On Track with Johnny D: Kentucky Derby Analysis

Below is one man’s opinion regarding this year’s wide-open Kentucky Derby, including trainers, jockeys, post positions and morning line odds. A $102 Kentucky Derby wagering strategy is suggested. The fella sometimes gets it right; sometimes, not so much. There are no guarantees except to declare that these opinions are FREE and worth twice the price. Therefore, the following is intended for Amusement Only and should not be interpreted as an incentive to gamble on the 12th race on the first Saturday in May. Unless, of course, you plan to wager with an Xpressbet account (online, by phone or via mobile device). In that case, please, feel free to fire away and remember: The more you bet the less you lose when you win!

  1. Lookin At Lee Asmussen      Lanerie          20-1

We’ve been fans of this guy since before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when he finished fourth at 10-1. He should appreciate the mile and one-quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby more than most. His drawback is that he has no speed. He will need to get lucky to find a way through a big Derby field. What ‘Lee has going for him is experience, improvement and heart. He’s raced nine times, with two wins, two seconds and two thirds. His Beyer Speed Figures have improved with each race—in nine consecutive races! His Thoro-Graph figures also have improved over time, but not dramatically. He will need to improve again to win the Derby. His closing style could cause him to lose ground, but he drew the rail and that could either be very good or very bad. Jockey Corey Lanerie knows Churchill and loves to ride the rail, so those are positives. Lookin At Lee may not win the 2017 Kentucky Derby, but he ought to be respected in lower rungs of exotics at a big price. 

  1. Thunder Snow bin Suroor     Soumillon     20-1

Here’s a dish with some international flavor. Thunder Snow is an Irish-bred, Great Britain and United Arab Emirates-raced winner of four of eight starts—two on turf and two on dirt. He’s trained by Dubai-born Saeed bin Suroor and is ridden by Belgian-born Christophe Soumillon! He earned a trip to Kentucky by winning the Group 2 UAE Derby in March where he wore down Japanese star Epicharis in the final strides of that mile and three-sixteenths race, so he can handle the distance. The ‘known unknown’ (with a tip of the cap to Donald Rumsfeld) is how the colt will handle 160,000 screaming fans, a crowded paddock and a thundering, 20-horse charge into Churchill’s first turn from the 2-hole. Since he switched leads and raced a bit greenly in the UAE Derby, we’re going to figure the trip to Lou-a-vull will be too much for him to handle. However, he has positives and is not a complete toss. Feel free to use him in deep exotics if you like.

  1. Fast and Accurate Maker                        Hill     50-1

This grey Pennsylvania-bred has won three of six starts—two on synthetics and one on turf. Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby in his first dirt start, but Fast and Accurate’s no Animal Kingdom. He was offered for a maiden $30,000 tag three races back. He’s expected to be part of the early pace. Pass. 

  1. Untrapped Asmussen      R. Santana 30-1

This son of Trappe Shot broke his maiden at Churchill Downs as a 2-year-old in his second start. As a 3-year-old he’s winless, but has been second in the Grade 3 LeComte and Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, as well as third in the Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn. He comes into the Kentucky Derby off a sixth place finish with blinkers added in the Arkansas Derby. Blinkers come off for the Kentucky Derby, but this one would need to move forward quite a bit to contend. Pass.

  1. Always Dreaming Pletcher         Velazquez      5-1

This son of Bodemeister has enjoyed rapid advancement toward Kentucky Derby notoriety. He broke his maiden impressively at Tampa in late January, routed foes in an allowance race at Gulfstream in March and then squashed rivals in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby on the first day of April. Often such a speedy ascent results in a dramatic fall from grace in the Kentucky Derby. Video of Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby romp shows he’s very talented. However, he’s been aggressive in gallops at Churchill, including an arm-wrestling bout with his exercise rider less than a week before the big race. Trainer Todd Pletcher changed morning riders and added draw reins to help slow this one down, but they can’t be used in the Derby. Always Dreaming figures to be pulling early in the Kentucky Derby on the lead and that may compromise his ability to effectively get a mile and one-quarter. It all adds up to a ‘pass’ on this logical contender. 

