2017 Kentucky Derby Preview: Horse-by-Horse Analysis (Part 3)

2017 Kentucky Derby Preview

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

By Peter May


Date: February 11, 2017
Location: Tampa Bay Downs (Oldsmar, FL)
Distance 1 1/16 Miles
Replay of Race:
I really didn’t want to write a post on a race that happened way back in February to show the potential of how good a horse can be, but McCraken gets special treatment. Shortly after this race, he came down with a minor ankle injury, and didn’t run again until the Bluegrass almost 2 months later. I don’t feel that the Bluegrass shows what he’s capable of as much as this race does, so that’s why he gets his own separate post. Now the question becomes, do we get the Sam F. Davis Stakes-winning McCraken, or the Bluegrass McCraken in the Kentucky Derby? The former gives him a good chance to win, the latter will doom him.
[*] 5 career races: 4 wins. His lone loss came in his last race where he finished 3rd in the Bluegrass.
[*] McCraken’s first 3 races were all run at Churchill Downs. He won all 3 of them.
[*] Every horse shows a little rust when they have their first races after a 2 month layoff (break). He probably wasn’t at his peak physical condition for the Bluegrass, so he has every right to improve in the Kentucky Derby. A lot of horse bettors love horses that are running their 2nd and 3rd races off a layoff, because that’s when they should be sitting on a peak effort. McCraken definitely fits that angle, as the Derby will be his 2nd race back from the 2-month break.
[*] Leading Churchill Downs jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. has rode McCraken in every race. Hernandez has chosen to ride McCraken over Louisiana Derby winner Girvin. This means that Hernandez thinks he has a better chance to win on McCraken than he does on Girvin… even after the Bluegrass loss.
[*] The horse has a good mid-pack/closing running style that can have him sitting as close as 3-4 lengths off the lead in the early stages of the race, or a little further back. This running style gives him a tactical advantage over some of the other late-running back-of-the-pack closers. He’ll most likely be ahead of them but can still come with the same type of strong finishing run needed to pass front-runners and win the Derby.
[*] Horse is trained by Ian Wilkes, who is one of the top Churchill Downs-based trainers annually. So not only does McCraken have a really good trainer, but also one that gets to train the horse in his own backyard.
[*] He’s beaten Derby contenders Tapwrit (twice), State of Honor, and J Boys Echo.
[*]McCraken’s daddy might be the best dirt horse I’ve seen run in the past 20 years: Ghostzapper. Ghostzapper never ran in the Triple Crown Races, but won 9 of 11 career races, and dominated his competition. He won the Breeder’s Cup Classic at the same Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles in 1:59. Whoever ends up winning the Kentucky Derby, if they do it in 2:01 it’ll be considered a fast time. That’s how fast Ghostzapper was.
[*] He had every chance to beat Irap throughout the stretch of the Bluegrass, but couldn’t pass him or Practical Joke
[*] We can blame rust and not being at peak physical condition as reasons why he didn’t win the Bluegrass, but before the Sam F. Davis, his last race was in November. The 2 month break didn’t affect him when he easily won the Sam F. Davis, so was he showing some rust off the layoff, or has the horse digressed?
[*] Wilkes and Hernandez have teamed up to win some big races, but have never won a Kentucky Derby.
[*] He was closer to the lead in the Bluegrass than he’s normally used to due to the slower pace. Yet when it came time to mow down the competition in front of him, he was flat. If there’s a slower pace set in the Kentucky Derby, will he be able to reach the leaders and pass them this 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.
Date: March 11, 2017
Location: Tampa Bay Downs (Oldsmar, FL)
Distance 1 1/16 Miles
Just like McCraken, Tapwrit ran a big dud in the Blue Grass Stakes. But he didn’t necessarily have the excuses that McCraken did. So which race will Tapwrit run in the Kentucky Derby? The one that broke the track record in smashing the Tampa Bay Derby? Or the Blue Grass dud? There are plenty of reasons to support both arguments.
[*] 6 career races: 3 wins, 1 2nd.
[*] He broke a track record in his Tampa Bay Derby romp. It was the fastest 1 1/16 mile race ever run at Tampa. He smashed Kentucky Derby contender State of Honor doing it. He’s beaten State of Honor twice.
