Those of you who have been with me for a while know I’ve been involved in the sport of Horse Racing, in some capacity, for 32 years. I’ve worked at breeding farms, on the backstretch of BelmontPark, and as a correspondent (or writer). Of course, thru all 32 years, I’ve been a fan and handicapper. That being said, I can’t remember a year where the three year old crop has been as strong as the current one. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve said a million times before that the Kentucky Derby, year in and year out, is far and away the toughest race to figure out or handicap. The 2012 Kentucky Derby is absolutely no different. There are no less than eight horses with a 110% legitimate chance to be wearing the blanket of roses in the late afternoon of May 5th. At one time, I thought Union Rags stood alone as the horse to beat….honestly, I’m not quite sure of that right now.
Instead of doing my usual ranking, from 1 to 25 (or so), I’ve decided to look at things slightly different this week to maybe…..just maybe….shine a little more light on how things are shaping up. By the way, I can’t believe we have just over two weeks left before the Derbyand the picture is still so muddled. I mean, it’s like that every year but this year, however, the muddling is different. It’s more like, which ones of these will be the king of kings sort of speak.
So here’s what I’m going to do this week. Since the Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters, which is based on most graded stakes money won, I am going to go thru the top (just to be sure) 25 horses on the list.
So remember two things. 1) I am ranking them by money won (not by, what is in my opinion, their ability) and 2) the only way numbers 21 thru 25 get in is if someone ahead of them backs out for one reason or another. At this point, if one of the top 20 pulls out, then Mark Valeski would be the replacement because he is number 21. Then El Padrino would be next because he is number 22 and so on and so forth. Make sense?
1) Hansen- $1,550,000:
Strengths: He is certainly fast enough to win; he wasn’t crowned two year old champion last year for no reason. If he can rate off the pace like he did in his Gotham Mile win, he will be a handful come Derby Day.
Weakness: He might be too speedy. After he broke as good as a horse can break in the Bluegrass, he dragged jockey Ramon Dominguez to the lead, cut a :46 and change half mile (with no one really around or hounding him) and weakened in the final yards. There were some distractions before that race with the whole tail dying nonsense but I’ve also heard whispers he won’t get the mile and a quarter distance either.
2) Daddy Long Legs- $1,294,030
Strengths: Big win in the 1 3/16’s miles UAE Derby in Dubai, which in turn means, he is already proven at the distance…. a winner of 3 of 5 careers starts. Also, his sire (Scat Daddy) is ripping hot right now.
Weakness: His one start in this country was abysmal (12th in the Breeders Cup Juvenile), and its takes a very special horse to be a globetrotter and continue to win. I believe asking a (especially young) horse to travel to the other side of the world (and back) and win the Kentucky Derby is asking an awful lot.
3) Union Rags- $1,170,000
Strengths: Probably the most talented horse in the crop, he possesses a devastating late run and is a physical specimen to look at. He could still be a potential superstar.
Weakness: Am I overrating him? There aren’t many weaknesses. Was his Florida Derby defeat because he wasn’t in peak form because his trainer doesn’t want him to peak too early? Or the recipient of a bad ride? Was the winner just better that day? Or a combination of all that?
4) Dullahan- $855,000
Strengths: Peaking at the right time as his win in the Bluegrass was top notch. He came from 10th on the turn for home yet still won. I am still impressed by his physical appearance right before the Bluegrass….he looked nothing short of spectacular. His running style is perfect for the classic races as he is a late runner and he doesn’t mind being in and amongst horses during the running of a race nor do “traffic” issues seem to bother him.
Weaknesses: I’ll let you know when I find one….oh wait, he is 0 for 3 over the Churchill Downs surface, but he was a different horse back then.
5) Creative Cause- $836,000
Strengths: By super sire Giant’s Causeway, he was the west coasts top Derby prospect until the Santa Anita Derby. He’s had three solid prep races, so he should be coming into the Kentucky Derby at the top of his game. He does own wins over Bodemeister and Dullahan.
Weaknesses: I didn’t see any visible excuse for him when I’ll Have Another ran him down late in the SA Derby. Although he likes to come from behind in his races, he does not possess that sudden and electrifying burst of speed like Union Rags does, this horse is more of a “grinder” which could be good or bad depending on the way this years Derby is run.