  1. State of Honor Casse              Lezcano          30-1

From the same barn as Classic Empire, State of Honor has gotten limited attention Derby week at Churchill Downs. With just one win in 10 starts, he’s got four runner-up finishes and a pair of third place checks. He has some early speed and, while he doesn’t really kick it in through the lane, he figures to be in a decent position turning for home in the Derby. He’s looked wonderful training at Churchill in the mornings. He, understandably, loses regular rider Julien Leparoux to Classic Empire, but Jose Lezcano is a suitable replacement. He has lost ground in all six route starts. All things considered, we don’t like State of Honor as a potential Derby win candidate, but possibly could use him in the fourth spot of deep superfecta tickets. 

  1. Girvin                         Sharp             Mike Smith   15-1    

This winner of the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds arrived in Louisville generally regarded as a possible threat to win roses. He changed leads several times in the stretch of his New Orleans triumphs and may not have faced the toughest soph competition there. Intrigue surrounded this one’s barn when the colt failed to surface for scheduled track appearances about ten days out from the Derby. Reportedly, his absence was due to treatment for a reported abscess/quarter crack. He did finally work at Keeneland. While he probably wasn’t quite up to snuff beforehand, he now has issues. Not for us.

  1. Hence Asmussen      Geroux           15-1

There’s a whole bunch to like about Hence. First, his Beyer Speed Figures have improved in each of his six lifetime races—a very good sign. Another positive note is that his Thoro-Graph speed figures also have improved with each start. Visually, he was impressive in winning the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico. He won by nearly four lengths displaying a huge stride and pricked ears. The Sunland Derby recently has been a suitable training ground for Kentucky Derby hopefuls and includes Mine That Bird as a Derby winning alum. Runner-up from this year’s version, Conquest Mo Money, returned to finish second to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby and fourth-place finisher Irap returned to win the Blue Grass! Love that this one has had time off since that race and has trained forwardly for Hall of Fame conditioner Steve Asmussen. He will need to step up his game a bit to win the Derby, but, we repeat, there’s a whole bunch to like about Hence in the Kentucky Derby, especially if he’s anywhere near 15-1.

  1. Irap             O’Neill                      Gutierrez       20-1

Merely one month ago, Irap was a maiden with seven losses on his resume—although three of them came in graded stakes races. That all changed when he won the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at over 31-1 odds. In that victory, he raced pretty much on the pace, enjoyed a commanding lead into the stretch and held on stubbornly from Derby foe Practical Joke. Approaching the finish, Irap raced on the wrong lead and appeared to be struggling to get there. But he did it. He’s looked good in the morning the last few days, however, he did school in the gate Wednesday of Derby week and seemed a bit uncomfortable in there. Can he repeat his Blue Grass lightning-strike upset? We’re guessing not.

  1. Gunnevera             Sano               Castellano     15-1

The best 2-year-olds in Florida in 2016 were Three Rules and Gunnevera. The former is a speedy sprinter with distance limitations and the latter is a deep closer who can run all day. Gunnevera’s best race came in the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth when he roared through the stretch to win by more than five lengths over Practical Joke and Classic Empire. Next out in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby, Gunnevera broke slowly from the far outside and lagged well behind the field. Gallantly, he caught a few foes late for third, but was well behind winner Always Dreaming and just one and one-half lengths behind runnerup State of Honor. Gunnevera is owned, trained and ridden by Venezuelan connections and was purchased for just $16,000 as a yearling at Keeneland’s September sale. He’s not the most impressive looking horse in the Derby, and he’s going to be far back early, but he’ll come running. Whether or not it will be enough to hit the exotics is the key question. 

  1. Battle of Midway Hollendorfer             Prat     30-1

This son of Smart Strike has ability, but he has raced merely four times in his career. He did not start as a 2-year-old and a Derby runner fitting that description hasn’t won the race since Apollo in 1882! He ran a creditable race in the Santa Anita Derby, just behind Gormley, but it was the slowest running of the race in 60 years. Pass. 

