Churchill Downs has not hosted an underdog tale in recent years. That may change without a clear-cut favorite to win Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
The 143rd Run for the Roses features several capable colts in a field led by Classic Empire and Always Dreaming. None of the top candidates, however, carry the same Triple Crown expectations that California Chrome, American Pharoah and Nyquist held before emerging victorious from the "most exciting two minutes in sports."
That makes this weekend's race ripe for an upset. Let's examine the full probable field, highlighting a couple of top contenders and unheralded competitors.
|2017 Kentucky Derby Probable Field|
|1||Girvin||Joe Sharp||Mike E. Smith|
|2||Classic Empire||Mark E. Casse||Julien R. Leparoux|
|3||Gormley||John A. Shirreffs||Jose L. Espinoza|
|4||Irap||Doug F. O'Neil||Mario Gutierrez|
|5||Irish War Cry||H. Graham Motion||Rajiv Maragh|
|6||Thunder Snow||Saeed bin Suroor||Christophe Soumillon|
|7||Always Dreaming||Todd A. Pletcher||John R. Velazquez|
|8||Gunnevera||Antonio Sano||Javier Castellano|
|9||Practical Joke||Chad C. Brown||Joel Rosario|
|10||J Boys Echo||Dale L. Romans||Robby Albarado|
|11||State of Honor||Mark E. Casse||Jose Lezcano|
|12||Tapwrit||Todd A. Pletcher||Jose L. Ortiz|
|13||Hence||Steven M. Asmussen||Florent Geroux|
|14||Fast and Accurate||Michael J. Maker||Channing Hill|
|15||McCraken||Ian R. Wilkes||Brian Joseph Hernandez Jr.|
|16||Battle of Midway||Jerry Hollendorfer||Flavien Prat|
|17||Patch||Todd A. Pletcher||Tyler Gaffalione|
|18||Untrapped||Steven M. Asmussen||Ricardo Santana Jr.|
|19||Lookin At Lee||Steven M. Asmussen||Corey J. Lanerie|
|20||Sonneteer||J. Keith Desormeaux||Kent J. Desormeaux|
|21||Royal Mo||John A. Shirreffs||Gary L. Stevens|
|22||Local Hero||Steven M. Asmussen||N/A|
|23||Master Plan||Todd A. Pletcher||N/A|
The slight favorite prior to drawing post positions at 4-1, per OddsShark, Classic Empire notched a pair of Grade 1 victories at Keeneland and Santa Anita last year. He cemented his spot by winning the 1 ⅛-mile Arkansas Derby on April 15.
John C. Oxley's colt galloped to first with a resurgent push down the closing stretch:
It was a redeeming performance for Classic Empire, who finished third in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes two months earlier. According to USA Today's Dan Wolken, the horse ran the February race with an abscess in his right foot and later refused to train.
Trainer Mark Casse framed those setbacks as part of an often arduous process.
"We were fine with it because I always felt like we had time to correct it," Casse told Wolken. "It's not simple. A lot of people think they're automobiles or machines. It's not that way. We got to a point where every day was crucial. I never really felt great until we got to Arkansas and ran."
Oddsmakers are clearly buying his recovery, but Empire comes with more risk than the typical front-runner.
Having already obtained three first-place finishes this year, Always Dreaming also has the makings of a popular pick.
Trainer Todd Pletcher wields three entrants in hopes of snagging his second Kentucky Derby triumph. For his top contender, he has enlisted Hall of Fame jockey John Velasquez, who, according to Equibase, has won 25 percent of his races with the fourth-most winnings this year.
They had the colt clicking on all cylinders on April 1, when he comfortably ran away with the Grade 1 Florida Derby:
According to BloodHorse's Alicia Wincze Hughes, Pletcher will try to tame the feisty Always Dreaming by practicing in draw reins throughout the week. David Grening of Daily Racing Form wasn't impressed with the early results:
David Grening @DRFGrening
Always Dreaming went slower while galloping in draw reins but he bucked several times and didn't seem totally comfortable with them.2017-5-1 10:14:21
Pletcher, on the other hand, preached patience to Wincze Hughes after Monday morning's run.
"I think it will be better tomorrow," Pletcher said. "This was his first day in draw reins and sometimes it will take a day or two to adapt to them. But I thought it was good."
Don't overreact just yet, but keep an eye on his training progress leading up to Saturday.
Leading the way with 150 points earned through prep races, Girvin still isn't billed as a top contender. As of April 18, he's been given 20-1 odds on OddsShark.
The relatively inexperienced colt has won three of his four starts, finishing second in the outlier. Legendary jockey Mike Smith will ride him into Churchill Downs with regular jockey Brian Hernandez instead saddling McCraken.
Per Wolken, trainer Joe Sharp said his horse sustained a quarter crack on his right hoof. Yet Wolken wrote that "it appears all systems are go" for Girvin after running five furlongs in 59.6 seconds on Sunday.
"As long as he stays like he is now, he's definitely on track to run in the Derby," Sharp told Courier-Journal's Jason Frakes. He showed today he didn't lose any fitness."
An unencumbered Girvin should receive considerable Derby-betting attention.
A late bloomer, Hence needed four races to finally break his maiden. Two months later, he dominated the Grade 3 Sunland Derby, beating Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money by 3 ¾ lengths.
As noted by OddsShark's Mike Dempsey, Mine That Bird won the same event in 2009 before pulling off a Kentucky Derby stunner. Firing Line, 2015's Derby runner-up, also won the Florida event.
Hence is gaining some buzz before the 10-furlong run. Trainer Steve Asmussen, however, told Frakes that he would rather avoid the spotlight.
"I'm always leery of that," Asmussen said. "There's so many bad-luck people out there that we don't want any mooches on us. We don't know if we can carry that kind of thing."
Well, sorry about this, but the speedy Hence warrants sleeper appeal over the next few days.