Five storylines to watch as the Kentucky Derby nears

The Kentucky Derby has become a favorites' race.

Every year we play up the potential mayhem created by a 20-horse field and the uncertainty of handicapping 3-year-olds with light prep schedules.

But not since I'll Have Another in 2012 has an underdog taken this country's most anticipated and dissected thoroughbred race.

If there's a year to challenge this recent orthodoxy, however, 2017 might be it. Because chaos has reigned like never before during Derby prep season.

The likely favorite, Classic Empire, has won just a single race since November and has outright refused to train at times. The most famous trainer in the game, Bob Baffert, doesn't have a horse in this year's Derby after his latest star, Mastery, suffered a career-threatening injury in March. No contender in this year's field will arrive at Churchill Downs with an unblemished resume.

And yet rampant uncertainty is hardly bad for the brand. In fact, the more hopes and speculative theories that collide on May 6, the merrier.

Here are five storylines to watch as race day nears:

Which Classic Empire will we see?

He went into this year as the presumptive Derby favorite after an impressive victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November. And it seems he will in fact begin May 6 as the morning-line choice.

But that hardly begins to cover the strange road this Mark Casse-trained colt has traveled over the last six months.

In his 2017 debut at the Holy Bull Stakes, he hardly ran, finishing a distant third to Irish War Cry. A hoof abscess was seemingly to blame. But after Classic Empire recovered from that malady, he refused to breeze twice, forcing Casse to switch his training locale and adjust his planned race schedule.

For a time, it wasn't clear if Classic Empire would make it to Churchill Downs at all.

When he finally returned to competition in the April 15 Arkansas Derby, he fought through traffic to win, reminding handicappers why they liked him in the first place. He's a son of Pioneer of the Nile, who sired 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. And when he's running well, his talent is obvious.

It's simply hard to say how Classic Empire will handle the crush of attention that comes with being the Derby favorite. Will the crowds and cameras unsettle him? Or will his ability transcend his difficult personality?

If a Derby favorite finally falls, which horse is next in line?

Maryland-based Irish War Cry has a shot at being the second choice in the morning line. He's a well-built, versatile colt with only one poor performance on his resume. But that bad outing, seventh place in the March 4 Fountain of Youth, was so lackluster that doubts remain for some analysts.

Trainer Graham Motion still isn't sure why Irish War Cry had nothing in the Fountain of Youth. But he's choosing to view the race as an aberration given how well the colt responded after returning to train at Fair Hill and how professionally he ran in winning the April 8 Wood Memorial.

Todd Pletcher-trained Always Dreaming also shoved near the front of the pack with a commanding win in the April 1 Florida Derby.

Like many Pletcher horses, Always Dreaming will come to Churchill Downs lightly raced. He didn't run at all between August and March, and the Florida Derby win was his most impressive performance by far. So it's hard to know if it was a fluke or a sign of the horse maturing at the right time.

After those two, you find a bunch of horses who either didn't win their last outings or have never posted speed scores suggestive of a potential Derby champion.

Of the contenders who fell flat in the last round of preps, which is the best bet to rebound?

Gunnevera took full advantage of Irish War Cry's flat outing in the Fountain of Youth and boasts one of the best peak speed figures in the field. But he had too much ground to make up in the Florida Derby and finished third there.

He reliably delivers one big move per race, and if jockey Javier Castellano times that move correctly, it could be enough to seize the Derby.

McCraken, meanwhile, fell from possible Derby favorite to the second tier of contenders with an uninspired third-place finish in the April 8 Blue Grass Stakes. On the plus side, he has looked good in recent workouts and won three previous starts at Churchill Downs. If every contender demands a mulligan this year, perhaps he got his out of the way at Keeneland.

What happened to the California horses?

The road to Derby glory has tended to run through the Golden State in recent years, and it seemed that might be the case again in 2017 when Mastery laid down the best performance of the prep season in winning the March 11 San Felipe Stakes. But before he could even exit the track, the Baffert-trained colt pulled up due to a fracture in his left front ankle.

That dispiriting injury left the California crop devoid of obvious stars.

Gormley won the April 8 Santa Anita Derby in a time that impressed no one. Irap was a non-entity until he beat a seemingly stacked field in the Blue Grass. He'll get a few extra looks because his trainer, Doug O'Neill, won the Derby in 2012 with I'll Have Another and 2016 with Nyquist. But he'll be a long shot.

The reality is the next California Chrome or American Pharoah isn't bursting from that gate.

Do any of the sport's elite trainers have a surprise up their sleeves?

Pletcher could have three  horses in the field beyond Always Dreaming.

Chad Brown, the 2016 Eclipse Award winner for outstanding trainer, has coaxed consistently solid efforts out of Practical Joke. But Brown's colt couldn't get past Irap in the Blue Grass and faces serious questions about his ability to go 1 1/4 miles.

The most intriguing longer shot might be Steve Asmussen-trained Hence. No one thought much of it when he won the March 26 Sunland Derby, and he hasn't run since. But the Sunland field, which included Irap, looks better now than it did five weeks ago. And Asmussen, a Hall of Fame trainer, has been pleased with his workouts.

If 2017 has taught us anything, it's that you never know with this crop.

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