Friday, May 5, 2017

2017 Kentucky Derby Preview Part II: The Contenders

Friend of the blog, voice of the Derby, and all around
great guy Larry Collmus with American Pharoah
We have two basic theses about this year's Derby.  The first is that there's going to be a solid or quick pace.  There are enough horses running that look like they want to be near the front that we think getting a :48 half mile is highly unlikely.  We're not just conceding the race to a closer, but we think those bereft of early speed have a good chance this year.

The second is that this isn't the best crop of 3 year olds.  Two years ago we were treated to not only American Pharoah but also some others who were obviously talented: Firing Line, Dortmund, Frosted, Carpe Diem.  This year, nobody's really stood out or has run that fast.  Which is why we're keeping an open mind and not blindly tossing...

Wildcard #1

11.  Thunder Snow.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 25-1) We have never bet a dollar on a Derby runner that ran in the UAE Derby.  We have never really loved taking turf horses in the Derby.  We've never heard of this guy's sire (Helmet) until now.  (He was a good turf performer...in Australia.)  And we're loathe to endorse front-runners in the Derby.

And yet...there's some intrigue here. If there's going to be a year a Dubai runner contends, it's when the horse has staying power and is competing against a bunch of mediocrities.  This guy has switched well to the dirt, despite the turf breeding.  He's already won at 9 1/2 furlongs.  And he has an excellent jockey, Euro Christophe Soumillion.  We would be a little surprised if he wasn't at least involved early, and it certainly isn't impossible that he's around late.

To us this comes down to price.  If he gets bet and is around 15-1 or so, no thanks.  But if he's ignored in the wagering?  He's interesting enough to throw into your bets.

Something Seems...Off

10.  Girvin.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 20-1) He's 3 for 4 and has the right running style for this race (off the pace, not a dead closer).  But he's never won outside of Louisiana or beaten a high-quality horse.  And he's been battling some minor injury issues, which we never like to see this time of year.  Sure he could improve at Kentucky.  At a relatively short price, we're not willing to take that chance.

9.  McCraken.  (ML: 5-1; FV: 12-1) Prior to the Blue Grass, this was your probable favorite - a perfect 4-for-4 record, solid breeding, good trainer, and an affinity for the track.  Then they went to post in the Blue Grass and he showed...nothing.  He sat in perfect position off a moderate pace, and failed to close an inch on the winner, maiden Irap.  Technically it's not a "bad prep" because he finished 3rd and didn't lose by a football field, but it was about as uninspiring a prep as you'll see, and makes us wonder if he's progressed at all since last year.  We'll use a horse in the Derby that had a poor prep race if he's going to be a price.  But this guy's going to be the second or third choice off essentially a no-show.  No thanks.

8.  Classic Empire.  (ML: 4-1; FV: 10-1) The two year old champ and probable favorite is not without chance, and if he won, we wouldn't be shocked.  He is talented and has the right running style to win, and Mark Casse is a good trainer.  But there are enough red flags to make us side against.  After a good 2 year old season, he was scheduled to have3 prep races starting with the Holy Bull, where he completely no-showed without a real excuse.  Then he suffered a minor injury and missed some training time.  Then he oddly refused to work out.  When he finally began to get healthy and behave, he went to Oaklawn, and he won the Arkansas Derby, but in a rather slow time over competition he should have dominated.  He's basically coming into the Derby off of one okay prep race and a smattering of odd works.  That's not inspiring a lot of confidence here.

Wildcard #2

7.  Hence.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 16-1) The Sunland Derby is generally not where we look for Kentucky Derby contenders, despite Mine That Bird's win.  This guy won it by 7 lengths in a mediocre time, which should relegate him to also-ran status.  But he's actually not badly bred and comes from the barn of Steve Asmussen, who's going to win this race one day.  Even more interestingly, the horses that finished behind him at Sunland Park have good subsequent form - Conquest Mo Money came back to run 2nd in the Arkansas Derby and Irap came back to win the Blue Grass.  A key race?  Eh, probably not.  But this is your likely wise-guy horse based on that theory.

Perfect for Underneath

6.  Lookin at Lee.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 33-1) A classic plodder, he has no early speed and will be somewhere between 17th and 20th early on, especially since he drew the inside post.  But we think there will be a lively pace for him to close into.  An outsider to actually win, but a definite horse to consider for trifectas and superfectas.

5.  J Boys Echo.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 25-1) Like McCraken, he entered the Blue Grass with high expectations and did absolutely nothing.  So why is he ranked here?  Price.  McCraken is going to be 6-1, this guy is going to be 4 times the price with about as much chance to hit the board.  Again, we're not optimistic about his chances to actually win the race.  But he has "rallies for a piece" written all over him.

