04/26/2012 12:16PM

Kentucky Derby: Tackling the big questions and key horses

Tom Keyser
Take Charge Indy's (right) win in the Florida Derby raised two major questions: Was it a fluke? And did Union Rags (left) have a valid excuse?

With the final major preps in the books, our analysts tackle the big questions and key horses in the 138th Kentucky Derby:

1. Bodemeister is arguably the most talented 3-year-old this year, but does he have enough seasoning to win the Kentucky Derby?

Mike Watchmaker: There is a huge distinction between being seasoned enough to win the Derby and being good enough to win. There is no question that Bodemeister is good enough. On Beyer Figures, he is clearly the fastest colt in this Derby. Beyond having the field’s best Beyer − the 108 he earned in the Arkansas Derby − he has three straight triple-digit Beyers. Only three other Derby colts − Creative Cause, El Padrino, and Daddy Nose Best − have broken the triple-digit Beyer barrier, and they each did so just once.

But in terms of seasoning, Bodemeister’s lack of juvenile racing experience means he has had to play catch-up this year, and he has already made four starts in 2012. Prospective is the only other Derby candidate to have raced as often this year, but he had the foundation to withstand an active campaign because he also made four starts last year (see “Derby runners who did not start at 2” chart).

Another consideration that relates to seasoning is the spacing of Bodemeister’s races. He had four weeks between his maiden win and his second in the San Felipe, and five weeks between the San Felipe and the Arkansas Derby. He will now be asked to produce a top effort off a relatively quick three-week turnaround.

I believe talent trumps seasoning. And in this case, Bodemeister’s clear edge in Beyer Figures compensates for his lack of 2-year-old racing experience. Of course, this does not mean that Bodemeister is immune to other racing dynamics, such as pace.

2. How legitimate is Gemologist’s unbeaten record heading into the Kentucky Derby?

Dave Litfin: In some respects, Gemologist’s formative races mirror those of Super Saver, Todd Pletcher’s first and only Derby winner, in 2010. Both won the Kentucky Jockey Club at 2 and returned with two preps at 3, earning virtually identical figures: 93 and 98 for Super Saver, 95 and 98 for Gemologist.

To Gemologist’s credit, he won the Wood with just three weeks between starts. This is something Pletcher doesn’t like to do, but at that point he was out of options. When challenged late, Gemologist responded in a manner reminiscent of his sire (see “Undefeated starters” chart).

Now the negatives:

While it’s certainly not his fault for merely beating whatever has been put in the gate with him, Gemologist hasn’t faced much. Alpha had not run in nine weeks before the Wood, was roughed up early to boot, and still fully extended him. Alpha’s claim to fame is a win in the repositioned Grade 3 Withers.

The horse closest to Gemologist in his debut was Fifty Five South, who is still a maiden after a 17-length loss in maiden $10,000 company.

Ever So Lucky, the Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up, was beaten a combined 24 lengths in the Swale and Blue Grass, and remains eligible for first-level allowance conditions.

Currency Swap, who chased Gemologist’s soft pace at Gulfstream, won the slowest Hopeful (80 Beyer) since the figures went public in 1990, and he was 11th, beaten 20 lengths, as the Illinois Derby favorite.

3. Will Hansen head into the Derby having validated his championship form?

Marcus Hersh: Yes.

It’s not like Hansen was a dominant champion. If the BC Juvenile falls a foot the other direction, Union Rags is the juvenile champ. And on that basis, I’d argue Hansen’s three-race 2012 has validated his quality.

His 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull was shaky, but Hansen stumbled at the start and never relaxed going a one-turn mile over a sloppy track. He ran second, easily beaten by Algorithms, but at the time, Algorithms was considered by many the second-best 3-year-old in Florida behind Union Rags.

