Always Dreaming training in Florida for the 143rd Run for the Roses. | Photo by Dana Wimpfheimer

There’s an interesting vibe on the backside at Churchill Downs leading up to the 2017 Kentucky Derby. Favorites have bossed the Derby the past four years, and each year the trainers of the “other” horses have kept it on a low key, expressing quiet notes of cautious optimism — with plenty of deferential praise for the favored horse.

But not this time.

Courtesy of Churchill Downs

This time the general feeling is it’s a wide-open Derby, and a hefty handful of trainers think they’ve got the horse right here, like Paul Revere, ready to Run for the Roses.

That includes the likely betting favorite Classic Empire, whose trainer Mark Casse sounds happily confident.

“We think we’ve got the bases loaded,” says Casse.

Classic Empire was the 2-year-old champion of 2016 but spent a couple of months wandering in the wilderness to begin 2017. Then three weeks ago, Classic Empire roared down the stretch to win the Arkansas Derby to re-stamp himself as the one to beat come Saturday at Churchill Downs.

And maybe he is.

But this handicapper thinks Always Dreaming could be the real “one to beat” in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. Especially with the way Always Dreaming won the Florida Derby for fun and turned in a laser-sharp workout last Friday at Churchill Downs.

Working after the track’s morning renovation break, when harrows honed the dirt surface to a fluffed-up smoothness, regular rider John Velazquez guided Always Dreaming through a five-furlong work in :59 1/5 — the horse drilling straight as a string and full of fire. Pulling up, Velazquez needed the length of the backstretch to slow Always Dreaming.

Trainer Todd Pletcher was noticeably enthralled, jumping into an interview with reporters by talking about Always Dreaming before the first question was asked.

“We wanted to be the first over the track after the break, to get as relaxed an atmosphere as you can get on a ‘breeze morning’ like this at Churchill Downs,” said Pletcher, referencing those special spring mornings when many Derby horses “breeze” at speed in preparation for the Derby. “But it seemed like he handled it great. Johnny said he just let his hands down a little inside the eighth pole, and the horse lengthened out.

“I had him in :59 1/5, pulled up the mile in 1:40, and it was way past the track kitchen before Johnny could get him pulled up,” Pletcher continued. “He did everything we hoped he would do. Everything we expected him to do.”

Pletcher sounds like a guy who thinks he’s sitting on dynamite, and the horse acts like dynamite about to explode.

The gray horse Fast and Accurate, with rider Channing Hill, trains at Churchill Downs with stablemate Adventist. | Photo by John Nation

On that Friday morning, Always Dreaming was perfectly behaved. But on other mornings, when just galloping, the bay colt has been far from serene. In fact, maybe a little too full of himself. After the work, Pletcher switched exercise riders and fitted the horse’s bridle with “draw reins” to give the rider better control of a horse that simply can’t wait another second to get it on.

“Oh, he’s feeling pretty good,” said the new morning reinsman, Nick Bush, talking with Churchill Downs notes writer Gary Yunt. “In fact, he’s all but jumping out of his skin. But he came back to me some as we went along this morning. He was better with it. I think he’s getting the idea. Come tomorrow, he’ll be better yet. He’ll get it, and we’re going to be fine.”

Naturally, Pletcher is keeping a close eye on the horse, who twists his head and yanks for dear life on the reins sometimes to be allowed to run. But anyone can see the trainer is pleased as punch with a horse exuding such energy heading into the Kentucky Derby.

Next door, Classic Empire

Mark Casse | Courtesy of Keeneland/Coady Photography

Meanwhile, at trainer Mark Casse’s barn, everyone is thrilled that Classic Empire seems back on track for the Kentucky Derby. The colt was tops of his class last season but began 2017 with a very lackluster effort in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Casse discovered the horse had a foot abscess, which the barn was able to treat with regular household remedies. But then the horse refused to train. Just said, no, he wouldn’t go.

With time slipping away in the countdown to the Kentucky Derby, Casse shipped Classic Empire in February from Miami to a quiet farm near Ocala, Fla., in the Florida horse farm country. He also brought in exercise rider Martin Rivera, who had given the colt his very first lessons as a racehorse.

The horse began training beautifully but had missed a lot of training time.

“With the average horse, you couldn’t do what we have done,” says Casse. “You need so many things to go right (when preparing for the Kentucky Derby). The good news with this horse is he’s so talented he can overcome a lot.”

And did — taking the Arkansas Derby with a withering stretch drive. The striking bay horse has always run near the lead but was pinched back at the start. Jockey Julien Leparoux allowed Classic Empire to relax into a running position and waited patiently for the right moment to move. At the head of the stretch, Leparoux produced ‘Empire wide around a wall of horses, then came flying to victory in the final strides — but clearly going away from his rivals.

