2017 Kentucky Derby Preview: Horse-by-Horse Analysis (Part 4)

2017 Kentucky Derby Preview

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

By Peter May

GOTHAM: J BOYS ECHO

Date: March 4, 2017
Location: Aqueduct (Ozone Park, NY)
Distance: 1 1/16 Miles
Replay of Race:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2KxtcQ7RGA

J BOYS ECHO

To show what J Boys Echo is capable of, it wouldn’t be fair to write about him in the Blue Grass post. The Gotham Stakes is a Kentucky Derby prep race with less qualifying points offered to get into the Derby. It’s usually used as a stepping stone to run in the Wood Memorial if you run well enough in the Gotham. Winning the Gotham got J Boys Echo enough qualifying points to get in the Derby. Trainer Dale Romans is based in Kentucky, so that was his reasoning for shipping J Boys Echo to the Blue Grass after winning the Gotham (instead of running in the Wood Memorial). One thing is for sure (and is also the case with more than a few other Derby entrants)- due to having a bad performance in his final race before the Derby, you’re going to get much better odds on him in the Kentucky Derby than you would’ve if he had run a strong race in the Blue Grass.  He’ll make some noise in the Derby if he runs like he did in the Gotham. He’ll have no chance if he runs like he did in the Blue Grass. There are plenty of reasons to think he’ll rebound in the Derby, but some definite knocks against him as well.
POSITIVES

