Churchill Downs Hosts Kentucky Derby on Busy Saturday

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Ted Black

May 5th, 2017

This Saturday afternoon the entire thoroughbred racing world will focus its attention on Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky as the famed oval under the twin spires hosts the 143rd edition of the Kentucky Derby, the run for the roses for three-year-old colts and geldings often dubbed "the most exciting two minutes in sports" and known as America's most famous horse race.

This year's crop of three-year-old colts and geldings has been a mediocre, inconsistent group to this point which explains why defending juvenile champion Classic Empire, a winner once in two seasonal outings, is the tepid 4-1 favorite in the field of 20. Always Dreaming, one of three Todd Pletcher trainees in the race, along with McCracken and Irish War Cry will also garner plenty of support.

Classic Empire emerged as the best freshman colt in the land last season after capping his campaign with a sharp score in the Breeders Cup Juvenile. But his sophomore debut left plenty to be desired, although he appeared to regain his form when rallying to capture the Arkansas Derby. Irish War Cry won the Holy Bull easily then flopped in the Fountain of Youth before regaining his winning ways in the Wood Memorial for trainer Graham Motion. McCracken was undefeated until he finished third as the odds-on choice in the Blue Grass Stakes, but he could rebound at a decent price on Saturday.

Those seeking to find the best prep races for the Derby this spring need only focus on Florida where Irish War Cry, Gunnevera and Always Dreaming all delivered sharp scores in various preps. Always Dreaming arrives as the 'now horse' from the Sunshine State, although Pletcher's woeful record in the Derby makes his hard to take. Irish War Cry ran a big race in the Holy Bull, flopped in the Fountain of Youth then rebounded to take the Wood. So handicappers are probably wondering which Irish War Cry will arrive in Louisville.

Among the Derby outsiders is Gunnevera, who delivered one of the best performances in a prep while taking the Fountain of Youth before settling for third as the even-money choice behind Always Dreaming in the Florida Derby. But, as illogical as it may seem, Gunnevera is perhaps the best play this weekend. He will likely be slightly short of his 15-1 morning line price, but his efforts this spring suggest he could be the best sophomore in the land.

Saturday's Kentucky Derby is the finale of a stellar card at Churchill Downs that also includes a handful of other lucrative stakes, including the $250,000 Pat Day Mile for three-year-old colts, the $500,000 Churchill Downs Handicap for older sprinters going seven furlongs, the $300,000 Humana Distaff for older fillies and mares at that distance and the Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile on the grass featuring Miss Temple City for Motion.

That same morning the three-year-old pacing colts will take center stage in a quartet of Pennsylvania Sire Stakes events at the Meadows near Pittsburgh, a card, like that at Churchill Downs, that will begin well before noon.

In the opening race on the card, the first PASS split features Fear The Dragon, a winner of his lone start this year and Donttellmethatagain, winner of three of four starts at Dover Downs for trainer Jo Ann Looney-King. Three races later in the second PASS split, Filibuster Hanover and Dorel will garner most of the support. Several races later in the eighth, Huntsville makes his seasonal debut against Stealth Bomber and Highalator (Victor Kirby), who sports nine wins in 10 starts this year including the Weiss Series final at Pocono Downs. One race later the final PASS split features the sophomore debuts of Downbytheseaside and Boogie Shuffle, while Rough Odds and Normandy Beach have each won once this season.

That same night Rosecroft Raceway will offer a rare love Saturday night card, designed primarily for older pacers. But the evening's third race features a non-winners of two races lifetime group that includes Mr Ham Sandwich, a talented sort pointing for the Maryland Sire Stakes and Maryland Standardbred Race Fund events, and Joey The Third, Little T J and Mr Bad Apple.

Several races later just past the midway point of the card, the top older horses take center stage in the $10,000 Open. Fearless Diablo should garner the favorite's role, but Hi Sir, Go Big Spinder, Jeremes General, Coaster and Tip It On Back will make things interesting. In the finale, defending Rosecroft Raceway and Ocean Downs horse of the year Diamondkeeper will seek to regain his winning ways from post nine in the second tier in a bottom-level, non-winners of $1,000 last five starts class that is worth waiting for.

That same evening at the Meadowlands the four-year-old pacers will be on display in two divisions of the opening leg of the Graduate Series. In the first split, Western Fame, s sharp seasonal debut winner last week for trainer Jimmy Takter, will clash with Roll Away Joe, another sharp winner last week for trainer Ron Burke, and Canadian invader Sintra, who won his seasonal debut last week at Mohawk Raceway in Canada for trainer David Menary.

Then two races later, Missile J (Tim Tetrick), beaten favorite in the $530,000 George Morton Levy Series final at Yonkers Raceway on April 22, will seek his eighth win in 11 starts this year for trainer Scott DiDomenico when he faces Dr J Hanover, Boston Red Rocks, Lyons Snyder and Check Six. Then one race later on the card older trotters will garner the spotlight in the $200,000 Arthur J. Cutler Memorial which features the seasonal debut of Resolve (Ake Svandstedt) and two others, Crazy Wow and J L Cruze, both looking to regain their stellar form from two seasons ago.