The Horses and Humans of Kentucky Derby 143

So who’s your Derby horse?


As horse people, we invariably get asked the same question this time of year: “Who’s your Derby horse?” Whether or not you actually follow thoroughbred racing, or once taught an OTTB the intricacies of the half-halt, you’re expected to have an idea what’s going on the first Saturday in May.

We can help.

There are numerous ways to go about picking your Kentucky Derby horse, some more logical than others. But in a race like this, where horses are tested mentally and physically like never before, throw logic out the window and go with your gut. Or, maybe you’ll find something else that tickles your fancy…

With that, let’s take a look at this year’s field and get you Derby-party ready.

The Hot Shots

Classic Empire

Pioneer of the Nile (Empire Maker)—Sambuca Classic (Cat Thief)
Post Position: 14
Odds: 4-1
Owner: John Oxley
Trainer: Mark Casse
Rider: Julien Leparoux

Last year’s Champion 2-year-old gallops into Churchill Downs fully prepared to defend his status as the cream of the crop. He’s won at four different racetracks across the country and already earned north of $2 million. Jockey Julien Leparoux has been on him nearly every step of the way and has his best shot yet to win his first career Kentucky Derby. Purchased as a yearling for $475,000 by Hall of Fame Polo player John C. Oxley, expectations have always been high for this colt, and he’s delivered.

Despite the fact his spring training was interrupted by some minor physical pings and a noted bout of the balks, his gritty win in the Arkansas Derby suggests he’ll be back in top form on Saturday…if he can keep his head in the game. Trainer Mark Casse says he can sometimes be too smart for his own good.


Always Dreaming

Bodemeister (Empire Maker)—Above Perfection (In Excess)
PP: 4
Odds: 5-1
Owner: Brooklyn Boyz Stables, Teresa Viola Racing, West Point Thoroughbreds
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Rider: John Valezquez

Always Dreaming burst into the Kentucky Derby picture after making a mockery of the Florida Derby with some serious turn of foot. It was his first attempt in stakes company and just his fifth career start, so there’s certainly reason to think his best is yet to come.

This is the first Kentucky Derby starter for Bodemeister, who nearly went wire-to-wire in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, only to be nipped at the wire by I’ll Have Another. It would not be a surprise to see this colt in a similar role. He’s been a handful in the mornings all week, clearly unsatisfied with his controlled jogs and ready to let loose. How far he can go remains to be seen.


Irish War Cry

Curlin (Smart Strike)—Irish Sovereign (Polish Numbers)
PP: 17
Odds: 6-1
Owner: Isabelle de Tomaso
Trainer: Graham Motion
Rider: Rajiv Maragh

Perhaps the fastest horse in the field, Irish War Cry comes in after crushing the Wood Memorial, his 4th win in 5 career starts for trainer Graham Motion, who conditioned 2011 Kentucky Derby champ Animal Kingdom. This son of Curlin is a New Jersey homebred of Isabelle Haskell de Tomaso, “The Most Interesting Woman in Racing” and widow of famed sports car manufacturer Alessandro de Tomaso.

His talent is undeniable, but his experience is light and toughness untested.



Ghostzapper (Awesome Again)—Ivory Empress (Seeking The Gold)
PP: 15
Odds: 5-1
Owner: Janice Witham
Trainer: Ian Wilkes
Rider: Brian Hernandez Jr.

While most of the Derby contenders have shipped in to Churchill Downs for a shot at glory on Saturday, McCraken is home. A perfect 3-for-3 in his career at Churchill Downs for trainer Ian Wilkes, there’s no doubt he does his best work over this track. While he’s been training well of late, his winter and spring campaign was less than ideal. A minor ankle injury sidelined him for several weeks, and his dull comeback effort in the Blue Grass Stakes was full of rust. Still, it would be a shock if he didn’t show marked improvement on Saturday.

Trainer Ian Wilkes was the assistant trainer and exercise rider for 1990 Kentucky Derby champ Unbridled.

The Feel-Good Story…


Union Rags (Dixie Union)—Windy Indy (AP Indy)
PP: 20
Odds: 30-1
Owner: Calumet Farm
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Rider: Tyler Gaffalione

By now you’ve probably read about The One-Eyed Horse who just so happens to be named Patch. Yes, this promising young colt had already been christened before his left eye was removed last year due to an untreatable ulcer. While the procedure temporarily put his career on hold, it has done nothing to slow down this stately Calumet homebred by one of the hottest young sires in the game, who has flashed some serious potential in his three career starts.

“I’m just proud of the horse,” trainer Todd Pletcher told the Herald-Leader this week. “He’s got a wonderful attitude of mind. He’s literally taken the loss of his left eye in stride. It’s never seemed to faze him at all.”