[*] He was bought at auction for an absurd $1.2million. His daddy is one of the hottest sire/stallions in the game right now (with highest stud fee to boot… meaning it costs more to make babies with him than any other stallion right now). His name is Tapit. Tapit babies seem to be able to win regardless of the surface, distance, environment, etc. and they do so often. His mama Appealing Zophie also won many stakes races during her racing career. As far as bloodlines go, this is like Lebron James and Candice Parker getting together to make a really good basketball player.
[*] Broken Record Warning Broken Record Warning Broken Record Warning 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 Patch, and Always Dreaming.
[*] Tapwrit won a stakes race in the mud down at Gulfstream last December. So if it rains on Derby day that’s an encouraging sign that he can handle the wet conditions.
[*] Talented up-and-coming rider Jose Ortiz has ridden Tapwrit in his last 3 races, and will do so again in the Kentucky Derby. He’s been borderline dominant in New York the past few years.
[*] The horse has a good mid-pack/closing running style that can have him sitting as close as 3-4 lengths off the lead in the early stages of the race, or a little further back. This running style gives him a tactical advantage over some of the other late-running back-of-the-pack closers. He’ll most likely be ahead of them but can still come with the same type of strong finishing run needed to pass front-runners and win the Derby.
[*] 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.
[*] A Todd Pletcher trained-horse has won the Tampa Bay Derby in dominant fashion 4 out of the last 5 years. The last 2 winners have broke the track record in consecutive years. So they all look really appealing when it comes to playing them back in the Kentucky Derby. The best Kentucky Derby finish amongst those horses? 6th place. Gross.
[*] There has only been 1 Tampa Bay Derby winner to go on and win the Kentucky Derby: Street Sense in 2007.
[*] The horse hasn’t had a top 3 finish outside of the state of Florida. Was his Bluegrass dud due to shipping out of his normal surroundings?
[*] Jose Ortiz has been dominant when he rides in New York. When he ships out to ride at other tracks, he’s pretty ordinary. Being familiar with the track you’re riding at can only help your chances of winning. Ortiz doesn’t have much experience riding at Churchill.
[*] He’s been beaten twice by McCraken, and also lost to Irap, Practical Joke, and J Boys Echo. He needs to improve to turn the tables on these horses.
[*] He was a little further back than he wanted to be in the early part of the Bluegrass. The pace was slow enough that he couldn’t make up any ground once he came from behind. Pace makes the race works both ways. If the front-runners are able to slow down the pace enough, they’ll have enough energy to keep running strong throughout the race. It makes the horses closing from far back much tougher to catch the front runners. Can he only win if he gets a faster pace to run into?
Date: April 8, 2017
Location: Aqueduct (Ozone Park, NY)
Distance: 1 1/8 Miles
Are we getting the Wood Memorial run from New Jersey-bred Irish War Cry in the Kentucky Derby? He made that look pretty easy. Or are we getting the Fountain of Youth run from Irish War Cry where he got destroyed by Gunnevera? The Fountain of Youth has been the only blemish on this horse’s otherwise perfect resume, but it was a big blemish. There are a lot of reasons think that dud in the Fountain of Youth was a blip on the radar, and won’t be repeated.
[*] 5 Career races: 4 Wins.
[*] Has won races in New York, Florida and Maryland. Has shown that he can ship anywhere and win.
[*] Has beaten Derby entrants Gunnevera, and Classic Empire in past races.
[*] Trained by Graham Motion, who is one of the top trainers in the game. Trained 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
[*] 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 Wood Memorial). 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.
[*] He’ll be ridden in the Kentucky Derby by solid, steady New York-based rider Rajiv Maragh. Maragh is one of the better “feel good”/comeback stories of horse racing. He was severely injured in a race back in July of 2015 where he broke multiple bones in his back and ribs. It kept him out of racing for a year and half, finally returning to the saddle November of last year. It seems like he’s picked up where he left off since he began riding again. He’s had a very good/productive meet at Aqueduct. That same year that Motion won the Kentucky Derby training Animal Kingdom, Maragh rode the 3rd place finisher Mucho Macho Man.
[*] His daddy is Curlin. Curlin finished 3rd in the Kentucky Derby, won the Preakness, and ended up becoming North America’s all-time leading money-winner (until 2 horses recently broke his record in the past year). He won over $10 million in his racing career. Breeding/pedigree give him a good chance to handle the Kentucky Derby distance.