Hansen, blinkers off, probably ran as well winning the Gotham Stakes as he did in the BC Juvenile, while showing he could rate off the pace, at least with an outside draw. And while Hansen was run down by Dullahan in the Blue Grass, there are two things to consider there. One, Hansen secured a berth in the Derby winning the BC Juvenile. There’s no way he was being trained for a peak effort at Keeneland. And two, Hansen’s half-mile split of 46.64 was, as of Monday, the fastest such two-turn fraction of the Keeneland spring meet. It was faster than the half-mile split in the Ben Ali, which led to a 117 Beyer for winner Wise Dan, and, though the Blue Grass was nine furlongs, it was faster than any half-mile split at the much more common 1 1/16-mile distance.

The takeaway? With a favorable outside draw in the Derby, Hansen – discounted by many at this stage – can definitely finish in the top three.

4. Can Union Rags’s defeat in the Florida Derby be attributed to a troubled trip, or do you have doubts that he can pass rivals in the stretch?

Mike Welsch: Several factors contributed to Union Rags’s surprising defeat in the Florida Derby, not the least of which were the traffic issues he encountered down the backstretch and around the second turn after being bottled up along the rail inside El Padrino. He also had to overcome a speed-favoring track and a relatively slow pace. Ultimately, he proved to be the only member of the field to make up any ground on pace-setting winner Take Charge Indy through the final quarter-mile of the race. 

To me, rather than his performance in the Florida Derby, it’s Union Rags’s failure to pass Hansen after having dead aim through the stretch in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that raises some doubt about his ability to seal the deal during the latter stages of this year’s Kentucky Derby.

KENTUCKY DERBY: Analysts' top five and a statistical look at the Derby 

DRF WEEKEND: Derby Trial history challenge | Handicapping roundups

5. Coming off his UAE Derby upset, is Daddy Long Legs a live longshot? Who are the live longshots in the Kentucky Derby?

Dan Illman: Considering the depth of this year’s 3-year-old crop, the invisible success rate for Dubai invaders at the Kentucky Derby, and Daddy Long Legs’s poor performance in his lone start on dirt, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, it would be very easy to callously dismiss his chances. That could be a mistake. Aidan O’Brien has made a conscious effort over the last few years to send his “good” ones to North America, albeit on the grass. Daddy Long Legs showed his quality by winning the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes on grass last year over subsequent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf hero Wrote, and he stayed nicely in the UAE Derby on Tapeta. It could be argued that he has better form than Master of Hounds, who shipped in to finish fifth in last year’s Derby following a runner-up performance at Meydan. 

Let’s be realistic − Daddy Long Legs must improve by leaps and bounds to win the Derby. But he isn’t impossible and wouldn’t be the worst stab in the world at 40-1 odds or thereabouts.

Other live longshots worth considering are Alpha, the runner-up in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial behind undefeated Gemologist; Mark Valeski, the beaten favorite in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby after losing a shoe; and El Padrino, the game winner of the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds before throwing in a clunker in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. El Padrino’s chances increase if the track at Churchill Downs is wet.

6. Dullahan used his deep-closing style to win the Blue Grass, but will that style hurt him in the Kentucky Derby?

Steve Klein: Although closers have won their share of route races on Keeneland’s Polytrack at recent meets, that has not been the case on dirt at Churchill Downs. Dullahan enjoyed a running style advantage at Keeneland that he probably won’t experience again in the Kentucky Derby. He also saved much more ground in the Blue Grass than he can expect to save in the Kentucky Derby. Having to rally wide from far back in a 20-horse field in the Kentucky Derby figures to be a much more difficult trip that will cost him many more lengths.

The good news for Dullahan is that deep closers in the Kentucky Derby occasionally benefit from a pace up front that is much faster than it should be. He appears to have the best chance of any of the closers, so in that scenario he is the horse most likely to win if the front-half of the field staggers home during the final three furlongs.

Dullahan has raced on three types of surfaces in his eight starts. He won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and the Grade 1 Blue Grass in his two races on Keeneland’s Polytrack, which appears to be his favorite surface. He ran on turf three times, finishing second in a maiden race, third in the Grade 2 With Anticipation, and second in the Grade 3 Palm Beach. That appears to be his second-best surface. He has raced on dirt at Churchill three times, finishing third, 8 1/4 lengths behind the winner in his debut; fifth, 7 1/4 lengths behind the winner in his second start; and a non-threatening fourth there, six lengths behind Hansen, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He must improve on that Churchill dirt form to win the Kentucky Derby.

