Publish date:

Horse Nonsense

A wide-open Derby awaits
Author:

SOME YEARS the racing gods deliver a ready-made superhorse to the Kentucky Derby: Smarty Jones in 2004, Big Brown in 2008, California Chrome in 2014 and American Pharoah in 2015. These were accomplished racers, fast and mature beyond their age, primed to don roses on the first Saturday in May. This year there is no such clarity. Promising 3-year-olds like Classic Empire and McCraken have struggled with health and focus. The Bob Baffert--trained Mastery looked to be a monster, but he fractured his front left ankle in March and retired. Hence, Saturday's Derby is a wide-open betting bonanza in which the favorite could go off at odds as high as 6--1.

#1 IRISH WAR CRY

TRAINER: Graham Motion

JOCKEY: Rajiv Maragh

WHY TO BET HIM

He was the hot horse after winning the Holy Bull at Gulfstream in February but finished an inexplicable seventh in the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes. Throw that one out. He bounced back to win the Wood Memorial on April 8, showing speed and toughness.

WHY TO LIKE HIM

His owner, Isabelle de Tomaso, is an octogenarian who drove race cars in the 1950s. His jockey, Maragh, suffered massive injuries in a July 2015 spill at Belmont and has come all the way back.

#2 CLASSIC EMPIRE

TRAINER: Mark Casse

JOCKEY: Julien Leparoux

WHY TO BET HIM

Talent, talent, talent. He is a proven champion, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (for 2-year-olds) last fall. But he was only third in the Holy Bull, has struggled with hoof and back injuries, and twice refused to train before winning the April 15 Arkansas Derby.

WHY TO LIKE HIM

He's trained by the father-son team of Mark and Norman Casse, and their collective patience has brought Classic Empire to Churchill Downs with a shot.

#3 GORMLEY

TRAINER: John Shirreffs

JOCKEY: Victor Espinoza

WHY TO BET HIM

The winner of the Santa Anita Derby on April 8 isn't particularly fast, but like Shirreffs's 2005 Derby winner, Giacomo, he will keep running until a jockey asks him to stop. Horses like him often hit the board on the first Saturday in May.

WHY TO LIKE HIM

He's owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, who gave racing the great mare Zenyatta. And of course, the cheerful Espinoza has had success at Churchill. He rode American Pharoah.