LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - We've come into the stretch. It's time to commit.
Much has been said about how wide-open this Kentucky Derby is, and it indeed looks so on paper. The most popular prediction is that there will be three different winners as the 2017 Triple Crown advances to the Maryland's Preakness in two weeks and New York's Belmont Stakes three weeks after that.
However, there are four horses in the capacity field of 20 that with a big performance might, after the fact, make folks think it wasn't so wide open, that there's yet a shot that a horse steps above the fray. Those are 2-year-old champion and program favorite Classic Empire, the Arkansas Derby winner; the once-beaten Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry; Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, who has won his three races this year by a combined 20 1/2 lengths, and local favorite McCraken, whose 4-for-4 streak ended with a third in Keeneland's Blue Grass.
If anyone else wins, there will continue the sense that the Preakness remains up for grabs if you head to Baltimore, shuffle the cards and play a new hand. And, as history has proven, that could be the case even if one of the four favorites prevails.
Classic Empire has lost only once, not counting last summer when the future Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner dumped his rider after the start of Saratoga's Hopeful. A foot bruise, sore back and change of venue later, he made amends in capturing Oaklawn Park's Arkansas Derby in good order. He should only improve off that effort.
Irish War Cry's only defeat was the Fountain of Youth. Otherwise, he is consistently the fastest horse in the field.
Always Dreaming has looked brilliant in Florida.
McCraken should move way up off the Blue Grass after missing a scheduled date in the Tampa Bay Derby because of a minor ankle injury. No horse has worked better at Churchill Downs.
OK, so I'm picking Hence.
Hence came from well off the pace and wide to win the March 26 Sunland Derby. But this wasn't the same Sunland Derby that launched Mine That Bird to an implausible victory at 50-1 in 2009. The quality of the Sunland Derby has held up as well as any prep this season, with runner-up Conquest Mo Money holding on to be a very good second to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby, third-place Hedge Fund nearly winning the Illinois Derby captured by the promising Multiplier. And fourth-place Irap merely went on to earn his first career victory in Keeneland's $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, a prep which going in was widely viewed as the deepest of the season.
Hence's 1:48 was the second-fastest Sunland Derby, and he finished with aplomb. He has worked exceedingly well at Churchill Downs, where he has spent more time than at any other track. He has been bouncing off the track.
"We got 'em right where we want them," Scott Blasi, assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen, said cheerfully from his pony while leading Hence off the track on a dark, cold, soggy morning at Churchill Downs.
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That was a good-natured quip, but indicative of how well the stable feels Hence is doing. If some people think his last race was too big, he's had six weeks to bring his energy tank back to full.
The Kentucky Derby is the year's best betting race, with its 20-horse field, largest in North American racing, and with horses converging from every region. Of the four favorites, only Classic Empire and Irish War Cry have squared off in a race, with Irish War Cry taking Gulfstream Park's Holy Bull Stakes, in which the champion was a 8 3/4 lengths back in third. They've never encountered Always Dreaming or McCraken. Nor Hence.
Around the racetrack, the Monday before a Saturday race is known as the "Asmussen easy half.” When an Asmussen runner gets a timed workout of much faster than 50 seconds for the half-mile, it's a great sign the horse is doing superbly. Hence worked in 48 4/5 over a track rated good. That followed a couple of more serious workouts the prior two weeks, when he went five-eighths of a mile in a minute flat and 1:00 2/5.
"He's just very sharp right now," Asmussen, who also has Lookin At Lee and Untrapped in the Derby, said after the work. "I think the most comfortable thing with Hence is how they've trained here at Churchill. It's like home to them. I don't think you're going to like the track and win it. That's simply a box a few in this group have checked off.
"What the Sunland race has done is make everyone notice how impressive Hence trains. It doesn't make you train any different than he did previously. I think it's why we were so excited about the horse going into the Southwest. Disappointing race there (a seventh-place finish Feb. 20). What is the difference? With a horse that trains as physical as he does, the decision was made to space his races better. I think he responded super to it. He's athletic and aggressive, gets plenty out of what you do (in training). The Sunland race fit into from where we were to where we wanted to be perfect.”
