CRAWFORD | Will predictability continue its recent reign in the Kentucky Derby?
Favorites are on a four-year winning streak at the Kentucky Derby. As Derby week arrives, Eric Crawford asks, can the run continue?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Over the past four years, the Kentucky Derby has settled into a comfortable – and predictable – pattern.
A favorite emerges, his consensus status is solidified by Derby Day, and he wins the race. Orb ($5.40-1), California Chrome ($2.50-1), American Pharoah ($2.90-1) and Nyquist ($2.30-1) have given Derby favorites their longest winning streak since 1972-75.
But as the contenders converge on Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the race, there are two top choices, and a more wide-open view of the race than in the past several editions.
Todd Pletcher’s Always Dreaming has been the most consistently impressive of this year’s contenders, including in his final work before the race on Friday morning, a five-furlong drill in 59.60 seconds that left the backside buzzing.
“I thought it was a powerful work, exceptional,” said Pletcher, who has saddled 45 Derby starters with one winner, and expects to send five, a quarter of the field, into this year’s race. “He’s full of himself. It was a good work with a great gallop out.”
A son of Bodemeister – himself a beaten favorite in the 2012 Derby, the last year in which a favorite didn’t win -- Always Dreaming has won three times in five starts and never been out of the money. He’s coming off an impressive five-length victory in the Florida Derby, but has never run a race at Churchill Downs and, in the end, may not even be the favorite in this race.
That’s because two-year-old champion Classic Empire might be returning to form. After winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to finish a perfect 4-for-4 and being voted the unanimous Eclipse Award winner for 2-year-old Horse of the Year, he figured to be the big favorite for the Derby and perhaps a Triple Crown threat heading into his 3-year-old campaign.
But the colt who, like Triple Crown winner American Pharoah is by the sire Pioneerof the Nile, never threatened in finishing a well-beaten third in his first race of 2017, the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He was diagnosed with an abscess in his right foot after that race and went to the sidelines. Scheduled to return to training a month later, he refused to break off from a gallop in what was to have been his first workout back. Trainer Mark Casse said he was showing some discomfort in his back.
It was another 11 days before he actually managed a workout, in company with his sire, at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida. After originally being pointed toward the Blue Grass Stakes on April 8, Classic Empire eventually returned to the track in the Arkansas Derby on April 17, and it was an impressive return, a half-length victory that immediately vaulted him back into the Kentucky Derby favorite’s discussion.
Classic Empire took to the track at Churchill Downs Friday morning and breezed a half mile in 49.20 seconds. He has won five of his seven career starts (one he did not finish, after losing his rider), with wins in both of his starts at Churchill Downs.
“His work gave me chills,” Casse said. “Now it’s a waiting game. It’s all about timing. I said a couple months ago when everyone was giving us a tough time, this is like a baseball game. It doesn’t matter how many runs you score, it just matters if you’re ahead in the last inning. I feel like we have the bases loaded.”
Classic Empire has not been dominant – his five wins have been by a total of about six lengths. But he has won, and he is an impressive specimen. In fact, Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said after the Arkansas Derby he saw enough to make Classic Empire the favorite if all went well for him leading up to the race, noting, “he has more talent than all of them.”
“With the average horse you couldn’t do what we have done,” Casse said. “You need so many things to go right and the good news with this horse is he’s so talented he can overcome a lot.”
Always Dreaming will be right there, along with Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry, a son of Curlin, who is 4-for-5 lifetime after a subpar Florida Derby and is trained by Graham Motion, who won the Derby in 2010 with Animal Kingdom.
But the rest of the expected 20-horse field doesn’t view those top choices as invincible. McCracken, a disappointing third in the Blue Grass Stakes, is three-for-three over the surface at Churchill Downs and will garner some support.
Six of the past seven Derby winners have won their final prep before the Run for the Roses, which means that Girvin (Louisiana Derby), Gormley (Santa Anita Derby), Irap (Blue Grass Stakes), Hence (Sunland Derby) and Fast and Accurate (Spiral Stakes) might also garner decent public support.
Trainer Dale Romans, a longtime Derby observer from his post at the north end of the Churchill Downs’ backside, will send J Boys Echo into the race off a fourth-place finish in the Blue Grass a month after winning the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. He sums up the view of most challengers when sizing up the favorites.
“I’ve looked at the field pretty hard, and it’s wide open. I think anyone can win this race,” Romans said. “Everyone has some positives and everyone has some negatives. I like it like this. It makes it very interesting. It’s not everybody talking about one horse that it’s his race to lose, that kind of thing. This one, you’ve got three or four horses that will get most of the play, but then after those three or four – which also, you could make some knocks on them, but they’re quality animals – the ones behind them anyone could win. . . . My horse, if everything goes right, he can get the money. I know he’s going to give his all and run well.”
The opening day of Churchill Downs’ spring meet dawned under thunderstorm clouds and occasional downpours. The weather in recent weeks in Louisville has proved difficult to predict. Perhaps once again, the city’s most famous race will, too.
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