America’s most famous horse race, the $2 million Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, will feature one of its most competitive fields ever when 20 horses line up for the 1¼-mile classic at 6:24 p.m. ET Saturday.
This Derby is so deep that Grade 1 stakes winners (and logical win contenders) Creative Cause, Hansen, I’ll Have Another and Take Charge Indy are all listed at 10-1 or higher on the morning line. There is plenty of value to be had — even the post-time favorite is going to pay more than $10 to win — but solving the puzzle requires some luck.
The inside may be the shortest path around the track, but outside posts are preferable for all but confirmed closers in the Kentucky Derby. Traffic is a major concern — there is a lot of bumping in a crowded pack of horses — and an inside post cost Lookin at Lucky, the 2010 favorite and eventual champion 3-year-old, any chance when he was shuffled toward the tail of the field entering the first turn. He could not make up the lost ground and finished sixth.
The top two favorites in Saturday’s field, Bodemeister and Union Rags, are stuck in post 6 and post 4, respectably. That’s potentially trouble for both of them. If everything goes right, either one is capable of overcoming the less-than-favorable starting position, but there is little margin for error.
I do not advocate selecting a name out of a hat or throwing a dart at it (even though both methods could work in a year like this when half the field owns a legitimate chance) and will rank the field in order of my handicapping preference:
1) I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: Posted impressive wins in both starts this year, the Santa Anita Derby and Robert B. Lewis Stakes, and the chestnut colt looks set for a peak performance on Derby day. Built to relish the added distance, I’ll Have Another has trained superbly at Churchill Downs for Doug O’Neill and post 19 is an advantage considering his run style. He can be placed anywhere during the early stages with his cruising speed and his jockey, Derby newcomer Mario Gutierrez, will be able to avoid trouble while establishing a good stalking position during the long run to the first turn. I’ll Have Another found another gear in the stretch of both starts this year and possesses the push-button acceleration that is a common trait in Derby winners. The classy colt that is going to be overlooked in the wagering (12-1 morning line) and I like his chances for a minor upset.
2) CREATIVE CAUSE: Love the way he always shows up with a classy performance — the hard-knocking gray colt has made seven straight starts against graded stakes rivals and has never been beaten more than a length — and the Mike Harrington trainee has registered century-topping BRIS Speed ratings and huge Late Pace figures (112-112-115). Creative Cause recorded a good third at Churchill Downs last fall in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and missed by only a nose against I’ll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby. We could see the same result on Saturday.
3) UNION RAGS: Very imposing. He had the look of a potential superstar when winning his 2010 debut in Fountain of Youth, but faltered when finishing third as 2-5 favorite in Florida Derby. Can’t blame him too much considering trip — he was stuck down inside most of the way — and the winner was loose on the lead over speed-favoring track. However, jockey Julien Leparoux faced enormous criticism and is probably focused upon getting the big, long-striding colt into the clear on the outside, which could be difficult from post 4. Union Rags has lost two of his last three due to troubled trips and that’s worrisome here, but Barbaro moved forward significantly from the Florida Derby to Kentucky Derby for Michael Matz and the trainer will be looking for a similar jump forward from Union Rags.
4) BODEMEISTER: Picking him fourth is a concern because Bodemeister is the fastest horse in the field based on BRIS Speed ratings, but the inexperienced colt did not race at two (no Derby winner has lacked juvenile experience since Apollo in 1882) and had everything his own way against a suspect field in the Arkansas Derby last time, cruising easily to the lead from his far outside post. Bodemeister will likely face serious pressure from Trinniberg and Hansen, who are drawn much more favorably to his outside, and Mike Smith will likely send him early, increasing the possibility of a hot pace that could soften up the likely favorite. Bodemeister does have three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert in his corner and the improving colt remains a threat to prevail on the front end.
5) GEMOLOGIST: Perfect from five career starts, Gemologist is two for two at Churchill Downs and is well-bred for the distance. He proved resilient when threatened late in the Wood Memorial, gamely turning back a challenge to win going away under the wire, but remains relatively untested following a light schedule this year. Gemologist is facing a class check, but the promising colt must be regarded as a dangerous win candidate for leading trainer Todd Pletcher.
