2017 Kentucky Derby: Cooper Family Live Draft

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It’s time. The 143rd Run for the Roses is here, and I’m spewing my prognostications all over the place. Let’s get at it.

The Tradition

By now you ought to be aware of my family’s somewhat random affinity for the Kentucky Derby. (If not, check out our past drafts here.) Every year we do a snake draft. All the horses are picked so somebody’s always a winner. We’re all amateurs around here, so it’s important to remember that we really don’t know what we’re doing despite the fact I post about it every year and act like I do.

Last year was another dud, to be honest. We all knew there were only two horses who were really in the mix. My mom took Nyquist #1 overall, and my sister, Holly, snatched up Exaggerator with pick #2. It was over the moment the draft began. In fact, 2016 marked the 4th consecutive year the favorite horse won the race – Nyquist (2016), American Pharoah (2015), California Chrome (2014), Orb (2013) – but historically that’s actually a rare thing.

In the late 70s there was a similar season of domination by favorites – Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), Spectacular Bid (1979) – but between 1980 and 2012 the favorite won only a handful of times and didn’t win at all from 1980 to 1999. This race tends to be much more random than in recent years. Now, that’s not to say some horses aren’t still better than others here. There are four horses whose road to the Derby suggest they’re a notch above the others, but the dropoff from there is small and it levels out even more from there.

The Horses

I’ve watched all the most recent “Road to the Kentucky Derby” races this year. That’s right, I’ve committed to a new level of research, and I loved every moment of it.

A different horse won each:
Santa Anita Derby – Gormley, Arkansas Derby – Classic Empire, Louisiana Derby – Girvin, Florida Derby – Always Dreaming, Wood Memorial Stakes – Irish War Cry, Fountain of Youth Stakes – Gunnevera, Blue Grass Stakes – Irap. Throw Thunder Snow into the mix too, the horse from Ireland who won the UAE Derby in Dubai by the tip of his nose.

But these same winning horses all looked kinda bad at other times too. Some favorites have dealt with injuries. Some long shots have been consistently in the mix but never won. Shoot, Classic Empire barely beat out a horse in the Arkansas Derby who wasn’t even nominated to run in Kentucky (Conquest Mo Money). Every race I’d watch another horse push toward the wire and think, “Woah…that guy is moving up my draft board.” I said that about at least 8 different horses.

I mean, if the different horse trend continues into this weekend, then NONE of these past winning horses will win the actual Derby and it’ll be somebody like Hence or Patch or State of Honor this time around.

I’m telling you, it’s wide open.

That said, the horses considered top contenders are, in no particular order, Always Dreaming, Classic Empire, McCraken and Irish War Cry. They all have very clear paths to victory. The issue is so do like 10 other horses, and all 4 of these come with red flags.

Classic Empire has been terrific when healthy, but has dealt with an abscess in one of his hooves. Always Dreaming dominated the Florida Derby down the stretch but is stuck inside this time and surrounded by speed. McCraken suffered an ankle injury two months ago and Irish War Cry faded badly in the Fountain of Youth Stakes back in March, not to mention drew the historically-winless-for-whatever-reason post 17.

From there you’ve got a large group of horses who certainly have a shot this year who probably wouldn’t in years past. Last year there were about a dozen horses who had no shot of winning. This year, there might be half that number. If things break the right way, about 14 different horses are realistic in 2017.

I focused a lot on post positions in last year’s draft blog, and they’re no less important this time around, but I’ve found myself obsessing over running style more going into this race. Contrary to what you might think, the race isn’t just a dead sprint from start to finish. This isn’t Vin Diesel and Paul Walker (RIP) lead-footing a quarter mile. There’s strategy here and each horse is different. A sprinting colt is bound to get tired and fade way before even reaching the home stretch. There are an infinite number of factors to consider here, and how a horse likes to run is one of the most significant.

There are 3 (maybe 4) types of horses when it comes to running style: pacesetters, pressers, stalkers and closers. 

  • Pacesetter: this horse likes to bolt out the gate and lead the pack. The key here is monitoring speed – fast enough to stay ahead without wearing down too early.
  • Presser: this is the “maybe 4th” style – this horse is basically a pace/stalk hybrid. The horse doesn’t lead the pack, but still wants to push the speed a bit without totally sitting back.
  • Stalker: this horse sets up a bit off the  lead “stalking” behind the pace/press horses waiting to make a move. The key here is timing – the jockey is waiting for a hole to emerge late and only wants to make one major move to emerge from the pack.
  • Closer: this horse keeps it all in the tank until the final stretch where they hope to overtake the group. The key here is patience – the jockey is intentionally slower out the gate and waits until the last moment before hitting maximum speed down home the stretch.

