05/03/2012 11:35AM

2012 Kentucky Derby: The big two leave little room at the top

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Tom Keyser
Gemologist is undefeated after winning the Wood Memorial but is unlikely to be better than the third betting choice in the Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Gemologist has won all five of his starts, including the important Wood Memorial last time out. He also owns two victories here at Churchill Downs. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, won the Derby just two years ago, has won five Eclipse Awards, and leads the nation in purse earnings this year. And his jockey, Javier Castellano, has won more money this year than anyone in his profession.

Yet when Gemologist starts on Saturday in the 138th Kentucky Derby, he is likely to be no better than the third choice, behind Bodemeister and Union Rags. That is one of the prime examples of the depth and quality of this Derby – a horse with Gemologist’s credentials is playing third fiddle.

[KENTUCKY DERBY: Get PPs, watch analysis video, read latest updates]

Bodemeister, the runaway winner of the Arkansas Derby, and Union Rags – whose link to Barbaro, narrow loss in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and troubled third-place finish in the Florida Derby have made him a fan favorite – are the likely top two choices in the Derby. But this field is so good that the winner of the Florida Derby, Take Charge Indy, and Santa Anita Derby, I’ll Have Another, are likely going to be at least 10-1.

And the list of serious contenders certainly does not end there. Hansen is returning to the scene of his greatest triumph, last year’s BC Juvenile, in which he beat eight members of this Derby field. A record nine horses from the Juvenile are in the Derby, and they have acquitted themselves well this year. For instance, Creative Cause, third in the Juvenile, won the San Felipe and narrowly lost the Santa Anita Derby, and Dullahan, fourth in the Juvenile, won the Blue Grass.

The consistency with which this group has performed, and the name recognition afforded by horses who were the headliners six months ago still being prominent today, has contributed to making this one of the most anticipated Derbies in years, certainly on the par of the 2007 field, whose first three finishers were Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Curlin.

[KENTUCKY DERBY FIELD: Watchmaker's odds, video contender profiles]

For Pletcher, this has been a Derby blessedly free of drama. Although he won two years ago with Super Saver, he lost the horse who was seemingly his best chance that year, Eskendereya, a week earlier. And last year was a soap opera with Uncle Mo, who clearly was in poor health all week and finally was scratched the day before the race with what was subsequently diagnosed as a rare liver ailment.

Part of the reason Gemologist has not received as much attention as he likely deserves is that Pletcher brought his horses in late this year, arriving on Tuesday. It was eerie earlier in the week to walk by his barn, which is normally filled with top-class runners, and see the stalls barren. Gemologist and El Padrino, Pletcher’s other Derby runner, did their serious training in recent weeks in Florida at the Palm Meadows training center. Pletcher likes the position he’s in.

“I think both horses are coming up to it as well as we could hope,” he said. “They’re two big, strong horses, who carry plenty of weight. For me, I don’t recall two coming into the race physically as well as these two.”

Gemologist is in the better form of Pletcher’s duo.

“He’s undefeated and won the Wood,” Pletcher said. “I like his development. And he’s 2 for 2 at Churchill Downs. That’s significant.”

And there may still be more to give. Gemologist appeared to idle when he made the lead in the Wood, but when challenged late by Alpha, he accelerated anew, traits likely passed down by his sire, Tiznow, a two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“From the races I’ve seen, he does appear to be saving something,” Pletcher said. “He has been very reminiscent of Tiznow in a couple of his races. He’s got a competitive, fight-back kind of spirit. It’s nice to know there’s a little more left.”

El Padrino won the Risen Star in February and looked like one of the elite Derby contenders at the time, but his stock fell when he and jockey Javier Castellano finished fourth in the Florida Derby behind Take Charge Indy and that race’s heavy favorite, Union Rags.

“I don’t think it was a terrible race,” Pletcher said. “Javier rode the race he was supposed to ride, keeping the favorite in a compromised position. But I think that took our horse out of his natural style. He’s more of a grinder instead of a horse that you can hold up and expect to sprint home.”

There are a number of compelling stories in this Derby, none more dramatic than that of trainer Bob Baffert, who – with Bodemeister and the longshot Liaison – is seeking his fourth Derby win only five weeks after suffering a heart attack in Dubai. Bodemeister is also attempting to become the first horse in 130 years to win the Derby without having raced at age 2.

Union Rags is trained by Michael Matz, who masterfully prepared Barbaro for his breathtaking Derby victory in 2006. Union Rags is owned by Phyllis Wyeth, who was paralyzed from the waist down in an auto accident 50 years ago, and she is married to Jamie Wyeth, scion of one of America’s great family of painters.

“I think he’s a real good horse,” Matz said. “I hope so, for Phyllis’s sake.”

Speaking of painting, Dr. Kendall Hansen, the majority owner of Hansen, thought it would be cute three weeks ago have the tail of his near-white colt painted blue for the Blue Grass. The Keeneland stewards did not approve, nor did trainer Mike Maker, leading to a tense, circus atmosphere surrounding the colt in the hours leading up to the race.

