Holy Bull! Updated 2017 Kentucky Derby Contender Rankings

2017 Kentucky Derby Logo

February 8th 2017

They say all great empires fall eventually. The Roman Empire lasted 507 years. The Persian Empire lasted about 200 years. And the 2 year-old Eclipse champion Classic Empire’s reign over his thoroughbred peers lasted a mere 91 days, having been upset in the Holy Bull Stakes this past Saturday. Who beat him? A young upstart gladiator by the name of Irish War Cry who had 15-1 morning line odds.

Classic Empire’s trainer Mark Casse was at a loss for words for his disappointing performance. However, he did say that Classic Empire fretted on the hour trip south from his Palm Meadows Training facility to the racetrack. He balked about loading into the starting gate. He did get bumped a bit in the early going but he was right where he needed to be stalking the pace. Classic Empire did improve on his final fraction time from his previous race. In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race, he ran the final 2 1/2 furlongs in 32.12 seconds compared to the Holy Bull where I calculate that he ran it in roughly 31.8 seconds. He just didn’t have the acceleration necessary to catch Irish War Cry and eventually was passed by the late-charging Gunnevera (shown bel0w).

To say that this was a big upset would be an understatement. Shocking? Nope. It happens to a lot of great young thoroughbreds when they transition from 2 to 3. As 3 year-olds, some take off, others regress. Remember last year with Mohaymen? On closer inspection, Classic Empire had four workouts as a 3 year-old prior to the Holy Bull and he threw out a subpar time of 1:03.90 through 5 furlongs in has last workout on January 28th. He had never ran 5 furlongs this slow from published workout records available on Equibase.com (SEE). So something was up with him.

The good news is that Classic Empire appears to be in perfect health. He checked out fine after the race. So the next question is, has lost fire in his belly and that competitive drive? Or did he have a slight ailment that cannot be easily found? Or simply was this just first-race back jitters after a significant layoff. We will see. In 2003, Funny Cide (who was undefeated in 3 starts as a 2 year-old) threw a clunker 5th place finish in the Holy Bull and went on to win the Kentucky Derby. But for now, the 2017 Kentucky Derby trail should be deemed as wide open.

Below are my updated Top 10 Kentucky Derby contender rankings. So be prepared for a wild and fantastic road ahead to the first Saturday in May’s Run For the Roses. Can you believe it’s only 87 days away?

Top 10 2017 Kentucky Derby Contenders

1) Mastery Mastery received a 93 Beyer Speed Figure in his very first start. He followed this impressive maiden victory with wins in the Bob Hope Stakes (87 Beyer Speed Figure) and the Los Alamitos Futurity (91 Beyer Speed Figure). His 8 1/2 furlong time of 1:41.56 is the best so far from this class. Bob Baffert is very high on this colt.  Next Start: The San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park on March 11th

Career: 3 Starts 3-0-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 1
Last 3 starts: 1st–>1st–>1st
Sire:  Candy Ride
Trainer: Bob Baffert (1997, 1998, 2002, 2015 Kentucky Derby Winning Trainer)
Jockey: Mike Smith (2005 Kentucky Derby Winner)
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:41.562016 Los Alamitos Futurity
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 93 – Santa Anita Park MSW – 10/22/16

2) Irish War Cry – Undefeated in three starts. The son of Curlin impressed in the Holy Bull Stakes (shown below). He has a Kentucky Derby winning trainer and jockey behind him. His future is very bright. An early favorite for the Florida Derby. Next Start: The Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 4th.

Career: 3 Starts 3-0-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 1
Last 3 starts: 1st–>1st–>1st
Sire:  Curlin (Finished 3rd in the 2007 Kentucky Derby)
Trainer: Graham Motion (2011 Kentucky Derby Winning Trainer)
Jockey: Joel Rosario (2013 Kentucky Derby Winner)
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:42.52 – 2017 Holy Bull Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 95 – 2017 Holy Bull Stakes

3) Classic Empire – The 2-year-old Eclipse champion disappointed in the Holy Bull Stakes with a third place finish. He is American Pharoah’s half-brother. I was very high on the Pioneerof the Nile colt and wrote about him back in July (SEE). However, he is somewhat temperamental (remember his previous gate issue?) and that is concerning. I dropped him from 1st to 3rd in my rankings due to his unpredictability. But the talent is there. He still has the highest Beyer Speed Figure (102) in this class for races greater than 8 furlongs. Next Start: Unknown but he won’t race at Gulfstream Park again according to trainer Mark Casse. So with this in mind, the Tampa Bay Derby or the Rebel Stakes seem to be the most attractive fits on the Derby trail schedule.

