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Kentucky Derby Preview: Final Countdown

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The who, what, when, where and why for your Derby day betting (or non-betting) plans.

It wasn’t fortuitous action on Feb. 11 in Tampa Bay.

What McCracken was able to do that day in the Sunshine State was surgical positioning, coupled with pure tactical speed.

Breaking out from the 8th position in the gate, the son of Ghostzapper, and his mount, Brian Hernandez Jr. found a nice spot on the rail about 10 lengths off the pace.  It wasn’t until the final ¾ turn of the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) that McCracken went from Sunday afternoon buffet car ride to full on high speed pursuit, as the precocious three-year old opened up on the outside, bypassing fellow Kentucky Derby contender, Tapwrit, as well as pace leader State of Honor, enroute to a track record 1:42.45 for the 1 and 1/16 mile race.

If this is the McCracken we get Saturday at Churchill Downs, then it would be apropos to find the nearest Dennis Green postgame rant, and just crown him.

The 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby will not be nearly as easy as that sunny day in central Florida—and a post position of 15 is no slice of fried gold either—but even with all of the question marks, the 5-1 McCracken has certainly shown he is as game as any other of the 19 horses currently listed as running for the roses, Saturday.

What horses McCracken (15), Gunnevera (10) and current 4-1 favorite Classic Empire (14) can take solace in is the fact that in five of the last six Derby’s, a horse took the wire with a post position of 13 or higher, including Triple Crown champion, American Pharoah, who started out of the 18 slot.

What to Know

The odds-on favorite has won in the Kentucky Derby four straight years, including Nyquist, who went off at 5/2 last year.  Doug O’ Neill’s I’ll Have Another (15-1) was the last to win as an underdog in 2012.  2009 winner, Mine That Bird, who went off at 50-1, tied for the largest underdog to ever win the roses (Giacomo- 2005).

Doug O’ Neill, who trains the 9-horse, Irap (20-1), has been one of the more successful Derby trainers involved with the 2017 running, winning two in the last five years, including Nyquist and 2012’s I’ll Have Another. 

Standing at 1 for 45 lifetime, Todd Pletcher easily has the worst win-percentage, although he grabbed that lone victory with Super Saver in 2010.

Bob Baffert, who has won four Derby’s, including American Pharoah in 2015, will be on the sidelines with no horses entered in this year’s race, missing it for just the second time since 2009.  Mastery, who was Baffert’s best shot ended up getting injured in the winter.

Secretariat holds the track record in the Kentucky Derby, running at 1:59 2/5, when taking the wire in 1973.  Sham, who finished behind Secretariat at 1:59.90 also stands in the top ten of track time.

Who’s Fastest in 2017

According to the Beyer Speed Figures, Timeform US and Bris Speed Ratings, Classic Empire and Always Dreaming are the fastest in this year’s field.  Classic Empire holds first in all three categories, including a 102 on the Beyer Speed Figure chart.   Irish War Cry is 3rd, while Gunnevera and McCracken round out the top five. 

Upset Special

J Boys Echo (30-1) stands with Classic Empire atop the Beyer Speed Rating list at 102, thanks to a stellar performance in the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct, smoking the 1 mile and 1/16 race in 1:46.34.  The Dale Romans-trained juvenile placed a brutal fourth in the Keeneland Blue Grass Stakes (G2) for his last start, suffering a nasty trip out of the starting gate, and never really recovering.  J Boys Echo would join the stellar company of Secretariat as the only other horse to both the Gotham and the Derby, though it is almost unheard of for a horse to win the Kentucky Derby after finishing fourth or worse in its final prep, hence the high odds.  Giacomo (50-1) was the last horse to pull that feat off in the last 20 years of the race.  The Luis Saez-mounted three-year old will most likely stay off the pace, but in the middle of the pack like he did in the Gotham.  The daunting task of eclipsing a longer stretch against a much better crop of horses will still loom for the Kentucky-bred stretch speedster.

Don’t Leave Him Off the Ticket

Irish War Cry (6-1) is an absolute speed demon, and perhaps the most consistently fast entry in this race.  With the west coast getting much of the love in the horse racing world of recent—what with California Chrome and Arrogate keeping the average gallop enthusiast plenty enough busy—the east coast horses haven’t had much attention.  As it is the highly underrated, and New York-bred Irish War Cry will be a force to be reckon with Saturday, and no doubt has more than enough of the goods to finish in the money.  The Graham Motion-trained horse ran arguably his slowest race in the Wood Memorial, and still handled the field.  The average speed of this horse, even considering that performance, has been better than average, with a Holy Bull win for the ages, where the horse went wire-to-wire, knocking out 1:11.87 at the three-quarter pool.  IWC also has the triumphant story of the derby upon his back, as Rajiv Maragh is just months removed from a comeback after a July 2015 spill at Belmont Park, in which the jockey fractured his four vertebrae, broke his rib and punctured his lung.  Maragh is one of New York’s best, and he will be aboard one of New York’s best three-year old’s.  It would behoove the common bettor to include this horse on all the exotics.

Who’s Winning

While Classic Empire certainly makes a fantastic argument, my clear-cut winner has been and still remains McCraken (5-1).  This is a horse, who when is running at his best, has a complete package on the dirt that no other three-year old equine in this hemisphere can compete with.  As explained in the contender’s edition of our Kentucky Derby preview, there is just too much power in this horse to exclude him from the winner’s circle Saturday evening, if we get his best.

Best exacta: McCracken over Classic Empire
Best trifecta: McCracken over Classic Empire, Irish War Cry
Best box: McCracken with Classic Empire, Irish War Cry, J Boys Echo 



Lookin at Lee

Corey Lanerie

Steve Asmussen



Thunder Snow

Christophe Soumillon

Saaed bin Suroor



Fast and Accurate

Channing Hill

Mike Maker




Ricardo Santana Jr

Steve Asmussen



Always Dreaming

John Velazquez

Todd Pletcher



State of Honor

Jose Lezcano

Mark Casse




Mike Smith

Joe Sharp




Floren Geroux

Steve Asmussen




Mario Gutierrez

Doug O'Neill




Javier Castellano

Antonio Sano



Battle of Midway

Flavien Prat

Jerry Hollendorfer




Kent Desormeaux

Keith Desormeaux



J Boys Echo

Luis Saez

Dale Romans



Classic Empire

Julien Leparoux

Mark Casse




Brian Hernandez Jr

Ian Wilkes




Jose Ortiz

Todd Pletcher



Irish War Cry

Rajiv Maragh

Graham Motion




Victor Espinoza

John Shirreffs



Practical Joke

Joel Rosario

Chad Brown




Tyler Gafflione

Todd Pletcher


Derby Time

The 14-race schedule begins at 10:30 AM, with the Kentucky Derby (Race 12) going off at approximately 6:46 PM.  Coverage for the race will be live on NBC.

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