[*] 6 career races. 2 Wins, 1 2nd, 1 3rd. Has never finished worse than 4th in a race.
[*] His lone start at Churchill Downs: a solid 2nd place finish (his career debut).
[*] After his career debut, all of his races have been 1 1/16 miles or longer. The horse seems to thrive at running longer distances.
[*] Trained by Dale Romans, who is at the top of Churchill Downs training standings every year. This horse was based at Churchill Downs last fall, so he’s getting back to his familiar surroundings. Romans has trained plenty of Kentucky Derby contenders in the past. He’s come really close to winning it: with a couple of 3rd place finishes in previous years.
[*] Romans seems to have a lot of faith in solid New York/Florida-based jockey Luis Saez. Saez rode Roman’s Kentucky Derby entrant, Brody’s Cause in last year’s Derby.
[*] J Boys Echo has a nice stalking/mid-pack running style, which sits him a few lengths off the front-runners, but never lets them get too far ahead. The Gotham video perfectly shows what he’s capable of. He ran on his own along the inside rail, and made a powerful move on the turn and swooped right by the front runners. If the front runners in the Derby heat up the pace enough for him, J Boys Echo will definitely be one of the horses moving strong late in the race.
[*] He has breeding that should allow him to run all day. His daddy is Mineshaft. Mineshaft never ran in the Derby because he ran most of his 3 year-old season in Europe. But once he came to the US and ran on dirt, he won almost everything. He ended his career winning 2 prestigious stakes races at 1 1/4 miles on dirt. His grandaddy on his mama’s side is Menifee, who finished 2nd in both the Derby and the Preakness in 1999.
NEGATIVES
[*] What the heck happened in the Blue Grass? He was never competitive in that race. He sat close to the front runners throughout the race, had a clear run on the turn (like he did in the Gotham), and just finished flat once he angled outside in the stretch.
[*] He did manage to finish ahead of Tapwrit in the Blue Grass, but that’s not saying much when both horses were not competitive in the race. It means Derby Contenders Irap, Practical Joke, and McCraken have beaten him. On top of the Bluegrass dud, Gunnevera smoked him in a prestigious 2-year old race (all horses turn 3 on January 1st) called the Delta Jackpot last November (he was a non-competitive 4th that day). This means that his 2 worst career races are the 2 races that had other horses in the Kentucky Derby field in them.
[*] Romans had the horse based at Gulfstream all winter. So why not run him in the Kentucky Derby Preps at Gulfstream (the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby)? Was he afraid he’d have to race against Gunnevera again? Pletcher had most of his horses at Gulfstream. Irish War Cry as well. Maybe Romans was trying to duck the competition? No horses running in the Gotham qualified for the Kentucky Derby. 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 Gotham provide much competition for him? The top 2 horses were miles ahead of everyone else in the race. Just seems funny you’d be in South Florida all winter and decide to run your horse all the way up in New York to qualify for the Derby.
[*] For all the complimentary things I can say about Luis Saez, he’s only riding J Boys Echo because his regular rider recently got hurt. Top Churchill jockey Robby Albarado has ridden J Boys Echo in 5 out of 6 career races. Albarado unfortunately broke his leg 2 weeks before the Derby, so he won’t be riding again for a couple months.
[*] 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? This is pretty much what happened in the Bluegrass. “Pace makes the race” applies equally to closers too (horses coming from behind). 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.
[*] 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.
REBEL STAKES: SONNETEER, UNTRAPPED 
Date: March 18, 2017
Location: Oaklawn Park (Hot Springs, ARK)
Distance: 1 1/16 Miles
The Rebel Stakes is a Kentucky Derby prep race that offers a smaller purse and less qualifying points. It’s usually used as a stepping stone for the Arkansas Derby if you run well enough in the Rebel. I think this race a little better represents what Untrapped and Sonneteer are capable of than what they showed in the Arkansas Derby. There’s one main problem for both horses- neither ran well enough in their Kentucky Derby prep races to qualify for the Derby on their own. Both needed other horses to drop out to get into the Kentucky Derby field.
SONNETEER
Sonneteer has been an ultra-consistent deep closer. He sits at the back of the pack early in the races and comes with a hard late run to pass by tiring horses. The problem is he’s ultra-consistent at something else too: LOSING. He’s a maiden. But like with Irap (who was also a maiden while running in Derby prep races), the trainer of Sonneteer gets the benefit of the doubt for throwing his horse in the deep end every race. Although he’s never won before, he’ll assuredly be passing horses 1 by 1 late in the Kentucky Derby. Since he’s never won before, it’s not likely he’ll win now. On the bright side- horses with his running style have won plenty of Kentucky Derbies when the pace gets hot. You’ll get rewarded if you think he can finish in the top 4, because he’ll be one of the bigger longshots in the race.
