HOW HE GOT HERE
Sun Thunder is without a layoff since making his third-place debut at Churchill Downs on Thanksgiving Weekend.
He broke his maiden over a “good” Oaklawn Park surface in his second start. This was an impressive win (albeit his only one) and gave the connections confidence to enter the Southwest Stakes four weeks later.
Sun Thunder has form lines that intersect multiple racing circuits and has finished behind a few of the more heralded Kentucky Derby Contenders. After earning points for his second-place finish in the Risen Star Stakes, he stayed at Fair Grounds to contest the Grade 2 Lousiana Derby. A well-beaten fifth in that race didn’t give the connections an assured spot in the Kentucky Derby.
Leaving nothing to chance, Kenny McPeek wheeled Sun Thunder back in two weeks in the Blue Grass Stakes. His fourth place finish in the Grade 1 Blue Grass assured his spot in the Kentucky Derby. However, he still has just one victory and will enter the Kentucky Derby as one of the longest shots in the field.
HOW HE FITS HERE
Sun Thunder is slow on all speed figures. There’s no denying that. Obviously, that’s not ideal coming in to the Kentucky Derby.
But I don’t think his last few races are indicative of his overall ability. I think the Risen Star was a key form line in the 2023 Kentucky Derby. Angel of Empire and Two Phil’s exited that race and went on to decisive victories in the Arkansas Derby and Jeff Ruby Steaks, respectively. Sun Thunder split the pair that day, clearly showing he can hang with the best of this crop.
Sun Thunder’s form is a bit “dirtied up” since. Much has been made about the pace of the Louisiana Derby. As a one-run closer, Sun Thunder had no shot given the -26 Pace Figure (ThoroPACE) that is very speed-favoring.
In need of points, he ran back in the Blue Grass Stakes a few weeks later. It was another slow-paced race (-14 on ThoroPACE). While Tapit Trice overcame the pace, Sun Thunder did not. I view that as an endorsement of Tapit Trice instead of a true indictment of Sun Thunder. Also, Kenny McPeek is a trainer that likes to win but still uses prep races as a means to an end.
So, from a pace perspective, Sun Thunder is certainly not without excuses in his last two. Has he moved forward since his nice effort in the Risen Star? Hard to say. But I’m willing to forgive his last two efforts.
The final thing of note is that Sun Thunder enters the Kentucky Derby with three races at 9F (or longer). This is worth acknowledging at the very least.
HOW IT FIGURES TO GO HERE
The 2022 Kentucky Derby featured a super sonic pace that benefited a runner with a similar profile as Sun Thunder. There’s nothing to indicate this rendition will be anything close to that from an early pace perspective.
Still, there will be 20 horses in the gate, and the Kentucky Derby will unquestionably be the fastest pace Sun Thunder has been a part of in 2023.
The addition of blinkers is a question mark for me. But I’ll trust the connections on that one.
Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. knows he way around the Churchill Downs oval, and I’m confident that he will give Sun Thunder the best chance to run his race.
Sun Thunder figures to be 40-1+ in the 2023 Kentucky Derby. But he’s not without a shot. The ITM Team is trying to provide an objective overview of all contenders, but since we are all horseplayers, these are certainly influenced by our opinions. And I’ve made several public declarations that I like Sun Thunder.
The work from April 26th was overshadowed by the Japanese contingent – which only helps the price. To my amateur eye, it appears he’s moving well over the surface, and I saw nothing to discourage my opinion.
At this point, I don’t see a likely scenario in which he wins the race. But he’s very live underneath. Just how live he is will depend on the pace and trip.