Happy Kentucky Oaks day! The fields are drawn and the contenders are prepped, so let’s get right to it. Have a great time and cash plenty of tickets!
News About the Contenders
Brisnet: Royal Mo works for Preakness as new shooters begin to line up
Blood-Horse: Always Dreaming In Good Order After Derby Triumph
Blood-Horse: Kentucky Derby Race Sequence
DRF: Always Dreaming off to Pimlico ASAP, Pletcher says
Blood-Horse: Japan Horse Heading for Belmont, Churchill to Try Again
Blood-Horse: Grade 2 Winner Iliad Retired
Brisnet: Kentucky Derby Draw Quotes
DRF: Schettino rooting for old charge Always Dreaming in Kentucky Derby
DRF: Epicharis will travel from Japan for Belmont Stakes
TDN: Irish War Cry to Hill ‘n’ Dale on Retirement
1 1/4 miles (10 furlongs)
2017 Kentucky Derby Replay
2017 Kentucky Derby News & Recaps
Blood-Horse: Always Dreaming True in Kentucky Derby Win
DRF: Always Dreaming becomes fifth straight favorite to win Kentucky Derby
DRF: Thunder Snow unhurt in Kentucky Derby incident
DRF: Asmussen, still chasing elusive Derby win, proud of Lookin At Lee’s effort
DRF: Watchmaker: Always Dreaming ran hard all the way
Churchill Downs: Trainer Quotes
Churchill Downs: Jockey Quotes
2017 Kentucky Derby Preview
When Classic Empire crossed the wire first in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall, not only had he sealed up champion 2-year-old honors, but he’d also been made the winter book favorite to win this year’s Kentucky Derby. He’s in familiar company, as the last two Kentucky Derby winners, Nyquist and American Pharoah, were both the post-time favorite and reigning 2-year-old champ in each of their respective Derby wins. That streak should remain intact should Classic Empire go postward as the bettors choice, as indicated by his morning line favoritism. However, this favoritism has a distinctively different feeling from the previous two. Whereas American Pharoah was universally anointed before the Derby as a special horse and Nyquist was undefeated and unchallenged through the lead up to the Derby, Classic Empire has the feel of a favorite by default, a horse who inherits favoritism by the absence of a dominant horse to emerge this spring.
While American Pharoah and Nyquist experienced not one hiccup in their preparations for the Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire has.His effort in the Grade 2 Holy Bull was essentially a non-effort; he finished a well-beaten third while never threatening Irish War Cry at any point in that race. A foot abscess was the explanation at the time for the poor performance, and the colt was declared to be still on track for his next race, the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, but he would not race for another 10 weeks after issues with his back emerged and he refused to fully engage in training, setting him back. Still, he managed to win the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby off the layoff, a race he needed to win to fully punch his ticket to this race. There is no question that this is a horse of immense talent, and it would be no surprise if he wins. However, do question the price hell be in light of the not-optimal circumstances that brought him to this race. as his best race was five months ago in the Breeders’ Cup.
Always Dreaming looked good when winning the Grade 1 Florida Derby, his graded stakes debut. He’s done nothing wrong this spring, going from maiden to Grade 1 winner in the span of three races, all in Florida. Because he’s so lightly raced in stakes company, we have only the Florida Derby to go on when trying to evaluate his chances here. While his Florida Derby was good, it was a perfect trip in which he stalked an average pace while never really challenged in the stretch. There figures to be more pace early in the Derby, and by all accounts, Always Dreaming has been a keyed-up horse this week in his workout preparations, which suggests a forwardly-placed effort. He’s susceptible to being an early pace casualty should the typical Derby hot pace emerge, and it does not help matters that early speed in Fast and Accurate and State of Honor are drawn immediately around him. The price is not right for those who’ve seen this movie before with a Todd Pletcher-trained horse that can’t replicate his Florida form in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May.