There are more levels here, a continuum with Pacesetter on one end and Closer on the other, and horses can fall between these categories depending on the competition. Most aren’t a “one trick pony,” if you will. For example, depending on the competition Classic Empire races as either a presser or a stalker. If there’s a lot of speed, he’ll sit back and be more patient, but if there’s not, it benefits to push the pace a bit faster and wear down the competition to overtake them later.

Post positions were drawn Wednesday morning. Here’s how the horses line up (with running style and opening betting odds listed):

  1. Lookin at Lee – Closer – 20-1
  2. Thunder Snow – Pace/Presser – 20-1
  3. Fast and Accurate – Pacesetter – 50-1
  4. Untrapped – Stalker – 30-1
  5. Always Dreaming – Pace/Presser – 5-1
  6. State of Honor – Pace/Presser – 30-1
  7. Girvin – Stalk/Closer – 15-1
  8. Hence – Stalk/Closer – 15-1
  9. Irap – Presser – 20-1
  10. Gunnevera – Closer – 15-1
  11. Battle of Midway – Pace/Presser – 30-1
  12. Sonneteer – Closer – 50-1
  13. J Boys Echo – Closer – 20-1
  14. Classic Empire – Press/Stalker – 4-1
  15. McCraken – Stalker – 5-1
  16. Tapwrit – Stalker – 20-1
  17. Irish War Cry – Pacesetter – 6-1
  18. Gormley – Press/Stalker 15-1
  19. Practical Joke – Stalker – 20-1
  20. Patch – Presser – 30-1

A quick post position refresher: 1-4 isn’t ideal as you can get pinched inside on the rail, and 16-20 isn’t great either as you’re farther out and literally must run a longer race. Somewhere around the middle are the best spots – 8 and 10 have yielded the most champs. It’s basically it’s a bell curve that peaks around there, although 14-15 have a little extra space created by the gate appendage so that’s a slight boon. Number 17 has never yeilded a winner.

So that means, in a perfect world, our horses ought to turn the first turn in an order something like…

Fast and Accurate – Irish War Cry
Thunder Snow – Always Dreaming – State of Honor – Battle of Midway
Irap – Patch
Classic Empire – Gormley
Untrapped – McCracken – Tapwrit – Practical Joke
Girvin – Hence
Lookin at Lee – Gunnevera – J Boys Echo – Sonneteer

But this isn’t a perfect world. No no, horses get pinched and blocked and bumped. They break poorly out of the gate. They get miserable post positions and are surrounded by nasty competitors. It can get messy real quick. Here’s my best shot at sorting things out.

First thing my mind does when I see the lineup is it splits the gate into thirds – the outer, inner and middle.

Let’s start with the outer third. Irish War Cry is the only speed horse on the outside, so look for him to push hard out the gate and be in contention early. Gormley – winner of the Santa Anita Derby, as was Nyquist last year – ought to stick to Irish War Cry if he can. If he loses the pace early he’s in big trouble. Same goes for McCraken stalking Classic Empire, though both of those horses have the extra appendage room to work with. Tapwrit, Practical Joke and Patch have very little shot with this heavy-hitting bunch. If any of them were sitting in the 7-13 range they’d be immediately in the mix, but alas, no.

Irish War Cry and Classic Empire ought to have no trouble running their race from here. Same goes for McCraken. Look for them to be around late.

The inner third is all about speed, which is a disaster for Untrapped who will absolutely not live up to his namesake. Lookin at Lee will start slow and hope to be patient but this first quarter mile is going to be extremely fast and I’ll be shocked if he’s still around late. I like Fast and Accurate to emerge early (and fade early) with Always Dreaming right there in pursuit. If State of Honor can beat Always Dreaming out the gate, the latter could get pinched on both sides and lost in the herd, but that seems less likely. Thunder Snow traveled all this way just to get stuck with the worst draw of the field – on the rail, flanked by speedsters – and I can’t see how he gets through. Plus, how would you feel if you were the only Irish in the field and somebody else had your War Cry?

Always Dreaming should come out of this group – he’s the best in the bunch – but he’ll have to execute well and get a great jump out the gate. If he can do it, the horse has shown the stamina to be able to maintain a lead gate to wire.

