The 2017 Kentucky Derby field is not elite, making the race wide open for many bettors on paper. But the new qualification system has made favorites a must-play in recent years.
Stop if you have heard this before: The Kentucky Derby is wide open this year. Well, the 143rd Run for the Roses is and it is not. Top-tier contenders are fewer than in recent past with injuries knocking many of the trail (Mastery, Syndergaard, Klimt, Not This Time, and others) and overall speed lacking. Post positions and morning-line odds will be set midweek, but a pair of horses will likely take most of the money on Saturday: Always Dreaming and Classic Empire. Little separates the field underneath. We’re speculating a double-digit return on one dollar if any horse outside the top three most wagered wins. Either Irish War Cry or McCracken will fill out the trio.
The last four Derby winners each went off the favorite, which is uncharacteristic given the demands of the race (length, field size, etc.). In the 1980s and 1990s, in fact, not one odds-on claimed victory. History even tells us to fade the favorite. Since 1875, factoring in takeout and the like, a $2 win bet on everyone would have netted a loss of roughly five percent. But times are changing, and the market potentially clearer headed into modern-day runnings.
Some argue the recent spate of short-priced winners is a product of the new qualification system. The pathway to get into the Derby changed in 2012, basing entry on a designated points system through wins rather than career earnings. It is allowing the cream to rise to the top. Elite horses are forced to square off against one another in search of entry points and not duck certain spots or contenders after cashing big in the old system. The best 3-year-olds are showing face against one another, making handicapping the winner a bit easier due to greater head-to-head competition.
Duo To Beat
Todd Pletcher, who broke his Derby drought with winner Super Saver in 2010, has four entries in 2017. He will likely saddle the post-time favorite Always Dreaming. It will be the New York-based trainer’s first ever Derby favorite in 45 career starters if so.
The colt by Bodemeister won the Florida Derby (G1), the most important prep race in history with 23 winners—including Nyquist last year—coming out of the event. The field arguably had the toughest competition of all preps as well with Fountain of Youth (G2) winner Gunnevera and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) runner-up State of Honor each coming in the money. The latter are both making Derby starts.
If there is a knock on Always Dreaming it’s speed. He’s yet to crack a Beyer Figure over 100, which is often a criterion most modern-day Derby winners meet prior to the race. This field is slow on paper, so improvement on his 97 rating from Gulfstream should be enough to get the job done.
Also, the last five Derby winners were undefeated in their 3-year-old campaigns headed into the race. Only two horses can claim this accomplishment in 2017: Always Dreaming and long shot Fast and Accurate. Online sportsbook 5Dimes offers Pletcher’s colt at +375 odds currently, shortest of all horses.
Trainer Mark Casse’s Classic Empire is the only other horse to possibly threaten Always Dreaming for the top spot Saturday. The son of Pioneerof the Nile has won three G1 races in his career, including the Arkansas Derby, and the coveted BC Juvenile and Breeders’ Futurity as a 2-year old. Classic Empire has done little wrong on race day and owns the pace, running style and class to win. The concerns are injuries, practice, and attitude. A foot abscess, back problems, and bad demeanor forced him to miss some training earlier in the year. A quick three-week turnaround from Oaklawn may be asking too much, but he’s a gamer and will see plenty of action with his record. 5Dimes lists him as the second choice at +400 odds.
These two horses should anchor anyone’s exotic tickets for the Derby and will offer betting odds to win overall. Don’t look too far past the dynamite duo for the win.