Of the 20 horses set to run, five stand out as the pre-eminent threats to bring home the roses. One of the strongest horses set to run Saturday is Union Rags. He’s trained by Michael Matz, who conditioned 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, and ridden by Julien Leparoux. Union Rags was the impressive winner of this year’s Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream but faltered to finish third after a bad trip in the Grade I Florida Derby. Leparoux took some heat for his ride in the Florida Derby and he promptly went to Twitter and said, “I’m going to stay off Twitter tonight, BUT to all the ones that say that I sucked, I will prove you wrong...”
Union Rags will be coming from the middle of the pack and will likely face traffic problems, and it will be up to Leparoux to pilot the colt away from harm.
“Well, you always try to go with a plan in a race, you know, but to get a plan, you got to see first the post positions for everybody,” Leparoux said on an NTRA Teleconference. “You cannot try to get a plan. Usually in a race you have to ride your horse as it comes because, you've got Plan A, but usually you need a Plan B and C.”
Last year’s juvenile champion Hansen is among the strong and balanced contingent of 3-year-old colts into this year’s renewal of the Derby. Hansen, the white son of Tapit, comes off a disappointing loss in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, but that shouldn’t stop him from being a major threat on the lead right from the break.
The horse that beat Hansen in the Blue Grass was Dullahan, a horse trained by Kentucky-native Dale Romans. A year ago, Roman trained a colt named Shackleford to a gutsy fourth-place effort in the Derby and then went on to win the Preakness two weeks later. Now Romans feels he has a strong contender in Dullahan for this year’s renewal.
“Dullahan has great acceleration,” Romans said. “I mean he can go from zero to 60 like a Ferrari. He has, to me, what I think it takes to win at the Kentucky Derby, that acceleration to get yourself out of trouble and [out of] tight holes like he did in the Blue Grass.”
Dullahan came from 10 lengths back to zip past a tiring Hansen under the wire for jockey Kent Desormeaux. Desormeaux won the Derby most recently aboard Big Brown in 2008, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Real Quiet in 1998. This gives Jerry Crawford, manager of Donegal Racing, peace of mind.
“He's absolutely a Hall of Fame rider; he gave us a Hall of Fame ride last Saturday, there's nobody I have more confidence in during a big race,” Crawford said. “And, you know, he's going to have to be good to get everything out of Dullahan that he has to offer.”
Bodemeister, a Bob Baffert-trained colt, displayed the most visually impressive race of the season with his smashing gate-to-wire win in the Grade I $1 million Arkansas Derby. Breaking from the far outside in an 11-horse field, jockey Mike Smith took Bodemeister to the front and blew up down the stretch to win by nine. The problem with a speedball like Bodemeister will be the pace of the 1 ¼ Derby.
“The main concern is the fractions,” Smith said. “You certainly don't want to go too, too quick otherwise it takes a toll on you toward the end, but he’s just a very naturally quick horse. We’ll be, you know, looking forward to place. That's just the way it is. So my main concern is to get him relaxed, get him in a rhythm, and go from there.”
Hansen will join Bodemeister up front, but the curious addition of Trinneberg, winner of the Grade III Bayshore at Aqueduct has never run longer than seven furlongs. His presence muddies the situation up front.
“He's a very good horse in his own right,” Smith said of Trinneberg. “He deserves his shot if they want to take it, but, yes, I mean he is a quick horse, as well. Again, we'll just have to see who draws where and, you know, who gets away well, and we'll go from there. Like I said, my horse is trained, or his natural speed is high true-to-speed, and I'm certainly not going to take it away from him.”
Bodemeister recently turned in a dashing 59.60-second five-furlong breeze Sunday morning at Churchill Downs.
Gemologist rounds out the top contenders. The son of Tiznow won the Grade I $1 million Wood Memorial with ease and promises to give WinStar Farm a run at its second Derby win in three years. Trainer Todd Pletcher conditioned 2010 Derby winner Super Saver for WinStar and Gemologist’s Wood victory puts him right up top.
CEO, president, and racing manager of WinStar Farms, Elliot Walden, is big on Gemologist, especially given the comparisons the colt shares with his sire Tiznow.
“He's got some physical traits,” Walden said. “Gemologist has Tiznow's size, has his stature, has that long shoulder that Tiznow has, got the developmenter's gaskin that Tiznow has and the power that comes from behind. The other thing that strikes me about Gemologist in reference to Tiznow is his attitude. Tiznow is a very, very intelligent horse. He’s extremely smart in the Stallion Barn. He's a horse that has a real character, real definition to his psyche, and Gemologist is just as easygoing and smart. When you look into Gemologist's eye, you see something that looks back at you and that's the only way I know to describe it. And that does remind me of his daddy.”
Post time for the Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday at 6:24 p.m.
Brendan O’Meara can be followed on Twitter @BrendanOMeara. (http://twitter.com/BrendanOMeara)