Updated on 05/05/2017 11:11AM

Kentucky Derby: Many questions, only one correct answer

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Barbara D. Livingston
Always Dreaming was impressive winning the Florida Derby, but his aggressive behavior while training this week at Churchill Downs raises concern over how he'll handle the crowd and excitement on Kentucky Derby Day..

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – After a tumultuous prep season in which no horse asserted himself as the clear front-runner of the division, a full field will line up for the 143rd Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs with more questions emanating from this group than a bunch of children in a preschool class.

Classic Empire proved best of his brethren last fall, when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but like many in this field, he has not maintained the consistency to be backed with 100 percent confidence. The same can be said of leading contenders like Irish War Cry, McCraken, Gormley, and J Boys Echo, who on their best day can win but also have thrown in subpar races earlier in the year.

Always Dreaming has perhaps the best current form, but his recent aggressive behavior in the mornings, which caused him to be trained in draw reins and with a new exercise rider, invites concern over how he’ll react when the gate opens, he’s surrounded by 19 rivals, and 150,000 fans fueled with mint juleps let out a roar.

It’s a mystery how Thunder Snow will perform as he tries to become the first horse who wintered in Dubai to win the Derby, one of the few international races that has eluded the grasp of Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin Racing.

Girvin has questions surrounding how fit he’ll be after battling a quarter crack that limited him to just one recent work. Practical Joke has questions over whether he can handle the distance, and for Gunnevera, it’s a question of whether he’ll get the searing pace needed to set up his late run.

And as if that’s not enough for handicappers to ponder, this Derby has the very real chance of being run on an off track. The Weather Channel is forecasting a 70 percent chance of rain for Saturday and two days of heavy rain for Thursday and Friday. The high on Saturday is forecast to be an unseasonably cool 63 degrees, following an overnight low of 44.

“I think it’s as wide-open a Derby as we’ve seen in a long time,” said Dale Romans, the trainer of J Boys Echo, and he has seen a lot of them, having grown up here as the son of a trainer. “I don’t think it means it’s a bad group of horses. I think it’s an even group of horses.”

Classic Empire is the 4-1 favorite on the morning line of Mike Battaglia, the oddsmaker at Churchill Downs. Always Dreaming and McCraken are his co-second choices at 5-1.

Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper, has Classic Empire favored at 5-1, with Always Dreaming next at 6-1, followed by McCraken and Irish War Cry at 8-1.

There were 22 horses entered in the Derby, but a maximum of 20 can run. Royal Mo and Master Plan, who were on the also-eligible list, did not draw in at scratch time on Friday morning and have officially been withdrawn.

Classic Empire comes into the Derby off a courageous win in the Arkansas Derby, which followed a two-month span in which he ran poorly in the Holy Bull, emerged from the race with a foot abscess, had back problems, subsequently balked twice at working out at one training center, and was sent to a different training center. Now he’s back on just three weeks’ rest for the first time in his career.

“I like the three weeks,” said trainer Mark Casse. “We don’t have to do a whole lot.”

Irish War Cry, who won the Holy Bull, flopped in the Fountain of Youth, then rebounded with a victory in the Wood Memorial. If he runs to his Holy Bull or Wood, he’s right there. The Fountain of Youth was the only time prior to the Derby that he ran back on four weeks’ rest.

McCraken had a minor ankle issue that kept him from running in the Tampa Bay Derby, and then he was third while suffering the first loss of his career in the Blue Grass at Keeneland. He is unbeaten at Churchill Downs but, based on Beyer Speed Figures, likely will need to run a career-best race to prevail. He’s worked like it might be in him.

Like McCraken, both J Boys Echo and Tapwrit are seeking to rebound from subpar efforts in the Blue Grass. J Boys Echo was fourth, and that followed a career-best victory in the Gotham.

“If he gets back to that, he’ll be right there,” Romans said.

Tapwrit was fifth in the Blue Grass, which followed a victory in the Tampa Bay Derby. He is one of the few horses with a win over an off track, and he has been one of the most impressive horses training this week.

Always Dreaming, like Tapwrit trained by Todd Pletcher, had an outstanding final work but has been a tad too aggressive for Pletcher’s liking in his subsequent morning gallops. If he can ration that energy on race day and emulates his Florida Derby win, he could be draped in roses.

Gormley won the Santa Anita Derby after a fourth-place try in the San Felipe. He has been a work in progress for trainer John Shirreffs, who along with jockey Victor Espinoza, has taught Gormley to sit and finish. That was needed “to get this horse to the next level,” Shirreffs said.

Girvin is unbeaten on dirt but has spent as much time swimming as on the track the past two weeks while dealing with a quarter crack.

“I have the utmost confidence he’ll go over there and give his all,” said trainer Joe Sharp.

Irap, the upset winner of the Blue Grass, will try to give trainer Doug O’Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez, and owners Paul and Zillah Reddam their third Derby win this decade.

Gunnevera is among the best stories in this Derby, as his trainer, Antonio Sano – twice kidnapped in his native Venezuela before fleeing to the U.S. – tries to win the biggest race in America in concert with another Venezuelan, jockey Javier Castellano.

“I never imagined this moment,” Sano said.

The one-eyed Patch is the feel-good story of the race, but he is the least-experienced runner, with three tries and, like Battle of Midway, is trying to become the first horse to win the Derby without a start at 2 since Apollo in 1882.

Sonneteer, winless in 10 starts, is seeking to become the first maiden to win the race since Brokers Tip in 1933.

The Derby’s 1 1/4 miles is the hurdle that Practical Joke, State of Honor, and Untrapped must clear. They have run well in preps but have seemingly lacked the late punch needed to handle more ground. Untrapped is taking off the blinkers he wore in his most-recent start.

The distance should suit a pair of Steve Asmussen-trained runners, Hence and Lookin At Lee.

“We’re excited about the mile and a quarter,” Asmussen said.

Thunder Snow is 2 for 2 on dirt, but raiders from Dubai have not fared well in the Derby. He gets Lasix for the first time.

Synthetic specialist Fast and Accurate, supplemented to the race for $200,000, looks overmatched but might impact the early pace.

The Derby, race 12 on a 14-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern, will be broadcast live by NBC, with post time approximately 6:50 p.m.