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The 8th Annual Casual Kentucky Derby Preview

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churchill

Welcome to the 8th Annual Casual Kentucky Derby Preview!

Today represents one of the more Casual days of the year as I get to drop knowledge in the form of thousands of words on the Kentucky Derby, the crown jewel of the Triple Crown season and the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports. Though moderately casual fans enjoy Derby Day for the mint juleps and fancy hats, real casual fans anticipate the arrival of the first Saturday in May as an opportunity to make some coin.

Now, you're probably thinking "What does this nerd who runs a Georgetown Hoyas blog know about horse racing?" Well, let's take a look to see what has gone down since we started this Derby Preview thing, shall we?

2010: 4 of the 6 horses I picked finished in the top 7, netting a Trifecta WIN and the resulting funds that led to the eventual creation of CasuALE, the world's first blog beer.

2011: 4 of top 6 finished in top 8, netting a Trifecta WIN that paid for numerous lunches both documented and non-documented alike.

2012: 4 out of the 6 horses finished in the top 7, resulting in a horrific and embarrassing Trifecta LOSS as I completely whiffed on eventual winner ‘I'll Have Another'. Whatever.

2013: 3 of the 6 ponies finished in the top 6 including the winning and show horse, resulting in a narrow Trifecta LOSS.

2014: 4 of the 6 ponies finished in top 6, missed out on place horse Commanding Curve which ruined everything.

2015: Triumphant Trifecta WIN and Superfecta WIN as 4 of 6 finished in top 4.

2016: Triumphant Trifecta WIN that was a chalky net loss.

So to recap, over the past seven years I have given the world FOUR Trifecta WINS, a Superfecta WIN and the eventual creation of beer. To make it even more simple, if you have followed my guidance over the past seven years you would have net winnings of $2,492. STRAIGHT CASH HOMEY.

You Like That!

Before we get to the analysis of the ponies, some ground rules. In this space as in years past I'm going to narrow the 20 horse field down to a group of 6 for a real casual $1, 6-horse trifecta box ($120) of Casual Destiny and Hope and Freedom and America. Remember - if you're looking to win some coin on the Derby, you can't do it by wagering your hard earned money on all of the favorites. LOOK MOMMY I WON BY BETTING ON THE FAVORITE AREN'T I AWESOME CAN I HAVE A COOKIE AND MAYBE CAN YOU LIKE MY TWEET? No, you make money by nailing the trifecta or even better the superfecta, sprinkled with value horses that have a chance to hit the board. With that in mind, below is likely the longest yet most casual analysis of the 2017 Kentucky Derby field you will likely find anywhere else, from someone who has actually watched all of these horses run in all of their prep races. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. My life has very little meaning.

Away we go...

  1. Lookin At Lee (20-1):

Middling career Beyers and hasn’t won a race in nearly a year, but I’m mesmerized by the potential of his insane stretch run in the Arkansas.

Lee was outside, then inside, then down the middle, and still had enough of a surge to grab 3rd. I don’t know if this was simply a horse that doesn’t know how to win, bad jockeying, or whatever, but he ran a 12 second final furlong in the Arkansas and as a closer in this field, he could again hit the board if everything breaks right for him. 1 post is a killer, however.

Verdict: TOSS.

2. Thunder Snow (20-1):
This year’s winner of the UAE Derby and the ‘foreign’ entrant into the field, Thunder Snow is an intriguing play in this Run for the Roses.

He didn’t blow away that field, but he’s a good looking hard-runner who didn’t back off down the stretch and ran down Japanese champ Epicharis at the wire. In a field full of question marks, why the hell not? Has run farther than any of these other horses in his career as the UAE Derby was a mile and 3/16ths. I’d like this horse a lot more if he were placed further outside, as I think he’s going to have some trouble out of the gate firing from the 2.

Verdict: Include in exotics.

3. Fast and Accurate (50-1):
A frontrunner, Fast and Accurate has won each if his last three starts. Hooray! The problem is he hasn’t beaten any class in those races and is too slow. This horse has #nochance to win the Derby.

Verdict: TOSS.

4. Untrapped (30-1):
I’d prefer if this horse were called Trapped as it’s one of my favorite Springsteen tunes, but unfortunately it isn’t and even more unfortunate for its owners, Untrapped won’t be hitting the board in the Derby. He failed to fire in a 6th place finish at the Arkansas Derby and finished 3rd to Malagacy and Sonneteer in the Rebel.

Verdict: TOSS.

5. Always Dreaming (5-1):
AD will enter the Derby as one of the favorites after his resounding win in the Florida Derby, a field which included Derby hopefuls State of Honor and Gunnevera.