The middle horses are fascinating – they’re all closers! Gunnevera is probably the best of the bunch, but he’s been as disappointing as he’s been impressive recently. He literally starts dead last every time but slowly works his way through the group…but what happens when Hence and Girvin mosey out to his left while Sonneteer and J Boys Echo take their sweet time to his right? I have NO IDEA how this plays out over 1 1/4 miles, but this is the grouping where the all the major moves will happen. Meanwhile, Irap is just sitting there thinking, “Alright! A free pass into contention! Thanks, you guys.” Same goes for Battle of Midway. Even though those two ought to be neck and neck early out of this third, I can’t imagine they’ll be relevant in the end trying to keep up with what’s happening inside and outside.

This third is all about the patience and timing of Girvin, Hence, and Gunnevera as the race progresses. This will be a beautiful chess match – three knights side-by-side hoping to outthink and outmaneuver their brethren.

What happens from there? Pssh. Got me. My gut tells me the opening quarter mile is going to be really really fast with the speed inside and the outside trying to maintain pace. If I’m right, that puts the stalkers and closers in the middle at a terrific advantage late. So here’s what I’ll be watching for…

Inside: Is it Always Dreaming or State of Honor who has the strongest start inside?
Middle: Who emerges late between Girvin, Hence and Gunnevera?
Outside: Can Irish War Cry streak from gate to wire ahead of Classic Empire and McCraken?

Those are my questions. There are more I’m not even asking. I think I know which way I’m leaning, but I’ll wait until the draft is over on Saturday to say any more. Gotta keep SOME cards close to the chest here.

The Family Draft Order

We pick in reverse order from how we finished the year before. In an age of favorite domination, we gotta maintain some sense of parity in our picking order. Here is this year’s picking order, 1-7 with additional picks in parantheses.

  1. Quinten (14)
  2. Anna (13 & 20)
  3. APC (12 & 19)
  4. Dad (11 & 18)
  5. Karlie (10 & 17)
  6. Holly (9 & 16)
  7. Mom (8 & 15)

My bro-in-law, Quinten, could pick anybody, a true wild card. My sister, Anna, will probably pick Gormley since he’s saddled by her boy, Victor Espinosa. That leaves me with a lot of options, and a lot of pressure to pick well because by the time pick 12 comes back around, I have a feeling I’ll be staring at a bunch of names I’m not interested in.

The Draft

Pick 1: Always Dreaming (Quinten)

Turns out Q isn’t such a wild card after all! He takes one of the favorites right out the gate. Word on the street is this horse has some personality issues. Not a huge fan of a hyped up colt sitting in the gate forever while he waits for 16 others to get loaded up. Probably the most athletic, but the red flags are worrisome.

Pick 2: Gormley (Anna)

Anna can’t help herself. Victor Espinosa forever. But who knows – the Santa Anita Derby is usually the best indicator of who’s going to win the Derby.

Pick 3: Classic Empire (APC)

Love this horse – it was between Empire and McCraken here for me, and 14 is my favorite number. His issue is he’s had some troubles in training leading up to the Derby. Without setbacks, Classic Empire would be the true favorite. I don’t think this horse has peaked yet.

Pick 4: Irish War Cry (Dad)

Dad picks the speedster. No chance from #17.  Kidding, it’s been raining in Louisville this morning and that usually helps the pacesetters a bit, and he’s been getting a lot of early wagers today.

Pick 5: Gunnevera (Karlie)

I really love this horse. I don’t think he’ll win, but I’m certain he’ll finish in the money. Regardless of his finish, I think he’ll be the most exciting horse in the race – slow starter, monster finisher.

Pick 6: McCraken (Holly)

Pick of the draft here. My #2 overall option falls all the way to #6. Holly got a steal. Home field advantage too which is always helpful in front of 160,000 people.

Pick 7: Thunder Snow (Mom)

No clue how Thunder Snow will run. He’s the biggest unknown in the race, and with all the top contenders now gone, why not roll the dice here? Good pick, okay horse.

Pick 8: Hence (Mom)

This is a great pickup for Mom. Hence has a lot of buzz right now. I think he’s got the best chance of closing late after Gunnevera, and the post positioning is awesome.

Pick 9: Girvin (Holly)

Girvin could win this thing. He’s one of the most decorated coming into the race. Holly has a great pair of horses here.

