The hunt for a Triple Crown winner begins Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Were this a few years ago, such a statement would receive laughter and a casual wave of the hand—it just didn't happen.
But around 2014 things started to shift in the sport of horse racing and one can follow the jump in popularity around the sport alongside the return of serious Triple Crown threats. California Chrome almost pulled off the feat in 2014 before being stepped on out of the gates at the Belmont Stakes.
Rather than the dream dying as an anomaly put on by a special horse, American Pharoah pulled off the feat for the first time since Affirmed in 1978 the following year.
Looking at the Kentucky Derby field this year, there are one or two horses perhaps worth investing in when it comes to the Triple Crown.
2017 Kentucky Derby Details
Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky
Post Time: Saturday, May 6, at 6:34 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live
Prize Money: $2 million purse, with $1.24 million going to the winner, according to SportingNews.com.
Kentucky Derby Entries
|1||Lookin At Lee||Corey Lanerie||Steve Asmussen||28-1|
|2||Thunder Snow||Christophe Soumillon||Saeed bin Suroor||16-1|
|3||Fast and Accurate||Channing Hill||Mike Maker||66-1|
|4||Untrapped||Ricardo Santana Jr.||Steve Asmussen||50-1|
|5||Always Dreaming||John Velazquez||Todd Pletcher||4-1|
|6||State of Honor||Jose Lezcano||Mark Casse||40-1|
|7||Girvin||Mike Smith||Joe Sharp||16-1|
|8||Hence||Florent Geroux||Steve Asmussen||22-1|
|9||Irap||Mario Gutierrez||Doug O’Neill||25-1|
|10||Gunnevera||Javier Castellano||Antonio Sano||12-1|
|11||Battle of Midway||Flavien Prat||Jerry Hollendorfer||28-1|
|12||Sonneteer||Kent Desormeaux||Keith Desormeaux||33-1|
|13||J Boys Echo||Luis Saez||Dale Romans||33-1|
|14||Classic Empire||Julien Leparoux||Mark Casse||19-4|
|15||McCraken||Brian Hernandez Jr.||Ian Wilkes||13-2|
|16||Tapwrit||Jose Ortiz||Todd Pletcher||25-1|
|17||Irish War Cry||Rajiv Maragh||Graham Motion||13-2|
|18||Gormley||Victor Espinoza||John Shirreffs||16-1|
|19||Practical Joke||Joel Rosario||Chad Brown||16-1|
|20||Patch||Tyler Gaffalione||Todd Pletcher||33-1|
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As one can tell from the scarcity of the accomplishment, a Triple Crown winner doesn't just happen.
It takes an almost generational talent with extreme luck to pull off the feat, two factors which make bidding on this year's best shots before the Kentucky Derby quite risky.
The Mark E. Casse-trained Classic Empire is likely the best bet, though it's a scary one even if he looks the part. The colt took down events such as the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity Stakes and has mostly looked dominant against all competition, but suffered an injury that hampered results before a comeback and win at the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.
As such, it's no big shock to see Classic Empire near the top of the Triple Crown odds, according to Chris White of the Courier-Journal:
|Lookin At Lee||60-1|
|Fast and Accurate||400-1|
|State of Honor||250-1|
|Battle of Midway||100-1|
|J Boys Echo||60-1|
|Irish War Cry||20-1|
Always Dreaming is another nice option to consider. Running out of the fifth slot, the colt has superb jockey John Velazquez up top and took down the Grade 1 Florida Derby recently, an event which usually translates well to Churchill Downs.
Elsewhere, McCraken out of the 15th slot is quite interesting. The Ian Wilkes-trained colt won four consecutive starts before an ankle injury suffered in February. A touted contender at Churchill Downs, McCraken only put up a third-place finish at the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes in April but has the talent to win Saturday if back to full strength.
A few posts over, the Graham Motion-trained Irish War Cry is another option to consider. Inconsistency is the name of the game with the colt led by prominent jockey Rajiv Maragh—Irish War Cry won three starts in a row, then spit out a seventh-place finish in March before another top finish in April.
To summarize, there isn't a wrong Triple Crown bet when it comes to the top favorites at Churchill Downs, provided bettors understand the high-upside risks involved.
For those on the hunt for more immediate potential profits, payouts could look quite interesting this year. Long story short, rolling with the favorites is usually the best possible investment. As Rob McCurdy of the Marion Star noted, payouts have gone from huge lump sums to smaller rewards as of late:
The American Pharoah-Firing Line-Dortmund-Frosted finish paid $72.60 in the exacta, $202 in the trifecta and $1,268 in the superfecta. Not since Silver Charm's win in 1997 had there been a weaker return with the exotics when that exacta grabbed $31, the tri $205 and the super just $350.
It'd be a stretch to say parity in the sport is decreasing. Rather, oddsmakers—just like bettors and those involved in the sport—have more access to advanced data each year, making it easier to set the lines in a way to better protect the house.
Which isn't to suggest bettors should look forward to a down betting year. But it seems now more than usual, it's best to lean on the predetermined favorites.
Few would argue that makes this year's Kentucky Derby any less thrilling.