AD has won all three of his career starts with Todd Pletcher as trainer and Johnny Velazquez aboard as jockey, and distance shouldn’t be a problem as he’s run two races already at the mile and an eighth. Possible warning sign is that his 102 Beyer in the Florida is by far his career best, but I’m willing to take the chance on him in this race given the visuals of that Florida stretch drive. I don’t love the 5 post for him but it isn’t a killer, unless of course it is. He should be out near the lead throughout.

Verdict: Include, contender.

6. State of Honor (30-1):
One of the horses that tend to show early speed, State has run consistent Beyers in the mid 90s in each of his last four races and has enough speed to contend here. Though he hasn’t won a race since October, he was moderately impressive in his 2nd place finish in the Florida, a race in which he showed an ability to rate off the pace and it appeared he had something left in the tank in his first race at a mile and an eighth. Then again, he had the rail in that race and was blown out by Always Dreaming. I expect him to be in the mix up front early out of the 6 and then fade at the top of the stretch.

Verdict: TOSS

7. Girvin (15-1):
Girvin is coming off two impressive races at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and is your defending Risen Star and Louisiana Derby champion.

Though he didn’t face elite competition in either of those races (unless you consider Patch and Untrapped elite), he did show nice acceleration down the stretch and seems to be a threat to hit the board if he has running room at the top of the stretch. Last year’s Louisiana Derby champ was Gun Runner, who hit the board in the Derby after running just a 91 in the Louisiana. There are some concerns surrounding his training heading into this race and a nagging hoof injury. Comfortable mid-pack runner, which is where he’ll be out of the 7.

Verdict: Include in exotics.

8. Hence (15-1):
A middling mid-80s Beyer performer throughout his career, Hence exploded with a 103 in the Sunland Derby while smashing the field by more than three lengths.

A middle to the back of the pack runner, Hence turned in the best race of his life on dirt at a mile and an eighth with jockey Alfredo Juarez aboard for the first time, showing good turn of foot and looks to be in prime shape heading into the Derby. I don’t know if the Sunland race was a blip or a sign of things to come, but he has the running style to win this race. The 8 post should work nicely for him. In theory.

Verdict: Include.

9. Irap (20-1):
Your Blue Grass Stakes winner, 31-1 longshot Irap had a perfect trip just off the pace and held on for dear life after Practical Joke and McCraken couldn’t catch him down the stretch.

You can’t toss this race as it had a number of Derby contenders running in it, but it was odd how it developed as Practical Joke made an early move that seemingly spooked some of the others and McCraken didn’t have a clean run down the middle of the track at the end. Irap’s 100 Beyer figure in this race is nothing to sneeze at, but I don’t love his chances to hit the board come Saturday given his pre-Blue Grass preps.

Verdict: TOSS.

10. Gunnevera (15-1):
A closer with good speed, Gunnevera enters the Derby after finishing a disappointing 3rd as the favorite in the Florida Derby after winning the Fountain of Youth in impressive fashion.

Gunnevera fired too late in the Florida and wasn’t able to catch Always Dreaming, and in a race like this Kentucky Derby that I expect isn’t going to have blistering early fractions, Gunnevera is probably going to have to make a move sooner like he did in the Fountain of Youth. The 10 spot is a plus as he can let the race develop in front of him.

Verdict: Include in exotics.

11. Battle of Midway (30-1):
The pace setter in an underwhelming Santa Anita Derby, Midway picked up 2nd in that race basically by default when no one else could catch him. I think this horse is best suited for shorter distances.

Verdict: TOSS

12. Sonneteer (50-1):
A late entrant into the field, Sonneteer appears to be overmatched by the other class here. Sonneteer earned a respectable 4th in the Arkansas, but he has never won and will need the biggest race of his life to hit the board. The 12 spot is nice for him, but there are better closers in this field to spend your money on.

Verdict: TOSS.

13. J Boys Echo (20-1):
JBE won the Gotham Stakes which contained none of this year’s Derby contenders. When he stepped up in class to the Blue Grass, he finished 4th and was never a factor. I don’t see how he hits the board in the Derby.

Verdict: TOSS.

14. Classic Empire (4-1):
The Breeder’s Cup Juvenile champion, Classic Empire will go off as one of the favorites in the Derby after his win in the Arkansas Derby a few weeks ago.

I loved Empire coming off that BC win in which he hung out up front before taking over at the top of the stretch.

On the downside, it looked to me that if that race were one furlong longer that Practical Joke would have grabbed the win, and then Empire was soundly beaten in the Holy Bull by both Irish War Cry and Gunnevera in a race that set up perfectly for him.

It’s good to see the rebound in the Arkansas, but I’m skeptical that this horse has what it takes to win the Derby. Good tactical speed, but I think others are better at the wire, especially given the price.

