Union Rags came up short in Saturday's Florida Derby, finishing third behind Take Charge Indy and Reveron, but the outcome does not hurt his chances in the Kentucky Derby. In fact, he could still be the favorite on Derby day as supporters look for him to rebound in style.
The surprising result did tear down the perceived sense of invincibility that Union Rags brought into the Florida Derby, one that was fueled by a convincing four-length score in his 2012 opener, the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes.
He went down at 2-5 odds on Saturday, losing for the second time in his last three starts.
Sunday's Louisiana Derby provided another upset, this one of titanic proportions as the longest shot in the field, Hero of Order, proved best at 109-1. His connections thought so little of his Triple Crown prospects that they failed to nominate him, meaning he has practically no chance of making the Kentucky Derby field.
So what can we take away from the first of three weekends of major prep races?
Perhaps it is best to expect the unexpected from these lightly-raced sophomores.
That does not mean the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby will all feature longshot winners this weekend, but it's safe to say there is a lack of separation between the top-rated horses in the division. With no standouts, we are just speculating at this point about which three-year-olds will go on to accomplish big things.
Part of the reason why is that horses are making fewer starts before the Derby. At least four hopefuls -- Take Charge Indy; Wood Memorial contestant Gemologist; and U.A.E. Derby winner Daddy Long Legs and third-placer Wrote -- are scheduled to make only one stakes attempt this year before the first Saturday in May.
Indy takes charge
After being Grade 3-placed at two, Take Charge Indy opened the year with a good second behind El Padrino in a Gulfstream Park allowance. He was entered in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay on March 10, a planned predecessor to his final prep in either the Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass, but trainer Pat Byrne scratched from the field after drawing the far outside post and re-directed his pupil to the Florida Derby.
That left Take Charge Indy with only one chance to make the Kentucky Derby field. The dark bay colt brought $98,400 in graded earnings into the Florida Derby and needed to finish either first or second in order to ensure himself a spot in the starting gate. And he had to get past Union Rags and El Padrino in order to accomplish that goal.
On a track that was playing friendly toward speed, jockey Calvin Borel sent his mount straight to the front, establishing reasonable splits of :23 3/5, :47 3/5 and 1:12 on a short lead, and Take Charge Indy rewarded Byrne's confidence in wire-to-wire fashion. He faced a brief challenge from Reveron in upper stretch before spurting clear and was always going best in the final furlong, winning comfortably by a length.
Out of the notable race mare Take Charge Lady, a multiple Grade 1 winner who earned more than $2.4 million, Take Charge Indy is a son of the legendary sire A.P. Indy, who is still looking for his first Derby winner. It would be a very fitting story in that regard to see Take Charge Indy prove successful at Churchill Downs.
The colt will bring legitimate BRIS numbers as well as a three-time Derby winner Borel into the first leg of the Triple Crown. After registering a 109 BRIS Speed rating in his first appearance this year, Take Charge Indy garnered a 104 on Saturday. He was never a serious factor in three stakes starts last year but looks much improved as a three-year-old. And Take Charge Indy is a candidate to keep moving forward in the main event.
Julien Leparoux is generating plenty of criticism for his ride aboard Union Rags, but his overconfidence was easy to understand. He probably thought Union Rags towered over the competition and would coast on talent alone, riding only to avoid mishap while putting his mount in position to fire in the final furlongs. And the strategy backfired. After being taken back under a snug hold during the early stages, Union Rags was stuck down on the rail turning for home but his path was never blocked as he had every chance to run by the top pair in the stretch. He just couldn't get there.
Losing to Take Charge Indy was no disgrace, but finishing a neck back of Reveron seemed unfathomable beforehand.
Reveron, who earned only a 90 Speed rating when finishing third in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes in his previous start, was dismissed at 31-1 on Saturday and traveled wide into the first turn while chasing the speed from his outside post. He benefited from a forwardly-placed trip, but give him credit for fending off the rally of Union Rags (generating a 109 BRIS Late Pace rating). The Agustin Bezara trainee may not be able to make the Derby field with only $220,000 in graded earnings and will be a huge outsider if he does get in.
