LOUISVILLE, Ky. — An “expert” is somebody who can spew lots of information. All that data doesn’t guarantee prophetic insights, especially for the chaotic Kentucky Derby. Saturday’s 143rd shapes up as more confusing than most, which is saying a lot.
California-based clocker Gary Young is one of the country’s most respected judges of horseflesh. Before the 2015 Derby, he called American Pharoah the best thoroughbred he’d seen since 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Young has seen no such animal this spring.
“I can’t really recall a year when everyone was wondering which prep was a good prep and which was a bad prep,” Young said. “Last year, I and a lot of others thought the winner wouldn’t be coming out of the Wood or the Blue Grass, and that turned out to be the case.
“This year, your guess is as good as mine.”
No race is more obsessively overanalyzed than the Derby. The numbers matter, but it’s not an equation. Tens of millions of dollars change hands based on split-second decisions by 115-pound humans riding skittish, 1,200-pound horses. Talent is important, but luck is key. A stumble out of the gate or traffic trouble at a crucial point and all your finely calibrated calculations go out the window. You handicap the race for months, and it’s over in two minutes. Yet if you land on the right horse, what a rush!
So here goes. I’ve narrowed the field of 20 down to five contenders, and if the winner doesn’t come from among Irish War Cry, Classic Empire, McCraken, Always Dreaming and Gunnevera, I’ll be shredding all my tickets. I’ll play them in the Oaks-Derby double with Paradise Woods, Ever So Clever, Farrell, Miss Sky Warrior and Daddys Lil Darling.
Complicating matters is the possibility of a wet track. A steady drizzle began at 7:30 Thursday morning, and there was at least a 40-percent chance of rain until 10 o’clock Friday night, according to weather.com. There’s a 60-percent chance of occasional showers Saturday, so even if it clears up, there will be some moisture in the track. Then again, weathermen are wrong almost as often as handicappers are.
Something else to ponder: No track dries out more quickly than Churchill Downs, so it could be muddy at noon but fast at post time.
Am I helping you? Probably not, but I’m trying.
All right, some facts: Of the leading contenders, only Classic Empire has won on a wet track, but longshots Tapwrit, Hence, Gormley and Battle of Midway have. Then there’s the horse-for-course angle: McCraken is 3-for-3 at Churchill, Classic Empire 2-for-2 and Untrapped 1-for-1. OK, good to know, but I’m picking Irish War Cry to win.
Why? He’s 4-for-5 lifetime, can stalk the pace and accelerate quickly, a crucial attribute in the Derby. His sire is Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Curlin, so 1 1⁄4 miles should be no problem. He’s trained by the masterful Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom in his dirt debut.
Irish War Cry should get a good trip from post 17. The main speeds (Always Dreaming, State of Honor, Irap, Battle of Midway) are inside him, so Rajiv Maragh can get into a good stalking position, maybe third or fourth, in the nearly 3-furlong run to the turn. If Irish War Cry is leading in midstretch, he’ll probably have to hold off Classic Empire and McCraken.
My 1-2-3-4 picks: Irish War Cry, Classic Empire, McCraken, Gunnevera.
I hit with Orb, who paid $12.80 in 2013, and Nyquist ($6.60) last year. Maybe I can do it again, and Irish War Cry is a tasty 6-1 in the morning line. If not, it will be a riveting spectacle. So win or lose, as they say here in the ’Ville, “Happy Derby!”