On Track with Johnny D: Plan for Eventful ‘Second Half’

Those who went ‘gaga’ over the NFL’s Super Bowl halftime show probably weren’t counting on the game’s conclusion outperforming the ‘Lady’ of the same surname. Amazingly, it did! Seems a bit foolish to hope that the second half of the 2017 Triple Crown season might rival such a finish, but we can hope.

The unofficial ‘first half’ of the soph session is in the books. In some eyes, 2-year-old champ Classic Empire still stands atop the race for 2017 Kentucky Derby glory. However, a disappointing performance in the Holy Bull due to a foot abscess has led to lost time in the gym and dwindling support.

The ‘second half’ of the road to the Triple Crown begins Saturday with the Risen Star at Fair Grounds. It’s the first of 16 races in Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Championship Series, worth either 50 or 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points each to winners (except for the April 15 Lexington at Keeneland worth 10 points).

In the ‘first half’ known as the Prep Season, stakes on Churchill Downs’ Road to the Kentucky Derby Schedule (19 races) were worth just 10 points each to the winner—except for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile won by Classic Empire at 20 points. For the record, four runners won more than one of those races: Classic Empire (Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and BC Juvenile at Santa Anita), Gormley (Frontrunner and Sham at Santa Anita), McCraken (Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill and Sam Davis at Tampa) and El Areeb (Jerome and Withers at Aqueduct). Gormley and McCraken won those stakes at ages 2 and 3. El Aribe’s pair of wins came both at 3 and Classic Empire’s tallies were both at 2.

So far, the Derby qualifying point hoopla hasn’t added up to much more than a neat way to rank sophomores based on accomplishments. Created by folks at Churchill Downs in order to systematically award or deny Derby starting gate entry, the point system hasn’t been much of a determining factor since its inception five years ago. Conveniently, rigors of prep race campaigns alone usually determine that no more than 20 capable, healthy runners survive by the first Saturday in May.

Another popular attraction at this time of year is the third stanza of the 2017 Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool, which begins Friday, Feb. 24 and ends Sunday, Feb. 26 at 6:30 pm ET. Xpressbet account holders can make Future Derby Wagers by selecting the appropriate distinction on the track menu.

Yours truly isn’t a fan of Future Wagers unless huge odds are offered. He’s been around the game too long and experienced firsthand the many things that can go wrong between today and the first Saturday in May.

However, at the start of the second half of the Triple Crown season, as a way of organizing thoughts regarding sophomores below is a horse-by-horse listing of 2017 Kentucky Derby Future Pool 3 entrants with wagering numbers, trainers, morning lines and comments.

#      Wagering Interest        Trainer                 ML Odds

  1. Always Dreaming*      Todd Pletcher             50-1

Has finished third, second and first in three career starts, the win coming at Tampa Bay last out. He’s way behind the eight ball and 50-1 isn’t a fair price. In fact, 100-1 wouldn’t be kosher.

  1. American Anthem      Bob Baffert                 15-1

This guy can run. How far and how fast still isn’t clear. He’s one of several California-based runners who’ve yet to entirely prove or disprovew themselves. He comes from the right barn, has size, speed, and has displayed talent and grit when barely defeated by Gormley in the Sham—only the second lifetime start for the May 15 foal! He has worked well since that race and appears headed for the Rebel at Oaklawn March 18. Trainer Bob Baffert knows how to win the Kentucky Derby. If you want to wager on both Baffert runners on this list (also #14 Mastery), we wouldn’t call you crazy.

  1. Battalion Runner    Todd Pletcher                20-1

He’s won two of three starts, with one of those scores an acceptable effort as a short-priced favorite around two turns in a Gulfstream allowance race. Something may have gone amiss because he doesn’t have a recorded work since that win Feb. 3. Not a positive sign.

  1. Classic Empire      Mark Casse                     8-1

The 2-year-old Champ and BC Juvenile winner lost some luster when he disappointed at short odds in the Holy Bull. Soon after the race an abscess was found in a hoof, offering a logical explanation for his sub-par performance. Trouble is that any hiccup on the road to the Kentucky Derby can be disastrous. He’s the champ, but he’s got to rally and at a short price of 8-1 we’ll pass.

