Classic Empire set as sportsbook favorite in 2017 Kentucky Derby betting

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While Classic Empire has the bloodline and has given his owners a big bankroll, being the best two-year-old horse is not necessarily a harbinger of Kentucky Derby glory.

Classic Empire is the +425 betting favorite to capture the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, according to sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. It appears bettors have the 1A-or-1B mindset, with Always Dreaming listed at +450.

The top of the board also features McCraken (+600), Irish War Cry (+600), Gunnevera (+1200) and Girvin (+1600). The large 20-horse field and the potential for a wet track at Churchill Downs could make for a highly randomized outcome.

At one point, Classic Empire’s price was as high as +1000, but the sire off 2009 Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile became a popular pick after his victory in the Arkansas Derby in his most recent start. Classic Empire’s record also includes winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race for two-year-olds, last season. However, since 2000, only three colts who have claimed¬†that prize have gone on to win the Derby the following season.

Always Dreaming has three wins in five career starts, although there is reason to wonder whether the dark bay colt has benefited from suspect competition. With Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez as his mount, Always Dreaming stands a good chance of pushing to the front of the pack during the crowded first quarter-mile at Churchill Downs.

Horse players might have cooled on McCraken after he was pulled out of the Tampa Bay Derby two months ago, but the colt owns three wins at Churchill Downs where he had to come from behind on the home stretch.

Irish War Cry, ridden by Rajiv Maragh, will try to be the first horse to win from Post 17. His position in the starting gate aside, Irish War Cry was impressive earlier this season with wins in the Holy Bull and Wood Memorial races.

The price on Gunnevera is enticing, especially since Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano will be his mount. Gunnevera has shown he has the stamina to pour it on on the backstretch, which is always a concern with three-year-olds who are new to running 1 1/4 miles.

A foot problem has wreaked havoc with the training for Girvin. While the track conditions could be an equalizer early Saturday evening, it’s hard to feel good about a horse whose preparation has been set back.

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.