(Caption: Hansen, a 2011 Eclipse Award Winner, is a top contender for this year's Kentucky Derby.)
Photo Via: Greg Russo
First Stop: Kentucky Derby
By Greg Russo
The Kentucky Derby is just days away and will begin the annual quest for the Triple Crown. The Derby is scheduled traditionally for the first Saturday in May and this year it falls on May 5. The 1.25-mile classic is contested under the historic twin spires of Churchill Downs and is followed two weeks later by the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes in Maryland. The final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, will be held at Belmont Park three weeks after the Preakness. The top 3-year-olds in the country have been prepping all year long for this. Here is a list of the top contenders and a humble estimation of their respective chances.
ALPHA - A developing son of the stallion Bernardini, this horse has really been coming into form of late. Alpha began his career with a stunning maiden victory but ended 2011 with a second to Union Rags in the Champagne Stakes and a dismal performance in the Breeders' Cup. He began the year winning two stakes on the inner track at Aqueduct against mediocre competition but stamped his ticket to the Derby with a gutsy effort in the prestigious Wood Memorial Stakes. He closed in the stretch to fall a head short to Gemologist but considering his two months off between races, the Wood should set Alpha up for a top race in the Derby and his pedigree will certainly be an advantage at the Derby distance. Alpha should prove troublesome on Derby day and is a legitimate contender.
BODEMEISTER - Somewhat inexperienced but loaded with talent, it remains to be seen if this horse will be ready for the testing of the Derby. If he is in the race he will be shooting for the stars since no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.
CREATIVE CAUSE - There seems to be no limit to this son of Giant's Causeway's ability. He was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year to Hansen and Union Rags but was only beaten by a length. He is quite versatile and has tactile speed and the ability to close as well. He won the San Felipe Stakes in March and followed that with a game second in the 1.125-mile Santa Anita Derby to I'll Have Another. If he can put it all together he will be a tough customer on Derby day—a likely top three finish.
DULLAHAN - Primarily a turf horse who began the year with a second in the Palm Beach Stakes on turf at Gulfstream Park, Dullahan will be running in the Blue Grass Stakes over the polytrack at Keeneland in his final prep race. He did manage a distant fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on the Churchill Downs strip so he has experienced the surface. After having some issues with a splint injury, he is at best, a longshot for third or fourth.
GEMOLOGIST – The son of Tiznow was beaten in five career starts, culminating with a game win in the $1 million Wood Memorial over Alpha. The big advantage for this horse is that he has won over the Churchill Downs strip when he took the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. He is fresh and has obvious talent—his pedigree says the distance will be no problem. He has the heart to fight it out, and is sure to be a major threat.
HANSEN- As last year's 2-year-old male champ, Hansen will make his next start in the Bluegrass Stakes over polytrack. His newfound tractability is an asset and he will be forwardly placed. If he can rate early and make a quick move he will be hard to run down as was evidenced by his win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year.
I'LL HAVE ANOTHER – This horse continues to impress with his gameness and ability to find the winner's circle. He took the Robert Lewis in February after a five-month layoff at odds of 42-1, then next showed up for the Santa Anita Derby off a two-month layoff and won by a head over Creative Cause. Trainer Doug O'Neill has worked to keep the colt up to such top performances. I’ll Have Another has the tactical speed to lay close to the pace but does not have to have the lead. He will be a tough customer if the race unfolds in his favor. One thing for sure is he will fight it out to the finish.
OPTIMIZER – After making a big run to finish second in the Rebel Stakes to Secret Circle, Optimizer seems to want to run a distance of ground. He will start next in the Arkansas Derby and knowing trainer Wayne Lukas' penchant for the spotlight he will likely be in the Derby field. Could pick up the pieces with a late run if the speed wilts.
PROSPECTIVE – Although he is somewhat under the radar, this colt keeps grinding away. He won the Tampa Bay Derby with a closing move after giving up the lead in the early stretch, and has grit and determination, which may compensate for his slower times. This colt is sure to be a longshot special.
TAKE CHARGE INDY – Take Charge Indy finally lived up to expectations with his stunning win in the Florida Derby. His pedigree exudes class, being by A.P. Indy out of grade I winner Take Charge Lady. He has the speed to get early position to avoid traffic in the crowded Derby field, has the stamina to maintain his position, and is a main contender in the race.
UNION RAGS – This horse began his 3-year-old year with a stunning victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and garnered all the early Derby attention. He failed as the overwhelming favorite in the Florida Derby and was victimized by a misjudged ride as well as some intimidating riding by other jockeys in the race. His defeat could serve as a learning experience since the Derby field will be crowded and he must be able to maneuver through traffic when he makes his closing move. A beautiful specimen, Union Rags will likely go post ward as the Derby favorite or co-favorite based on his race record.
WENT THE DAY WELL – This lightly raced colt, Went the Day Well, was trained by Graham Motion, who won the Derby last year with Animal Kingdom. Went the Day Well won his last start in the Spiral Stakes and likes to come from behind. He has the same preparations and connections as Animal Kingdom—will this be deja vu?