2017 Kentucky Derby Point/Counterpoint and Saturday Stakes Selections

The greatest two minutes in sports.  The fastest two minutes in sports.  The two minutes every year when you can talk to your non-racing friends about your favourite sport, and they’ll actually listen.

Whatever you like to call it, this Saturday is the Kentucky Derby.  After an inconsistent, up-and-down prep season, twenty horses have cemented their places in the starting gate.  Some, like CLASSIC EMPIRE and PRACTICAL JOKE, are leading two-year-olds who remained good enough to make it to Kentucky.  Others, like FAST AND ACCURATE and IRAP, surprised a few people.  Still others, like Mastery and Not This Time, showed flashes of brilliance but could not make it all the way to the First Saturday in May.

Here, both halves of Picks and Ponderings discuss each horse in the field –PM stands for Paul Mazur; NN stands for Nicolle Neulist.  We have our say on all twenty horses, and give our top three selections and our longshot.  At the bottom, there is also a grid of Nicolle Neulist’s stakes selections for all of Saturday’s stakes action at Churchill Downs.

For Friday, Kentucky Oaks Day, make sure to read our preview of the Kentucky Oaks, and NN’s selections for each stakes race that day, as well.

For television coverage of Kentucky Derby day, tune to NBC Sports Network from 12:00pm-2:00pm EDT, and to flagship NBC from 2:00pm-7:20pm EDT.  Horse Racing Radio will also do an audio broadcast of the Kentucky Derby and the undercard action, from 2:00pm-7:30pm EDT.  That will run on Sirius/XM 93, and streaming on their website.

Race 12: Kentucky Derby (G1), three-year-olds, one and one quarter miles on the dirt, post time 6:46pm EDT

#1 LOOKIN AT LEE (20/1)

NN: Lookin At Lee is that horse who usually clunks up for a piece in these Derby preps, and he does get solid Churchill rider Corey Lanerie.  The rail isn’t a great draw, though it hurts him a bit less than it would hurt a horse who doesn’t drop out the way he does.  Yet, he’s not quite the best closer in the field.  Overall, I feel *meh* about LOOKIN AT LEE, and I won’t be lookin at his number on any of my tickets except if I wanted to spend the cash to play a superfecta with a very deep fourth rung.

PM: Our good friend Chris Hernandez summed it best: the Derby is the only race where you don’t want the one hole, and he got it. He’s a chic click-to-pick based on his closing style, but his father wasn’t a great ten furlong horse. But, his running style actually is fine for it: take back and let the chaos happen on the front. I don’t think the dreaded one hole does him in, I think the fact his pedigree is icky for ten panels does him in. I’ll take a stand against.

#2 THUNDER SNOW (20/1)

PM:  To quote David Spade from a Saturday Night Live Sketch of yore, “Thanks for coming…buh bye.” Dubai to Derby, like United Airlines seating and overbooking policies, does not work. I wish he got dragged off a United flight as opposed to that other guy. Toss.

NN: I always want to like the UAE Derby horse — after all, the UAE Derby is the longest prep of them all, and I’d like to think that sheds some light on the runners’ stamina.  Yet the Dubai horses don’t tend to do well in the Kentucky Derby.  And, THUNDER SNOW didn’t ship here until the last possible minute.  As good as he may look in the mornings, it’s hard to like a horse who shipped intercontinentally and had so little time to get settled outside of quarantine.  Plus, he’s buried down inside.  Even though he’s not a speed horse, he sets up closer to the pace than Lookin At Lee does, and the inner post hurts him even more.  He was an “almost certainly toss” before the post draw, and a big toss after it.


NN: You might think the award for the most frivolous $200,000 expenditure of the year would go to anyone who joined Mar-a-Lago just to pepper their Instagram with pictures of the President…but only if you don’t follow horse racing.  If you do, you know that honour goes to Dr. Kendall Hansen, for paying the nomination fee for Spiral winner FAST AND ACCURATE.  Yes, he got enough points to go to the Derby.  But, he is a slow horse on every surface so far, and his one dirt start was dreadful.  He’ll be part of the pace early, and part of the caboose crew late.

PM: Owner Kendall Hansen said he’s putting this horse on the lead. I like him as an owner that brings zest to a drab game, but putting a headstrong gray Tapit on the lead in front of a large crowd is not a smart move. YOLO does not work on the First Saturday in May. NO NO.

