We are sitting in the same exact spot we were in a year ago.
A week out from this year’s Kentucky Derby under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
The one horse that will be donning the prohibitive favorite role, similar to Nyquist in 2016, is Classic Empire. The other 19 horses that will line up are not quite in the same class as the projected favorite.
He’s certainly the one to beat, the reigning 2-year-old champion, coming into the race off an impressive victory in the Arkansas Derby.
So what feels different?
Classic Empire is a much quirkier horse than Nyquist. The son of Pioneerof the Nile never left the gate in the Hopeful Stakes in Saratoga on Labor Day last summer as the odds-on favorite. He’s missed training sessions by refusing to run and abhors big crowds. A crowd of 160,000-plus could freak him right out on the First Saturday of May.
It's as good a year as any to search out a legitimate longshot. Classic Empire will likely be in the 4 to 5-1 range as they approach the gate and a majority of horses will be in the double-digit range when the gate springs on the First Saturday in May.
Lookin at Lee
As of today, he’s on the outside looking in, but with the apparent defection of Malagacy before the entries are due next week, he’s the next horse in the race. He’s also extremely dangerous at a decent price.
Lookin at Lee is the type of horse that improves as the races lengthen and the mile-and-a-quarter Derby should be right in his wheelhouse. A son of Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky, who drew the rail as the likely favorite in 2010, he is a big threat to crash the trifecta or superfecta picking off horses in the deep stretch.
He’ll likely be overlooked by Joe Fan who doesn’t see any impressive wins on his past performance resume. His damsire was the Canadian sprint champion in 1996, so he has stamina on top and speed on the bottom, a dangerous combination.
Steve Asmussen is looking for his first Derby and personal Triple Crown, after capturing the Preakness with Rachel Alexandra (2009) and the Belmont Stakes with Creator last year. He’s worth a $20 ladder bet ($2 win, $6 place and $12 show).
The lightly-raced son of Unbridled’s Song will be north of 15-1 on Derby day. His best chance at winning could be taking an early lead, setting easy fractions and kicking away at the top of the stretch. A rider still hasn’t been named by trainer Todd Pletcher, I’d love to see Irad Ortiz, Jr. get the mount.
His stakes debut in the Wood Memorial was respectable, a second-place finish behind the talented Irish War Cry, the likely third choice on Derby day. His speed figures are in the range necessary for a Derby winner and he comes into the race second off the layoff.
If he gets loose on the lead with soft fractions, look out for big balloons on the tote board. His grandfather, Unbridled won the Derby in 1990, and his damsire is the ever-popular Tapit, so he has the pedigree to get it done in Louisville.
J Boys Echo
If you can draw a line through his fourth-place Blue Grass effort two weeks ago, he’s a horse that could rebound in the Derby. Luis Saez assumed the mount when regular rider Robby Albarado was sidelined by an injury last week.
He’s one of only a few horses in the field with a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure on his dossier, if you’re into those sorts of things. His sire, Mineshaft, won some big races at the classic mile-and-a-quarter distance. J Boys Echo's damsire, Menifee, was a runner-up in both the Derby and the Preakness, so the pedigree is there.
Dale Romans would sure love to notch a Derby on his belt with the Gotham winner. He has a second-place finish over the Churchill strip in his debut race and its home base for his trainer.
If he can avoid traffic troubles this colt could be a factor heading down the lane.
Gunnevera was favored in the Florida Derby after upsetting Classic Empire in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. The pace scenario did not favor his late running style and he was too far back early on to make a run at the winner.
What he did do that day was keep coming even when it was apparent he couldn’t win the race. Couple that with Hall of Fame-elect rider Javier Castellano taking the mount over one of Pletcher’s colts, and he’s immediately on my radar.
Castellano is one of Pletcher’s regular riders, so selecting little-known trainer Antonio Sano’s horse is somewhat eye-opening. He may be the shortest price of the four horses mentioned in this space, but he still should be double-digits when the latch is sprung on May 6.
His daddy, Dialed In, was the favorite in 2011, but had an outside draw the proved insurmountable, resulting in a troubled trip. His son will look to avenge that effort and keep his streak of solid 2017 races in tact.
Those are four horses to keep an eye on over the next week as they work over the Churchill strip in the mornings. The post position draw is set for next Wednesday. The News will be on site in Louisville starting next Wednesday with daily online updates.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.