McCrabb: It’s time for a longshot to win Kentucky Derby

ajc.com

Picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby may be the hardest sports event to handicap.

Again this year, there are 20 3-year-olds expected to enter the starting gate Saturday at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Derby. Of those horses, I see seven as potential winners of the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Here are my top four picks with a longshot and a selection based entirely on name:

Fourth: Iron War. Throw out Iron War's shocking seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes March 4 at Gulfstream Park and he probably would be the Derby favorite. He won his first three races and is bred to cover the grueling 1 1/4-mile distance.

Jockey Rajiv Maragh is coming back from an injury that has him sidelined for almost a year and trainer Graham Motion won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011.

Odds are 6-1.

Third: Classic Empire. The morning line favorite, 4-1 Classic Empire will be trying to be the fifth consecutive favorite to win the Derby. That hasn't been accomplished since 1891-95.

Classic Empire comes to the Derby after winning the Arkansas Derby. He also hopes to join Nyquist (2016) and Street Sense (2007) as the only horses to complete the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-Kentucky Derby double since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984.

As a 2-year-old, Classic Empire won twice over the Churchill dirt and will be the richest Derby starter ever with more than $2 million in earnings.

He finished a disappointing third behind Irish War Cry and Gunnevera in the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4, but a foot abscess was the main culprit.

Look for him to have the lead late, then fade.

Second: Always Dreaming. Will be trying to do something few Derby starters have accomplished: Win with no victories as a 2-year-old. Only two of the last 48 Derby winners — Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) and Monarchos (2001) — did not win as 2-year-olds.

His jockey and trainer may prove to be the difference. Jockey John Velazquez won the 2011 Derby aboard Animal Kingdom and trainer Todd Pletcher won the 2010.

After being winless in two starts last summer, Always Dreaming has won three straight, including the Florida Derby last month.

First: Gunnevera. I like longshot Gunnevera, 15-1, and the story behind the horse.

His trainer, Antonio Sano, was kidnapped and held for ransom twice in his home country of Venezuela. He managed to escape safely both times. The horse was orphaned as a foal and was bottle fed.

Gunnevera was purchased for $16,000 at auction, and has earned more than $1.1 million. He won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

He’s named after a small town in Spain and another Spaniard, Sergio Garcia, won this year’s Masters.

Gunnevera will be well off the pace before unleashing a strong finish to catch tired horses at the wire.

Longshot: Lookin At Lee. I liked this horse more before the unlucky post position draw.

He’s coming out of the No. 1 spot, and the last time a horse won from the rail was Ferdinand in 1986. Before that it was Chateaugay in 1963.

Lookin At Lee, 20-1, with jockey Corie Lanerie looking for his first Derby winner, was far behind in the early stages of three marquee races, but rallied strongly in each. If he can avoid early trouble, he’ll be flying at the end. Lanerie has won 11 riding titles at Churchill Downs and he’s trained by the always dangerous Steve Asmussen.

Name game: Patch. Since the horse only has one eye due to a mysterious infection, it would be easy to assume that's where he got his name. But he was named Patch before the loss of his eye.

In 2004, another one-eyed horse, Pollard’s Vision, finished 17th in the Derby.

He’s owned and bred by Calumet Farm and trained by Todd A. Pletcher.

He’s 20-1 and is the son of Union Rags, the source of his name.