  1. Sonneteer Keith Desormeaux Kent Desormeaux 50-1

The Desormeaux brothers are at it again this year in the Kentucky Derby. The team that brought you Exaggerator in 2016 now presents this maiden son of Midnight Lute. That’s right, Sonneteer has yet to win a race! Still, he’s been close enough to those who have won graded stakes—second in the Rebel behind Malagacy and fourth in the Arkansas Derby to Classic Empire—and he’s earned enough points to have secured a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. He has 10 starts, seven of those in maiden races, and he has not been successful yet. That’s not the kind of horse you want to back on in one of the world’s most challenging races. He has looked good at Churchill leading up the Derby, has the right jockey in Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux, and appears as if he will enjoy a mile and one-quarter. He’s a reach, but we wouldn’t complain if someone wanted to include him in the fourth spot of superfectas at a huge number.

  1. J Boys Echo             Romans                      Saez   20-1

He surprised the Grade 3 Gotham field at Aqueduct in March when he rallied from mid-pack to take command and draw off. That’s been his single claim to fame this prep season, so he’s got to prove that that race wasn’t a fluke. We’ll pass on him even though the Kentucky Derby is on his home track and we think his trainer eventually will win one of these.

  1. Classic Empire                         Casse              Leparoux        4-1

If it weren’t for bad luck Classic Empire wouldn’t have any luck at all. Named 2-year-old champ last year, Classic Empire failed in his first outing at three and then returned to win the Arkansas Derby in mid-April. Between those races, the colt suffered a hoof abscess, a back issue, aborted workouts and a return to a familiar training center for some R&R. That’s a lot of turmoil for a Kentucky Derby hopeful to deal with. He’s a difficult call for handicappers. He’s got enough talent to win the Kentucky Derby, but he’s had multiple issues. That he’s two for two over the Churchill strip is a plus. We’ll use him, but purely defensively because we respect his talent.

  1. McCraken Wilkes                        Hernandez     5-1

There’s a lot to like about this one. He was unbeaten in four initial starts, including three races at Churchill Downs—a straight maiden sprint, the one mile Street Sense and the mile and one-sixteenth Kentucky Jockey Club. At three, first out in February at Tampa, he won the Sam F. Davis, clearly defeating Tapwrit. Unfortunately, after the race he experienced some ankle filling and was forced to rest. He didn’t race again until April, when he was a well-beaten third in the Blue Grass Stakes behind Irap and Practical Joke. He has worked and galloped well at Churchill leading up to the Derby, and has shown a genuine eagerness to compete. He’s bred to get the Derby distance, has the right style for the race and loves the track. Keep him in the mix for the win.

  1. Tapwrit Pletcher         J. Oritz          20-1

Winner of the Classic Empire-less Tampa Derby, Tapwrit disappointed backers in the Blue Grass when a well-whipped fifth. Can he bounce back with a better effort in the Kentucky Derby? He’s looked well at Churchill both in gallops and works. Historically, it’s difficult for a colt to bounce back from a fifth place pre-Derby finish, so we’re pretty much against him to win. Plus, he’s got just one of six races that seem fast enough to make him a threat in here. Use him in exotics, if you like.

  1. Irish War Cry             Motion           Maragh          6-1

Perhaps, more than any other runner in this year’s Kentucky Derby, Irish War Cry best exemplifies the dilemma facing horseplayers this year. The chestnut New Jersey-bred colt has four wins in five starts, including two Grade 2 Stakes wins at three—Gulfstream’s Holy Bull and Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial. In each victory he earned an impressive 101 Beyer Speed Figure—second fastest ever of any horse in the race–J Boys Echo (102 in March’s Gotham) and Classic Empire (102 in November’s BC Juvenile). Sandwiched between Irish War Cry’s gaudy triple-digit postings is a sluggish 63 earned in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. So, what happened in that race? No one knows. In fact, no one’s even guessing, including Kentucky Derby winning trainer Graham Motion. Irish War Cry returns quickly off his impressive Wood win just three weeks earlier. Trainer Motion is on record saying the colt might need more time than three weeks between races for his best. Plus, none of the last 30 runners to come out of the Wood have even hit the board in the Kentucky Derby! What’s a horseplayer to do? There’s as much positive as negative about this horse. Tough call. Plus, if you like this sort of thing: No horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby from post number 17. It’s the only winless spot in the gate!

