By John Da Silva
The 2017 Kentucky Derby is a race that we will over handicap, and chances are handicappers will make at least one or more mistakes as we look into the race. We can learn from these mistakes and become better handicappers and to a certain extent, become better fans if we learn from these mistakes. But we also have to look at certain horses and people, give them the credit that they deserve that they probably have not received while at the same time maybe look at others not through rose-colored glasses.
Let’s start with horses that ran behind the eventual winner Always Dreaming. It was the opinion of many that Lookin at Lee had no shot to do anything in the race because he was breaking from the rail. But that was a very shortsighted opinion of this horse because he had one advantage over the rest of the field. He was being ridden by the best rail riding jockey at Churchill Downs since Calvin Borel, another fellow Cajun in Corey Lanerie.
Lanerie gave this horse a great ground saving ride. According to Trakus, Looking at Lee ran the shortest amount of distance in the Derby at 6645 feet. The winner Always Dreaming ran 6659 feet, the second lowest distance covered by a horse in the race. In the stretch, Lookin at Lee was in great position to win the race, but he flattened out in the stretch and was second best. Lookin at Lee now heads to Pimlico for the Preakness where many think he might have a chance to overtake Always Dreaming this time. But now Lanerie loses the home-field advantage that he has at Churchill Downs, as he goes from being Calvin Borel Jr. to being another good jockey. The horse will probably be an underlay in the Preakness. He might be good enough finish in the exotics, I’d be surprised if he could challenge Always Dreaming for the victory at Pimlico.
Battle of Midway is an intriguing horse. Sold to Don Alberto Stable after finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby, the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee was not expected to do much by the betting public, (Jonathan Stettin did like him and give him out in the Past the Wire webinar) as he was sent off at 40-1 at post time. But after watching races on Friday and the early part of Saturday, it was obvious that horses that could run on or not far from the early lead had an advantage. Plus with the off track, Battle of Midway had the breeding that could move him up on an off track. He ran close to the pace and was a serious threat, but he tired in the stretch to finish third, beaten 7 3/4 lengths. He may have been carried to the third place finish in the 2017 Kentucky Derby by the conditions in the track. He probably doesn’t want to go nine furlongs unless the field is weak enough for him to handle
Classic Empire is a horse that will drive you crazy. The horse has the talent to be one of the best of the crop. But for one reason or another he seems to have something happen to him that holds him back from stepping up to the next level. While he looked great winning the Arkansas Derby, you needed to see if he could put together two good races in a row. Unfortunately in the Kentucky Derby he had a very troubled trip. He still had enough class and talent to finish fourth in the race.
He came out of the 2017 Kentucky Derby with some bruises and nicks. The connections surprised many people by announcing Classic Empire will compete in the Preakness. Mark Casse is a great trainer and we should respect his decision, even though it is one that many people probably would not have made. But he is around the horse and he knows the horse better than any of us. If he feels the horse can handle it, then hopefully it will happen because if it doesn’t, the Monday Morning Quarterbacks on social media will rip him to shreds.
McCraken is a horse that has always been highly regarded. This year it seemed whatever this horse does, people will always make excuses for him, from saying how great he looked in the Sam F. Davis Stakes even though he was racing on the wrong lead and lugging in during the stretch drive while Tapwrit was gaining ground quickly on him, to how he needed the race and will improve off a disappointing non threatening third place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes.
He didn’t have a great trip in the Kentucky Derby, getting bumped around and coming out of the race with a puncture wound. He may still turn out to be the best of the crop, but instead of having everyone give him excuses, he just needs to go out there and win races and do it impressively, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind how good he is.
The winner Always Dreaming was the best horse the first Saturday in May. The Todd Pletcher trainee received a great ride from Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. The horse had great tactical speed and used it to his advantage, showing patience until Velazquez asked him for run and he responded kindly.
Pletcher did a great job preparing this horse for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. He sent Always Dreaming to Tampa Bay, with John Velazquez aboard, to break his maiden in a two turn, mile and forty yard maiden special weight. He then won a nine furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Park and followed that up win the victory in the Florida Derby at the same distance. So the horse had plenty of two turn experience as well as a conditioning advantage of having run and won two races at nine furlongs as he headed into the Kentucky Derby.
So what have you learned? Easy, the Kentucky Derby is still one of the most difficult races to handicap successfully. There are so many variables that we consider in this race that we don’t in any of the races around the country the rest of the year. But we when see the payoffs that are paid after the race, you can see why everyone puts so much time and effort into it. We just have to learn from our mistakes and hope that put it all together and can hit one real soon.