Though favorites have dominated the Kentucky Derby recently, over the long history of the race, there have been a lot of surprises. The second jewel of the Triple Crown, Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, tends to be more formful. Four of the last five winners in Baltimore have gone off at 3/1 or less, and 13 of the past 16 champs have been 7/2 or lower.
This year’s race is slated to be run in much better conditions than the Kentucky Derby. The weather forecast is calling for sun, and the field will be roughly half the size (11 horses instead of 20). That should mean no one suffers a bad trip, as happened to Derby co-favorite Classic Empire two weeks ago, and ostensibly sets up a match race between Classic Empire (3/1) and Derby-winner Always Dreaming (4/5). No other horse is coming in at better than 8/1.
Should we be so quick to expect the status quo at Pimlico and count out the rest of the field?
Always Dreaming had a near perfect Derby. As a tepid favorite, he broke alertly, settled just off the pace, made a clean run to the lead, and had plenty left down the stretch, winning by almost three lengths. It continued a spectacular season for the Todd Pletcher trainee: he started 2017 with an 11-length win in a maiden race, followed by four-length win over an optional claiming group, and a five-length win at the Florida Derby. There is no reason to believe Always Dreaming won’t be on the lead as they hit the stretch at Pimlico. The question is whether he’ll have enough to hold on when the track is in good condition and the other favorites get a better start.
Joe Drape’s book on American Pharoah describes the professionalism of that Triple Crown-winner. Classic Empire, not so much. He is stubborn, moody, and really fast. Mark Casse’s colt won his first two races, then dumped his rider at Saratoga in September. He rebounded to win the Breeders Futurity and Breeders Cup Juvenile, making him the best two-year-old in the country last year.
To some degree, 2017 has been a mess. He’s had a series of minor injuries, refused to train for a bit, and was awful in his first race, the Holy Bull Stakes. But he put it all together to win the Arkansas Derby and he probably would have been the Kentucky Derby favorite until reports surfaced that he was not training well before the big race.
He experienced all sorts of trouble at Churchill Downs, bumping early, racing wide on the final turn, and having to alter his course down the stretch, yet still finished fourth. His A game is good enough, but it is virtually impossible to guess what version of Classic Empire shows up in Baltimore.
Gunnevera finished seventh at the Derby, 13 lengths behind Always Dreaming. On paper, the Saratoga Special, Delta Jackpot, and Fountain of Youth Stakes-champ should have been the horse making the late run. However, he raced extremely wide on the second turn, and was geared down by jockey Javier Castellano in the final eighth of a mile when it was apparent he wasn’t going to hit the board. Mike Smith, who wins big races constantly, and sometimes surprisingly, will have the the mount on Saturday.
Despite needing several horses to pass on the race in order to make the field, Lookin at Lee finished second at the Kentucky Derby as a 33/1 longshot. But don’t put more importance on that than it deserves; he had an amazing path to place. He broke from the inside, settled on the rail near the rear, and then watched the Red Sea part so that he could remain on the fence and not be obstructed. He ran in the shortest line possible around the track, picking up the pieces late to finish two-and-three-quarter lengths behind. Given that he couldn’t win when he had that favorable of a trip, it is hard to come up with a scenario he gets by Always Dreaming and Classic Empire in the rematch.
Castellano, who has piled up Eclipse Awards for the best jockey in the United States in recent years, opted to ride the lightly raced Cloud Computing over Gunnevera in the Preakness. He has just one career win, a debut maiden score at Aqueduct in February, but raced well to finish second at the Gotham Stakes, before finishing a well beaten third at the Wood Memorial behind Irish War Cry.
I know I teased that a longshot might be worthwhile off the top. But there is no compelling reason to look beyond the favorite when it comes to a winner. While Always Dreaming certainly liked the mud in Louisville, he has been awfully good in a variety of conditions. Horse racing is about making money, though, and betting the chalk to win won’t accomplish that.
I’m less sold on Classic Empire than I am on Always Dreaming. He had a lot of excuses in the Derby, but he was soundly beaten. If he’s not the second-best horse in this field on Saturday — a real possibility given his inconsistent results and temperamental nature — that opens up some potentially profitable betting angles. I’m going to play Always Dreaming on top of Gunnevera and Cloud Computing in an exacta.
Photo Credit: Jlvsclrk [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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