Nearly half of the expected runners taking part in the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby (G1) on May 6 at Churchill Downs took the track on Friday to ready for that 1 1/4-mile event.
Eclipse Award winner Classic Empire kicked off the action at 6 a.m. (ET) Friday morning, breezing a half-mile in :49.20 for trainer Mark Casse over the fast dirt at Churchill.
The multiple Grade 1 winner went out with exercise rider Martin Rivera aboard in company with Perfect Performer. He posted a quarter-mile split in :24.40 and galloped out five furlongs in 1:03.
“His work gave me chills,” Casse said. “Now it’s a waiting game. It’s all about timing. I said a couple months ago when everyone was giving us a tough time, this is like a baseball game. It doesn’t matter how many runs you score, it just matters if you’re ahead in the last inning. I feel like we have the bases loaded.”
Classic Empire’s spring schedule was interrupted multiple times due to such things as a foot abscess and back problems, but the Pioneerof the Nile sophomore cot back on the winning track just in time with a half-length victory in the April 15 Arkansas Derby (G1).
“With the average horse you couldn’t do what we have done,” Casse said. “You need so many things to go right and the good news with this horse is he’s so talented he can overcome a lot.”
Casse has another Derby hopeful in State of Honor, who has yet to score against stakes company but finished second in both the Florida Derby (G1) and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) in his past pair of starts.
The bay son of To Honor and Serve took to Churchill’s track during the Derby and Kentucky Oaks (G1) exclusive training period at 8:30 a.m., breezing four furlongs in :48.80 under exercise rider E.J. Bowler. State of Honor recorded splits of :25.20 and :36.80 before galloping out five furlongs in 1:02.
“He worked spectacular this morning,” Casse said. “He tries really hard. I thought his last race (in the Florida Derby) when he got caught up on the rail, (jockey) Julien (Leparoux) had all kinds of horse and by the time he got out, Always Dreaming had already left. It’s not easy to run him down.”
State of Honor will get the chance to turn the tables in the Kentucky Derby on Always Dreaming, who put in an appearance at Churchill on Friday.
The Bodemeister three-year-old led a Todd Pletcher-trained quintet on track for their final major Derby works, clocking a bullet five furlongs in :59.60 under jockey John Velazquez.
Always Dreaming, who captured the Florida Derby by five lengths while making his stakes bow, was the first horse to work after the renovation break. The dark bay colt posted splits of :13, :24.40, :35.80, :47.60 and :59.60, galloping out three-quarters in 1:12.60, seven-eighths in 1:25.60 and a mile in 1:40.
“I thought it was a powerful work; exceptional,” Pletcher said. “He’s full of himself. It was a good work with a great gallop out. He galloped out past the (track) kitchen (at the half-mile pole).”
Next up for Pletcher were Louisiana Derby (G2) runner-up Patch and Tampa Bay Derby romper Tapwrit, who worked in company under exercise rider Isabelle Bourez and jockey Jose Ortiz, respectively.
The duo recorded five furlongs in 1:00.20, with internal fractions of :12.20, :24 and :36, and a six-furlong gallop out in 1:12.80.
“That was a good work for Tapwrit,” Pletcher said. “He handled the track better than he did at Keeneland (when fifth in the April 8 Blue Grass Stakes [G2] and had one work). I was very pleased with it.
“It was a typical work for Patch. He tends to idle a bit when he works but he was better this morning.”
Battalion Runner also worked in company for Pletcher, breezing a half-mile in :48.40 with Grade 2 victor Made You Look.
The Wood Memorial (G2) runner-up had Nick Bush holding the reins as he turned splits of :12.60, :24.40, :36.60 while galloping out five furlongs in 1:01.60.
“He seemed to wrestle with the track,” Pletcher remarked. “I thought the work was OK; it was not a bad work. A lot of times, the track you get a week before the Derby is not the same one you run on Derby Day. We will watch him the next week and see how he does.”
Pletcher also sent out Rebel Stakes (G2) hero Malagacy to gallop before the renovation break with Bourez in the irons.
“He just galloped this morning because we have not committed to run,” Pletcher said. “I will talk with the owner (Oussama Aboughazale) and tweet (the decision). If he is on for the Derby, he will breeze Saturday and if not we will look at Friday to prepare for the Preakness (Stakes [G1]).
Trainer Chad Brown added blinkers to multiple Grade 1 winner Practical Joke’s tack for his final major move ahead of the Kentucky Derby on Friday under jockey Joel Rosario.
