On Track with Johnny D: Join the Club

Having difficulty finding a horse to wager on in this year’s Kentucky Derby? Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. With just a few weeks to go until they sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” many of us still search for a Derby horse. With magnifying glasses. This season, no one stands out in this crowd. They’re all the same. Four legs. Mane. Tail. And a colorfully attired fellow astride.

C’mon, surely one of these 3-year-old nags is better than the others. Think so? Just wait. Until next week. Or even tomorrow. Something will happen to blur the picture. It already has. So far this year, whenever I get behind a horse, in the very next race, he gets behind a bunch of other horses. Finishes up the track. Gets hurt. Depressed. Finicky. Or all three at once.

For example, Classic Empire comes to mind. He was the 2-year-old champ and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. Unbeaten, sort of, except for that time at Saratoga he excused himself from the race. Made a right turn out of the gate in the Hopeful Stakes and dropped his jock. Who knows why he did it. Maybe just for laughs. Anyway, at the beginning of the year, he was the future book pick to succeed in Louisville on the first Saturday in May.

So, how does he show gratitude? By losing his first race as a 3-year-old. Finishes third, at fifty cents to the dollar, in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park behind Irish War Cry and Gunnevera. Turns out Classic Empire had a hoof abscess. Now, I’ve never personally experienced that affliction, but it sounds awfully painful. He recovers. When he does, though, his back aches. Now, I do know what that feels like. It’s no joke. Later, he refuses to return to work. Acts like he’s still injured. Docs disagree. He files for Workers’ Comp.

Meanwhile, Irish War Cry and Gunnevera, the pair that respectively bested Classic Empire in the Holy Bull, each proceed to deliver pretty accurate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impersonations.

After an impressive Holy Bull triumph, Irish War Cry immediately is heralded as ‘one of the Kentucky Derby favorites!’ And what does he do for an encore? At nearly even money in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth he checks in seventh! That’s seventh, as in one worse than sixth. His excuse? He doesn’t have one. Pardon me. No excuse? I thought ‘excuses’ were like…well, noses. Everyone has at least one. Apparently everyone except Irish War Cry. Anyway, get this, he comes back to the races a little over a month later and wins the Wood Memorial like he’s beatin’ plow horses! All is forgiven. Right? No way, man. I can’t trust a horse a horse that can’t be trusted. One whose connections can’t even bother fabricating an excuse for why their horse finished seventh at nearly even money. That’s seventh, as in one worse than sixth.

By the way, in the Fountain of Youth, the race where Irish War Cry finished seventh…that’s seventh, as in one worse than sixth…the winner, by a convincing five and three-quarters lengths, was…are you ready for this?…Gunnevera. What’s more, he looked sensational! Closed in the stretch like his tail was on fire. A mile and one-quarter of Louisville real estate? No hay problema señor.

And Gunnevera’s connections? What a feel-good Kentucky Derby story they’d be. Trainer Antonio Sano, Venezuela’s all-time leading trainer, fled that troubled country after he was kidnapped and held for ransom…twice! Perhaps, even more remarkable, is that here in the US Sano survived living and racing at Calder. Owned, trained and ridden (Javier Castellano) by Venezuelans, Gunnevera actually is the group’s foreigner. Ironically, he’s headed home. He’s a Kentuckian. Bred and raised in bluegrass. Purchased by Sano for just $16,000 as a yearling. He’s now earned over $1.1 million!

Alas, just like every other top 3-year-old in the winter of 2017, Gunnevera’s star didn’t sparkle for very long. Less than one month after he dominated the Fountain of Youth, at nearly even money, he finished third, six and one-half lengths behind Always Dreaming in the Xpressbet Florida Derby. It wasn’t a bad race for him. It just wasn’t a particularly good one. Breaking a bit slowly from the far outside in a 10-horse field, Castellano deftly veered him toward the rail and, in a few strides, they were riding pine and saving real estate. Unfortunately, Gunnevera’s starting post and lack of early speed left him way last in the bulky field. About halfway through the race he began to gain ground. From that point home he closed fairly well to finish an unthreatening third.

So, where does all of this leave you? Looking for a reliable Kentucky Derby horse to back, that’s where.

Saturday, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, they will run that state’s derby. Classic Empire is scheduled to run. If he wins the Arkansas Derby, he might even be favored in Kentucky. And, who knows, as topsy-turvy as this 3-year-old Derby prep season has been…

No! Stop right there.

After all the hardships he’s endured this year, I cannot envision Classic Empire winning the Kentucky Derby. Heck, I’ll even be surprised if he wins Saturday in Hot Springs.

The Kentucky Derby is one of the most challenging races in the world. It features a packed field of 20 sophomores racing the novel distance of a mile and one-quarter at a frenetic pace before 150,000 fans—many chilled, baked or drenched (according to Louisville’s fickle spring weather). The winner of such a challenging endeavor, usually, benefits from uninterrupted training and racing from January through the first Saturday in May.