#4 UNTRAPPED (30/1)

PM: Each of his three year old starts have seen his BRIS speed figures top out in the 90s. That’s fine, but while he’s cashed checks all winter in New Orleans and Hot Springs, he’s winless at three and his male side of the pedigree screams for shorter. Keep him on your radar for the “B” Derbies, but this assignment is too much.

NN: I liked UNTRAPPED quite a bit early in the Derby prep season, but kept getting disappointed as spring progressed.  He impressed in his maiden victory, and did just fine in his pair of preps in Louisiana.  Even the Rebel left me with enough hope to pick this horse in the Arkansas Derby.  But, he sputtered.  Perhaps he moved too early there, so the rider change is a positive.  But, all in all, he has run like a horse who does not want to go ten panels against the best.  Keep him for a shorter distance.  Keep him for a class break.  Toss him in the Derby.


NN: ALWAYS DREAMING’s Florida Derby was as impressive a prep as any horse has run this year, at least among horses who stayed healthy through Derby week.  (Which is, to say, among horses not named Mastery.)  He has won all three of his races this year by open lengths, and a repeat of his Florida Derby would make him tough here.  But, is a short price really worth taking to bet he can repeat it?  Trainer Todd Pletcher does not usually get the job done on Derby Day, and ALWAYS DREAMING has been feisty enough this week to make one wonder whether he already ran his race in the mornings.  If he presented any value, I’d give him a long look.  He won’t, and I’m not.

PM: ALWAYS DREAMING has the style and ALWAYS DREAMING has the race that if he does it again, wins Derbies. The problem is he attended the Lani Charm School and in the mornings he appears to be unraveling. This is the one that anguishes me: I could see him geting a cozy inside-outside trip if he’s on his best behavior. But if he’s getting frazzled in the mornings how is he going to keep his cool in front of a hundred thousand people? I’m getting off this bandwagon.  If he had better AM behavior he’d be a cinch, but…

NN: I wouldn’t call him a cinch with better behaviour in the mornings, but I’d probably have him on my tickets somewhere.  As it stands, nope.

PM:  I could see him as a defensive multi-race use; a Crist-ian B.

#6 STATE OF HONOR (30/1)

PM: This one has a pitiful pedigree for the Derby: namely because To Honor and Serve needed a tow truck to get ten furlongs and had passing skills of a tree stump. Add in that the Elusive Quality types – aside from Smarty Jones – tend to like middle distances. I am tossing this one from Our Home and Native Land.

NN: STATE OF HONOR was…the more forwardly-placed Lookin At Lee, in the sense that he was the horse who kept filling out those exactas and trifectas during the spring prep season.  But, he has tables to turn on so many of these horses: ALWAYS DREAMING, MCCRAKEN, even (*shudder*) TAPWRIT.  The draw is also not very good.  He’s right in the middle of a bunch of horses who are also expect to be forward: outside of FAST AND ACCURATE and ALWAYS DREAMING, inside of IRAP and BATTLE OF MIDWAY.  So, he’s not only a cut below the best, but may be a casualty of both the pace and a poor trip.  No thank you.

#7 GIRVIN (15/1)

NN: I wasn’t too keen on GIRVIN to begin with.  Even though GIRVIN won the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby, the Louisiana horses have not been the best in Kentucky in recent years.  But, he had an overmatched rabbit stablemate to make pace for him in the Louisiana Derby.  Furthermore, GIRVIN was having some foot issues coming into the Derby: remember all the business last week with the Z-Bar and the quarter crack?  He had more Derby points than anyone in the field, but he also has more reasons to be skeptical than almost anyone in the field.  Pass.

PM: Interesting upgrade to Mike Smith here, but his horse’s workout patterns have been a bigger mystery than figuring out who shot Mr. Burns. And like the cliffhanger’s resolution at the end, we were disappointed at who really pulled the trigger. I think he, like ALWAYS DREAMING, is falling apart at exactly the wrong time.

#8 HENCE (15/1)

PM: This just in….breaking news……A Picks and Ponderings investigation has revealed they ran a Derby prep race at Sunland Park on March 26th. More details as they emerge.