The Into Mischief colt breezed five furlongs in 1:01.60 outside of stablemate and stakes-placed Bobby On Fleek, recording splits of :13.40, :25.40, :37.40 and :49.60. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:14.60.
“He worked well with the blinkers,” Brown said. “He wasn’t too aggressive but he seemed a little more focused through the lane. He got away from his workmate in the gallop out, willingly, which we wanted to see. I was really pleased.”
Practical Joke, who has never raced with blinkers, may find the equipment in place on Derby Day as well.
“We wanted to explore the small-cup blinker with him,” Brown explained. “I’ll think about it a little more but I’m leaning toward running him with them.”
Dual Grade 2 scorer Gunnevera posted his final major preparation for the Derby when breezing five furlongs in 1:03.60 under exercise rider Victor O’Farrel on Friday for trainer Antonio Sano.
The Dialed In chestnut went in splits of :14, :26.20, :39 and :51.80 before galloping out three-quarters in 1:18.20.
“I liked it,” Sano said of his charge’s third work since finishing third as the even-money favorite in the April 1 Florida Derby. “It is all maintenance now. He galloped out well. All is good here.”
Gunnevera is scheduled to return to the track Sunday, according to Sano, who will saddling his first Kentucky Derby starter on May 6.
Trainer Doug O’Neill described Blue Grass upsetter Irap’s Friday morning work at Keeneland to owner Paul Reddam via cellphone as it happened.
The Tiznow colt breezed a mile in 1:44.20 over the fast main track at Keeneland with Leparoux aboard following the renovation break.
“(Today’s work) was very similar (to Irap’s last work), just kind of a good leg stretch,” O’Neill said. “Having him finish up good and getting a good mile work with a good gallop in and good gallop out was what I was hoping for and that’s what I saw. So I’m very happy.”
Irap, who recorded splits of :28, :40.60, :52.40, 1:05.20, 1:17.20, 1:30 and 1:44.20, is scheduled to van from Keeneland to Churchill Downs at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
“He’s always been a physically imposing individual,” O’Neill continued. “He was always a little bit mentally immature. I think his (31-1 maiden-breaking) win in the Blue Grass has moved him way forward on confidence. It sure has made all of us around the barn treat him with a lot more confidence. He’s doing super.
“The plan is for him to eat up everything and look great in the morning, then get on a van around 11 a.m.”
Kentucky Derby rider Mario Gutierrez was scheduled to be in the irons for Irap’s Friday move, but Leparoux took over after Gutierrez remained in California for his riding commitments at Santa Anita Park.
“He was going to have to take off a lot of horses,” O’Neill explained. “That was just Paul (Reddam) and (his wife) Zillah being super classy and saying, ‘As much as we want you to fly out here and work the horse, we don’t want you to ruin any relationships with other barns.’”
In other Kentucky Derby news:
A number of Kentucky Derby contenders galloped at Churchill Downs on Friday, including Grade 2 winner McCraken, who went 1 1/2 miles under exercise rider Yoni Orantes after the renovation break.
“Not really. I am only concerned with one horse,” trainer Ian Wilkes said when asked if he’s been scouting out the competition during the mornings. “I will watch them, but they are all good horses and they will work well.”
Grade 3 victor J Boys Echo also galloped 1 1/2 miles Friday with regular exercise rider Tammy Fox in the saddle for trainer Dale Romans. The Mineshaft colt may breeze Saturday at 8:30 a.m.
Trainer Steve Asmussen’s quarter of Derby hopefuls turned in gallops at Churchill on Friday morning.
Sunland Derby (G3) romper Hence and multiple Grade 2-placed Untrapped, went out during the Derby exclusive training period at 8:30 a.m. with Angel Garcia and exercise rider Juan Vargas aboard, respectively.
Multiple Grade 1-placed stakes winner Lookin at Lee galloped at 7:15 a.m. while dual Grade 2-placed Local Hero followed with his gallop 15 minutes later. Both horses were ridden by Garcia.
Lookin at Lee is first up to make the Derby field with a defection while Local Hero is currently No. 24 on the preference list.
Spiral Stakes (G3) scorer Fast and Accurate galloped 1 1/8 miles at Trackside Louisville Friday morning at 6 a.m. for trainer Mike Maker. The gray son of Hansen is scheduled to van to Churchill Downs on Sunday and breeze at 8:30 regular exercise rider Joel Cano aboard.