Like Classic Empire, McCraken has taken a bumpy road to the Kentucky Derby. After winning the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis, he developed a slight strain to his left front ankle that forced him to miss his next start. Off 56 days rest, he placed third in the Grade 2 Blue Grass stakes at Keeneland last out with a flat effort, putting an end to a four-race unbeaten streak that saw him win three races over this Churchill track, culminating in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club last fall. The difference between Classic Empire and McCraken, however, is that McCraken has moved a bit forward from his best form as a 2-year-old. His running style should suit the race, as he does have enough tactical speed to sit mid-pack. His morning line price of 5-1, however, is not quite as appealing as it seems, as he’ll still need to take a step forward from his best, but he’s one to consider should his price drift upward, which is a possibility should Irish War Cry receive more support on the tote.
Irish War Cry won the Grade 2 Wood Memorial last out to get back on track after a puzzling seventh-place finish in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth. That Fountain of Youth effort is the essential question surrounding his chances here. In that race, Irish War Cry pressed a hot early pace and could not stay on late, which raises the question of whether he’s up to the same type of early pace task that the Derby usually yields. He’s drawn comfortably outside all the speed, so jockey Rajiv Maragh can choose his spot around the speed in the early going, which should help. He’s another, like Always Dreaming, who’s done little wrong, winning four races from five starts, and there’s been a good buzz about his appearances in the morning this week, which will only shorten his price come post time.
Girvin has only four starts and they were all at Fair Grounds, culminating in a convincing win in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. He’s got the perfect running style for this race: he doesn’t seem bothered by traffic inside or outside of him, and he’s settled off the pace and improved as the distances have increased this spring. There’s one problem, though: he’s been battling a quarter crack in his right front that’s limited his training in preparation for this, so he’ll have to be quite the race horse to overcome that.
Hence won the Grade 3 Sunland Derby six weeks ago with a convincing closing kick from last place. He’s one of just a few in here that have moved dramatically forward as a 3-year-old versus his efforts at 2. A repeat of his sustained closing run should serve him well here, and another step forward is likely in order, given his development this spring.
Gunnevera is another confirmed closer like Hence; he’s won three graded stakes, including the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth. His last effort for third in the Grade 1 Florida Derby could be forgiven, considering that he drew a disadvantageous outside post on Gulfstream’s short run into the turn. Not helping matters was the average pace in front of him, where Always Dreaming held sway. Gunnevera always makes a wide closing move, and there’s good and bad with that in the Derby in that it can keep him out of traffic trouble, but the number of horses he may have to pass might leave him giving up valuable ground. I have a feeling that we already saw his best races in Florida this spring.
Gormley essentially inherited the win in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby when he got first run on a fast-paced, three-horse duel in front of him. That Santa Anita Derby saw no runners make any ground in the stretch save for Gormley. He was no match for Mastery in the Grade 2 San Felipe or Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but surrounding those poor efforts are wins in the Grade 3 Sham and Grade 1 FrontRunner, all at Santa Anita. He’s another, like Girvin, that has enough tactical speed that can put him in the right place at the right time to get first run at the pacesetters, and he’s flying enough under the radar enough that if his 15-1 morning line price drifts upward, he’s worth considering.
Lookin At Lee drew the dreaded rail position, which isn’t all that bad considering that he’s always devoid of speed and makes a one-run closing move. As a juvenile, he looked to be a horse of interest going forward with good showings in the Grade 1 Breeders Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he has not moved forward this spring.
Thunder Snow could be any kind, having won the Group 1 Criterium International on turf at Saint-Cloud in France as a 2-year-old, then going on to win a pair of dirt races in Dubai earlier this spring, including the Group 2 UAE Derby while attending the pace. That tendency to be a pace player does give one pause in this spot, as American dirt racing can be especially brutal early, something international shippers are not used to. He’s not the first to try to win the Derby after prepping in Dubai, but in a year in which every horse has his share of knocks, anything north of his 20-1 morning line could be worth taking a shot with.