This time, “We’ll tone it down. We’ll let the horse do the talking,” Dr. Hansen said.

Jockey Calvin Borel is seeking his fourth Derby win in the past six years aboard Take Charge Indy, who has brought trainer Patrick Byrne, once a national leader, back from oblivion.

Trainer Graham Motion, jockey John Velazquez, and Barry Irwin, chief executive of the Team Valor International syndicate – who teamed to win last year’s Derby with Animal Kingdom – are trying to repeat this year with Went the Day Well. If they are successful, it will be the first time that has happened since Riva Ridge and Secretariat in 1972-73.

Prospective could give owner John Oxley his second Derby win, having captured the race with Monarchos in 2001.

Like Pletcher and Baffert, trainer Steve Asmussen also has two horses in the Derby, Daddy Nose Best and Sabercat, both of whom have trained sharply leading up to the race, particularly Daddy Nose Best.

Kentucky native Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Alpha, is seeking his first Derby win, and it would be an emotional victory for McLaughlin, whose father, Ray, died last month after battling Parkinson’s disease.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas is after his fifth Derby win with Optimizer, but his impact on this race extends beyond that longshot. His former assistants Maker, McLaughlin, and Pletcher all have runners in this Derby.

“They’re all from Lukas University, graduated with honors,” Lukas said.

Done Talking is the first Derby runner for trainer Hamilton Smith, 67, a respected veteran of the mid-Atlantic region.

Trinniberg will try to stretch his keen speed another quarter-mile, to 1 1/4 miles, after winning seven-furlong stakes in his last two starts.

Irish-based Daddy Long Legs is trying to provide his trainer, Aidan O’Brien, with his first Derby win.

Rousing Sermon would give trainer Jerry Hollendorfer his first Derby win to add to his collection of three Kentucky Oaks trophies.

There were 21 horses entered in the Derby, but a maximum of 20 can run. My Adonis was placed on the also-eligible list at entry time, and could get into the race only if there was a scratch by 9 a.m. Eastern time Friday morning, when advance wagering was to open.

If 20 start, the purse will be $2,219,600, with $1,459,600 to the winner.

The Derby is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m. Post time for the Derby is listed as 6:24 p.m. The Derby will be televised live by NBC Sports, in a three-hour show beginning at 4 p.m. There is live coverage of the undercard on NBC Sports Network from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as a post-Derby show on NBC Sports Network from 7 to 7:30.

It will be humid. The forecast from Weather.com is for a high temperature of 86 degrees, and a 30-percent chance of isolated thunderstorms.

Because of the weather, many horses are likely to get warm and sweaty. How it will impact the horses is unpredictable. Both Bodemeister and Union Rags, for instance, tend to get hot regardless of conditions.

Also worth watching is the load at the starting gate. Derby horses are double-loaded, with posts 1 and 11 going in first, and so on. Alpha, who will be one of the first to load in post 11, reacted poorly in the gate here for the BC Juvenile. He has been schooled extensively since, but nothing can approximate the tumult of Derby day.

Kentucky Derby (G1), Post Time: 6:24 ET

Purse: $2,000,000; 1 1/4 miles

Post

Horse

Trainer

Jockey

Watchmaker Odds

ML Odds

1

Daddy Long Legs

A. O'Brien

C. O'Donoghue

30-1

30-1

1

Optimizer

D.W. Lukas

J. Court

50-1

50-1

1

Take Charge Indy

P. Byrne

C. Borel

15-1

15-1

1

Union Rags

M. Matz

J. Leparoux

5-1

9-2

1

Dullahan

D. Romans

K. Desormeaux

12-1

8-1

1

Bodemiester

B. Baffert

M. Smith

9-2

4-1

1

Rousing Sermon

J. Hollendorfer

J. Lezcano

50-1

50-1

1

Creative Cause

M. Harrington

J. Rosario

6-1

12-1

1

Trinniberg

B. Parboo

W. Martinez

50-1

50-1

1

Daddy Nose Best

S. Asmussen

G. Gomez

20-1

15-1

1

Alpha

K. McLaughlin

R. Maragh

15-1

15-1

1

Prospective

M. Casse

L. Contreras

50-1

30-1

1

Went The Day Well

H.G. Motion

J. Velazquez

30-1

20-1

1

Hansen

M. Maker

R. Dominguez

10-1

10-1

1

Gemologist

T. Pletcher

J. Castellano

8-1

6-1

1

El Padrino

T. Pletcher

R. Bejarano

20-1

20-1

1

Done Talking

H. Smith

S. Russell

50-1

50-1

1

Sabercat

S. Asmussen

C. Nakatani

30-1

30-1

1

I'll Have Another

D. O'Neill

M. Gutierrez

15-1

12-1

1

Liaison

B. Baffert

M. Garcia

50-1

50-1

1

My Adonis (AE)

K. Breen

E. Trujillo

50-1

50-1