LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Eight weeks before the May 6 Kentucky Derby and the prep races of January and February have left us with complete confusion. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile Champion and the stakes winners of January are all beaten or injured or both.
Classic Empire, who became the favorite after his Breeders' Cup win, started his three-year-old campaign with a clunker in the Holy Bull Stakes. Then came a foot abscess and a morning that he refused to work.
Missing training days in March can mean missing the Derby.
It was Irish War Cry that won the Holy Bull, and he was undefeated in three races until the Fountain of Youth Stakes. The Curlin colt battled for the lead, then stopped in the stretch and finished seventh.
Trainer Graham Motion called it a head scratcher.
Up in New York, El Areeb was the heavy favorite in the Gotham Stakes after two stakes wins at Aqueduct. But Al Areeb hooked up in a speed duel, threw in the towel at the top of the stretch and finished a fading third.
At Turfway, En Hanse was looking to get another win on the Polytrack Derby Trail, but It's Your Nickel blew by in the stretch to win the John Battaglia Memorial by ten lengths.
So, in recent Derby preps, it's not so much who won, it's who lost and how they lost. It's going to take some creativity, but let's cobble together twenty horses, who seem to have the best chance to at least make the Derby field.
Let's face it. So far, there is no American Pharaoh, no California Chrome and there are just 13 prep races left to find a favorite. This could make filling out my basketball bracket look easy.
You know you've got trouble when your number one Derby horse is recovering from an injury. But trainer Ian Wilkes says it's a minor ankle injury and he's a very conservative guy. After winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes on that deep, demanding track at Tampa, McCraken needs to hit the board in the Bluegrass Stakes. It will have been two months between races.
At least for second place, we have a recent winner and a great story. Here's a $16,000 purchase, who is trained by little known Venezuelan native Antonio Sano. Gunnevera won the Saratoga Special and the Delta Jackpot as a two-year-old. Then he came from last to first, to win the Fountain of Youth by at least six lengths. That's the kind of kick that can win the Derby, if you avoid trouble. Gunnevera leads the Derby point’s standings with 64.
This is a really fast son of Malibu Moon, trained by John Shirreffs, who has been here before. The next target is the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita and there will be plenty of competition. Gormley has already won the Sham Stakes this year and will probably have two preps before May. He has the advantage of three time Derby winner Victor Espinoza as the pilot.
Meanwhile, over at the Baffert barn there is Mastery and a vast collection of three year olds who could emerge in the Derby picture. This is a son of Candy Ride and he probably matches up against Gormley in the San Felipe. Mastery is undefeated, three for three and must avoid a speed duel in the San Felipe. March 11 will be a big day for California dreaming about the Derby.
5. Practical Joke
Into Mischief is getting to be a pretty significant sire of Derby contenders and Chad Brown is getting to be a pretty significant trainer. Practical Joke was second in the Fountain of Youth in his first start of the year. Last year he won the Hopeful and the Champagne Stakes. I don't know if this is the horse, but Brown is going to win a Derby.
6. Irish War Cry
It's difficult to figure how a horse could look so good in February and so terrible in March. Maybe trainer Graham Motion can figure something out, some new strategy before the next race. Sometimes when a horse stops in the stretch, it's a breathing problem. This son of Curlin could bounce back, but there's just one more prep race before May.
Louisville trainer Joe Sharp moves on to the Derby Trail with this son of Tale of Ekatki. Of course that comes with the cautionary tale of Storm Cat in the pedigree although it's strengthened by Malibu Moon on the bottom. Girvin won the Risen Star Stakes but keep in mind that the Louisiana Derby trail is not as strong as the East or West coasts. Trainers sometimes send their second stringers to New Orleans for the points and the cash.
8. J Boys Echo
Speaking of Louisville trainers, Dale Romans came out of no-where with this Mineshaft colt to win the Gotham Stakes. However Aqueduct's Inner track that's used in the winter, doesn't always translate to other surfaces. Even the outer track used for the Wood Memorial is much different. Don't be surprised if J Boys Echo runs at Keeneland where he broke his maiden.
