A quick study

LEO looks at this year’s top Kentucky Derby contenders

Apr 25, 2012 at 5:00 am
A quick study
Photo by Benoit

Many say Bodemeister will be the betting favorite in the 138th Kentucky Derby.

Why that’s so important we don’t know — unless you’re trying to avoid the obvious horse in a race whose outcome is seldom obvious. Maybe the prospective favorite needs to be identified because there will be betting — $100 million-plus — and who gets the most bets is a story. Like who gets the most votes. Except it’s not an election. While you can make all the mistakes you wish in the voting booth, they don’t let you cash incorrect votes at Churchill Downs.

And a vote for Bodemeister might well be incorrect. There are at least eight other very strong contenders for the 2012 Kentucky Derby — the best-stocked Run for the Roses in maybe decades.

But Bodemeister, who ran off and left ’em in the Arkansas Derby, certainly has appeal. Derby fans love to catch a comet on the rise.

Here’s a look at the top contenders, and we’ll begin with the sudden star, Bodemeister.

Great but green

First, a little ID: Bodemeister is a horse that ran wild two weekends ago in the Arkansas Derby — an unchained runaway who trounced a modest field by nearly 10 lengths. Looked spectacular.

But what makes Bodemeister the probable Derby favorite is the fact that his trainer is Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, with three seconds. The public has tremendous confidence in Baffert, and they should. He’s a guy who knows horses, and most people regard that occupation as something best left to wizards.

Baffert is a wizard because he has clients — horse owners — who stock his barn each season with top thoroughbred prospects, and he can take it from there. And this horse, Bodemeister, just happens to be named for Bob and Jill Baffert’s son, Bode.

The horse — ridden by Mike Smith — is owned by Ahmed Zayat, who has about a jillion horses, and nobody knows exactly where he gets his money. Zayat had horses finish second in the Kentucky Derby in 2009 (Pioneer of the Nile) and 2011 (Nehro).

As a racehorse, Bodemeister looks the part, a handsome son of Empire Maker. Bay in color. Long legs. Pretty head. Fast.

“The horse that impressed me the most so far was that Bodemeister,” says Barry Irwin, whose Team Valor Stables won the Derby last year with Animal Kingdom and will run Went the Day Well this year.

“I mean that one — that was Big Brown-like to me,” Irwin says, referencing the dominant Derby winner of 2008. “He’s the most talented horse. Whether he can come back in a relatively short period of time after a big race like that, and whether he’s going to be able to fend off other horses on the lead, I don’t know. But just from a pure talent point of view, he looks like he’s the one.”

A strong endorsement for Bodemeister.

Too bad he can’t win … at least, historically.

Bodemeister made his first career start on Jan. 16 and has run just four times. Each time fast, faster, fastest — posting the highest Beyer Speed Figures of any horse in the field. But as you will hear often in the next few days, no 3-year-old horse has won the Kentucky Derby without having raced at age 2 since Apollo did it in 1882. That’s 1882.

And there’s a reason: To win a grueling, one-and-a-quarter mile race against premium competition on the first Saturday in May, a horse needs to have some “bottom” to him, as they say. That’s gained, most horsemen feel, by at least some training and racing as a 2-year-old.

It’s a maxim with plenty of reason and history behind it, and this handicapper subscribes fully.

Of course, we also know that over 138 years, just about anything can happen in the Kentucky Derby — and probably will. Besides, Apollo already did it. Baden-Baden, too, in 1877.

But if Bodemeister doesn’t repeat his Arkansas race, don’t be surprised. He’s a pretty sudden favorite for such a well-established field.

In full stride

A horse with plenty of backers is Dullahan, who did race as a 2-year-old, successfully, and just two weeks ago powered from well off the pace to run by Hansen in the Blue Grass Stakes. Three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Kent Desormeaux was at the reins for Irish-named but Iowa-bred ownership partners Donegal Racing, headed by the popular racing figure Jerry Crawford. The group had Paddy O’Prado in the Derby last year. The training wizard behind Dullahan is Louisville-based Dale Romans.

If Desormeaux can guide Dullahan from behind and through traffic, as he did in the Blue Grass, he could tie Bill Shoemaker with four wins in the Kentucky Derby, second only to Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, with five. In the Blue Grass, Desormeaux was typically fearless, shunning the overland route to wait for a hole (or know where one would materialize), and had Dullahan in full stride at the wire.

That’s the way Romans says he can envision Dullahan’s Derby unfolding. Perhaps recalling a Derby of yore.

