Irish War Cry leads the charge in Kentucky Derby 143

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Jen Caldwell

May 6th, 2017

In my humble opinion, there is no stand out in the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby (G1). There are a lot of good horses, but no one who screams “Derby Winner!”

Instead, there are 20 horses all with something to prove.

1st – IRISH WAR CRY (#17, 6-1)

Irish War Cry has already proven one thing – he can return a winner after suffering a major defeat. The Graham Motion trainee suffered his only loss to date when a well-beaten seventh in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park on March 4. That followed an easy 3 3/4-length score in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at that same track a month earlier.

Irish War Cry headed to Aqueduct following the Fountain of Youth and proceeded to get back on the winning track. The chestnut son of Curlin bounded away to an effortless 3 1/2-length victory in the Wood Memorial (G2) on April 8, solidifying his shot at Derby glory under race rider Rajiv Maragh.

Irish War Cry is the only runner in Saturday’s field with a pair of triple-digit BRIS Speed ratings. The New Jersey-bred earned a 102 in both the Holy Bull and Wood Memorial, and relished the bucolic surroundings of Fair Hill in Maryland while preparing for his date with Derby destiny.

2nd – MCCRAKEN (#15, 5-1)

McCraken will be looking to rebound in the Kentucky Derby off his first career loss. That came in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland, when the Ghostzapper colt finished a one-paced third on the wire as the 8-5 favorite.

That was the bay’s first start back since missing the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) with an ankle strain suffered in a workout. Trained Ian Wilkes gave the strain plenty of time to heal before saddling McCraken in the Blue Grass and the Kentucky-bred may have just needed the race off the two-month break. Prior to that defeat, the colt kicked off his sophomore campaign with a nice 1 1/2-length score in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs.

McCraken actually began his career at Churchill Downs as a juvenile, romping to break his maiden, take the Street Sense Stakes and capture the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2), all under regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr. The bay returns to the site of those stellar wins after posting consistently good BRIS Speed figures that foreshadow a top performance is just around the corner.

3rd – CLASSIC EMPIRE (#14, 4-1)

Classic Empire is already a champion thanks to a two-year-old campaign that culminated with a gutsy neck triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). However, the Mark Casse trainee hasn’t had such smooth sailing as a sophomore and just now seems to be rounding back into form.

The Pioneerof the Nile colt returned to competition in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) but could do no better than a well-beaten third in that February 4 contest. After refusing to work following that subpar effort, it was discovered the bay was suffering from a foot abscess. Perhaps caused by that hoof problem, he also developed soreness in his back.

Casse backed off and sent the Kentucky-bred to Winding Oaks Farm near Ocala, Florida. Classic Empire steadily regained his former edge, just in time for the Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park. The Eclipse Award winner prevailed in that nine-furlong affair to earn a shot at the Kentucky Derby.

Classic Empire is the morning-line choice on Saturday and could continue a recent trend that’s seen favorites in the winner’s circle wearing a garland of roses.

Longshot – PATCH (#20, 30-1)

Patch hasn’t had the best of luck during his life but the Derby has changed the fortunes of many and it could be the plucky colt’s turn.

The Todd Pletcher trainee will break from the outermost post 20, but even more nerve-wracking, he won’t be able to see any of the horses he’s running against while in the gate. That’s because the Union Rags colt lost his left eye to an ulcer last year.

Patch didn’t make his racing debut until January 15, but hasn’t slowed down since. He rallied from near the back of a 12-horse maiden at Gulfstream Park to grab second, then broke his maiden going a mile one month later before facing stakes rivals in the Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds.

The Kentucky-bred bay, who earned a 101 BRIS Speed rating for his maiden score, suffered a bumpy break in the Louisiana Derby but put in a game rally to be second in that contest.

With everything against him, Patch still shows up with his best, and that may be all that’s needed for Derby dreams to come true for the one-eyed wonder.