Wildcard #3

4.  Battle of Midway.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 12-1) If we're going to use a horse out of California, it's this guy.  A well-bred horse - Smart Strike is an excellent sire; Rigoletta was a really good 2 year old filly whose career ended prematurely with an injury - he cost $410,000 at auction and was sent to the very good Jerry Hollendorfer out west for training.  After a solid maiden win, he was rushed into a stakes race where he had a tough trip and faded, but then won an allowance race around two turns.  Next was the Santa Anita Derby, where for reasons unclear, he was sent to the lead for the first time.  He battled through very quick fractions that fried every other front-runner except him.  He held on for a game 2nd to Gormley, who took advantage of the pace meltdown with a win.

Now there are some big negatives - no wins in stakes company, no starts as a two year old, and a possible propensity for being a front-runner.  But he also may be coming into his own at just the right time, and if he can stalk instead of flying up front, he might sit a perfect trip.  We think he's up against it to win.  But to hit the board at a huge price?  Very, very live.

Contenders

3.  Always Dreaming.  (ML: 5-1; FV: 8-1) We are at the point where we can just create a stock entry about Todd Pletcher's Derby entry that won his prep race.  Yes, this guy ran well winning the Florida Derby and may have come into his own since leaving Dominick Schetino's barn.  But we've seen this before with Gemologist.  Verrazano.  Carpe Diem.  Bandini.  The Pletcher horse that peaks the race before the Derby and completely no-shows in Louisville.  We think it's telling that his only Derby win was with Super Saver, who looked good in his prep but didn't win.

What's a little different this year is that we're not seeing any titans that Always Dreaming has to beat.  Carpe Diem had American Pharoah.  Gemologist had I'll Have Another.  Verrazano had the obviously improving Orb.  Bandini had...well, Giacomo, so bad example.  Always Dreaming's chief challengers are all horses with flaws and who haven't shown flashes of greatness.  So maybe he's just the best horse.  We do think he'll run okay, but will be outside of the top finishers.

2.  Irish War Cry.  (ML: 6-1; FV: 6-1)  Other than the 17 post, there's not much to complain about here.  He's perfectly bred for 10 furlongs, and has shown in two of his races this year that he can race on the lead or just off it and win.  What we are a little concerned about is that total clunker he ran two starts back in the Fountain of Youth.  There he pressed a moderate pace and faded badly in the stretch.  Maybe it was contesting the early pace that did him in, which he probably won't do on Saturday.  Or maybe it was a regression off his nice win in the Holy Bull, which happens.  If he doesn't go back to that good/bad/good pattern, he's very dangerous to win or finish in the money.

The Pick

1.  Gunnevara.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 5-1)  We've been on this guy's bandwagon for a while and are not getting off for the Derby.  He's well-raced with 9 career starts, which isn't a negative: California Chrome won 3 years ago with similar experience, and we've always liked horses with a good amount of 2 year old experience.  He's won on multiple tracks (Saratoga, Gulfstream, Delta Downs) at multiple distances.  He's bred for 10 furlongs.  And we do think his closing style is going to work - in case it wasn't clear, we think there will be a lively pace for him to run into.  Sure, he could have traffic trouble.  That's always possible with closers.  We're willing to take that chance.

The biggest negative is his last race, where he was the 6-5 favorite and was well-beaten by Always Dreaming.  We're willing to look past it: Gulfstream was kind to speed that day, Always Dreaming had a perfect trip, and this guy didn't.  Now sure, if Always Dreaming moves forward and Gunnevara gets caught 8 wide on the far turn, he's going to be up against it.  But this guy reminds us of Monarchos: a horse that had a great win 2 starts before the Derby, had a mild regression/consolidation start as his Derby prep, then exploded in the Derby with a peak performance as a closer.  He needs to run faster to get to Monarchos' level.  But we think the talent's there, and he flies down the stretch to win the whole shebang on Saturday evening.

How to Bet

This is a big reason why we included the fair value odds this year, it's our opinion as to the price where betting a horse makes sense.  For example, we really don't love J Boys Echo to win.  But if he's 30-1?  That's not terrible value to us because it's a longer price than his odds to actually win the race.

In addition to liking Gunnevara up top, we also think he's going to be excellent value.  He probably will be shorter than 15-1, but double-digit odds seems probable for a horse we liked anyway.  But regardless: do not ignore the win wager.  Classic Empire will be at least 4-1 as the favorite, and if you like him, just take a shot at quadrupling your odds.  If you're going to play exotics, we do think some of our goofy longshots have a chance to hit the board and make exactas and triple enticing.

Good luck and enjoy the Derby!!

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