We're just over a week away from the Run for the Roses and it's time for the annual Degrees of Separation column where we separate the contenders from the pretenders within some fun divisions.
It's a light look at the current qualifiers based on the current point standings, a week out from the post position draw to help segregate the horses I'm high on versus the throw-outs come Derby day. Using my annual Derby spreadsheet as a guide, we review the current top 22 horses.
Since I started covering the Triple Crown at The News my record for Derby top selection is 6: 1-0-3. I got off the duck last year with Nyquist and will be looking for back-to-back selections. The three third-place finishers I had on top were Mucho Macho Man, Revolutionary and Dortmund, all respectable performances. I missed the board with Daddy Nose Best in 2012, 10th, ugh) and Intense Holiday in 2014 (12th).
Before we jump into Derby 143, let's take a moment to review some of my better (and really bad) quotes from past Degrees of Separation posts.
Mine That Bird: "Slowest of the slow" (50-1 winner)
Super Saver: "Really warming up to this one. Pletcher's best chance to wear the roses. Sports Monarchos' sire, his dam sire is A.P. Indy, so he has the pedigree AND the King of Churchill in the irons. Dangerous." (Chicken dinner)
Animal Kingdom: "Really loved his move in the Spiral Stakes, but he looks more like a dynamite turf horse than a Derby champ." (Oops)
Shackleford: "Really would have loved to see him in the Preakness versus the Derby, hope the race doesn't wreck him, looks like a monster." (Thank you very much)
I'll Have Another: "I dig this horse. His daddy, Flower Alley, had a troubled trip in the 2005 Derby and is a Travers winner and BC Classic runner-up. Could be my top pick - we'll see how he draws on Wednesday." (Drew Post No. 19, scared me off of him….jeepers)
Orb: Likely favorite after his two big wins at Gulfstream with matching Beyer Speed Figures. He'll be on top of my tickets. (Changed mind and made him my second choice)
California Chrome: I'm not picking him to win, but no other colt has been as impressive during the prep season as this son of Lucky Pulpit. But can a son of Lucky Pulpit win the Derby? (Yep)
American Pharoah: “The likely favorite doesn’t make the top division? Am I crazy? Being able to achieve the 10-furlongs with potential traffic issues he hasn’t yet encountered in the trials. Those questions are enough to have me on the fence.” (Triple Crown winner – the Derby was his toughest race though)
Exaggerator: “Another somewhat sentimental favorite in this corner who loves any Curlin progeny. Jockey has won the race before, has the running style of a Derby winner. Not sure we’ve seen his best.” (Hello, Preakness winner)
So let's get down to business and reveal our 2017 Degrees of Separation for Kentucky Derby 143:
The AMC Gremlin Division: My father bought my mother an American Motors Corporation (AMC) Gremlin back in the late 70's and it was a thing of beauty. Bright red, sleek gold stripes, the works. Problem was...it just wasn't fast. Read recently that it was one of the worst cars ever built. I repeat: Worst. Car. Ever. Built. These are the horses that represent this division, and qualify as my throw-outs:
Fast and Accurate: Easily would have qualified for the now-defunct Pamela Anderson division (synthetic track winners), but grabs the top spot here in the race for the caboose in the Derby. Fun factor: we get Kendall Hansen back in the Derby for quotes. Gold, Jerry, gold.
Gormley: Sure he won the Santa Anita Derby, but it was like his connections drew up the script. I’m selling here.
State of Honor: I just hope he makes it through the race unscathed, so we can see him up north in the Queen’s Plate in July. Not often that an Ontario-bred qualifies to run for the roses. He will have an entire country rooting for him.
Untrapped: I have no words. And I will not be using.
Malagacy: I had Whitmore in this spot last year, not a slow horse, but distance limitations are the factor for the toss-out here. P.S. Whitmore is killing it this year at a mile. Likely will be pulled from the field by Pletcher next week.
The Party Crasher Divison: This division made its debut last year and represents the spot where the horse won’t win, but he’ll cause havoc on your exotic betting by crashing the exacta, trifecta and superfecta at a price. Think Golden Soul and Commanding Curve.
Thunder Snow: Here’s your hunch bet, Buffalonians. Remember the thunder snow during Snowpocalypse two years ago? Can’t play him on top due to the Dubai history, but he did beat a nice horse from Japan in the UAE Derby, so he’s not one to completely discount.
