Could be the year for chaos at the Kentucky Derby

Could be the year for chaos at the Kentucky Derby

April 18, 2017 3:00 AM

Classic Empire catapulted to the top of the Kentucky Derby polls with an impressive win in the Grade-1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on Saturday. It was his first win since he took the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile back in November.

Classic Empire has two career losses but only one that can be counted. He wheeled and tossed the rider in the Hopeful last September. His other loss came in the Holy Bull this year when he was coming back from a foot abscess. He will be installed as the morning line favorite by Mike Battaglia.

The morning line (and post time) favorite has won the Derby four consecutive years (Nyquist, American Pharoah, California Chrome and Orb). Since Smarty Jones won in 2004, the post time favorite is 7 for 13 (54%) and has finished in the top six 11 times (85%). From 1980 to 1999, a span of 20 years, the post time favorite was 0 for 20 and hit the exacta only once in that period. The winner went off at an average of 10-1 during those two decades.

Classic Empire is certainly a major contender but this has to be the kind of year where we see chaos. The pace of the race is going to be fast. Of the top 25 with Derby points (including Japanese UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow), 11 prefer to be on or very near the lead.

Compare that to last year when only 6 of the 20 Derby runners were either speed or pace pressing types. It wasn’t surprising both the winner, Nyquist, and the third place finisher, Gun Runner, were sitting second and third throughout the race.

Runners using a pace-pressing style (sitting just off the speed) have won the Derby 40% of the time since 1992. Deep closers haven’t done too badly having won 24%. However, the real value with a deep closer has been in the exotics. They have made up 33% of the trifecta in the last 25 years.

Given the way the race is likely to shape up, Gunnevera still gets my nod. He’s a late runner who ran third in the Florida Derby, but was well-beaten, and that might discourage some from betting him. Best guess is he ends up around 12-1 on Derby Day.

There is precedent for horses winning the Derby following a defeat in their previous prep. In 1995, Thunder Gulch won the Florida Derby before being off the board in the Blue Grass. He rebounded to win the Derby at 25-1. Monarchos was defeated as the favorite in the 2001 Wood Memorial before his 11-1 win in the Kentucky Derby.

It’s too bad there is so much speed likely in the field. Conquest Mo Money, who also has speed, is quite an intriguing longshot. He set the pace in the Arkansas Derby and was very game to run second at 18-1. He made a big move into a fast pace in the Sunland Derby and hung in for second there, as well. In both races, he broke from the disadvantaged 11 post.

My current top 5 (of those who could still end up in the field):

1) Gunnevera, 2) Classic Empire, 3) Conquest Mo Money, 4) Irish War Cry, 5) Tapwrit.

Palace seminar

Please join Richard Saber, Gordon Jones and myself for a Kentucky Oaks and Derby seminar at Palace Station on Friday, May 5, at 8 a.m. There will be breakfast and coffee for those who attend. In addition, I’ll provide my five-page analysis guide for each day free (a $25 value). We’ll discuss both the Oaks and Derby in detail, as well as review the undercard races for both days.

Play of the Week

It comes in an allowance at Indiana Grand this Tuesday in the second race at 6 furlongs on the dirt. No. 3 KEADY is the play at 12-1 on the morning line. The trainer had a poor meet at Tampa but also had a poor meet there in 2016. He came into the opening day at Indiana and won a similar allowance at 5-1 here. This runner beat stakes winner, Ron, in his second start and should get a nice position early with the rider that was up for his only win.

Post time for the second race at Indiana on Friday is 11:33 a.m. PT.