Las Vegas radio host and handicapper Brian Blessing (Sportsbookradio.com) handicaps the Kentucky Derby field:
Everyone is proclaiming this a wide-open Kentucky Derby, and the morning-line odds reflect that belief. The prerace favorite is Classic Empire, who was posted at 4-1. Which trainer has mapped out his schedule perfectly with the goal of peaking on the first Saturday in May? We’ll know when a field of 20 roars by the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs at 3:46 p.m. Saturday.
Rest assured, there is no American Pharoah — the 2015 Triple Crown winner — in this bunch. Historically, Kentucky Derby winners had a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure on their resume heading into the race. There are a handful of runners for the race that sport that lofty number: Classic Empire (102), J Boys Echo (101) and Irish War Cry (101).
■ No. 14 Classic Empire (4-1) has put forth some scintillating performances and one clunker. The Breeders Cup Juvenile champ’s 3-year-old campaign began inauspiciously with a lackluster third-place finish in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. His talent was again on full display in the Arkansas Derby, where he recorded a gritty closing victory. Veteran trainer Mark Casse has been a star north of the border throughout his career, winning nine Soverign Awards as outstanding trainer in Canada. Now he’s one of the mainstays in the U.S. as well, with recently retired turf champ Tepin his big star.
■ No. 8 Hence (15-1) probably could be the annual “wiseguy” horse come Saturday. Out of nowhere, the son of Street Boss freaked in the Sunland Derby, winning in dominant fashion. A repeat of that effort would make him a legitimate contender. Three-year-olds can improve dramatically from race to race, with growth, maturity and racing experience part of the equation. Proponents of the “bounce” theory would see Hence as a prime candidate to regress off such an impressive effort. J Boys Echo did just that plodding along in the Bluegrass Stakes after posting a 102 Beyer while winning the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
Trainer Todd Pletcher almost saddled close to one-third of the field, but will settle for three participants in Always Dreaming, Patch and Tapwrit.
■ No. 5 Always Dreaming (5-1) is at the top of Pletcher’s list. Always Dreaming was an impressive five-length winner of the Florida Derby over Kentucky Derby foes State of Honor and Gunnevera, and speed has been the name of the game for the son of Bodemeister. At Gulfstream, he showed the ability to sit just off the lead and pounce. That has been the preferred running style for the Derby, where it is incumbent on the jockey to not push the button to go too soon. The learning curve for the horse is part of the equation, as the distance of 1¼ miles is something brand new.
■ No. 20 Patch (30-1) closed stoutly to finish second to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby and breezed by the winner in the gallop out that day. The Derby will be only the fourth career race for the son of Union Rags. Patch lost his left eye a year ago and will be a sentimental choice from the public. He might be more than just a nice story and can spice up the exotics, if not take home the big prize.
■ No. 7 Girvin (15-1) scored impressive wins in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby at Fairgrounds but is dealing with a quarter crack. That’s a red flag in a wide-open race that has me looking elsewhere.
The California contingent comes into Louisville under the radar.
■ No. 18 Gormley (15-1), a Southern California-based horse, sustained a run in the Santa Anita Derby, chasing a prolonged speed duel over Battle of Midway and stablemate Royal Mo. The latter may have been the best horse in that race, but didn’t draw into the Derby on Friday from the also eligible list. Gormley does attract the services of jockey Victor Espinoza, a three-time Derby winner.
■ No. 17 Irish War Cry (6-1) is sent to post by trainer Graham Motion, who saddled Derby winner Animal Kingdom in 2011. The son of Curlin has won four of five career starts, most recently the Wood Memorial. He has consistent cruising speed and staying power. His name will be called at the top of the stretch and possibly all the way to the wire.
In hopes of sorting out the logjam, in order, I’m going with Irish War Cry, Always Dreaming, Patch, Classic Empire and Gormley. Who finishes fourth does matter. The superfecta is capable of producing a life-changing number for those that figure it out.