Derby could be a 20-horse free-for-all

Hansen works out on the track at Churchill Downs on Friday in preparation for Saturday's Kentucky...

Hansen works out on the track at Churchill Downs on Friday in preparation for Saturday's Kentucky Derby. (Reuters)

Rob Longley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:45 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, KY. - Among the 20 horses that charge out of the Kentucky starting gate every year, many are among the best money can buy.

Others are desperate long shots with owners, trainers and jockeys chasing a dream on the one day a year where racing’s struggles are put on hold and it is again the sport of kings.

At least four in this year’s extremely deep field of 3-year-old thoroughbreds, are legitimate favourites to win just about any race they enter.

But it is both the beauty and the challenge of the opening jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown that even the best are the furthest thing from a sure thing.

And in a race that has yielded $100-plus winners on a $2 bet twice in the past seven years, why wouldn’t you take a run at racing’s most cherished prize and the winner’s share of $1,459,600?

“If you said to me today: ‘Here, you have this 2-year-old and next year you are going to be 30-1 in the Kentucky Derby,’ would you take a shot?,” said Woodbine trainer Mark Casse, who is doing just that with a horse he developed in Toronto, Prospective. “Most people I know would.”

Like many in the field, Casse’s colt, who won the Grey Stakes at Woodbine last year, would need to take a huge leap forward to pull off the upset. But just as Animal Kingdom last year ($43), Mine That Bird in 2009 ($103.20) and Giacomo in 2005 ($102), you can’t rule it out.

“I think it’s a very competitive Derby,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle lukewarm 4-1 morning-line favourite Bodemeister in his bid for a fourth victory in the Run for the Roses. “You watch them all train and they all look great out there. This is one of the toughest Derbys I’ve seen in probably the last 10 years.”

Adding to the intrigue is the pace scenario that is likely to unfold. With so much speed from the inside post positions, the possibility exists for a free-for-all when the field races for home.

Bodemeister is a speed demon who romped to a 91/2-length win in his last start, the Arkansas Derby. But speed can kill, especially in a race such as the Derby. And with others in the field deploying the same style, they could be running on fumes by the time they hit the stretch.

Earlier in the spring, second choice Union Rags was being touted as the next great thoroughbred. But when he entered the Florida Derby as a 2-5 favourite and exited as a third-place finisher, he was suddenly back in the pack of contenders.

Trainer Michael Matz, who won the 2006 Derby with Barbaro, felt the competition ganged up on Union Rags that day, as he was trapped behind and between horses for much of the race before finally fighting free late.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the same here,” Matz said. “I think everyone will be looking out for themselves instead of picking on one horse.”

Next up among the heavy- weight contenders is third choice Gemologist at 6-1, a colt who has never lost and is trained by Todd Pletcher, arguably the best in the game.

“He is doing as well as he could possibly be doing,” Pletcher said of his visually striking colt, who is a perfect 6-for-6 in his career and 2-for-2 at Churchill Downs. “However good he is, I think that’s what we’ll see on Saturday.”

There are at least five more trainers or owners who could tell you a similar optimistic a story. None more than Kendell Hansen, however. The owner is precocious enough to name his nearly white colt Hansen after himself.

“We’re going to win this race,” Hansen said of his 10-1 shot, who was runner-up in the Bluegrass Stakes, his most recent start.

“We’re not worried about anybody. We’ve got the best horse and speed is dangerous.”

Confidence is fine, but the next time we see a sure thing at a racetrack will be the first.

LONGLEY'S YOU BET: Derby Edition

In a wide-open betting race with a half a dozen serious contenders, there’s money to be made in today’s 138th Kentucky Derby.

Here’s one man’s stab at a top three that we will include in tractors and exactors with Union Rags, Prospective and Bodemeister.

10. Daddy Nose Best Garrett Gomez 15-1

Has taken a less conventional route here with six of his 10 starts (including one at Woodbine) on the grass. But the horse has flourished lately and will be one of the prime beneficiaries of what should surely be a hot early pace. With so many well-regarded favourites, he promises to add value as well.

5. Dullahan Kent Desormeaux 8-1

A decent fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile here last year, his late kick to win the Bluegrass Stakes was impressive.

19. I’ll Have Another Mario Gutierrez 12-1

Would like him more if he wasn’t so far to the outside but he showed a lot in winning the Santa Anita Derby in fine form and time. Owned by Windsor, Ont. native Paul Reddam, he has been one of the “buzz” horses here this week.

The rest of the field, by post position:

1. Daddy Long Legs Colm O’Donoghue 30-1

2. Optimizer Jon Court 50-1

3. Take Charge Indy Calvin Borel 15-1

4. Union Rags Julien Leparuoux 9-2

6. Bodemeister Mike Smith 4-1

7. Rousing Sermon Jose Lezcano 50-1

8. Creative Cause Joel Rosario 12-1

9. Trinniberg Willie Martinez 50-1

11. Alpha Rajiv Maragh 15-1

12. Prospective Luis Contreras 30-1

13. Went The Day Well John Velazquez 20-1

14. Hansen Ramon Dominguez 10-1

15. Gemologist Javier Castellano 6-1

16. El Padrino Rafael Bejarano 20-1

17. Done Talking Sheldon Russell 50-1

18. Sabercat Corey Nakatani 30-1

20. Liaison Martin Garcia 50-1


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