The 2017 Kentucky Derby represents a challenging puzzle for handicappers. The 1 ¼-mile race for 3-year-olds, the opening leg of the American Triple Crown, lacks a standout and a case can be made for more than half the 20-horse field.

I keep coming back to Always Dreaming’s powerful victory in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. The son of 2012 Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister sat just off the speed before pouncing off the far turn, quickly drawing clear with an outstanding turn of foot in upper stretch and rolled home much best.

Always Dreaming is my pick to win the Kentucky Derby.

Not everything has gone smoothly at Churchill Downs, with trainer Todd Pletcher changing equipment to keep his mount from acting up when jogging or galloping in the mornings. But when it came time to record a serious workout at Churchill Downs, Always Dreaming posted a brilliant 5-furlong drill (:59 3/5), easily the fastest at the distance that morning and impressed onlookers with a strong gallop-out.

He knows when it’s game time, winning three starts by a combined 20 lengths this year, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best from the improving sophomore. The dark bay colt figures to show high speed from post 5 with jockey John Velazquez and I expect to see him on the lead passing the stands for the first time.

Always Dreaming can carry his speed all the way in the Run for the Roses.

I will use the following runners underneath Always Dreaming in wagers:

Practical Joke rates as a serious upset candidate in my estimation. A multiple Grade 1 winner last year, the long-striding colt has made fine progress in a pair of starts this season and looks poised to deliver his best in the biggest race on the calendar. Look for Practical Joke to offer a good rally from midpack.

McCraken loves Churchill Downs (3-for-3) and is training forwardly over the strip according to all reports. His BRIS Speed Ratings are still a little light, but the late runner remains eligible to show up with a career-best that puts him in the thick of things in the latter stages.

Classic Empire is the 2-year-old champ and perhaps the most talented member of the field, but preparations have been less-than-ideal as he’s battled minor physical issues and barely made it back in time for the Arkansas Derby on April 15. I don’t know whether he will be fit enough for this extreme test off a short three-week turnaround, but the hard-trying Classic Empire can’t be dismissed from top 3 consideration.

Tapwrit can rebound from a disappointing performance in the Blue Grass. Gray colt offered a terrific turn of foot to capture the Tampa Bay Derby two back and while he regressed last time, Tapwrit should receive a much more favorable set-up for his rally Saturday.

State of Honor will be tested by the extended distance, but the hard-trying colt always seems to get part and could offer value to trifecta and superfecta bets.

Irish War Cry is eligible to outperform my expectations, running two of the fastest races this year with romping wins in the Wood Memorial and Holy Bull, but he likes to race up close and I worry he may not settle willingly from post 17, with plenty of front-running types to his inside.

Good luck in the Kentucky Derby!