Keeping Score: Kentucky Derby: All you need to know except the winner

Friday, May 05, 2017

Good morning!

The 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby is today at Churchill Downs, to be contested over a mile-and-a-quarter on the dirt. Post time is 6:34 p.m., and NBC will provide five hours of live coverage starting at 2:30 p.m.

Given last year’s poor ratings, NBC might skip the fluffy stuff about pageantry, fancy attire and mint juleps and focus on horse racing. Six stakes races precede the Run for the Roses, and all deserve a share of the limelight.

For serious bettors it’s a good day to watch the 13-race card at Hinsdale (N.H.) OTB. Hinsdale Greyhound Park owner Joe Sullivan referred to wet weather as “Bleep-it-let’s-go-to-the-track” days.

The OTB opens its doors at 10 a.m. for Churchill’s first race at 10:30 a.m..

In Louisville, the crowd of about 160,000 will start flowing through the gates at 7:30 a.m. The secondary market is charging $102 for general admission, $830 for a “walk-around” clubhouse pass and $5,765 for a seat on Millionaires’ Row. By post time the railbirds will have partaken of enough beer and smoked enough bourbon-infused cigars to be oblivious to the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Three years ago, former Patriots receiver Wes Welker strolled through the crowd handing out $100 bills. In 2006, a reporter spotted OJ Simpson and asked who he was betting. “Lawyer Ron,” said OJ. “Lawyers have been very good to me.”

Lawyer Ron appropriately finished 12th— the number of people it takes to empanel a jury.

The Kentucky Derby was patterned after England’s Epsom Derby by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the grandson of the fabled explorer William Clark. The race determines the best 3-year-old racehorse on the first Saturday in May, and it’s every breeder’s dream to be standing in the winner’s circle.

Consequently every foal that’s comes out of the mare’s womb is regarded as the Chosen One until it quickly proves otherwise. In January only two percent of the 2014 thoroughbred crop — 418 horses— were deemed worthy of the $600 nominating fee, and six others were late-nominated for $6,000.

Simply put the culling of 424 hopefuls down to the 20 in today’s race involved hitting the board in major stakes races like the Florida and Santa Anita Derby, or winning lesser stakes races like the Fountain of Youth and Arkansas Derby.

A little known colt named Girvin won the Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby, both at the Fair Grounds. Those wins netted the dark bay colt 150 points — more than any other horse in the “Road to the Derby’s” needless points system. Ranking by purse earnings worked just as well and was less complicated.

Girvin is a dark bay colt named for the tiny West Texas town, where owner Brad Grady was born and raised. “We’re not bluebloods,” he told the Daily Racing Form. Like most Texas millionaires, he made his money in the oil fields.

After Wednesday’s post-position draw, Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia made Classic Empire the 4-1 morning line favorite and put Girvin at 15-1, probably because the former has more wins (five) than the latter has starts (four).

Trained by Mark Casse, Classic Empire is the only $2 million purse-earner in the field. He’s raced at six different tracks, including Churchill Downs, where he broke his maiden and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park with a 102 Beyer Speed Figure.

His two lone blemishes were at Saratoga, where he veered out and dropped his rider, and in January’s Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream. Casse said the heat and getting pinned on the rail contributed to his third-place finish as the prohibitive 1-2 favorite.

Three weeks ago Classic Empire won the Arkansas Derby to complete a resume that often portends a Kentucky Derby championship.

A West Coast colt named Gormley was third in the point standings with 125 yet was also listed at 15-1 in the morning line. Trained by John Shirreffs, Gormley broke his maiden at Del Mar on Labor Day and a month later captured the Front Runner Stakes at Santa Anita. His 2017 campaign began with a head-bobbing win in the mud in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes, followed by a fourth-place finish in Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes and was capped by a half-length win in the Santa Anita Derby on April 8.

Thunder Snow was late-nominated by the Saudi Arabian outfit Godolphin Racing on the advice of trainer Saeed bin Suror after the colt’s six-length win in the one-mile UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 11. A month later he won the 11/16-mile UAE Derby against a field of 15 others over a muddy track. The enigmatic overseas contender is 20-1 in the morning line but has three straight wins and has hit the board in six of eight starts.