  1. Gormley                         Shirreffs        Espinoza        15-1

New, patient tactics worked to perfection for this one in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby when he out-gamed Derby foe Battle of Midway for the victory. However, that was the slowest renewal of the venerable race in 60 years. He proved best in California this winter, winning the ‘Anita Derby and the Grade 3 Sham to accompany victory in the Grade 1 Frontrunner last year. The negatives with this one are a poor performance in the BC Juvenile and a San Felipe disappointment. Gormley’s connections have experienced Kentucky Derby glory before—both trainer and jockey–so they know what it takes. Does Gormley have the right stuff? We don’t think so.

  1. Practical Joke C. Brown        Rosario           20-1

This Into Mischief colt won the first three races of his career, including a pair of venerable Grade 1 events—Hopeful at Saratoga and Champagne at Belmont. He finished third in the BC Juvenile behind Classic Empire and soon injured Not This Time. ‘Joke was not gaining in the lane that afternoon and there is some concern about his ability to race a mile and one-quarter effectively. He is winless in a pair of starts at three—second in both: Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth and Grade 2 Blue Grass. His trainer, the top conditioner in the nation last year, has experimented with blinkers on the colt in Churchill exercises, but he will not wear them in the Derby. He’s got enough tactical speed to be just behind the pace, will move toward the lead approaching the stretch and could hang around. We count him in the exotic mix, for sure.

  1. Patch                                     Pletcher         Gaffalione     30-1

With just three lifetime starts, including a second to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby, and none at age two, we’ll pass on this one.

21(AE). Royal Mo                                          Shirreffs        G. Stevens     20-1

He finished third in the Santa Anita Derby behind stablemate Gormley and, if he draws into the race, will have to succeed from the far outside. That’s a tall order, especially for a horse with speed. If competing, jockey Stevens will need to use this colt’s early speed and won’t have much petrol left in the lane.

22(AE). Master Plan                                     Pletcher         Velazquez      50-1

He will need two defections from the race by Friday at 9 am to join the field in the starting gate. That seems unlikely–nearly as unlikely as a Master Plan victory.

The Bottom Line:

There isn’t one particular ‘horse to beat’ this year, so we’ll break the field into a few categories.

Should Run Well:

#15- McCraken (5-1)–3 for 3 at Churchill. Primed for this. Looks great training at CD.

#19- Practical Joke (20-1)—Has never run a poor race. Not many in here can say that.

#8- Hence (15-1) –Love the way he won Sunland Derby. Training well at Churchill.

Could Run Well:

#14- Classic Empire (4-1) –Can’t totally ignore the Champ, but…he’s has hurdles to clear. 

For Exotic Lovers Only:

#10- Gunnevera (15-1)—Like a great salesman he’s ‘Always Closing.’ Hard-trying colt figures to be moving late.

#1- Lookin At Lee (20-1) –Another one that always tries. Like his sire, he will break from Derby rail. If he gets lucky and has a clear trip things could get interesting late.

Broken Egg:

#5- Always Dreaming (5-1)—Very talented has come long way in short time. He has been a handful mornings in Kentucky. Going against him here.

Suggested Plays ($102 Total)

$1.00 Trifecta ($90)

1st: 8, 15, 19

2nd: 1, 8, 10, 14, 15, 16, 19

3rd: 1, 8, 10, 14, 15, 16, 19

$2 Exacta Box ($12)

8, 15, 19

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Kentucky Derby Analysis