02/15/2012 12:50PM

Jerardi: Union Rags remains at top of the Kentucky Derby list

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Tom Keyser
Union Rags is the 7-1 individual favorite in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

I just spent days poring over the past performances of each of the 398 Triple Crown nominees, searching for the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. I will settle for the Kentucky Derby winner right now.

I was able to eliminate a few hundred of the horses quickly.

I don’t particularly like Awaited, a son of Unbridled’s Song who has started twice and beaten one horse in each race, showing no speed in his debut at Saratoga last August or his comeback race at Gulfstream Park in February. His Beyer Speed Figures of 51 and 54, while a nice progression, don’t suggest a triple-digit number on the first Saturday of May.

I don’t really like Backdoor Strike, a Maryland-bred son of Tenpins in training at Fair Hill who has yet to make his first start. I get that Derby horses don’t race much anymore and start their careers later and later, but this would appear to be a bit extreme.

I am not really into names, but it is hard not to like a son of Officer named Cop a Tude, unbeaten in two starts at Laurel this winter, with Beyers of 61 and 77 and trained by Graham Motion, the same man who gave us Animal Kingdom.

Love all the future book action. What would be the price if the players got all horses trained by Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, Nick Zito, and Dale Romans? By my count, that would be 97 of the 398 and more than a few good ones. Might be fun if Churchill added that to its 2013 menu.

When I got done digesting all the nominees, I went back to the 23-horse list that Churchill used in the initial future book bet last weekend. The public went hard for No. 24, the other 375 nominees. Union Rags was the second selection, followed by Algorithms.

Providentially, those two will be racing against each other in the Feb. 26 Fountain of Youth Stakes. Discreet Dancer is supposed to go there as well. No doubt, some from the “others” list will be there, looking to get an actual number in the second future book wager.

It was interesting that Javier Castellano chose Algorithms over Union Rags. Can’t say he’s wrong yet, but, given the history of jockey choices leading up to the Derby, I certainly wouldn’t be jumping off the Union Rags bandwagon just because the jockey did. Julien Leparoux, the new rider for Union Rags, certainly knows his way around Churchill Downs.

Pletcher, with Algorithms and Discreet Dancer, will certainly be loaded next weekend. I still like Union Rags. Those two have been brilliant without any obstacles. Union Rags has overcome something in every race and given a huge run every time. I’m still there until I see something dramatic to change my mind.

Not sure what is up with Hansen these days, but none of it sounds promising. Stumbles in his debut and then gives up the lead without a fight. Gets sick. Changes course from Florida to New York. Taking the blinkers off. Let’s check back after the Gotham, but, if I had Hansen in any future-book bets, I would not be thrilled.

Looking forward to seeing Creative Cause this weekend. The colt has never run as fast as he did in that spectacular debut, but he’s never run poorly either. Any son of Giant’s Causeway has to be taken seriously, until proven otherwise.

Out of Bounds was very impressive when he got that 99 Beyer in the Sham. So, to me, was Secret Circle who never stopped trying in his first route race. Longview Drive, third in that heat, was out there battling with Secret Circle through hot fractions.

Like every February in recent years, I wish there was more history to get a better line on these horses. But the game has changed, and it is not going back to the days when Affirmed ran nine times as a 2-year-old in 1977 and four more times as a 3-year-old before he won the 1978 Derby on the way to the last Triple Crown.

In the 21st century, 13 races is a career. Back in the day, it was preparation for the Derby.

These days, half that preparation is about as good as it will get, which is why I like Union Rags so much. The colt actually had four races at four different distances at four different tracks in 2011. Trainer Michael Matz says the pre-Derby schedule will include two races, ending with the Florida Derby. The trainer already knows what the colt can do. And he proved six years ago with Barbaro he knows how to get a colt to the Derby at his absolute peak.

So, there you have it. After looking at 398 horses, I am right back where I started, right where I have been since I watched the Champagne on Oct. 8. It was Union Rags then. It is Union Rags today.