The 138th Kentucky Derby is starting to take shape and the list of contenders is becoming more clear as each day passes. With 25 Derby prep races of one mile or longer now in the books, we have a better idea of what to expect come May 5th at Churchill Downs. Keep in mind, I said have a “better idea”. I didn’t say we know what to expect! There are plenty of good horses eligible, and many of them are coming off impressive races in the last week or two. On the flip side, Derby favorites from a month or two ago come into the race after less than usual efforts. Let’s break it down.
I’ll Have Another, trained by Doug O’Neill, burst onto the scene back on February 4 when he easily won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita. That was his first race since injuring himself on September 5th in the Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes (G1) at Saratoga. He went off at odds of 43-1 in the Robert B. Lewis. No one expected that performance. In the Santa Anita Derby (G1), he followed up his solid performance by showing everyone that his win was not a fluke. He sat off the pace then out-dueled Creative Cause at the wire to win by a nose. Creative Cause was and still is considered a Derby favorite. The final time of 1:47.88 was the fastest time posted going 1 1/8 miles in any Derby prep race. As of now, the Flower Alley chestnut colt will be ridden by jockey Mario Gutierrez. For Gutierrez, the wins on I’ll Have Another were his first Grade 1 and 2 career victories. He should be the jockey come Derby day.
Gemologist, trained by Todd Pletcher, doesn’t come in off back to back wins. He comes in with a perfect 5 for 5 record after winning the Resorts World Casino Wood Memorial (G1) at Aqueduct on April 7. It looked as if he would give way to a closing Alpha, but dug in and won by a neck. It was his first Grade 1 victory. He has the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes to his credit as well. He won that race back on November 26 at Churchill Downs. The final time of 1:50.96 is nothing to write home about. It was actually one of the slowest of all Derby prep races for 1 1/8 miles. However, you have to like the way he fought to the end after it looked like he was finished. His running style of sitting off the pace should be perfect for the grueling 20 horse, 1 1/4 miles Kentucky Derby. As mentioned, he did win at Churchill Downs, so he is familiar with the track and surface and gives him a slight advantage. Jockey Javier Castellano will once again ride this Tiznow colt.
Dullahan, the recent winner of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G1) at Keeneland, performed the way that many expected he would perform as the races became longer. He sat back as usual, made a huge late run to catch up and pass Hansen to win by 1 1/4 lengths. His story is quite interesting after 8 races. He broke his maiden by winning the Grade 1 Dixiana Breeder’s Futurity at Keeneland on October 8. This after unsuccessful attempts in maiden races on dirt and turf. He did follow up his win at Keeneland with a decent 4th place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on dirt. It was a distant 4th beaten by Hansen, Union Rags and Creative Cause. Trainer Dale Romans gave him a couple of months off and that seemed to help him. His first race as a three year old was a runner-up effort to Howe Great in the Palm Beach Stakes (G3) on turf at Gulfstream Park on March 11. That was the first time he ran 1 1/8 miles and he was flying at the end. Not to mention his first race in over four months. His win in the Blue Grass Stakes was impressive as he exhibited the exploding late kick and defeated a good field. The question looms, can he win on dirt? His two victories have both been at Keeneland on the all weather surface. He does have experience at Churchill Downs. By the time the Derby gets here, he will have had six months between dirt races. I don’t believe that will be as big a deal as some might expect. He has matured according to plan and seems primed for another big run. Kent Desormeaux is the jockey.
Bodemeister put himself on the map with his gritty 2nd place finish to Creative Cause (3/4 length) in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) on March 10 at Santa Anita. He held the lead at one point down the stretch and just ran out of gas at the end. That was just his third career start and first against the best horses on the grounds. For him to demolish the field, including stablemate Secret Circle, in the Arkansas Derby (G1) the way he did simply shows us how impressive this horse is. Not to mention, he ran in a final time of 1:48.71 while being eased near the end. One of the fastest times of the season for derby contenders. We’re already hearing about the 130 year old jinx regarding a horse not winning the Derby without racing as a two year old (Apollo in the 8th running of the Derby in 1882). Does that stat really matter? I’m a believer in stats, but real performances come into play as well. He nearly defeated Creative Cause, who many feel is still the favorite and just won the Arkansas Derby by over 9 lengths. This colt is for real and trainer Bob Baffert should feel very good about his chances of winning another Kentucky Derby. Mike Smith who rode him in the Arkansas Derby has been rewarded this mount for the Derby.
