Racing

Classic Empire is the nominal favourite

It's a wide open Kentucky Derby

CLASSIC EMPIRE is the nominal favourite in what's shaping up to be a wide-open 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, first jewel in American flat racing's coveted Triple Crown.

"It's as wide open as we've seen in a long time. You're going to have some big odds on whoever the favourite is," said Dale Romans, who trains Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo.

"It could be any horse this race. I don't think this really means it's a bad group of horses, I think it's an even group of horses."

While their results to date may offer little to separate the 20-strong field, plenty of the contenders and their connections have been tested just in reaching the Run for the Roses tomorrow morning (Singapore time).

US RACING'S ELITE

Trainer Antonio Sano finds himself among US racing's elite after surviving a kidnapping for ransom in his native Venezuela. He saddles GUNNEVERA - a colt orphaned just 10 days after he was foaled.

"This is the first time in my life that I'll have a horse in the Kentucky Derby," Sano said.

"It's very emotional. It's everyone's goal ... This horse has a lot of heart."

The same is true of PATCH, trained by Todd Pletcher. The colt lost his left eye to an ulcer as a two-year-old. He drew the 20th post, and will thus have the field on his blind side.

The Keith Desormeaux-trained SONNETEER, winless in 10 career starts, will try to become the first Derby maiden winner since Brokers Tip in 1933.

And the Godolphin Stable of Shiekh Mohammed takes another tilt at the Kentucky Derby - where they are 0-for-10 - with UAE Derby-winner THUNDER SNOW.

The Irish horse was also nominated for the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, but trainer Saeed Suroor said his connections believe he could finally put Godolphin into the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.

"He's a class horse," Suroor said.

If rain forecast for Derby Day materialises, that could be a boost for Classic Empire (4-1), the only one of the top contenders to have won on a wet track.

Classic Empire, trained by Mark Casse, has endured his ups and downs since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year. After a third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes, he missed five weeks of training with a hoof abscess and a sore back.

Classic Empire bounced back with a gritty victory in the Arkansas Derby last month, but there's no reason to think he won't be challenged by ALWAYS DREAMING or McCRAKEN - both priced at 5-1 ahead of New Jersey-bred IRISH WAR CRY, who was given early odds of 6-1.

Trainer Graham Motion insisted he was unperturbed by Irish War Cry's 17th post - no horse has won the Derby from that slot.

"Someone's going to win from the 17 hole one day," Motion said. "I think it suits the horse, actually. It doesn't bother me at all."

Always Dreaming, also trained by Pletcher, drew the No. 5 post, which should suit an inexperienced runner who was impressive in winning the Florida Derby on April 1.

McCraken is unbeaten in three races at Churchill Downs but is coming off a disappointing run at the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

"When you look at it just on numbers, it's very even," said trainer Doug O'Neill, who won last year's Derby with Nyquist and sends out 20-1 choice IRAP.

"There are a lot of really nice three-year-olds that just look like they're getting better and better - but no freakish two-year-olds that have continued on."

-AFP