“Well, I guess on color and looks (Dullahan) isn’t exactly like him, but one of my favorite Derby winners, for several reasons, was Ferdinand,” says Romans, recalling the 1986 champion. “And I could see him coming up the rail in the stretch to win it, like Shoemaker did with Ferdinand, making that last big eighth-of-a-mile run.”

Burst of speed

Undefeated Gemologist is the typical Todd Pletcher-trained horse: cruises near the front and finishes running.

That’s a winning style, and it works as well in the Kentucky Derby as in any other race. Don’t know how Pletcher gets so many of his horses to run like that, but he does.

And a perfect example is the race that sent Gemologist to Louisville as one of the Derby favorites — a victory over Alpha two weeks ago in the Wood Memorial in New York. Rating just behind the leaders, Gemologist’s “running line” reads: 2-3-3-3-1-1. Those last two 1s came in the stretch, with Alpha running right up nearly head-to-head with Gemologist. But just before the wire, jockey Javier Castellano called on Gemologist for another burst of speed (or the horse might have thought of it himself), and Gemologist delivered — widening his lead to a neck better at the finish.

Gemologist has also won twice at Churchill Downs, including a front-running breeze in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall.

There’s much to like, but in our opinion, Gemologist’s pedigree doesn’t look like the ideal family tree of a Kentucky Derby winner. Certainly, Gemologist’s sire Tizway won at 11/4 miles, and some of his sons have, too. But Tizway’s sire line has been blanked in the Kentucky Derby.

On the other hand, if someone should leave the yard sprinkler on and the track comes up sloppy for Derby, Gemologist could be right there. His sire line is superior in the mud at Churchill Downs. They love it.

Despite being held back by Gemologist at 11/8 miles, Alpha might be a better bet going a mile-and-a-quarter. Don’t ask for the science on that. But horses do “come into form,” and the trick is to be at your best on Derby Day.

Locked and loaded

The top two horses Out West finished inches apart in the Santa Anita Derby, with I’ll Have Another getting up in the last stride to nip Creative Cause.

Creative Cause is certainly a model of consistency and has been in everybody’s top rankings for the past eight months. Trainer Mike Harrington seemed ready to send his horse back into the fray after the narrow loss in the Santa Anita Derby. “The other horse beat us today,” Harrington said after the race. “But will he beat us again? I don’t know.”

It’s been interesting to note that I’ll Have Another’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, skipped a prep race before the Santa Anita Derby and simply trained his horse with longer workouts for two months. Six furlongs, seven furlongs, a mile — as if he was most concerned with giving his horse a chance to run to his pedigree when the distances increased. I’ll Have Another’s sire is Flower Alley, from the Raise a Native line. His dam’s pedigree stretches back to stamina names like Ribot, Hail to Reason, Nijinsky and Sea Bird.

“You’ll have conversations with owners and trainers about this,” O’Neill says, “but, in my mind, you can’t take a sprinter and work him mile after mile and make him into a router. If they’re a sprinter, they’re a sprinter.”

But O’Neill believes he has a horse that can naturally stay a “route” of ground. “I think we’re dealing with a great one,” he says, “a route horse that’s fit and ready as he can be.”

And he intends to keep it that way.

“If we’re there in the Paddock on the 5th of May, it’s because he’s trained hard and he’s ready to go, and not because we just nursed him to be there and we’re just smiling to be there,” O’Neill says. “This time we’re really going to continue to train him strong and have him locked and loaded and ready to run.”

The Derby distance

The Derby favorite-in-waiting has always been Union Rags, a star in New York last summer, second to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a brilliant winner of the Fountain of Youth, but then third in the Florida Derby. No question about his quality, but there’s always been a nagging doubt about distance.

The opinion here is Union Rags will run his race again and see if he can get the Derby distance. Trainer Michael Matz, who won the Derby with Barbaro, will have the son of Dixie Union fit. We’ll be interested to see how Union Rags’ coat looks as he arrives at Churchill Downs in the coming days.

Take Charge Indy was a smart winner of the Florida Derby under Calvin Borel, who, like Desormeaux, has three Derby wins.

It’s the first “big horse” in some time for Louisville-based trainer Patrick Byrne, who won three Breeders’ Cup races a decade ago but has been out of the spotlight since.

“I’ve never had that many horses, but one winter I was down to just five,” Byrne tells the Paulick Report. “I definitely had some burn out, but I kept my finger in the pie.”

Byrne says he played the Florida real-estate game and won, cashing out before the crash. He was out of the racing limelight, but also off racing’s gypsy trail. “I stayed home in Kentucky while my daughter graduated from high school.”

