With less than 8 weeks to go before the Kentucky Derby, injuries to most of the dominant contenders leaves many horse racing fans wondering if we will witness a contest of subpar talent on the First Saturday in May this year.

First, Not This Time left the Derby Trail in the Fall. Considered by some to be the “best 2-year old in 2016”, he sustained a soft-tissue injury to his right foreleg and had to be retired to stud.

The colt’s early brilliant racing career had his trainer Dale Romans believing he was the best horse he ever trained in his 30-year career.  And his jockey, the veteran Robby Albarado, had said, “What I felt was extreme talent there. That was some kind of feeling. He’s one of the best I’ve ever sat on.”

In his place, Classic Empire emerged into 2017 as the clear Derby favorite.  His trainer, Mark Casse, was gushing about the potential of this half-brother of American Pharoah, particularly after he beat Not This Time at the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile and posted a Beyer Speed Figure of 102.

But in February, at the Holy Bull Stakes where the horse made his 3-year old debut and was expected to win, he placed 3rd.  Days after the race, a serious abscess was found in his right front foot which could have explained his subpar performance.

While Classic Empire recovered fully from that injury, he refused to train last week and showed signs of back soreness.  Work with an equine therapist has been thought to be helpful and he apparently had a good workout this week.

Going forward, his assistant trainer Norman Casse remains hopeful and is now pointing the colt towards racing either at the April 8 Blue Grass Stakes or the April 15 Arkansas Derby.  Still, the future is uncertain for this race horse, especially if he experiences another setback.

Then there’s McCraken, who most experts have on the top of their Derby contenders list after his performance in February when he came from the back of the pack to win the Sam F. Davis Stakes and previously went 3-3 in races at Churchill Downs.

However, this undefeated colt missed a scheduled start in last Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby due to a “minor ankle strain” in his left front leg which developed during a workout on Feb. 27.

The injury may seem minor and is recoverable, but instead of having three prep races under his belt before going into the Kentucky Derby as originally planned, there will only be two.  Which means, McCraken must race one more time to earn a spot in the Derby.

His trainer Ian Wilkes reported this week that the colt has “been to the track” and “(the ankle) has been good.”  We shall see if the horse remains on course to race in the April 8 Blue Grass Stakes as expected.

When the dust cleared this past Saturday and Bob Baffert’s Mastery trounced the other competition at the San Felipe Stakes, he jumped to the forefront as the best 3-year-old thoroughbred in the country.

It was his fourth straight victory and Baffert was rightfully excited about his prospects.  Unfortunately, immediately after the race, Mastery “pulled up” within 10 paces of the finish line and was carted off in an equine ambulance with a mystery injury to his left leg.

After an examination, it was discovered that the colt suffered a condylar fracture that would require surgery and indefinite time off.  The good news is that he will be alright, but the bad news is that he was pulled off the Kentucky Derby Trail for good.

Baffert said, “It’s pretty frustrating to have a really good horse and then they get hurt like that.”

So, who now becomes the Derby favorite?

In my mind, Gunnevera has always been on the top of the list, but he is now firmly the one to beat.

As I wrote back in January, this colt reminds me of Exaggerator with his late speed and good breeding.  His sire, Dialed In, competed well in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes which shows he may also be able to endure the 10 furlongs at Churchill.

Even more encouraging is how Gunnevera really impressed earlier in the month when he rallied from last place behind 9 horses and won the Fountain of Youth Stakes by 5 & 3/4 lengths.  Afterwards, his jockey Javier Castellano, the multi-Eclipse Award winning veteran said, “He’s maturing, maturing every time. He’s an old pro, like a 6-year-old.”

Combine his consistency and marked improvement, plus his closing style, and that jockey – together it makes this horse the front runner for now.  Let’s just hope that black cloud of injury stays away from this one over the next several weeks…

There’s also good buzz amongst handicappers about Tapwrit.  This Todd Pletcher trained horse won the Tampa Bay Stakes on Saturday despite having a bad start where he stumbled and got bumped to the back of the pack.  In the end, he beat everyone else by 4 & 1/2 lengths and set a track record.  In fact, his time was faster than McCraken’s win at the same distance in the Sam F. Davis Stakes.

Incidentally, Tapwrit came in 2nd to McCraken by 1 & 1/2 lengths at the Sam Davis and was closing fast.  If the race was longer, he probably would have won it.

It remains to be seen if this $1.2 million son of Tapit has the goods to run 1.5 miles at Churchill.  His family line suggests he has enough quality to be a real contender.  But, he seems to be missing some stamina in his pedigree to think he’s a slam dunk for a long distance.

Still, I like what jockey Jose Ortiz said about Tapwrit on Saturday, “He can go a mile and an eighth, a mile and a quarter. He did it pretty easily today. I think he’s going to get much better with each race.”

Baffert lost Mastery to injury, but he still has American Anthem in the running.   And, several handicappers seem to like this horse enough to put him in their top 5.

Perhaps this colt receives more respect than he should because of the Baffert influence.  It certainly isn’t from just his maiden win and 2nd place finish at the Sham Stakes in January.  But, some think this one has real talent.

He’ll have the chance to prove himself at this weekend’s Rebel Stakes, his first real test. If he puts up decent results there, he’ll be on to the Arkansas Derby in April.

The questions remain: what do we have here with American Anthem and can Baffert turn in another winner?

Another intriguing contender is J Boys Echo who won the Gotham Stakes earlier in the month.  He was 8 lengths off the pace before the turn and rallied to win down the stretch by an impressive 3 lengths with a quick tempo.  This comes off of a quick turnaround where he raced in February at the Withers and came in 3rd.

And, while he has apparently been a “work in progress” as described by trainer Dale Romans of Not This Time fame, the Gotham was “the big jump forward” they were waiting on for this horse.  After the race, he apparently recovered very quickly which is also a good sign, having raced in Feb and 30 days later beat decent competitors in a graded stakes race with two turns.

As for the Derby, J Boys Echo has great pedigree for the distance and this is why I like him to stay on my radar.

Up next for him is either the Wood Memorial on Apr 8 or Blue Grass Stakes.  At that time, we’ll have more information on this horse and if he can continue to withstand better competition.  In the meantime, I like this one to keep on the radar.  With a somewhat diminished field at the Derby, a horse like this might have the ability to surprise.

Up Ahead

Derby prep races will occur every weekend through April 15.  Other contenders will continue to improve.  And, some like McCraken have a lot to prove.

Either way, the Kentucky Derby field will be wide open this year due to the injuries the best candidates have sustained.

The scenario that the cream of the crop won’t be racing may be a disappointment to some.

Or, as I prefer to view this situation: It could tee us up for a fun and intriguing Triple Crown season that will likely have 3 different winners.



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