Classic Empire secured a starting spot as the favorite in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. That might seem like enough to pick him to win: Since the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system was established in 2013, four straight favorites have won on the first Saturday in May. Then again, you have to go all the way back to the Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland administrations (1891-95) to find the last time five straight favorites won the Derby.
Classic Empire became the favorite by recovering from an underwhelming third-place finish behind Irish War Cry and Gunnevera in the Holy Bull Stakes in February to storm past Conquest MoMoney in the stretch in the Arkansas Derby. The son of Pioneer of the Nile seeks to join Nyquist (2016) and Street Sense (2007) as the only horses to complete the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-Kentucky Derby double since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984. Classic Empire could also become the sixth 2-year-old champion in the last 40 years to win both the Eclipse Award as top juvenile and the first leg of the Triple Crown as a 3-year-old.
“I’ve always said good horses win when everything goes their way; great horses win when nothing goes their way,” Classic Empire’s trainer Mark Casse told John Clay of the Herald-Leader on Wednesday after the draw. “And I think he’s a great horse. But I guess we’ll determine that” on Saturday.
Classic Empire was 2 for 2 under the spires as a 2-year-old but he isn’t the only contender with enough speed and stamina to win the first leg of this year’s Triple Crown. But first, let’s eliminate some pretenders.
All winners since 1998 raced as 2-year-olds. Only two of the last 48 Derby winners — Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) and Monarchos (2001) — did not win as 2-year-olds. Always Dreaming came close to hitting the wire in 2016, losing by a neck in his second career start, but didn’t get to the winner’s circle until he broke his maiden at the age of 3. Same for Hence, a chestnut colt bred by Calumet Farm.
It’s been 83 years since a maiden won the Derby (Brokers Tip in 1933). With zero wins in 10 starts, Sonneteer is unlikely to break that streak.
The last time a horse won from the rail (post position No. 1) was Ferdinand in 1986. Before that it was Chateaugay in 1963, allowing you to confidently cross Lookin at Lee off your contender list. Next to him is Thunder Snow, the winner of the UAE Derby. No Derby horse has finished in the money after winning in Dubai, and horses coming out of the No. 2 gate have won just seven times in 87 tries since 1930 — none since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978.
|2012||I’ll Have Another||19|
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State of Honor is an early speed horse who has been first at the second call in six of his 10 lifetime starts, winning once with that running style as a two-year-old maiden. Chances are slim he joins the only other front-running colt to win the Derby wire-to-wire this century: War Emblem in 2002.
Forty of the last 41 winners were sharp in their last prep race (top-three finish or within four lengths of the victor) leading up to the Derby, with the past 66 winners having all raced at 1 1/8 miles before trying the classic 1 1/4-mile distance at Churchill Downs. That eliminates Untrapped (sixth in the Arkansas Derby), J Boys Echo (fourth in Blue Grass Stakes), Tapwrit (fifth in Blue Grass Stakes) and Fast and Accurate (longest race on dirt is one mile).
No Blue Grass Stakes winner has won the Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991, and the last horse to compete in the Blue Grass and win the Derby was Street Sense in 2007. That’s bad news for Practical Joke, Irap and McCraken.
Since 2003, only two horses — Empire Maker and Funny Cide — finished in the top three of the Wood Memorial before doing the same in the Derby, making it difficult to back Irish War Cry.
No horse since 1970 has won the Kentucky Derby when the Louisiana Derby has been their final prep. Girvin and Patch each had their final race at Fair Grounds leading up to the 143rd Run for the Roses.
And how a horse finishes in its final prep is important, especially over the last three-eighths of a mile. Each of the last five Kentucky Derby winners — and 15 of the last 20 — ran the last three-eighths of its final Derby prep race in less than 38 seconds. Gormley and Battle of Midway ran that stretch in 39.74 and 40.37 seconds, respectively.
That leaves us with two contenders: Gunnevera and the favorite, Classic Empire.
Gunnevera overcame a bad post and speed-favoring track in his third-place Florida Derby finish, running the final three-eighths of a mile in 36.59 seconds, the third-fastest time among the Derby field. He is also an off-the-pace runner who fits the mold of prior winners in the last decade — since 2010, only Orb (2013) was more than five lengths back at the mile mark.
But most importantly, Gunnevera is running his best as a 3-year-old: His 102 Beyer speed figure at Gulfstream in the Fountain of Youth Stakes a career high.
Classic Empire, meanwhile, had his best Beyer as a 2-year-old (102) in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. Since 1998, every Derby winner except for one, Street Sense in 2007, has run faster at 3 than at 2.
At 15-to-1 opening odds, Gunnevera is set to hit the board at a monster price.
Corrections: Nyquist won the Derby in 2016 and War Emblem won wire to wire in 2002.