Patch certainly has one of the most classic pedigrees in the field and is an undeniably easy horse to root for. But history is not on his side. The last horse to win the Run for the Roses without having raced as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882. Yes, 1882. And while his pedigree screams stamina, there’s only so much foundation one can build up in three career starts. And in the cruelest twist of all, Patch drew post position 20, which means he won’t be able to see the stampede of 19 horses firing from the gate to his inside. This is not a recipe for Kentucky Derby success, but big things appear to be on the horizon for this one-eyed wonder.

But maybe…



Malibu Moon (AP Indy)—Race to Urga (Bernstein)
PP: 18
Odds: 15-1
Owner: Jerry and Ann Moss
Trainer: John Shirreffs
Rider: Victor Espinoza

There’s certainly a lot to like about Gormley. Classic pedigree. Those familiar teal and pink silks of Jerry and Ann Moss, made famous of course by the great Zenyatta. Trainer John Shirreffs, who not only nurtured Queen Z into a superstar, but also stole the 2006 Kentucky Derby with longshot Giacomo. There’s Victor Espinoza, winning jockey on 2 of the last 3 Kentucky Derby winners, and of course, there’s the colt himself, who rides in off an impressive win in the Santa Anita Derby. He certainly looks like a horse on the up-and-up, but he’s been wildly inconsistent in his brief career, and has never raced outside of SoCal.



Dialed In (Mineshaft)—Unbridled Rage (Unbridled)
PP: 10
Odds: 15-1
Owner: Peacock Racing Stables
Trainer: Antonio Sano
Rider: Javier Castellano

Now here’s a story: Trainer Antonio Sano is the all-time winningest trainer in his native Venezuela. Great! Well, not exactly…You see, his success made him a prime target in a country fraught with crime and corruption. Sano was kidnapped and held for ransom on multiple occasions by a so-called “horse mafia”. After his final kidnapping, where he was held for nearly a week, he left his primo stable in Venezuela behind and moved his family to America, settling into the South Florida racing circuit to start his career anew.

It’s been relatively slow going for Sano since his move a few years ago, but he’s finally broken through to the big time with Gunnevera, a colt purchased as a yearling for the bargain bin price of $16,000. Gunnevera has already earned over $1 million for Peacock Racing Stables, which is comprised of fellow Venezuelans, and will get the services of North America’s top jockey, Javier Castellano, also a native of Venezuela who has amazingly never won the Kentucky Derby.



Street Boss (Street Cry)—Floating Island (AP Indy)
PP: 8
Odds: 15-1
Owner: Calumet Farm
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Rider: Florent Geroux

If you are particularly fond of adverbs, this is the horse for you. This well-constructed chestnut rose from relative obscurity to the talk of town after running away with the Sunland Derby in late March. Though he hasn’t raced since, he’s been training as well as anyone at Churchill Downs and looks ready to prove his last effort was no fluke. Though he’s clearly in top form, there’s reason to question whether his pedigree is suited for the distance.



Tale of Ekati (Tale of the Cat)—Catch the Moon (Malibu Moon)
PP: 7
Odds: 15-1
Owner: Brad Grady
Trainer: Joe Sharp
Rider: Mike Smith

The leading points earner on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, Girvin was the clear-cut class of the New Orleans Fair Grounds this winter and spring, winning both the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. Not bad for a horse whose genesis can be traced back to a literal toss of a dart. While his normal rider Brian Hernandez opted for McCraken, “Big Money” Mike Smith steps in to pilot in the Derby. It’s the first Kentucky Derby for 32-year-old trainer Joe Sharp, who employs perhaps the best exercise rider in the country—his wife, Rosie Napravnik. But as physically imposing and honest as this colt has been, he’s been battling hoof issues of late, which is far from ideal heading into a marathon like the Kentucky Derby.


Practical Joke

Into Mischief (Harlan’s Holiday)—Halo Humor (Distorted Humor)
PP: 19
Odds: 20-1
Owner: Klarvich Stables
Trainer: Chad Brown
Rider: Joel Rosario

One of the four millionaires in the field of 20, Practical Joke has not found the winner’s circle since last October, but has never really had a bad effort. A real professional with the looks to boot, there’s a lot to like about this youngster from the barn of Chad Brown, who is looking to saddle his first career Kentucky Derby winner. That said, his pedigree and results at longer distances suggest the Derby distance will be a real challenge, but if anyone can get the most out of a horse, Brown and jockey Joel Rosario are the men for the job.


Live Longshots

Thunder Snow

Helmet (Exceed And Excel)—Eastern Joy (Dubai Destination)
PP: 2
Odds: 20-1
Owner: Godolphin
Trainer: Saeed bin Suroor
Rider: Christophe Soumillion

From the mighty Godolphin stable comes Thunder Snow, winner of the UAE Derby and the latest Derby hope for Sheikh Mohammed, Ruler of Dubai, Horseman Extraordinaire and Global Benefactor and thus far, Derby Disappointment. Godolphin has won every important race the world has to offer, but has not even hit the board in 8 previous attempts in the Kentucky Derby. His Highness is not alone in his Derby Doldrums, as horses shipping in from overseas have an alarmingly poor record in the Run for the Roses. Two days in quarantine the week of the big race is not exactly advantageous. But perhaps there’s a reason for optimism with Thunder Snow, who has proven he can hang on the dirt and certainly looks like a classic winning thoroughbred. As if trying to outrun history weren’t enough, starting from post position 2 does him no favor.

