JC / Railbird

Kentucky Derby

2016 Kentucky Derby

Prep schedule: Includes leaderboard, charts, replays, speed figures
Reference: 2016 prep and historical criteria spreadsheet
Churchill: Official Kentucky Derby website

Reserved

Todd Pletcher
Todd Pletcher at Saratoga.

The latest two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer has a reputation:

Todd Pletcher isn’t one to lay his cards out on the table.”

Pletcher’s unflappability is legendary.”

Pletcher is the IBM of trainers, a practical, taciturn man for whom the addition of a very modest white goatee is considered a radical play.”

Pletcher … always measures his words and emotions closely.”

The stoic one cracked out a big smile…. As vanilla as he might be in some ways, there are honorable qualities within Pletcher …

The usually imperturbable trainer admitted he had shed a tear beneath his shades.”

It was not exactly what you would have expected from Pletcher. Mr. Cool, Calm, Collected.”

Todd Pletcher’s permafrost finally melted.”

Pletcher’s Dream Derby

The field charges past the grandstand in the 2017 Kentucky Derby
Photo: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography

When I said that I was looking for Thunder Snow to surprise in the Kentucky Derby, I didn’t expect that the surprise would be him bouncing out of the gate and giving the grandstand a bucking bronco show. (Good work, Christophe Soumillon, staying on.) The colt is okay — he spent the race in the paddock, checked out sound by the vets, and walked back to the barn, where he presumably enjoyed a bath and dinner.

Thunder Snow might not have liked the muddy track or the crowd. It could have been that his saddle pinched or that he was channeling his sire. “All I can say at this moment in time Thunder Snow is fine,” tweeted his exercise rider, Daragh O’Donohoe, afterwards. “We are totally dumbstruck at what’s happened, sorry.” Hey, no apologies needed — if anyone has a right to feel badly about what happened, it’s the team that traveled with him this week.

So, about the Kentucky Derby winner — Always Dreaming went to post as the 9-2 favorite, paying $11.40 to win the Derby with a final time of 2:03.59 on a track officially described as “Wet Fast (Sealed).” He earned a Beyer speed figure of 102 and a TimeformUS figure of 123 for the effort.

The start was poor, at least for Irish War Cry and the other contenders he bumped hustling for position coming out of the auxiliary gate. “Irish War Cry bore in at the break initiating a chain reaction of trouble,” says the chart (PDF). “J Boys Echo forced in and jostled between foes soon after the start … Irap was bumped when a victim of the melee soon after the break.”

Always Dreaming avoided all of the trouble, breaking well from stall five. You can see in the replay that rider John Velazquez puts him in a plum spot from the start, although the Churchill Downs camera crew unfortunately cuts away to a shot from behind the gate at exactly the moment the bell rings. State of Honor, the second-longest shot at 54-1, set the early pace, running the first half in :46.53, with Always Dreaming settling in just behind. He takes the lead by a head at the six-furlong mark and wins by 2 3/4 lengths:

Velazquez described the trip like so:

He got into a good rhythm right away. Once I was going forward, for the first time, I was happy where I was. And so the other horse, obviously, showed some speed. So I let him go into the first turn … he was going really well. That’s all I did, just waiting for the competition. They were pressing a little bit. After that, the quarter pole, when I asked him, he switched the lead and got down. And he started running really nice. I was very happy when he switched down. And I felt the way he was running, I said, “They will have to run really fast to get him.”

Lookin at Lee, 33-1, finished second after getting a decent trip on the inside, while Battle of Midway, 40-1, came in third. Classic Empire, the 7-1 third favorite (the 4-1 morning line favorite), was fourth.