[*] What the heck happened in the Fountain of Youth? He was a complete no-show that day and got smoked by Gunnevera and Practical Joke. Graham Motion didn’t even seem to know, tweeting shortly after the race: “Irish War Cry shipped back to Palm Meadows after his race today and seemed fine. No obvious excuse for his poor performance. Tough game #FOY” A repeat of anything close to that will give him no chance to win the Derby.
[*] Was his Fountain of Youth dud the reason Motion decided to ship the horse to Aqueduct instead of running in the Florida Derby? The horse was based in South Florida most of the winter, yet Motion ships him all the way to New York instead of staying home. Maybe he didn’t want to run against Gunnevera again?
[*] There hasn’t been a Wood Memorial runner go onto win the Kentucky Derby since 2003 (Funny Cide). A lot of this may be due to the horses that run in New York in the winter/spring are usually slightly lower caliber. A lot of the prominent/top horsemen in New York ship their best horses to Florida to race in the winter/spring. Did the Wood provide much competition for him? The top 2 horses were miles ahead of everyone else in the race.
[*] Nobody he beat in the Wood Memorial is going onto run in the Kentucky Derby. So did Irish War Cry rebound, or did he beat a soft (inferior) field?
[*] Maragh is a great comeback story, but he has very limited experience riding at Churchill. He hasn’t ridden there since coming back from the injury.
[*] 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.
Date: 3/25/2017
Location: Meydan Racecourse (Dubai, UAE)
Distance: 1 3/16 Miles

Thunder Snow has accomplished a few things that no other horse in this year’s Kentucky Derby field has… but history is really working against him. Can his accomplishments finally overcome the horrible track record of Kentucky Derby runners from Dubai? There are reasons to think so, and you’ll get great odds if you think this is finally the year a Dubai horse can break through.
[*] 8 Career starts: 4 Wins, 2 seconds.
[*] Going inside the numbers- Only his last 2 races have been on dirt. He raced exclusively on turf (grass) in the UK and France last year before giving dirt a try in Dubai this winter. 2 dirt races: 2 wins. Those 2 dirt races were his only 2 races at a distance of a mile or longer. So whether it was a surface switch or an increase in distance, or both, the results have been perfect.
[*] His jockey in his last 3 races: Top French rider Christophe Soumillon. The horse won all 3 of those races with Soumillon aboard. Soumillon has ridden in a Kentucky Derby before. He rode the Dubai qualifier in 2015- Muubtahij. The horse had a middling finish in the Derby, but it might’ve also had something to do with American Pharoah being dominant and winning the first Triple Crown in 35ish years lol… Soumillon rides in the biggest races around the world, and has at least brief experience at Churchill. So the big stage shouldn’t shake him.
[*] His trainer is Saeed bin Suroor, who trains exclusively for Sheik Mohhamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s (the ruler of Dubai) Godolphin stable. Godolphin is one of the top racing stables/ownership groups in the world. They spare no expense in buying the best horses at auction, and breeding the best horses as well. Godolphin has leading racing stables in the U.S., Europe, Dubai and Australia. Their horses have won major races everywhere from Japan to Canada to Hong Kong and everywhere in between. Godolphin/bin Suroor have teamed up to send 7 horses to the Kentucky Derby (Godolphin has sent a few more to the Kentucky Derby with different trainers as well, and ones that raced solely in the U.S.). So Saeed bin Suroor has had plenty of opportunities to tinker with what methods work and don’t work in preparing a horse for the Derby.
[*] At 1 3/16 miles, the UAE Derby is the longest Kentucky Derby prep race. Not only did he win at that distance, but no other horse in the Kentucky Derby field has run further than 1 1/8 miles. The constant worry with any Derby horse is if they can handle running 1 1/4 miles. If you watch the video, it was impressive how he was able to re-rally in the very late stages of the race. He started to veer out a little, but he straightened out and surged past the winner, finishing strong at the end. The UAE Derby result is a positive sign that he should be able to handle the distance.
[*] I keep complaining that the Kentucky Derby is a 20-horse traffic jam. American horses will almost never run in a race that has more than 14 horses in it, and it’s rare when there’s more than 12 in a race. The UAE Derby was a field of 16. Thunder snow ran in a race last year that had 18 horses in it. So he’s had a decent amount of success navigating around a bunch of horses.
[*] A big reason why he’s been able to handle racing against bigger fields with success: his running style. He has a nice stalking style that sits him a few lengths off the front runners, and pounces on them when they get tired in the final turn. Being able to position himself towards the lead in a race means he has less horses to pass (less traffic to deal with) coming for home.
