Every year we face the same challenges when it comes to handicapping the Kentucky Derby. In this case, we need to know how to deal with a massively talented and most impressive colt coming off a very much sub-optimal performance. Were we too optimistic about his real chances heading into the last race, or was that just a bad day that doesn't reflect what he really is?
Heading into the Florida Derby you could have easily made the argument that Gunnevera was the top three year old in the country at that moment. That's a bit of a hollow distinction in this class because horses have been going to great lengths to exhibit their faults, but it's still impressive. He was a strong and legitimate favorite in that deep field, but he only crossed the line third. And he didn't have really great excuses, either.
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So, do we just ignore that? Is he still a top-level runner? Or is he just yet another colt that peaked too early and won't have what it takes when it matters on the first Saturday in May? We'll try to figure that out, but I already know one thing - I long for years like 2015 when, thanks to the dynamic duo of American Pharoah and Dortmund, I didn't have to worry about how good the rest of the horses in the field were because I knew they weren't good enough. Handicapping that Derby and this one have basically nothing in common.
Last race: The Florida Derby had a 10-horse field, but it was very top heavy - four horses went off at more than 100/1 and another was at 48/1. Bettors were having a good day, too - those five horses were the last five to the wire. Gunnevera came in as the most accomplished of the other five. He's a deep closer, and things set up for him fairly well here. He was well back early, and the leaders were setting reasonably swift fractions. When it came time to move, though, Gunnevera didn't quite fire. He had room to move, and he gained a lot of ground to claim third, but he didn't have the spark that he has had in past races. And that's a concern going forward.
The Derby is setting up to have quite a bit of early speed potentially, so closers could be in decent shape. We just have to figure out if this colt is a high-quality closer who just had a bad day or a situational one that needs a perfect day.
Prior experience: In a year when so many horses are too lightly raced this horse certainly doesn't have that problem. The Florida Derby was his ninth career start. He broke his maiden in July in his third try - all at Gulfstream Park. Since that time he has raced only in graded stakes. He has three wins in those six stakes, and the wins have come on three different tracks. The wins also have never come two in a row - every win has been followed by a lesser performance. By that pattern he is due for a win next time out. If you buy into such things then your Derby handicapping just wrapped up. On the other hand, he has run in two grade 1 races - which the Derby obviously is - and they have been his worst showings of his graded career. He was fifth in the Breeders' Futurity and then third in the Florida Derby. He needs to prove he can be at his best against the best horses, and so far that hasn't happened.
Trainer: Antonio Sano and his horse have something in common - neither has won a grade 1 race. In fact, Gunnevera has earned him three of his six career graded stakes wins. Sano doesn't have a lot of North American success yet, but he has one heck of a back story. He was, and still is, the winningest trainer in Venezuelan training history. He and his wife left their home and came to Florida after Sano was kidnapped for the second time. He was held for 36 days before his wife paid the ransom. After going through something like that, nothing is going to faze you on race day.
Jockey: Javier Castellano has ridden this horse up to this point. He rides regularly for Todd Pletcher, though, and has been riding his unbeaten colt Malagacy this year. There is a chance that Castellano will have a choice to make, but it still seems like there is a good shot that this horse will be the pick. Even if Castellano goes elsewhere, though, Sano will have no problem getting a top rider in the saddle. Castellano has not won himself a Derby, which seems incredible since he has led the nation in earnings each of the last four years and currently sits third this year. He's going to win a Derby at some point.
Breeding: Gunnevera is a son of Dialed In, who won the Florida Derby in 2011 but flopped in the Kentucky Derby. He's a young sire, but he has strong stamina breeding to pass on. Gunnevera's damsire is the great Unbridled, who won the Derby in 1990 and has been a Derby factory at stud. He sired Derby winner Grindstone, he's the grandsire of Derby winner Mine That Bird, and he is the great-grandsire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. He's also the grandsire of Arrogate, who may be the best horse of his generation. Needless to say, having Unbridled blood in your veins is a good thing.
Odds: BetOnline is listed as the fourth choice to win the Derby at +800. On the final Kentucky Derby future wager held by Churchill Downs he was the third choice at 9/1. Barring a real shocking development he will be one of the favorites at the Derby.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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