POSITIVES 
[*]For never winning a race, the horse hasn’t been a complete embarrassment. 10 career races: 4 seconds and 2 thirds. The only time he finished worse than 4th in any race was in his career debut. He got a solid 2nd place finish in the Rebel and followed it up with a solid 4th place finish in the Arkansas Derby where he was motoring home late.
[*]Why would a maiden (a horse that’s never won before) try to win the Kentucky Derby? His trainer Keith Desormeaux sees a talented horse who’s been knocking on the door of getting his first win for awhile. In a year where everyone is beating everyone in the Derby preps, why not keep trying if your horse is right there at the end? Keith Desormeaux trained Exaggerator to a 2nd place finish in last year’s Kentucky Derby. Exaggerator went onto win the Preakness in his next start. So he know’s how to get a horse prepped for the Derby.
[*]Exaggerator’s jockey last year will be Sonneteer’s jockey in the Derby: Keith’s brother and hall of famer Kent Desormeaux. Kent won the 1998, 2000 and 2008 Kentucky Derbies. The Desormeaux family has had plenty of success in this race. Kent has plenty of familiarity with Sonneteer: He’s rode the horse 6 times.
[*]The horse tends to sit towards the back of the pack at the beginning of races and make a furious rally late in races. If the Kentucky Derby pace is hot, it’ll only help his cause. Unlike a lot of the horses in the Kentucky Derby field, where there’s a concern if they can handle running at 1 1/4 miles effectively, I think “the longer, the better” for Sonneteer. It gives him all that much more distance to pass tiring horses at the end.
[*]When writing about Lookin at Lee, who has the same late running style, the key difference is Sonneteer will run straight when he gets clear in the stretch. Lookin at Lee was doing the zig-zag through the stretch last time. When you’re dealing with 19 other horses, it’s good that he can run straight and stay on task.
[*]Although he ran his last 2 races at Oaklawn, all his previous races were run at Santa Anita. He’s based in Southern California and trains full time at Santa Anita. 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.
[*]He’s run effectively in both California and Arkansas. So shipping out of his normal surroundings in California and running in Kentucky shouldn’t be an issue.
[*]He finished ahead of Untrapped and Lookin at Lee in the Rebel.
NEGATIVES
[*]This is just a friendly reminder that he’s a maiden!!! HE’S NEVER WON BEFORE!!!
[*]He didn’t run well enough in the Kentucky Derby prep races to qualify for the race. 3 horses had to drop out for him to get in the Derby.
[*]There was a maiden who ran in the Kentucky Derby last year: Trojan Nation (but unlike Sonneteer, Trojan Nation qualified for the Derby fair and square by finishing 2nd in the Wood). Between 1945 and 2016, 10 maidens have competed in the Kentucky Derby. The best finish of the bunch: 8th Place.
[*]Classic Empire had him clearly beaten in the Arkansas Derby. Even with all the zig-zagging Lookin at Lee out-finished him in that race too.
[*]Sonneteer is going to have to pass a bunch of horses to run big and/or win the Derby. He’ll be sitting at the back of the pack with Lookin at Lee early in the race. Will he be able to pass/get around 19 other horses and still have time to catch the horses ahead of him? That’s a lot of traffic to deal with.
[*]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 closers too (horses coming from behind). 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.
[*]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.
UNTRAPPED
Untrapped has one really nice trait that he’s displayed in both the Rebel and Arkansas Derby: he was able to get a clear run at the top of the stretch and attack the leaders in the race. The problem was he flattened out in both races and wasn’t able to carry his strong run all the way to the finish. His running style and positioning have been great, but he needs to find more stamina to follow through with those runs all the way to the wire. He’ll be one of the longest shots on the board if you think he’s capable of finding more in the Derby.
POSITIVES 
[*]6 career races: 1 win, 3 2nds, 1 3rd. His lone win came at Churchill Downs
[*]His jockey will be top Churchill rider Ricardo Santana Jr. He was the jockey for Untrapped’s first 4 races and his only win.
[*]Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. He has trained many Kentucky Derby contenders and has won 2 Preaknesses and a Belmont Stakes. Asmussen also trains Hence and Lookin At Lee.
[*]He has a nice mid-pack running style that usually has him sitting 4-6 (horse) lengths off the early lead, and comes with a late run. He has one really good quality that he can do better than most horses in the Derby field: when the jockey asks him to go, he bursts ahead of horses in a hurry. This has led to some very nice positioning in the final turn/top of the stretch where he’s attacking the leaders a lot sooner in the race than most of the other closers can. It also alleviates potential traffic issues. As the video of the Rebel shows, Untrapped is engaged with (eventual winner) Malagacy right at the top of the stretch, and has a clear run doing so.