[*] Not sure if “curse” is the right word to use, but Dubai horses have never fared well in the Kentucky Derby. No horse has ever won the Derby shipping from Dubai. In fact, no horse has ever finished in the top 4… Yikes.
[*] For the Godolphin/bin Suroor team, of the 7 horses they’ve sent to the Derby from Dubai, their best Kentucky Derby finish is 6th place.
[*] The lack of success on Derby day for (for Dubai qualifiers) might have to do with the rigors of shipping/traveling. Historically, when US horses ship to Dubai to race, they usually get a long break after. The travel saps them, and they need time to recover. Arguably the best horse in the world right now is Arrogate. He’s an American horse trained by Bob Baffert (who trained American Pharoah to win all 3 races of the Triple Crown). Arrogate just won the Dubai World Cup on the same night that Thunder Snow won the UAE Derby. Baffert says Arrogate probably won’t run again until July. That’s how much the long travel from Dubai can sap a horse’s energy. Thunder Snow has had plenty of time to rest up in Dubai after winning the UAE Derby, but he’s set to arrive at Churchill Downs on Sunday (4/30). So he’s pretty much gonna hit the ground running going into the Kentucky Derby. Will he be at 100% physically after all that travel?
[*] To drive the point home about the travel- The horse he narrowly beat in the UAE Derby, Epicharis, qualified for the Kentucky Derby with that strong 2nd place effort. The owner/trainer of that horse are declining an invitation to run in the Kentucky Derby and are choosing to run 2 weeks later in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Those 2 extra weeks can make all the difference in getting a horse back to full strength for those races.
[*] Since Epicharis isn’t running in the Kentucky Derby, Thunder Snow hasn’t beaten any horse currently in the Derby field. Granted the horse has never run in the U.S. before, so he hasn’t had the opportunity to run against the other Derby contenders. In most other parts of the world, racing is done primarily on grass/turf courses. So a lot of the horses he beat are not only bred to run on turf, they’ve only run on turf. It leads to serious questions about the strength of competition he’s beaten. This same question rears its ugly head every year with the UAE Derby winner racing in the Kentucky Derby.
[*] Watching the stretch run (the final straightaway) of the UAE Derby, he’s having trouble running straight. He keeps bobbing and weaving until he finally rights himself late in the race and surges. He needs to find a way to stay focused and run straight.
[*] The race result shows that he handled running a long distance just fine, but his pedigree/bloodlines say otherwise. His daddy is an Australian horse (Thunder Snow was bred in Ireland) named Helmet. Helmet was a stone-cold sprinter. He won a bunch of races under a mile, but struggled at longer distances. It’s not just a distance pedigree concern- his breeding is all turf. Helmet never ran on dirt and none of his babies have run in the U.S. to prove his progeny can successfully run over a dirt surface. Same for his mama. So he’s bred for the lawn… Is he a freak that is out-running his pedigree both distance/surface-wise? Or did he just beat inferior competition?
Date: March 25, 2017
Location: Turfway Park, Florence, KY
Distance: 1 1/8 Miles (Synthetic Racing Surface)
Fast and Accurate looked good holding off all the late-charging competition in the Spiral Stakes win. But there are major questions regarding not only who he faced in that race, but if he can even handle running on the Churchill Downs dirt surface. He’ll be one of the longer shots in this year’s Derby field, so if you think he can hold his own against the other Derby contenders, you’ll get great odds. 
[*] 6 career races: 3 wins, 1 2nd. Currently on a 3-race win streak.
[*] His first 2 wins came when he went straight to the lead, and held off the competition to win. In winning the Spiral, he sat off the front-runners and made an aggressive move on the final turn to get a clear lead, and ran strong all the way to the finish. Showing that he doesn’t need the lead to win gives him options.
[*] Trained by one of the top trainers at Churchill Downs- Michael Maker. Not only do you have an accomplished trainer who has trained Derby contenders in past years, this is in his own back yard.
[*] His Daddy was Hansen. Hansen was an extremely fast son of Tapit (Tapwrit’s post to shows how I heap praise on Tapit babies). He was a speed-ball that went straight to the lead in his races and just kept on running. Hansen ran in the Kentucky Derby, but his biggest career win also came at Churchill Downs. He won America’s most prestigious 2 year old race (remember, all horses turn 3 on January 1st): the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The Breeders’ Cup was held at Churchill Downs that year. Hansen’s trainer? Michael Maker.