6) Gemologist- $703,855
Strengths: Unbeaten (5 for 5) with two of those wins coming at Churchill Downs. He is versatile as he can run from off the pace or he can go wire to wire. On top of that, I still don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet.
Weaknesses: Inexperience…..Can he win the Kentucky Derby of just five lifetime starts?
7) Sabercat- $701,429
Strengths: Another with the running style to win the Derby. This late runner might be slowly rounding into form. He won the Delta Downs Jackpot with an eye catching move before taking four months off, so we know the ability is there. He then mailed it in in the Rebel Stakes while finishing eighth. But then bounced back well in the Arkansas Derby as he was a whisker shy of catching Secret Circle for second place. That means he improved off the Rebel. What happens if he improves again and hits that Delta Jackpot form?
Weaknesses: Is he good enough? I mean, even if he returns to that Jackpot form will it be good enough to win the Kentucky Derby? Because looking at the horses he beat in that race, they weren’t exactly world beaters.
8 ) Take Charge Indy- $698,400
Strengths: Superior breeding (by A.P Indy out of stakes winner Take Charge Lady by Dehere), is very versatile (usually runs late but went wire to wire in the Florida Derby, beating highly regarded Union Rags), and might be coming into his own at the right time. Calvin Borel is his rider….who has owned the Derbyof late.
Weaknesses: The Florida Derby was just his second career win (out of six attempts). Is he a one hit wonder who just got everything his own way that day? Remember, this is Horse Racing, so its entirely possible.
9) Secret Circle- He is five for seven lifetime as he continues to stretch out fairly effectively. Yes, he was a distant second (to Bodemeister) in the Arkansas Derby but he flat out got beat by a better horse. If you take Bodemeister out of that race? He wins it… you have to love his will to win as he tries as hard as he can every time out.
Weaknesses: I doubt he gets a mile and a quarter…period…end of sentence.
10) Bodemeister: $660,000
Strengths: By Empire Maker and he could be a budding superstar. His last three speed figures are 101, 101 and 108…no three year old has come close to duplicating those numbers. Not only did he flat out annihilate his foes in the Arkansas Derby, but he ran the last eighth of a mile in less than 12 seconds which is extremely difficult to do especially while on the front end the whole time. With just four starts in his career, we haven’t seen the bottom of him yet and that, readers, is a scary thought.
Weaknesses: Can he win the Kentucky Derby off just four lifetime starts? How does he handle 120,000 screaming drunks on Derby Day? Also he, like Hansen, better be able to handle coming from behind because I see a lot of early speed in this years Derby and it will probably be a suicidal pace. If he is taken back early, how will he handle dirt being kicked up in his face? And don’t forget, he will be trying to become the first in 130 years to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old.
11) Hero of Order: $617,375
Strengths: Ummm…can I get back to you on this?
Weaknesses: He is 2 for 14 in his career and doesn’t appear to be even remotely good enough to win.
12) I’ll Have Another- $601,000
Strengths: Beast…he must be after winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at 40 something to 1, then takes 2 months off only to come back and win the Santa Anita Derby by flat outrunning Creative Cause? Come on, that’s phenomenal. Fast, fresh and dangerous assuming he likes the Churchill Downs surface.
Weaknesses: There is a reason why he took two months off between those two wins; he might need a lot of time between starts. Which is fine, still a very serious Derby threat but if it’s that’s true? Then a Triple Crown winner here is a longshot and I don’t know about you, but in the long run, that what I’m looking for.
13) Daddy Nose Best: $545, 558
Strengths: Will be coming into the Derby “hot” off his back to back wins (the El Camino and Sunland Park Derby) and is being called the “wiseguy’s horse”. He gets Garrett Gomez as his rider (as Mike Smith wound up going with Bodemeister) and he’s already at Churchill Downs. In fact, he’s had two works, including a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 1/5, with a strong gallop-out. 10 lifetime starts, so the experience is there too…Can you say sleeper horse?
Weaknesses: Another I say….is he good enough?
14) Liaison- $393,000
Strengths: By Indian Charlie, trained by Bob Baffert and definitely has some ability based on last year.
Weaknesses: has not done a single thing right this year. He is 0 for 3 and hasn’t been close in any of those three races.
15) Alpha- $380,000
Strengths: By a top sire (Bernardini), has a top trainer (Kiaran Mclaughin) and a top rider (Ramon Dominguez), if that’s not enough how about he gave Gemologist fits down the stretch of the Wood Memorial after a) not running for two months and b) having all kinds of issues on the first turn of that race.