7. Was Take Charge Indy’s Florida Derby win a breakthrough or a fluke?

Mary Rampellini: Neither.

Take Charge Indy might have won his first Grade 1 and defeated a Kentucky Derby favorite in Union Rags, but the Florida Derby unfolded in his favor and therefore was not a breakthrough performance. He controlled the pace, securing a ground-saving trip along the rail through an opening quarter in 23.60 seconds. Take Charge Indy was then unpressured while leading the field through a second quarter in 24.11 and a third quarter in 24.38, fractions that kept the closers at bay and left Take Charge Indy with enough to run his final eighth in a respectable 12.83 seconds. Take Charge Indy also won on a Gulfstream surface that was conducive to speed March 31, when all four route stakes on the main track were won by horses who sat within two lengths of the lead. So the circumstances were ideal for him.

But the win was not a fluke, either. Take Charge Indy was good enough to take advantage of the situation while defeating quality rivals such as Union Rags, who admittedly was not able to get out in a timely fashion, and El Padrino, winner of the Grade 2 Risen Star. Take Charge Lady definitely earned his shot at the Kentucky Derby and brings a strong pedigree into the race as a son of A.P. Indy and the multiple Grade 1-winning mare Take Charge Lady.

The concern, however, is that he will face a much deeper field and is unlikely to again be in a dictating position with the expected presence of Hansen, Bodemeister, and Trinniberg.

8. I’ll Have Another’s win in the Santa Anita Derby came in just his second start in seven months. Is he a candidate to bounce in the Kentucky Derby?

Byron King: There is no reason to believe that I’ll Have Another is more likely to bounce than more seasoned Derby opponents. In terms of Beyer Speed Figures, he essentially matched a career best by running a 95 in his Santa Anita Derby win, just off the 96 he earned in winning the Bob Lewis.

When 3-year-olds pair a top figure, a higher-than-normal percentage either comes back with another pair or runs a new top. And I’ll Have Another will probably need a new top scenario to win, given the average winning Kentucky Derby Beyer since 1987 is a 108. Even the slowest winner over that stretch, Giacomo in 2005, ran a 100 Beyer.

Numbers aside, he shouldn’t be knocked out from a taxing campaign this year, even though he was pushed hard in beating Creative Cause by a nose in the Santa Anita Derby. He had two months to recover coming into that race and will have one month leading up to the Kentucky Derby. An easy six-furlong workout in 1:13.60 at Hollywood Park on April 19 further suggests he remains in top form.

A Santa Anita Derby winner hasn’t repeated in the Kentucky Derby since Sunday Silence in 1989. I’ll Have Another is unlikely to end that streak, given the depth of the field, but a loss would more likely be attributed to superior opponents, not the result of having a two-race prep schedule at age 3.

9. Creative Cause is coming off a loss in the Santa Anita Derby and is known to have some idiosyncrasies. What are they, and how will they affect his chances in the Kentucky Derby?

Brad Free: Eight starts into his career, Creative Cause remains a work in progress. He occasionally wanders in the stretch, and sometimes gets hot in the post parade and workouts. To keep him focused, trainer Mike Harrington removed blinkers for the Santa Anita Derby. He missed by a nose.

“He ran straight and true down the lane, and Joel [Rosario] said he relaxed better,” Harrington said.

In his first post-Derby work, Creative Cause wore “cheater blinkers,” which prevent a horse from reacting to movements by the jockey. In “cheaters,” a horse cannot see the jockey but can see the competition.

Creative Cause wore blinkers his first seven starts; Harrington is inclined to keep blinkers off. “I really don’t think it makes any difference,” he said. “I wouldn’t go to war either way.”

As for his tendency to wash out, blame his pedigree. Creative Cause is by Giant’s Causeway, a son of Storm Cat. The term “hot-blooded” applies. When a horse gets hot, he expends energy that could otherwise be used for the race.

While neither quirk – lack of focus and tendency to wash out – are attributes, they have not prevented Creative Cause from emerging as the one of the colts of his crop even if he remains a work in progress.