The Kentucky Derby is the most heralded horse race in America, yet in layman’s terms it is a cluster ****. While it has incredible history and prestige, none of the competitors have ever run a-mile-and-a-quarter before. The 20-horse field guarantees several horses will run into trouble, and the weather in Louisville is notoriously mediocre come early May. That said, Always Dreaming was very impressive last Saturday and will be a deserving favorite at the Preakness Stakes (May 20th).
What did we learn from the Kentucky Derby, and what does it mean going forward?
When you have a field more than twice the size of a normal race, many horses will be compromised by circumstances, while others will get lucky. Not surprisingly, Always Dreaming and runner up Lookin at Lee enjoyed near-ideal conditions. That doesn’t take away from Always Dreaming’s victory. He got out well, found a stalking position where he would be comfortable, and was smartly positioned in a pouncing spot. More luck was needed for Lookin at Lee, who settled in the rear, and never had to leave the rail where he found a clear running lane late, something that is not normally as wide open.
In recent years, being on the outside at the Kentucky Derby has worked out pretty well. The auxiliary starting gate houses horses is post position 15 through 20. However, there is a gap between the two gates, and this year when #17 Irish War Cry took a left turn at the start of the race, he cut off #16 Tapwrit and slammed into #15 McCraken. McCraken, in turn, collided with #14 Classic Empire, who had veered into the gap between gates when the race began. Though this was not the end of the race for any of those four horses, all were adversely impacted in an event where you generally need to catch breaks to win.
The Preakness field will feature five horses that ran at the Derby: Always Dreaming, Lookin at Lee, Classic Empire, Gunnevera, and Hence will be in the mix.
Always Dreaming was clearly better than Lookin at Lee last weekend when both had ideal trips. Despite the rough start and having to go wide on the final turn, Classic Empire made a modest bid to finish fourth. Gunnevera raced extremely wide on the final turn, and wasn’t urged in the final eighth of a mile, finishing seventh. Hence spent most of the race in the rear, and rallied past tiring horses to be a noncompetitive 11th.
In addition to the five horses returning, five newcomers will challenge at the Preakness. The biggest upside of the group may belong to Cloud Computing. He won his debut in February, finished second in March’s Gotham Stakes at 8/1, and was third in the Wood Memorial.
Royal Mo stands a chance too. After breaking his maiden in November, he won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in February. He had nothing left down the stretch of the Rebel Stakes, but rebounded to finish third at the Santa Anita Derby despite going wide on the first turn, and having jockey Gary Stevens lose his whip towards the end.
It is too early to make a Preakness pick, since we don’t know a number of important variables, like weather and post position. Heck, even the field could change a bit in the coming week. That said, Always Dreaming and Classic Empire will be the deserving top two favorites. Gunnevera is worth consideration, particularly at decent odds. The fresh new horses didn’t have to compete in Kentucky, and that is an advantage. Their quality is in the eye of the beholder, but the price will be right.
Photo Credit: Fisherga (Flickr) [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0].
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