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Plenty of candidates but no real favorite for Kentucky Derby

The race Saturday will feature one horse (Bodemeister) trying to become the first to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old and another (Gemologist) attempting to be the eighth unbeaten winner.

April 30, 2012|By John Cherwa
  • Jockey Julien Laparoux takes Union Rags through his paces during a morning session Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Jockey Julien Laparoux takes Union Rags through his paces during a morning… (Matthew Stockman / Getty…)

This year's running of the Kentucky Derby has more than its share of story lines with no horse clearly head and hooves above the others.

There's the first horse in more than 100 years trying to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old, or the horse trying to become only the eighth in history to be undefeated and win the celebrated race, or how about the early favorite who was a lock until finishing third in a recent race.

All this means for Saturday's self-proclaimed greatest two minutes in sports is a lot of guessing and the hope for a lot of racing luck.

"They all have questions, which is why it's so wide open," said Mike Battaglia, who will set the morning line for the Derby after Wednesday's post-position draw.

The horse who more people seem to love than hate is Union Rags, who was considered the easy favorite before finishing third in the Florida Derby. It was a tough race in which he was caught behind horses and ran out of room. But, a truly great horse finds a way to win. Union Rags didn't.

"All I want for the Kentucky Derby is to have Union Rags in a position to win and see if he can win," said jockey Julien Leparoux. "He's a great horse. We definitely have a great chance."

Union Rags was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and won by four lengths in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He has won four of six races.

Gemologist, winner of the Wood Memorial, hasn't lost in five starts and appeared to have plenty left in the tank when he held off a hard-charging Alpha. But the Wood was his only major race. He has won a maiden sprint, an optional claimer, the Kentucky Jockey Club (as a 2-year-old), an allowance race and then the Wood. Two of those wins have come over the Churchill Downs surface.

Two of the more talked-about horses have primarily run on the West Coast. Creative Cause won the San Felipe and then finished second to I'll Have Another by a nose in the Santa Anita Derby. And Bodemeister, trained by Bob Baffert, finished second in the San Felipe and then ran away with the Arkansas Derby.

Creative Cause has won four of his eight races and finished second and third twice.

Bodemeister wasn't even considered the best horse in Baffert's barn when the 3-year-old campaign started. And, not many people were paying attention when he went to Arkansas. But his win by 9 1/2 lengths got people talking about this lightly raced colt.

If he wins, he will be the first horse in the history of the Derby to win without running as a 2-year-old.

"He's naturally quick," said his jockey, Mike Smith. "Get him out [of the gate] quick and then try and get him relaxed and go from there. ... He impressed me a whole lot more than I already was with him. That last eighth of a mile [in Arkansas] was pretty impressive."

The other horse expected to get some betting action is Dullahan, who won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. However, he is 0 for 3 running at Churchill Downs, including a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

And who can leave out Hansen (winner of the BC Juvenile) or Take Charge Indy (winner of the Florida Derby) or Went the Day Well (whose connections won the Derby last year with Animal Kingdom) or …

A competitive race to say the least.

The Wall Street Journal researched the last 20 years of the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes to see how many of those winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby.

The answer: 7%. Oh, that helps.

john.cherwa@latimes.com

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