Based on the updated odds for several viable contenders, this will be one of the toughest calls in the 143-year history of "The Run for the Roses." Before the 20 entries settle into their starting gates for the 6:46 p.m. ET scheduled race on May 6 (NBC), here's what you need to know about this year's Kentucky Derby favorites and the past results of the first leg of horse racing's Triple Crown.
Post positions, morning line odds for 2017 Kentucky Derby
(Updated May 3)
1 Lookin at Lee 20-1
2 Thunder Snow 20-1
3 Fast and Accurate 50-1
4 Untrapped 30-1
5 Always Dreaming 5-1
6 State of Honor 30-1
7 Girvin 15-1
8 Hence 15-1
9 Irap 20-1
10 Gunnevera 15-1
11 Battle of Midway 30-1
12 Sonneteer 50-1
13 J Boys Echo 20-1
14 Classic Empire 4-1 (favorite)
15 McCraken 5-1
16 Tapwrit 20-1
17 Irish War Cry 6-1
18 Gormley 15-1
19 Practical Joke 20-1
20 Patch 30-1
AE Royal Mo 20-1
AE Master Plan 50-1
Favorites listed in bold. AE: Also entered.
Which 2017 Kentucky Derby contender has the best track record?
More than half the field (11 horses) is listed at either 15-1 or 20-1, making it tempting to go with a longer shot. But a group of four favorites has emerged, with Classic Empire edging out Always Dreaming for that early status. Right on their hooves, however, are two entries with "Darby" names, McCraken and Irish War Cry.
Classic Empire has won three of his past four races, including the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby on April 15. He has great bloodlines, having been sired by Pioneerof the Nile, most notably the father of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. McCraken has been on a similar run, with a good feel for Churchill Downs after he came back to win the Kentucky Jockey Club last November.
Always Dreaming has built momentum as the runaway winner of the Florida Derby on April 1. Irish War Cry has been boom-or-bust of late, rebounding to take the Wood Memorial on April 8 after fading hard to finish seventh in the Fountain of Youth on March 4.
If you're looking for some Gs at 15-1, Gunnevera would have the most upside, having shown well against Always Dreaming and Irish War Cry in those Gulfstream Park races, but Girvin has been the most consistent. Gormley may be too inconsistent to trust as a pick from those odds.
For now, the forecast in Louisville calls for rain both Friday and Saturday. That will be a big boost to McCraken, who has a good mudder's pedigree and the most track familiarity.
Which post position is the most advantageous?
In Kentucky Derby history, no positions have produced more winners than Nos. 5 and 10, tied with nine overall. That lines up well for Always Dreaming, positioned well away from the other favorites and where California Chrome won only three years ago. That's also more sleeper fodder for Gunnevera, but it's been 12 years since another G won from No. 5, Giacomo in '05.
Being near the rail has been bad news. It's been 31 years since Ferdinand won from No. 1, and 39 years since Affirmed won from No. 2. Sorry, Lookin for Lee and Thunder Snow.
The sweet spot in recent years has been anywhere outside No. 12. In reverse order back to 2008, such winners include Nyquist (No. 13), American Pharoah (No. 18), Orb (No. 16), I'll Have Another (No. 19), Animal Kingdom (No. 16), Big Brown (No. 20). That's good for Classic Empire, McCraken and Irish War Cry.
Which trainer can you trust the most?
Doug O'Neill has two wins in the past five Kentucky Derby races with Nyquist and I'll Have Another, so that means you can't totally ignore Irap. Todd Pletcher, who won with Super Saver in 2010, is behind Always Dreaming, Tapwrit and sentimental one-eyed favorite Patch. Graham Motion, who trains Irish War Cry, trained Animal Kingdom in 2011. John Shirreffs is hoping Gormley can give him his first Kentucky Derby win since Giacomo in 2005.
There's a good trend, however, for Classic Empire's Mark Casse and McCraken's Ian Wilkes. In the past 17 races since 2000, only O'Neill and the legendary Bob Baffert have been multiple winners; otherwise it's been a trainer winning for the first time.
What active jockey has had the most success in the Derby?
Mario Gutierrez, who has won two of the past four including riding Nyquist, is another feather in the cap of Irap. Victor Espinoza, who won the other two of four, is on another all-star team for Gormley.
John Velazquez, a winner aboard Animal Kingdom in 2011, has the reins of Always Dreaming. Classic Empire is counting on Julien Leparoux to come through with his first Derby win. McCraken's jockey, Brian Hernandez Jr., won the 2009 Preakness Stakes with filly Rachel Alexandra.
Kentucky Derby picks
Weighing all the factors, the odds and the field are a bit stacked against Classic Empire, especially with McCraken in the adjacent position. If the track is wet, as expected, and everything else holds, this is the best projection for Saturday at Churchill Downs:
Place: Always Dreaming