Irap broke his maiden in the Grade 2 Blue Grass last out, finishing ahead of other Derby probables in Practical Joke, McCraken, J Boys Echo and Tapwrit. That would normally make him a contender in here, but the Blue Grass was a weird race that had the feel of a slow-paced affair of which Irap was the main beneficiary. That is unlikely to be replicated here. He’s a horse that’s lost ground in the stretch of each and every one of his starts, which should leave him being more of a pace presence than contender.
J Boys Echo’s best race came when he won the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct in March, and none of the horses he beat there are in the Derby. He was 10 lengths back of Gunnevera in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot and 6 lengths back of Irap in the Grade 2 Blue Grass. He’s got enough tactical speed to be mid-pack on the backstretch here, but question whether he has enough to catch the best speeds and hold off the best closers.
Tapwrit looked like one of the potential favorites for the Derby when he won the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby in convincing fashion. His fifth-place effort in the Grade 2 Blue Grass was a total non-effort, as he did not appear to be comfortable at any point in the race. Despite that, he’s one that has improved as a 3-year-old, and he was right there with McCraken when finishing second in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis, so if you fancy McCraken, you should fancy Tapwrit at a price that could be three times higher than McCraken’s.
Practical Joke looked like the winner of the Grade 2 Blue Grass at the top of the stretch when he moved up to challenge Irap, but he could not sustain his run and settled for second. He had a bit of a troubled trip in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, having to steady on the first turn, but he could not hold off Gunnevera’s closing run. This dual Grade 1 winner at two has not moved forward in his two races this year and has the look of a horse who may be distanced-challenged.
Untrapped shed the blinkers from his sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, an effort that saw him placed perfectly at the top the stretch only to be flat in the lane. He’s another like Practical Joke that appears to be distance-challenged.
State of Honor set the pace in both the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis before yielding late. The blinkers came off for his pace-attending effort in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, where he was second-best to Always Dreaming. He’s another like Irap, losing ground in the stretch in each of his last three races as the distances have increased. He appears to be little more than an early pace presence.
Battle of Midway took part in a very fast early pace in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and he almost stayed on to win, yielding in the last strides to Gormley. He’s lightly raced and open to improvement, and in a race where there are more knocks against most, he’s another under-the-radar type that will be a huge price yet still retains some upside in that he’s improved throughout this spring.
Patch did well second-up in class to Girvin in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, which was just his third start. He’s marooned off in the dreaded post 20, and while he’s another like Battle of Midway that has some upside, the level of improvement needed to compete here is much steeper.
Fast and Accurate won the Grade 3 Spiral on Polytrack at 24-1, and his lone dirt effort at Parx last October was dreadful. He’s nothing more than an early pace presence here, if that.
Sonneteer is still a maiden, having toiled in the maiden ranks in California before heading East and closing for second in the Grade 2 Rebel and fourth in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. He’s certainly tough to back in the win slot, but he’s one of the few closers in here that has shown an affinity for closing on both the inside and the outside, which makes him superfecta fodder should a fast pace develop in front of him.
Churchill Downs, Friday May 5, post time: 6:12 pm ET
1 1/8 miles (9 furlongs)
2017 Kentucky Oaks Replay
2017 Kentucky Oaks News & Recaps
Blood-Horse: Kentucky Oaks News Update (video)
Blood-Horse: Plenty ‘Abel’ in Kentucky Oaks
DRF: For Paradise Woods, paradise lost in Kentucky Oaks
DRF: Abel Tasman upsets the Kentucky Oaks; Paradise Woods 11th
Churchill Downs: Trainer Quotes (pdf)
TDN: Quality Road’s Abel Tasman Picks Up the Pieces in Kentucky Oaks
2017 Kentucky Oaks Preview
Thus far, 2017 has been a brutal year for prominent Kentucky Oaks contenders. First, in early March, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and Eclipse Award winner Champagne Room underwent surgery to remove a bone chip after her third-place finish behind Unique Bella in the Grade 2 Las Virgenes. Then in late March, Unique Bella was taken out of training, suffering from a shin injury. The following week Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up Valadorna had surgery to repair an incomplete condylar fracture. What remains is a field of mostly battle-tested survivors with a few relative newcomers to shake things up. Overall, they are also a profoundly qualified group to successfully traverse the 1 1/8 miles (9 furlongs) Kentucky Oaks’ distance.