Horses and their handlers prepare for the annual Run for the Roses on Saturday.
6) DULLAHAN: Passed a lot of horses to record a fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall, but he’s done his best running on turf or synthetics and appears to prefer those surfaces despite being a half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. Dullahan appears to be training forwardly for Dale Romans and the late runner owns the acceleration to make a serious impact if he takes to the dirt.
7) TAKE CHARGE INDY: He’s done his best running on the lead this year, but Take Charge Indy proved effective when rating in 2011 and experienced a troubled trip when fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs last fall. Jockey Calvin Borel, a three-time Derby winner, is aggressive and may look to establish a forward position from post 3 and that strategy could work out favorably for the improving Pat Byrne-trained colt if he sits comfortably just off the early leaders. But Take Charge Indy doesn’t want to get burned up chasing a fast pace.
9) ALPHA: He’s made steady progress this year for top trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and has a chance to keep moving forward with a strong showing. He owns one of the best pedigrees for the Derby, but Alpha did miss some training time recently due to an infection. Can’t get too excited about his Derby chances, but Alpha could be a good one down the road.
10) DADDY NOSE BEST: He appears to be training well for trainer Steve Asmussen and will try to make his presence felt in the stretch. Daddy Nose Best exits a couple of starts in New Mexico and Northern California, so he hasn’t been facing strong company, and dropped both starts at Churchill Downs last summer. The late runner does pick up a heady rider in Garrett Gomez and he offers some appeal for the bottom of the exotics.
11) ROUSING SERMON: Has not run fast enough to make a case for his win chances, but Rousing Sermon is a late runner with some potential for a small share. His Late Pace numbers are respectable and the Derby should set up well for a closer. He merits a look for the bottom of a trifecta or superfecta at huge odds (50-1 morning line).
12) EL PADRINO: Thought he had the makings of a serious Derby contender earlier this year, but El Padrino went off form after a nice win in the Risen Star Stakes in February and does not appear to be thriving presently. He may develop into a top runner later this year, but the chestnut would be a huge surprise on Saturday.
13) DONE TALKING: Maryland-based colt exits a slow win in the Illinois Derby and could easily find this company too tough, but Done Talking owns the right running style to pick up the pieces for a minor award if he keeps improving.
14) WENT THE DAY WELL: Did not break his maiden until March, but Went the Day Well will enter the Derby on the upswing for trainer Graham Motion, posting a sharp win in the Spiral Stakes on Turfway Park’s Polytrack, and these are the same connections of last year’s Derby winner Animal Kingdom. He won on dirt two back, but the inexperienced colt is probably not fast enough to make a significant impact here.
15) PROSPECTIVE: By all accounts, he loves the track at Churchill Downs and will enter the Derby in fine form for trainer Mark Casse. But Prospective brings lower Speed numbers into the race and likely needs an easier spot to be effective.
16) LIAISON: He captured a Grade 1 in December, but never ran fast at two and has regressed badly this year with three straight poor showings. Liaison could not match strides with a workmate while preparing for the Derby and would be a big shocker.
17) SABERCAT: Ended last year with a win in the lucrative Delta Jackpot, but Sabercat has showed little in two appearances this year and doesn’t appear capable of challenging.
18) OPTIMIZER: His best surface is probably turf — he ran big on the grass in two starts at Saratoga last summer — and the late runner has performed poorly in three of his four dirt starts. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas is a four-time Derby winner, but Optimizer is probably overmatched.
19) TRINNIBERG: Sprinter will attempt to take the field as far as he can on the lead, but it’s difficult to envision him sustaining his speed throughout.
20) DADDY LONG LEGS: Drew the worst possible starting position and looks better on turf. This will probably be a wasted trip for the Irish invader.
21) MY ADONIS: Unlikely to make the field from the also-eligible list and would be impossible to recommend if he does.
Kentucky Derby champion Animal Kingdom was unable to go out a winner, fading quickly in the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday in his last race before retirement.
Ramon Dominguez, a three-time Eclipse Award winner as the leading jockey in North America, retired on Thursday due to a head injury suffered in a fall earlier this year.