[*]He finished a solid 2nd in the mud in a stakes race at Fair Grounds (New Orleans) back in January. So if it rains on Derby day, he should be able to handle the wet conditions.
NEGATIVES
[*]He didn’t run well enough in the Derby prep races to qualify on his own. He needed other horses to drop out before he could get into the race.
[*]As complimentary as I’ve been about his ability to get into a good position late in races, he can’t carry his strong run all the way to the wire (finish line). He engaged eventual winner Malagacy at the top of the stretch, but Malagacy ran away from him. Late in the race Sonneteer caught him because he got tired. In the Arkansas Derby it was even worse. He made that same strong move in the turn to get himself in position to attack at the top of the stretch, but got tired well before the finish and got passed by a bunch of horses to finish a non-threatening 6th place. The Rebel is at a 1 1/16 miles. He seemed to tire out at the end. The Arkansas Derby is 1 1/8 miles. He seemed more tired at the end of that race. This does not inspire confidence that he has the stamina to run strong for 1 1/4 miles.
[*]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.
[*]Classic Empire and Girvin have beaten him. Sonneteer has finished ahead of him in both the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. Lookin at Lee finished far ahead of him in the Arkansas Derby. The horse that won the Rebel, Malagacy, finished ahead of Untrapped in the Arkansas Derby as well. The Arkansas Derby was considered a failure for Malagacy and trainer Todd Pletcher took him out of the Kentucky Derby for it. So Untrapped is running in the Kentucky Derby because a horse that beat him twice dropped out. That’s another big concern.
ARKANSAS DERBY: CLASSIC EMPIRE, LOOKIN AT LEE
Date: April 15, 2017
Location: Oaklawn Park (Hot Springs, Arkansas)
Distance: 1 1/8 Miles
Replay of Race:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7u3cP9PQYo&t=3s
CLASSIC EMPIRE
Classic Empire is your likely Kentucky Derby favorite (Always Dreaming and him could be co-favored). He was borderline dominant at age 2 (remember, for racing purposes every horse turns 3 on January 1st) and gave people a preview of what he’s capable of in winning the Arkansas Derby. There are serious questions surrounding who he beat in Arkansas and the dud he ran in his previous race in Florida that have people taking a more critical look at him though.
POSITIVES
[*] 7 career races: 5 wins, 1 third.
[*] His first 2 races were at Churchill Downs: 2 wins
[*] His Arkansas Derby win was his first race back from a 2 month layoff (break). Horses usually show a little rust and aren’t always the most fit coming off a layoff. It didn’t matter as he won convincingly. What’s scary is he probably wasn’t at his peak physical condition for the Arkansas Derby, 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. Classic Empire definitely fits that angle, as the Derby will be his 2nd race back from the 2-month break.
[*] 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 State of Honor.
[*] Jockey Julien Leparoux is a leading rider at Churchill Downs annually. He’s ridden Classic Empire in 6 out of his 7 career races. He’s chosen to ride Classic Empire over State of Honor and Irap. Leparoux thinks that Classic Empire gives him the best chance to win a Kentucky Derby.
[*] The horse usually stalks the pace, which means he sits a few lengths off the front-runners and charges past them in the stretch. His ability to have enough speed to stay close to the lead early in races and still have enough energy to make big closing runs late is what has made him stand out among this year’s Derby field.
[*] He won a race in the slop at Churchill Downs, so if it rains he still should be able to handle the wet track conditions.
[*] His daddy is Pioneerof the Nile. Pioneerof the Nile finished 2nd in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Pioneerof the Nile is the father of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. So not only did dad do well in the Derby, but has produced the only Triple Crown winner in the last 35+ years.
[*] He’s beaten Lookin at Lee 3 times, Gormley, Gunnevera, Practical Joke, Untrapped and Sonneteer in past races.
NEGATIVES 
[*] In his last race before the Arkansas Derby, he ran in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream (Miami) on February 4th. He was smoked by Irish War Cry and Gunnevera in that race. An abscess in one of his hooves was discovered 2 days after the race, and was thought to be the reason why he didn’t run his best that day(and also the reason for not running again until the Arkansas Derby). Maybe it was the reason, but maybe it was just a convenient excuse. Practical Joke beat him in a race in New York last year. Just saying he’s had his “off” days like every other horse in this year’s Kentucky Derby field.
