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Early signs Derby fever is developing

By Staff | Apr 4, 2017

Apple and cherry trees were fooled by the warmer-than-usual winter. Signs of buds and hints of green appeared on the tree branches. And then we got the season’s only appreciable snow and along came the chilly winds and colder temperatures.

People poked through the pages of their calendars . . . and they saw that the first Saturday in May was just over the next thoroughbred racing hill.

The Kentucky Derby is only six weeks away.

Is there another American Pharoah in this year’s three-year-old crop? Will there be an undefeated head-turner like Nyquist coming to this year’s Kentucky Derby?

It’s not likely.

Injuries and inconsistency have dogged the paths and schedules of this year’s early leaders.

Just when it seemed Mastery had climbed to the leadership of the large group of contenders, he is an impressive winner in California . . . but seconds after crossing the finish line breaks a bone and is no longer on the Derby Trail.

Another of the much publicized leaders is Classic Empire.

He was entered in the Holy Bull in Florida. His demeanor in the pre-race post parade showed him fidgety and peevish.

It turned out in the post-race examinations – after he had finished third – that he had an abscess on one of his hooves.

Weeks remained before the running of the Derby; possibly time enough to get him healthy and then coming back in the April 8 Blue Grass Stakes.

Those unfortunate happenings gave Gunnevera his opening to move ahead in the point standings that give us the 20-horse field the Derby usually sends forth in its cavalry-charge beginning. Gunnevera had won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida.

His story will appeal to the people searching for a rags-to-riches story that’s hard to find among the millionaire owners, breeders and trainers.

Gunnevera was bought at a Keeneland auction for a horse-racing pittance.

His purchase price was only $16,000.

His winning success in the Fountain Of Youth and his other points from earlier races moved him ahead in the point standings with 64, enough to guarantee him a spot in the Derby.

A quick glance at Gunnevera’s lineage shows Mineshaft as his sire and A.P. Indy as his grandsire. Those are two of racing’s more prolific sires of Grade I winners.

If Gunnevera isn’t enough of an underdog choice for your racing wishes then look toward McCracken.

He’s undefeated at 4-for-4 in his lifetime.

But he’s not without trouble in his background.

A minor ankle strain took him out of training for a time, but hasn’t caused his handlers to leave the Kentucky Derby trail, either.

Here’s McCracken’s tug at winning the allegiance of people’s feelings: His owner is Janice Whitman, a quiet lady gently past her 80th birthday.

Janice Whitman has never had a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred in her over 40 years of ownership.

Sentimental feelings will follow McCracken to the starting gate when he goes postward in the Blue Grass Stakes the second Saturday in April.

If this was our only snow of the winter of 2016-17, then the warming whispers from the South should bring keener thoughts of this year’s Kentucky Derby to mind.

Injuries have already caused a realignment of possible favorites.

And because of the pitfalls of thoroughbred racing, there is no clear-cut favorite that would bring racing another bonanza of publicity like California Chrome, American Pharoah and Nyquist did.