The good news is that there are now only 61 more days to go until Kentucky Derby 2017. The bad news is the road to Louisville looks more muddled than ever. With physical issues besieging some of the top contenders, and other heavy favorites going down in Saturday preps, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make heads or tails among this crop, as we quickly approach the first Saturday in May. I have also taken Unique Bella off my rankings, as it now appears certain that the Oaks will be her springtime goal. With all that being said, there should be plenty of excitement over the next few weeks, with just about anything possible to happen on this year's trail. Here is how I rank their chances of wearing roses as of March 6 ...
1) McCraken (Ghostzapper—Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold) Ian Wilkes (4-4-0-0)
While I am tempted to lower the son of the brilliant Horse of the Year, Ghostzapper, after his minor ankle injury which will force him to miss a planned start in the Tampa Bay Derby, the truth of the matter is that I still believe him to be the most likely winner on May 6. Trainer Ian Wilkes has been happy with the way the undefeated, three-time stakes winner has bounced back, and it now looks like it is full steam ahead to the Blue Grass for Team McCraken. While the brief setback prohibits the three-prep schedule before the Derby, this colt seems good enough, and perhaps more importantly, professional enough to arrive to Louisville in tip-top condition, despite missing the little bit of training. Keep in mind, he is more proven over the Churchill Downs main track than any other horse on this list.
2) Gunnevera (Dialed In—Unbridled Rage, by Unbridled) Antonio Sano (8-4-2-0)
That was a big move forward for the bargain $16,000 yearling purchase that we all witnessed on Saturday in the Fountain of Youth. Like I said after the Holy Bull, it was the perfect way to build upon an already solid foundation, as we move closer to the first Saturday in May. It is clear that he is best when allowed to settle early and make one big run, as he did in his latest win, but he has also proven that he can be effective when racing a little bit closer early. Still, his connections have to be hoping for a lively pace on Derby day. They will also need some racing luck, coming from well off the pace in a 20-horse field. The Florida Derby will be his final prep, and it is a race that he will not need to win to be at his best in Louisville.
3) Mastery (Candy Ride—Steady Course, by Old Trieste) Bob Baffert (3-3-0-0)
And now begins the Bob Baffert portion of our rankings. It seems like a long time ago since we've last laid eyes upon this son of Candy Ride. It was December 10 to be exact. Of course on that day, Mastery easily dispatched of his competition on the way to an emphatic win in his first try around two-turns. It will be good to see him finally come back this Saturday in the San Felipe, where he will face considerably tougher competition than he found in the CashCall Futurity. In Baffert we trust in getting a horse ready for the Triple Crown, though, so look for him to be come back running against the likes of Gormley and Iliad. You never know what to expect first time out, but a big performance here could vault him even higher on this list.
4) American Anthem (Bodemeister—Indy's Windy, by A.P. Indy) Bob Baffert (2-1-1-0)
That trust in his trainer can be seen here, as well, by having a horse with only two career starts this high on my list with less than nine weeks until the big day. Obviously, Baffert has earned it with so many good performances by his horses in the Derby. As for this one, I loved the way he kicked it in late to win his debut, and then I loved the way he fought tooth and nail to the wire against a more experienced Grade 1 winner in his second start. Big improvement is expected moving forward. That will come in Arkansas, as Baffert takes a familiar path with this one. I look for a coming out party for him in the Rebel Stakes, followed by more experience gaining in the Arkansas Derby. It all sounds like his sire, Bodemeister, who ran second in both the Derby and the Preakness.
5) Gormley (Malibu Moon—Race to Urga, by Bernstein) John Shirreffs (4-3-0-0)
He was the one who got ever so slightly the better of American Anthem last time, in what could prove to be a very key race. From the same connections who brought us Zenyatta, Giacomo, and also have Royal Mo, this son of a Kentucky Derby producing sire has looked like the genuine article in winning three of his four career starts. I still worry about his lack of competitiveness in his biggest test to date, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, though. All will be forgotten if he can put up another strong effort, when he takes on another Baffert runner (Mastery) in Saturday's San Felipe. I do give Mastery the slight edge, but it would be no surprise at all to see Gormley visit the winner's circle once again. Workout reports for him of late have been sparkling.
