• Punjabi Girl wins The Fillies Championship Stakes (Gr.1)
  • Sir Cecil wins The Colts Championship Stakes (Gr.1)
By Anil Mukhi
Saturday 06 May 2017
Anil Mukhi

Unlike in India where the weather silently slips from cool to warm around February/March each year, North America displays the full range of seasons, none more fascinating than Spring. Gradually, Mother Nature drops her white cloak of chill, allowing the first signs of green shoots to emerge. Soon the birds are singing, trees regaining their verdant foliage and flowers blossoming in a riotous display of colours.

On the Turf, trainers lovingly take off the wraps from their Classic contenders and prepare them for that crucial first Saturday in May, when 20 choice three-year-olds come together in the starting gate at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, in the “Run for the Roses” – the Kentucky Derby. That is scheduled to take place in 2017 today, Saturday, May 6th, when the event will be contested for the 143rd time. Total prize money this year is $2,000,000, with the winner's share being $1,425,000. Starting time is set for 6:34 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (4:04 a.m. IST on Sunday, May 7th).

It has been raining on the Eastern side of the USA and the forecast is for more of the same in the first half of the day. By the time the race is run it should be dry but a pretty nippy 14 degrees. Depending on how heavily it rains, the track could be “sloppy” or even “fast”.

So how does the field stack up this time around? Overall it is a quality line-up, with the winners of the Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Santa Anita Derby, UAE Derby and the Wood Memorial Stakes all taking part. A few members of the beaten brigade from those races will also take their chance, which comes as no surprise as connections will be hoping for some improvement. The only runners not coming off efforts in one of the races named above are Hence and Fast And Accurate. As none of the 20 has hitherto proved dominating, the question arises: Is there a future champion amongst them? And the answer is: “quite possibly”. Only four of the runners are expected to start at single digit odds, a telling commentary on the open nature of the field.

The strategy required to get this far has been plotted chiefly by trainers and owners; further tactics – once their charged-up steeds are in the starting gates – will lie in the silken hands of the jockeys engaged. It therefore makes sense to try and analyze the event from the professionals’ point of view.

Leading schooler Todd Pletcher, whose sole previous winner (from 43 starters) in this feature event was Super Saver in 2010, fields a trio, of which Always Dreaming (by Bodemeister) is the best accomplished on the track. He was running away from his rivals in the Xpressbet Florida Derby and a repeat of that effort could well see “Johnny V” beaming in the winner’s enclosure, just as he did when Animal Kingdom triumphed in 2011. However, for that to happen the colt needs to settle and harness his speed for the business end. The expensive Tapwrit (by Tapit), a grey like his sire, has only one real blemish on his CV – a poor effort in the Blue Grass Stakes last time out; if you ignore that, the $1.2 million yearling from the Pletcher barn, could be right there. Patch (by Union Rags) has unfortunately drawn 20 – the extreme outside – and Gaffalione will have his work cut out to plot a tactical path on this, the third of the Pletcher runners. Incidentally, the colt is blind in his left eye, so won’t be able to see his rivals in the early stages. Make a note also of the rider’s name – he looks poised for stardom.

Steve Asmussen is also multi-handed with three runners. He has yet to savour success in America’s most celebrated horse race, having sent out 15 starters, most of which were unplaced. His ward Hence (by Street Boss) was a facile winner of the Sunland Derby – this is the route taken by Mine That Bird in 2009 – and has been working forwardly. The powerfully made chestnut could be the best of the outsiders, provided he does not find the tenth furlong “a bridge too far”. Rain might help him as he acts on a muddy surface. Lookin At Lee (by Lookin At Lucky), following in his father’s footsteps has drawn the dreaded #1 gate. He could suffer a similar fate, getting “pinched” at the start like his sire, but has the late “kick” to try and make amends. Finally Untrapped (by Trappe Shot) has been re-united with Ricardo Santana (Jr.) but one feels to little avail as the colt has yet to win a Graded Stakes.

Canadian-based Mark Casse, a native of Indiana, has steadily edged his way into the limelight with the stellar performances of some of his wards, none more celebrated than Tepin. He fields a pair here, including the nominal favourite, Classic Empire (by Pioneerof The Nile). But for his lacklustre third in the Holy Bull Stakes, this paternal half-brother to American Pharoah might have been as short as Evens instead of the expected 4 to 1. Rebounding from that loss, which could well have been due to rustiness, he gained much ground in the Arkansas Derby to prevail in a scrambling finish. The added distance will suit and he is very much in the picture. It must, however, be kept in mind that only two Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners have gone on to score in the Kentucky Derby. Casse’s other runner, State Of Honor (by To Honor And Serve) is vastly experienced with 10 starts under his belt but is unlikely to be emulating his fellow countrymen, Northern Dancer and Sunny’s Halo.

