5 Triple Crown Contenders

by Chris Scheeren
on May 1, 2017

We are barely a week away from the 143rd Run for the Roses and it is time to start narrowing down those Derby Party wagers. There are two early favorites, Classic Empire and Always Dreaming but both are still nicely priced at +500. A third horse, Irish War Cry is priced in a similar neighborhood at +650, and are about a dozen horses in the +1000 (10:1) to +2500 (25:1) range.

But the question before the Kentucky Derby is always broader than just the Derby. The REAL question is, do any of these horses and jockeys have what it takes to become just the thirteenth Triple Crown Winner. American Pharaoh broke the nearly four-decade drought two seasons ago in 2015, becoming the first Triple Crown Winner since Affirmed in 1978. Interestingly, as great as American Pharaoh was, his Derby time was actually nearly two seconds slower than Nyquist’s 201.31 last year. Nyquist, of course, went on to finish a disappointing third at the Preakness and scratched from the Belmont.

The point is, besides a great horse and jockey, a lot of good fortune factor into winning a Triple Crown; the relative strength of the field, health, track conditions, etc.

Do any horses in this year’s talented field have a shot at become lucky number thirteen?

Let’s start with the simple math; this is the 143rd Kentucky Derby. There have been 12 Triple Crowns. Even with a dominant front runner (which this year lacks) Triple Crown winners are exceptionally rare. So by no means is a second Triple Crown winner in three years a probable occurrence. Current odds on ANY horse winning the Triple Crown (you don’t have to pick a specific one) range between +550 and +700. If you want to fade this proposition, you’ll have to lay a fat -1000.

But it also worth stating another obvious fact; you can’t win a Triple Crown without winning the Kentucky Derby, so much of this column will focus on odds that currently exist for the first leg of the race. One more fact worth noting – and one that adds some tremendous value in the huge odds on a few longshot horses – the “favorite” isn’t always obvious this early in the process.  Four horses in the last two decades won the first two legs of the Triple Crown despite entering far from the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. In 2002, War Emblem paid out $43 on his Derby win. Funny Cide was 13/1, I’ll Have Another was 15/1 and Charismatic was a whopping 31/1 in 1999. Of course, American Pharaoh WAS the overwhelming favorite in 2015… and became the only horse to finish off the trifecta in 38 years.

#1. The Co-Favorite: Classic Empire (5/1 – Kentucky Derby)

Classic Empire enters the Derby as the co-favorite (though keep in mind horseracing lines move far more quickly and dramatically than other major American sports – this is a very fluid situation) at 5/1. His strong showing at the Arkansas Derby elevated him to co-favorite status. A lot is being made of the fact that the last four Derby’s were won by favorites – but keep in mind, three of them were OVERWHELMING favorites; Nyquist, American Pharaoh and California Chrome went off as no more than 2/1. There is no such dominant horse in this year’s field.

Alas, Classic Empire does have the look of being the best of the 2017 crop. He won going away as the favorite at Arkansas and was handled masterfully by jockey Julien Leparoux. He is also currently the second rated horse on Horse Racing Nation’s overall rankings. Classic Empire is anywhere from +450 to +600 right now, but will likely narrow a bit as the amateur money comes in late and seizes on the “bet the favorite” trend of the past four years.

#2. The Other Co-Favorite: Always Dreaming (5/1 – Kentucky Derby)

Always Dreaming likely cemented his co-favorite status two way; first with his impressive performance in April 1st Florida Derby win, and secondly, by the sheer virtue of being legendary trainer’s Todd Pletcher’s next prize colt. He won the Derby with Super Saver in 2010, and has won other legs of the Triple Crown with Palace Malice, and famous filly, Rags to Riches.

Always Dreaming has placed in the top three in every race he has run, so expectations are high for a potential Derby victory. And again, if you can win the first leg of the Triple Crown, you gotta shot…

This is currently the top-rated horse on Horse Racing Nation, which factors in not just placement in races, but also speed and form.  This is a worthy co-favorite with a highly capable jockey and incredible trainer and lineage, and a viable Triple Crown threat.

#3. The Value Play: Gormley (10/1 – Kentucky Derby)

You have to give a good horse an even better chance to win the Kentucky Derby when it is jockeyed by the legendary Victor Espinoza. The three-time Derby winning jockey has the horse with the speed to compete, so don’t out a fourth title past him. Gormley is going off right now at ten to one odds, slightly deflated after a disappointing showing in his second to last prep race. There are some slight concerns about the horse’s overall speed, but he did capture a hard-earned win in the San Anita, proving his winning capabilities.

One bad showing aside, this horse has won four of his last six races, and is now mounted by the same guy who rode American Pharaoh to glory two years ago. Gormley is still as high as 12/1 with a few odds makers and is my early underdog value pick for the Kentucky Derby.

#4. The Intriguing Underdog: Irish War Cry (12/1 – Kentucky Derby)

There’s a lot to like about this underdog horse. First, his bloodlines are great, having been sired by Preakness Champion Curlin (third in the Derby, second at Belmont). Secondly, his individual performance. He won the Grade 2 Wood Memorial earlier this month, which captured some real attention.

Irish War Cry’s odds are seriously depressed by a disastrous showing in the Fountain of Youth. However, if you eliminate that one race – call it just a bad day to have a bad day – then you have a champion-caliber horse. Those are my favorite kinds of wagers. I like to know, in all sports, “how good is your good.” Bad days can happen to anyone, but at your best, can you be THE best. In Irish War Cry’s case, the answer appears to be, yes.  Can he muster that best in the Derby (let alone two more times) remains to be seen, but this is a viable longer-odd candidate to finish in the money.

#5. The Experts Underdog: McCraken (12/1 – Kentucky Derby)

A horse that isn’t in the top two or three according to the Vegas odds, but is getting a lot of love from experts is McCraken. Three of the six writers on KentuckyDerby.com picked McCraken as their Derby Champion and two others had him finishing in the money, making him the most popular overall selection, ahead of favorites Always Dreaming and Classic Empire. McCraken’s overall resume isn’t dazzling; a third-place finish at the Bluegrass wasn’t awe-inspiring, but Horseracing Nation has him as their third-ranked horse speed-wise. Experts love his ability to start at a moderate pace, just behind the pack, only to close down the field with a flurry of late speed.

This racing style is IDEAL for the 1 ¼ mile distance at Churchill Downs and makes McCraken an interesting underdog pick at the Derby, and an even better prospect at the Preakness. The poor-performance at the Bluegrass may be a blessing for savvy bettors – a win there would likely have landed McCraken as the favorite instead of a ten to twelve to one longer shot.

Those are my five favorite horses with a chance to join the immortal circle of Triple Crown winners. Obviously, at +650, it isn’t LIKELY any do accomplish the feat, but there are some very talented horses entering the gates next Saturday.

The Kentucky Derby is May 6th, the Preakness on May 20th and the Belmont Stakes on June 10th

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