Picking the Kentucky Derby isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not a Thursday afternoon at Belmont, with a six horse field and only one that’s fast enough to beat its show pony to the wire. It’s the Kentucky Derby. It’s 20 of the world’s best 3-year-olds in a cluttered, scattered scramble that’s impossible to predict.
At least it should be. It should be a bettor’s worst nightmare. But it’s not – or maybe it just hasn’t been lately.
In 2014, California Chrome was a heavy, 5/2 morning line favorite. The second choice was a high-priced 8/1. A year later, while there wasn’t much separating American Pharoah and Dortmund at the post position draw, there was plenty separating them on the track, and most bettors saw it, even if the oddsmakers didn’t. Last year, Nyquist was a 3/1 favorite and like Chrome, the second choice his year was 8/1.
All three favorites went on to win the roses – exactly as we thought they would.
In a change of pace, there’s no overwhelming favorite this year. But there probably should be.
- Lookin At Lee – 20/1: Unlike other closers, in his last start, this colt was able to weave his way through traffic to an impressive finish – starting and stopping his run as he went. That ability makes him dangerous at a decent price, but ultimately, I don’t see him getting the pace he needs.
- Thunder Snow – 20/1: He’ll need to fly out of the starting gate to escape the 2-hole, and I don’t think he’s got the speed to pull it off.
- Fast and Accurate – 50/1: The worst start of his career came in his only start on dirt. The Kentucky Derby is run on dirt.
- Untrapped – 30/1: He’s already got a win at Churchill Downs, but it’s the only win of his career. And it came in a $58,000 maiden sprint. No thanks.
- Always Dreaming – 5/1: This colt’s Florida Derby win was more visually impressive than any Derby-prep win this year. The Todd Pletcher trainee looked like an older, mature colt romping to a 5-length win, and has been training well coming into May. He’ll be well-placed at the front of a moderate pace and should be right there coming down the stretch.
- State of Honor – 30/1: In 10 career starts, State of Honor has one win. Pass.
- Girvin – 15/1: All four career starts have come at Fair Grounds in Louisiana, but this colt will sit mid-pack with a jockey who knows exactly what to do. At 15/1, with Mike Smith in the irons, this winner of two straight – and three of his four starts – is a solid bet to come running around the the far turn and toward the wire.
- Hence – 15/1: A fine closer, but I don’t see enough speed for him in this race.
- Irap – 20/1: He won the Blue Grass, but did so with the perfect trip he won’t get on Saturday.
- Gunnevera – 15/1: Another closer, Gunnevera has shown the ability to close into moderate paces. That bodes well, but he’s never done it in a field of 20.
- Battle of Midway – 30/1: If Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby was the most visually impressive race of prep-season, Battle of Midway’s Santa Anita Derby was second – which is what he finished in that race. He didn’t win, but at the front end of a wildly fast pace, the colt fought hard to hang on and only just lost out at the wire. He’s tough and he won’t exert himself on the front end this time around. At 30/1, he’s a must-play in exotics.
- Sonneteer – 50/1: This horse is 0-for-his-life. Keep reading.
- J Boys Echo 20/1: The win in the Gotham seems like an outlier against weaker competition. I don’t see it.
- Classic Empire – 4/1: After four wins in four finishes – he lost his rider in a race at Saratoga – this colt was a distant, well-beaten third in the Holy Bull. But that was coming off a 3-month layoff, and a few weeks later at the Arkansas Derby, Classic Empire rallied from off the pace to win the Grade I – which is what I think he’ll do on Saturday. When I look for a Derby horse, I look for a versatile one, and this Mark Casse trainee has won from on the lead and off it. Improving in his third start since the layoff, I’m not sure any of these other horses are his equal. Under the twin spires, I expect him to sit off the pace in the second pack, then run past the leaders to win the roses for his sixth win in eight starts and seven finishes.
- McCracken – 5/1: This colt is a rock solid closer, but his runs are long, extended ones that tend to have him sweeping wide around the field. He’s got power and strength and they’re impressive runs, but this isn’t a demolition derby; you can’t run over and through the horses in front of you. If McCracken tries to sweep wide around a field of 20, he’ll end up in the 10th row. I don’t think he can weave through the crowd the way he’ll have to on Saturday, so I can’t see myself putting any money on him.
- Tapwrit – 20/1: A nice, versatile colt, but simply out-classed by others in the field.
- Irish War Cry – 6/1: With two graded stakes wins in his last three starts, I wouldn’t be shocked if he won on Saturday, but he’s had great trips in each of those wins, and since you can’t count on that on Saturday, there are better choices.
- Gormley – 15/1: Jockey Victor Espinoza has won two of the last three Kentucky Derbies, so you have to respect any horse he sits atop in the starting gate. But while Gormely is dangerous, he’s stepping up in class and doing it from an outside post. That’s a lot to overcome.
- Practical Joke – 20/1: If Practical Joke was a Derby-winner, he would have run down the 30/1 Irap in the Blue Grass. He didn’t, and so he’s not. In fact, I don’t think he’s a 2-turn horse. Look for him this summer as an up-and-coming sprinter.
- Patch – 30/1: One eye, one win. He’ll get a second of neither on Saturday.
Breaking from the gate, look for Always Dreaming to come to come out well with State of Honor and Fast and Accurate – but don’t look for them to be moving too quickly. I don’t think any of the three will be looking for the lead, and into the first turn, the third of the trio will take it and lead the field to the end of a moderate first quarter mile. Behind them, Battle of Midway will settle on their heels with Irap, Irish War Cry, Classic Empire and Gormley – with Girvin just behind them and ahead of closers like McCracken, Gunnevera, Hence, and Lookin At Lee sitting well back at the tail end of the field.
Down the back stretch, I expect Irish War Cry to inch closer to the leaders with Gormley and Girvin moving closer from mid-pack. Behind them, Hence and McCracken will begin their long, sustained runs up through the field.
Into the second turn, Always Dreaming will take over the lead with Battle of Midway and Irish War Cry just behind, and Classic Empire and Girvin still sitting patiently just a few lengths off the lead. McCracken will have made himself known moving up along the outside, but as they round that turn, the traffic will get the better of him and he’ll lose the momentum he’s been building.
As they strike the top of the stretch, Classic Empire and Girvin will both be on the move while Always Dreaming continues to lead Battle of Midway, and down the stretch, it’ll be those latter two trying to hold off the former pair – which they won’t be able to do. The leaders won’t be going too fast, but they’ll be pressed, and it will have its effect.
In deep stretch, Classic Empire will assert himself over the field. He’s tested against the best competition, he’s proven in any pace scenario and race set up, and he’s improving off a layoff. He’s simply better than the rest, and he’ll drag Girvin with him past the leaders and across the wire, with Always Dreaming holding on for third and Battle of Midway a long-shot fourth.
- Classic Empire WPS
- 5-7-11-14 Ex/Tri Box
- Battle of Midway WPS
Author: Joe Bianchino
Joe Bianchino is a writer, producer, and radio host located in upstate New York. He is a life-long New York sport fan, Chelsea supporter, and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter @JoeBNTS. Email him at Joe@noticketsports.com.