Creative Cause is a horse that hasn’t been able to consistently live up to the hype. Don’t get me wrong, he still has a legitimate chance at winning the Kentucky Derby, but he hasn’t been able to win back to back big races in his career. Usually a Derby favorite goes into the race on a high note, winning a race or on a winning streak. He only lost to I’ll Have Another by a nose in the Santa Anita Derby, but if you look at the last 1/16 mile Rosario is riding him aggressively while Gutierrez is comfortably riding his colt. I’ll Have Another has found a way to win both of his races this year. Creative Cause has won one of three so far. Will the 1 1/8 miles be too long for him? I don’t think so, I just think other horses will be better suited for the distance.
Union Rags is still polled as the Derby favorite despite his 3rd place finish in the Florida Derby (G1) on March 31. Since last Summer, this Michael Matz trained colt has been on the top of the rankings and for good reason. He easily defeated rivals in his first three races which included the Three Chimneys Saratoga Special Stakes (G2) at Saratoga and Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park. His defeat to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was an interesting one as he was all over the place down the stretch. It looked as if he ran further left to right than he did going straight down the stretch. He still only lost by a head. He was given three and a half months off before running in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. It was a walk in the park and won by 4 lengths. Was it a good field? Not really, but still was a comfortable win and he performed they way he needed to. In the Florida Derby, he didn’t seem comfortable. Around the first turn and parts of the backstretch he was pinched and cased in on the rail, but when he had the opportunity to run when everything opened up for him, he didn’t. It took from the far turn to half way down the stretch for him to fire. That is not a good sign in the last race before the Kentucky Derby. As the same with Creative Cause, they are living off past results. Are they still great horses, absolutely, but I feel others have caught up to them. In a couple of cases, even better than they are at this time. Julien Leparoux will remain aboard.
Hansen is the reigning two year old champion and should have been. He had a fantastic two year old campaign. However, it’s always tough to duplicate the same performances as a three year old. So many new horses come into the picture. Horses become bigger, stronger and faster. Not to mention the races get longer and harder. His defeat of Union Rags was a good one. He held on long enough to win. His first defeat to Algorithms in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park was taken with a grain of salt as it was his first race since the BC Juvenile and it was a drenched sloppy surface. We can forgive that one. The win in the Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct was a nice rebound, but the field he beat was not good. Many of the horses in the field came back to finish off the board in their follow up. Hansen ran as well as could expected in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G1) but simply ran out of gas at the end to a horse who had been waiting for quick fractions and a longer race, Dullahan. I take nothing away from Hansen and what he has accomplished in his brief career, but he will have more competition in the Kentucky Derby on the front and an additional 1/8 mile to deal with. I don’t like his chances. I believe he will be out of the top 2 for the first time, and off the board. I’m sure Michael Maker will run him in the Preakness. It’s a better fit although I believe still too long for this gray Tapit colt. He will bypass the Belmont Stakes (I hope) and focus on races between one mile and 1 1/16 miles. He should see a lot of success if they turn to that route sooner rather than later.
Daddy Nose Best is trainer Steven Asmussen’s best chance in the Derby. He comes into the Derby by sidestepping the major Derby races and the National media spotlight. He first won the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby on the all weather surface at Golden Gate Fields on February 18. His win in the Sunland Derby (G3) at Sunland Park is much like Hansen in the Gotham Stakes. He did what he needed to do, but the field was not strong. The one thing I do like about this colt is the final time of 1:48.59, one of the fastest times of the year. He is getting better with each race, he’s won two in a row and he has the running style to suit the Kentucky Derby. Not to mention, he began his career on turf. The transition to all weather and dirt was a good decision. New rider Garrett Gomez is a perfect fit for him with Julien Leparoux sticking with Union Rags and Mike Smith going with Bodemeister. This colt will go off at big odds but has a good chance at pulling off an upset.
