The horses in tomorrow’s Kentucky Derby field have already proved their fearless hearts. Some have inspired awe with fast, brilliant performances. Others are on this stage not because of their flash but because of their consistency. Either way, they have separated themselves from thousands of peers. They looked rivals square in the eye and ran away. It’s what important horses do.
The meticulous preparation is complete. On Saturday, one horse will turn a single race watched by millions into a brave recital. It will require grit, fight and enough luck to blanket 1,235 feet, the distance from the final turn to the finish line at Churchill Downs.
The winner of the Kentucky Derby must be in the right place at the right time; Never out of position; Never a step late. Two minutes, or thereabouts, is all the time it will take for a star to emerge as the undisputed champion of Kentucky Derby 138, forever etching his name in history and turning the story of his career into an epic fairy tale for the people closest to him.
Each year, 20 horses from a crop of thousands earn their way to the starting gate and a shot at immortality in America’s most famous race.
Kentucky Derby 138 promises to bring together one of the deepest, most competitive fields assembled in the “Run for the Roses.” This year’s field is not only loaded with quality runners but is overflowing with fascinating storylines.
Bodemeister is trying to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the roses without racing as a 2-year-old. Apollo is the first and only horse in history to win the Derby without racing as a juvenile. Bodemeister obviously possesses a world of talent. His Arkansas Derby victory and his sharp work at Churchill Downs on Sunday stamp him as one of the legitimate threats to win it all despite his lack of a juvenile foundation.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who suffered a heart attack in March, knows what it takes to get a horse to peak on Derby day. He has won the Derby with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem. Baffert explained this week how Bodemeister, who is named for Baffert’s son, Bode, received his moniker.
“I happened to be at the barn at Del Mar with Bode and his friends and (Ahmed Zayat) told me needed some papers and was going to change the name of that horse,” Baffert related. “I told him, ‘I’ll just call him Bodemeister until the name comes out.’ I didn’t think twice about it. A month and a half later, I saw the papers on the desk and my bookkeeper said, ‘Look at this name, Bodemeister.’ I said, ‘What did he do that for?’ Usually it’s a jinx if you name one for your kid. I said, ‘Well, forget that horse.’ So, here we are.”
Undefeated Gemologist is attempting to become only the 8th horse in history to enter and exit the Derby undefeated. In recent years, Smarty Jones, Barbaro and Big Brown put their unbeaten records on the line in the Derby and left Louisville with their perfect records intact. Gemologist was game in turning back Alpha in the Wood Memorial (G1). The son of Tiznow is also a two-time winner at Churchill Downs.
Gemologist shipped to Churchill on Tuesday after training all winter at Palm Meadows Training Center in South Florida.
“What’s important is that not only is he undefeated but he’s two-for-two at Churchill,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “Not all horses take to this surface. The fact that he’s won twice around two turns here I think is a big edge.”
Union Rags has a unique story. His owner and breeder, Phyllis Wyeth, originally sold Union Rags as a yearling. Later regretting the decision to sell him, she bought him back the following year for much more than she sold him for the previous year. She says she had a dream he was going to be an important racehorse. She may be right. Union Rags resides in the barn of Michael Matz, who conditioned Barbaro. In fact, Union Rags is bedded down in the same stall in Barn 42 at Churchill Downs that was occupied by Barbaro in 2006.
“I’ve had one great horse in Barbaro and I think I might have a second one,” said Matz on Tuesday. “It’s a great opportunity. It’s a great feeling. It’s been six years since I came back where I think I have a chance, and that’s what we work for.”
Union Rags turned in a splendid workout at Churchill Downs last Saturday, a move that resembled Barbaro’s fast workout over the track a week before the Derby in 2006.
A victory by Dullahan, a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, would give the mare, Mining My Own, her second Derby winner. Mine that Bird’s shocking rail-skimming upset under Calvin Borel in 2009 left many racing fans stunned in disbelief. Trained by Chip Woolley, Mine That Bird returned $103.20 for each $2 win wager.
If Irish-bred Daddy Long Legs prevails for owners Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith and John and Susan Magnier and trainer Aidan O’Brien, he will be the first European-trained runner to win America’s most famous horse race. His first trip to Churchill Downs for last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile resulted in a 12th place finish. He was victorious in the UAE Derby in the United Arab Emirates in his last start. Daddy Long Legs arrived from Ireland on Wednesday. His connections promptly learned that their invader drew the rail.
“I know the draw is probably not ideal, as people say,” said T.J. Comerford, assistant to trainer Aidan O’Brien. “We can’t change that, for sure. We’ll do our best from one. He’s a year older and he was quick away in Dubai. We did plenty with him for Dubai and he was smart away there. I don’t know if he’s smart enough for the American way, but he’s definitely a lot better. He’s come on a lot.”
A win by Alpha would be the first in the Kentucky Derby for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Godolphin Racing. This is Alpha’s second trip to Churchill Downs. He finished 11th in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).
“He shipped in well and all systems are go,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said this week. “He looked like he liked the track a little better than on Breeders’ Cup day, so I was happy about that.”
Went the Day Well would give Team Valor International and trainer Graham Motion back-to-back Derby wins after scoring last year with Animal Kingdom. Went the Day Well has taken the same path to the Derby, having won the Spiral Stakes (G3) at Turfway Park in his last start. Like Union Rags, Went the Day Well is occupying the same stall as a previous Derby winner. He resides in Animal Kingdom’s stall from a year ago.
Jockey Calvin Borel is a three-time Kentucky Derby winning rider. His mount Saturday is Florida Derby (G1) winner Take Charge Indy. The royally-bred son of A.P. Indy will be making his first start at Churchill Downs since finishing fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Pay extra attention to horses from Florida. Five of the last six Derby winners spent all or part of the winter in Florida. Barbaro (2006), Street Sense (2007), Big Brown (2008), Super Saver (2010), and Animal Kingdom (2011) all parlayed training in the Sunshine State to success on Derby day. Since 2006, the only Derby winner based outside of Florida was Mine That Bird (New Mexico) in 2009.
The horses that wintered in Florida in this year’s Derby are: Union Rags, Gemologist, El Padrino, Take Charge Indy, Dullahan, Went the Day Well, Alpha, Hansen, Prospective and Trinniberg.
For all of the speculation and banter that surrounds a race like the Kentucky Derby, the 20 horses and their jockeys will settle the narrative on the racetrack in front of a boisterous, impassioned crowd of racing fans at Churchill Downs sometime after 6 p.m. on Saturday.
As the horses parade before the grandstand with the University of Louisville marching band playing Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” a tradition which began in 1924, this year’s field will be just minutes away from deciding “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”
It has been 34 years since Florida-bred Affirmed swept the Triple Crown, one of only 11 horses to pull off the elusive feat. Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, racing fans can dream that maybe, just maybe, a horse in this excellent crop of 3-year-olds can be one for the ages, summoning the heart of a champion to produce a truly classic run through the classic races.
For a visual guide to some fun Kentucky Derby facts, click here:
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