But horse owners Chuck and Maribeth Sandford had a horse for Byrne to train, a son of top stallion A.P. Indy, from stakes star Take Charge Lady. In other words, maybe something big.

“From a physical standpoint, he’s one of those horses who is a late bloomer with a lot of talent,” says Byrne. “It’s about the horse. The more talent a horse has, the smarter his trainer is.”

White hot

One of the more intriguing Derby horses in years is Hansen, who runs around with more story lines than any 50 other horses — beginning with the fact that he’s white in color.

Hansen’s majority owner and breeder, Dr. Kendall Hansen, tried to run the horse in the Blue Grass Stakes with a blue-dyed tale. (Dr. Hansen had said previously he thought it would be good for the sport if Hansen became a horse with a fan club, with fans voting online what color they wanted the horse to be colored for each race.) The stewards said no to the blue tail, perhaps envisioning other owners decking their steeds out in jaunty hats, or who knows what.

Hansen the horse isn’t one of those million-dollar yearlings that go through the sales rings in the bluegrass. He was born on a farm in Oldham County. His dam, Stormy Sunday, had been merely a $5,000 claiming horse in her racing days. But Hansen has earned a cool $1.55 million, which is the most of any horse in this year’s Derby. And did we mention that every morning the nearly pure white horse gets down and dirty rolling in a sand pit, scratching his back and stretching his legs?

All fun topics, but there are two things this writer likes about Hansen more than any of those:

First, three of the partners in Hansen — Dr. Harvey Diamond, Jim Shircliff and Tom Ferreri — live in Louisville, and if Hansen wins the 2012 Kentucky Derby, it’ll be the first Louisville-owned horse to win the Derby in 106 years.

That’s right. You have to go all the way back to 1906 to find Louisville industrialist George J. Long, owner of Bashford Manor Farm, leading Sir Huon into the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. Since then, many Louisvillians have tried. But none have won.

Last year, Shircliff and Diamond headed a partnership that ran Twinspired in the Derby, finishing 17th. But the pair thinks they have a strong chance this year with Hansen.

Hansen was fractious in the post parade before the Blue Grass, perhaps still upset with the dying and undying of his tail earlier in the day. Usually, when a horse is jumpy in the post parade, the rider will wheel him out of line and gallop off around the turn to settle him down. But jockey Ramon Dominguez didn’t do that. Instead, Dominguez had the outrider herd Hansen along the rail and continue to walk — maybe in an effort to school the horse in preparation for the Derby hoopla.

“He’s a classy animal, and for all the commotion that was going on around him, I think he ran a pretty amazing race,” Diamond says. “When he gets to Churchill Downs, he’ll expect to see a big crowd, just like he did on Breeders’ Cup Day — and maybe all this rigmarole that’s happened will be good for him.”

“As much as we would like to have won the Blue Grass, it’s a prep, and he came out of it in great shape,” Shircliff adds. “Now it’s on to the Kentucky Derby.”

The owners understand the question: How far can Hansen carry his speed? His pedigree is moderate. The Derby is long.

But he’s a runner. And that’s the other thing anyone would love about the horse.

On a recent spring Saturday morning at the Churchill Downs training center, Hansen was a white horse in the distance, flying along against a green background of trees. Birds chirping. The track ahead harrowed perfectly. Hansen stepped five furlongs in a shade under a minute that morning. A nice time, but nothing for him. Just effortless running. No Herculean pushes off the hind legs. No head grimly bowed. Running as free as a breeze. A white cloud over the track.

Trainer Mike Maker says he doesn’t worry about whether Hansen runs on top in his races or sits behind others.

“I just want him to find his place naturally when he comes out of the gate,” Maker says. “He knows how to run.”

Coming from afar

There is one Derby prospect that’s already won at 1¼ miles. Daddy Long Legs, who is based in Ireland, captured the $2 million U.A.E. Derby in Dubai. But stamina may actually be his problem, being a son of Scat Daddy, from the Derby-suspect Storm Cat sire line. Scat Daddy, himself, ran in the Kentucky Derby. Ran over to about the track kitchen, then stopped.

But Daddy Long Legs’ stablemate Wrote might have a terrific shot at the roses, if he ends up hopping on the plane from Ireland, too. Wrote won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall at Churchill and carries a pedigree stocked with stamina. This one would be a must for exactas and trifectas, nearly certain to be running late. You can Wrote it down.

Training days

The final piece of the Derby puzzle is how they train up to the race. Who’s ready to run the race of his or her life on Derby Day? With that in mind, we’ll have a close eye on the contenders as they click off their final works this weekend at Churchill Downs — and provide some picks in this space next week.

Of course, you might wish to miss that.