“I like the horse from Dubai,” emailed Las Vegas handicapping champion Paul Matteis. “The Americans are the weakest group I can remember.”

Indeed, the field includes an 0-for-10 maiden named Sonneteer, who cobbled together enough points from his three on-the-board finishes in stakes races to garner 30 points and be the last to qualify.

The pride of New York these days are the Yankees, Rangers and a locally-owned horse named Always Dreaming, who won the Florida Derby by five lengths under Hall of Fame jockey JR Velazquez.

Listed at 5-1 in the morning line, the dark bay Kentucky-bred is trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by childhood friends Anthony Bonomo and Vinny Viola, who named their stable the Brooklyn Boyz. “It’s magical,” Bonomo told The Miami Herald. “I don’t know anyone who’s been in the horse business who doesn’t dream of this, so that’s the name my wife picked out — Always Dreaming — it’s what you do every day, especially in horse racing.”

Also listed at 5-1 is McCraken, winner of four straight until his third-place clunker in the Blue Grass Stakes as the 8-5 favorite. Three of McCraken’s wins came at Churchill Downs, including the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November.

Handicappers are bemoaning a lack of early speed but Greenfield’s John Dobrydnio reasoned, “Somebody’s gotta be out front. I like the 17 (Irish War Cry). It’s crazy betting a New Jersey bred that’s stabled in Delaware and shipping to Kentucky, but he’s healthy and the rider’s (Rajiv Maragh) smart enough to take him off the pace.”

Irish War Cry checks in as the 6-1 fourth betting choice in the morning line.

“Another horse that’s a possible bomb is Gormley,” added Dobrydnio. “My wife Paula likes that horse. She’s been looking at the numbers all day.”

Today’s race is up for grabs. Ten horses have a chance to win, making for what Guy Martin of Forbes Magazine called a “gut wrenching week of handicapping.”

Distance is the X-factor in the equation because none have run at a mile-and-a-quarter. Handicappers study pedigree, look at replays and glean what they can from past performance charts, but nobody has a clue how each horse will respond to the added distance.

Anything can happen, a horse can freak during the post parade or turn its head in the starting gate. After Indian Express finished 14th in 2003, jockey Tyler Baze groused, “He got stupid right out of the gate and we were left behind.”

“It’s as wide open as we’ve seen in a long time,” said trainer Dale Romans who will saddle J Boys Echo. “You’re going to have some big odds on whoever the favorite is.”

(See above for post positions, thumbnail bios and predictions.)

KENTUCKY DERBY NOTEBOOK: On Friday at 2 p.m., topbet.eu reported the advance wagering co-favorites were Always Dreaming and McCraken, both at 3-1. Classic Empire was the third betting choice at 9-2 followed by Irish War Cry and Gunnerva at 5-1. … The purse is $2,395,800,with $1,635,800 going to the winner. … Royal Mo (Gary Stevens) and Master Plan (no rider) are also eligible in the event one or two horses are scratched. … Four-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert came up empty for today’s race when his colt Mastery took a bad step and injured his hoof. “It’s part of the game that gets really bitter,” he told USA Today. “I had taken my time with him. I wanted him ready for all three races.” … Always Dreaming’s co-owner Vinny Viola also owns the Florida Panthers. … The best name of a thoroughbred that did not get into today’s Derby is Milton Freewater … If Todd Pletcher’s three entries reach the starting gate, he’ll have tied D. Wayne Lucas for most Derby starters (48). Lukas won four Run for the Roses; Lukas’s only win was with Super Saver in 2010. … Girvin’s trainer Joe Sharp is married to retired jockey Rosie Napravnik. … Olympic skier Bode Miller is part owner of Fast and Accurate. … Irish War Cry’s owner Isabelle de Tomaso is the granddaughter of Amory Haskell who helped legalize horse racing in the Garden State. Monmouth Park’s prestigious Haskell Invitational is named in his honor. … Greenfield’s Charlie McCracken will be pleased his namesake (minus a letter) is in the Kentucky Derby. Let’s hope that McCraken the horse can run faster than McCracken the hockey player can skate.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.