This weekend’s Kentucky Derby preps bring an air of mystery

Updated March 30, 2017 - 6:23 pm

I do a lot of handicapping seminars in Las Vegas race books and once in a while out of town. In 2009, I was doing a Kentucky Derby seminar at Sunset Station and I said this about Mine That Bird: “He has no shot.”

Of course, Mine That Bird won the 2009 Derby at 50-1 odds in a stunning upset in the slop. I vowed then to never use that term again. About any horse.

Just imagine the time frame then compared to now. Mine That Bird had just run fourth at 13-1 odds in the Sunland Derby. It was not the kind of race where you would run over to Wynn Las Vegas and make a $100 Derby future book bet.

But his trainer, Chip Woolley, saw enough to load Mine That Bird onto a van and drive from New Mexico to Louisville, Kentucky, and Churchill Downs. The rest, they say, is history.

That brings us to today, when dozens of trainers harbor the same hopes that Woolley did eight years ago. It is why there always will be 20 horses in the Derby because you just never know.

The two Derby preps on Saturday are big ones — the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds. A top-two finish will earn enough points to make the Derby field even if you have zero right now.

In the Florida Derby, Gunnevera (9-5) is favored off a sharp win in the Fountain of Youth. Battalion Runner (3-1) is next, but he will scratch and run elsewhere for trainer Todd Pletcher.

Gunnevera would be a slam dunk for me if he drew an inside post. But he drew post 11, and with the shape of the Gulfstream oval, it looks as if he is starting from the parking lot.

A horse with a big tactical edge is State of Honor (8-1), who drew post 1. Even though trainer Mark Casse is taking the blinkers off, jockey Julien Leparoux should still send State of Honor to the lead. Not only will the colt save every inch of ground, but Gulfstream historically is a speed-favoring track.

Pletcher has an exciting prospect in Always Dreaming (4-1), who is making his stakes debut. He figures to stalk the early pace and rally late.

My pick is State of Honor to pull off a major upset.

At the Fair Grounds, Girvin (8-5) is favored off a win in the Risen Star. He has progressed nicely in only three career starts for trainer Joe Sharp. This will be a good test because he got a perfect trip in the Risen Star win.

Local Hero (7-2) was the pacesetter in the Risen Star that Girvin ran past in the stretch run. Early speed is always dangerous, and this is the kind of colt who may forget to stop on Saturday.

Guest Suite (4-1) ran a better-than-looked race in the Risen Star. He rallied late for fourth after being far behind early. If the pace is quicker, which it should be with newcomers Patch (9-2), Monaco (12-1) and Hotfoot (30-1) in the field, then he has a huge chance.

I will pick Guest Suite to win the Louisiana Derby from off the pace.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. You can buy his Santa Anita Park picks at racedaylasvegas.com. You can email him at rich_eng@hotmail.com and follow @richeng4propick on Twitter.

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