6) Classic Empire (Pioneerof The Nile—Sambuca Classica, by Cat Thief) Mark Casse (6-4-0-1)
It has been anything but smooth sailing for the 2016 Juvenile Champion. He washed out and acted up before the Holy Bull, and then finished an uninspired third. Soon after, a hoof abscess was discovered, which could well explain the mediocre performance. Once that was satisfactory healed, he refused during morning work, and discomfort in his back was found. Clearly this is not the best sign for a horse attempting to be ready for the race of his life in two months. Still, off of how good I know he was last year, I think he rates a real chance to once again prove to be the top male of this crop, but only if he can put it all together, and soon. The Blue Grass will at least offer a return to a friendly memory.
7) One Liner (Into Mischief—Cayala, by Cherokee Run) Todd Pletcher (3-3-0-0)
From a pedigree standpoint, I really worry about this one finishing well in the ten furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. Having said that, I must like him a bit to rate him this highly. The Southwest Stakes victory was an impressive performance by any standard. Time, Speed Figures, and the way he was able to rate kindly behind the early speed, and have a lot left for the stretch run, all were impressive. Horses often outrun their pedigrees, so while this one has excellent breeding at one-turn, maybe he will be one that can run with the best at any distance. If he can somehow move forward off that strong first attempt at two-turns, his future looks very bright. It looks like he will leave Arkansas for his next, and final prep, although where exactly that comes is still to be determined.
8) Girvin (Tale of Ekati—Catch The Moon by Malibu Moon) Joe Sharp (3-2-1-0)
Trainer Joe Sharp found an interesting path to graded stakes success, when he prepped for a Risen Star win in a listed turf stake. Talented and lightly raced, this son of Tale of Ekati responded by moving through on the inside, on his way to a solid victory. It was a bit of a surprise on the toteboard, but his speed figures in the first two races were a telling tip. At this point, it is hard to tell how the New Orleans group stacks up on a national level, but Girvin still seems to have plenty of room for improvement. Another impressive performance in the Louisiana Derby will send him to Louisville as a very interesting player in the Derby. I do like his breeding, and I do see ten furlong potential, especially from the female side.
9) Tapwrit (Tapit—Appealing Zophie, by Successful Appeal) Todd Pletcher (4-2-1-0)
A $1.2 million yearling purchase, this well bred son of Tapit was not ready for prime time when he made his career debut back in September at Saratoga. Since then, though, he has looked the part of a potentially very good horse through a maiden win, an off-the-turf stakes score, and finally, a strong second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. I do believe that McCraken was best that day, but it was impossible not to notice how strongly Tapwrit closed after removing himself from traffic in mid-stretch. The Tampa Bay Derby has lost luster in recent weeks, so another move forward from this one will put him in the winner's circle for the third time in four starts, and on the fast track to Kentucky.
10) J Boys Echo (Mineshaft—Letgomyecho, by Menifee) Dale Romans (5-2-1-1)
Welcome back to my Top 10, J Boys Echo. He made my list very early on, and largely on potential, last fall. Saturday, he finally lived up to that potential with a rousing, rallying win in the Gotham Stakes. Unfortunately, the Aqueduct road to Louisville, and the Gotham in particular, has not been kind. It could be the case again this year, as the quality of the race is very much in question. Having said that, this son of a Horse of the Year did everything the right way, and his numbers from the race have come back solid. Judging from what it looks like today, his next likely start in the Blue Grass Stakes will offer a much stiffer test. Further improvement makes him a very interesting contender for a trainer who has knocked on the Kentucky Derby door before.
Kentucky Oaks Top Ten
1) Unique Bella
2) Abel Tasman
4) Miss Sky Warrior
5) It Tiz Well
7) Jenda's Agenda
8) Summer Luck
10) Daddys Lil Darling
Article by Brian Zipse