Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Hot pace. Muggy day. One of the deepest, talented fields in years.
A delicious stew with all the ingredients for an unpredictable Kentucky Derby.
The 20-horse field for Saturday’s race is so stacked that unbeaten Gemologist is no better than third choice on the morning line.
In other years, the colt would be the talk of the Derby. In this one, early favorites Bodemeister and Union Rags have grabbed the spotlight.
Still, some very talented colts could go off at big odds – I’ll Have Another at 12-1 or, at 15-1, Take Charge Indy, whose jockey Calvin Borel has brought home long-shot winners twice in five years.
“This is the best bunch I’ve seen in a long time,” four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “I was out there riding next to some of them, and let me tell you, this is a hell of a group.”
Lukas will saddle one of the longest shots, 50-1 Optimizer.
“History tells us that you can’t throw anyone out,” said Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant who has two Derby starters, including Gemologist. “There have been some winners the past few years that have been way down everybody’s depth charts.”
Some of the strongest contenders – Hansen, for example – have had the most success running at or near the pace. But their task is complicated by the presence of speedball Trinniberg, who could prove to be enough of a pest on the front end to compromise any horse willing to keep pace with him.
If the early fractions in the 1 1/4-mile race are fast enough, it could set up well for a deep closer like Dullahan, Daddy Nose Best or I’ll Have Another.
Three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, who trains 4-1 favorite Bodemeister and long shot Liaison, called it “one of the toughest Derbys I’ve been in probably the last 10 years.”
“I’ve brought some really good horses here, and they were the best horse, but they got beat,” he said, referring to Lookin At Lucky, the 2010 race-day favorite who was trapped on the rail and finished sixth. In 2001, his heavy favorite Point Given wound up fifth.
“I don’t want to get myself too pumped up. Even my son, Bode, doesn’t want to talk about it,” he said.
The 7-year-old namesake of Bodemeister is worried. Upon learning the colt was headed to the Derby, he asked his dad, “Well, what if he loses?”
“It’s a little extra pressure for me to make sure that he runs well,” said Baffert, who had a medical scare in March when he was hospitalized with a heart attack in Dubai.
Bodemeister, ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, goes into the starting gate staring down 129 years of Derby history. The last horse to win without racing as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882.
Union Rags, the 9-2 second choice ridden by Julien Leparoux, is the best horse trainer Michael Matz has brought to the Derby since he won with undefeated Barbaro in 2006.
“I was lucky enough once,” he said. “It’s hard to believe you can get lucky twice.”
Matz trains the strapping colt for Phyllis Wyeth, the former steeplechase rider who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1962 car accident and gets around in a wheelchair. She is married to painter Jamie Wyeth, whose father was the renowned artist Andrew Wyeth.
Gemologist, undefeated in five races, is trained by 2010 Derby winner Pletcher, yet he’s been overshadowed by the other entrants since arriving late in Louisville and getting most of his training in Florida.
“He’s done everything he could possibly do, but part of it might be because the 2-year-old races he ran in weren’t the Breeders’ Cup races,” Pletcher said. “He was a little late in developing.”
Two of Gemologist’s wins came at Churchill Downs.
“Anytime you’ve had success over this track in the past, it bodes well for the future,” Pletcher said.
Hansen is a standout on looks alone. The colt nearly is white, and his outspoken owner Kendall Hansen tried to doll him up by having his tail painted blue for the Blue Grass three weeks ago. The track stewards didn’t approve, and neither did trainer Mike Maker.
“We’re going to win this race,” Hansen said. “We’re not worried about anybody. We’ve got the best horse.”
Like Baffert and Pletcher, Steve Asmussen has two horses in the Derby – Daddy Nose Best and Sabercat – who will try to help him end an 0-for-10 skid. He came close last year when Nehro finished second to Animal Kingdom.
“It is definitely on the bucket list,” Asmussen said. “I like my horses, love how they’re doing, feel that they’re going to run real good Saturday, but have no control over everybody else.”
Trainer Graham Motion, jockey John Velazquez, and Barry Irwin, who heads the Team Valor ownership group, shared last year’s win with Animal Kingdom. They return with 20-1 shot Went the Day Well, trying to become the first connections to repeat since 1972-73 when Riva Ridge and Secretariat prevailed.
And then there’s the weather.
Saturday’s forecast calls for a high of 86 with a 30-percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. The Derby day temperature has topped 80 degrees just five times since 1969, when it hit 87.
Making it feel subtropical is the humidity, which was close to 70 percent Friday. The heat combined with humidity affects horses in different ways. Some sweat profusely; others handle the elements. All Derby horses will be examined by vets on race morning.
“The hot weather may be to our advantage,” said Mark Casse, who saddles 30-1 shot Prospective. “There are some hot-headed horses in this field that it could hurt. My horse stays calm and cool.”
Getting the ideal trip is a key factor, especially with the traffic issues created by such a large field making for a chaotic charge into the first turn. Some horses may be forced to stop and make a second charge in the later stages, which may not suit their running styles.
“There are so many things that have to go right other than being good,” Asmussen said.
Post time is 4:24 p.m. Mountain.