Julien Leparoux rides Classic Empire. | Courtesy of Keeneland/Coady Photos

Classic Empire could be the second Derby winner for owners John and Debbie Oxley, who won with Monarchos in 2001. The Oxleys campaign some of their best horses at Churchill Downs, and Debbie is a Louisville native.

Mark and his son Norm Casse operate the Casse training stable now, following Mark’s father Norman into a life on the turf.

“This is home,” Casse says on a pretty spring morning at Churchill Downs. “This is where I started. I remember when my dad brought me here at 18 years old, and we had three horses in the receiving (ship-in) barn. To be in this position is incredible.”

Casse also liked the way Classic Empire accomplished his final work for the Derby last Friday at Churchill. Another hurdle toward the Derby accomplished — in nice style. Reporters assumed Classic Empire would be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and Casse says that’s no pressure for him.

“It just means you’ve got the best horse,” says the trainer with a smile. “I love being the favorite. That doesn’t bother me at all. We’re happy to be where we are given the last couple months. Let’s just enjoy the ride.”

Training for the Derby distance

Meanwhile in California, trainer John Shirreffs sent Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley seven furlongs in a workout two weekends ago. Then a mile this past weekend.

“A wide-open Derby is kind of a perfect scenario for him because he’s made for a mile-and-a-quarter, and he will finish — that’s his game,” owner Jerry Moss told Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey.

Gormley is a son of Malibu Moon, the sire of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, from a stamina-laced female family that includes famous turf starlets Estrapade and Miesque. Moss, the co-founder of A&M Records with Herb Alpert, thinks trainer Shirreffs has had the Derby distance in mind all along for Gormley.

Gormley and jockey Victor Espinoza take the Santa Anita Derby. | Photo by Benoit Photo

“He has speed, and I think John is educating him to use his speed later in the race,” says Moss. “That should help him in the Derby.”

Shirreffs says it’s not so much the distance of the works, but the colt learning to repeat his stride. “Repetition in rhythm,” explains Shirreffs. “Getting him into a repetitive stride to stretch him out in distance without tiring.”

Shirreffs and Moss won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with 50-1 long shot Giacomo, which was the very last horse to make his move in a cavalry charge to the wire. Jockey Mike Smith got Giacomo up in the final stride over 70-1 Closing Argument to light up the Churchill Downs tote board. Giacomo paid $102.60 to win, with the $1 trifecta coming in at $66,567.40.

Now that’s the kind of prices a Derby bettor can dream about. In contrast, with the favorites running one, two, three in betting order a year ago, a microscope was required to detect a teeny-tiny tri payoff of $86.

Won’t happen this time.

Also vying for victory

Several other horses will attract significant betting in the 2017 Derby. And it’s an interesting lot.

Irish War Cry comes in off a strong score in New York, winning the Wood Memorial in exactly the same fashion Always Dreaming won the Florida Derby — loping along after a speed horse, then snapping to the lead at the head of the lane. We just don’t think he’s as good as Always Dreaming. But then, he did look very good prancing around the track at Churchill. Very good.

A big guess is Gunnevera, who comes from way, way back. A last-to-first kind of runner that has won four major races under rider Javier Castellano.

Gunnevera chomps a handful of hay from trainer Antonio Sano, right, with assistant Larry Kelly, left.
| Photo by John Nation

The come-from-the-clouds style suits Castellano, the Eclipse Award champion jockey the past four years. Even when Castellano is aboard a horse that drops back just behinds the leaders, it’s like you don’t see him. Then they turn for home … and there he is!

Many Derby winners have come from last to win — with Ferdinand, Pleasant Colony and Secretariat coming quickly to mind. It can be done — even though the Derby more often goes to a horse closely stalking the pace, such as recent stars California Chrome and American Pharoah.

Many people think a deep closer’s biggest hurdle is traffic trouble along the way. I think that’s not right. The top jockeys, and top horses, find their way around and through a field with little problem. Kent Desormeaux came from 15th, passing horses on the inside on the backstretch en route to victory with Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.

Bill Shoemaker came upon traffic twice with Ferdinand in 1986, but when The Shoe spotted a hole at the top of the stretch — before it opened — he shot Ferdinand to the rail and used the horses he’d passed as traffic impediments for his rivals. Calvin Borel came through a hole a chipmunk couldn’t find with Mine That Bird in 2009.

The horses that run into traffic problems we think are generally horses that are tired. Not going anywhere, any way.