NN: I feel a certain wedding/funeral feeling with HENCE.  The Sunland Derby was the wedding.  He had no buzz going into that race, and he paid great coming out of it.  Whereas, everyone has been all over HENCE since the Sunland Derby came out so uncommonly live.  Would it surprise me if HENCE won the Kentucky Derby?  Not completely — he could get the pace, and running back to his Sunland race puts him right in for top money.  But, his price stands to take a hit from all the buzz, and deeper closers aren’t the best to back on the first Saturday in May.  He makes sense for exotics, but I’m skeptical that he deserves all the hype he’s getting.

PM: In most years the Sunland Derby winner is an insta-toss, but this year’s Sunland Derby was actually a very legitimate prep race. HENCE finished ahead of the Arkansas Derby runner up, the Illinois Derby runner up, and the Blue Grass winner. I think it speaks to the parity and incomplete status of this group that the Sunland Derby yielded a G1P, a G3P and a G1W. HENCE does have more steam than a Turkish bath in Boystown coming in, but if the back class holds and Geroux rides him like he did when he was at Churchill at age two, then he might get a piece. I agree with Nicolle in using more under than over.

#9 IRAP (20/1)

PM: There’s usually a good naming reason from J. Paul Reddam’s horses, but I just don’t see it. Is he named for the International Refugee Assistance Project or the International Research Assistance Project? Or the Illinois Recreational Assistance Program? He got to lollygag pressing a slow pace in the Blue Grass when J BOYS ECHO blew the break, and the pace won’t be so tepid this time around. IRAP to me is I Really Am Pitching.

NN: IRAP is one of the hardest reads in the Derby.  He wasn’t figuring out the whole “win” thing, until he finally did — in the Blue Grass.  He comes out for proven Derby connections: rider Mario Gutierrez, trainer Doug O’Neill, and owner Reddam Racing.  Maybe the light is on, and clearly they thought well of IRAP all along given how many stakes IRAP ran in as a maiden.  On the other hand, it is hard to tell whether the class horses he beat were at full strength.  The horse who couldn’t pass him in the Blue Grass, PRACTICAL JOKE, was probably not fully cranked for the Blue Grass — but, on the other hand, he may have some distance limitations.  Third-place MCCRAKEN wasn’t likely fully cranked for the Blue Grass, either.  Even his pedigree is a tough read: I love the Tiznow on top, but he’s a half to sprinter (and sprinter/miler sire) Speightstown.  If you like IRAP, you’re getting the price to pull the handle.  But even compared to a muddled Derby field such as this, there’s too little for me to grasp on to want to play him.

#10 GUNNEVERA (15/1)

NN: In such a muddled Derby prep season, GUNNEVERA has been a veritable bastion of consistency.  And, he lost nothing by finishing third behind ALWAYS DREAMING in the Florida Derby.  In that race, he dropped way too far back — and given how well the speed held, he ran a huge effort to run along for third.  Here he should get plenty of early speed to chase, and his late pace is among the best in the field.  His breeding to get the Derby distance is passable (for United States, 2017 definitions of passable), and he keeps regular rider Javier Castellano in the irons.  Even though Castellano was the one who dropped him too far back at Gulfstream — he has ridden GUNNEVERA enough before to know that he can stay a bit closer.  I like him a lot, and he will figure prominently in my Derby tickets.

PM: In a field of uncertainty, there is one certainty with this field: that the story of trainer Antonio Sano will be aired on NBC in a way to tug at your heart strings, to pull in you with all the qualities of a taut drama. Story aside, he comes into this race with good form but. The FOY was a good figure, but inside draws at 1 1/16 at Gulfstream are supremely advantageous and he had one. The Florida Derby was okay despite the ten hole, but he showed regression against ALWAYS DREAMING. Nothing wrong with his broodmare sire, but Dialed In-Mineshaft doesn’t get me excited to play ten furlongs. I feel meh on him and not using him.


