It’s that time of year again when the best 3-year-old horses in the world get set to start their journey towards becoming the next Triple Crown champion. Last year was somewhat of a disappointment as we saw a different winner in all three races. With a new year brings new hope to the sport and an opportunity for this class of 3-year-olds to provide that next Triple Crown champion. This year’s field is as wide open as ever. There is a case to be made for 8 of the 20 horses that will leave the starting post on Saturday. This race includes top horses Classic Empire, Irish War Cry (Wood Memorial Winner), Gormley (Sham Stakes & Santa Anita Derby Winner), Always Dreaming (Florida Derby Winner), McCraken (Sam Davis Stakes Winner), Irap (Blue Grass Stakes Winner), Gunnevera (Fountain of Youth Stakes Winner), and Girvin. Although there are a lot of unknowns about Saturday’s race, one thing is for certain. This should be one of the most exciting and competitive races we have seen in this race for the roses.
Let’s take a look at these top contenders and how they compare with the rest of the field:
Girvin (Post Position 7, 15-1): The points leader in the Road to the Kentucky Derby has solid wins at the Louisiana Derby and The Risen Star Stakes. He has beaten other Kentucky Derby hopefuls such as Untrapped and Local Hero. He is rode by jockey Mike Smith and trained by Joe Sharp. Don’t be fooled by his lead in the Road to the Kentucky Derby as he has no wins in a Grade I Stakes race.
Classic Empire (Post Position 14, 4-1): The horse believed to be the favorite by many, has wins in 5 of his 6 starts. He is the 2-year-old champion of the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile which included Gormley and Practical Joke. Also included in that race were Not This Time and Syndergaard who were both at one point believed to be Kentucky Derby favorites. He did slip up in his first race of 2017 by finishing a distant third at the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes opening the door for some doubt. He is trained by Mark Casse and will be rode by Julien Leparoux.
Gormley (Post Position 18, 15-1): Another horse believed to be one of the favorites on Saturday has some really good starts to his name and also some not so good starts to his name. His top wins include the Santa Anita Derby and the Sham Stakes. He also has a 7th place finish in his biggest race to date, the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile where he never really challenged for the lead. That race included the top horses of this 3-year-old class and was no match for them. Gormley is trained by John Shirreffs and atop him will be none other than Victor Espinoza who always finds a way to be near the winner’s circle in the big races.
Irap (Post Position 9, 20-1): This horse has stormed onto the Kentucky Derby trail. Irap has been in the money in all four of his starts but has only managed to win one, the Blue Grass Stakes. As they left the gate, he was a 31-1 odds to win, only one horse in the field had higher odds (It’s Your Nickel at 32-1). He set the pace with Wild Shot and fought off a strong push from Practical Joke at the home stretch. Irap has a lot to prove on Saturday and will be led by the team of Doug O’Neil and Mario Gutierrez, who you might remember from last year as they won the Derby while riding Nyquist.
Irish War Cry (Post Position 17, 6-1): Irish War Cry has had an up and down year to start 2017. His 7th place finish at the Fountain of Youth Stakes left many doubts about his legitimacy as a Kentucky Derby candidate. He does have 4 wins in his other starts with wins over Gunnevera and Classic Empire. Irish War Cry is trained by Graham Motion and will be rode by Rajiv Maragh, who does not have a major racing win to his name since his victory in the Breeder’s Cup Dirt Mile while riding Caleb’s Posse.
Always Dreaming (Post Position 5, 5-1): This colt is the perfect example of getting better and better every time out on the track. In his first start, he finished 3rd in a Maiden Special Weight. In his second start, he finished 2nd in another Maiden Special Weight. His last three starts, all wins which included the Grade I Stakes Florida Derby. Always Dreaming is trained by Todd Pletcher (who is seeking his first Derby win since 2010) and will be rode by John Velazquez. Always Dreaming also has a rather noteworthy pedigree as he is from the bloodline of Bodemeister. Bodemeister is best known for giving I’ll Have Another everything he could handle in the 2012 at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Gunnevera (Post Position 10, 15-1): This 3-year-old is one of the more battle tested horses in this race already having 9 starts under his belt. He’s finished in the money in all but one and has wins at the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes. Gunnevera is also rather familiar with the field having starts against Classic Empire, Irish War Cry, Always Dreaming, Lookin At Lee, State of Honor, and Practical Joke. He will be rode by Javier Castellano and is trained by Antonio Sano.
McCraken (Post Position 15, 5-1): McCraken, who some believe to be the best of the field, will have a lot to prove on Saturday. He has won 4 of his 5 starts but after his win at the Sam Davis Stakes, he was shut down with an injury and would not race again for two months. In his first race back at the Blue Grass Stakes, McCraken finished 3rd and created some doubt to those people who believe him to be the best of the field. He is trained by Ian Wilkes and will be jockeyed by Brian Hernandez. These two teamed up to win the Breeder’s Cup Challenge in 2012 but do not have any major races wins since.
Every year we are always hopeful that the next horse will step up and capture another Triple Crown. This year, we are certainly hopeful ,but we are taking that with a grain of salt. In previous years, we’ve had horses like Nyquist, American Pharoah, and California Chrome who were all undefeated and who seemingly had what it took to be the Triple Crown Champions. There are a few horses in Saturday’s race that have shown spurts of that in a handful of their races but nothing has been consistent. There are also several top contenders who have faced injuries early on in their 3-year-old careers which will leave many doubting come post time. This race also lacks two of the top 3-year-olds the sport has to offer in Syndergaard and Not This Time.
I have thought long and hard about which horses to play and which ones to stay away from. I really like Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry, and McCraken. I also can’t sleep on Gormley solely for the purpose of Victor Espinoza. (I unfortunately don’t have a Bob Baffert horse to include this year with Hot Sean crushing my dreams early on in “The Road to the Kentucky Derby”.) I don’t think Girvin or Gunnevera will be up in the money despite being atop of “The Road to the Kentucky Derby” leaderboard. I have my doubts in both horses as they both lack wins in Grade I Stakes races. One of my fellow H&H writers has fallen victim to the $0.10 Superfecta bets, so I will give him some advice here on who to include in his super: Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry, McCraken, and Derby favorite Classic Empire. These horses should be all over your betting cards Saturday. If you like playing the long shots, I like Irap to make some noise at 20-1 odds.
Be sure to grab your Mint Juleps early on as you won’t want to miss a second of what is shaping up to be one of the more exciting Derby’s we have seen in past years.
And they’re off in the Kentucky Derby…