Derby Prep Season Gets Serious

While the focus of much of the state of Kentucky will be laser-focused on New Orleans this Saturday for the much-anticipated Final Four hoops showdown between the Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats, there will be a few observers putting their skills of multi-tasking to the test.

Members of the latter group will be focused on New Orleans for two reasons, with the other being Sunday’s running of the $1 million Louisiana Derby, a major stop along the road to Churchill Downs and the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.

There are two additional preps of note over those two days, including a busy Saturday highlighted by the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the $2 million UAE Derby at Dubai’s sparkling Meydan Race Course.

That’s a lot of money at stake in a year in which the graded stakes earnings that determine which horses get into the 20 slots in the Churchill Downs starting gate for the 138th Kentucky Derby appear to be more important than ever.

So, if you can divert your attention for just a few minutes from the basketball melodrama for the ages being played out in the Louisiana Superdome, those races appear to be meaningful as we move closer to the ultimate destination on this year’s road to the Derby.

The Florida Derby – long a critical prep for the Run for the Roses – will attract the most eyeballs during the weekend because it is expected to be the final run for early favorite Union Rags prior to the Derby 138.
His one race this year – his first since his lone career setback to Hansen in last fall’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs – was a spectacular run in Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth.

Trained by Michael Matz of Barbaro fame, Union Rags got acquainted with a new pilot that day in jockey Julien Leparoux and it looked like the beginning of a beautiful friendship as the son of Dixie Union won with remarkable ease.

Those who lack complete faith in Union Rags point to his pedigree, as his sire was mostly a miler and his offspring have been suspect when the potential for covering the Derby’s mile-and-a-quarter comes up for discussion.

His romp in the Fountain of Youth came at 1 1/16 miles and he’ll stretch out another sixteenth of a mile in the Florida Derby.

That distance certainly appears to be within his grasp, but success on Saturday will not provide a guarantee of the same on Kentucky Derby Day.

But another impressive victory by Union Rags would make him a strong Derby favorite in a class of 3-year-olds that appears to be heavy with talented colts and fillies. But a loss or anything less than a stellar effort could throw the Derby picture wide open.

The UAE Derby has, in recent years, has not played a major role in the make-up of Kentucky Derby fields.

Sheik Mohammed and his forces in Dubai have left their brightest Kentucky Derby hopes in the U.S. over the past couple of years, but there is at least one European-based entrant that’s worth a look.

Wrote, based in Ireland with trainer Aidan O’Brien, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall in a visit to Churchill Downs.

He has never raced on dirt, but if he wins the UAE Derby he’ll have a victory over that course’s synthetic Tapeta track and would have more than enough earnings to get in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
Sunday’s Louisiana Derby drew a full gate of 14 horses, but only one that has established himself as a serious player on the Derby trail.

That’s former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones’ Mark Valeski, trained by Hopkinsville native J. Larry Jones and ridden by Rosie Napravnik, who road Pants On Fire to win last year’s Louisiana Derby and earned a ticket for her first ride in the Run for the Roses.

Up-and-comers in that race could include Cigar Street, trained by Churchill Downs-based Steve Margolis, and the Dale Romans-trained Finnegans Wake.

The weekend races and the soon-to-be-mythic NCAA Final Four showdown will also share the spotlight with the third and final pool of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

The future betting opens Friday at noon (EDT) at Churchill Downs Trackside and around the country, and online at and other outlets. Betting will close Sunday evening.

While fans will be able to chew on the results of the Florida, Louisiana and UAE Derbies before making their wagering decisions, it will very much be a “future bet,” as major preps that include the Santa Anita Derby Wood Memorial and Illinois Derby loom next week, and the Toyota Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby are set for the following week.

There’s much to be seen and decided before the 20 3-year-olds parade to the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” five weeks from now.

Here is this week’s Asher Derby Top 20, which includes the first appearance by the filly On Fire Baby, who could face the boys in the Arkansas Derby:

  1. Union Rags
  2. Creative Cause
  3. Hansen
  4. El Padrino
  5. Gemologist
  6. Dullahan
  7. Bodemeister
  8. Alpha
  9. On Fire Baby
  10. Mark Valeski