Verdict: Include.

15. McCraken (5-1):
McCraken is one of the tougher horses to handicap in this race. In the Sam F. Davis, he showed a nice ability to rate off the pace in the 2nd pack of horses, swung out wide and won down the stretch defeating two Derby contenders in State of Honor and Tapwrit in the process:

After a perfect 4 for 4 start to his career (including 3 wins at Churchill), McCraken then laid an egg in the Blue Grass, finishing 3rd to longshot Irap and Practical Joke. Could be a blip, but in a Derby field of 20 horses, unless McCraken is able to get into his comfort zone I wonder if we’ll see a repeat performance. Beyers are good but not great, tough for me to put a bunch of money on a horse at this price with so many question marks. Then again, good tactical speed and a proven winner on this track.

Verdict: Include.

16. Tapwrit (20-1):
Sired by Tapit, this Todd Pletcher horse finished an uninspiring 5th in the Blue Grass after a 2nd in the Sam F. Davis and a win in the Tampa Bay. As noted above, the Blue Grass was an odd race this year and while I cant toss it completely, I pretty much am, and a lot of that is based on last year’s Blue Grass which was won by Brody’s Cause who ended up doing nothing along the Triple Crown trail.

Here’s the impressive Tampa Bay win, in which he goes from an inside position to outside and then turns on the jets to crush the field:

In the Sam F. Davis in which he finished 2nd to McCraken, he was still flying to the wire in a race in which he faced a lot of traffic from an inside position down the stretch. Could be sitting on a big one if he gets a good trip, the 16 post is perfect for him.

Verdict: Include in exotics.


17. Irish War Cry (6-1):
Sired by Curlin, IWC won the Wood Memorial in impressive fashion, taken off the pace and exploding down the stretch.

Though the Wood has rarely been an indicator of Derby success, IWC has posted three 100+ Beyer figures in his career to date. While that and a nickel will get you a pickle, his tactical speed should put IWC in the mix in the Derby. 4 wins in 5 career starts, though the lone race he failed to show in was an absolute dud in the Fountain of Youth. New jockey after that race and seems to be back to prior form. The 17 post has NEVER produced a Derby winner, which is odd but something worth considering.

Verdict: Include, contender.

18. Gormley (15-1):
Your Santa Anita Derby champion, Gormley outdueled frontrunner Battle of Midway to win by half a length.

I don’t love what I saw out of the West Coast ponies this season and for that reason alone I’m not big on Gormley. He has 4 career wins, but there’s better tactical speed out there and he hasn’t beaten anyone of the class of the better horses in the Derby.

Verdict: TOSS.

19. Practical Joke (20-1):
There’s something about this horse that just won’t let me quit him, even though he hasn’t won a damn thing this year. A mid-pack runner with good speed (every race of career in the 90s), he seems to be close to putting it all together. Moved too soon in both the Fountain of Youth (no match for Gunnevera down the stretch) and the Blue Grass (may have won but for a little wayward move at the top of the stretch into McCraken), but he seems to always find something that prevents him from hitting the board. Trainer was going to have him wear blinkers in this race and then decided against it on Tuesday, which is a bit odd and perhaps a warning sign.

Verdict: Include in exotics.

20. Patch (30-1)
This horse has one eye.

Verdict: TOSS.

OK, so where are we:

2. Thunder Snow (20-1):
5. Always Dreaming (5-1)
7. Girvin (15-1)
8. Hence (15-1)
10. Gunnevera (15-1)
14. Classic Empire (4-1)
15. McCraken (5-1)
16. Tapwrit (20-1)
17. Irish War Cry (6-1)
19. Practical Joke (20-1)


Down to 10! Now the real fun begins. Time to cull the 10 into a more manageable 6...

The usual thought with the Kentucky Derby is that swift early fractions (quarter mile in less than 23 seconds, half mile in the 45 second range) are bad news for horses with a front running style as they will fade and get run down in the stretch by horses with better closing speed. This was the case last year, when Danzing Candy led the group around the first quarter in 22 and change and the first half in 45 and change, setting the race up nicely for a closer like Exaggerator to grab 2nd to the tactical speedster Nyquist and ahead of Gun Runner who barely held on for a piece ahead of closer Suddenbreakingnews.

Here, there isn’t great early speed so I expect the early pace to be moderate (quarter in 23 and change, half in 46/47). This opens the door for the horses with best tactical speed to be in the mix at the top of the stretch, and only the closers with juice (like Exaggerator last year) will get in the mix with them to hit the board.

