2017 Kentucky Derby Preview: An Embarrassment of Riches

Around 2002, after studying 10 years’ worth of Kentucky Derby results, I felt ready to etch my Gold Standard parameters in stone. When my two Gold Standard qualifiers in 2003 (Funny Cide and Empire Maker) finished first and second, I began etching faster than Rembrandt on Red Bull.

Then came the dry years. From 2004 through 2007, not a single one of the 75 or so Kentucky Derby starters rose to the level of my Gold Standard. Doubts surfaced.

Had the North American thoroughbred suffered a permanent decline in ability? Should I lower my standards to account for that? Should I drink less Red Bull?

In the end I did what any good gambler does in uncertain times. I hedged.

I developed the Silver Standard with slightly lower criteria. Giacomo, the $100 Derby winner in 2005, fit this lower standard. So did Barbaro in 2006. I had discovered my answer to racing’s temporary or permanent decline. Animal Kingdom, I’ll Have Another, California Chrome and Nyquist confirmed it in the ensuing gold-forsaken years.

As lucrative as betting Silver Standard qualifiers has been in the lean years of this century, that strategy fails repeatedly in years when a Gold Standard horse shows up. And, for reasons I can’t explain, Gold Standard horses are showing up a lot more lately.

In 2015, for the first time in over a decade, more than one horse qualified as a Gold Standard play. American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund all met the standard that year. And much like the golden pair of 2003 that I mentioned, these qualifiers seized the top spots on the toteboard, finishing first, second and third, respectively.

This year nearly half a dozen horses headed for the Derby starting gate ran fast enough early and late to qualify for the Gold and Silver Standards. Now I wonder if I set the benchmarks too low.

Maybe the breeding industry is on a huge upswing, which means I need to adjust my standards upward. Maybe this year is just a fluke, which means I should leave these enormously effective markers alone. For now I’ll go with, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But that means I have a lot of difficult analysis to do.

Silver Standard Stars

Even though my bets this year focus on the two likely Derby starters who met the Gold Standard criteria, I want to say a few words about the two Silver Standard horses. I could make a case for issuing each one an honorary pass into the Gold Club, but I own just three gold-plated feed tubs currently.

Tapwrit, one of several Todd Pletcher trainees in this year’s Derby, earned Silver status in the Tampa Bay Derby in March. He promptly plummeted into the “Ugly Also Ran”

category a month later in the Blue Grass Stakes. Tapwrit was squeezed at the start, held back for four furlongs and left in the dust down the stretch by the fresh frontrunners.

I mention this incident because Tapwrit might have vaulted into the Gold Standard with a clean start and a bona fide effort throughout. If you’re drawn to “woulda’, coulda’, shoulda’” factors at long prices, this might be your boy. After all, this is the “Year of the Rebound,” with Classic Empire, Irish War Cry, Hence and McCraken all bouncing back strongly after injuries and poor outings. Might that theme play again for Pletcher and Tapwrit in the Derby?

I doubt it, but 25-1 could change my mind enough to draw a small wager from my pocket.

Classic Empire is the other Silver Standard qualifier this year. The BC Juvenile winner had a few minor injuries that interrupted his training schedule and left him one race short of an ideal prep season. Coming back from injury, he won the Arkansas Derby at supposedly less than 100 percent fitness.

There might be an important parallel here between Classic Empire and Nyquist, who won last year’s Kentucky Derby off a similar prep schedule. Nyquist’s light schedule, with a big gap between his winter debut and his spring follow-up, was by design. Classic Empire’s scheduling happened by accident. Both came off long layoffs to win major late- spring Derby preps in fast time and earn Silver Standard status.

In my 2016 Kentucky Derby Preview, I noted that Nyquist certainly would have qualified for the Gold Standard if he had the usual three prep races instead of just two. Given Classic Empire’s victory in the BC Juvenile last year, the versatility and speed he’s shown, and the likelihood that he’s still improving, he should be considered an honorary Gold Standard horse and bet accordingly.

The downside of giving Classic Empire the benefit of the doubt is that you won’t be too well rewarded. He’s the likely race favorite this year. By the time I get to the “Betting the 2017 Kentucky Derby” section, I hope to have a wagering strategy figured out for you.

