Kentucky Derby 2017: Highlighting Early Contenders Ahead of Triple Crown Race

Gianni Verschueren@ReverschPassFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2017

HOT SPRINGS, AR - FEBRUARY 20: One Liner #11, ridden by John Velazquez, outruns Petrov #8 to win the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on February 20, 2017 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. (Photo by Ciara Bowen/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images)
Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

The 2017 Kentucky Derby won't take place until May 6, but with the Road to the Derby now completed, it's time to take a look at some of the early contenders ahead of the post draw.

As always, the champions of the Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby are favoured among punters at this time of the year, and for good reason. Thunder Show, the winner of the UAE Derby, is also steadily climbing the board, but as of right now, the colt is still well behind these three.

Classic Empire

Arkansas Derby winner

ARCADIA, CA - NOVEMBER 05:  Classic Empire ridden by Julien Leparoux wins the Sentient Jet Juvenile race on day two of the 2016 Breeders' Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park on November 5, 2016 in Arcadia, California.  (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

No horse in this year's field has a stronger resume than Classic Empire, with wins in the Arkansas Derby, Breeders' Futurity Stakes at Keeneland and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.

The win in the Arkansas Derby in particular is significant, as its run over a similar distance to the Kentucky Derby. In 2015, American Pharoah dominated the field at Oaklawn Park and promptly won the Triple Crown.

Here's a look at the race highlights from the Arkansas Derby:

Classic Empire has tremendous burst in the final stretch, but consistency has been an issue. The colt also got drowned out a little early in the Arkansas Derby, which is something that can't happen at Churchill Downs.

Per Mike Welsch of Daily Racing Form, he has looked good in preparation of the first leg of the Triple Crown:

Classic Empire will be a popular pick among punters as a decorated champion with impressive closing speed, although some questions about his stamina remain.

Always Dreaming

Florida Derby winner

If there's one thing that can't be questioned about Always Dreaming, it's his stamina. Just have a look at his dominant run in this year's Florida Derby:

The colt has a perfect resume in 2017 with two wins in two races, and he beat the favoured Gunnevera at Gulfstream by a huge margin.

He's been working well ahead of his move to Churchill Downs, to the delight of trainer Todd Pletcher, who told Bloodhorse he's right on track after a recent gallop:

I thought it was excellent,. We were looking for a nice, steady, solid, stamina-building breeze. He was very relaxed, very happy, moving well, and galloped out great. I was very happy. He’s been training great, eating well, (and his) energy level has been good. We’re really excited about how he’s doing.

Always Dreaming has impressed greatly this year, but a relative lack of experience could be an issue. Plenty of contenders will employ similar tactics of opening things up in the final stretch, and top champions like Classic Empire have the kind of closing speed Always Dreaming is yet to face.


Blue Grass Stakes third place

Other horses enter the Derby with a more impressive recent run―Irish War Memorial beat Classic Empire in February―but McCraken's poor finish at the Blue Grass Stakes can be blamed on injury. Prior to that race, the Kentucky local was unbeaten, with a win at Churchill Downs already under his belt.

The injury will have an impact on McCraken's preparation, but the colt loves the sod at Churchill Downs and could be a great value pick. He's also been impressive in preparation, per Marcus Hersh of Daily Racing Form:

Others to keep an eye on include Irish War Memorial, Gunnevera and Gormley, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby.