05/03/2012 3:38PM

Crist: Bodemeister, Union Rags hard to get past

Tom Keyser
Bodemeister’s powerhouse victory in the Arkansas Derby stamped him as a horse to be reckoned with.

I have no quarrel with those who say this is an unusually wide-open Kentucky Derby, with a dozen legitimate candidates to win the roses and a history of extremely close finishes among them. Two of them, however, stand out to me, and while I'd like to be more imaginative than ending up with the two favorites, that's who I've got. I found it harder to choose between Bodemeister and Union Rags than to put anyone else ahead of them both.I've been a Union Rags fan since at least October, when he ran one of the most professional races you'll ever see from a 2-year-old in winning the Grade  1 Champagne by 5 1/4 lengths. He had already shown versatility by winning sprints from both on and off the pace, but he showed another dimension in the Champagne, steadying and treading water until daylight appeared, and then taking over with authority when it finally did.

He has lost two of his three starts since then, raising a couple of worries. In the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he had dead aim on Hansen at the top of the stretch, and I was surprised and disappointed he couldn't quite get by him. On the other hand, he was wide on both turns and seemed distracted in the stretch, the kind of things that can be overcome with a little more distance and maturity. When he romped in the Fountain of Youth in his 3-year-old debut, albeit against thin competition, he looked like the Champagne winner again and figured only to move forward from there.

[MORE: Steven Crist answers your Kentucky Derby handicapping questions]

His third-place finish in his final prep, the Florida Derby, was a step back but came with its share of excuses, too. The Gulfstream track seemed kind to front-runners that day, Take Charge Indy got loose through soft fractions, and Union Rags spent most of the race being hounded into discomfort from the outside by El Padrino. He finally got into gear when it was too late and made a promising spurt at the end to be third. Given the trip and that his trainer, Michael Matz, probably hadn't cranked him up yet for his best, I was willing to forgive the defeat, and he was still my Derby horse.

Then came the Arkansas Derby and the one real "wow" performance of the spring - Bodemeister's 9 1/2-length victory, accomplished in significantly quicker time than top older horses ran over the same track and distance one race earlier in the Oaklawn Handicap. It was a powerhouse performance in only his fourth career start, the kind of explosive effort that stamps a young horse as something really special. I still believed in Union Rags's quality and potential to run the race of his life on Derby Day, but Bodemeister had moved ahead of him in my mind and that's how I'll rank them with 72 hours to post time.

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Beyond the two of them, my ideas about the race become less chalky, because I am as yet not a believer in the only other three horses being quoted at 10-1 or less. Third on the morning line after Bodemeister at 4-1 and Union Rags at 9-2 comes Gemologist at 6-1, followed by Dullahan at 8-1 and Hansen at 10-1.

Gemologist is the lone undefeated entrant in the race, but I question the quality of his early wins and thought the horse he edged to win the Wood Memorial, Alpha, had a much tougher trip. Dullahan will be passing some horses late, but has looked to have a much stronger finishing kick on grass and synthetic surfaces than on dirt, over which he is winless in three starts. Hansen's problem is the distance of the race: He has looked to be at the end of his rope going 1 1/16 miles, had no resistance when Dullahan went by him at 1 1/8 miles, and just does not look like a 1 1/4-mile horse.

Others strike me as more promising than that trio and will be higher prices: Alpha, who not only had traffic in the Wood but also was coming off a two-month break and should be sharper now; I'll Have Another, who also has room to develop and may get lost in the betting shuffle somewhere in the 15-1 neighborhood; and El Padrino, who has become the forgotten horse off his Florida Derby but who previously showed plenty of ability and may go off at a very inflated price.

So let's call it Bodemister, Union Rags, Alpha and El Padrino in that order, though I'd happily settle for a reversal of those top two spots.

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