Is There A Clear Kentucky Derby Favorite In 2017?

TwinSpires Staff

April 28th, 2017

In most years, Kentucky Derby preps establishes a pecking order heading into the big race. They may not tell you everything, but often there’s a clear favorite.

This year, the preps have told us … well, that anything’s possible.

by Alastair Bull

Form reversals and injuries are part of every Derby prep season, but 2017 has produced enough of them for a decade of Derbies.

It hasn’t helped that the three favorites in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager at the start of 2017 – Classic Empire, McCraken, and Mastery – have all had injury setbacks. In addition, many of the leading chances have thrown in at least one shockingly bad run.

The preps were summed up to some degree when Hence bounced back from a Southwest Stakes failure to win the Sunland Derby, relegating into fourth place a maiden named Irap, who then won the Blue Grass at 33-1.

What the preps told us most clearly is that horses are not machines. At any time, they can be set back by injury, suffer bad luck in running, or produce an unexplainable form reversal.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the preps is that good horses can often be excused one bad run. What we should note about the heavy defeats suffered by Classic Empire, Irish War Cry, and Hence in the preps is that they all came back to win their following start.

That suggests Gunnevera, McCraken, J Boys Echo, and Tapwrit, all well beaten in their most recent prep, could well improve and figure in the Derby finish. McCraken in particular should be better for the Blue Grass outing after his injury issue.

So, perhaps the best thing to do is ignore any one-off failures when trying to pick your Derby winner, and look for the horses that have shown the most talent and stamina.

The most eye-catching Derby prep win was arguably Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby victory, which produced a 102 BRIS Speed figure. He deserves the utmost respect.

The top BRIS Speed rating this year (104) went to J Boys Echo in the Gotham Stakes, though this form may be slightly suspect. Irish War Cry (102 in the Holy Bull and Wood Memorial) is the only contender to produce two triple-figure BRIS Speed ratings. Gunnevera looked when winning the Fountain of Youth (102 rating), and Girvin looked stylish in his two Louisiana victories.

The most interesting outsider is arguably Sunland Derby winner Hence (103 rating), given that he clearly beat Blue Grass winner Irap and Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money that day.

And then there’s Classic Empire. His winning Arkansas Derby Speed Figure (96) wasn’t spectacular, but merely winning after his troubled start to the year was a great sign, and his 108 speed rating in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is the best of any contender. Somehow, it wouldn’t seem out of place that after all the chaos, the best horse at the start of the preps ended up winning on Derby day.

Or, it could be another complete shock. It’s been that kind of year.