Using the categories I’ve used to evaluate the overall chances of these horses for the last five years in this blog — ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree — I’ll provide one value bet for each category as well as the one that ticks all of the boxes.
For the purposes of this piece, I’ve eliminated from the running Classic Empire, Always Dreaming , Irish War Cry, McCraken, Gunnevera, Practical Joke and Girvin, which were the seven horses who had the lowest closing odds for Derby future wagers for Las Vegas bookmakers Wynn and William Hill.
Of course, value is relative when it comes to Kentucky Derby betting. If you firmly believe McCraken will win the 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the 8-1 odds he closed at represent a terrific opportunity for a horse who has been sent off at 8-5 odds or lower in his last three starts.
In fact, with no slam dunk favorite like California Chrome or American Pharoah this year, I encourage you to make a nice win bet on the horse you like best, even if it’s less than 10-1 odds. Ten bucks on Gunnevera at 9-1 would pay you $100 and put you ahead for the race even if you also want to get creative with an exacta or trifecta. And if you like a horse at 18-1 or 22-1, plunk down a nice win-place bet on him knowing if he runs first or second, you’ll make a nice profit.
The Derby winner very likely will be one of Classic Empire, Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry, McCraken or Gunnevera, but this blog is about longshots and value plays, so let’s dive in starting with ability and find some nice prices to spice up your Derby tickets.
Ability: If we are talking purely about ability, you have to like what you’ve seen from Thunder Snow. You can read the profile I wrote about him after he won the United Arab Emirates Derby for a more comprehensive look at Thunder Snow’s chances. The skinny is that I won’t be picking him to win the Derby because of the many obstacles he’s facing: shipping from Dubai to Central Kentucky, a touch of immaturity, acclimating to a new racetrack and climate, dealing with a faster pace and bucking UAE Derby history. But I could see him running well enough to hit the board at a huge price (25-1 on Wynn, 18-1 on William Hill). He more than held his own against elite runners on grass in Europe as a 2-year-old — no small accomplishment given the quality of competition — winning a Group 1 in France and running second in a pair of Group 2 races in England. Moving to the main track he won the UAE Two Thousand Guineas by 5 ¾ lengths and the UAE Derby by a head over a very talented Japan-based runner, Epicharis.
Running style: What I liked best about Tapwrit’s win in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby was the visually impressive move he made on the turn to take command. I love to see the push-button acceleration from a Derby horse, like we saw very recently in American Pharoah, California Chrome, Orb, I’ll Have Another and Animal Kingdom. It’s a trait most recent Derby winners share. He has the speed to race in midpack and launch a bid on the final turn. Sure, the Toyota Blue Grass was a major step in the wrong direction. The last six Derby winners entered off a win and you rarely see in the history books a Derby winner who came into the race off a total dud. But those types of horses can hit the board (see Bluegrass Cat, 2006), and aside from the Blue Grass, Tapwrit had been consistent and fast. He’s also got a very nice pedigree: by leading sire Tapit out of Grade 1 winner Appealing Zophie. There is a lot of value there if he slides up to 18-1 or so, but definitely make sure you get a decent price. Near 10-1 there should more appealing options coming off of strong races.
Connections: Owner Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez won the 2016 Kentucky Derby with Nyquist and the Derby and Preakness in 2012 with I’ll Have Another. Initially, I was ready to dismiss Irap completely after he scored his first career win in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, but there are a few things I do like, including his connections and the 35-1 price listed by both Wynn and William Hill. He also showed a real willingness to fight, like his sire, two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow, and he’s got a terrific pedigree. At first glance, I thought he might be distance challenged as a half-sibling to champion sprinter Speightstown, but there’s plenty of stamina on the bottom half of the pedigree and there’s no denying the class of Speightstown, a top 10 sire every year from 2010 through 2015. He’s coming into the race off a career-best performance in which he beat multiple Grade 1 winner Practical Joke, multiple graded stakes winner McCraken, Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit and Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo. He’s also got some pedigree power, an eight-race foundation and he’s in capable hands.
Pedigree: There are others in the Derby with more big-name stakes winners in the first four generations of their pedigree than Patch, but this one just feels like he’s going to really relish the extra distance. He’s by 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags out of Windindy, a winner at one mile by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner and Horse of the Year A.P. Indy. His grandam (maternal grandmother), Unbridled Wind, by 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, was a winner at 1 1/8 miles and a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles. Unbridled Wind also is a full-sister to 1998 champion 3-year-old filly Banshee Breeze, who won the 1 ½-mile Coaching Club American Oaks among five Grade 1 wins. He enters the Kentucky Derby off a runner-up finish in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby in only his third start and I think he could be poised to take a big step forward.
Best Overall: Of the horses not listed among the top seven choices by either William Hill or Wynn, Hence is the only one I would consider betting to win. He ran a huge race in winning the Sunland Derby and came home very fast. Ordinarily, he’d be a prime candidate to bounce (react negatively to a career-best performance), but I think six weeks of rest should be sufficient time to recover. Plus, the runner-up from that race came back to finish second in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby and fourth-place finisher Irap subsequently won the Blue Grass. Hence also figures to get a solid pace to set up his closing kick and he’s got the services of elite rider Florent Geroux, who I consider one of the three or four best riders in the country. Trainer Steve Asmussen is still looking for his first Derby win, but he’s finished second once and third twice in the first jewel of the Triple Crown, and he owns two victories in the Preakness and one in the Belmont Stakes. I was initially skeptical of his pedigree as a Derby horse, but digging deeper for his Making the Grade profile alleviated most of my concern. Hence gets a stamina boost from his dam, Floating Island, who is by the aforementioned A.P. Indy, one of the most influential sires of the last 50 years and a major source of stamina. Wynn had him listed at 40-1 and William Hill at 30-1, but we won’t get anywhere near that price. I’d happily jump on board at 15-1.