Kentucky Derby 2017 Contenders: Horses, Jockeys with Best Chance at Triple Crown

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2017

LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 03: Classic Empire with Martin Rivers gallops at Churchill Downs on May 03, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images)
Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

Although American Pharoah's triumph is only two years old, horse racing fans are eager to see who emerges this weekend as the Triple Crown threat at the 2017 Kentucky Derby.

Some may have abandoned any hope of seeing another Triple Crown before American Pharoah achieved the feat in 2015. Considering the 37-year gap between American Pharoah and Affirmed, two Triple Crown winners in three years would be surprising.

In addition to the basic difficulty that comes with winning three graded-stakes races, the turnaround time between the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes seriously tests a horse's stamina.

Should any horse make a serious run at the Triple Crown, it's likely to be one of the three horses below.

Kentucky Derby Post Positions

PostHorseJockeyTrainer
1Lookin At LeeCorey J. LanerieSteven M. Asmussen
2Thunder SnowChristophe SoumillonSaeed bin Suroor
3Fast and AccurateChanning HillMichael J. Maker
4UntrappedRicardo Santana Jr.Steven M. Asmussen
5Always DreamingJohn R. VelazquezTodd A. Pletcher
6State of HonorJose LezcanoMark E. Casse
7GirvinMike E. SmithJoe Sharp
8HenceFlorent GerouxSteven M. Asmussen
9IrapMario GutierrezDoug F. O'Neill
10GunnevaraJavier CastellanoAntonio Sano
11Battle of MidwayFlavien PratJerry Hollendorfer
12SonneteerKent J. DesormeauxJ. Keith Desormeaux
13J Boys EchoRobby AlbaradoDale L. Romans
14Classic EmpireJulien R. LeparouxMark E. Casse
15McCrakenBrian Joseph Hernandez Jr.Ian R. Wilkes
16TapwritJose L. OrtizTodd A. Pletcher
17Irish War CryRajiv MaraghH. Graham Motion
18GormleyVictor EspinozaJohn A. Shirreffs
19Practical JokeJoel RosarioChad C. Brown
20PatchTyler GaffalioneTodd A. Pletcher
Source: KentuckyDerby.com

Kentucky Derby Favorites

Always Dreaming (John R. Velazquez)

LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 02: Always Dreaming, owned by Brooklyn Boyz Stables and trained by Todd Pletcher, exercises in preparation for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 02, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire/Gett
Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

Always Dreaming doesn't have a massive body of work when it comes to marquee events. He has appeared in one graded-stakes race.

He made the most of the opportunity, beating State of Honor and Gunnevera in the Florida Derby on April 1:

Whatever Always Dreaming lacks in terms of resume, he makes up for with raw physical attributes. He's a gifted horse who should have little trouble handling the distance of Churchill Downs.

Always Dreaming also got the luck of the draw in terms of the post positions. By starting in the No. 5 gate, he won't be so close to the rail that he gets penned in and be unable to move up in the field when the time comes. In addition, he'll won't have to expend much energy getting to the inside, which can be a problem for horses who drew positions further to the outside.

Classic Empire (Julien Leparoux)

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - MAY 02: Classic Empire, owned by John Oxley and trained by Mark E. Casse, exercises in preparation for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jesse Caris/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Imag
Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

The Kentucky Derby hasn't been kind to underdogs in recent years, with ESPN Stats & Info noting the odds-on favorite has won the event in each of the last four years. That trend bodes well for Classic Empire, one of the—if not the—strongest horses in the field.

While Always Dreaming received a friendly gate designation, Daily Racing Form's Jay Privman argued Classic Empire may be one of the best off:

After finishing third at the Holy Bull in February, Classic Empire experienced a foot abscess. He healed quickly and won the Arkansas Derby a little over two months later, rebuilding the general feeling of confidence about his status as a Kentucky Derby favorite.

"I've always said good horses win when everything goes their way; great horses win when nothing goes their way," trainer Mark Casse said, per John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "And I think he's a great horse. But I guess we'll determine that [Saturday]."

Jockey Julien Leparoux has won numerous graded-stakes events, but a victory in a Triple Crown race has so far eluded the 33-year-old. Classic Empire could help him end that drought.

McCraken (Brian Hernandez Jr.)

Garry Jones/Associated Press

McCraken will be standing alongside Classic Empire as the horses prepare to fire out of the starting gate. The first few furlongs should be fun to watch as the two go head-to-head.

The three-year-old was riding a four-race winning streak going into the Blue Grass Stakes last month. It wasn't a great performance, with McCraken hanging around fourth for most of the race and failing to make a surge in the final stretch.

McCraken has the advantage of having run Churchill Downs before. He won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in Louisville, Kentucky, in November.

The colt also has the speed and stamina to handle the mile-and-a-quarter track for Saturday. The Blue Glass Stakes wasn't a great endorsement of McCraken's abilities, but suffering a defeat may have been the best thing since trainer Ian Wilkes and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. can make any necessary adjustments for the Derby.