  1. El Areeb               Cal Lynch                          20-1

He’s done nothing wrong, winning races at Aqueduct like a star. He probably hasn’t been beating much, but he seems to love racing and training. This is the kind of reliable colt that could end up in the Kentucky Derby superfecta, but he’s got more to prove before I back him to win the race. He’s headed for the Gotham March 4.

  1. Epicharis (Jpn)* Kyoshi Hagiwara               30-1

This guy is the hero of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby and, while the world shrinks daily, we’ll still hesitate backing a non US-based runner in the Derby until an immigrant actually wins one of these.

  1. Gormley             John Shirreffs                    15-1

He gamely out-nodded American Anthem in the Sham in January. He’s got talent, for sure. How much? Not really sure. He disappointed in the BC Juvenile, but he’s run some other solid races. It feels like he’s a smidge behind the top ones, but that could change in the coming weeks. Still, I’d need more than 15-1 on him at this stage of the game.

  1. Guest Suite (g)  Neil Howard                     50-1

This gelding improves with each start. That’s a good sign for a 3-year-old. He’s not quite up to the level of some of the others on this list, but, unlike the others, his price isn’t awful. Wouldn’t discourage anyone interested in taking a shot with this one at 50-1, although he’s clearly not quite good enough yet. He will race Saturday in the Risen Star. If he performs well, this price will drop as drastically as the ball in Times Square.

  1. Gunneverra    Antonio Sano                     20-1

This son of Dialed In runs from off the pace and has already made 7 lifetime starts—3 wins, 2 seconds. He’s a made-of-hickory, Florida-based animal that tries hard each time out. We’ll keep him in the discussion for a Derby superfecta position at a big price, but 20-1 on him winning the Kentucky Derby is too short for our tastes. His next start is the Fountain of Youth March 4 at Gulfstream.

  1. Illiad (r)*       Doug O’Neill                        15-1

Once the obvious puns fade, this one might become famous instead for his accomplishments. He won the San Vicente at Santa Anita in his first start for Doug O’Neill, after moving from the Baffert barn along with some of owner Kaleem Shah’s other horses. He’s a ridgling son of Ghostzapper that hasn’t gone past seven furlongs, yet. He has speed, breeding to excel and the right connections. Still, he’s got much to prove in the coming months, and 15-1 just isn’t enough enticement for us to take.

  1. Irish War Cry  Graham Motion              12-1

If anyone’s interested in making a Future Wager, here’s one horse we’d be interested in supporting. 12-1 isn’t the best price, but Irish War Cry is one of two runners we have listed at the top of our Derby candidates. We love the way he won the Holy Bull and the performance suggests there’s more in the tank. He’s unbeaten in three starts, two at Laurel and one at Gulfstream. His connections (jockey and trainer) are Derby-tested and proven.

  1. Local Hero*  Steve Asmussen          50-1

This son of Hard Spun broke his maiden going two turns at Fair Grounds in late January. It was his third start and first longer than seven-eighths. He’s got a long way to go and 50-1 isn’t nearly enough of a price to back him.

  1. Malagacy  Todd Pletcher                 30-1

This is one of those unbeaten, flashy runners with a pair of open-length wins sprinting at Gulfstream that attracts plenty of attention. One issue with him is that he didn’t race as a 2-year-old and no horse has not raced at two and won the Kentucky Derby since Apollo in 1882. That’s a streak we won’t challenge with our money.

  1. Mastery  Bob Baffert                      10-1

Look out folks, here’s an unbeaten Bob Baffert runner. He’s fast, has successful 2-turn experience, is ridden by Mike Smith and is firing bullets while training at Santa Anita. He will play a home game in the San Felipe Stakes March 11. If you’re itching to take a shot in this KDFW, he’s a logical choice.