Likely post-time favorite Paradise Woods is one of the relative newcomers, a filly that went from a 5 1/2 furlong maiden winner to wire-to-wire, 1 1/16-miles Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks victress in less than one month. One of two daughters of 12-furlong Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags in the Oaks field, she’s also already posted the highest BRIS speed figure (110) of all the entrants. It’s possible that she could bounce off such a big previous effort, but her two sharp workouts in advance of this start for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella suggest that she should continue to move forward, much like Mandella’s brilliant champion Beholder did as she aged.
Grade 1 Starlet winner Abel Tasman endured major traffic issues (mostly of her own making), including having to go extremely wide around the final turn, to finish a distant second to rail-riding (and thus ground-saving) Paradise Woods in the Santa Anita Oaks. However, the daughter of 10-furlong Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up Quality Road was still moving well at the end, suggesting that the added distance here shouldn’t be a problem. Breaking from post 13 also shouldn’t impact this late-closer’s chances, as veteran jockey Mike Smith knows a thing or two about handling fillies who like to swoop in from the clouds. Trainer Bob Baffert is adding blinkers, which should provide her with better focus and engagement.
Unlike her West Coast rivals, Miss Sky Warrior isn’t necessarily garnering a lot of buzz. However, as the only Oaks competitor that has already twice posted easy wire-to-wire victories at the 9-furlong distance (in the Grade 2 Demoiselle and the Grade 2 Gazelle), she should not be left off of any tickets. Ever since the Gazelle was moved in 2013 from November to April, making it an Oaks prep race, fillies that have either won or run second in it have done extremely well in the Kentucky Oaks, beginning with Gazelle runner-up Princess of Sylmar who won the 2013 Kentucky Oaks. In 2014, Gazelle winner My Miss Sophia finished second in the Oaks to Untapable, while, in 2016, Gazelle winner Lewis Bay ran third in the Oaks behind Cathryn Sophia and late-closing Land Over Sea.
Bill Mott-trained Lockdown finished 13 lengths behind Miss Sky Warrior in the Gazelle, which may cause some horseplayers to ignore her here. Do so at your peril! This relative newcomer is a full sister to 2013 Gazelle victress Close Hatches, who ran second to Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff as a 3-year-old, and then won the 2014 Eclipse Award for Champion Older Female after reeling off three consecutive Grade 1 victories in the Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps, and Personal Ensign. Lockdown has posted two smoking workouts at Churchill Downs in advance of this start, so she could pop a major surprise at 20-1 on the morning line.
Winner of her last four starts (including the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks last out), Farrell has one particular advantage over many of her fellow competitors: familiarity with and success over the Churchill Downs track. In rather dominating fashion, she has won two of four races over the surface, most notably last November’s Grade 2 Golden Rod over Daddy’s Lil Darling and Ever So Clever. Farrell’s Grade 2-placed dam has also produced 9-furlong Grade 1 Blue Grass winner Carpe Diem, so Farrell appears to have plenty of stamina breeding to stretch out to 1 1/8 miles.
Both Daddy’s Lil Darling and Ever So Clever are well-tried fillies with experience over the Churchill Downs surface, and specifically over a muddy track in last September’s 1 1/16-miles Grade 2 Pocahontas, in which Daddy’s Lil Darling outlasted Ever So Clever for a half-length victory. Daddy’s Lil Darling followed up that race with a late-gaining runner-up finish to Dancing Rags in the 1 1/16-miles Grade 1 Alcibiades and then a nicely-closing fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies before falling to Farrell in the Grade 2 Golden Rod. After beginning the year with an out-of-the-money finish in the grassy Grade 3 Florida Oaks, Daddy’s Lil Darling closed impressively to finish just a half-length behind Sailor’s Valentine in the 1 1/16-miles Grade 1 Ashland. A half-sister to Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Mongolian Saturday, this daughter of 9-furlong Grade 1 Florida Derby victor Scat Daddy isn’t a slam-dunk to get the 1 1/8 miles distance, nor do her BRIS speed figures place her in contention. However, a wet track moves her up for a piece of the exotics. Winner of the 1 1/16-miles Grade 3 Fantasy most recently, Ever So Clever is another late closer that may not quite have the requisite stamina, but a muddy surface would also be to her advantage.
