Picking the favorite for the Kentucky Derby may be as tough as picking the winner.
Without a breakthrough star heading into the May 5 Derby, there’s a stable full of 3-year-olds worthy of the leading role as horse to beat when a full field of 20 spring from the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Let’s begin with Union Rags, who opened on top and now finishes No. 1 on the AP’s final Run to the Roses’ Top 10 list of Derby contenders. Other potential Derby favorites are Bodemeister, Creative Cause, Dullahan, Gemologist and I’ll Have Another.
Union Rags comes into the 1 1/4-mile Derby off a third-place finish in the Florida Derby after winning the Fountain of Youth. Not the most stellar credentials, but by finishing with a flourish in his last race after a tough trip, trainer Michael Matz is hoping Union Rags will be at his best on Derby day.
The colt worked four furlongs in 47.40 seconds at Keeneland last week. Matz called the work “nothing spectacular,” but “we will ask more of him in his next work,” sometime next week at Churchill Downs.
“If he has an exceptional work next week, he could wind up the favorite,” says longtime Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, who will set the betting line a week from Wednesday. “But in two losses, they made excuses for him. If he’s as good as everybody says he would have been able to overcome that bad trip (in the Florida Derby).”
With that, Battaglia is leaning toward Bodemeister based on the colt’s eye-catching, 9 1/2-length victory in the Arkansas Derby in just his fourth career start. Bodemeister is No. 3 this week.
“He ran a huge race in Arkansas, but the question is can he come back in three weeks and duplicate that?” says Battaglia.
Gemologist, No. 2 on our list, is unbeaten in all five of his starts, including a victory in the Wood Memorial. Dullahan, No. 5, came rumbling down the stretch and overtook Hansen in winning the Blue Grass, and the California-based duo of I’ll Have Another and Creative Cause ran 1-2 in the Santa Anita Derby.
“They all have questions,” says Battaglia, “which is why it’s so wide open.”
In Derby-related news over the weekend:
• Trainer Bob Baffert’s Rebel winner and Arkansas Derby runner-up Secret Circle was sidelined by a sesamoid injury. Baffert also trains Bodemeister, and says he’s considering entering Liaison.
• Owner Shivananda Parbhoo says he plans to enter Trinniberg, who won the Swale and Bay Shore in his last two starts but has never run farther than 7 furlongs.
• Borderland Derby winner Isn’t He Clever is now being trained by Steve Asmussen and is under Derby consideration. Asmussen has two other hopefuls in Daddy Nose Best and Sabercat.
1. Union Rags (Michael Matz, trainer; Julien Leparoux, jockey): Should be as fresh as any Derby horse following third-place finish in Florida Derby (G1) on March 31. … Worked 4 furlongs in 47.40 seconds Friday at Keeneland. Will work one more time at Churchill before race. … Next start: Kentucky Derby (G1), Churchill Downs, May 5. … Derby future wager odds: 9-2.
2. Gemologist (Todd Pletcher, Javier Castellano): Wood Memorial (G1) winner looks to be eighth unbeaten Derby winner. … Worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.84 Friday at Palm Meadows. … Next start: Kentucky Derby. … Odds: 12-1.
3. Bodemeister (Bob Baffert, Mike Smith): Could be the people’s choice with popular trainer recovering from heart attack. … Won Arkansas Derby (G1) by 9 1/2 lengths in just fourth career start. …Next start: Kentucky Derby. … Odds: 22-1.
4. Creative Cause (Mike Harrington, Joel Rosario): San Felipe (G2) winner and Santa Anita Derby (G1) runner-up has hit the board in all eight career races. … Next start: Kentucky Derby. … Odds: 8-1.
5. Dullahan (Dale Romans, Kent Desormeaux): Despite 0-3 record at Churchill Downs, trainer says Blue Grass (G1) winner will “run well on dirt.” … Desormeaux looking for fourth Derby win. … Next start: Kentucky Derby. … Odds: 23-1.
6. I’ll Have Another (Doug O’Neil, Mario Gutierrez): Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner worked 6 furlongs in 1:13.60 Thursday at Hollywood Park. … Shipping to Churchill Saturday. … Next start: Kentucky Derby. … Odds: 21-1.
7. Hansen (Mike Maker, Ramon Dominguez): Last year’s 2-year-old champ has one win (Gotham, G3) and two seconds (Holy Bull, G3; Blue Grass) this year. … Next start: Kentucky Derby. … Odds: 8-1.
8. Take Charge Indy (Patrick Byrne, Calvin Borel): Worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.47 Thursday at Palm Meadows. … trainer says “Now it’s in the hands of the racing gods.” … Next start: Kentucky Derby. … Odds: 15-1.
9. Went the Day Well (Graham Motion, John Velazquez): Team Valor-Motion-Velazquez connection won Derby last year with Animal Kingdom. … Worked 6 furlongs in 1:14.45 Saturday at Keeneland. … Jockey says “The 1 1/4 miles won’t hurt him at all.” … Next start: Kentucky Derby. … Odds: 19-1.
10. Alpha (Kiaran McLaughlin, Dominguez): Could be rider change if Dominguez opts for Hansen. … Wood runner-up recovering from infected cut on left front leg. … Next start: Kentucky Derby. … Odds: 21-1.
Keep an eye on: Daddy Long Legs, Daddy Nose Best, El Padrino, Mark Valeski, Sabercat.