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One week to go…and nowhere to go

By Shawn Rychling

The horse racing calendar takes a promising turn this weekend as Belmont Park opens on Friday which means the Kentucky Derby is just one week away.

That’s right, the 143rd Run for the Roses is right around the corner and the field of 20 looks pretty much set with maybe one or two defections still to come, but the real contenders are all slated to stay in at this point.

Looking at the field, the only conclusion one can make is that the race is as wide open as it has been in years. The Derby preps have been notable for their lack of outstanding performances.  There have been some good performances and plenty of disappointments. It may be that we have been spoiled by the last couple of years with American Pharoah topping a seemingly talented bunch in 2015 and then undefeated Nyquist looking solid amongst other quality opponents last year.

This year, there appears to be chaos. Arkansas Derby winner and 2-year-old champion Classic Empire is probably the favorite by default. He won the Arkansas impressively coming from off the pace and through a bit of traffic. However, that race was just his second since he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile back in November and the race doesn’t feel like a huge step forward for this colt. Then again, he may go off as high as 5-1 which would be a bargain.

Always Dreaming has won three in a row including the Florida Derby in his last start which was his stakes debut. He stalked an honest pace in that race which is often a winning strategy at Churchill Downs on the First Saturday in May.

The hope in this corner is that those two horses get most of the betting attention and that the odds stay even fatter on Irish War Cry.  He followed a solid win in the Holy Bull with a first-class stinker in the Fountain of Youth, but returned to look very good in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.  He was about 3-wide the entire trip that day, sitting just off a solid pace and he still had plenty left to zoom past the leader and win going away.  No horse that failed this spring returned to run as well as Irish War Cry. Even more to like is the fact that he posted 101 speed figures in both the Holy Bull and the Wood. Those are the highest in the Derby field.  Also, the Derby will be his fifth start in four months. Compare that with Classic Empire making just his third start in 6 months and it’s easy to conclude which of the two will be the sharper horse.  The thinking here is Irish War Cry at possible odds of 10-1. That would be nice.

As usual, the Derby will have some playable longshots. Gunnevera comes to mind as a horse that likes to come from off the pace. And I am leaning in an odd direction with Hence whose stock went up when Irap upset the Blue Grass field. Hence beat Irap soundly in the Sunland Park Derby.

Much more to come on the Derby next week!

Don’t forget, you can get all the Hot List analysis for this weekend’s Belmont Park opening on the Interbets site right here.  Full fields and plenty of turf racing on tap with the forecast looking great.