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Derby 2017: 5 horses to watch in 143rd Kentucky Derby

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The Kentucky Derby is up for grabs.

The starting gate will once again be full with 20 horses vying to wear the garland of red roses.

Most of the 3-year-olds will be running 1 1/4 miles for the first time on Saturday. Besides the distance, the traffic-choked conditions typically eliminate half the field in the opening quarter-mile.

Here are five horses to watch:

ALWAYS DREAMING

Appears to be coming into his own after impressive five-length win in Florida Derby. Always Dreaming has the potential to be the first Derby favorite for trainer Todd Pletcher, who will have two other starters in the race. The dark bay colt prefers to run at the lead or close to it. His sire Bodemeister finished second in the 2012 Derby. He has three wins in five career starts and earnings of $648,900. Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez have one Derby win apiece. The main knock against the colt is that his two wins as a 3-year-old have come against lesser competition.

CLASSIC EMPIRE

The colt won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on his way to earning 2-year-old male champion honors. Then again, only three other colts have won year-end honors since 2000 and gone on to win the Derby the following season. Classic Empire has the highest earnings of $2.1 million among the horses expected to make the field, with five wins in seven career starts. He’s coming off a win in the Arkansas Derby. Trainer Mark Casse has never won the Derby and neither has jockey Julien Leparoux. His sire Pioneerof the Nile was second in the 2009 Derby and he also sired 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.

GIRVIN

The colt topped the Derby leaderboard with 152 points earned in prep races. But the Louisiana Derby winner has a crack in his right front hoof that has compromised his training in the last week. Trainer Joe Sharp has used a special shoe, a hyperbaric chamber and therapeutic waters to get Girvin in shape to run on Saturday. Sharp is married to retired jockey Rosie Napravnik, who exercises the colt and is her husband’s assistant. Girvin has won three of four starts, with his only loss on turf. His jockey is Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who has a reputation for winning big-money races. Smith has never ridden Girvin, but he picked up the mount after Mastery, his top Derby contender, got hurt.

GUNNEVERA

The chestnut colt is a closer ready to pounce if he gets set up by a strong early pace. His earnings of $1.1 million are second-most on the Derby leaderboard. This is the first Derby starter for trainer Antonio Sano, who survived two kidnappings in his native Venezuela before moving to Miami. Jockey Javier Castellano, also from Venezuela, was just elected to racing’s Hall of Fame and in search of his first Derby win. His best finish was fourth in 2013. The colt has four wins in nine career starts and finished third in the Florida Derby. His sire, Dialed In, won the 2011 Florida Derby and finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby.

IRISH WAR CRY

Had solid victories in Holy Bull and Wood Memorial, making it seem like the Fountain of Youth was an off day for him. The colt is a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, who finished third in the 2007 Derby. Has four wins in five career starts. The chestnut colt likes to press the pace. No New Jersey-bred horse has won the Derby since Cavalcade in 1934, and none has run in the race since Dance Floor took third in 1992. Owner Isabelle de Tomaso, who is in her 80s, is the daughter of Amory Haskell, for whom the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park is named. Tomaso was a race car driver in the 1950s. Trainer Graham Motion won the Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011; jockey Rajiv Maragh has never won it.

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.