Kentucky Derby shaping up to be a four-horse race | Dick Jerardi

Kentucky Derby Horse Racing
Always Dreaming is among the favorites in the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Let's take a 20-horse race already complicated by the strange campaigns of even the best horses, throw Thursday, Friday and possibly Saturday rain into the mix and try to pick the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

On the afternoon of March 11, this really looked like what we have seen in recent years - a one-horse race, a horse with the pre-Derby dominance of California Chrome, American Pharoah and Nyquist. When unbeaten Mastery won the San Felipe Stakes by 63/4 lengths, I said to myself "that's the Derby winner.''

Bob Baffert was going to win the Derby again. Two years after Pharoah and with Arrogate, the world's best horse in his barn, Baffert was ready for another big swing. And when he swings, he rarely misses.

What I did not know is that a mutual friend of trainer Todd Pletcher and myself, A.J. "Butch" Iancale, a Philly horse racing legend, had already made a large future book bet on Mastery, a bet that looked like a stone winner when Mastery cruised home that day.

When I saw Pletcher Wednesday morning, I reminded him of that bet, he laughed and told me he called Butch the day after the UConn women finally lost asking if he had bet on them, knowing he was is a wagering black cloud.

Mastery suffered a knee fracture leg just beyond the finish line, underwent surgery and obviously was off the Derby trail. Butch's bet was dead two months before the Derby. Baffert had no Derby horse. And I had to find a new Derby winner.

So this is not like the last few years at all. The winner should come from the group of 2-year-old champion Classic Empire, Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, Churchill Downs-loving McCraken and Irish War Cry, the race's fastest horse by the numbers. The foursome has combined for nine graded stakes wins and earnings of $4 million.

As good as they all have been, you can't be sure because each has one large blemish that has to give you pause.

Classic Empire was brilliant in the Breeders' Cup, looking every bit a Derby winner last Nov. 5 at Santa Anita. He showed great speed, sustained it, showed courage _ everything you want to see at the end of a strong 2-year-old season that had begun at Churchill during Derby Week 2016.

Then, he just ran awful in his 3-year-old debut, the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, a race dominated by Irish War Cry. Turned out he had a foot abscess. Trainer Mark Casse had to wait for it to heal. The horse missed training time. Then, he did not want to train. Finally, the trainer got Classic Empire back to the races on April 15 and the colt showed great heart to win the Arkansas Derby. But he did not run particularly fast nor did he beat a very strong field. Classic Empire could win, but . . .

McCraken looked like a major player when he ran his record to 4-for-4, winning the Feb. 11 Tampa Bay. He promptly suffered a minor ankle injury and was off for nearly two months before running a lackluster third in the April 8 Blue Grass Stakes. His final pre-Derby work was labeled the best by everybody whose opinion I respect and that always matters. I am almost certain McCraken is going to run his best race, but will even that be enough? McCraken could win, but . . .

After a good, but unfulfilling 2-year-old season with another trainer, Always Dreaming has run three times for Pletcher and won them all easily, a combined 201/2 lengths in front. This may very well be the best horse America's most dominant trainer has ever brought to the Derby. However, there is the matter of perhaps modern racing's most bizarre statistic. Pletcher, who holds many records and may hold them all eventually, is 1-for-45 in the Derby. It is really inexplicable, but something is going on. So, Always Dreaming could win the Derby, but . . .

After watching so many replays my eyes got blurry, I really like how Irish War Cry runs. The colt has a big and very smooth move. He has a giant stride. His debut win was amazing. His Wood Memorial win was ridiculously easy. I love every bit of his four wins. And I have no clue why he ran so poorly in the Fountain of Youth, finishing seventh, beaten by 213/4 lengths. Trainer Graham Motion has theories, but admits he is not sure what went down that day.

I have decided to put a line through Irish War Cry's race that day and handicap him off his other four races. That is the kind of race series that often wins the Derby.

Am I super confident? No, not after all that has gone down in the run-up to this Derby. But, if all the good horses run at or near their best, I think Irish War Cry's best will be good enough.

So make it the auxiliary gate selection, Irish War Cry over McCraken, the classic 17-15 exacta.

jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi