Our pick for the 2017 Kentucky Derby likely will not come as a shock to many of you given that Winning Bet just delivered a colt by Bodemeister on Wednesday, but, just to make it official, we are going with the Bodemeister colt, Always Dreaming.
Despite having been burned by a lightly-raced Todd Pletcher trainee in last year’s Derby (Outwork, who finished 14th at Churchill Downs and never ran again), we are confident that Always Dreaming has far fewer question marks surrounding him heading into the Derby than Outwork did. And although Always Dreaming is the current favorite in the early Oaks Day betting, his 9/2 odds are plenty fair given just how impressive he was most recently in the Florida Derby.
After placing in a pair of New York maiden races last summer for then-trainer Dominick Schettino, Always Dreaming resurfaced this January at Tampa Bay Downs for Pletcher, winning by eleven lengths going a mile-and-forty-yards as the odds-on favorite, racing on a moderate pace throughout. Five weeks later at Gulfstream, Always Dreaming went wire-to-wire through glacial fractions to take a nine-furlong allowance race by four, and a month after that he stepped up to Grade 1 company in the Florida Derby.
Always Dreaming was the second choice that day to Gunnevara, the impressiveness of his two big-margin victories being tempered by mediocre competition in those races, and low speed figures resulting from the slow pace scenarios. But in the Florida Derby, Always Dreaming romped again, this time by five lengths, and proved that he was capable of handling top-notch rivals (Gunnevara and State of Honor are both back for tomorrow after finishing behind Always Dreaming in Florida) as well as of running a fast race (his final time was the fastest since Alydar in 1978, though his Beyer figure of 97 was still not overly impressive). Always Dreaming tracked a solid pace in the Florida Derby, before rallying wide and drawing off in the stretch.
In the five weeks since that most recent start, Always Dreaming put in a couple of strong breezes at his winter base of Palm Beach Downs, and then had the work of the day at Churchill Downs last Friday.
The big knock on Always Dreaming this week at Churchill has been his excessive energy level in the mornings, which resulted in him throwing his head and pulling against his exercise rider during his gallops. Those antics led Pletcher to change up his rider and equipment, and while the addition of draw reins has seemed to help somewhat, it remains to be seen how Always Dreaming’s recent feistiness will play out tomorrow.
Having said that, we choose to interpret Always Dreaming’s attitude this week as a sign that he is feeling good physically and is coming up to the race ready for a peak performance. And if he ends up being a tad more keyed up early in the race tomorrow, well, that might not be a bad thing given how the post position draw turned out: Always Dreaming will break from post five, just inside of the other likeliest candidate to set the early pace, State of Honor.
While horses with tactical speed often prefer to break towards the outside in the Kentucky Derby, it is difficult to state with any degree of certainty just who is going to set tomorrow’s pace, and to see that pace being anywhere near suicidal (an oft-heard critique of the new Derby qualifying points system is that it works against speedy, early-maturing horses who probably had no hopes of actually winning the Derby but nevertheless ensured a strong early pace). In this circumstance, we anticipate that jockey John Velazquez might be happy to have Always Dreaming on the engine early, and he can dictate a reasonable pace with mild pressure from State of Honor (who won’t have to be hard-used himself to clear the field like he would have if he had drawn outside). The key, of course, will be whether Johnny V can get Always Dreaming to settle down a bit before they hit the first turn and conserve some energy for the latter stages. But Always Dreaming had no problem with that tactic in Florida this winter, and he settled down just fine in that most recent workout a week ago despite throwing his head around a bit early on. Not to mention that Velazquez is one of the best riders in the business.
On pedigree, Always Dreaming seems entitled to handle ten furlongs as well as any dirt horse these days. He is from the first crop of his sire, Bodemeister, who was 2nd as the favorite in the Derby behind I’ll Have Another after setting ridiculous fractions, then again in the Preakness, and Bodemeister is a son of Belmont winner Empire Maker (also the sire of Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, in turn the sire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah). And while Always Dreaming’s dam, Above Perfection, was a sprinter and her best foal prior to Always Dreaming was the Grade 1-winning sprinter Hot Dixie Chick, Above Perfection is sired by In Excess, a Grade 1 winner at ten furlongs, and her broodmare sire is a Northern Dancer-sired half-brother to Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
So there are plenty of distance influences in Always Dreaming’s pedigree, and we think that the early pace scenario will play a much bigger part in whether he can get the Derby distance tomorrow than his bloodlines will.
