CRAWFORD | Eyes on the skies: 2017 Kentucky Derby expected to be - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Eyes on the skies: 2017 Kentucky Derby expected to be wet and wide open

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – On a day when most of the horse racing world turns its attention to the historic oval at Churchill Downs, most people around the old facility for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, including the 20 expected starters and their connections, will be looking skyward.

An unusually wet Derby weekend is expected to continue on Saturday, after steady rain pelted Louisville all of Kentucky Oaks day, the second-most attended day in American thoroughbred racing.

Rain began falling again Saturday around 8 a.m. and as expected to continue until about 1, before tapering off before post time at around 6:40. Regardless, with the rain falling outside the barn of Classic Empire, the 4-1 morning-line favorite, assistant trainer Mark Casse expressed the feelings of most.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “I’m from Louisville. I want everybody to be able to come out and have a great Derby Day. But for us, you train your horse his whole life for this moment, and then to be tested in conditions he’s never seen, it’s not ideal.”

Classic Empire was the unanimous 2-year-old champion before a foot abscess and back problems slowed his training at 3. He rebounded to win the Arkansas Derby, however, to earn Derby oddsmaker Mike Battaglia’s seal of approval as the morning line favorite. But the public had other ideas in on-track wagering Friday.

Always Dreaming, the Bodemeister colt who is 3-for-3 since moving into the barn of trainer Todd Pletcher, was a 4-1 favorite late Friday, followed by Irish War Cry, winner of the Wood Memorial, at 5-1, and McCraken at 6-1. Classic Empire is the fourth choice at 7-1.

It is, in other words, a wide-open race, after three straight years of dominant favorites, including Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015.

Bob Baffert, American Phaorah’s trainer, will be on the sidelines for this year’s Derby. But after winning the $1 million Kentucky Oaks with his filly Abel Tasman in front of a crowd of 105,100 Friday, said he’s been keeping an eye on this year’s field.

“They all look good on the track,” Baffert said. “I think there’s a lot of good horses, but nobody has separated himself yet. That’s what the Derby does for you. Somebody will step up. But I can’t tell you who it will be.”

Graham Motion trains Irish War Cry, who overcame his own struggles in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4 to win the Wood on April 8. One race before his Fountain of Youth letdown, Irish War Cry won the Holy Bull Stakes by 3 3/4 lengths, and beat third-place Classic Empire by nearly nine lengths in that colt’s only loss.

“I think we’re facing a different model now,” said Motion, who trained Animal Kingdom to victory in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. “He seems to have stepped up his game. He’s a very good horse.”

As for his own colt, Motion said he doesn’t know what went wrong in the Fountain of Youth, but that Irish War Cry has improved every day he’s been in Kentucky, and that his performance in the Wood Memorial was a welcome sight.

“I try to wipe (The Fountain of Youth) out of my mind,” Motion said. “Look, it was a disaster. It very clearly stands out. It was a debacle. Hopefully it won’t ever happen again. . . . (The Wood Memorial) was huge relief. It was a bit emotional, to get him back on track. It was a big deal.”

Always Dreaming has been a bit of a mystery in training leading up to the Derby. His win in his last race, the Florida Derby, was one of the most impressive performances turned in by a 3-year-old this year. But he has been a bit too aggressive in training, leading Pletcher to change exercise riders and add reins that give the rider more control over the horse.

If Always Dreaming handles the crowd, and the field size, and the post parade, and gets to the gate in good shape, he could be sitting on a big race.

“We feel like he’s sitting on a big race,” co-owner Anthony Bonobo said. “If he gets out just right, he’ll make them work to catch him.”

But there are plenty in the field who are capable.

McCraken, trained by Ian Wilkes, is 3-for-3 at Churchill Downs and has trained as well as any colt in the race. Gunnevera, winner four times in nine races, will be a threat as a bit of a longshot for trainer Antonio Sano, twice a kidnapping victim in his native country, who rebuilt his life and his training operation in South Florida, and now has a chance to win the world’s most famous race.

Still, the weather hangs over everything. Five of the 20 colts in the field have won over off tracks, though Churchill’s well-conditioned surface may well be a fast track if several hours of dry weather precede the Derby.

Classic Empire broke his maiden over a sloppy track – at Churchill Downs – and won the next four races of his career before his only loss. Hence, the “wise guy” horse on the Churchill backside, has won over an off track and has impressed veteran onlookers with his training up to the race under Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who is seeking his first Derby win. Tapwrit, trained by Pletcher, and longshot Battle of Midway also have won over off tracks.

Doug O’Neill, who won the Derby last year with Nyquist and who is seeking his third victory, has Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap, and four trainers in the field are seeking their first Derby win.

“None of us really knows what to expect, with the track, and of course it’s 20 horses and a lot of traffic,” Motion said. “I think it’s a good group. I think the one with just the right demeanor, and a bit of luck on the trip, will wind up on top.”


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