A while back, I looked at the early favorites for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. The main takeaway at that point was that the landscape was murky and there was no established front-runner. Following Classic Empire’s victory in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, all six of the major prep races are in the books and we’re less than three weeks out from the Run for the Roses.
When you’re dealing with three-year-old Derby hopefuls, recent results are the most important. As we see year after year, these horses tend to make a leap at some point early in the calendar year. Let’s recap the six big preps, and see if the 2017 favorites have become a bit more transparent.
Always Dreaming sat a perfect trip, pounced on the pacesetter Three Rules, and ran away to a decisive victory, posting a Beyer Speed Figure of 97, the second-best number in the six major prep races. The favorite, Gunnevera, made a big run late to finish third. State of Honor finished an non-threatening second after being bet down from a morning line of 8/1 to 4/1. The pace in the race was not overly quick, which was great for horses near the lead and difficult for those off the pace.
After winning the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans, Girvin added the Louisiana Derby to his resume. He was by far the best down the stretch, racing past tiring horses to score as the 6/5 favorite. His 91 Beyer Speed Figure was pretty light, though. Girvin’s main competition in the race, Patch, who has just one career victory, had every opportunity, but was not strong enough, finishing second at 4/1. Local Hero and Guest Suite were both well-backed in the wagering. Local Hero faded down the stretch and was lucky to hold on for third. Guest Suite was a non-factor. All told, Girvin was more impressive in the Risen Star than the Louisiana Derby.
Four horses were all seriously backed with Battalion Runner and Cloud Computing at 2/1, and Mo Town and Irish War Cry at 7/2. From about the halfway point until the wire, a match race developed between Irish War Cry and Battalion Runner, with Irish War Cry finally spurting away with about 1/16 of a mile to go. Cloud Computing was a well-beaten third, and simply did not have enough in the tank around the final turn. Mo Town was finished before the horses reached the top of the stretch. Irish War Cry earned a 101 Beyer, and though he may have raced on the strong front of the Aqueduct track that day, it was an impressive showing.
In a race that many thought was filled with several legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders, 31/1 maiden Irap held off 7/2 third choice Practical Joke in a stretch duel. Irap benefited from slowing the pace of the race. The modest pace didn’t give stretch-runners the tempo they prefer to run into. However, coming out of the final turn, there was plenty of opportunity to run by Irap, and only Practical Joke launched a serious bid. McCraken, the 8/5 favorite, made a mild bid in the stretch and wasn’t asked for a ton in finishing third. Tapwrit, the 2/1 second choice, raced wide and had nothing down the stretch. The significance of the race, which saw Irap earn a 93 Beyer, remains very difficult race to interpret.
The Santa Anita Derby saw three long shots establish some distance between themselves and the rest of the field, forcing the two favorites, Reach the World and Iliad, to run very wide on the final turn. They wound up fourth and fifth respectively. The 6/1 third choice, Gormley, was in a perfect position with the first run at the leaders. He wound up scoring by a length over the tiring Battle of Midway. Like Battle of Midway, Royal Mo had little left in the end, and faded to third. The race was very slow in the final eighth of a mile, and Gormley earned only an 88 Beyer. Battle of Midway, who survived a suicidal pace and still managed a close second, may be worthy of a serious look at the Kentucky Derby.
On Saturday, Classic Empire became the only favorite to win one of the major Derby preps, but that doesn’t mean his path to Churchill Downs has been normal. The Breeders Cup Juvenile-winner raced just once (Holy Bull Stakes) between early November and now because of a variety of issues, and that race was a dud.
Saturday was anything but. He was one of a large group of horses within a few lengths of the lead on the backstretch. He waited patiently and eventually made a bid on the outside down the stretch. He was able to get up in the final strides to beat 17/1 Conquest Mo Money. Lookin at Lee (12/1) finished third, passing Malagacy (2/1) in deep stretch. Classic Empire was given a 94 Beyer figure. You can interpret his win several ways. On one hand, he got it done. On the other, he was not dominant against an unheralded field.
Classic Empire is going to be the tepid Kentucky Derby favorite with Always Dreaming and Irish War Cry close behind. Nobody should be less than about 4/1. While the chalk has won the Derby in each of the last four years, this is a very wide open race. My advice is to back those who looked like they enjoyed running a mile-and-an-eighth in their final prep. They’ll have a substantial edge during the Derby’s mile-and-a-quarter. That means the three favorites are all reasonable, but Battle of Midway and Iliad are among a large group of horses that are also capable at a more desirable price.
Photo credit: Jaceymon05 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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