Among the other contenders, it’s hard not to think that Irish War Cry, McCraken and Classic Empire are the other likeliest winners (odds-maker Mike Battaglia thinks so, too – we aren’t reinventing the wheel here).
Irish War Cry comes off arguably the best last-race performance when he romped in the Wood Memorial, and other than an inexplicable 7th in the Fountain of Youth, his record is spotless. He’s also trained by a guy who has done this before, and while his bottom line has some stamina questions, Irish War Cry’s sire, Curlin, is likely a stout enough influence to render those moot. Having seen Irish War Cry in person at Fair Hill last week, he certainly looks the part, and his chasing style should be well-suited to this race.
One additional reason that we feel confident that Always Dreaming matches up well against Irish War Cry is that the horse who finished 2nd to the latter in the Wood Memorial, Battalion Runner, is a stablemate of Always Dreaming. Battalion Runner and Always Dreaming were both entered in the Florida Derby, but Battalion Runner was always expected to scratch and go elsewhere, unless something had happened to Always Dreaming. And given the Grade 1 status of the Florida Derby versus the Grade 2 of the Wood, one would have to think that Always Dreaming was the first-stringer in the barn. Out of the Wood (in which Battalion Runner finished just three and a half lengths behind Irish War Cry), Battalion Runner did not train well enough for Pletcher to persevere with him to the Derby, although he had enough points to make the field.
So, if Battalion Runner was the second-stringer to begin with, and came out of the Wood at less than his best, we think that bodes well for how Always Dreaming compares with an in-form Irish War Cry.
The knock on McCraken would be that his Derby preparations were interrupted by a minor injury this winter which forced him to miss an intended start in the Tampa Bay Derby, and his last race was a very mild 3rd in the Blue Grass behind Irap, who had never won a race until that day. But McCraken’s trainer, Ian Wilkes, was integral to the preparation of a pair of Derby winners in Unbridled and Street Sense, and he knows the value of a prep race does not hinge simply on whether that race is won or lost – so, that Blue Grass effort could end up looking very similar to the final Derby preps for past winners Street Sense and Thunder Gulch. Another factor in McCraken’s favor is that he’s three-for-three over the Churchill Downs surface.
We actually tabbed Classic Empire as our Derby horse last summer after he won his first two starts impressively, including the Grade 3 Bashford Manor at Churchill. In fact, we went to Saratoga for the Hopeful Stakes specifically to see Classic Empire. Unfortunately, the Hopeful would be the only one of his races last year that Classic Empire wouldn’t win – he wheeled out of the gate and threw his rider. But he rebounded with back-to-back Grade 1 wins and was named the Eclipse Champion of the division.
This year at three, though, Classic Empire disappointed when looking very uncomfortable and finishing 3rd behind Irish War Cry in the Fountain of Youth. After that, he was diagnosed with a foot issue and a back muscle issue, and he was moved from the track to a training center to try and get him back to his best, mentally. And he did find his way back to the winner’s circle in his most recent start, the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby – albeit in a more workmanlike performance, rather than one that blew spectators away. If he’s at his best, Classic Empire could still very well be the best colt of this crop, but his preparation for the race was just too bumpy to pick him with confidence.
There are a couple of colts that we like who will be more of a price tomorrow.
The colt who won last year’s Hopeful at Saratoga (at Classic Empire’s expense), is Practical Joke, and he followed up his victory at the Spa with another Grade 1 score in the Champagne at Belmont before finishing 3rd in Classic Empire’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This year, Practical Joke was 2nd in the Fountain of Youth and then again in the Blue Grass – two solid-if-unspectacular efforts. But he’s clearly a horse of the highest class, and he deserves a look at a price (20/1 on the morning line) as a colt who should be running late.
Finally, Sonneteer is a horse that we find intriguing at what should be a huge price (50/1 on the morning line). Still a maiden after ten starts, he was most recently 4th in the Arkansas Derby and 2nd in the Rebel prior to the that. But he turned in the fastest closing quarter-mile time of the spring in the Arkansas Derby, and had a fantastic workout at Churchill this week for trainer Keith Desormeaux (who won the Preakness last year after finishing 2nd in the Derby with Exaggerator). We think he’s more of a threat to finish in the money rather than winning, but as a son of Midnight Lute (to whom we’re breeding this spring), we wouldn’t be sad to see him run well at all.