There were plenty of reasons to like Sailor’s Valentine in the 1 1/16-miles Grade 1 Ashland. Entered second-up off a break, she came in off of a narrow runner-up finish on turf going the same 1 1/16 miles distance. Perhaps most impressive about her Ashland performance was how she continued to fight all of the way to the wire. With a recent sharp 5-furlong workout and previous racing experience over the Churchill Downs oval, Sailor’s Valentine may just continue to move forward.
With only a maiden win (going one mile on turf) in eight starts, Wicked Lick just hasn’t demonstrated the kind of speed necessary to be a threat. In her last three races, she was well beaten by Farrell, including most recently in the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks. A daughter of stamina titan Giant’s Causeway and a full sister to 12-furlong Grade 1 Belmont runner-up Destin, Vexatious theoretically should be more than capable of successfully traversing the Oaks distance. The problem is that this maiden winner just hasn’t demonstrated enough speed.
It took veteran Jordan’s Henny seven starts (including a distant fifth-place effort in the 1 1/16-miles Grade 2 Pocahontas at Churchill Downs) to break her maiden. After posting a game runner-up finish behind Miss Sky Warrior in the one-mile Grade 2 Davona Dale, her distance limitations were revealed in her distant third-place showing in the 1 1/16-miles Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks behind Salty and Tequilita.
In the Kentucky Oaks, lightly-raced Salty has drawn the far outside 14 post position, which certainly isn’t ideal. The other daughter of Quality Road in this field, she’s got a damside pedigree that doesn’t fully support her ability to get the 9-furlong distance, either. On the other hand, Tequilita possesses a sneaky-good stamina pedigree. Not only is her sire 12-furlong Belmont winner Union Rags, but her Grade 2-winning dam Sangrita is a half-sister to 10-furlong Grade 1 Suburban winner Offlee Wild, while her second dam is a half-sister to acclaimed stamina sire Dynaformer. It did take her four attempts before breaking her juvenile maiden, and she’s been only lightly raced this year, working hard to win the 7-furlong Grade 2 Forward Gal before her rather distant runner-up finish behind Salty in the Gulfstream Park Oaks. She just hasn’t raced fast enough yet to be competitive with the best fillies entered here.
Grade 1-placed Mopotism is another hard-trying filly that just hasn’t been able to best her top West Coast rivals, nor win beyond one mile. Her fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks (a distant 14 lengths back of Paradise Woods and nearly 3 lengths behind Abel Tasman) doesn’t inspire hope that this daughter of Uncle Mo can outrun her limited stamina pedigree.
On the also-eligible list, Summer Luck has only a maiden win to her credit. Her close-up third to Miss Sky Warrior in the one-mile Grade 2 Davona Dale was impressive, but she was no threat finishing fifth in the Grade 1 Ashland. Her unraced dam is a daughter of 12-furlong Grade 3 Bewitch winner Cymbala, so her stamina pedigree is solid. Her actual form is rocky, and her demonstrated speed is lacking.
With such a competitive field, it’s hard to pick a winner here, but if you box these selections (after closely examining the contenders during the post parade and bearing in mind the track condition come post time), you’re likely to cash a winning ticket. Good luck!
Win: Miss Sky Warrior
Place: Abel Tasman
Show: Paradise Woods
Others for the exotics: Farrell, Lockdown, Sailor’s Valentine
(If wet track, add Daddy’s Lil Darling and Ever So Clever to the exotics)
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