04/26/2012 3:04PM

Derby Trial on Churchill's opening day more likely to produce Preakness prospects

Shigeki Kikkawa
The Bob Baffert-trained Paynter could become a Preakness candidate with a good performance in Saturday night's Derby Trial.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Kentucky Derby buzz has been fairly light this past week, but that’s what happens when less than half the prospective field has made it through the Churchill Downs stable gate. A little pick-me-up is on order, however, and not just in the form of fashionably late arrivals and busier mornings: Churchill will begin its 39-day spring meet and Derby week Saturday with a nighttime program that promises to kick things up a few needed notches.

A crowd of 38,142 turned out last year for the first nighttime spring opener in track history and saw Machen nail Dominus in a thrilling renewal of the Derby Trial. Churchill officials aren’t promising to match either the attendance or the ontrack drama, but local marketing efforts for the 2012 opener have been heavy, and there is little doubt that racing fans, serious and casual alike, will be pumped as the evening unfolds.

[DERBY TRIAL: Download PPs for the full Saturday Churchill Downs race card]

The Grade 3, $200,000 Derby Trial, misnomer that it has become, is more likely to serve as a prep for the Preakness three weeks later, as opposed to any of its 11 runners wheeling back in just a week in the 138th Derby. Prime candidates whose connections might start thinking Baltimore following the one-mile Trial include Bourbon Courage, unchallenged in winning both career starts in rapid times, and Paynter, fourth in the Santa Anita Derby earlier this month in just his second career start for Bob Baffert.

“We’re not letting ourselves get too far ahead,” said Kellyn Gorder, trainer of Bourbon Courage. “Let’s see how he handles the mile, and then maybe we’ll start thinking that way.”

The Trial is the first of 24 stakes at a meet that runs through July 1 and is highlighted, as always by the $1 million Kentucky Oaks, the $2 million Kentucky Derby, and their supporting events next weekend. Racing will be conducted mostly on a four-day (Thursday-Sunday) schedule, although not for the first week. The 11-race Saturday opener will go deep into the night, so there is no racing here Sunday; the five-day Derby week then runs Tuesday through Saturday.

Union Rags, the clear-cut Derby favorite for much of the winter before being defeated at 2-5 in the Florida Derby four weeks ago, was vanned here early Thursday afternoon from Keeneland, arriving just a few minutes after Went the Day Well, the Vinery Spiral Stakes winner who will be trying to duplicate what his stablemate, Animal Kingdom, accomplished last year in sweeping the Spiral and the Derby. Went the Day Well and Union Rags became the ninth and 10th of the 21 confirmed Derby prospects to take up residence in the Churchill stable area, which should come alive over the next few days as final preparations are made.

The Florida Derby result has helped play havoc with the pecking order of favoritism for the Kentucky Derby, although most handicappers now seem to be conceding that Bodemeister, trained by Baffert, probably will be a slight choice over several others in light of his smashing Arkansas Derby victory. The Churchill tote board surely would have assumed a somewhat different look if Union Rags had not gotten such a difficult trip in the Florida Derby, said Michael Matz, who savored Derby glory in 2006 as the trainer of Barbaro and now trains Union Rags.

“If he’d had a chance to run, I thought he would’ve won the race,” said Matz. “But if he gets it done this week, we’ll forget about it.”

Union Rags and Went the Day Well could lead a work tab of as many as seven Derby hopefuls on Saturday, although those go-aheads invariably are dependent on weather, and only as many as four will work here at Churchill. The other workers penciled in for Saturday include Dullahan and Prospective at Churchill; Hansen at the nearby Trackside training center; Alpha at Belmont Park in New York; and Done Talking at Laurel Park in Maryland. The Saturday forecast for the Louisville area calls for a high of 71 degrees and a 50-percent chance of rain, with morning and evening temperatures dipping into the high 40s.

In contrast, only one Derby hopeful was out for serious work Thursday, and it came some 1,000 miles south of here at the nearly-deserted Palm Meadows training center in Florida. Take Charge Indy, the Florida Derby winner over Union Rags, went five furlongs in 1:00.47 over a fast main track with exercise rider Susie Bricker aboard for Pat Byrne, the Louisville-based trainer who was highly prominent on the national scene in the late 1990s and will be having his first-ever Kentucky Derby starter.

Take Charge Indy will be ridden by Calvin Borel, who, along with Kent Desormeaux (Dullahan), will be bidding for a fourth Derby victory in one of a number of main storylines for Derby 138. Among jockeys, only Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack (five wins each) and Bill Shoemaker (four) have won the Derby as many times.

This is the first year that Churchill will employ also-eligibles lists (up to four horses) for both the Derby and Oaks, with fields restricted to the usual 20 and 14, respectively. As of Thursday, with Mark Valeski and El Padrino apparently safely in the field, Optimizer remained No. 21 on the list of Derby hopefuls based on graded-earnings criteria and would not make the race in case there are no further defections before scratch time of 9 a.m. Eastern on Friday (May 4). The names of several other horses even farther down the earnings list have been bandied about, but none is considered a serious threat.

– additional reporting by Mike Welsch

The Cliff's Edge Derby Trial (G3), Post Time: 9:39 ET Saturday

Purse: $200,000; 1 mile





ML Odds


Tarpy's Goal

D. Romans

L. Goncalves



The Black

D. O'Niell

C. Borel



Saint of Saints

D. Romans

K. Desormeaux




J. Hollendorfer

G. Gomez




S. Asmussen

J. Leparoux



Quick Wit

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C. Lanerie




B. Baffert

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D. Romans

J. Castanon




M. Casse

S. Bridgmohan



Motor City

I. Wilkes

B. Hernandez, Jr.



Bourbon Courage

K. Gorder

M. Mena