Actually, the biggest problem for horses trying to come from far back is the pace of the race. If the leaders ding-dong it through the first three quarters of a mile, it softens the race up for closers to close. But if the horses near the front (as we anticipate Always Dreaming and Classic Empire will be) are still fresh, they may accelerate and prove very difficult to catch.

That’s certainly Gunnevera’s problem. He might not be able to catch all those ahead of him. But he could still grab an in-the-money finish and is a must for exactas and trifectas.

Irish-bred Thunder Snow | Courtesy of Godolphin

The wild card is Irish-bred Thunder Snow, which captured a thrilling U.A.E Derby in Dubai by a nose over Japanese star Epicharis. The latter qualified for the Kentucky Derby, but will be reserved for the Belmont Stakes, we understand.

Thunder Snow boasts an excellent deep-distance pedigree, though heavy on Northern Dancer turf blood. But he’s been winning on dirt, and enjoys the services of one of the world’s foremost riders, Christophe Soumillon.

Thunder Snow is another must for exactas and trifectas.

Who else?

Likely to be overlooked in the betting is Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap. He’d never won a race before the Blue Grass but repelled Practical Joke when that one came calling in the Keeneland stretch, and again at the wire.

This is a horse that has size. A big ol’ country boy, who’s bay coat is dappled now — signaling Irap could be ready for another big effort.

Irap is an underdog. | Courtesy of Keeneland/Coady Photography

Locally trained McCraken has been fast and eager in his Churchill preps for trainer Ian Wilkes and owner Janis Whitham. If you like McCracken, I can certainly see why. When he runs, you don’t hear his hoof beats.

Practical Joke may be limited by a speed pedigree. But he’s a hard-trying horse, with Joel Rosario aboard.

Sonneteer, which has not won even one race, is a come-from-behinder, ridden by three-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux. Battle of Midway has a tiny tinge of stamina in his pedigree, so he wouldn’t be a total surprise under up-and-coming rider Flavien Prat.

For an extreme long shot, we will add Fast and Accurate, which is owned in a partnership that includes this scribe’s friends, Jim Shircliff and Harvey Diamond — so there’s the disclaimer. But a handicapper needs the occasional long shot to enjoy a long and healthy life on the turf. And this gray horse has been training forwardly.

Maybe add Royal Mo, a stable mate of Gormley, ridden by three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens. Don’t know if he’s got the right pedigree, but with Stevens, he could get the ride of a lifetime. Just a chance.

Betting advice

Our Derby betting advice always begins with:

  1. Find your own Derby horse and don’t let anyone — including me — talk you off it.
  2. Don’t worry about the odds. You’ll get juicy odds in a 20-horse field.
  3. Begin your betting at the start of the day by wheeling your Derby horse, with All, in the Kentucky Derby exacta. Just say it slowly and the mutual clerk will know what you mean. Let’s say your horse is No. 8. Ask for: Race 8, the Kentucky Derby, a $1 exacta wheel, No. 8, WITH All. Pause on the commas. If your horse wins, you win — with any other horse in the field running second. A $19 bet — and worth it.
  4. Then take in the Derby Day card, sip a few refreshing mint juleps, and plan the Derby bets you’ll make later.
  5. If you are hauling out other people’s bets to the track, insist on program numbers, not names. Place all your friends’ bets at the beginning of the day, stash all the tickets in an envelope, then hand all the tickets back to your pals the next day to cash themselves. Trust me on this.
  6. If you’re playing trifectas, consider using All second. That’s often the upset position in the Derby.
  7. If you wish to do it the old-fashioned way, place an across-the-board bet on Your Derby Horse. That’s win, place and show on one ticket.
  8. Viewing the Derby at the track or on TV: Check out your horse’s number and jockey silks colors in advance in the program, then study your silks in the post parade. When race caller Larry Collmus calls your Derby horse, you’ll see him — and root him home!
Kentucky Oaks

This handicapper’s record in the Kentucky Oaks is not too swift. But this year’s Oaks, run on Friday, boasts an exceptionally strong field and will be too much fun to miss betting. We’ll tab favored Paradise Woods, and look for long shot Lockdown to come along in the exacta.

Insider Louisville’s Kentucky Derby Pick

Bill Doolittle makes his Derby picks. | Photo by John Nation

I plan to use several horses on top on my betting — a typical Doolittle wagering smorgasbord. But, for the record, here’s the official Insider Louisville Doolittle Derby Picks for 2017:

  1. Gormley
  2. Always Dreaming
  3. Gunnevera
  4. Thunder Snow