Boel's Derby Pick 6: (Classic) Empire strikes back

Published: Apr. 18, 2017 at 3:40 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 18, 2017 at 9:04 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The preps are over. It's time to get serious. My updated Pick 6 looks as chalky as the NBA playoffs. But this isn't a best-of-seven series. It's a best of one. And it's only a 2-minute, sudden-death session on the first Saturday in May, so anything can happen.

1 - Always Dreaming
He wins on paper and in the eye test. Just watch the Florida Derby:

Check out his head movement and leg action in the stretch. He's like a kid on the playground eagerly romping his way to a finish time of 1:47.4 at 1 1/8 miles. That's only three-fifths of a second off Arrogate's track record. You've heard of Arrogate? And it's the fastest for a 3-year-old since Alydar put up a 1:47 in 1978.

Is there an Affirmed out there this year? I don't see it. And this all makes sense when you see the sire of Always Dreaming: Bodemeister. This is the first crop of Bodemeister runners and this one is just like dad -- busts out of the gate and runs away from everyone. Dreaming has already won twice at 1 1/8 miles and appears as if he'll get every bit of the Derby's 1 1/4. His Keeneland yearling sales purchase price of $350,000 looks like the best investment in thoroughbred racing right now.

2 - Classic Empire
Yes I just moved him way up from out of the picture to No. 2. That's because Classic Empire just went from 2-year-old champion -- to lame-looking also-ran -- to monster in the final Derby prep.

Remember, the Arkansas Derby was only his second start of the year. He was a horrible third in his first start but then we learned he had a sore foot. He didn't make me feel any better about his chances when he refused to train hard because of a suspected back problem. I wasn't convinced when all the insiders started talking about an amazing turnaround for Classic Empire in training.

Then I watched the Arkansas Derby and saw a horse boxed in badly for a long time. When he finally broke free, he didn't dazzle with the stretch run. He just kept gaining slowly. An amazing effort. Many believe he's going to move forward after that and be even better in the Derby. I fear they had to gun the engine a little too long and too hard, and he might not be able to bounce back fully with only a 3-week turnaround.

3 - Gunnevera
Go back up and watch the Florida Derby again. Notice Gunnevera was 15 lengths back, after an outside post (major deterrent to everyone at Gulfstream except Barbaro), and yet he comes flying down the stretch to get third. His final five furlongs were under :59. I'm not saying he'll get Always Dreaming at the Derby with the extra 1/8 mile to work with, but he'll be right in the mix with a decent trip, extra ground and that fantastic turn of foot. For those of you who thought Practical Joke looked good closing in the Bluegrass to almost win, watch what happened when Practical Joke and Gunnevera both closed from deep in the Fountain of Youth:

Yes, one of them is better.

4 - Girvin
His Risen Star win was more impressive than his Louisiana Derby victory, but I still love the way he bears down and guts it out to the wire:

Feels like you'll have to kill him to deny him every time. I worry that they had to floor the accelerator a little too much in the Louisiana Derby, but he'll have a nice rest working up until Derby. He will have only four career starts when he steps into the Derby gate. Most purists hate that. I love it. Running backs with fresh legs always fare better.

5 - Irish War Cry
Others are higher on him than me. I don't like how hard he had to gun it to win the Wood:

The final time looks slow. The jockey was working furiously. I also don't like it when horses don't spend much time getting used to Churchill Downs, and that's apparently going to be the case with Irish War Cry. Best name though, and some of the best speed figures.

The others with the same running style as him, like Always Dreaming, look better.

6 - Gormley
He just beat some nice horses in the Santa Anita Derby and it wasn't easy. Watch the way the wise Victor Espinoza pulls Gormley back when the top three blaze an opening quarter in :22. Then watch the way he comes rolling past, his legs churning faster than all the other horses in the finishing pack:

Gormley went right from breaking his maiden to a Grade 1 and beat them, too. Then he ran into Classic Empire at the top of his game in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Very forgivable. Came back and won the Sham by putting up a 1:35 in the mile race. Nice. He tried to go out on the front end with Mastery in the San Felipe and got tired. Mastery was a super horse before he got injured. If Gormley lays back a bit and runs his race, he'll be tough on Derby Day. It's kind of like the NCAA Tournament. If you can figure out which region of the country really has the best competition, then you can give an advantage to a certain conference. But right now, I don't see a region of the country that was remarkably weaker, or better, than the others once this tournament started.

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