Hence, who picks up Florent Geroux as his rider, could be on the lines of 1998 Derby winner Real Quiet or Charismatic in 1999, getting good when it matters most. He's also somewhat reminiscent of another Asmussen-trained horse: Creator, who needed six starts to break his maiden but then in his second stakes appearance won the Arkansas Derby and, after finishing 13th in the Kentucky, won the Belmont Stakes.
Though it took four races for Hence to win a race, he was always highly regarded. When he did break his maiden, it showcased his athleticism. He was two lengths in front inside the stretch in the slop, when he suddenly shied almost into the rail. Apparently he saw the race video from the infield video board reflecting off the sloppy track. But just as quickly he recovered and came back on to win the race.
"He's a horse who has always had a lot of talent,” Asmussen said. "He's just putting everything together at the right time. The quality of the Sunland Derby, how fast they ran and the spacing of the race has us very excited.”
The only downside is that Hence became something of the buzz horse, usually the kiss of death for a Derby contender.
"I'm always leery of that," Asmussen quipped about 10 days ago. "There's so many bad-luck people out there, we don't want any mooches on us. We don't know if we can carry that weight.”
My picks: 1. Hence 2. Irish War Cry 3. Classic Empire 4. Always Dreaming
Irish War Cry came home pretty slow in the Wood Memorial, which did not have a strong field. But I can't get past that he's the only horse with multiple triple-digit Bris and Beyer speed figures, and no one else has more than one.
If the only thing that Classic Empire has done wrong is a third-place performance, he's in extremely good shape. Though he's been on good behavior and handled the Oaklawn crowd well for the Arkansas Derby, there's always the nagging feeling that his quirkiness might resurface at a really bad time.
The key to the race, to me, is how much pressure No. 6 State of Honor will put on No. 5 Always Dreaming. The only semblance of speed inside Always Dreaming is Spiral winner Fast and Accurate. But there's a difference between being on the lead through relatively slow fractions and having real speed, such as Always Dreaming possesses and Fast and Accurate hasn't displayed. Always Dreaming doesn't have to be in front. But with the other class speed to his outside, he's at a tactical disadvantage.
Todd Pletcher, trainer of Always Dreaming, notes that Jose Lezcano, rider of State of Honor, is a very aggressive rider, admitting he has some concern that if State of Honor provides a hounding presence, that Always Dreaming might not relax well enough to negotiate 1 1/4 miles. Remember that Always Dreaming has been so full of himself that Pletcher had to make a training equipment change to the more restrictive draw reins and an exercise rider adept at using them. If he's too keen early in the race, it will be a long 1 1/4 miles for him.
The flip side is that if Always Dreaming is allowed to get into a comfortable rhythm, he can keep going and is more than qualified to do what his dad, 2011 Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister, failed to accomplish. Bodemeister, however, had to contend with future sprint champion Trinniberg battling him up front. There are no such avowed sprinters in the Derby these days, thanks to Churchill Downs' qualifying systems based on points accrued in a series of races of at least a mile in distance.
If State of Honor is breathing hard on Always Dreaming, that could spark a fast pace that sets up the finish for a well-placed stalker or closer. Pace is always a major component in the Derby. A fast pace spreads the field and makes it easier for closers to thread their way through traffic, or they don't have to come as wide. But a slow pace creates a traffic jam on the first turn, a melee that can take a horse out of the race with almost a mile still to go.
Depending on to whom you talk to, there's either an abundance of speed or a void reminiscent of the 2002 Derby, when War Emblem, Proud Citizen and Perfect Drift ran 1-2-3 all the way around.
No matter whom you land on for your Kentucky Derby pick, you'll be well-rewarded if you are right with a payoff you'll never get the rest of the year on a horse with similar form. If you have a strong opinion, do yourself a favor and bet him across the board. You'll be kicking yourself if you go for the home run and get split in the exacta or trifecta, tearing up your ticket while others are cashing a $40 win mutuel on the horse you liked. You can always bet straight and play the gimmicks. Unlike baseball, in racing you can swing for the fences while also bunting.
Jennie Rees is a longtime turf writer who contributes to WAVE3.com during Derby season.
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