Spoiled by Nyquist and American Pharoah, amateur horseplayers lack a starting point for handicapping Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

The past two years, contemplation of a Derby wager began with deciding whether to ignore the impeccable credentials of the aforementioned colts. This year is different and discussing the Derby without referencing wagering is a joke. Much like folks who occasionally bet NFL games and do more on the Super Bowl, casual horseplayers double up on the Derby, intrigued by the months-long run-up and the 20 possibilities.

Without stretching a point, a reason can be found to toss one or all of the morning line favorites — Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire (4-1), Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming (5-1), and McCraken (5-1), unbeaten until third in the Blue Grass a month ago.

Last year, Nyquist arrived at Churchill Downs unbeaten in seven starts, including four Grade I races. He won by more than a length and paid $6.60 as the favorite.

A year earlier, American Pharoah won five in a row prior to the Derby, including a bang-up performance in the Arkansas Derby, his third Grade I. He won by a length and paid $7.80 as the favorite.

Saturday’s betting favorite will have higher odds than either of the last two winners. In fact, no more than four of the runners are likely to be less than 10-to-1 in a group of 3-year-olds that might turn out to be average at best.

Those inclined to toss Classic Empire can cite a third-place finish, later blamed on an abscessed foot, and his refusal to do what thoroughbreds are bred to do — run — while training in South Florida.

Always Dreaming naysayers will note that he is virtually untested. In his first start at 3, he won by almost 12 lengths. Next, he won by four. Second most of the way in the Florida Derby, he cruised past the tiring leader and won by five.

Some question whether McCraken wants to go 1 1-4 miles, noting that the leaders were not running fast in the Blue Grass stretch and McCraken still didn’t make up ground on the longshot winner.

Plus, none of the favorites have a speed figure better than 97 this year. J Boys Echo ran a best-of-the-lot 102 in New York in March, but was fourth five weeks later in Kentucky.

Maybe finding reasons to eliminate horses is the way to go.

Some handicappers are adamant that Derby participants should be judged solely on how they fared in their final Derby prep.

Since Arkansas Derby winner Smarty Jones won in Louisville in 2004, only two Kentucky Derby winners have finished worse than second in their final race prior to the Run for the Roses and both were major upsets.

In 2009, Mine That Bird was fourth in the Sunland Park Derby, beaten 3 1-2 lengths in his last race before winning in Louisville. Four years earlier, Giacomo was fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, beaten two lengths, and then won on the first Saturday in May. The former paid $103.20 for a $2 win ticket; the latter returned $102.60.

If a one-two finish is a must for a Derby winner, Arkansas Derby participants Lookin At Lee, Sonneteer, and Untrapped would be eliminated from consideration along with Gunnevera, McCraken, J Boys Echo, and Tapwrit.

To do so is risky.

Recent history also suggests Irish War Cry and Battalion Runner can be dismissed. They were the 1-2 finishers in the Wood Memorial and the last 30 horses to run in the Wood and the Derby have not hit the board in Louisville. Ironically, 11 Wood winners won the Derby between 1930 and 2000.

If confused, one option is to sit out the race. Then, again, this is the once-a-year Derby and it appears to be wide open. Ignoring both the final prep race rule and the New York stigma, the exacta box includes Classic Empire, McCraken, J Boys Echo, and Untrapped.


Harry King is sports columnist for GateHouse Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: hleonk42@gmail.com