Sonneteer: Needs help to get in, but could blow up the tote by hitting the board like he did in the Rebel at 112-1, running up late to catch a piece.
J Boys Echo: Might be forgotten at the tote after a fourth-place finish in the Blue Grass, but he’s one of only a few sporting a triple-digit Beyer on his resume. He also could be Brody’s Cause 2.0.
Tapwrit: Pletcher horse that will be under the radar on Derby day. Impressive in Tampa, a deep course, like Churchill. He will likely be in the 20 to 25-1 range on the First Saturday in May with the talent and ability to hit the board.
The Indy 500 Division: Whoever draws the rail (pole) will be a toss and will be automatically transferred into this division. Other qualifiers represent the speed of the speed and likely will be out front burning rubber. This category was way more fun when sprinters could qualify for the Derby via graded stakes earnings.
First spot: Vacant until Wednesday for the rail horse.
Battle of Midway: Should be on or around the lead early like he was in the Santa Anita Derby, where he almost pulled off a gate-to-wire upset at 7-1 (as my top pick). He didn’t fade in Arcadia, but there’s another furlong to be run in Kentucky.
The George Costanza Human Fund Division: These will be the horses that will be taking in a lot of money and have a little (or lot of) hype, but will be unmasked in the Derby and will not be a factor.
Hence: Lots of hype on the Sunland Derby winner, who had it his way, but will be coming in on six weeks of rest.
Patch: Pletcher horse guaranteed to take some action at the windows. Apollo curse works against him, with no starts during his 2-year-old season.
Practical Joke: The name alone will be played by every comedian in North America. Not being able to pass Irap in the Blue Grass said a lot (to me).
The Afleet Alex Divison: Horses that won't win the Derby, but will have to be respected and could hit the board. Horses qualifying here have the potential to become a Classic winner down the road in either the Preakness Stakes or the Belmont Stakes.
Lookin at Lee: Potential Belmont winner? Tons of stamina, could be a party crasher if he sneaks in the Derby.
Battalion Runner: Pletcher rarely runs back in the Preakness, but this one is lightly raced and if he makes a big showing in the Derby, maybe, just maybe he’ll be back to challenge the Derby winner in Baltimore.
The Brett Favre Division: The horses that are bound for this division are those I just can't make up my mind up on as we sit one week out from the Run for the Roses. Include them, exclude them....indecision has set in.
Girvin: It’s been a long time since the Louisiana Derby winner wore the roses (1996, if you must ask), but runners from that race have hit the board. He’s a horse that has been consistent and the only horse to back up his prep race with a win in the 100-point race, so there’s that.
Gunnevera: He’ll be in the mix for me, but I’m indecisive as to whether to use him on top of my trifecta. Castellano has never won the Derby, could this be the year?
McCraken: Hard to ignore his horse for the course record of 3-for-3 under the Twin Spires. Was the Blue Grass an anomaly, with the real goal being May 6? I’m on the fence, in a big way, for the son of Ghostzapper.
Irap: Have really warmed up to the son of Tiznow, a two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic at the mile-and-a-quarter distance. Would be a third Derby win for O’Neill in six years, which would be quite the accomplishment.
Charlie Sheen Division: The horses I think have the best chance at...wait for it...winning!
Classic Empire: Returned with a vengeance in the Arkansas Derby. A quirky horse who has the pedigree to run all day. Prohibitive favorite, but I’m not going to pick him on top of a 20-horse field. I think.
Irish War Cry: You say Curlin, and you get my attention. Graham Motion has been here before, winning with Animal Kingdom in 2011. Will take a lot of South Buffalo money at the windows. Currently leaning heavily towards his corner of the barn.
Always Dreaming: Pletcher’s best shot in years, but is he this year’s version of Materiality? Florida Derby has produced winners in this race twice in the last five years. Tons of talent and Johnny V in the irons.
That's a wrap on this year's 2017 degrees of separation. It always helps me to flesh out the field this way, as you can't bet 'em all, so this gives me a fun and light way to segregate the field prior to the big day. Of course, this is my preliminary look into the field and the post position draw and training over the Churchill strip can change all of that.
The News will be onsite in Louisville on Wednesday for the draw, look for coverage here through Saturday’s race.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.