[*] Owner Kendall Hansen likes Fast and Accurate’s chances. Hansen didn’t pay the horse’s nomination fee to be eligible to run in the Derby (keep reading, I’ll dive into this further shortly), so he was forced to pay $200,000 to get Fast and Accurate into the Kentucky Derby even though he won the Spiral. Hansen sold ownership shares of the horse to Olympic Skier Bode Miller and a few other partners to help pay the fee.
[*] His Jockey in the Derby will be solid Churchill-based jockey Channing Hill. Hill rode Fast and Accurate to his first win. Fast and Accurate is getting a jockey that’s not only familiar with the horse, but familiar with Churchill Downs.
[*] Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby after winning the Spiral in 2011. So there’s recent history that shows a horse can come out of the Spiral and hold his own against the big dogs in the Derby. Like Fast and Accurate, Animal Kingdom had never won on dirt before winning the Kentucky Derby (I’ll dive into this further below)
[*] Whether he’s in the lead or sitting close to it, he should be able to avoid a lot of the traffic that the horses behind him will encounter.
[*] As good of a race record as Fast and Accurate has, all of his wins have been on grass and poly track.]HE’S NEVER WON A RACE ON DIRT BEFORE. His lone try on dirt was in a maiden race (horses that haven’t won before) at Parx (Philadelphia), and he finished non-threatening 5th place.
[*] The Spiral stakes is run at Turfway Park. It’s racing surface isn’t dirt, but kinda like the astro-turf equivalent to dirt called “Polytrack”. It started being installed at tracks around the world in the early 2000s for 2 reasons- 1) It handles harsh weather conditions better than dirt. If it rains on dirt, the dirt turns into slop/mud. On poly, the water drains off it much better, so the surface stays mostly in the same condition regardless of weather. 2) It’s debatable how true this is, but it’s considered an overall safer racing surface for horses. The problem with the surface- Is even though it was intended to be a dirt substitute, dirt horses don’t seem to run as well on it as turf horses do. For horses that have been successful running on turf and polytrack (synthetic), a lot of times that success doesn’t carry over to dirt. What I’m ultimately getting at- Fast and Accurate’s win in the Spiral gives us no indication if he can handle running on dirt or not.
[*] Because Maker has pretty much avoided running him on dirt, he hasn’t run against/beaten any horse in this year’s Derby field.
[*] Horses don’t just qualify for the Derby by performing well in the Kentucky Derby prep races, the owners need to pay a nomination fee. If done so when they’re born, it’s minimal. Even up to March 20, the nomination fee was only $6,000. That may seem like a lot, but with the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars you can win between running in the Derby preps and the Derby itself, it’s a good investment. Owner Kendall Hansen didn’t nominate the horse at any point. Once Fast and Accurate won the Spiral, he needed to pay $200,000 to get him into the Derby (even though he qualified for the Derby by winning the Spiral). Hansen never nominated the horse to the Triple Crown, so he must’ve not thought of the horse as a Kentucky Derby contender until he won the Spiral. Hansen had another horse running in the Spiral as well. So until Fast and Accurate won the Spiral, both Maker and Hansen must’ve not had much faith in his Derby chances.
[*] Maker has sent plenty of horses to the Derby in the past, but has never had a top-3 finish in the race.
[*] Jockey Tyler Gafflione rode Fast and Accurate to the Spiral win, and had the option to keep the mount for the Kentucky Derby. He has chosen to ride Patch instead. This means at least in Gafflione’s opinion, Patch gives him a better chance to win the Kentucky Derby than Fast and Accurate does.
[*] Whether Fast and Accurate tries gunning for the lead, or sits right off of the leaders, he’ll need a slow pace to conserve his energy to run strong all the way to the finish. The Derby pace will probably be pretty fast. Can he handle the heat, at a longer distance than he’s ever run before?
[*] He got an ideal race trip in the Spiral. He settled along the the inside rail right behind the front-runners early, and then angled off the rail to make his winning run in the final turn. If he gets the inside track again in the Kentucky Derby, it’ll be much more likely that he’ll be stuck along the inside rail due to traffic to his outside. And if he’s outside of horses, he’ll be losing ground to the other speedsters to the inside of him (by racing wider than the others). It’ll be tough for him to duplicate the dream trip he got in the Spiral with 19 other horses around him.
[*] 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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