Take Charge Indy finally got a big win. Well, a win in general for that matter. He won his maiden debut last July at Arlington Park then went 0 for 4 over the next four months. He finished 2nd in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (G3) in early September before being shipped to Keeneland. He ran 4th in the Dixiana Breeders’ Cup Futurity (G1). From Lexington to Louisville where he would finish a decent 5th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He was given almost 3 months off over the Winter before running in an Allowance at Gulfstream Park. He ran 2nd to El Padrino. The Florida Derby (G1) fell perfectly into place for the A.P. Indy colt. He went straight to the lead, set moderate fractions and held on to a one length win. He had enough at the end to finish in a solid 1:48.79. He will not get the same courtesy in the Kentucky Derby. There are several horses who will vie for the lead. If he wants the lead, he will set faster fractions and that will not help with the longer distance. Calvin Borel rode this Patrick Byrne colt for the first time in the Florida Derby. That seemed to help. Borel has done the un-thinkable before in the Derby, so certainly don’t count out any horse that has him aboard.
In the last couple of days, it’s as if Secret Circle is an afterthought from his 2nd place finish to stablemate Bodemeister. This is still a great horse, but the additional distance might have been too much for him. He won the one mile Grade 3 Southwest Stakes and 1 1/16 miles Grade 2 Rebel Stakes both at Oaklawn Park. The Rebel was his longest win at 1 1/16 miles, but the horses in that race are less than stellar. Bodemeister was clearly the best horse in the Arkansas Derby and Secret Circle just hung on for 2nd. This might be the same case as Hansen. He will be better suited for the Preakness (still a stretch) and afterwards sticking to one mile or 1 1/16 miles graded stakes races. He’s only lost twice in seven races, with four of the five wins at one mile or less. Baffert has enough solid horses to not put this colt in races that don’t make sense. Rafael Bejarano will get the mount once again.
The Kiaran McLaughlin trained Alpha has been one of the most consistent horses of the Derby Contender list. He’s finished first or second in 5 of six races, with the lone off the board result coming in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile where he had a brutal gate and never recovered. He ran 11th. Since then, he won the Count Fleet Stakes on January 7, Withers Stakes (G3) and ran 2nd to Gemologist in the Wood Memorial. If you like Gemologist, you have to like Alpha. It was his first real test and he passed with flying colors. The one setback was that he had every opportuntiy to pass Gemologist and he couldn’t. He has a running style suitable for the Derby with the off speed, come from off the pace tactic. With the Wood Memorial under his belt, he should improve and run well on May 5th. Ramon Dominguez has ridden him in 2012, but he also has ridden Hansen. If Dominguez sticks with Hansen, look for Alan Garcia to get this horse back. He rode him at the beginning of his career.
A private purchase by owner Team Valor over the Winter brought Went the Day Well from Europe to the Graham Motion barn here in the US. The move has been a good one so far. His first start on US soil was a 4th place finish, but he got off to a poor start and went wide the entire race. The winner of that maiden race, Teeth of the Dog just finished 3rd in the Wood Memorial on April 7. He handily broke his maiden next time out. A trip from Gulfstream Park to Turfway Park was on the travel schedule where he would run in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (G3), the same race Animal Kingdom won last year en route to winning the Kentucky Derby. The connections are hoping for a repeat. They are halfway there as this Proud Citizen colt took care of business. He rated early, exploded down the stretch to win easily by 3 1/2 lengths. He has the tactical running style perfectly suited for the Kentucky Derby. With a lot of speed expected, he should find himself in the middle of the field until they hits the far turn. If he can possess the same late kick he displayed in the Spiral and not get into traffic trouble, he could be another that upsets the field. Not many people are talking about him due to the loaded list above. John Velasquez will team up once again.
Sabercat is the second Asmussen trained colt that will make the trip to Louisville. I believe Daddy Nose Best will perform better, but the Derby over the years has had its fair share of upsets. Sabercat would be considered a huge upset if he were to pull it off. He gets in the Derby from his win last year in the $1,000,000 Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (G3). His first start of 2012 was in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 17 at Oaklawn Park. A four months gap between races. He ran like it was a full year. He never seemed interested and finished 8th. It’s tough to gauge his 3rd place effort in the Arkansas Derby as Bodemeister finished almost 10 lengths ahead of him. He narrowly missed 2nd by a neck as he was catching up to Secret Circle with each stride. He comes from far behind and that might help him late going 1 1/4 miles, especially if the speed goes accordingly. He will need a perfect trip to try and surpass up to 19 other rivals. It’s not out of the question, but I believe there are too many strong horses for him to pull it off. Corey Nakatani will once again ride.