The silver lining for the Union Rags camp is that it is just a prep race. The Grade 1-winning colt was so impressive in his first start of the season that trainer Michael Matz did not need to train him hard for the Florida Derby, but that won't be the case in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Union Rags will be primed for his best and it would be nice to see an excuse-free trip considering the trouble he experienced in his last start at Churchill Downs, a head second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
El Padrino is another bounce-back candidate. The Todd Pletcher trainee rolled to a sharp two-length score over Take Charge Indy in his 2012 bow and entered the Florida Derby off a hard-fought nose decision in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, generating century-topping Speed and Late Pace ratings both times. He regressed off those efforts Saturday, recording an even fourth after coming up empty at the top of the stretch, but don't be surprised to see him show more next time. The long-striding Pulpit colt should relish the additional ground with his pedigree.
Sunday's Louisiana Derby could produce a Derby starter in runner-up Mark Valeski, but the Larry Jones-trained colt will need to recover from a foot injury suffered during the race. The field came home slowly, with the winner generating a 95 Speed rating, and the final time was nearly three seconds slower than the track record-setting performance in the New Orleans Handicap at the same distance three races earlier.
Mark Valeski still performed gallantly, missing by a half-length after losing a chunk of his left hind foot during the race, but his pedigree is suspect for the Derby distance. It's difficult to envision this year's Louisiana Derby having much impact.
Daddy Long Legs stamped his ticket in Saturday's Group 2 U.A.E. Derby, posting 1 1/4-length victory over the Tapeta track at Meydan. Owner Coolmore Stables and trainer Aidan O'Brien have recently turned their interests toward the American Triple Crown, sending Master of Hounds over for a fifth in the 2011 Derby, and plan on being represented by both Daddy Long Legs and third-placer Wrote this year.
From the first crop of sire Scat Daddy, a multiple Grade 1 winner on dirt, Daddy Long Legs was no factor when shipping to the United States for a 12th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He is out of Meadowlake mare, a noted speed influence who won't be seen in the immediate pedigrees of any past Kentucky Derby winners, and Daddy Long Legs was prominent from the start of the U.A.E. Derby, tracking the pace in second before making his move to the lead in the stretch.
Wrote rallied into a threatening position before settling for third, two lengths behind the winner. His victory in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner two starts back guaranteed him the needed graded earnings and Wrote is bred to easily handle the 1 1/4-mile distance, but dirt is a legitimate concern with his turf-oriented pedigree.
Three graded stakes -- Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby -- are on tap this Saturday.
Creative Cause, the top-ranked Derby contender in California, tops a field of nine in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. The gray colt exits a comfortable win in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, but it is surprising to see trainer Mike Harrington remove the blinkers given that Creative Cause has made all seven career starts with the headgear.
Trainer John Sadler is on the fence with Holy Candy, who offered a powerful closing kick to break his maiden last out, and could scratch in favor of the Grade 1 Blue Grass a week later. Holy Candy will receive support if he does start in the Santa Anita Derby and is one of two intriguing maiden winners along with the Bob Baffert-trained Paynter, who just captured his career debut by 4 1/4 lengths on February 18.
Baffert will also be represented by Liaison, who has not run back to Grade 1-winning form in the CashCall Futurity last December. Liaison was no factor before losing his rider in the Grade 2 Bob Lewis in early February and lacked the needed rally finishing fourth in the San Felipe most recently. Look for him to finally wake up with an improved showing Saturday.
The $500,000 Illinois Derby did not attract a strong field with an overflow of 14 entrants, but the $1 million Wood Memorial will feature a pair of well-regarded runners in Gemologist and Alpha.
Gemologist concluded his two-year-old campaign with a comfortable victory in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs and crushed the competition when opening 2012 in a one-turn allowance at Gulfstream, winning by seven lengths on March 16. The Tiznow colt rates as a very promising but untested prospect, and Pletcher's conservative approach will provide him with only one chance to make the Derby field ($103,855 in graded earnings).
Alpha, who was under consideration for various Triple Crown preps in recent weeks, finally landed in the Wood Memorial for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The son of Bernardini switches to the main track at the Big A after recording a pair of easy tallies in the Withers and Count Fleet Stakes over the inner oval.
My Adonis will enter the Wood Memorial off a non-threatening second to Hansen in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes and would flatter the two-year-old champion with a strong showing Saturday. Street Life and Teeth of the Dog will face a serious class check in their graded stakes debuts, but both are exiting nice wins at a lower level and offer some appeal for the top three.
As the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby showed, these prep races are often ripe for an improving three-year-old to step forth and surprise us.