Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
By Bob Ehalt, NTRA.com
Just don't expect to make any sense of it.
The final major weekend of preps saw the reigning 2-year-old champ bite the dust minutes before another horse who hadn't even raced at two turned in one of the most impressive efforts by a Derby candidate in recent memory.
Considering the mayhem we've seen the last few weeks, not a bit of that should have been surprising.
Bodemeister didn't just win Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby, he romped. He quickly grabbed the lead and then extended his margin at every call until he hit the wire 9 ½ lengths ahead of the runner-up, his fellow Bob Baffert-trained stablemate, Secret Circle.
Now you can add his name to a crowded list of top-tiered Derby candidates that includes Union Rags, Creative Cause, I'll Have Another, Gemologist as well as Dullahan and Hansen, who were 1-2 in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes. One of them will be sent off as the favorite in the Derby, though good luck to you in trying to decide who it will be.
Bodemeister, who offers the best and freshest memory, might be the one. He only lost by three quarters of a length to Creative Cause in the San Felipe in his previous start and took a huge step forward at Oaklawn Park.
His detractors, and rest assured quite a few of them will arise from the woodwork the next three weeks, will no doubt claim the son of Empire Maker used up his Derby-winning effort on the second Saturday in April instead of the first Saturday in May.
Bodemeister needed a victory in the Arkansas Derby to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby and he was clearly cranked up for a top effort. But being a race horse, not a race car, does he have another similar or even better effort in the tank for his mile and a quarter jaunt around Churchill Downs?
Admittedly, there's not a large a sample but in recent years, War Emblem won the Illinois Derby by 6 ½ lengths and won the 2002 Run for the Roses, while Bellamy Road looked like the second coming of Secretariat in taking the 2007 Wood by 17 ½ lengths but staggered home seventh at Churchill Downs.
Sounds like a coin flip.
In the Blue Grass, Dr. Hansen's silly crusade to race his white horse with a blue tail created a stir before the race, as dye was put on and then washed off to avoid a confrontation with the Keeneland stewards.
Once that tempest in a teapot was resolved, the speedy Hansen went out and showed his tail to his 12 rivals for most of the race, but he had no answer when Dullahan angled out in mid-stretch and stormed past him en route to a 1 ½-length victory.
On face value, the Blue Grass seemed to verify that a mile and a quarter might beyond Hansen's scope. Yet unlike Bodemeister, Hansen already had his spot in the Derby signed, sealed and delivered - unless his owner did something to rile up state racing officials. The race was merely a tuneup; a rich tuneup, but a tuneup nonetheless. Hansen, who had not raced in six weeks, might benefit from his effort over a synthetic surface that is rarely kind to frontrunners. A case can also be made that despite early success on Polytrack, his two best races were on dirt: the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs and the Gotham at Aqueduct.
Dullahan was not as impressive as Bodemeister but he's surely a quality and versatile runner who can be effective on synthetics, turf or dirt.
How effective on dirt, though, is the key question. He was fourth, beaten six lengths in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but had some traffic issues. He was third and fifth in his first two tries on dirt.
He's a hard colt to read which actually makes all the sense in the world in this year's madcap Kentucky Derby chase. Why should the newest Derby hopeful be any different than the others who popped up on the radar screen before him?
And are your thoughts on the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby? Did we see the Kentucky Derby favorite? How about the Kentucky Derby winner?