Every year, I wrote a small novella on as many horses in the Derby as I can muster. With a tumbler of Fortuna in hand, I embark on what is a yearly exercise in futility trying to decide what horse might win the Kentucky Derby. I do this because A) the fine patrons of Darly Downs, a parimutuel pool I run, demand it (and by demand, I mean mostly don’t even read it but I need to fool myself into thinking I have an audience if I’m going to write 5000 words on the horses in the Derby) and B) because of all the characteristics of the Kentucky Derby, tradition is one of the top three along with decadence and depravity though only Hunter S. Thompson knows in which order they are arranged. One thing you should keep in mind at all times while reading the following is that I have almost no idea what I’m doing. You will forget this at your own peril. I know next to nothing about horse racing other than what I have gleaned from reading the Daily Racing Form over the past years and while that is likely infinitely more than you know, you should still not trust anything I say. As the evening wears on and the bourbon takes effect, I may become more witty or engaging or funny but at no time will I become a better judge of horse flesh. You have been warned. Horses are followed by odds as of this evening along with trainer and jockey.
All The Pretty Horsies returns this year after a hiatus last year when I mistakenly scheduled my yearly fishing trip for the first weekend in May. Perhaps a mistake I won’t make again. If you are a patron of Darly Downs and not a random passerby caught in the glare of the following prose, you should also remember that it’s quite possible one or more of the horses below won’t make it into the Derby, either because of injury or the owner’s failure to pay the requisite fees. If you bet on a horse that doesn’t get in, it’s a donation. In 2015, Stanford was a pretty solid favorite and he got scratched on Wednesday after everyone put their money on him. A word of advice, don’t put all your money on one horse. But then, that goes exactly contrary to one School of Handicapping in another related document so what do I know.
We’ll start with the current favorites and move our way down the list. In the 7 or 8 years I’ve been running this pool, I have yet to write about all 20 likely entrants. In some years, this has caused me great despair like when Mine That Bird and Animal Kingdom won as 50-1 long shots. In other years, like last year, it just meant I didn’t write about the horsie that came in second (Commanding Curve). I will try to write at least something about all horses but we’re already 500 words and 2 fingers of rum in without any words about horses.
The field this year is mostly wide open. There haven’t been any dominating performances and only Irish War Cry has two Beyers over 100 and those sandwich a 63 in the Wood where he basically wore out. So unlike recent years where the favorite (American Pharaoh comes to mind) was incredibly dominant, we have a field that could do practically anything. Should make for exciting times on Saturday.
Always Dreaming (5-1 Pletcher/Velazquez) – Always Dreaming has gone back and forth with Classic Empire this year as the Derby favorite. In his last three races, he’s won by 5, 4 and 11.5 lengths. In short, he’s kicked some ass. In the Florida Derby, he ran a 97 Beyer and stalked nicely in second all the way to the stretch when he ran away with it. This horse looks promising and seems to like to rub other horsies faces in his dust. Here’s the only thing that worries me with Always Dreaming: he’s a front runner. He wins big, never has to have mud kicked in his face and mostly seems to have not had much adversity yet. In the Florida, he was never really challenged. What happens on Saturday when 20 horses start making things much more difficult? If he can get a decent post, he may be hard to beat. But if he has to come from the inside or way outside, I have the feeling he might find it difficult to get to the front and have the inside track. His sire is Bodemeister, one of my all-time favorite Bro horse names.
Classic Empire (6-1 Casse/Leparoux) – If you watched the link I sent in the Further Explanation Of Darly Downs, you know this horse is a stalker with closing power who looked solid in the win in the Arkansas Derby. He’s won 3 of his last 4. That one loss is a little worrisome as it was against solid talent in Irish War Cry and Gunnevera and he was third by over 8 lengths. Still, he seems to have some closing speed, always important in the Derby, the longest race of any of these horsies career. He ran a top Beyer of 102 way back in November but then fell back in the Holy Bull where he got his tail kicked. He won his one race on a wet track but that was his first ever race and probably means nothing. In the end, this horse looks like he might have the required heart and kick to win the Derby. Leparoux has never won the Derby and that might be the one failing of this horse.
Gunnevera (6-1 Sano/Castellano) – This horse is confusing. He’s been all over the map in his Beyers and his finishes. He’s a little like Shrodinger’s cat in that you really can’t be sure if he’s alive or dead. One thing he has going for him in the Derby is the added distance. If you watch the Florida Derby, you see he basically mailed it in for the first part of the race and then decided he didn’t want to lose. The final kick reminds me of my study habits in college. He’s also had some mud kicked in his face and responded well. He won the Fountain of Youth by almost 6 lengths with a solid Beyer of 97 before taking a little break in the Florida. At 10-1, this horse provides some value. At 6-1, not so much.
