This time last year, there was already quite a bit of griping in racing publications about the quality of the 2011 3-year-old crop. In fact, just about every year recently, the Derby contenders – as a group – have gotten a good dose of negative ink. This year, however, the colts pointing toward the Kentucky Derby are insisting, through their performances, that they deserve much better press.
Last weekend, you could practically hear the shouts of “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” as Bodemeister drew off in the stretch and demolished his Arkansas Derby rivals by nine and a half lengths. And before a record crowd at Keeneland, Dullahan lived up to his race-week buzz, giving Hansen a good look at his plain brown tail as he surged past him in deep stretch to win the Blue Grass.
With his victory, Dullahan became the ninth runner from last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile to win a graded stakes race as a 3-year-old. It appears likely that at least seven starters from that field of 13 will make it to the Kentucky Derby. If we're trying to compare this crop to previous ones, that's not a bad measure, as it can only boost the quality of the overall group if the best juveniles are still producing in their second season. Arguably, the last bunch of Triple Crown hopefuls that registered such high praise was the 2007 crop, led by the likes of Street Sense and Curlin. It just so happens that the 2007 Derby was also the last one to have more than three runners from the previous year's BC Juvenile make the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
Last year, just one starter from the Juvenile ran in the Derby – Stay Thirsty. In 2010, Lookin At Lucky and Noble's Promise were the lone Juvenile representatives. But in 2007, the top five Juvenile finishers plus 10th-place Teuflesberg all made it to Louisville. Those top five accounted for five graded stakes victories on the Derby trail, plus three other top-three finishes in prep races. This year's top five have also landed five graded stakes wins plus another six 2nd- or 3rd-placings. If you go deeper into these two Juvenile fields, the 2012 crop gets even higher marks. In 2007, the bottom eight Juvenile finishers recorded two graded prep wins. This year's bottom eight has five.
In addition to the BC Juvenile runners, Bodemeister has registered three triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in just four career starts, while Gemologist hasn't tasted defeat in his five races. Throw in a couple of well-bred dark horses with serious potential, and this Derby field looks a mighty powerful one.
Here's my top 10 with less than three weeks to go:
1. Gemologist – I've had him in my top spot for almost the entire year, so I'm not going to jump ship now. Gemologist has improved with each race, and the son of Tiznow should relish 10 furlongs. He's won gate-to-wire, from just off the pace and from mid-pack, so he's a flexible, professional kind. Plus, he already has two victories at Churchill. If he's all business in the stretch May 5, he'll be fighting for the roses.
2. Bodemeister – After setting pretty swift fractions up front in the Arkansas Derby, this guy drew off like he was planning to run straight to Louisville. It was fairly clear from his San Felipe performance and subsequent workouts that he was sitting on a big effort, but wow, what a statement. He may just be the fastest, most improving, most talented one in this group. Before Saturday's race, trainer Bob Baffert was asked whether he was worried Bodemeister might not make the Derby field if he finished second at Oaklawn. Baffert lowered his trademark sunglasses and said: “Oh, we'll be in the Kentucky Derby.”
3. Union Rags – With all of these talented contenders, post position, ride, and trip will play a critical role in their Derby chances. Union Rags has been on the wrong end of the deal in a couple of his previous races. If he gets a smooth ride and a clean look turning for home, he'll have his shot to prove he's been the one all along.
4. Dullahan – Trainer Dale Romans is confident Dullahan will run a big one May 5, as he did in the Blue Grass. His running style should certainly suit the Derby, but both of his wins from eight starts have come at Keeneland. Still, he seems to be heading to Louisville in just the right shape.
5. Creative Cause – The son of Giant's Causeway can certainly turn on the afterburners, a la Union Rags, but he should have made off with the Santa Anita Derby, and he didn't. Trainer Mike Harrington insists the colt has a lot left in the tank and is more focused without blinkers. He'll be one of the ones on Derby day, but he'll need laser focus against this group.
6. Take Charge Indy – Last year, Twice the Appeal was massively overbet because Kentucky Derby phenom Calvin Borel was riding. Borel still split the field with a horse that hasn't won since. This year, Borel has a far better mount that boasts Triple Crown breeding, so every rider in this field better have their mental GPS sharp and finding Bo-Rail.
7. Alpha – I was lukewarm on Alpha after his two wins on Aqueduct's inner against suspect company, but despite early trouble in the Wood, he came charging late like a colt that will show up on Derby day. Alpha will need to bring his A+ game to run 'em all down at Churchill.
8. Daddy Nose Best – This guy probably has the most mileage under his belt of all the Derby contenders. He ran eight times as a juvenile and has won both his races as a 3-year-old. Perhaps an “old school” Derby play? The son of 2007 Derby runner Scat Daddy showed dramatic improvement over the winter. Steve Asmussen trained last year's Derby runner-up in Nehro. I won't be sleeping on this closer at nice odds.
9. I'll Have Another – He kept coming in the lane to grab the Santa Anita Derby, and he's still lightly-raced. The son of Flower Alley also has an inexperienced big-race jockey in Mario Gutierrez, who is tackling the Derby for the first time. It's been done before, but both horse and rider are up against it.
10. El Padrino – He's been all but forgotten after a disappointing finish in the Florida Derby. But Derby history is littered with winners who came up short in their final preps. He may just sneak into this field and be a sneaky overlay, considering the flashes of brilliance he's shown previously.
Worth mentioning: I have to give props to Secret Circle. He reminds me of Hard Spun (also class of 2007) – shows up every race, battles all the way to the finish and is right there in the money. He won't win, but I won't be surprised to hear his name during the Derby stretch call. See also: Hansen. Went the Day Well will surely make some noise this year, but the Derby might come too soon.
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