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Kentucky Derby 2017: The Big Six

Gunnevera

Who are the horses to beat in Kentucky Derby 2017? Everyone has a point-of-view on the subject, and of course, I am no different. Opinions aside, and despite the volatile nature of this year's trail, these six horses seemed to separate themselves from the pack, if only just a little bit, and should vie for favoritism in America's most prestigious race. Will the next Derby winner come from these six favorites? In most years, the answer is yes. This year ... who knows! Still, there is good reason why these Big Six will likely take the largest share of the wagering dollar. Let's take a look at them in alphabetical order ...

Always Dreaming (Bodemeister—Above Perfection, by In Excess) Todd Pletcher (5-3-1-1)
His win in the Grade 1 Florida Derby can easily be called the most impressive prep race for any horse that will be running on the first Saturday in May. But on the other hand, he faced little adversity in his initial stakes attempt, while stalking a modest pace before taking over at the top of the stretch. In State of Honor and Gunnevera (2nd and 3rd), he beat some nice horses easily, but one must wonder if that limited experience is enough for him to handle all the rigors that are the Kentucky Derby. Unlike at Gulfstream, there looks to be a gaggle of horses wanting to be in a similar stalking position at Churchill Downs. Still, his dominating, undefeated record in three starts this year serve as proof positive that he is among the most talented three-year-olds coming to Louisville. His ability to turn it on when they turn for home is impressive. Sometimes talent prevails, sometimes the difficulty of the Derby magnifies inexperience. His Hall of Fame trainer, Todd Pletcher, is due for his second Kentucky Derby winner. The question is, will this lightly raced talent that looks like many of his other entrants over the years, be the one to get the job done?

Classic Empire (Pioneer of The Nile—Sambuca Classica, by Cat Thief) Mark Casse (7-5-0-1)
It has been anything but smooth sailing for the 2016 Juvenile Champion this year. Before winning last week's Arkansas Derby in fine late running style, the ups and downs were mostly downs for the son of Pioneer of The Nile. A dull third in the Holy Bull Stakes in his sophomore debut was easily excused due to a hoof abscess, but then back pain, and a refusal to train, left us wondering if the two-year-old that had looked so good last year was even going to make it to the Derby. Those questions were answered well with his wide rally to power by in the million-dollar prep at Oaklawn Park. While it is unclear whether the Arkansas Derby performance is enough to win the roses, considering the setbacks and so little racing this year, it is natural to assume that he will either take a step forward in the Derby, or regress off the big effort. Bred to go the distance, and proven over the Churchill Downs track for Team Casse, he is the most likely number one favorite on Derby Day. Still, the most accomplished horse in the race will need to prove that he is completely over any physical or mental issues that have plagued him, in what will be the biggest race of his career.

Girvin (Tale of Ekati—Catch The Moon by Malibu Moon) Joe Sharp (4-3-1-0)
Young trainer Joe Sharp has a talented one in this son of Tale of Ekati. Coming from seemingly nowhere, he dominated the Fair Grounds Derby prep scene with clear cut victories in the Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby. He also sports a perfect 3-for-3 record on dirt, as his only career defeat came in a good second on the turf. On the downside of things, he has never raced outside of New Orleans, and it is certainly a question as to how well those races at Fair Grounds will stack up against the very best of the division. Having said that, he has already proven versatile, and his running style of middle of the pack, move on the turn, and grind it out down the lane is a great way to get it done in the Kentucky Derby. With four races in the book, he is one of the more inexperienced horses in the field, but he has been going good without a hiccup since December, and has had to work in each of those four races. He's not the most flashy of the bunch, but he deserves serious respect as one of the ones to beat. The addition of the experienced Mike Smith in the saddle should not hurt at all either.

Gunnevera (Dialed In—Unbridled Rage, by Unbridled) Antonio Sano (9-4-2-1)
For good or for bad, this son of Dialed In is the most experienced among the top Kentucky Derby contenders. Personally, I believe that will suit the deep closer very well, as he looks to work his way through the field on his way to the finish line. While it's true he failed in his most recent race, when third in the Florida Derby, as preps for the Kentucky Derby go, I thought it was perfect. Saddled with a far outside post position at a track where that is near impossible to win, he did not get the kind of early pace that could have helped him overcome the bad post. Still, he kept coming, as he always does, to get up for third, albeit well behind the winner, Always Dreaming. In his previous race, the Fountain of Youth, he proved what he could do with a stronger pace up front, blowing by the field in impressive style. It's the way he has scored in each of his four wins, which include three graded stakes scores. It's also worth noting that the Antonio Sano charge scored those graded stakes wins at three different tracks. It's never easy coming from the clouds in the Kentucky Derby, but this year's prospective field looks to have plenty of speed types, which should only help his chances.

Irish War Cry (Curlin—Irish Sovereign, by Polish Numbers) Graham Motion (5-4-0-0)
Throw out the Fountain of Youth, and you have an undefeated son of Curlin with two strong graded stakes wins this year. Is it as easy as that for the impressive winner of the Holy Bull and the Wood Memorial? It might be, but the way he lost the Fountain of Youth could still well be a big red flag. If his only loss was truly just one of those days, and should have a line drawn through it, there is plenty to like about this New Jersey-bred. He's trained by a Derby winner in Graham Motion, and he is also a stakes winner at three different tracks. Like many in the field, he likes to be near the early pace, but he did demonstrate the ability to relax last time at Aqueduct. In that one, he needed to only handle one horse, in Battalion Runner, down the lane, so the Derby will no doubt present a different type of challenge. Will it be a challenge in any ways similar to what happened in the Fountain of Youth? That is definitely a worry, as the winner will need to prove mentally strong. All in all, he is a well-bred horse with obvious talent, and in good hands. If he can pair his Wood performance with a similar one on May 6, he's in with a real chance.

McCraken (Ghostzapper—Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold) Ian Wilkes (5-4-0-1)
Through his first four races, nothing went wrong for the son of Ghostzapper. He mowed down his competition each time, with three of those wins coming at Churchill Downs, and three of them coming in stakes racing. Nothing is simple on this Kentucky Derby trail, however. A minor physical setback after his Sam F. Davis win altered his pre-Derby schedule from three races to two, and then his undefeated streak came to an end at Keeneland, when he finished third behind Irap and Practical Joke. Unlike Classic Empire, who had a longer break, and came back all in for the Arkansas Derby, we likely saw less than 100% from McCraken in the Blue Grass. That thinking would seem to go along with the patient nature of his trainer, Ian Wilkes, who has worked with two Kentucky Derby winners in the past, in Unbridled and Street Sense. It is worth noting that both of them lost their final prep before winning the Derby for trainer Carl Nafzger, with Wilkes the assistant. While he will need to improve off the Blue Grass, it was not all bad, as he was bottled up and a bit eager early, before making a move at the top of the lane that fizzled a bit late. He should improve off that effort, which will bring him to Louisville as one of the major players. For what it's worth, rider Brian Hernandez chose to ride him over Girvin, and his most recent work at Churchill was excellent.

Article by Brian Zipse
Horse Racing Nation

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