9. American Anthem
He only has two starts but you have to consider, it's a Baffert horse. The sire, Bodemeister was lightly raced when he gave everybody a thrill before losing the Derby lead in deep stretch. It's the time of year when Baffert starts dividing his contenders and sending them to different tracks. It looks like this Anthem will be played in Arkansas March 18th.
10. One Liner
This Todd Pletcher trainee is unbeaten and has already won in the Southwest Stakes in Arkansas. But his next prep race has yet to be decided. One Liner is another promising Into Mischief colt with just three starts. Now surely there will be more Pletcher qualifiers. We're so accustomed to the parade of Derby horses out of the Pletcher barn, and you can expect a lot of entries in the next two months.
11. Cloud Computing
Now it's starts to get difficult to find contenders because you’re mostly dealing with promising horses, who unexpectedly hit the board in a stakes race. Which brings us to Cloud Computing who ran a nice second in the Gotham Stakes. That was just his second race. With perhaps only the Wood Memorial left as a prep race, it would still take a small miracle to get this Cloud over the Twin Spires.
12. Royal Mo
John Shirreffs has another Derby contender with this Uncle Mo colt who won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes over a small field. With Gormley going in the San Felipe, it looks like Royal Mo will target the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. California trainers, especially Baffert have been dominating the Rebel for years.
13. It's Your Nickel
Every year the Spiral Stakes at Turfway produces a Derby runner, thanks to its 50 points. And if Kenny McPeek's It's Your Nickel can duplicate his run in the Battaglia Stakes then he has a chance to be this year's Animal Kingdom. It’s Your Nickel may love the Poly but he also won a dirt race at the Fairgrounds.
Another familiar Derby face has a chance to return with this Ghostzapper colt. Doug O'Neill is using the same schedule he set for Nyquist last year but he'll have to beat Gormley and Mastery in the San Felipe.
Iliad won the Grade 2 San Vincente Stakes but that was 7 furlongs. If he can stretch the speed, this could be the best Derby prep so far.
15. Classic Empire
If he can get over his physical problems and return to training, Classic Empire can still make the Derby. He has 32 qualifying points, fifth on the list. But he has multiple problems beyond the abscess. At this point, getting healthy is more important than getting points.
16. El Areeb
This horse was the king of New York and he already has 30 Derby points after two stakes wins. But his third place in the Gotham was a lot worse than it sounds. El Areeb just quit running in the stretch and was not in the same zip code as the winner. The trainer has to figure out what went wrong and what comes next.
Steve Asmussen is close to qualifying this colt by Trappe Shot. He's a maiden winner but has a second in the LeComte and the Risen Star Stakes. If he hits the board in his next race, he'll punch his ticket to the Derby. But the Louisiana preps are still wide open. Untrapped currently has 24 points.
18. Guest Suite
Neil Howard returns to the Derby trail with Guest Suite who won the LeComte Stakes and was fourth in the Risen Star. Neil has always been one of my favorite Churchill trainers and this horse won a mile race at Churchill last fall. Robby Albarado is the regular rider but Guest Suite will need an upgrade to make the Derby.
Now here's a horse that's hanging around the Derby trail and waiting for a breakthrough. Petrov has been second in three straight races. He was a clear second in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes and he has at least two more races to pile up the points. The Rebel could be next but the California invaders could make that a tough affair.
20. Wild Shot
Looking for a long shot, why not Wild Shot.
He broke his maiden at Churchill and was second in the Jockey Club Stakes last fall. A fourth in the Sam F. Davis over that tiring Tampa track might have been a nice conditioner for his second race of this year. This is another son of emerging sire Trappe Shot but the dams side of the pedigree is (yikes) Storm Cat.
And so we come to this weekend and two stakes races that will divide the contenders and pretenders. Tampa Bay stages its Derby at a mile and a sixteenth. And Tampa runners always seem to perform well at Churchill. And the San Felipe will place some of the best 3 year olds in California in the gate against each other. By Sunday, the Derby Top Twenty will change again but will a favorite emerge. So far, it's been a very confusing year with no clear trend.
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