With all the prep races now in the books, it's time for a look at the main contenders for the May 5 Kentucky Derby.
Bear in mind, as Jay Hovdey points out in Daily Racing Form, that four of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners -- Funny Cide, Mine That Bird, Giacomo, and Super Saver -- "somehow neglected to win any of the preps on the 'Road to the Kentucky Derby' list." On the flip side, I point out that three of those four also never won another race of any kind after wearing the Roses.
Perhaps the moral is, it takes an unusual combination of circumstances to win the Kentucky Derby and pure talent frequently isn't enough for victory. Or, in the words of Joel Einhorn, who won the right to make a free $100,000 win bet on this year's Derby: "All I want is to be lucky. You can be so smart, but luck wins the race."
With all that in mind, here are the potential players, roughly in the order they may be favored. Twenty will start and there will be an "also eligible" list of up to four more to fill any late vacancies.
BODEMEISTER. An Empire Maker colt, trained by Bob Baffert. He romped to a 9 1/2-lengths win in the Arkansas Derby. On the down side, he finished second to Creative Cause in the San Felipe out west and he did not race as a 2-year-old. It's been 130 years since the Kentucky Derby winner didn't race as a juvenile. In four starts, he has won twice -- both times when he was on the lead at the first call. The lead will be a hotly disputed position in the Kentucky Derby. He is named for Baffert's young son, Bodie, who is frequently seen on TV visiting the winner's circle with his dad. A lot of casual fans will want to see Bodie and Bodemeister celebrating under the twin spires.
GEMOLOGIST. A Tiznow colt, trained by Todd Pletcher. He is undefeated in five starts, including the Kentucky Jockey Club over the Churchill Downs track last November. Not all horses like that track, so the win is reassuring to his supporters. He comes into the race off a victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, where he held off Alpha to win by a neck. He's another who likes to be on or near the lead and his perfect record will attract support.
DULLAHAN. An Even the Score colt, trained by Dale Romans. This one is a half brother to Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird -- one of those who never did anything after posting the huge Derby upset. Dullahan won't be as big a longshot as Mine That Bird but he has some issues. His best races have been on the grass and all-weather surfaces, including his last-out victory in the Blue Grass at Keeneland. He has never finished better than a well-beaten third at Churchill Downs. In his only two wins, he's come from far back in the field. He probably will be overbet.
HANSEN. An almost-white colt by Tapit, trained by Mike Maker. He won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, holding off the heavy favorite, Union Rags, through the final furlong. He has two wins and two seconds this year, including a runner-up showing to Dullahan in the Blue Grass. In most of his races, he has sped to the lead but showed in winning the Gotham Stakes that he also could wait behind the pace -- which he might need to do in the Derby. He could be an underlay.
UNION RAGS. A Dixie Union colt, trained by Michael Matz. Despite his loss to Hansen in the Breeders' Cup, many expected this one to rise to stardom as a 3-year-old after his East Coast domination last year. Instead, he has been in-and-out, easily winning the Fountain of Youth, then settling for third in the Florida Derby when he started his stretch run too late. Look for him to settle right behind the early speed and from there he will need a better trip than he got at Gulfstream. But his fans remain convinced the third start of the year will be his breakout race and, if so, those backers will be well rewarded.
CREATIVE CAUSE. A Giant's Causeway colt, trained by Mike Harrington. He's never been worse than third in eight career starts and completed the trifecta in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He also beat Bodemeister on the square in the San Felipe on March 10 before getting home second by a nose to I'll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby. He typically runs from behind the pace. California horses sometimes are suspect when they arrive at Churchill Downs but the Breeders' Cup performance showed he can handle that surface. He may start at ridiculously long odds on Derby Day.
TAKE CHARGE INDY. An A.P. Indy colt, trained by Patrick Byrne. The Florida Derby was only the second victory of his career. The flip side of that is that he's improving and if that trend continues, he would be a threat in the Run for the Roses. He finished a fading fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after experiencing some traffic problems. He avoided that in the Florida Derby by slowing things down and leading all the way, which isn't going to happen in the big race.
I'LL HAVE ANOTHER. A Flower Alley colt, trained by Doug O'Neill. He has run very well in California, winning the Robert Lewis and the Santa Anita Derby -- beating Creative Cause in the latter -- in his only starts so far this year. But he went to the sidelines in September last year after a dismal showing in the slop at Saratoga in the Hopeful. If you like Creative Cause, this one would be hard not to like. His last two races were won from just off the pace.
ALPHA. A Bernardini colt, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Godolphin. He finished 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, then came back this year to win the Count Fleet and the Withers. He then settled for second, a neck short of Gemologist, in the Wood after getting roughed up on the first turn. Lacerations from that mixup became infected and his workout and shipping schedule was compromised. Here is yet another who seems to run best from just off the pace but he will need another gear in the stretch to finally land the Derby for Sheik Mohammed.
