At long odds, California hopefuls have real shots in Kentucky Derby

By Debbie Arrington
Don’t forget California in Saturday’s 143rd Kentucky Derby.

Representing the Golden State, Gormley, Irap and Battle of Midway will be long odds in one of the most wide open Derby fields in decades.

“California is being overlooked,” said trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who will saddle 30-1 long shot Battle of Midway.

That dismissal bucks recent Derby history; four of the last five winners trained in California.

Fresh off major victories in April, Gormley and Irap both boast Derby-winning connections, but their morning line odds are 15-1 and 20-1, respectively.

Gormley, winner of the $1 million Santa Anita Derby, is trained by John Shirreffs and owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, who won the 2005 Derby with 50-1 shocker Giacomo.

Aboard Gormley, regular rider Victor Espinoza will try to capture his third Derby in four years and fourth overall; the newly elected Hall of Famer won with War Emblem (2002), California Chrome (2014) and American Pharoah (2015).

“With a little luck, we can win this race,” Espinoza told reporters after arriving at Churchill Downs. “I don’t see any outstanding horse going to the Derby this year. I believe what I see, that everyone is pretty much even. I think any horse with a good trip can have a chance to win.”

Irap, who won his first race in the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes, reunites the winning Derby combo of trainer Doug O’Neill, owner Paul Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez. They won with I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist just last year. They could have another surprise with Irap.

“He’s training like a beast,” O’Neill said this week. “We’re looking forward to Saturday.”

In racing’s Hall of Fame, Hollendorfer has saddled more than 7,000 winners, but the 70-year-old trainer is 0-for-4 in the Derby.

Battle of Midway, a son of Smart Strike, cost $410,000 as a yearling. Former owner Rick Porter sold the colt two weeks ago for an undisclosed sum as a stallion prospect to WinStar Farm and Don Alberto Stable.

“He came to me well thought of; they gave some money for him,” said Hollendorfer, the colt’s trainer before and after the transaction. “He was pretty heavy. It took him a while to get fit. But now, he looks great. He’s doing really well.”

Battle of Midway earned his Derby berth when he finished a close second to Gormley in the Santa Anita Derby.

“The Santa Anita Derby is a fairly good indicator of horses that compete well in the Derby,” noted Hollendorfer.

Winner of two of four starts, Battle of Midway may be blossoming at the right time.

“Actually, he’s very composed,” Hollendorfer said. “We’ve taken him over to the paddock and the crowd; he doesn’t pay much attention to anything. He stays focused.”

According to the weather forecast, rain looks likely in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday. An off track could help the chances of both Battle of Midway and Gormley; they’ve won on wet tracks.

French jockey Flavien Prat, a Santa Anita sensation this winter, will make his Derby debut aboard Battle of Midway.

“I think he’s one of the best riders around, maybe the best rider at Santa Anita right now,” Hollendorfer said.

Prat, 24, grew up on turf racing in Europe and didn’t pay much attention to the Derby.

“But since I’ve been riding here, I realize the importance of the Derby and the magnitude it has,” Prat said. “It’s really a big day. (After watching the race at Churchill Downs last year) with all the tumult and excitement it generated, I realized that one day I had to ride in it. I’m grateful the opportunity came this year.”