Career: 6 Starts 4-0-1-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 2
Last 3 starts: 1st–>1st–>3rd
Sire: Pioneerof the Nile  (Finished 2nd in 2009 Kentucky Derby)
Trainer: Mark Casse
Jockey: Julien Leparoux
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:42.60 – 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 102 – 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile

4) Gormley He comes from the same owner/trainer combination that produced Zenyatta. He earned a 93 Beyer Speed Figure in the 2nd start of his career–the FrontRunner Stakes–beating the race favorite Klimt. He followed this effort with a disappointing 7th place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He is a talented horse and bounced back like I thought he would with a nice win and 94 Beyer Speed Figure in the Sham Stakes on January 7th. Next Start: The San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park on March 11th

Career: 4 Starts 3-0-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 1
Last 3 starts: 1st–>7th–>1st
Sire: Malibu Moon
Trainer: John Shirreffs (2005 Kentucky Derby Winning Trainer)
Jockey: Victor Espinosa (2002, 2014 & 2015 Kentucky Derby Winner)
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:43.57 – 2016 FrontRunner Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 94 – 2017 Sham Stakes

5) Uncontested  My early Arkansas Derby favorite. The winner of the Smarty Jones Stakes produced a record-breaking time of 1:36.32 in sloppy conditions over this two-turn 1 Mile race at Oaklawn Park. He received a 96 Beyer Speed Figure. Uncontested has a good pedigree. As a 2 year old, his sire Tiz Wonderful was undefeated in 3 starts and produced Beyer Speed Figures of 99 and 101 before taken off the Derby trail in January of his 3 year-old campaign due to injury. His grand sire Tiznow won two Breeders’ Cup Classics. His grandsire on his dam’s side, Lil E. Tee, won the 1992 Kentucky Derby. So he should like added distance and be one to watch closely going forward. I would rank him higher, just need a dry, fast track win for confirmation. Next Start: The Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on February 20th.

Career: 3 Starts 2-0-0-1   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 1
Last 3 starts: 1st–>4th–>1st
Sire:  Tiz Wonderful
Trainer: Wayne Catalano 
Jockey: Channing Hill
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:44.97 (calculated) – 2016 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 96 – 2017 Smarty Jones Stakes

6) Gunnevera – The 2016 Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes winner (shown below). He had a nice late run in the Holy Bull Stakes to capture 2nd place. His sire Dialed In won the 2011 Holy Bull Stakes, the 2011 Florida Derby and then finished 8th in the Kentucky Derby and 4th in the Preakness Stakes. Next Start: To be determined.

Career: 7 Starts 3-2-0-1   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 0
Last 3 starts: 5th–>1st–>2nd
Sire: Dialed In (Finished 8th in 2011 Kentucky Derby)
Trainer: Antonio Sano
Jockey: Javier Castellano
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:43.12 (calculated) – 2017 Holy Bull Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure:  89 – 2017 Holy Bull Stakes

7Royal Mo The recent winner of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. A son of Uncle Mo like his half-brother Mo Town. Same owner/trainer combination as Gormley, the Moss’s and trainer John Shirreffs now have two legitimate Derby contenders. They will be split up so that they don’t knock heads until the Kentucky Derby. Next Start: Not confirmed but I am guessing at Oaklawn Park for either the Rebel Stakes or Arkansas Derby. 

Career: 4 Starts 2-2-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 0
Last 3 starts: 2nd–>1st–>1st

Sire: Uncle Mo
Trainer: John Shirreffs (2005 Kentucky Derby Winning Trainer)
Jockey: Victor Espinosa (2002, 2014 & 2015 Kentucky Derby Winner)

Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:43.48 – 2017 Robert B. Lewis Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 93  – 2017 Robert B. Lewis Stakes

8) McCraken – Undefeated in 3 starts, the son of Ghostzapper stretched out to 8 1/2 furlongs for the first time in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and passed with flying colors. As long as he stays healthy, pencil him in for the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs. Next Start: The Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on February 11th.

Career: 3 Starts 3-0-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 0
Last 3 starts: 1st–>1st–>1st
Sire:  Ghostzapper
Trainer: Ian Wilkes
Jockey: Brian Hernandez
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:44.15 – 2016 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 86 – 2016 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes

9) Practical Joke The Chad Brown-trainee has two Grade 1 stakes wins. Practical Joke is the son of Into Mischief. I have some pedigree concerns and especially beyond 9 furlongs. But he is training well at Palm Meadows and should be considered an early Wood Memorial race favorite. Next Start: The Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 4th.

Career: 4 Starts 3-0-1-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 2
Last 3 starts: 1st–>1st–>3rd
Sire: Into Mischief
Trainer: Chad Brown
Jockey: Joel Rosario (2013 Kentucky Derby Winner)
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:43.84 (calculated) – 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 90 – 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile

10) Mo Town – The Remsen Stakes winner (shown below). His winning time of 1:51.58 was way off of what Mohaymen produced last year in this race at 1:50.69. However, he did display a decent closing speed of 36 mph in the final 3 furlongs. For comparison purposes, Classic Empire had a closing speed of 35.02 mph in the final 2 1/2 furlongs of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. So keep a close eye on this one as a 3 year-old. Next Start: Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 4th.

Career: 3 Starts 2-1-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 0
Last 3 starts: 2nd–>1st–>1st

Sire: Uncle Mo
Trainer: Anthony Dutrow
Jockey: John Velazquez (2011 Kentucky Derby Winner)
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:45.23 (estimated) – 2016 Remsen Stakes 
Fastest 1 1/8th Mile Time: 1:51.58 – 2016 Remsen Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 86 – 2016 Remsen Stakes


 On the docket…

My next blog will likely be a preview of the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs scheduled this Saturday February 11th that will feature McCraken. Or perhaps I will write on the 2017 Dubai World Cup and the contenders for that race which is expected to include the undisputed #1 ranked horse in the world–Arrogate.

–Michael

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