Featured Image: May 7, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Mike Smith aboard Danzing Candy (20) leads Mario Gutierrez aboard Nyquist (13) into the first turn during the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock
— John F. Cox (@CoxTalks) May 3, 2017
The field has been drawn, morning-line odds have been assigned, spring has officially sprung, and the first Saturday in May is rapidly approaching. The 143rd Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands is about as wide open as ever, although the betting favorite has taken the first leg of the Triple Crown in each of the last four editions. Mother nature may look to shake things up this year for Derby athletes and spectators alike, as the forecast calls for a 40 percent chance of showers in Louisville on Saturday, mainly after 8 a.m., with partly sunny skies, and a high near 63.
There is a 70 percent chance of precipitation on Kentucky Oaks Day (Friday), which could make for an already wet track by the time Saturday rolls along. Will it have an affect on the horses? Who knows? But it’s always something to consider when looking at the program.
What makes the race unique?
From a racing perspective, the Kentucky Derby is unique because of the field size and the distance. Most races you see at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, or any other track around the country, limit their field size (number of horses in the race) to either 12 or 14 starters. The Kentucky Derby allows for a field of 20 starters, which makes for absolute chaos in terms of positioning.
The Derby is limited to only 3-year-old horses, which is why you see a new crop of names with each renewal. The earliest you see horses start racing is in the spring of their 2-year-old year, so these Derby horses have only been racing for a year at most. The Derby is also the first notable race for 3-year-olds held at the distance of 1 1⁄4 miles, which is a long way to go for any horse in the modern era of racing. It will take endurance, an experienced jockey, a game horse, and the perfect trip in order to take home the roses on Saturday.
How did they get here?
A series of 37 Kentucky Derby prep races were held from September of 2016 through April of 2017. Each race awards a number of qualifying points to the top four finishers of each race. Each horse in the 143rd edition of the Kentucky Derby recorded their final prep start in one of eight significant races. Here’s a look at how each Kentucky Derby contender fared in those eight “final Derby preps:”
Some notes on the preps:
- Irap was perhaps the biggest surprise in this series of prep races, upsetting four other Derby contenders in the Blue Grass at Keeneland at odds of 31-1.
- Always Dreaming recorded the fastest time for 1 1/8 miles of any other prep race at that distance, winning in 1:47.47.
- Always Dreaming also had the largest margin of victory of any of these eight preps, winning by five lengths.
- The Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes have each produced 23 Kentucky Derby winners over the years, tied for the most of any other prep races.
- In the last 10 years, the Florida Derby has produced the most Kentucky Derby winners with three, followed by the Arkansas Derby and Santa Anita Derby (two each), and then the Blue Grass Stakes, Spiral Stakes, and Sunland Derby have each produced one winner since 2007.
- Seven of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners also won their final prep race.
- The last time the Wood Memorial or Louisiana Derby produced a Kentucky Derby winner was in 2003, when Funny Cide finished second in both races (the Louisiana Derby was held a month before the Wood Memorial back then).
- The UAE Derby, held in Dubai, has never produced a Kentucky Derby winner (best finish from a UAE Derby horse was Master of Hounds, who finished fifth in the 2011 Kentucky Derby).
Derby Betting Strategy
Since the field of 20 horses makes the Kentucky Derby such a crap shoot, I find it best to stick with one horse that you really like, and bet it across the board (Win, Place, and Show). The most money I ever won on a Kentucky Derby was when I picked Orb in 2013. At odds of 5.40-1, Orb returned $12.80 on a $2 win bet.
I really liked Orb that day, because I know his trainer’s two sons very well and had seen him run in past races. So I put a lot of money to win on him and also did two $1 exactas. One exacta was Orb with ALL, and the other was ALL with Orb. Each exacta bet cost me $19, and I was guaranteed to get some money back if Orb finished either first or second. I got lucky because a 35-1 long shot (Golden Soul) finished second, and the $1 Orb-Golden Soul exacta paid $490.80. I ended up betting $120 on Orb to win, and netted just over $1,100 on that one race. This was the height of my horse gambling career, and I gave a lot of those winnings back betting Orb in the Preakness and Belmont.