Racing, however, is a game of exceptions. That’s why they offer odds. This year’s version might turn out as one of those rare occasions when the winner of the Kentucky Derby overcomes setbacks, an injury, an illness, a defeat or two, and possibly even the curse of being Andy Beyer’s selection to win.

However, if Classic Empire should end up wearing roses May 6, I’ll rise from my recliner, bow in reverence before his hi-def image on my wall-mounted flat screen and then, through the magic of television, humbly kiss his hoof. The one that had the abscess!

Having difficulty finding a horse to wager on in this year’s Kentucky Derby?

Join the club.

Weekend Prep Race Review

Here’s one old horseplayer’s opinion of last Saturday’s major Kentucky Derby prep races:

Wood Memorial

Irish War Cry won the Wood in solid fashion. However, as the field turned for home, and he moved alongside Batallion Runner, not a single other horse was running. Oh, their hooves were flying but they were getting nowhere. As if on treadmills. Batallion Runner looked to have petrol in the tank, but it was nowhere near the combustion Irish War Cry’s jockey Rajiv Maragh felt between his legs. Confident he had the leader measured, Maragh took two glances behind at the rest of the field, just to make sure no one was coming. And, guess what, no one was coming! No one. So, while Irish War Cry appears to have immediately bounced back to his outstanding Holy Bull Stakes form, it must be noted that since 2003 graduates of the Wood Memorial are an unbelieveable 29:0-0-0 in the Kentucky Derby. Does this mean that Irish War Cry is a toss in the Kentucky Derby? No. It merely suggests caution. Especially in a year when the competition runs deep because it’s so incredibly shallow!

On the other hand, a fan easily could root for jockey Rajiv Maragh to succeed in Kentucky with Irish War Cry. Well liked, Maragh was seriously injured in a spill at Belmont Park in July of 2015. He suffered four fractured vertebrae, a broken left rib and punctured lung. It took nearly 16 months for him to return to riding in November and now he’s got a golden opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby with Irish War Cry. For all he’s been through, it would be magic if Maragh could smell roses.


Blue Grass

In December, the Blue Grass Stakes along with the Wood Memorial, unceremoniously was downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2 status. At the time, there was some noticeable hue and cry as if the unthinkable had just occurred. Downgrade these hallowed stakes races with near century-old pasts? What’s next? A rap tune to replace the traditional “Call to the Post?” No, but you’re close. They kept the horn-blower, but a colt named Irap won the 2017 Blue Grass.

Last Saturday, at Keeneland, where it is written one can experience ‘Racing as it was meant to be,’ the Blue Grass Stakes probably didn’t help its case for Grade 1 status reinstatement. Irap, a 31-1 maiden and loser of seven previous starts won the $1 million race. He lasted through the stretch, hanging on the wrong lead and looking about as helpless as a leg of lamb floating in shark-infested waters. Lucky for him, there were no Great White’s in sight. Practical Joke, who built his reputation at two by nailing foes late in races at distances from five furlongs to one mile, now has failed to follow through in the latter stages of three two-turn races. Granted, being third in one and second in the other two—BC Juvy, Fountain of Youth and Blue Grass, respectively—is no disgrace. However, that he was unable to collar winless Irap in the lane last Saturday is an issue. Especially when the next stop includes an extra furlong.

Unbeaten McCraken had a funky trip. Fresh out of the gate off a two-month layoff, he was much closer to the early pace than ever before. Jockey Brian Hernandez throttled him back and they found themselves between horses for much of the way, forced into moving early and wide before they were ready. Finally, when clear, McCraken closed ground, getting within sniffing distance of the eventual winner in mid-stretch. Understandably tuckered out, he flattened in the lane. Was this effort enough to propel him toward success in Kentucky? Good question. A quick review of his previous conquests won’t inspire confidence. The most accomplished name appearing in past performance company lines belongs to Tapwrit whose photo now appears on a Blue Grass Stakes milk carton.

Santa Anita Derby

It’s difficult to imagine that a simple strip of white cloth could be the key to victory in the Santa Anita Derby, but that might be the case. Trainer John Shirreffs added a tongue-tie to Gormley’s equipment Saturday and he responded by winning the $1 million race. Some, instead, might point to a change in riding tactics by Victor Espinoza aboard Gormley as the colt’s turning point. And they could be correct, as well. This time, instead of asking for early speed, the rider rated the colt off the early pace, and waited until later to use his mount’s energy.

The Santa Anita Derby win earned the third-slowest Beyer Speed Figure of Gormley’s six-race career. Battle of Midway and Royal Mo (the latter, along with Gormley, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Moss and trained by Shirreffs) finished together second and third after trading blows on the front end with American Anthem (finished 12th). The early pace was strong, but not suicidal, and neither of those colts figures to be ‘lone speed’ in the Kentucky version if they should visit the gate. Perhaps the most interesting performance in the race came from Reach the World in third. Under Mike Smith for trainer Bob Baffert, Reach the World made a long, very wide run to near contention in the lane. At that point he understandably lost momentum and flattened out a bit. He’s going to be a nice one down the road.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Join the Club

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