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John Oxley’s Classic Empire, the unanimous Eclipse Award selection as 2016’s champion 2-year-old and a three-time Grade 1 winner, has been established as the 4-1 morning-line favorite in a field of 20 3-year-olds and two also-eligibles entered for Saturday’s 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
The 1 1/4-mile classic that starts the Triple Crown series serves as the centerpiece of Saturday’s 14-race program and will go as the 12th race with a 6:46 p.m. (all times Eastern) post time. First post time Saturday is 10:30 a.m. If 20 horses start, the winner’s share will be $1,635,800 of the $2,395,800 purse.
Trained by Mark Casse, Classic Empire will attempt to give Oxley his second Kentucky Derby victory after the 2001 winner, Monarchos. A two-time winner at Churchill Downs including on debut last year during Derby Week, Classic Empire won the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in his most recent start. He ended 2016 with victories in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita. Julien Leparoux, aboard Classic Empire for all five of his victories, has the mount Saturday, seeking a first Kentucky Derby victory for both he and Casse. Classic Empire will break from post position 14.
#17 Irish War Cry – The 17 post in the Kentucky Derby is 0-for-38. How about that? Maybe I’ve gone crazy, but that stat doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Actually, when he drew the 17, I shouted, “YES!” while watching the draw. This is the perfect post for the type of trip that I want Irish War Cry to have. He’s drawn outside almost all of the early speed and should be able to stalk on the outside without being bothered. He may end up going wide, but in this race, I’d rather be wide instead of stuck in all kinds of traffic. If not for a total head-scratching performance in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, he’d be the heavy favorite, so I’ll happily take the 6-1 morning line he’s been given. I am not as confident this year as I have been in the last 3 years, but as the race has grown closer, Irish War Cry seems to be the one that grows on me with each passing day.
#14 Classic Empire – Let’s see if racing’s “bad boy” can behave himself in what will be the craziest atmosphere he’s ever seen. Yes, Classic Empire has a huge amount of talent, but will he be ready to run his best race after what has been a crazy 2017 campaign? He wasn’t his best in the Arkansas Derby, yet he was still able to win on class alone while getting a major education. I expect him to run even better in this spot, but I’m just a little skeptical on HOW much better. That skepticism, coupled with the fact that I’m very worried about his behavior, convinced me to put him second and not on top.
#8 Hence – He’s the “wise guy” or “buzz” horse, which can be bad, as those horses rarely win. However, I don’t think you can ignore how well he’s developed these last few months. As a maiden, he nearly jumped the fence at Oaklawn Park before STILL coming back to win, then two races later, he won the Grade 1 Sunland Derby, which looks to be a very strong race this year. I don’t necessarily like his running style because I think he’s going to drop back and make one run, but it’s important to note that he does own a win on a sloppy track. If he wins, he’ll give Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen his first Kentucky Derby win.
#5 Always Dreaming – As far as final prep races go, I thought that his Grade 1 Florida Derby win was the best of the bunch. I’ve debated putting him on top for weeks, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I’ve always said to be leery of Todd Pletcher horses that do not have wins outside the state of Florida, so it’s hard for me to put him on top at a short price. I’m also a little worried that he’s acted so headstrong at Churchill Downs for the last couple of weeks. That attitude, coupled with a draw that has placed him inside all the speed, has me worried. He’ll be on my tickets, but I don’t believe I’ll be playing him to win.
#15 McCraken – The morning line is 5-1 on this horse? Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see why he’s that low. He really needed that race last time out in the Blue Grass Stakes, when he faded to finish third. I think he’ll run much better today and show up with his “A” effort, but even when he was at his best, he wasn’t fast enough to win this race. That’s why he’s an exotic play, but I readily admit that he scares me the most.
#10 Gunnevera – I was not a fan of his race in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, and unlike many people out there, I don’t think that it sets him up well for this race. That said, he’s a dangerous closer, so I respect him enough to suggest playing him underneath spots. His running style makes it tough to actually win, but you have to play him underneath.
#2 Thunder Snow – Ouch! What a brutal draw for the Group 2 UAE Derby winner, who’s gaining hype with each passing day. If you listened to our Jon White podcast, you know how much he likes this horse, and Jon has as good of a track record as anyone when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. I’m not against him, but it’s hard for me to like the UAE Derby winner knowing that race’s poor history in the Derby. With the draw, it was easy for me to move him down to the exotic plays instead of the horses to use in multi race wagers.
#16 Tapwrit – More than anything, I’ve put him here in case it rains. I really thought that he was developing into a top prospect before his complete non-effort in the Blue Grass Stakes last time out. He does have an impressive win over the slop, though, so he may really appreciate a wet surface. He’s one that will fade back and try to make one big run, and if he fires, you can bet that he’ll be passing the bevy of tired horses walking down the stretch.
#12 Sonneteer – He’s still a maiden, but he’s a maiden that might accidentally pass a lot of tired horses and hit the board. Most years, you see a total bomb come in underneath that makes the exotics blow up, and this horse might fit the bill perfectly. He comes with a run no matter what race he’s in, and his connections were bullish on running him in this race. Many will throw him out, but I’d play him lightly in the 3rd and/or 4th spots.
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#6 State of Honor – Call me crazy, but with the right trip, I could see State of Honor making some noise at a huge price. He’s the “other” Mark Casse entry in the race, but you can’t deny that he’s run tough against some of the better horses in the crop. If he could catch a flyer out of the gate and get to the lead on his own, he could take the field a long way on the front end. Perhaps he won’t be good enough to win, but if you love playing long shots, I think he’s worth a $2 bet.
#7 Girvin – If not for the quarter crack and z-bar shoe, I would rank him higher, but that has me worried. I’ve never been a huge fan of his to begin with, so the injury concern made it easy for me to place him here.
#13 J Boys Echo – I never liked this horse throughout the Kentucky Derby trail and I won’t start liking him now. He did run a very solid race in the Gotham Stakes, but all of his other races have been average at best.
#18 Gormley – If it rains, Gormley could move up a little bit, but overall, he’s been pretty bad when running against this crop’s top flight competition. He’s a small cut below.
#19 Practical Joke – He’s one of the most talented horses in the race, but he won’t go the distance. We’ve now seen him fail twice going two turns and I don’t see that changing today. He’ll be tough when he cuts back to 1 mile.
#20 Patch – This is just cruel… the horse with no left eye gets post 20. Look for him to take some sentimental money, but outside draw aside, he’s not ready for a race of this magnitude.
#1 Lookin At Lee – The unlucky son of Lookin At Lucky drew the rail, just like his father did in the 2010 Kentucky Derby. He’ll come with a run in the end, but with this terrible draw, it’s going to make even hitting the board extra difficult.
#4 Untrapped – He’s the ultimate “grind it out” type that could pass tired horses late in the race. He won’t pass enough for it to matter, though, and I don’t like his inside draw.
#11 Battle of Midway – This improving colt should be a major pace presence. He’s not yet ready for a challenge like this, though, and his speed figures don’t compare well to the other entries.
#9 Irap – This upset winner of the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes as a maiden last time out is eye-catching. If you judge him by his body of work, though, he looks to be a cut below this group. Last time out was a bit of a fluke.
#3 Fast and Accurate – I’ve talked poorly about this horse more than enough by now so I won’t go down that road again. The bottom line is that he doesn’t look fast enough, and I don’t think this inside draw will do him any favors, either.
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