Americans love a good redemption story. The reverend who succumbs to the weakness of the flesh and then repents. The washed-up boxer who gets one last shot at the championship. Even American gamblers gobble up such tales. Seabiscuit comes immediately to mind.

Wise bettors realize the tellers of those tales cash in on them more than the listeners. And wise bettors pay attention to how these story lines affect the odds. So let’s examine the buffet of tasty comeback tales known as the 2017 Kentucky Derby.

Let’s start with winter darling McCraken. A foot sprain sidelined him briefly after he won the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa. Trainer Ian Wilkes assured his followers that only a single workout was skipped in dealing with the injury. Although caution dictated that McCraken skip his next scheduled prep, we were told not to lose faith.

After McCraken finished a nonthreatening 7 lengths behind the Blue Grass winner, Wilkes remained upbeat. Much of the national racing press has adopted Wilkes’ view. McCraken needed the race, they say.

So he suffered no serious setback with the injury, but he comes back so badly out of shape that he gets thrashed by a horse who previously was winless. Don’t fall into the gaping plot holes in this comeback narrative.

Irish War Cry rebounded from a clunker of a race by winning the Wood Memorial Stakes. Trainer, jockey and speed-figure gurus all expressed joy in their own ways. But Irish War Cry won that race in slow time over a surprisingly weak field.

Todd Pletcher, infamous for starting any horse he can in the Kentucky Derby, was so unimpressed with second-place finisher Battalion Runner that he opted not to run him in the Derby. The same goes for Chad Brown, trainer of the show horse Cloud Computing. Woohoo, IWC! Or not.

One revival with legs is the victorious return from injury by juvenile champ Classic Empire. He circled the field in the Arkansas Derby, posting a win in above-average time.

This horse possesses a world of talent, but his tale of woe makes him a weaker Derby contestant, not a stronger one. He showed up rank for his 3-year-old debut, ran a struggling third and suffered minor injuries in the wake of that effort. With a long layoff after that, he essentially comes to Louisville with a European-style prep season: one race, won from far off the pace with a solid late charge.

If you look at how poorly Euro invaders have fared over the years, you might have to think twice about backing him as the favorite. Then again, this guy has risen to the occasion on every major stage he has been on.

(I say more about him in my “2017 Kentucky Derby Preview.”)

The best comeback story probably belongs to Sunland Derby winner Hence. He demonstrated a complete form reversal from his prior dismal stakes effort. And the horses he beat at Sunland came back to run very well in other major Derby preps.

The story drew less coverage than others with similar setbacks even though his rebound  was more noteworthy. Unlike McCraken and Classic Empire, this comeback kid comes to town at his best and at long odds.

If you’re going to buy into a redemption tale (aka, some degree of inconsistency), you might as well shoot for the moon, the stars, and heaven above.

Roger LeBlanc
May 3, 2017