NN: There’s one horse from the West Coast who I want any part of, and it’s this one.  With only four starts under him, he has room to improve, and yet enough experience not to seem totally overmatched against the Derby set.  I liked his Santa Anita Derby more than anyone’s: he did all the dirty work on the front, and just got passed late by GORMLEY.  Yet, he does not need the front, as he proved two back in an allowance.  With the 11 hole, barring Royal Mo unexpectedly drawing in, all the real speed is inside him.  That ought to give Flavien Prat the ability to stalk and pounce, just as BATTLE OF MIDWAY did two starts back.  Prat did not ride him in the Santa Anita Derby, but did ride him in that allowance two back.  BATTLE OF MIDWAY is not a horse you can take chalk on, since his Santa Anita Derby competition wasn’t the stiffest.  But, at the likely massive price, he has a home on my Derby tickets.

PM: Usually, on the First Sunday of May, Apollo and his ghostly curse crack open a cold beer – sometimes in the company of the 1972 Miami Dolphins – and relax and enjoy another year of holding on to a special record. But we’ve seen some special things go down: an overtime Super Bowl, a Cubs World Series win, Northwestern making the NCAA Men’s Tournament, and on and on. BATTLE OF MIDWAY does have the Apollo curse to buck, but he was part of the quick pace in the Santa Anita Derby and didn’t fold under pressure. The breeding on him mirrors that of IRISH WAR CRY – who many people like. The pace however will be unkind to him, but he could fight hard enough and long enough to make people tear tickets.

NN: I’m pleased to see your discussion isn’t a sarcastic “oh, heck no”…all week, I’ve felt like one of very few giving him even an outside shot.

PM: It’s worth noting Flavien Prat is riding lights-out at Santa Anita, too. I didn’t put him in my top three, but if you’re looking a horse to ladder at 20-1? Go for it.

#12 SONNETEER (50/1)

PM: All week I hear about LOOKIN AT LEE as the fast closing long shot in the Golden Soul – Commanding Curve mentality. I think X marks the spot with this one. As in, last names ending with X. The Desormeaux brothers get together on this one, and trainer Keith can pull some mega bombs (Ive Struck a Nerve in the 2013 Risen Star Stakes, for example). This one was second at ginormous odds two back in the Rebel, and while he’s a maiden – he doesn’t have to win to do what I want him to do. Midnight Lute progeny are fine at two turns, despite his resume as a sprinter. Not a win candidate, but worth including in the single-race gimmicks.

NN: I’ll leave out the iambic pentameter here, but as maidens in the Derby go, this one’s better than most.  He proved competitive in not just one Derby prep, but two, and posted a (relatively speaking) blistering final quarter in the Arkansas Derby.  The rider also gets a point in the plus column: Kent Desormeaux has won three Kentucky Derbies already.  Does SONNETEER break his maiden this Saturday?  No.  But, does he have a chance to roll late and spoil trifectas and superfectas?  Absolutely.

#13 J BOYS ECHO (20/1)

PM: Poor Robby Albarado. He did a nice job riding this one to a Gotham win, has a Blue Grass you can cross out, and he gets injured. Romans has said he needs pace – and there was little of it in the Blue Grass and in the Withers. The pace does get more favorable thanks to BATTLE OF MIDWAY and the YOLO mentality of Kendall Hansen. But – I like Romans when he’s not talking and he was chirpy on this horse, rider reassignment not withstanding. I know Dale Romans at a price could sting, but I’m not pulling the trigger.

NN: J BOYS ECHO is the innermost of four who had tons of buzz going into the Blue Grass, but ended up getting beaten by IRAP.  His Gotham was solid, and came back with a good enough speed, but he didn’t beat much.  On pedigree, being Mineshaft x Menifee, he has a better right to handle a mile and a quarter than most.  But, there are closers I like better.  I have a similar feeling about him going into the Kentucky Derby as I did coming into the Gotham, the Withers, and the Delta Jackpot: meh.


NN: At two, CLASSIC EMPIRE was the most brilliant of the crop.  At three, his campaign has been fraught.  Yet, Team Casse got him ready to win the Arkansas Derby.  I was so ready to toss him in the Kentucky Derby as he was coming into the Arkansas Derby.  And yet?  He looked like the genuine article, the real CLASSIC EMPIRE.  He has room to improve further from there.  He has wet track form, Churchill Downs form, and tactical versatility.  He will be the betting favourite in the race — and yet, he is the very definition of a defensive use.

