Kentucky Derby 2017: Top Contenders and Unheralded Horses in Lineup Field

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2017

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL - APRIL 01:  Always Dreaming #4 (FL) with jockey John Velazquez on board, wins the Xpressbet Florida Derby (Grade I) at Gulfstream Park on April 01, 2017 in Hallandale Beach, Florida. (Photo by Liz Lamont/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images)
Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

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
1GirvinJoe SharpMike E. Smith
2Classic EmpireMark E. CasseJulien R. Leparoux
3GormleyJohn A. ShirreffsJose L. Espinoza
4IrapDoug F. O'NeilMario Gutierrez
5Irish War CryH. Graham MotionRajiv Maragh
6Thunder SnowSaeed bin SuroorChristophe Soumillon
7Always DreamingTodd A. PletcherJohn R. Velazquez
8GunneveraAntonio SanoJavier Castellano
9Practical JokeChad C. BrownJoel Rosario
10J Boys EchoDale L. RomansRobby Albarado
11State of HonorMark E. CasseJose Lezcano
12TapwritTodd A. PletcherJose L. Ortiz
13HenceSteven M. AsmussenFlorent Geroux
14Fast and AccurateMichael J. MakerChanning Hill
15McCrakenIan R. WilkesBrian Joseph Hernandez Jr.
16Battle of MidwayJerry HollendorferFlavien Prat
17PatchTodd A. PletcherTyler Gaffalione
18UntrappedSteven M. AsmussenRicardo Santana Jr.
19Lookin At LeeSteven M. AsmussenCorey J. Lanerie
20SonneteerJ. Keith DesormeauxKent J. Desormeaux
21Royal MoJohn A. ShirreffsGary L. Stevens
22Local HeroSteven M. AsmussenN/A
23Master PlanTodd A. PletcherN/A
24PetrovRon MoquettN/A

Top Contenders

Classic Empire

LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 01:  Classic Empire runs on the track during the morning training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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 -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. 

Always Dreaming

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL - APRIL 01:  Always Dreaming #4 (FL) with jockey John Velazquez on board, wins the Xpressbet Florida Derby (Grade I) at Gulfstream Park on April 01, 2017 in Hallandale Beach, Florida. (Photo by Liz Lamont/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Imag
Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

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:

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.

Unheralded Horses


NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 01: Girvin #8 ridden by Brian Joseph Hernandez Jr. wins the 104th Louisiana Derby at Fairgrounds Race Course on April 1, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Steve Dalmado/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images)
Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

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.


LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 01: Hence completes his final workout for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 01, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images)
Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

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.