05/03/2017 5:26PM

Plenty of twists and turns on way to Kentucky Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Irish War Cry, with trainer Graham Motion, brings a pair of 101 Beyer Speed Figures into the Kentucky Derby.

The road to the Kentucky Derby is rarely, if ever, a straight one. The only thing that varies from year to year in this aspect of the journey is how many unexpected detours arise, and how deep into the weeds those detours take us.

This year’s road to the Derby seemed active on both counts. It feels like there were more twists involving important horses than usual. And when things went wacky, it seemed like we wound up in some uncomfortably tall grass, like where someone who wronged Tony Soprano would end up.

First, there was Classic Empire, last year’s unanimous 2-year-old male champion who entered 2017 as the clear-cut future-book Derby favorite. Classic Empire made his 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull in February, didn’t lift a hoof in finishing a distant third, and came out of that outing with a foot abscess that mucked up his training. And when Classic Empire recovered from that, he had a couple of episodes when he didn’t want to train at all, and his stock fell.

McCraken won all three of his starts last year, two of them stakes, and all at Churchill Downs. He inherited the role of future-book Derby favorite from Classic Empire after a clever victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes in his 3-year-old debut. But a minor ankle issue forced McCraken to miss the Tampa Bay Derby, and his standing went from solid to shaky.

And then there was Mastery, a winner of all three of his starts at 2, including two stakes, and whose dominating performance winning the San Felipe Stakes in his first start at 3 was so sensational – so superstar-like – that it certainly would have made him the clear future-book Kentucky Derby favorite.

However, Mastery was pulled up literally seconds after the San Felipe with a condylar fracture of his left front ankle and underwent surgery two days later. What a cruel turn to go from Derby favorite to out in two blinks of an eye.

The good news is that McCraken is in the Derby, but off a polarizing third-place finish in the Blue Grass in his first start since the Sam F. Davis. That effort was one McCraken’s fans are confident he will improve upon, but others saw it as simply flat and now question if he previously had beaten anything of any account.

Classic Empire is in, too, off a determined win in the Arkansas Derby, his first representative outing in five months (if you don’t count his Holy Bull debacle). That victory, even if a bit ugly, brought Classic Empire full circle back to being the Derby favorite. Talk about your twists.

I respect Classic Empire. I respect McCraken, too. But when it comes down to handicapping and betting on the Kentucky Derby, I couldn’t pick either on top or use them in any role larger than as underneath inclusions in vertical wagers. Classic Empire has every right to improve on his Arkansas Derby, but he must. More importantly, I wonder if one representative outing in five months has given Classic Empire enough of a foundation to win such a demanding race.

McCraken also has license to improve on his Blue Grass, and also must. But as compromised as McCraken was in the Blue Grass by the layoff and a pace setup unflattering to his closing style, I was one of those left flat and wondering who exactly he has beaten.

My Derby pick is Irish War Cry, a winner of all of his starts except a mysterious no-show in the Fountain of Youth that not even his connections can explain. He was an emphatic winner of the Holy Bull in his first start this year, but after controlling a moderate pace. I thought his emphatic win in the Wood Memorial was far better because he relaxed early and then went up to press a strong pace in the middle stages before drawing off.

Irish War Cry earned the same 101 Beyer Speed Figure in the Wood that he did in the Holy Bull. This is noteworthy. The 20 horses in the main body of this Derby field have a combined 129 career starts but produced only four triple-digit Beyers. Irish War Cry owns two of them.

For what it’s worth, there were only four triple-digit Beyers in last year’s Derby field. Nyquist and Exaggerator had one each, and they ran one-two. For the record, eight horses in the 2015 Derby field had produced 16 triple-digit Beyers. American Pharoah owned four of those.

Others I will use in underneath in exotics are Gunnevera, the winner of the Fountain of Youth; Always Dreaming, the winner of the Florida Derby; and J Boys Echo, who, like McCraken, was pace-compromised in the Blue Grass but will be a bigger price.