Irish War Cry (7-1 Motion/Maragh) – This horse is also slightly confusing in that he won the Wood Memorial (my nickname in college) with a triple digit Beyer (barely, 100). But before that, he basically crapped his pants in the Fountain of Youth with a 63 and a nap in the backstretch. This is very similar to what Frosted did in 2015 which meant exactly nothing. But before that, he ran a 101 in the Holy Bull and won by almost 4 lengths. He’s got a good name for winning the Derby, a three word, single syllable moniker that rolls of the tongue. He’s the youngest colt in the bunch which doesn’t seem like much but then, they are all 3 year olds and any extra time you can have to mature is welcome. I like this horse to finish in the top three but frankly, he hasn’t faced much adversity and when he did in the Fountain of Youth, he essentially mailed it in. I’m probably staying away. You do whatever you need to to think you got value from you $30.
So we’re four horses in, I’ve had three drinks, it’s almost 11 PM and I got 5 hours of sleep last night when the midget woke up at 5 AM thinking it was time to perform her Cute Midget Antics. If I get to 10 horses this year, it will be a small miracle.
McCraken (10-1 Wilkes/Hernadez Jr) – I’m sorry but if you spend a ton of money on a horse that might one day win the Derby, you should spend a little more time naming him. Might as well have named him MacGuffin. That being said, this horse has some history at Churchill Downs and it’s mostly all positive. He’s won 3 races here and clearly likes the track. However, if we’re honest, he hasn’t faced any of the really fast horsies and as we all know, stealing money from the slow witted child on the playground isn’t particularly impressive. He got slower in his final race in losing by 4 lengths to Irap in the Bluegrass and I’m pretty sure that isn’t a good sign. Sorry, no amount of liking Churchill is going to make up for a case of the “slows” and this horse has a serious case of the “slows”.
Gormley (12-1 Shirreffs/Espinoza) – Here’s another instance where we have a big pretty horse named something that sounds like a venereal disease. He’s gotten progressively slower in his last three races, barely beat Battle of Midway (who we know is a pig) in the Santa Anita and never ran a Beyer faster than 94. His only saving grace is that he won his only race on a wet track with his fastest Beyer time. It’s entirely possible that he really likes mud and if so, he’s going to get his wish on Saturday. I’ve been running this pool for several years now and I have never heard of his trainer so unless he’s the next coming of American Pharaoh (another West Coast horse), I don’t see much value here.
Hence (12-1 Asmussen/Geroux) – Hence is a pretty horse. And I’ll admit to have a bias towards horses with a single name. He won the Sunland and all the horses he beat in that race improved in their next race including Irap who won the Bluegrass. Asmussen is a Texas local and I have a sweet spot in my poor betting history for his horses. I like this horse to finish strong in the Derby with the extra length. I’m just not sure he has enough to get there for the finish.
Girvin (15-1 Sharp/Smith) – This horse has the most qualifying points of any yet he goes off at a very decidedly not favorite price. He’s a stalker as we see in the Louisiana Derby where Girvin (post 8) runs well back until the final turn and then comes home to win. The question is, against whom? No one really. So even though he has the most qualifying points after winning the Louisiana and Risen Star, I’m not convinced. He’s going off at larger odds not just because he’s faced subpar talent but also because he had a crack in a right rear hoof that required some special attention, not the least of which was having to swim instead of run. This seems problematic. If you can get him at 20-1 either here or at the track, more power to you. Otherwise, this horse reeks of tragedy.
Tapwrit (20-1 Pletcher/Ortiz) – Two months ago, when Tapwrit blew the field away at the Tampa Bay Derby, he was a serious contender for winning the Roses. Then he went to the Bluegrass and caught a case of the Hoffas (nowhere to be found). He may have been running with concrete shoes. He ran a 76 Beyer in that race as his final prep. In other races, that might be ok to ignore but in the Derby, you really want your horsie to be peaking. It’s going to be the longest race of his career and the field will be insane. Still, this horse is sired by Tapit, one of the great sires in North America for this type of race. Can he forget about that horrible trip at the Bluegrass? Beats me. But I wouldn’t want money on this horse unless I was getting 25-1 or better. He is gray and I love gray horses though.