DADDY NOSE BEST. A Scat Daddy colt, trained by Steve Asmussen. Hmmm. This colt was toiling on the turf until Asmussen put him in the El Camino Real Derby over the Golden Gate all-weather track. He responded with a late-running win from mid-pack, then backed that up with a similar victory in the Sunland Park Derby, over a real dirt track. He was sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last fall and has four wins from 10 starts overall. Hmmmm.
DADDY LONG LEGS. Another Scat Daddy colt, trained by Aidan O'Brien. This guy won the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket in England in September in just his third career start, then crossed the ocean only to finish next-last of 13 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He perhaps proved that was an aberration by bouncing back in his 2012 debut to win the UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai by 1 1/4 lengths, easily negotiating 1 3/16 miles on the all-weather track. If he gets a decent post position and can handle the dirt this time, he could figure.
SABERCAT. A Bluegrass Cat colt, trained by Asmussen. He won the Garden State at Monmouth and the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs to close out 2011, then was a disappointing eighth in the Rebel at Oaklawn in his comeback. He did finish third in the Arkansas Derby but he was nearly 10 lengths behind Bodemeister at the end. He started slowly in both races this year after being in the mix early in two of his three wins.
LIAISON. An Indian Charlie colt, trained by Baffert. He looked like Baffert's best hope when he won the Real Quiet Stakes and the Cash Call Futurity last year at Hollywood Park. But then he clipped heels and lost Rafael Bejarano in the Robert Lewis in his first start as a 3-year-old and hasn't been the same since, showing little in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby.
MARK VALESKI. A Proud Citizen colt, trained by Larry Jones. He's another who has fallen off the radar for no really good reason. He jumped up in his second start of 2012 to just miss in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, losing to El Padrino by a nose. He then finished second to 107-1 longshot Hero of Order in the Louisiana Derby but was gaining ground after a wide trip.
EL PADRINO. A Pulpit colt, trained by Pletcher. His claim to fame is victory in the Risen Star in New Orleans but then he chugged home fourth in the Florida Derby without much late punch. One thing to watch: He broke his maiden with a 12 3/4-lengths win at Belmont Park in the slop and also won on an off track at Gulfstream Park. So if the ladies' hats are soggy and the mint juleps are diluted with rainwater on Derby Day, take a second look at El Padrino.
WENT THE DAY WELL. A Proud Citizen colt, trained by H. Graham Motion. Normally, you'd toss out of Kentucky Derby consideration a horse whose only added-money win was in the Spiral Stakes over the Turfway Park all-weather surface. But that was before Motion and Animal Kingdom used that route to win last year's Run for the Roses. Both Animal Kingdom and Went the Day Well also are campaigned by Team Valor International. Lightning twice?
TRINNIBERG. A Teuflesberg colt, trained by Bisnath Parboo. Here's one to add to the speed contingent. He has been on the lead at the first call in six of his seven career starts and won three of those, including the Grade III Swale at Gulfstream and the Grade III Bay Shore at Aqueduct. But both of those graded stakes wins were at 7 furlongs. Can he do battle with the likes of Bodemeister through the early furlongs and still have anything left in the loooong Churchill Downs stretch? Or will he simply compromise the other speed horses, like Bodemeister?
PROSPECTIVE. A Malibu Moon colt trained by Mark Casse. This is the only horse that Daddy Long Legs beat in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But he came back to win the Pasco Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby on Florida's Gulf Coast before tossing in a clunker in the Blue Grass. He would be coming from well back down the loooong Churchill Downs stretch if he has what it takes.
DONE TALKING. A Broken Vow colt, trained by Hamilton Smith. He finished a close fourth in the Remsen at Aqueduct to wrap up his 2-year-old season and was the only one gaining at the end. He ran poorly in the Gotham without any excuse, then jumped up to win the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne -- a race in which everyone else practically stopped in the stretch run. If he continues to progress, he should be among the late closers at Churchill Downs but would need to find another setting on the accelerator to be there at the end.
ROUSING SERMON. A Lucky Pulpit colt, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer. This colt has only two wins from nine starts and both of those victories were against fellow California-breds. He was pretty soundly defeated in the Robert Lewis and San Felipe, then kicked in late in the Louisiana Derby to complete the trifecta. He also tends to let others show the early speed.
ISN'T HE CLEVER. A Smarty Jones colt, trained by Henry Dominguez. Don't ignore him because he's based in New Mexico. He won the Borderland Derby and finished second to Daddy Nose Best in the Sunland Park Derby. But feel free to ignore him off his dismal showings in the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita and the Arkansas Derby. Dominguez is on the fence about running him in the Kentucky Derby.
OPTIMIZER. An English Channel colt, trained by D. Wayne Lukas. This guy has but a maiden win to his credit. He did jump up to finish second in the Rebel at Oaklawn Park at 28-1 odds. But then he backslid to finish ninth, 20 lengths back of Bodemeister, in the Arkansas Derby.