Lookin At Lee

Lookin At Lucky (Smart Strike)—Langara Lass (Langfuhr)
PP: 1
Odds: 20-1
Owner: L and N Racing
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Rider: Corey Lanerie

Most trainers would prefer to start from the grandstand then the 1-hole, but it might actually work to this colt’s advantage. He’s a late-running specialist and could get a ground saving trip on the inside before unleashing his late kick…assuming he can navigate the traffic. Where the added Derby distance spells doom for many, he should relish the extra furlong.



Tiznow (Cee’s Tizzy)—Silken Cat (Storm Cat)
PP: 9
Odds: 20-1
Owner: Reddam Racing
Trainer: Doug O’Neill
Rider: Mario Gutierrez

From the team that brought you I’ll Have Another and Nyquist comes Irap, a one time Derby afterthought who picked the perfect time to notch his first win in last month’s Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland. While many were quick to write his stakes score off as a fluke, Irap looks more and more like a colt coming into his own that’s poised to show even more improvement on Saturday. According to groom Daniel Robles, Irap will refuse cookies and peppermints but wants all the carrots all the time.



Tapit (Pulpit)—Appealing Zophie (Successful Appeal)
PP: 16
Odds: 20-1
Owner: Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbreds
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Rider: Jose Ortiz

Purchased as a yearling for $1.2 million by John Malone’s Bridlewood Farm (et al.), this well-bred roan has shown flashes of greatness, and occasional bouts of immaturity. But who hasn’t? The starting gate has not been his friend thus far, and he cannot afford to a poor start here from the extreme outside. But maybe this is the day all that inherent talent and mental focus comes together…

Stranger Things Have Happened…


Battle of Midway

Smart Strike (Mr. Prospector)—Rigoletta (Concerto)
PP: 11
Odds: 30-1
Owner: Winstar Farm, Don Alberto Stable
Trainer: Jerry Hollendorfer
Rider: Flavien Prat

He’s done little wrong in his 4-race career and looks like a star in the making. But the Curse of Apollo casts a mighty cloud.

Fast and Accurate

Hansen (Tapit)—It’s Heidi’s Dance (Green Dancer)
PP: 3
Odds: 50-1
Owner: Kendall Hansen, Skychai Racing, Bode Miller
Trainer: Mike Maker
Rider: Channing Hill

You can expect this grey colt to challenge for the lead and see how far he can go. He’s named after his breeder and owner, Dr. Kendall Hansen, as a nod to the requisite skills of a surgeon. Dr. Hansen also bred and raced this colt’s sire, Hansen. Mmmbop to that. Worth noting Olympic skier turned horseman Bode Miller recently bought a share of this horse, if that’s your cup of tea.


State of Honor

To Honor and Serve (Bernardini)—State Cup (Elusive Quality)
PP: 6
Odds: 30-1
Owner: Conrad Farms
Trainer: Mark Casse
Rider: Jose Lezcano

As the lone Ontario-bred in this year’s Derby, the speedy State of Honor brings a wealth of experience and consistency to the post. While he’s clearly a natural born runner, his glaring lack of wins (1 in 10 starts) suggests he’s just a cut below the top of the class.



Midnight Lute (Real Quiet)—Ours (Half Ours)
PP: 12
Odds: 50-1
Owner: Calumet Farm
Trainer: Keith Desormeaux
Rider: Kent Desormeaux

If this were a beauty pageant, Sonneteer would be a heavy favorite to take the crown. It’s a horse race, however, and thus far, he has yet to win one. I shouldn’t have to tell you but I will anyway: maidens have not fared well in the Kentucky Derby. That said, he has shown enough improvement that it wouldn’t be an all out shock if he made a nice late move to finish in the top half of the field.



Trappe Shot (Tapit)—Exit Three (Giant’s Causeway)
PP: 4
Odds: 30-1
Owner: Michael Langford
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Rider: Ricardo Santana Jr.

There’s no doubt he likes it here at Churchill Downs, winning his one career start on this dirt by 5 lengths, but as the distances have increased the results have worsened.


J Boys Echo

Mineshaft (AP Indy)—Letgomyecho (Menifee)
PP: 13
Odds: 20-1
Owner: Albaugh Family Stables
Trainer: Dale Romans
Rider: Luis Saez

It’s never wise to discount horses from trainer Dale Romans’s barn, as the man has won numerous training titles here at the Downs and this colt will certainly garner his share of support. He looked fantastic winning the Gotham in March, but his other races suggest he’s not quite up to the task.


Kentucky Derby 143

Saturday, May 6th

Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY

6:40p (ET)



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