Lookin At Lee (20-1 Asmussen/Lanerie) – Lookin at Lee is what you call a closer. He tends to hang back saving his energy and then makes a mad dash for the finish line when his jockey (Corey Lanerie, a Churchill regular and one of the best to currently race there which is a plus) asks him to. Unfortunately, that hasn’t resulted in any wins in real races. He finished third to Classic Empire only 1.5 lengths back and he may have improved on that if he wouldn’t have run out of room. His Beyers are regularly climbing which is nice but he just doesn’t seem to have the pedigree or the heart to get to the finish line first. In order to bet on this horse, you have to convince yourself the extra distance will allow him to get there. I have my doubts. They weren’t assuaged when he drew the dreaded #1 position this morning either.
Practical Joke (20-1 Brown/Rosario) – This horse is a practical joke on anyone that puts money on him. He just doesn’t have what it takes to win the Derby. He finished second to Irap by less than a length at the Bluegrass but you really have to wonder if he knows how to win. Gunnevera beat him by almost 6 lengths in the Fountain of Youth and he was eight lengths back in the race before that. Derby winners don’t have names like this. Stay away. Though many of you will ignore me when his odds jump to 45-1 or so. Fine.
Thunder Snow (20-1 Suroor/Soumillon) – Every year, some horse gets shipped over here from the Middle East by some idiot prince who thinks he has the next coming of Secretariat. And every year, they get shipped back to the damn desert having finished 142nd out of 20 in the Derby. There are reasons for this. First, it’s a long way from Dubai to Kentucky. Second, they are typically turf horses (most of their races are on turf) and they are being converted to dirt. This doesn’t seem like a big thing but it’s a very different experience when suddenly you’re having dirt thrown in your face. Third, they’ve never seen 20 horses much less had to fight their way through them. They just don’t have the character necessary. I’m not being a horse racist here. Trust me. That being said, this horse ran the fastest ever on dirt for a Dubai horse. So there’s that. But he’s a pig. Avoid him. Still not being a horse racist.
J Boys Echo (20-1 Romans/Albardo) – This horse blew the field away in the Gotham while running a 102 Beyer. The problem with that is that the Gotham is a Grade 3 stakes meaning he ran against a bunch of horses headed for the glue factory of Derby contenders. When he jumped up to Grade 2 last month at the Bluegrass, he finished six lengths back in 4th with a Beyer of 84. The one thing going for him is his lineage. With Mineshaft as the sire who came out of AP Indy who came out of Seattle Slew, J. Boys Echo is bred for the limelight and the distance. I just think he’s missing a critical gene, namely heart. Or maybe speed. Or maybe both.
Irap (20-1 O’Neill/Gutierrez) – This horse was doing nothing for a long time and then suddenly won the Bluegrass as a 31-1 underdog. That threw him into the Derby as the horse with the fourth most qualifying points. The problem here is all his other races. On the upside, this owner/trainer/jockey combo have won two of the last five Kentucky Derbies which is saying something. Is that enough? His Beyer have jumped 10 points in each of the last two races. If he gets another 10 point jump to 103, he might get there. But he’s going to need a slow steady pace at first and with what is likely to be a very muddy track, maybe it’s his exact trip.
The rest of the story
The rest of these horses aren’t going to win the Derby. State of Honor has run completely on synthetic tracks and is a good bet to finish dead last. Patch is a one eyed horse with a lot of guts and heart but without the requisite talent. You should put a $1 on him just in case he wins though so that you can have the feel good karma of betting on a one eyed horse to win the Derby. Battle of Midway didn’t race as a 2 year old and guess what? Horses that don’t do that don’t ever win the Derby. Chester Arthur was President last time that happened. He’s also slow. Really slow. Untrapped is a big time closer who seems to always run out of room. Can the Derby be his breakthrough? Probably not. Sonneteer is like a Keats sonnet, pretty but not something to make money on. He’s never won a race and he’s raced a lot. He is drastically improving speed wise over the last several races but I doubt he can make the jump from loser to winner. Finally, Fast and Accurate is a beautiful horse but there’s no way he wins the Derby. He’s run almost all of his races on synthetic tracks and his one lone dirt race resulted in a Beyer of 27. That’s horse talk for fucking slow. He doesn’t like dirt and the Derby is the biggest dirt of them all.
Well, there you have it. I’m probably the only one who made it this far anyway. Good luck this week and I hope you enjoy the Derby at Darly Downs.