Of the above 10, the horses that fit into the “good tactical speed category” are below, ranked by me in order of casualness:

17. Irish War Cry (6-1)
5. Always Dreaming (5-1)
15. McCraken (5-1)
14. Classic Empire (4-1)
2. Thunder Snow (20-1)
7. Girvin (15-1)
19. Practical Joke (20-1)

Of the above 10, the horses that fit into the “closers with juice” category are below, ranked by me in order of casualness:

16. Tapwrit (20-1)
8. Hence (15-1)
10. Gunnevera (15-1)

Again, given that this race is not going to have early speed, I’m only going to use two of the closers on my ticket. To that end, I’m getting rid of the below:

2. Thunder Snow (20-1):
Probably will get more play at the windows in this race due to his gutty performance in the UAE Derby, but to me Epicharis was the more impressive horse in that race nearly leading the field the entire way around a mile and 3/16ths before barely giving way at the wire. If Thunder Snow were coming out of a post in the 12-15 range I’d like him a lot more, but the 2 post for me given his style isn’t shouting “throw money at this horse.”

7. Girvin (15-1):
The Louisiana win was impressive, but I’m just sort of meh on this horse who has never run anywhere outside of Louisiana and has had some questions regarding his training heading into this race. Good horse, just don’t think he’s anything special.

10. Gunnevera (15-1):
I went back and forth between Hence and Gunnevera, but in the end the lean was to keep Hence because he is an improving horse that has won at a mile and an eighth and has the speed to grab a share. Gunnevera could very easily hit the board and ruin everything, but I don’t think he’s a threat to win while Hence very well could be if he gets a good trip. This could come back to bite me in the ass.


19. Practical Joke (20-1):
I like this horse but the problem is he just doesn’t win. His early moves and inability to put other horses away down the stretch suggest to me that he’s more suited to shorter distances.

OK, so there we have it, the final 6:

5. Always Dreaming (5-1)
8. Hence (15-1)
14. Classic Empire (4-1)
15. McCraken (5-1)
16. Tapwrit (20-1)
17. Irish War Cry (6-1)

A tad chalky for my liking, but this year’s ticket has to be in a race devoid of early speed. While I have concerns with all of the morning-line favorites in this race, I think Irish War Cry should hit the board unless he has a bad trip, and that shouldn’t be an issue coming out of the 17. Always Dreaming was visually impressive in the Florida and has won twice already at a mile and an eighth, though he is a bounce candidate here given that his previous speed figures aren’t all that impressive. Classic Empire and McCraken are very similar. Both are gritty, good turn of foot horses that can run from the middle of the pack, weave through other horses and make a move down the stretch, more akin to a Street Sense than a California Chrome. If I had to choose between the two I’d probably give a slight edge to McCraken, because he has won 3 times already at Churchill.

How The Race 'Should' Play Out:

Though obviously everything will come down to how the horses break from the gate and the trips they get, Fast and Accurate will likely zoom to the front where he'll be joined by Battle of Midway, State of Honor and Always Dreaming around the 1st turn. Irish War Cry, Irap, and Gormley will stalk the early leaders, the mid-pack bunch will include Girvin, Classic Empire, McCraken, Thunder Snow, Practical Joke and J Boys Echo among others while the closers (Lookin at Lee, Hence, Untrapped, Gunnevera, Sonneteer and Tapwrit) fall to the back.

As the field approaches the top of the stretch, Always Dreaming should be near the lead and will turn on the jets. As the early speed horses (Fast and Accurate, State of Honor) fight to hold on and fade, Irish War Cry, Classic Empire, McCraken and Girvin will bid for shares as Tapwrit, Hence, Gunnevera and Lookin at Lee look to make up ground. At the wire, I think Irish War Cry takes it by a length, with some combo of the above rounding out the top 6. If I had to pick a top 6 in order, I'll roll:

WIN: 17. Irish War Cry (6-1)

PLACE: 16. Tapwrit (20-1)

SHOW: 5. Always Dreaming (5-1)

4th: 15. McCraken (5-1)

5th: 8. Hence (15-1)

6th: 14. Classic Empire (4-1)

As I have a tendency to go back and forth and talk myself out of my analysis as the prices change for these horses once the money (or the rain) starts pouring in, be sure to check right back here in the comments for entertaining schizophrenic updates right up until go time.

I had a chance to visit Churchill a couple of years ago and if you are ever in the fine city of Louisville, you must go. Documentation below.

Casual Twin Spires

Casual Twin Spires from the inside of the track
Casual Stretch Run
The Clubhouse
Pat Day!
Casual Eight Belles #RIP
2009 Derby champ Mine That Bird!

At the end of the day, wager how you wish but remember to wager, because life without gambling on ponies is a life not worth living and a bad day at the track is better than a good day at work.

Enjoy the race.