PM: If CLASSIC EMPIRE wins he likely gives one of Ed DeRosa’s children a free ride to college given the squillions of future tickets he’ll cash. True, he was the winner of the Arkansas Derby at 19-10 favoritism. True, his sire line is the same one as Triple Crown hero American Pharoah. But that female family does not entice me going ten nor does his stop-start campaign. I agree with Nicolle in using him defensively.

#15 MCCRAKEN (5/1)

PM: So often people talk about value and beating favorites. Sometimes there is money to be made in playing a horse that is a lower price because it is the goods. MCCRAKEN’s Davis Stakes looked as good as any race, and maybe he sandbagged the Blue Grass. There are a fair amount of Street Sense parallels: loved Churchill, good Tampa race, bad Blue Grass. He has top and bottom breeding too for ten panels. He will take money because of trainer good will – I think he’d be 10/1 if he were trained by, for example, Jorge Navarro. But at 5/1 or 6/1 he’ll be a second choice that is worth using. I might be a chalk-eating weasel, but the Derby is one rare time where you can chomp chalk and still get a square mutuel.

NN: To me, MCCRAKEN has a few things in common with CLASSIC EMPIRE.  He has the local form over Churchill.  He has a stop-and-start aspect to his campaign.  But, unlike CLASSIC EMPIRE, he had a flat race going into the Kentucky Derby, not a prep win.  What to make of that?  It’s hard to say, though he has a right to be sharper here.  MCCRAKEN has solid enough breeding to get the distance, being by Ghostzapper out of a Seeking the Gold mare.  That also gives him solid enough mud breeding, though he himself has not tried an off track.  If I had to pick just one defensive use it would be CLASSIC EMPIRE, between his mud experience and the brilliance he has shown.  But, should MCCRAKEN amble north from the (more expected) 5/1 range up toward more like 9/1 or 10/1?  Value might be lurking in a small town in Kansas.

#16 TAPWRIT (20/1)

NN: I said on Twitter that if TAPWRIT won the Kentucky Derby, I’d grow my hair shoulder-length for the first time in twenty years.  I meant it.  I have not liked this horse through the Derby prep race, and I still don’t like him.  His Pulpit Stakes win came in the slop, but came against washed-off turfers.  His Sam F. Davis was dressed up — late running, but no match for MCCRAKEN.  He beat nobody in the Tampa Bay Derby.  And, he was flat in the Blue Grass.  Throw in the fact that he comes from a Pletcher barn that doesn’t typically do well in the Derby, and I want no part of TAPWRIT in the Kentucky Derby.  He is my click-to-pick for the Caboose Crew.

PM: TAPWRIT’s Tampa Bay Derby looked really good compared to the clock, but he went backward with a thud in the Blue Grass in a race that likely bears out as an aberration for the contenders. Plus MCCRAKEN took a pass on the Tampa Bay Derby, too. I worry about his post: he drew between speeds so he could get sandwiched at the start or forced wide. I give him the benefit of the doubt to finish in the middle third of the field at day’s end.

#17 IRISH WAR CRY (6/1)

PM: Liking BATTLE OF MIDWAY based on breeding means that you have to like IRISH WAR CRY based on breeding. He does though have to face the fact that the Wood Memorial has been a wasteland of prep races. I’m willing to draw a line through his Fountain of Youth – outside paths going 1 1/16 at Gulfstream stink. He won’t get the pace he had when he won the Holy Bull, though. I think he’s in the mix but he’s not the slam dunk some others want to make him.

NN: I tried so hard to talk myself off of this horse — for fear of just picking him because he’s a Curlin baby — and yet I could not get him out of my mind.  Yes, the elephant in the room is the Fountain of Youth.  But, every other race of his has been so good, and every Derby entrant has at least one big question hanging over their heads.  Sure, the 17 gate has not yet produced a Derby winner…but every other one has, leading me to believe it’s not the best draw, but not a kiss of death either.  As for IRISH WAR CRY, he proved in the Wood that he could rate against good horses — so the 17 gate should allow Rajiv Maragh to keep him off the pace and out of the way.  He proved in the Marylander that he could win a street fight, a positive when he is entering a field of twenty horses.  Curlin has proven to be a classic sire of our time, and between his influence and the Polish Numbers below, he has every right to relish a rainy day.  There’s a lot to like about IRISH WAR CRY, and though I agree with PM that he’s no slam dunk, I like him better in the balance than any of the other 19 horses loading into the gate come Saturday.

