By Dave Schwab
Horse racing’s Triple Crown racing series for the top three-year old thoroughbreds in the nation gets underway on Saturday, May 6 with the running of the Kentucky Derby as the crowned jewel in this three-race series. The prep race schedule, which sets the 20-horse field for the annual “Run for the Roses”, wrapped things up last Saturday. With a little more than two weeks until post time at Churchill Downs, we now have a pretty good idea of which horses will be gunning for a victory in the sport’s biggest betting event of the season.
With the help of some recently updated Kentucky Derby futures odds at a few of the top online sportsbooks in the sports betting industry, here is an early look at the how the field for the 2017 Kentucky Derby should shake out in terms of the top favorites, top contenders and my personal top longshot to win this race.
With his impressive victory in last Saturday’s Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, I would have to move Classic Empire to the top of the list. Trained by Mark Casse, this Kentucky-bred colt earned “Horse of the Year” honors as a two-year old with victories in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity Stakes at Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita. Against a stronger than expected field in this year’s Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 4, he placed third at a distance of 1 1/16 miles behind Irish War Cry and Gunnevera, but he definitely returned to his championship form his last time out.
In the first major stakes race of his career, trainer Todd Pletcher’s Always Dreaming earned a place at the top of this list with a huge victory in the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream over the likes of State of Honor and Gunnevera at a distance of 1 1/8 miles. Prior to this, he had only run in two Maiden Special Weight races as a juvenile (finishing third and second) before winning an Allowance Claimer as a three-year old at Gulfstream on March 4.
The third horse listed on most Kentucky Derby futures board would be Irish War Cry. Trained by H. Graham Motion, this three-year old New Jersey-bred colt moved way up the list with his recent victory in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct on April 8 at a distance of 1 1/8 miles. He fell off the trail a bit after his stunning upset in the Holy Bull with a distant seventh-place run in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream at a shorter distance of 1 1/16 miles, but I believe his closing speed should keep him right in the mix in the Kentucky Derby over the 1 ¼ mile run.
The second horse I would add to this list would be trainer Ian Wilkes’ McCraken. His stock has actually dropped a bit after finishing third in the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland behind Irap and Practical Joke at a distance of 1 1/8 miles on April 8, but I still believe that he can compete at Churchill over the longer distance of this race. This show finish broke a string of four consecutive victories including a win in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11.
With over two weeks until Derby Day everything is subject to change, but right now I have my eye on State of Honor as a probable longshot with quite a bit of value. He is still well down the list of futures odds, but this three-year old Canadian-bred colt’s stock should be on the rise following his second-place run in the Florida Derby. This is one of trainer Mark Casse’s other top prospects to win the Kentucky Derby following a solid racing career that includes seven finishes in the money over the past year. He raced in Canada as a juvenile before making his US debut as a three-year old with a second-place finish in the ungraded Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 7.