[*] Mark Casse has trained a couple of Derby runners in the past, never finishing better than 5th.
[*] Julien Leparoux has ridden in the Kentucky Derby 9 out of the last 10 years, also never finishing better than 5th.
[*] There are serious questions about who he beat in the Arkansas Derby. Granted, 3 other horses that he beat in the Arkansas Derby are in the Kentucky Derby field. But it’s how those horses got into the Kentucky Derby that’s concerning. Untrapped, Lookin At Lee and Sonneteer only got into the Kentucky Derby after 3 other horses withdrew from the race. Which means they didn’t do well enough in the Kentucky Derby prep races to qualify on their own (they were outside of the original top 20 list). Furthermore, the 2nd place horse in the Arkansas Derby won’t run in the Kentucky Derby because his owners didn’t nominate the horse for the Triple Crown and decided not to pay the $200,000 required to get in the race (see Fast and Accurate’s post for more info on this). Sonneteer is still a maiden (he’s never won a race before). Kind of like with Irish War Cry’s rebound race in the Wood Memorial, it’s not wrong to ask- “is Classic Empire truly back, or did he just beat a really soft bunch”?
LOOKIN AT LEE
Since last fall, Lookin at Lee has been Classic Empire’s punching bag. He’s lost to Classic Empire 3 times. But but but but but but!!!!! The Arkansas Derby effort caught a lot of people’s attention. It’s a flirt… It’s a “what if”? The “bob and weave” he did down the final stretch, rallying to get 3rd while moving like a runaway train has put him on a lot of people’s Derby radar. He should be flying late at big odds in the Kentucky Derby, but it begs 2 questions- can he run straight this time, and if so, will be good enough to beat a horse like Classic Empire?
POSITIVES
[*] 9 Career Starts: 2 Wins, 2 seconds, 2 thirds
[*] Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. He has trained many Kentucky Derby contenders and has won 2 Preaknesses and a Belmont Stakes. Asmussen also trains Hence and Untrapped.
[*] Speaking of Hence, Lookin at Lee finished well ahead of Hence in his solid 3rd place finish in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn back in February. He finished ahead of Gunnevera in a race last fall. He finished ahead of Untrapped and Sonneteer in the Arkansas Derby. Although Lookin At Lee has lost to Classic Empire the 3 times they’ve raced, you can at least say that he hasn’t ducked the competition.
[*] The Arkansas Derby trip is so flirtatious to so many people. As the youtube clip above shows, he was absolutely barreling home. This displays his late-running come-from-behind style. If he runs straight down the stretch (the final straightaway), he probably finishes second to Classic Empire and qualifies for the Derby fair and square. He’s likely to get a fast pace to run after in the Kentucky Derby. If/when the front-runners get tired, he’s capable of doing a lot of damage late. I think a lot of people watch his Arkansas Derby race, and think “if he had more distance…”. The Kentucky Derby is an 1/8 of a mile longer.
[*] Top Churchill Jockey Corey Lanerie picks up the mount for the Kentucky Derby
[*] Lookin at Lee finished a solid 2nd in the mud at Churchill last fall. So if it rains on Derby Day, he should be able to handle the wet conditions.
[*] His daddy is Lookin at Lucky, who ran in the 2010 Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness that year.
NEGATIVES
[*] He didn’t do well enough in the Derby prep races to qualify on his own. 2 horses had to drop out for him to get into the Derby.
[*] Beyond losing to Classic Empire 3 times, he’s finished behind Practical Joke, Sonneteer and Untrapped in previous races.
[*] He hasn’t won a race since last August, and hasn’t won a race at a mile or longer.
[*] 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.
[*] As much of a tease that the Arkansas Derby provided supporters of Lookin at Lee, it’s a bigger concern. Lookin at Lee was very wide at the top of the stretch, before darting to the inside rail, and then weaving back outside to get around horses. THE HORSE NEEDS TO RUN STRAIGHT. He won’t be able to do that kind of zig-zag in the stretch with 19 other horses around him. In my opinion the zig zag cost him a 2nd place finish in the Arkansas Derby. It’ll cost him much more if he does the same in the Kentucky Derby.
[*] For Lookin at Lee, he might literally have to pass 19 other horses to win the race. Sometimes I do a little bit of generalizing when I say a horse is a “back-of-the-pack closer” or something similar to that. With Lookin at Lee, he probably will be at the back of the pack early in the race. In 4 out of his last 5 races he’s been at least 12 (horse) lengths back in the early stages of a race. Even if he can run straight in the Derby, can he really find a way through the 20 horse traffic jam?
[*] 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 closers too (horses coming from behind). 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.

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