Rousing Sermon should make the cut to qualify for the Derby. With $270,000 in graded earnings, he currently sits in 19th spot. We’ve already heard that Aidan O’Brien will not bring Wrote (IRE) from Europe. Trinniberg is not a long distance runner and Drill just ran 2nd in a non-graded stakes race at Oaklawn Park on the same day as the Arkansas Derby. This Jerry Hollendorfer trained colt has been in the mix each and every race, but can’t seem to get up for the win. He’s been in the money 8 of 9 races. The only time he missed was two races ago in a 5th place result in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes. He was a runner-up twice to Liaison in the Real Quiet Stakes and Grade 1 CashCall Futurity last fall at Hollywood Park. He finished 3rd in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G2) and most recently 3rd in the Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds. He has been waiting for the longer distance races as he runs out of room going one mile and 1 1/16 miles due to his late running style. I expected a better performance out of him in the Louisiana Derby. He lost to a 109 to 1 horse and finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Mark Valeski for 2nd. He did go 3-4 wide on the first turn and on the back stretch, then 6 wide on the far turn and the turn for home. It’s a good excuse, but that will only get worse in the Derby with a full field of 20. IF he can find a way to make his final move without going too wide, he will be in the mix. The 1 1/4 miles distance will be perfect for him. Mike Smith rode him in the last race, but will remain on Bodemeister. Expect previous rider Joe Talamo to make a return to the saddle.
As the same with Rousing Sermon, Mark Valeski should qualify for the Derby. With $260,000 in graded earnings, he sits in 20th but we expect him to move up at least 3 spots. He is another who has been bitten by the bridesmaid bug. After breaking his maiden last September at Delaware Park, he was given three months off over the Winter. His first start as a three year old was a win in an Allowance Optional Claiming $50,000 at Fair Grounds on January 13. He ran extremely well in his first attempt in Stakes company. He lost by a nose in a head bobbing duel with El Padrino in the Risen Star Stakes (G2). He followed it up with another solid performance in the Louisiana Derby (G2) as he finished 2nd. However, many will overlook this performance as he lost to Hero of Order as I mentioned earlier won at odds of 109 to 1. This is a solid horse, trained by a top trainer in Larry Jones. He will be ready to go come May 5th. I believe he is one who can make some noise at a decent price. Rosie Napravnik will get the call once again.
The Todd Pletcher trained El Padrino should sneak in and make the Derby field with his $250,000 in earnings. It looked as if he would be the one to take out Union Rags in the Florida Derby after posting back to back wins in an Allowance Optional Claimer at Gulfstream Park (defeated Take Charge Indy) and the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds. He sat in a prime position off the rail in 4th waiting to make his move and when the time came to make the move, nothing happened. He settled for 4th, 1 3/4 lengths behind Union Rags and 4 lengths from the winner Take Charge Indy. He’s shown he has the talent and the ability to win a big race. With Union Rags not performing well during the same race, maybe it was an off race, off track and the two of them come back strong in Louisville. Let’s keep an eye on morning workouts to see if he rebounds and trains well. Regular rider Javier Castellano will stick with Gemologist. John Velasquez has ridden him before but he will go with Went the Day Well. This could be a good pickup for a jockey looking for a ride in the derby.
Reveron came through with his best performance to date finishing 2nd in the Florida Derby and defeating Union Rags in the process. He currently sits outside the top 20, but should sneak in as we mentioned earlier. He could be the last horse to get in. Prior to the Florida Derby, he finished 3rd in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) on the heels of a three race winning streak that included the Gulfstream Park Derby, an Allowance race and his maiden. Trainer Agustin Bezara might have the longest shot on the board come Derby day, but could be poised for another good run if he can duplicate the Florida Derby effort. Elvis Trujillo should get the call.