For the first time in several racing seasons Kentucky Derby handicappers will not be confronted with a potential super horse as the field gathers for Saturday’s 143rd Run for the Roses. No California Chrome, no American Pharoah, no Nyquist. The Derby prep races leading to Churchill Downs have produced no standout and bettors can expect the wining horse this year to fetch a nice payout. The trick is sorting through an evenly matched field to find that winner.
If there is a potential Triple Crown winner lurking in the year’s biggest starting gate, the consensus is that horse is Classic Empire. He has the breeding – sired by Pioneer of the Nile, father of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Classic Empire also has the credentials – winner of last year’s Breeders’ Futurity Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In addition, he was named Two-Year-Old Male Horse of the Year. When you add a race from mid-pack to victory in his last outing in the Arkansas Derby, Classic Empire joins a select group of only four horses to go to the post in the Kentucky Derby as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Champion, the Horse of the Year title holder and a winner in his last Derby prep race.
While that is powerful inducement to put Classic Empire on your betting slip, he also has some worrisome quirks that can scare off punters. He doesn’t particularly like to work out so don’t expect to find many mind-blowing workout times prior to the Derby. He also ran an uninspiring third in the Holy Bull Stakes in February. Afterwards he was discovered to have an abscess on his right front hoof. Classic Empire’s run in the Arkansas Derby allayed some questions about his fitness but not enough for bet365 to list him as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He goes to post at 5/1.
The second early betting favorite at 11/2 is Always Dreaming on the strength of a runaway five-length win in the Florida Derby. Always Dreaming is trained by Todd Pletcher who has sent 45 horses to the Kentucky Derby post, the second most of all-time. None, however, has been the Derby favorite and only one has won. Always Dreaming totes a skimpy resume to Louisville with the Florida Derby being his only stakes race to date in four outings. He has not won outside of Gulfstream Park and has not yet tangled with most of the contenders he will face in the Kentucky Derby. Hunch players may also have a reason to stay away from not only Always Dreaming but also Classic Empire for that matter in that the last four favorites have won the Derby and there has not been a streak of five since 1895.
Pletcher will have two other horses in the gate this Saturday. The Derby’s best story will be Patch, a talented youngster who had his left eye removed last year after an inflammation. The one-eyed horse returned to the track this year and won his first race, a Maiden Special Weight affair, and then ran a game second in the Louisiana Derby, a Grade 2 stakes. The lightly raced horse is currently at 33/1.
One of the challenges for handicappers is figuring out whether a bad race was a fluke to throw out or an indication of inconsistency. That is the conundrum when evaluating Irish War Cry, offered at 7/1. The son of the great Curlin breezed to victories in his first three races including the Marylander Stakes and the Holy Bull. But then came a clunker in March in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park when Irish War Cry finished a well-beaten seventh with no excuses. He then bounced back to capture the Wood Memorial in his last tune-up to re-energize his backers. The chestnut colt is a rare New Jersey-bred starter in the Kentucky Derby; there has not been one since 1992 and no New Jersey horse has won the Derby since Cavalcade in 1934.
If that scares you, then the local horse McCraken, also at 7/1, should be a more comfortable pick. Churchill Downs is his home turf and he won all three times he tested the track in his two-year old campaign. McCraken was dealt his first defeat down the road at Keeneland in last month’s Blue Grass Stakes but his connections took several positives out of the race for the son of the speedy Ghostzapper, including his come back from a minor physical ailment.
Health is the main concern with Girvin, another entry with only one loss in his career. Girvin led all qualifiers for the Kentucky Derby with 152 points and won the Louisiana Derby in his last outing. But he has come up with a crack in his front hoof that necessitates a special shoe and a training routine that favors swimming over running. Even with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith on board, Girvin is attracting only tepid 16/1 odds.
Gunnevera is one of the most seasoned of the three-year old crop with nine races under his belt including six stakes. There have been three wins but also losses to Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry and Classic Empire. Should Gunnevera avenge those defeats in the Kentucky Derby, he will return backers 14/1.
For foreign intrigue there is Thunder Snow, from Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin Stable in Dubai, at 14/1. Thunder Snow qualified for the Kentucky Derby by winning the Group Two UAE Derby in March at the Dubai World Cup. While most foreign horses tend to excel on grass, Thunder Snow’s two race wins in two tries in 2017 have both come on dirt. No foreign horse has won the Kentucky Derby in 142 tries and none has come in the money since 1986 but in this year’s wide-open affair an overseas invader has never had a better chance.
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