Weaknesses: Not many, other than the fact they took the low road to Louisville by ducking the major competition most of the year.
16) Prospective- $367,327
Strengths: Showed heart and determination in winning the Tampa Bay Derby and, like Secret Circle, he always tries his best.
Weaknesses: Finished a disappointing 6th in the Bluegrass when trying the “big boys” for the first time. But, he may have been too far back early in that race. Yet another who I am wondering if he is good enough.
17) Trinniberg- $324,500
Strengths: Impressive winner of the Bay Shore Stakes in New York and the Swale Stakes in Flordia before that.
Weaknesses: He has never run further than seven furlongs and his connections already said they are more interested in the Preakness that the Derby. (Actually they said there was a “15% chance” they’d even run him in the Derby) So he probably won’t even be in the starting gate May 5th.
18) Done Talking- $311,000
Strengths: Won the Illinois Derby…
Weaknesses: I could have run a faster 1 1/8 miles than he did in that Illinois Derby win, and the one time he faced the upper echelon three years old was in the Gotham Stakes, where he finished tenth.
19) Went the Day Well- $282,000
Strengths: Impressive winner of the Spiral Stakes recently (in just his third career start) and is another who could be getting good at the right time. Top notch trainer (Graham Motion, who took a similar path to the Derby with Animal Kingdom last year) and rider (John Velasquez). My insiders say he is a runner.
Weaknesses: Inexperience…in fact, he’s the most inexperienced with just three lifetime starts. Will he be ready physically and mentally? Hard to believe he will be.
20) Rousing Sermon- $270,000
Strengths: Bounced back (off two disappointing efforts) with a late charging third in the Louisiana Derby. He does have a big closing run, as he demonstrated last year in California.
Weaknesses: hasn’t won since October of 2011….thats five stright defeats. Not the way you want your horse coming into the biggest race in the world.
21) Mark Valeski- $260,000
Strengths- Finished fourth to Union Rags in his career debut, then won two races, then ran (at one time) highly regarded El Padrino to a life and death battle in the Risen Star Stakes, before finishing second in the Louisiana Derby, so you know he has the ability.
Weaknesses: Right now, and like the next four horses on the list, he is on the outside looking in. Plus, albeit they were big races, he was second in his last two. Is he suffering from “second-itis”? And how do you lose to a 109-1 shot right before theDerby?
22) El Padrino- $250,000
Strengths: Still has a ton of talent even though he was a disappointing fourth in the Florida Derby. (Jockey J.J. Castellano was too focused on beating Union Rags). A LOT of people have now disregarded him but I’m afraid that may be a mistake as he won the two other races he ran in prior to that. By Pulpit and trained by Todd Pletcher.
Weaknesses: Needs to get in (and he just might). He’ll also need to bounce back off that poor performance in Florida. (and he just might do that too)
23) Reveron- $220,000
Strengths: second in the Florida Derby, beating Union Rags at a big price.
Weaknesses: I’m thinking that Florida Derby was a one hit wonder, I mean I can’t see him outrunning any of the “elite eight” in this years Derby….can you?
24) Isn’t He Clever- $188,000
Strengths: By 2004 Kentucky Derby winner and the ever popular Smarty Jones and out of a Deputy Minister mare, He’s had four starts this year so he should be fit. He’s batting .500 as he’s won 4 of 8 career starts.
Weaknesses: Finished eighth and in another zip code in the Arkansas Derby, I cant see him improving THAT much over the next…what?…2 ½ weeks?
25) Optimizer- $184,708
Strengths: capable of unleashing a huge late run as demonstrated in the Rebel as he made up a ton of ground late and almost caught the winner (Secret Circle), trained by crafty veteran D. Wayne Lukas.
Weaknesses: inconsistent, after that big second to Secret Circle, he was nowhere to be found in his next race (the Arkansas Derby, where he was 9th).
Number 26 is Castaway ($162,000), who I had/have high hopes for. He’ll be running in the Lexington Stakes this upcoming weekend to try to catapult himself up the list and into the Kentucky Derby starting gate. He is another who my sources tell me is quite a runner. You have to throw out that seventh in the Sunland ParkDerby though. Either way, we’ll need to watch how he fares this weekend.