Once a race in which anything could happen and any horse could win, the Kentucky Derby has been all too predictable the past four years.
The betting favorite has won each of the four. Orb, a $5.40-to-1 favorite, won in 2013. California Chrome ($2.90) ran to his ranking in 2014. Triple Crown champion American Pharoah ($2.90) prevailed in 2015. The unbeaten Nyquist ($2.30) completed the job last year.
Over the previous 20 years, only four favorites — Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Smarty Jones in 2004, Street Sense in 2007, Big Brown in 2008 — had brought home the roses.
So what gives? As we embark on the 143rd running of the world’s greatest horse race, with Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire the 4-1 morning-line favorite, why have recent runnings favored the favorites?
Consensus points to Churchill Downs’ implementation of the points system, starting in 2013, that replaced the graded stakes earnings criteria that previously determined the 20-horse field. Under the old system, a 2-year-old could win a shorter sprint race and earn enough money to qualify for the Derby. Under the points system, Churchill places more weight on the longer Derby prep races for 3-year-olds.
“We were having a false pace before,” said Mark Casse, who trains Classic Empire. “We had a bunch of horses that were in because of their sprint form. Now you don’t see the hot pace normally. These horses that are here now are here because they are good right now.”
“I was a real skeptic of it,” said Graham Motion, who trains Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry. “But I actually think it has been a very smart move. I don’t think anyone has been kept out that should have been in and perhaps it has kept some out that didn’t.”
John Shirreffs, who trains Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley, begs to differ. Shirreffs trains Royal Mo, who won the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis, finished third in the Santa Anita Derby, ended up 21st on the points list and will be in Shirreffs’ barn Saturday.
“And you have to be careful that you don’t control things too much, because you want the Cinderella story, right?” said Shirreffs, who won the 2005 Derby with 50-1 shot Giacomo. “Do you always want the favorite to win? I think the Cinderella story is sometimes maybe better than other stories.”
The story of this year’s race may have much to do with the possible lack of a fast pace. There is no obvious speed horse who will immediately take the lead, often setting up the finish for the closers.
“It looks like a lot of the horses have a similar track-and-attack (style),” said Doug O’Neill, trainer of Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap. “Watching Always Dreaming train, you’d have to think he’d be the most forwardly placed if they all break on time.”
Who will be there at the end?
“I think there are a lot of good horses in here,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Always Dreaming, winner of the Florida Derby, as well as Patch and Tapwrit. “I think any time you have a horse like McCraken or Classic Empire who are undefeated over the Churchill surface, that’s a huge, huge thing to have on your side.”
McCraken finished third in the Blue Grass but is three for three over the Churchill Downs surface, including a win in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club last November. Classic Empire is two for two at the Downs.
Yet when asked for his analysis of the handicapping sheets, Casse said, “I guess if you said, ‘Hey, Mark, if you got to pick one horse and remove him from the race,’ it would be Irish War Cry.”
In fact, Girvin enters Saturday atop the Derby points standings. The Louisiana Derby winner, 15-1 in the morning line, won’t be the favorite come the 6:46 p.m. post time, however.
That honor is likely to rest on Classic Empire’s shoulders, but it could also be a curse. Not since the horse-and-buggy era (1891-1896) has the Kentucky Derby favorite won the race five straight years or more. Not that this bothers the trainer.
“I love being the favorite,” Casse said. “That means you have the best shot of winning.”
The field for Kentucky Derby 143
Lookin At Lee
L and N Racing
Saeed bin Suroor
Fast and Accurate
Kendall E. Hansen
Ricardo Santana Jr.
Brooklyn Boyz Stables
State of Honor
Battle of Midway
WinStar Farms and Don Alberto Stable
J Boys Echo
Albaugh Family Stables
John C. Oxley
Brian Hernandez Jr.
Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Robert V. LaPenta
Irish War Cry
Isabelle de Tomaso
Jerry and Ann Moss
Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence