Kentucky Derby 138 A Wide-Open, Wild One

Union Rags

Union Rags

Here’s a number I’m pondering as we near Saturday’s 138th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands: 30.

The gray longshot won the Kentucky Derby 30 years ago in 1982, a renewal of the Run for the Roses that is important to me because it is the first that I personally witnessed. That came in my first months of working for Louisville radio stations KJ-100 FM (now WDJX) and WCII-AM, which at the time was the home of the legendary Bill Bailey. The Duke of Louisville loved a lot of things, with a good drink with friends and horse racing near the top of the list. I loved talking horses with the Duke, who left us in January at the age of 81.

Julian “Buck” Wheat and John Asher.

Julian “Buck” Wheat and John Asher.

That Derby 30 years ago was the year I met Julian “Buck” Wheat on the backside at Churchill Downs.  As he was to everyone, Buck was kind to a greenhorn radio reporter
working his first Derby and offered a kind smile and a handshake, but never criticism.

Buck, who spent most of 60 years around Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, died last December at the age of 78. If anything or anyone was close to being dubbed a Third Spire at the home of the venerable Twin Spires, it was Buck.  His friends and racing miss him terribly, and many Mint Juleps and other libations will be raised this Derby Day in his honor.

The 1982 Derby was also my first opportunity to meet the great Jim Bolus. America’s greatest race has never had a greater, more accurate and more dedicated historian. A longtime reporter for the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, Jim was also the curator of the Kentucky Derby Museum.  Bolus passed one week after the 1997 Derby won by Silver Charm, just days after the 54-year-old had proclaimed that race to be one of his favorite Derbys.

Gato Del Sol’s surprise win in 1982 was the first of 30 renewals of the Run for the Roses that I have personally witnessed, either as a reporter or a member of the Churchill Downs team, and it will always be special to me.

As I look ahead to – the good Lord willing – witnessing my 31st running of the great race, I do so with a hint of sadness. But my overwhelming feelings are excitement and anticipation. I’m looking forward to this race as much as any Derby I’ve been blessed to be a part of, and that anticipation has brought to mind over the past few days those friends and many more.

The Duke, Buck and Jim would love this Derby and its field of accomplished horses with records of sustained accomplishment that is rivaled by few Derby fields in recent years. Many of the horses that were stars of the crop in their first racing season at two have gone on to validate the potential and promise displayed in the early months of their careers.

Union Rags

Union Rags

Of the 13 horses that assembled at Churchill Downs for last year’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, nine are members of this Kentucky Derby field.  Eight of those have won major stakes races since Breeders’ Cup Day.

That rarely happens, as many things can happen to knock horses off the road to the Kentucky Derby after promising 2-year-old seasons.  But these horses – including the 1-2-3-4-5 finishers in 2-year-old champion Hansen, Union Rags, Creative Cause, Dullahan and Take Charge Indy – have moved forward, matured and competed admirably in the prep races leading up to their return to Churchill Downs.  Nine of the 10 have won major stakes races and the tenth finished a flying second in a graded stakes prep race.

You might get three or four Breeders’ Cup Juvenile veterans to run back in the Derby in most years, but the total rarely, if ever, approaches double figures.

That group is joined by talented and accomplished newcomers that include Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister, Santa Anita Derby winner I’ll Have Another and Went the Day Well, winner of Turfway Park’s Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes.

This field reminds me a bit of that 1997 group that Jim Bolus loved so much.  That year’s top quartet of Derby finishers – Silver Charm, Captain Bodgit, Free House and Pulpit – was a terrific group of young stars that appeared very evenly matched.  Out of that group, Silver Charm came close to winning a Triple Crown with heart-stopping victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and a disappointing loss to Touch Gold in the final yards of the Belmont Stakes.

This year’s field appears as evenly matched, but deeper in consistency and, perhaps, quality. Will one of these horses come up with a significant step forward that separates him from the other members of the class? It’s possible, but first we must get through the first, and most difficult, leg of the Triple Crown: Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

Here’s one man’s look at what could happen, from last-to-first, in Kentucky Derby 138:

20. El Padrino
His final prep in the Florida Derby, which came on the heels of an impressive allowance run, was listless. He’ll need much better to crack the top half of the field.

19. Liason
Trainer Bob Baffert said he disliked the Santa Anita track over the winter, but likes Churchill Downs much better. He might like this course, but the guess here is he won’t care much for his rivals.

18. Trinniberg
This talented sprinter should be on the lead and carry this field a long way, but it’s tough to imagine him having much left in the final quarter.

17. Daddy Long Legs
Led throughout in winning Dubai’s UAE Derby on a synthetic surface, but didn’t like dirt in his face in a next-to-last finish in the Breeders’ Cup last fall.

16. Gemologist
He’s unbeaten, a perfect two-for-two on this course and coming off a good win in the Wood Memorial. But the Derby is a different game.

15. Alpha
His troubled runner-up finish in the Wood was good, but several days of missed training after that race could take a toll.

14. I’ll Have Another
He was terrific over the winter in California and is a very good horse, but a lot of good horses will find life to be very tough in the long Churchill Downs homestretch.

13. Bodemeister
He’s got great speed figures, a three-time Derby-winning trainer and has worked beautifully over this track. But he figures to be part of a strong pace and could be forced to move earlier than hoped to deal with the fast sprinter Trinniberg, leaving little gas in the tank for the run through the final quarter-mile.

12. Done Talking
He won’t get much respect off a slow win in the Illinois Derby, but he’s a solid closer that will be passing tired horses in the stretch.

11. Sabercat
He’s been training very well for trainer Steve Asmussen, but appeared to get little out of the first of two races this year. A mid-pack finish in this Derby might look pretty good in a few months.

10. Optimizer
D. Wayne Lukas’ latest Derby hope got into the field very late and figures to have a similar finish. He has a solid late run and will benefit from a strong pace.

9. Hansen
Another quality horse with a front-running style that figures to be a disadvantage. The seemingly inevitable speed showdown between Hansen, Bodemeister and Trinniberg does not figure to benefit any member of the trio.

8. Dullahan
Half-brother to Mine That Bird, longshot winner of the 2009 Derby, should be doing his best running late for Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans.

7. Rousing Sermon
Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has never won the Derby, but any horse he brings East from California should not be underestimated. The price will be right on this guy on Derby Day.

6. Went the Day Well
He might not be his stablemate Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Derby winner, but we won’t know for sure until Derby Day. He will add blinkers for the Derby and it’s never comforting to see an equipment change in a race of this magnitude, but his only work over this track for trainer Graham Motion was very good.

5. Daddy Nose Best
Likely to be an attractive longshot in the Derby as his training has touted him as a horse that is ready to run a big one. Trainer Asmussen is about due for a Derby win after a runner-up finish with Nehro last year.

4. Take Charge Indy
Trained by British-born Churchill veteran Patrick and ridden by Calvin Borel, who will seek a stalking trip behind the leaders and the jump on the closers. For reference, look to his winning ride on Super Saver in 2010.

3. Prospective
He is unproven against this level of competition, but he was one of the first Derby arrivals at Churchill Downs and has trained beautifully for trainer Mark Casse. Look for a big run at enormous odds.

2. Creative Cause
Veteran trainer Mike Harrington’s Giant’s Causeway colt has been a little erratic while running through the stretch this year, but never runs a bad one. If he finally puts it together today, look out.

1. Union Rags
The guess here is that trainer Michael Matz’s star will be a narrow favorite at post time, despite a disappointing loss in the Florida Derby. He has displayed tremendous physical development since his runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and, with just a little bit of luck could be unbeaten coming into this race. Jockey Julien Leparoux bids farewell as full-timer in the Churchill Downs jockey’s colony in this one to pursue casino-fed purses in New York, and his fans would welcome the French-born rider’s first Derby win. It’s time for a member of this impressive and accomplished group of 3-year-olds to step forward and grab the top spot among those horses. Union Rags has the talent and the versatility to do it – and he could go on to do much more in the weeks to come.

John Asher’s Prediction:

Union Rags will wear the roses in Derby 138.

Photos by AMBER CHALFIN | Contributing Photographer