Gold Standard Standouts

Two Todd Pletcher trainees qualified as Gold Standard horses: Always Dreaming and Malagacy. They’re the first two Pletchers to do so since Super Saver in 2010, who remains Mr. Pletcher’s one and only Derby winner. The other Gold Standard horse is Steve Asmussen’s surprise winner of the Sunland Derby, Hence.

Malagacy might be scratched from the race after a disappointing fifth-place finish to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby. Pletcher has questioned this horse’s ability to carry his speed long distances, and Malagacy’s Arkansas Derby stretch fade convinced Pletcher he was correct. Even if Malagacy runs, I might side with Pletcher and downgrade his chances of winning.

Both Pletcher and I (and a few million racing fans) remain more impressed with Always Dreaming. He defeated 20-plus opponents by a total of 20 lengths in his most recent three races. His Florida Derby win blew the screws off the timers, ringing in as the fastest Florida Derby since the Spanish-American War. (No, that’s not the recent battle against bilingualism in Florida’s public schools. I’m referring to the military conflict in Cuba in 1898.)

My one concern with Always Dreaming, and it’s a minor one, is that he has run truly fast only once. His other victories are slow-paced walkovers against weak competition. My concern is mitigated by his consistent M.O. He toys with his rivals early and just about flies away from them late. The heightened competition in the Florida Derby didn’t alter that pattern a bit.

Hence enters the fray as the longest shot of the Gold Standard horses (the actual qualifiers and the honorary one). His low status among the high-status runners stems from his victory in the Sunland Derby, a minor track that’s relatively new to hosting major racing events. As impressive as Hence’s victory was that day, he’s still seen as a big fish in a small pond unlikely to measure up when the venue changes.

The Sunland Derby became a serious Derby prep just 8 years ago when Mine That Bird came out of that race to win the Kentucky Derby at better than 50-1. Since then, Firing Line came out of the Sunland Derby to finish second in the Kentucky Derby and claim the honor of giving American Pharoah the best run for his money on the Triple Crown trail. This year Irap used Sunland as a stepping stone to winning the Blue Grass Stakes, and Conquest Mo Money exited the Sunland Derby and ran a bang-up second to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby. Not a bad 8-year record of achievement for Sunland Derby competitors!

Hence, don’t be talked out of betting on Hence. Don’t be swayed into thinking he won’t measure up. History suggests otherwise, and the toteboard offers a return well worth any actual or perceived risk in backing him.

Why Trust the Lazy Bettor Approach?

Prior to the book’s publication in 2013, Gold Standard horses won the Kentucky Derby 9 times in the 14 years a horse qualified. Although some years fielded more than one qualifier, the overall ROI if you bet on all of them equally amounted to +207 percent.

After the book’s publication, only 3 horses met the Gold Standard. As mentioned all three competed against one another in 2015, finishing first, second and third. Additionally, my Derby Previews advised treating California Chrome and Nyquist as honorary Gold Standard qualifiers because of their particular circumstances.

In the three years since the book’s publication, the top Beyer pointed to only one Derby winner, California Chrome, as did the top BRIS speed figure. The top Lazy Bettor horse won all three times.

My post-mortem research of 22 runnings of the Kentucky Derby (from 1992 through 2013) pointed out Kentucky Derby winners at an enviable and incomparable rate. My pre-race picks since then confirm the superiority of my methods.

Betting the 2017 Kentucky Derby

Top Pick: Always Dreaming

2nd Best: Hence

3rd Choice: Classic Empire

I recommend betting primarily on Always Dreaming, with Hence and Classic Empire as minor backups. In other words arrange your bets so that your largest potential payoff will be with an Always Dreaming victory.

Bet a smaller amount on the longshot Hence and Classic Empire. Arrange these secondary bets so that your return is about the same on either.

The past two times that more than one Gold Standard horse appeared in the Kentucky Derby, those horses filled the exacta spots. So I also recommend boxing these three horses in an exacta. Also bet an exacta box with Always Dreaming, Classic Empire and Tapwrit. That gives you an extra exacta ticket if the two low-priced horses finish first and second. It also gives you an inexpensive shot at a large exacta if Tapwrit wins.

Overall the exactas should be a small portion of your Derby bets, with the Win wagers accounting for about 75 percent of your action. That might not produce an embarrassment of riches, but it should provide Lazy Bettor readers a tidy profit for the fourth year in a row.