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Kentucky Derby reign won't hinge on rain, trainers say

By Ron Flatter  ( 

LOUISVILLE, KY.--No, it was not a dark and stormy night. Just a gloomy, chilly, rainy day.

On arrival this morning from a red-eye flight to Kentucky, it looked a lot more like autumn than spring. If it weren’t for all the leaves on the trees, this would have the distinct feel of a Breeders’ Cup, not a Kentucky Derby.

But the calendar says May, so they will run for the blooming roses Saturday, and weather forecasts prone to be fickle around these parts are in unison. It will continue to be showery through at least early Saturday with the possibility of dry weather as Derby day wears on, meaning the track may not or may not be fast. It was fast Thursday in spite of steady, early showers.

Judging from two trainers with highly regarded entries in the 20-horse field, no adjustment of your handicapping is necessary.

“I don’t think it matters,” said Ian Wilkes, who trains 5-to-1 second choice McCraken. “Churchill handles the rain well. You never get to the base here, so I think my horse will be fine.”

That feeling was echoed Thursday morning by the trainer of 4-to-1 favorite Classic Empire.

“I don’t think it’s going to affect anything,” Mark Casse said. “Churchill Downs’ track takes water better than pretty well any track in North America. We would have to have some type of tornado or typhoon for the track to be bad. The horses have gotten here doing one thing, and nobody’s going to go change their strategy just because of the racetrack.”

Wilkes and Casse are not just in lock step on their feelings about the weather. They also have two highly regarded horses that came back from injuries in the middle of the Derby preps.

McCraken had what Wilkes called a minor setback – “just a strained ankle” – that took him out of the Tampa Bay Derby. The 3-year-old colt sired by 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper then came back with a third-place finish as the previously undefeated favorite in last month’s Blue Grass Stakes. Before that race Wilkes said McCraken did not need to win; he just needed to look good coming back to the track.

“He did,” Wilkes said at his barn Thursday morning. “We faced a lot of adversity. We got knocked around a little bit, which was good, because he’s done everything too easy. The good thing is he didn’t quit on me. He was a little too fresh, a little too rank in the race. He didn’t settle. I think I’ll have a better horse, he’ll settle better and get back into his routine on Saturday.”

Casse had it worse. Classic Empire had a hoof abscess that was to blame for the only blemish in his last four races – a sweat-soaked, third-place disappointment in the Holy Bull Stakes. The injury dominoed into back trouble that led to more than two months off before a half-length victory last month in the Arkansas Derby.

Skeptics still wonder if the colt by Pioneerof The Nile is as good as he was when he won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on his way to being crowned America’s champion 2-year-old.

“He’s better,” Casse said. “I just see it in him. He’s grown up. He’s more focused now. There’s no reason for me to believe that he isn’t a better horse than he was last year. He wasn’t precocious. He was just really good, and I think he’s still really good.”

The rain, the track and other things

  • Forecasters are backing off their prediction that it will be wet through Derby day. The National Weather Service said there is a 70 percent chance of showers for the Kentucky Oaks on Friday with up to a quarter of an inch of rain accumulating until 2 a.m. EDT Saturday. Then there will be 40 percent chance of showers after 8 a.m. Otherwise it is expected to be partly sunny with the high near 64.
  • Half the horses in the Derby field have raced on wet or “off” dirt tracks, including the favorite Classic Empire.

1. Lookin At Lee – 2nd (8¾ lengths), Grade 3 Iroquois, 1 1/16 miles, Sept. 17, Churchill Downs (muddy).

4. Untrapped – 2nd (1¼ lengths), Grade 3 Lecomte, 1 mile 70 yards, Jan. 21, Fair Grounds (muddy-sealed).

8. Hence – 1st (¾ length), $72,000 maiden, 1 1/1 miles, Jan. 16, Oaklawn Park (sloppy-sealed).

9. Irap – 4th (4¾ lengths), $54,000 maiden, 1 1/16 miles, Dec. 31, Santa Anita (sloppy-sealed).

10. Gunnevera – 2nd (3½ lengths), $55,000 maiden, 5 furlongs, June 10, Gulfstream Park (sloppy-sealed).

11. Battle Of Midway – 1st (3¼ lengths), $54,000 maiden, 6 furlongs, Jan. 21, Santa Anita (wet fast-sealed).

12. Sonneteer – 2nd (1¼ lengths), $52,000 maiden, mile, Nov. 27, Del Mar (good).

14. Classic Empire – 1st (1½ lengths), $44,000 maiden, 4½ furlongs, May 4, 2016, Churchill (sloppy-sealed).

16. Tapwrit – 1st (1 length), $75,000 Pulpit, mile, Dec. 10, Gulfstream Park (sloppy-sealed).

18. Gormley – 1st (head), Grade 3 Sham, mile, Jan. 7, Santa Anita (sloppy-sealed).

  • With front-runners Paradise Woods (5-to-2) and Miss Sky Warrior (9-to-2) expected to be the top two betting choices in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks, Casse’s closer Salty (6-to-1) could be poised to pick up pieces in the stretch. “That’s what I’m hoping,” Casse said. “I’m hoping they get in a little bit of a duel and we can sit behind them. If they do that I think we have a good shot.”
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