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May 2, 2012

Derby features competitive field

LOUISVILLE — This Saturday’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs will witness one of the strongest and most competitive fields in years.

No fewer than nine of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile participants lineup in a bid to win the roses.

As a result, the 20-strong field lacks a standout contender, with the favorite likely to go off at around the 4-1 mark on the day.

Therefore, if you happen to land on the winner, you should get a tasty enough return, while the exotics shouldn’t be too shabby either.

So who are the main players, and are there any Mine That Bird-type longshots waiting in the wings to land a shocker?

The Bob Baffert-trained Bodemeister is the morning-line favorite at 4-1. He is the fastest horse in the race and the only one with three triple-digit Beyer speed figures. However, as has been well documented, he didn’t race as a 2-year-old and the only horse to ever win when starting its career at 3 was Apollo in 1882.

Vying for favoritism on Saturday will be Union Rags (9-2), second in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He had clock-watchers purring last Saturday after his impressive work at Churchill Downs.  However, a couple of things could derail Michael Matz’s colt: his ability to somehow find trouble in running, and his questionable stamina (deceased sire Dixie Union hasn’t produced a winner beyond the Derby distance).

The horse that beat Union Rags in the aforementioned race was Hansen (10-1). If the 2-year-old champion does win, not only will he be the whitest horse ever to win the Derby, but the postrace celebrations will probably rank amongst the greatest ever.

Owner Dr. Kendall Hansen, who runs a pain management clinic in Northern Kentucky, hit the headlines when his attempt to race his horse in the Blue Grass Stakes with a blue tail was frowned upon by the stick-in-the-mud officials.

Now he’s talking about sketching Hansen’s name out in the sky above the Downs should he be victorious, while he’s also planning to have thousands of miniature stuffed dolls in Hansen’s image passed out to patrons on the day.

Yet for all this malarkey, Hansen really does have a serious chance of draping himself with the roses — despite being dismissed by many experts. While the general consensus is that he, Trinniberg (50-1), Bodemeister and possibly Take Charge Indy (15-1) will set a scorching pace — thus compromising their chances — you get the feeling Hansen, drawn No. 14, will be held back by jockey Ramon Dominguez.

If there’s burning speed up front, who’s likely to close from the back?

Hansen’s Blue Grass conqueror, Dullahan (8-1), is one that’s likely to. Trained by Louisville’s Dale Romans, the half- brother to 2009 winner Mine That Bird would also be a popular winner and breaks from a favorable No. 5 post. He has plenty of foundation and looks ready to run a big race.

Daddy Nose Best (15-1) is another closer that has been working well over the Churchill track. The Sunland Derby winner, who ran eight times as a 2-year-old, is the only horse to have run two nine-furlong races. He is trained by Steve Asmussen, and his stablemate Sabercat (30-1) has also received favorable reviews regarding his work this week.

Wood Memorial winner Gemologist (6-1) is unsurprisingly attracting a lot of support, considering the Todd Pletcher-trained colt is 5 for 5 and has run twice at Churchill Downs.

However, you’d have to question his stamina, as some 29 Tiznow progeny have tried this 1 1/4-mile distance or farther, and only two have won.

Pletcher’s second entry, El Padrino (20-1), should not be dismissed. The son of Pulpit disappointed at the Florida derby, finishing fourth, but he has the proper foundation and has decent stamina influences on both sides of his pedigree.

Doug O’Neill’s I’ll Have Another (12-1) beat Creative Cause to win the Santa Anita Derby and has the pedigree to excel at this distance, but he’s coming into the Derby with only two recent races under his belt.

Coming over from Ireland is the Aidan O’Brien-trained Daddy Long Legs. Drawn against the rail in the No. 1 gate, the UAE Derby winner aims to better his stablemate Master of Hounds’ fifth placing in last year’s Run for the Roses. Indication are that he can, and 30-1 is simply too big.

And the winner? I can’t help feeling that the connections of 2011 Derby victor Animal Kingdom could repeat with Went the Day Well (20-1) at yet another decent price.

His speed figures in the Spiral Stakes were better than Animal Kingdom’s, who also used the race as his final prep, and he looks certain to improve. There are questions about who he actually beat, but there are questions over every horse in this Derby.

At morning line odds of 20-1, backing a Graham Motion repeat of a year ago could result in Derby Day going very well indeed!

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