But I suggest doing a similar set of exacta wagers once you figure out which horse you like the most, and pray for a long shot to finish first or second. The price for each exacta is $19.
Ranking the 2017 Derby Field in terms of Tiers
For this year’s Derby, I have broken down the horses into four tiers and ranked each tier. They are as follows:
Top Tier Horses:
- 5 – Always Dreaming
- 15 – McCraken
- 17 – Irish War Cry
- 14 – Classic Empire
- 8 – Hence
Knocking on the Door (2nd Tier Horses):
- 9 – Irap
- 11 – Battle of Midway
- 18 – Gormley
- 6 – State of Honor
- 10 – Gunnevera
You Never Know (3rd Tier Horses):
- 2 – Thunder Snow
- 16 – Tapwrit
- 13 – J Boys Echo
- 7 – Girvin
- 1 – Lookin at Lee
I’d Be Shocked (But I’ve been ‘shocked’ plenty of times in this race) – 4th Tier Horses:
- 19 – Practical Joke
- 20 – Patch
- 4 – Untrapped
- 3 – Fast and Accurate
- 12 – Sonneteer
5-1 co-second choice – Always Dreaming – is my top pick. I thought his Florida Derby performance was the most impressive of the final prep races and his last official training workout at Churchill Downs was among the best of the Derby contenders. He has an experienced jockey in Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who won the Derby on Animal Kingdom in 2011. Trainer Todd Pletcher will tie his former mentor D. Wayne Lukas for most Kentucky Derby starters all-time (48) on Saturday in saddling Always Dreaming, Tapwrit, and Patch. But Pletcher has won only one Kentucky Derby from 45 starters to date, the 2010 edition with Super Saver. I believe he is due for another.
One thing I’ll be watching closely is how Always Dreaming acts in the paddock leading up to the race. He has reacted a bit feisty to the big crowds at Churchill Downs since arriving, and Pletcher has had to put draw reigns on him and take him out to the track at 5:45 a.m. most mornings in order to get him to calm down and settle into his routine. So if he’s acting up, bucking, and/or looking a little sweaty or “washed out” in the paddock, I may switch my pick to McCraken.
Bonus – Wet Track Stats
Remember how I mentioned the rain playing a factor? Here’s a look at how horses have fared over a wet surface:
- Lookin at Lee – finished second in his only try over a muddy track in the Iroquois Stakes last September at Churchill Downs.
- Thunder Snow – won his only start over a muddy track in his most recent effort, the UAE Derby.
- Fast and Accurate – has never raced on a wet surface.
- Untrapped – finished second in the LeComte Stakes as his only start over a muddy track.
- Always Dreaming – has never raced on a wet surface.
- State of Honor – has never raced on a wet surface.
- Girvin – has never raced on a wet surface.
- Hence – Won his maiden race in the slop at Oaklawn Park in January.
- Irap – finished fourth in a maiden race in his lone start in the slop.
- Gunnevera – Finished second in his maiden debut at Gulfstream Park last June.
- Battle of Midway – won his maiden debut over a “wet fast” track at Santa Anita Park.
- Sonneteer – Finished second in a maiden race at Del Mar over a “good” track.
- J Boys Echo – has never raced on a wet surface.
- Classic Empire – Won his maiden debut at Churchill Downs last May over a sloppy track.
- McCraken – has never raced on a wet surface.
- Tapwrit – Won the Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream Park over a sloppy track.
- Irish War Cry – has never raced on a wet surface.
- Gormley – Won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita over a sloppy track.
- Practical Joke – has never raced on a wet surface.
- Patch – has never raced on a wet surface.
So if the track is labeled “muddy” or “sloppy” on Saturday, I may look at Thunder Snow, Hence, Tapwrit, and Gormley as potential top picks.
Double Bonus – Kentucky Oaks Picks
Here are my top three picks if it’s a wet track:
7 – Farrell/4 – Paradise Woods/12 – Daddys Lil Darling
And if it’s a dry track:
13 – Abel Tasman/4 – Paradise Woods/10 – Miss Sky Warrior
Good luck to all and happy Derby!