Always Dreaming giving his rider a workout

I admit, I didn’t know what to make of Always Dreaming in the days before the Derby. The Florida Derby winner was headstrong and fresh in his first gallop at Churchill Downs on April 26 (GIF above). He showed more control under Velazquez in his final work on April 28, breezing five furlongs in :59 3/5, but when he reverted to bad behavior during the following mornings, Pletcher switched in a new exercise rider and draw reins (this photo by Alex Evers offers a good view of the draw reins on him). Daily Racing Form clocker Mike Welsch noted after the tack change that Always Dreaming (DRF+):

… was clearly more subdued and cooperative during his 1 3/8-mile gallop than he had been on Monday … Always Dreaming had his head tucked and appeared resigned to the fate of training in the restrictive equipment … it was a good and much-improved morning for the highly regarded 3-year-old, whose demeanor from now through post time could go a long way in deciding the outcome of this year’s Derby.

Asked about the equipment change before the Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher said, “He’s been much more aggressive since he’s been here and I’m hoping it’s a sign he’s just ready to rock.” Well, now we know how that turned out.

Always Dreaming gave Pletcher his second Kentucky Derby win, making him one of 19 trainers to win the race more than once, and in the post-race press conference, he talked about what it meant to win with Velazquez:

I felt like Johnny and I needed one together as well.

We have had a great relationship for a long time now, and we have won a lot of races together. This one we hadn’t, and this is the one we wanted to win together. And I’m glad we could do it.

The trainer and rider have been partnered for 24 years; they shared a jubilant hug in the winner’s circle. And here’s another touching story related to Always Dreaming’s win, written before the colt was born: It’s about the saddle that has now been cinched onto five Kentucky Derby winners.

Always Dreaming will go to the Preakness. He ships to Pimlico on Tuesday.

Recaps:

Always Dreaming true in Kentucky Derby (Blood-Horse); Always Dreaming wins Kentucky Derby 2017 (Courier-Journal); On muddy track, Always Dreaming separates from pack to win Kentucky Derby (Sports Illustrated).

Odds and ends:

The top four were hard to separate before the Derby and that was reflected in the pools. Mike Battaglia made the 2016 juvenile champion, Classic Empire, the 4-1 morning line favorite coming into the Derby off a win in the Arkansas Derby, Always Dreaming and McCracken the 5-1 co-second favorites, and Irish War Cry the 6-1 third favorite. Bettors made Irish War Cry the 5-1 second favorite, then narrowly preferred Classic Empire over McCraken (6.80 to 6.90).

Wagering on the Kentucky Derby topped $137.8 million, a new record.

What?! The story behind Pletcher’s Derby beard:

He arrived sporting a goatee as steel gray as his close-cropped hair. When asked why, he told a story about being stared at by a woman at the airport.

“I know you,” he recalled her telling him. “You are D. Wayne Baffert.”

Mike Watchmaker on the Derby results: “Always Dreaming was tons the best winning the Derby. He was as deserving a winner as you will see … and all it takes to understand that is a simple consideration of pace.”

Last word on Thunder Snow’s Derby, from Godolphin executive John Ferguson: “One of the most extraordinary things any of us have ever seen.”

3:00 PM Addendum: Hindsight, etc. Insights from Pete Denk at THT into the split between Always Dreaming’s excellent work and his headstrong gallops:

Derby Day 2017

Kentucky Derby card picks are now up on Hello Race Fans. I’m all alone on the grid with Thunder Snow, who’s 17-1 in the early wagering. Contenders coming out of the UAE Derby don’t have a great record at Churchill Downs, but I like his post, his running style, and even that Godolphin didn’t ship him from Newmarket until last Sunday. He’s also getting Lasix for the first time. Every Derby trainer says they’re confident in their horse(s), and Saeed Bin Suroor is no exception, telling the Racing Post:

“I am very excited,” said Bin Suroor. “I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time to bring a horse with a big chance to run in the greatest race in America.”

I was also thinking a bit about the UAE Derby and why form in it hasn’t successfully translated at Churchill in the past. It used to be an outlier, timing-wise, being six weeks before the Kentucky Derby. But everyone is getting pushed back now — the Sunland Derby (Hence) and Spiral Stakes (Fast and Accurate) are six weeks out, the Florida Derby (Always Dreaming) is five weeks, and the rest of the final preps, with the exception of the Arkansas Derby, are four weeks. Horses entering the Derby on two preps have also become more common. I suspect that in terms of fitness, the UAE Derby’s place on the schedule is no longer quite as detrimental to Derby chances.