PM: I think he’s like Gun Runner last year: you can’t single him on top, but he makes sense and aside from the FOY has a solid resume.

NN: Funny that you compare my Derby pick this year to my Derby pick last year — but, as Gun Runner has been my least disastrous Derby pick to date, I’ll take that as a compliment.

PM: My least disastrous was Revolutionary (egads!)

NN: Revolutionary kicked my pick from that year, Overanalyze’s, butt six ways from Sunday.

#18 GORMLEY (15/1)

NN: I loved GORMLEY after his Sham.  Even though I was afraid to like him, since the Sham has typically not graded out so well, I loved how gritty he was to win that race.  But then?  His San Felipe was awful.  His Santa Anita Derby was okay — he won, but picked up the pieces after BATTLE OF MIDWAY did all the actual work.  He is a decent enough horse from a subpar West Coast circuit, and has a bit of a good race/bad race pattern that looks to be setting up for a bad race.  I’ll pass, thanks.

PM: I guess Jerry Moss wanted to move away from naming his horses after acts associated with his former record label. In any case, everyone wants to throw dirt on the Santa Anita Derby given he closed like a Carpenters ballad (how’s THAT for an A&M reference!) compared to the clock. For the kids that don’t know….that’s slow.  He does have a win in the slop three back in the Sham, so I think he’ll draw attention if Churchill turns wet. But there are better horses making closing rallies that I endorse.


PM: All aboard the click to pick……to finish last. His pedigree is probably the worst in the field for ten furlongs and he’s stuck out in post nineteen. He has zero wins at three, and his most recent win was in the Champagne last fall. Plus he’s stagnated on figures. He’s my caboose crew, but I won’t be laughing if he shows up in the Easy Goer or the Woody Stephens next month. Here, ROFLMAO at his win chances.

NN: PRACTICAL JOKE is as classy a horse as there is in this field — one of just three multiple G1 winners, with the others being CLASSIC EMPIRE and GORMLEY.  And, with all the Derby points he has been picking up bit by bit, his Derby trail is consistent with the idea that Chad Brown is setting him up to fire his best here.  But…I still can’t forgive him for his inability to pass IRAP in the Blue Grass, particularly with IRAP on the wrong lead.  Into Mischief on top screams miler to me, and PRACTICAL JOKE should flourish at a furlong shorter than the Blue Grass, not a furlong longer.  This one would be practical in the Pat Day Mile.  At ten panels, he’s a joke.

#20 PATCH (30/1)

NN: I liked PATCH in the Louisiana Derby, and even though he finished second to GIRVIN, PATCH is the one I want going forward from that race.  He ran a strong second there given his inexperience, and his pedigree suggests he’ll get better and better with distance.  Yet, being marooned in the 20 hole will not help him.  As good as PATCH will likely be one day, he’s not quite the superstar Big Brown was when he won from that post.  He’s also not from a hot Derby barn — he’s another Pletcher trainee — and his status as a fan favourite will depress his price.  Looking forward to other races at a mile and a quarter and beyond, I’m all about PATCH.  In the Derby, I’m not.

PM: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the land of the Derby, the one-eyed horse won’t see what’s happening to his left (nineteen horses breaking and doing crazy things) and will see a crowd going bonkers. I also am not giddy about Union Rags as a purveyor of stamina – his 2012 Belmont win was done in a collapsed group and in a slow time. One can belabor the coldness of Todd Pletcher in the Derby, but he’s had multiple entrants in many years and that drives down his win percentage based on uniqueness. I don’t think he’s that bad in the Derby – just that the multiple entries and the Derby’s intense microscope magnify it.

However there are better Pletcher trainees who wintered in the South I would rather have than PATCH.

Nicolle’s Selections:

#17 IRISH WAR CRY (6/1)

#10 GUNNEVERA (15/1)


Nicolle’s Longshot:  #11 BATTLE OF MIDWAY (30/1)

Paul’s Selections:

#15 MCCRAKEN (5/1)

#17 IRISH WAR CRY (6/1)

#8 HENCE (15/1)

Paul’s Longshot:  #12 SONNETEER (50/1)


Below are all of Nicolle Neulist’s picks for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby Day card at Churchill Downs. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!


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