Heading into Saturday's Florida Derby, it seemed the entire racing industry was expecting something special from Union Rags. It appeared certain the son of Dixie Union would improve off of his visually impressive Fountain of Youth victory and solidify his status as the horse to beat in Louisville. What we got was something less definitive. He still may be the horse to beat May 5, and he probably did improve Saturday. But his race still raised questions. That's just the way it goes with the lightly-raced Derby candidates of the modern era.
At best, Julien Leparoux gave Union Rags a questionable ride. Leparoux is a good jockey, especially on the turf, but all jockeys occasionally make judgment errors that can cost a race. The race replay clearly shows Leparoux had the opportunity to get Union Rags more forwardly placed early but chose to keep a tight hold on him, a decision that wound up leaving Union Rags hemmed inside down the backstretch while the pace up front was rather pedestrian on a speed-favoring track.
“He said he should have been closer the way the track has been right now,” trainer Michael Matz said after the race. “Horses aren't coming back. Julien said he just didn't get out in time and the way the track is today, you had to be close to the pace.”
Late Saturday, Leparoux tweeted that he would prove his doubters wrong. A talented jockey with competitive fire and something new to prove? Or should Matz be worried that Leparoux is a tad insecure and concerned a little too much with public perception? It'll be interesting to see if Matz sticks with Leparoux or decides to go in a different direction. Union Rags only gets one shot at the Derby.
But it may not be all about Leparoux. Union Rags did come running late, showing positive signs of professionalism. There was some kick there, but his move in the stretch wasn't shaking the rafters. It's possible Union Rags got exactly what he needed out of the race, despite the circumstances, but is it also possible he's not quite as good as many were thinking? I guess we'll find out when it matters.
Union Rags' former rider, Javier Castellano, seemed to give El Padrino a perfect trip, first keeping Union Rags to his inside then advancing while clear on the outside of horses. But El Padrino didn't show the stretch punch he had in previous races. Was it due to Castellano paying too much attention to Union Rags? Did El Padrino bounce after his stretch duel with Mark Valeski in the Risen Star? Whatever the case, El Padrino is now on the bubble for even getting into the Derby field. How quickly fortunes change on the road to the Triple Crown.
Meanwhile, Take Charge Indy took charge of his Derby destiny by conserving energy under another strong rail ride from Calvin Borel. Trainer Pat Byrne, who was criticized for scratching the colt from the Tampa Bay Derby because of a poor post position, was vindicated by the son of A.P. Indy's performance in the Florida Derby. It remains to be seen how he'll hold up under the pressure of a Kentucky Derby pace, but his pedigree certainly suggests he has every right to be a threat in the Triple Crown races. And he's got Mr. Churchill Downs, Bo-Rail, in his corner.
As for Mark Valeski, he's all but disappeared from the Paulick Derby Index this week after losing an excruciatingly slow edition of the Louisiana Derby to a horse at triple-digit odds. Hero of Order needed 1:50.13 to get 1 1/8 miles, nearly two seconds slower than the Florida Derby. You never want to count out a Larry Jones-trained horse, but Jones himself didn't exactly give Mark Valeski a ringing endorsement.
“We got a good trip,” said Jones. “We laid up, we came around Cigar Street when we got ready, and it looked like we got into the race easy enough. We've been running against (Hero of Order) all meet with something, I guess it was his turn. I don't know if it will get us enough graded earnings. If we didn't make it, then it tells us we don't belong.”
Mark Valeski and El Padrino are both in danger of being passed on the graded stakes earnings list by the likes of Alpha, Gemologist, Bodemeister, I'll Have Another and Howe Great, depending on how the latter horses perform in their final Derby preps.
For this week, I'm putting Gemologist – who's been high on my list all along – back on top, in anticipation of what I hope will be a leap forward for him in the Wood Memorial. The son of Tiznow has been working super. He's undefeated, with two wins at Churchill already. And he's a January foal with a nice dam side. But like all of the top Derby candidates, he has questions to answer. How well can he be rated? How will he perform in a battle and against better horses? Is trainer Todd Pletcher getting him enough foundation for the Triple Crown? Gemologist needs a top showing in the Wood because he's short on earnings, despite his undefeated record, and I expect we'll see just that.
Union Rags doesn't deserve to lose too much luster after Saturday because he still may be the best of this crop, so he's right there at the top. But there's at least a back-of-the-mind doubt following the Florida Derby. Perhaps he returns with a vengeance the first Saturday in May.
This coming weekend should be a barnburner on both coasts. In the Wood, besides Gemologist, Bernardini's Alpha and the Street Sense colt, Street Life, will be gunning for crucial graded stakes earnings. All three are currently on the outside looking in.
On the West Coast, Creative Cause and I'll Have Another will hook up in the Santa Anita Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert plans to enter a trio of runners in the race, which may or may not include Bodemeister, who could wait another week and ship to the Arkansas Derby instead. Many people are highest on Creative Cause from the West Coast group, but I'm keen to see what Bodemeister does in his next race. He's been working great after an impressive showing in the San Felipe. It was his first start against winners and a race in which he was involved in a fairly swift pace and still hung around to grab second behind Creative Cause. Could this be the year for a West Coast Derby winner?
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