The final round of major Kentucky Derby preps featured a pair of outstanding performances from Bodemeister and Dullahan. The former is a rapidly-developing phenom of front-running abandon while the latter looks to close like a freight train.
These two colts were added to the "serious contender list" that is now bursting at the seams -- this will be one of the deepest Derby fields in years. Nearly half of the 20 starters will rate as serious win contenders.
And none were more impressive this spring than Bodemeister.
Bodemeister needed a win and did more than just qualify; he likely grabbed the favorite's mantle with a 9 1/2-length thrashing in the Arkansas Derby. The Empire Maker colt showed speed from the start and increased his advantage at every point of call, registering a 105 BRIS Speed rating that will be the highest last-race figure in the Kentucky Derby field.
He is a rising star with the potential to overwhelm his opponents at Churchill Downs, but Bodemeister will be asked to overcome a lack of two-year-old experience that has been a prerequisite for every Derby winner since 1882.
So how important is foundation? It wasn't a factor for Lammtarra, who won the 1995 English Derby at 1 1/2 miles in only his second career start and off a 10-month layoff. That came on turf, but experience is no longer as important for Kentucky Derby contenders because our three-year-olds are so lightly-raced nowadays.
Bodemeister also has little in common with most of his predecessors. There are exceptions, most notably Curlin, who finished third in 2007, but most of the previous unraced two-year-olds were outsiders. And unlike Curlin, Bodemeister is a speedy colt with the right running style to avoid trouble in a 20-horse field. He will be on or very close to the lead from the start.
The perceived Derby myths are falling by the wayside. It used to be every Derby winner raced at least three times as a three-year-old, with the most recent start coming within four weeks of the Derby. Those long-revered standards held until the last decade, when horses like Barabaro, Street Sense and Big Brown proved successful off lightly-raced campaigns. Suddenly, nobody finds it strange for leading trainer Todd Pletcher to use only one stakes race this year for a well-regarded prospect like Gemologist.
Last year, Animal Kingdom won the Derby despite never racing over a dirt track. He made only one stakes appearance, winning the unheralded Grade 3 Spiral Stakes, and entered the Derby with only four lifetime starts.
Bodemeister will bring four lifetime starts, including a pair of stakes starts, and terrific Speed ratings (93-101-102-105) into the Derby. And he possesses the right intangibles when it comes to pedigree (regally bred on both sides for the 1 1/4 miles) and human connections (three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert and Derby-winning jockey Mike Smith).
He needs the right trip and must avoid getting too worked up in the paddock and post parade, which was an issue prior to his runner-up finish behind Creative Cause in the Grade 2 San Felipe, but Bodemeister threatens to run his rivals into the ground with further improvement.
Dullahan mows 'em down
Most of his accomplishments are on turf and synthetics, but Dullahan is a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and ran well on the main track at Churchill Downs in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, overcoming a troubled trip to record a fast-finishing fourth.
He will enter the Derby off an encouraging win over Hansen in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes.
Trained by local favorite Dale Romans, who has been knocking at the door in recent years with Paddy O'Prado (third in 2010) and Shackleford (fourth in 2011), Dullahan came down with a fever and did not work for more than a month this winter in South Florida. He finally came back to the races with a second in the Grade 3 Palm Beach on turf March 11, but the Even the Score colt was plagued by a minor physical issue afterward and didn't work again until April 8, drilling five furlongs in advance of the Blue Grass.
Despite the less-than-ideal preparations this year, Dullahan turned in the performance of his life in the Blue Grass, catching Hansen in deep stretch to win going away by 1 1/4 lengths, and the chestnut must be viewed as a candidate to keep moving forward on Derby day since Romans appears to finally have him on the right course. It was a good sign to see him back on the track Tuesday morning, galloping a mile at Churchill Downs.
Two-year-old champion Hansen is as classy as the come and was favored at 6-5 in the 13-horse Blue Grass off a strong three-length romp in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. The nearly white colt loves Polytrack, winning both attempts by double-digit margins last year, and established an uncontested pace in the Blue Grass.
Hansen spurted away from the pack at the top of the stretch, passing the mile mark with a 2 1/2-length cushion, and appeared home free. Union Rags could not get past Hansen in the stretch at Churchill Downs last fall, but Dullahan was able to run him down.
The winner registered a career-best 102 BRIS Speed rating over the Polytrack at Keeneland, completing his final eighth of a mile in a very respectable 11 3/5 seconds.
There won't be a more dangerous closer in this year's Derby field than Dullahan. He darted between horses to find an opening in upper stretch Saturday and possesses the acceleration to extricate himself from trouble if needed in a bulky Derby field. And don't underestimate the value of jockey Kent Desormeaux, a three-time Derby winner.
With a preponderance of quality speed lining up for this year's event, the Derby could set up perfectly for the late-running Dullahan.
The Grade 3 Lexington Stakes offers a potential Derby berth for two contestants -- Castaway and Morgan's Guerrilla -- if they win their synthetic debut at Keeneland Saturday. A total of 11 sophomores will line up for the 1 1/16-mile test on Polytrack.
We will take a closer look at the prospective Derby field next time before offering a final preview in two weeks.