much shocks everyone by winning the Bluegrass (at 31-1 odds). It makes more sense in hindsight why trainer Doug O’Neill kept throwing him in the deep end of the swimming pool against top competition… even though he hadn’t won before. He had to have known this horse has the potential to be pretty good. Now the question is, can he improve on this result and give himself a legit shot to win the Derby? His Kentucky Derby odds will be juicy if you think it’s possible.
POSITIVES 
[*] The team of owner J. Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez know what it takes to win a Kentucky Derby. They teamed up in 2012 to win on I’ll Have Another, and did it again last year with Nyquist. So as irrational as it seemed (at the time) to keep entering a horse that had never won a race before in Kentucky Derby prep races, these guys kinda knew what they were doing.
[*] 8 career races: 5 top-3 finishes (his only win came in the Bluegrass Stakes)
[*] The horse has good results running at long distances. He ran his first 2 career races on the turf (grass racing), and since then has only run on dirt. None of those races have been shorter than 1 1/16 miles. Gives you a decent indication that the horse can run all day if the pace setup is right for him.
[*] About that pace setup- what a difference 2 weeks makes! As mentioned extensively in the Sunland Derby post, Irap sat very close to an extremely fast pace, and had nothing left in the tank for the stretch run. The opening quarter mile fraction at Sunland- 22 seconds. In the Bluegrass? almost 24 seconds. The Half Mile at Sunland? 45 seconds. In the Bluegrass? Over 48 seconds. 3/4 Mile fraction at Sunland? 1:10. In the Bluegrass 1:12. [B][I]You won’t find a bigger example/contrast on how pace makes the race than comparing these 2 races[/I][/B]. Notice that Irap didn’t tire out in the Bluegrass? He kept running strong all the way to the wire, because he didn’t exert too much energy early in the race trying to stay close to a hot pace.
[*] Irap’s daddy was Tiznow. Tiznow never ran in the Triple Crown races, but he won the Breeder’s Cup Classic twice. That race is one of America’s richest horse races (Purse of $6 million). The race is run at the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles. Tiznow won the 2000 Breeders Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Irap has a great pedigree for running all day.
[*] Irap has never been “a need the lead” horse early in races to be successful. He usually sits right off the lead and gets first run at the front-runners when they begin to tire. This should lead to minimal traffic issues in the Kentucky Derby, because he’ll have less horses to pass than most others in the race.
[*] Irap had mainly been based out on the west coast before shipping to Keeneland to get his first win. This shows that he can ship outside of California and still run his best race outside of his familiar surroundings.
[*] Whether it’s something in the water, the way horses are trained in California, or if Southern California owners/trainers just have a better eye for picking out potential Derby winners lately: a California-based horse has won the Kentucky Derby 4 out of the past 5 years.
[*] In winning the Bluegrass, he’s beaten Kentucky Derby qualifiers Practical Joke, J Boys Echo, Tapwrit and McCraken.
NEGATIVES
[*] I just gave you guys that long blurb comparing the very fast pace set in the Sunland Derby, and the much slower one in which he thrived at Keeneland. Kentucky Derby paces are usually blazing hot. The Sunland Derby showed he really struggled handling the heat in that race. So if the Kentucky Derby pace is almost as fast, can he improve enough to run THAT fast and further than he’s ever run before? That’s asking a lot.
[*] Let’s not forget that just 2 weeks before the Bluegrass: Sunland Derby winner Hence trounced Irap. Irap finished 4th that day. The 2nd and 3rd place finishers aren’t running in the Kentucky Derby. So he’s been beaten by horses that have no business running in the Kentucky Derby.
[*] Mario Gutierrez was his regular rider when Irap ran in California and New Mexico, but Julien Leparoux rode him in his win in the Bluegrass. Leparoux has chosen to ride likely Kentucky Derby betting favorite Classic Empire instead of Irap in the Kentucky Derby. Leparoux thinks Classic Empire has a better chance to win the Derby than Irap (or State of Honor).
[*] His one race where he ran in the mud wasn’t the best. He was a well-beaten 4th place against other maidens. Doesn’t exactly give me the most confidence if it rains on Derby day.
[*] The Bluegrass Stakes is a very prestigious Kentucky Derby prep race that owners/trainers all try to win.Yet the winner of the Bluegrass Stakes hasn’t gone on to win the Kentucky Derby since Strike the Gold did it in 1991! That’s quite the drought.
PRACTICAL JOKE
Practical Joke is as hard-trying as they come, and seems to always have a chance to win in the late stages of a race. But he hasn’t always won when the opportunity has presented itself. Can he close the deal going against the toughest competition at the longest distance he’s ever run? Mixed signals, but the odds will be right if you think he’s sitting on a big effort.
POSITIVES 
[*] 6 career races: All 6 have been top-3 finishes (3 wins).
[*] Trained by Chad Brown, who is arguably the best trainer in the game right now. He dominates the New York and Florida racing circuits. Wherever he ships his horses to run, they’re always to a major threat to win.
[*] Practical Joke is ridden by Joel Rosario, who rode the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb.
[*] The horse usually sits back in the early parts of races to conserve energy, and then comes with a big rally late to pass the tiring horses in front of him. He should be moving well towards the end of the Kentucky Derby.
[*] In case the pace is a little slower than expected in the Kentucky Derby, he showed in the Bluegrass that he can run just as well being closer to the lead and still have a strong closing kick.
NEGATIVES 
[*] He had every chance to pass Irap throughout the stretch of the Bluegrass and couldn’t do it.
[*] Might this have to do with his pedigree? His daddy is the very successful sire Into Mischief. Into Mischief babies are good at winning early, and at shorter distances. But once the distances increase, they’re not nearly as effective. Practical Joke hasn’t won a race over a mile. How is he supposed to win a race at 1 1/4 miles against top competition?
[*] Whether it’s fair or not, Chad Brown is starting to get pegged as a grass racing specialist. Frankly he’s the top trainer in the game when it comes to grass horses. His win percentages on dirt are very good, but the one glaring hole in his resume is he’s never had a big-time dirt runner. Are the type of horses he has more apt to win grass races, or is it his training style/methods that is holding him back from having consistent major dirt winners?
[*] In addition to Irap beating him in the Bluegrass, Classic Empire and Gunnevera have easily beaten Practical Joke in previous races. He’ll need major improvement to turn the tables on those horses.
[*] 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?
[*] 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.

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