All the other schoolers have a solitary contender apiece and many of the big names of the profession are represented, although the list does not include Bob Baffert. England-based UAE native Saeed bin Suroor takes another shot at shipping in a colt from Dubai. This is Thunder Snow (by Helmet), who becomes the eighth Kentucky Derby starter flying in from the Middle East. The best result for this group so far has been China Visit’s sixth-placed effort in 2000. UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow may well overcome the hurdles involved but until it happens one cannot support this route to the winner’s circle. Belgian ace Christophe Soumillon will guide his fortunes.

Joe Sharp, who is married to the now-retired lady rider Rosie Napravnik, sends out Girvin (by Tale Of Ekati). He comes in from a victory in the Louisiana Derby, has a consistent record, has worked well and gains the veteran Mike Smith (fresh off a victory in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday) in the saddle. That said, he has had a setback or two with hoof problems and might not be quite at his best. Twice before, including in 2016, Doug O’Neill has teamed up with Mexican rider Mario Gutierrez sporting the Paul Reddam silks to land this coveted prize. This time around they have a live contender in Irap (by Tiznow), hero of the Blue Grass Stakes. He ought to be just a few lengths off the leaders before attempting to kick for home.

That brings us to Gunnevara (by Dialed In), who has a lot going for him. He is experienced, talented and possessed of the ability to accelerate. Few might have heard of his trainer Antonio Sano, but the Venezuelan has practiced his trade for decades in his native land, emigrating only when the traumatic experience of having been kidnapped and held for ransom left him with no option. Fellow countryman Javier Castellano knows a thing or two about finding the winning post. Despite his last loss, he is a live contender.

A pair of California-trained contenders are Battle Of Midway (by Smart Strike), from the Jerry Hollendorfer barn and Gormley (by Malibu Moon) who lives nearby in the quarters occupied by John Shirreffs. Both are talented but the former was unraced at two (considered in America to be a fatal flaw in his preparation) and the latter was no match for Classic Empire when they last met. Gormley does have the advantage of having Victor Espinoza, winner of the 2014 and 2015 renewals, astride. It would not come as a total surprise should either of these colts carry on the run of winners trained in the Golden State.

The oddly named J Boys Echo (by Mineshaft) has been prepared by Kentucky native Dale Romans, still looking for that elusive Kentucky Derby victory. At least Romans can be confident of his ward’s stamina. Also he has the joint highest Beyer Speed Rating of the 20 runners. McCraken (by Ghostzapper) was one of the early favourites but dented his followers’ hopes in the Blue Grass Stakes. However he is 3 for 3 at Churchill Downs, which must count for something.

After the race, one might well be accused of saving the best for last! Irish War Cry (by Curlin) is a rare New Jersey-bred but has impeccable credentials. His sire was Horse of the Year, his owner is the daughter of Amory Haskell (after whom the Haskell Memorial Stakes is named), his trainer is classy Englishman, Graham Motion (who has already sent out a previous winner in Animal Kingdom) and his rider is Rajiv Maragh, who was written off after a horrific spill that kept him out of action for 16 months, but who has fought his way back and is in excellent form. The “fly in the ointment”? No horse has ever won this race from draw #17 and the last NJ-bred to score was Cavalcade in 1934.   

Last year a team using Artificial Intelligence analyzed the Derby and came up with a prediction. Turns out they were absolutely right, getting the first four in the correct order. If you have faith in computers and programming, then make a note of their selections for 2017 – Classic Empire/McCraken/Irish War Cry/Always Dreaming – in that order!

143rd Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands
Purse $2,00,000. For Three years old. One and One Fourth Miles.
Card/Draw Horse Jockey Trainer Expected Odds
1 Lookin At Lee Corey Lanerie Steve Asmussen 20/1
2 Thunder Show (IRE) Christophe Soumillon Saeed bin Suroor 20/1
3 Fast And Accurate Channing Hill Mike Maker 50/1
4 Untrapped Ricardo Santana Jr Steve Asmussen 30/1
5 Always Dreaming John Velazquez Todd Pletcher 5/1
6 State Of Honor (CAN) Jose Lezcano Mark Casse 30/1
7 Girvin Mike Smith Joe Sharp 15/1
8 Hence Florent Geroux Steve Asmussen 15/1
9 Irap Mario Gutierrez Doug O’Neill 20/1
10 Gunnevera Javier Castellano Antonio Sano 15/1
11 Battle of Midway Flavien Prat Jerry Hollendorfer 30/1
12 Sonneteer Kent Desormeaux Keith Desormeaux 50/1
13 J Boys Echo Luis Saez Dale Romans 20/1
14 Classic Empire Julien Leparoux Mark Casse 4/1
15 McCraken Brian Hernandez Jr Ian Wilkes 5/1
16 Tapwrit Jose Ortiz Todd Pletcher 20/1
17 Irish War Cry Rajiv Maragh Graham Motion 6/1
18 Gormley Victor Espinoza John Shirreffs 15/1
19 Practical Joke Joel Rosario Chad Brown 20/1
20 Patch Tyler Gaffalione Todd Pletcher 30/1
Also eligible        
21 Royal Mo G L Stevens John A Shirreffs 20/1
22 Master Plan J R Velezquez Todd A Pletcher 50/1