Thursday, May 4, 2017

2017 Kentucky Derby Preview Part 1: The Pretenders

It's the first week of May, which can only mean one thing - it's time for the Kentucky Derby!

It's hard to believe, but for a long time, being the Derby favorite was the kiss of death.  Between Spectacular Bid in 1979 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, every Kentucky Derby favorite lost, including Hall of Famers Easy Goer and Holy Bull.  Being the favorite was deemed a curse until FuPeg broke the streak in 2000.

In the 16 years since then, favorites have won 7 times, which is a little better than expected.  But it's actually even more chalky than that if you look at the last 10 years, which has had six favorites win, including the last 4 races (Nyquist, American Pharaoh,  California Chrome, Orb, Big Brown and Street Sense), plus a second choice (Super Saver).  Heck, of the other three, I'll Have Another was an obvious overlay at 15-1, and Animal Kingdom was only 20-1 because he had never run on the dirt before.  Really, only Mine That Bird counts as a true upset and longshot.

What's happened?  Well in the last few years, they've changed the eligibility rules to get into the Derby, which used to be based on earnings in stakes races.  This allowed horses that won money at sprint distances to qualify, even though they had no chance of staying 10 furlongs.  (Think of Trinniberg in 2012 for example - he earned a lot, but had no stamina; he won the Breeders Cup Sprint!)  Taking those no-hopers out of the race has made it a lot "truer" a race.  Traffic issues still exist but they're less of a big deal because you're not always dealing with an insane pace and badly tiring horses that closers have to avoid.  It's no accident that a lot of the recent winners have been very close to the pace early; of the last 10 editions, only Orb and MTB were dead closers.

This does not mean that you should pitch all closers and longshots, or skip the Derby altogether, because it's still the fricking Derby, and there's good money to be made.  Last year was about as boring as the results got, as the top three betting choices ran 1-2-3.  But everyone tries so hard to get cute in the wagering (us included), the triple paid $173.  Think about it:  that's 85-1 for simply agreeing with the wisdom of the crowd.  The Derby remains a prime spot for wagering if you have a good opinion or two, even if it's simply "the favorites tower over the field."  If you're right, you'll still get rewarded.

So let's get to our annual countdown of the 20 runners from the least to most likely chance to win.  (We are ignoring also-eligibles Royal Mo and Master Plan; you should too.)  Today are the horses that we think have basically no chance to win, tomorrow's 11 are all on the other side of the pretender/possibility line.  We're assuming the track is fast and fair on Derby Day - keep an eye on the weather forecast, which is a little dicey at the moment.  For fun, this year we'll also give you the track's morning line odds and our fair value odds - i.e., the price where we think a win bet might be in order.  Note that these are odds to win, not to finish in the money - as you will see, we have a couple of horses ranked higher mostly based on their chances to hit the board, not their chance to win.  As you will also see, we are not as nice as the track's oddsmaker.

Gate Fillers

20.  Fast and Accurate.  (Morning Line: 50-1; Fair Value: 100-1) To run in any of the Triple Crown races, you have to be nominated for the Triple Crown.  This is not a particularly onerous process; it requires filling out a form and writing a check for $600 by mid-January, which is not a sum of money you blanch at if you're a horse owner.  This year 418 horses were nominated to the Triple Crown.  In addition to the top 3 year olds, it included 5 fillies, 9 horses in Japan (!) and over 50 horses that had never run a race before.

You know who it didn't include?  Fast and Accurate.  That's probably because as of January, he had only won a maiden claiming race - the lowest level of race there is - and was beaten handily in his lone dirt start.  He followed those "efforts" up with a pair of wins in something called the Sage of Monticello stakes on the turf, then a slowly run Spiral Stakes at 24-1 on an artificial surface.  So to run him, his owner has to put up $200,000 in supplemental nomination fee.  Some could argue that's a sign of confidence.  We think it's a complete waste of money on a hopeless non-entity.

19.  Sonneteer.  (ML: 50-1; FV: 100-1)  To show you how little we think of Fast and Accurate, we're putting ahead of him a maiden who's winless in 9 races.  Don't worry, we don't think he has any chance either.

18.  Untrapped.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1) A nicely bred colt that has gotten slower in every race this year.  That's not a good trend going into the Derby.  Of real interest, he's adding blinkers for the first time for the Derby.  That happened to Palace Malice in 2013, who then bolted to the lead and set insane fractions, leading to Orb coming from the back of the pack to win.  There's a chance he does the same thing.

17.  Patch.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1) A one-eyed talent, he ran his first race in January, and as we've said a million times, there hasn't been a Derby winner that didn't run as a two year old since Chester A. Arthur was president.  Even for super trainer Todd Pletcher, this is a huge stretch, and resembles past no-shows like Coin Silver, Keyed Entry and Sam P.

16.  State of Honor.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1) This guy's managed to earn nearly $350,000 by consistently hanging around for 2nd and 3rd in races where he set the pace, faded, and was never a threat to win.  We're still in Giacomo territory here.

Destined to Be Overbet

15.  Tapwrit.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 33-1) The second of four Pletcher horses in the field, this guy will get some play on the rebound from his bad 5th in the Blue Grass, as his prior race was a win in the Tampa Bay Derby.  We're not seeing it.  His two races at Tampa were flawed (if somewhat successful) in that he had perfect trips and was never that quick.  We're also skeptical that he wants any part of 10 furlongs - his mother was a good sprinter who didn't have the pedigree to stretch out.  Look for him to resurface in the Woody Stephens on the Belmont undercard.

14.  Practical Joke.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 33-1) A nice two year old that has made no progress this year.  He won the Hopeful and Champagne last year and looked like a possible Derby contender for excellent trainer Chad Brown.  But he's stalled out trying races around 2 turns - he was never really in contention in last year's Juvenile, and showed no punch in the stretch in either race this year.  Another horse that would benefit on a cutback to 1-turn and 7 furlongs.

13.  Irap.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 25-1) The winner of the Blue Grass, he did so as a maiden and at 31-1 over what everyone thought was a great field.  He had some decent races in his past, but we think he basically rode a conveyor belt around the track that day and nobody else did any running.  We think he goes to the front here and is done by the far turn.  But he's another that may ensure the pace is quick.

12.  Gormley.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 25-1) Every time he's run against the second-tier horses, he's been great.  But when he's gone up against the best in the Juvenile and the San Felipe this year, he's performed miserably.  Every year we get a horse like this: excellent at beating tomato cans and taking beatings against the best.  It's odd to say the winner of the Santa Anita Derby doesn't have much of a chance in the Kentucky Derby - it's produced 3 of the last 5 winners, after all - but we don't think this guy really has much of a chance at all.  Our random prediction: he will be switched to the turf before the end of the year, and be really good at grass racing.

Coming up tomorrow: The 11 who actually can compete for the win slot, and our pick.

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