Pick 10: Tapwrit (Karlie)

Karlie: “I think I’ll take Tapwrit, he looks pretty good…okay, now I have to find something I like about Tapwrit.” Let’s be honest, the best horses are gone. Shot in the dark here.

Pick 11: Patch (Dad)

I’ll be honest – I know nothing about Patch, but I see his positioning outside three of the top contenders and don’t see any way he can be relevant in this race, but I don’t really know.

Pick 12: Irap (APC)

Like I said above – I think Irap will be in this thing from the get go. The issue is how strong the late competition will be around him. If the race is fast, and he can be ultra-patient, he could have a path here. Still a long shot.

Pick 13: Battle of Midway (Anna)

Okay the pickings are slim. Not sure what to say here.

Pick 14: J Boys Echo (Q)

Worst name award goes to JBE.

Pick 15: Practical Joke (Mom)

This horse could make some noise. In the races I watched, he seemed to be around the lead well into the race. I’m not sure he has the endurance to close but he’s not awful.

Pick 16: State of Honor (Holly)

Could beat Always Dreaming out the gate. If he does, he’s in it. If not, doubtful.

Pick 17: Sonneteer (Karlie)

This was the last horse into the race. Late closer, and it’s been well documented how I feel about closers this year.

Pick 18: Fast and Accurate (Dad)

The first 30 seconds ought to be fun for Dad here. He’ll be at or near the front around the first turn. Might finish last.

Pick 19: Lookin at Lee (APC)

Sure, why not. Inside rail isn’t ideal, but it’s a long race and anything can happen for a closer!!! Would much rather have this horse than pretty much anybody taken between my last choice and this one.

Pick 20: Untrapped (Anna)

No chance. Sorry.

So here’s where we ended up…

  • Quinten: Always Dreaming, J Boys Echo
  • Anna: Gormley, Battle of Midway, Untrapped
  • APC: Classic Empire, Irap, Lookin at Lee
  • Dad: Irish War Cry, Patch, Fast and Accurate 
  • Karlie: Gunnevera, Tapewrit, Sonneteer
  • Holly: McCraken, Girvin, State of Honor
  • Mom: Thunder Snow, Hence, Practical Joke

The Results…

Always Dreaming broke well and never looked back. He beat Fast and Accurate to the rail, which meant he was pretty much able to coast to the win uncontested. The first pick wins again! The only horse to lead Always Dreaming around the first turn was the horse to his left, State of Honor (who ended up being the last horse to finish the race). I had expected this as a possibility, but I’d also assumed Fast and Accurate would be there on the opposite side. He wasn’t, which meant Always Dreaming had the rail.

The first quarter mile played out almost exactly as I expected – speed outside and inside with the middle starting slow and hoping to close. Interestingly enough, the only closer who had a shot at catching Always Dreaming was Lookin at Lee who started on the rail. The rest of the horses around him took off, and left this giant void on the rail right off the pace. It was clear he had more in the tank down the stretch without having to run so far. A surprise second place finish and a really well run race.

And Battle of Midway finished third!? Kudos to anyone who had him to show. He was an also-ran for me. The rest of the contenders finished in the next chunk of horses: Classic Empire ran 4th (he was the only one really in the conversation down the stretch), Gunnevera 7th, McCraken 8th, Gormley 9th, Irish War Cry 10th. As much as I was off about Always Dreaming, I couldn’t have been more correct about Irish War Cry. Started fast but couldn’t find the lane to the front, ended up way outside and had nothing left in the tank down the stretch.

The final family draft results…

  1. Quinten – Always Dreaming
  2. APC – Lookin at Lee
  3. Anna – Battle of Midway
  4. Mom – Practical Joke (5th)
  5. Karlie – Tapwrit (6th)
  6. Holly – McCraken (8th)
  7. Dad – Irish War Cry (10th)

Another year without the first pick finishing about as well as I could, albeit not the way I expected. Someday I’ll compile a spreadsheet with our collective draft pick success. Since the first pick continues to be the winner, it might be time to expand how we deem success in the draft. Example: Dad having the 4th pick and finishing 10th is really bad. Mom having the 7th pick but finishing 4th is good. I’ll have to do some thinking there – maybe use the NFL’s way of grading drafts as a starting point. I’ll probably give it a couple more years to have a bit more data to work with, but that could be a fun visualization down the line.

Another fun year of drafting, and congrats to Quinten on his first Kentucky Derby win!

See you in 2018.

Photo: Eclipse Sportswire, accessed here.

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