While connections of some of the top Kentucky Derby contenders expressed confidence in their own runners Tuesday, they also couldn't help but talk about one rival in particular. Bodemeister's nine and a half-length romp in Saturday's Arkansas Derby stamped him as the colt to fear the most come Derby day.
“Watching it from the sidelines, it was like ‘uh, oh,'” said Doug O'Neill, who trains Santa Anita Derby winner I'll Have Another. “(The Kentucky Derby) is a wide-open race, but the way Bodemeister ran, if he were to repeat that, everyone else is running for second.”
“That was Big Brown-like,” Team Valor CEO Barry Irwin said of Bodemeister's performance. “From a pure talent point of view, he looks like he's the one.”
Donegal Racing owner Jerry Crawford, who sends out Blue Grass Stakes winner Dullahan, said of Bodemeister: “With Empire Maker on top and Storm Cat on the bottom, he might just keep going.”
Of course, Crawford and the others are by no means conceding the Derby to Bodemeister, and each has good reason to feel positive heading to Louisville.
In Crawford's case, Dullahan is following the path of Donegal runner Paddy O'Prado, who prepped on “soft surfaces” on his way to a third-place finish in the 2010 Kentucky Derby. While Paddy O'Prado won the Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream turf and then ran second in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, Dullahan took second in the Palm Beach and won the Blue Grass.
“To the extent you can keep horses on soft surfaces early in their careers, I think it's good for them,” Crawford said. “That's been the path for both of these horses, and I think it's worked out.”
Both of Dullahan's victories from eight starts have come on Keeneland's Polytrack, but the son of Even the Score has three races under his belt over the Churchill Downs dirt, including a fourth in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Trainer Dale Romans said dirt isn't a concern – Dullahan checks all of the right boxes for a Derby contender.
“He can go zero to 60 like a Ferrari. That's the kind of acceleration you need in the Derby,” said Romans. “I don't want to sound arrogant, but I wouldn't trade places with anybody right now. The distance will be perfect for him.”
Another Derby hopeful following in a predecessor's footsteps is Went the Day Well. Like 2011 Derby champion Animal Kingdom, Team Valor's Went the Day Well captured the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes over Turfway Park's synthetic track. While CEO Barry Irwin said comparisons are inevitable, the two horses aren't really that much alike.
“The main thing they have in common is they both look like they are mile and a quarter horses,” said Irwin. “This horse looks actually like he wants to run a little bit farther than Animal Kingdom.”
Just don't expect to see a blistering workout leading up to the Derby like Animal Kingdom produced last year.
“Went the Day Well is a lousy work horse,” Irwin said. “He doesn't care in the morning, but in the afternoon he brings it. And that's what counts.”
Irwin said although Went the Day Well started his career on the turf in Britain, the son of Proud Citizen was specifically bred for the dirt. But the horse did have a medical condition that delayed his development.
“He only now looks like he did when I bought him,” said Irwin. “I'm hoping he'll do well in the Derby, but I'm sure later on, he'll do a lot better.”
Irwin said the race set-up will be key for Went the Day Well.
“If somebody goes with Bodemeister – if there's enough pace – I can see this horse picking them up and getting the job done,” Irwin said.
A colt that will likely be closer to the Derby pace is I'll Have Another. Trainer Doug O'Neill loves his tactical speed and competitive fire.
“He's got that something you can't pick out in a pasture,” said O'Neill. “He's got that will. There may be horses with more talent out there, but there can't be many with that kind of drive to the wire.”
The son of Flower Alley showed his determination in the Santa Anita Derby when he outdueled Creative Cause in deep stretch to get up by a nose. As I'll Have Another ships to Louisville a week from Saturday, O'Neill is sure to face questions about jockey Mario Gutierrez, who will be making his first Derby start. But O'Neill has no questions about the 25-year-old, especially aboard this colt.
“He's got ice in his veins, this kid,” O'Neill said. “As talented as I'll Have Another is, there seems to be a couple of extra gears when Mario's on him.”
I'll Have Another will have one more wild card up his sleeve at Churchill Downs. His stable pony will be none other than multiple Grade 1 champion and $5.2 million earner Lava Man.
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