Look, it’s the Derby, and as Eric Banks writes in the New York Times today:

… no Derby seems to come out exactly as they expected in advance, which is the one, somewhat counterintuitive lesson provided by repeat exposure, year after year.

There’s something about every Kentucky Derby result that surprises. Maybe the contender from Dubai can deliver a little shock this year.

Niche Work

Dave Hill spends Kentucky Derby weekend with Las Vegas horseplayer Alan Denkenson and things take a poignant turn when the bets don’t come in:

“I’ve been having a bad year. I’m starting to entertain the possibility that I could really go broke,” Dink says, without a hint of sentimentality. “Then again, if I don’t go broke there’s a 50 percent chance that I’m going to turn 75 and be making $4 bets in the sportsbook like these other guys. I mean what else am I going to do? Waz can go into stocks, into finance. I can’t do anything else. I’m 62 years old and this is all I know.”

Respect

The 2016 Kentucky Derby field turns into the Churchill Downs stretch
Turning into the stretch of the 2016 Kentucky Derby.

Nyquist earned a Beyer speed figure of 103 for winning the Kentucky Derby, the highest Beyer of his career; his TimeformUS speed figure came up 123. However you measure his performance on Saturday, it was a peak, and trainer Doug O’Neill looks like a pretty smart guy for bringing his Uncle Mo colt to Churchill Downs in condition to move forward off two prep races, only one of which was around two turns. I thought Nyquist would come up short for that very reason, especially if the early pace as as strong as projected.

Just like Ed DeRosa, though, running down what he got right and wrong about this year’s Derby, I have no regrets:

RIGHT: Nyquist was the best two-year-old and best three-year-old. This might sound like a funny brag considering I didn’t pick him to win the race, but at 2-to-1 keying a 14-to-1 exacta I have no regrets about opposing him on top because even if I had picked him to win I still wouldn’t have won anything on the race at that price with (my actual pick) Exaggerator second. But the respect for Nyquist’s talent was clearly there. I just gambled against it trumping the rest of the group.

WRONG: Picking against Nyquist. From a horseplayer perspective, it’s easy to forgive the pick against—especially considering how well Exaggerator ran—but the fact is everyone wants to pick the Derby winner, and I had my chance after having Nyquist on top all year.

The winner went to post at a price of 2.30 and paid $6.60 — Nyquist’s odds were the lowest for a favorite since Point Given in 2001, and lower than the odds of the three winning favorites since 2013 — Orb’s price was 5.40 that year, California Chrome’s 2.50 in 2014, and American Pharoah’s 2.90 in 2015.

Here are the incremental fractions for the Derby from the DRF chart:

The 2016 Kentucky Derby fractions
View the official Equibase chart (PDF).

Danzing Candy hustled to the front and led the field through the first three quarters in times of :22.58, :45.72, and 1:10.40 before yielding his position to eventual third-place finisher Gun Runner and then Nyquist, who assumed the lead entering the stretch and wrapped up the 1 1/4 mile Derby in 2:01.31. He did run his final quarter three seconds slower than he did his first, but that he was in front at all is what’s impressive, as Mike Watchmaker points out:

He was the only true survivor of a Derby pace that completely fell apart, and Nyquist did much more than merely survive.

Every other horse involved in the Derby pace either collapsed, or out and out disintegrated. But not Nyquist. He kept on with dogged determination the way champions so often do, and he safely turned back a runner-up in Exaggerator who had this race set up for him …

Watch the replay:

Derby recaps: Now Nyquist has real respect as he sets out to exorcise a Triple Crown demonNyquist wins the Kentucky DerbyNyquist answers call, reignites Triple Crown chase with Derby winNyquist stays perfect with Kentucky Derby victory. He ships to Pimlico on Monday for the Preakness.

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