  1. McCraken Ian Wilkes                    8-1

This unbeaten son of Ghostzapper is co-leader of our current Kentucky Derby rankings, alongside Irish War Cry! He has two 2-turn graded stakes wins on his resume and he’s 3 for 3 at Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby! His figures have improved with each race and trainer Ian Wilkes knows what to do with a good horse and has experience bringing one up to a winning Derby effort. Wilkes was Carl Nafzger’s assistant when Street Sense mowed ‘em down in Louisville. Look, 8-1 is no bargain, but if you’re itching to get down this weekend, he’s the one to play along with Irish War Cry.

  1. Mo Town  Tony Dutrow               15-1

We haven’t seen Mo Town yet this season, so we can’t really make an assessment of how much he’s improved or regressed since winning two of three races at 2. That will be rectified Saturday when he starts in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds. He was impressive in breaking his maiden and then easily handled No Dozing and Takaful in the Remsen. However, those two haven’t distinguished themselves since. Pass on wagering on this one now. If he runs well Saturday, the mutuel price will be deflated.

  1. One Liner*  Todd Pletcher         15-1

Since he won the most recent Derby prep race—the Southwest at Oaklawn Monday—he’s the current hot horse. He is unbeaten in three starts and successfully negotiated two turns Monday. However, he’s not bred for the Derby distance and there’s some question about the distance capabilities of the runners he mowed down. Have to pass on this one for now.

  1. Petrov   Ron Moquett               30-1

Second to One Liner in the Southwest, it’s pretty clear that this one wants no part of a mile and one-quarter. He stalked pacesetter Uncontested in the Southwest, took over and then had nothing left when One Liner came calling. Nice horse, but he’s not Derby winning material for us.

  1. Practical Joke  Chad Brown       20-1

He’s another one we haven’t seen at 3. Winner of his first 3 starts—Grade 1 Hopeful and Grade 1 Champagne--before finishing a troubled third in the BC Juvenile behind 2yo Champ Classic Empire and retired Not This Time, there’s no reason to doubt his credentials. The real question is: How much has he developed since early November? We just don’t know yet. We’ll find out more when he makes his next start in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream March 4.

  1. Royal Mo* John Shirreffs              15-1

This ‘Mo has won his last two starts in wire-to-wire fashion. His last was complete domination of a very weak Robert Lewis field at Santa Anita. Irap, a maiden at this writing, was second (it should be noted that Irap also finished second to Mastery in the Los Alamitos Futurity). The victory represented a big jump in figures from previous races and begs the question: Did this one suddenly improve dramatically, or was this a one-time explosion? We’re guessing the latter, but he’s got some talent.

  1. State of Honor Mark Casse          50-1

He’s won one race in eight starts and that came at Woodbine in a seven-furlong maiden test. He was subsequently second in the Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream and third, after setting the pace, in the Sam Davis. His odds should be a lot greater than 50-1.

  1. Tapwrit* Todd Pletcher             20-1

This son of Tapit won a pair of races—one each at Gulfstream ‘West’ and ‘East’ after failing in his maiden Saratoga voyage—before finishing a slightly troubled second in the Sam Davis behind McCraken. The effort was quite a bit better than anything he had produced beforehand, so it will be interesting to see if he can repeat it.

  1. Wild Shot Rusty Arnold              50-1

He assumed the lead in the Sam Davis and was swallowed up in the stretch by McCraken, Tapwrit and State of Honor. Pass.

  1. Mutuel Field (All Other Three Year Olds) 4-1

The only notable sophomore we notice missing from this list is Lookin At Lee. He’ll be a big price in the Kentucky Derby, but he’ll definitely be on my superfecta ticket. The very late runner has been second to champ Classic Empire and highly-regarded but retired Not This Time, and third, last out, in the Southwest Stakes. He made a huge move in that race on an afternoon when no one was making up ground. We doubt he can win the Kentucky Derby, but his chances of upsetting the apple cart in Louisville are way better at this point than some of the above listed runners.

Morning Line Odds by Mike Battaglia

* New Wagering Interest in KDFW Pool 3

(g) gelding

(r) ridgling

To recap, at this point, here are suggested runners as potential Kentucky Derby winners:

11- Irish War Cry 12-1

15 - McCraken 8-1

2- American Anthem 15-1

14 - Mastery 10-1

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Plan for Eventful ‘Second Half’

On Track with Johnny D |