Trinniberg was a surprise addition to the Derby field last weekend and brings plenty of speed to the equation -- the confirmed sprinter will be gunning for the lead and places a greater premium upon post positions for front-running types like Bodemeister and Hansen, whose connections want to be outside of the speedster.
Post positions are always important in the 20-horse field -- a contestant risks getting shuffled back if stuck down on the rail -- and the innermost post cost Lookin at Lucky, who was probably the best horse in the field, any chance in 2010.
The race seldom shapes up as expected. War Emblem got clear and led wire to wire on moderate fractions when there appeared to be plenty of speed in 2002 and Shackleford recorded the slowest opening six-furlong split (1:13 2/5) since 1947 when, surprisingly, left unopposed last year. Nobody expected Spend a Buck to get an easy lead in 1985 after the Grade 1-winning Eternal Prince drew a post position to his inside. When that ultra-quick rival failed to break alertly, Spend a Buck dominated on the front end.
If Trinniberg breaks cleanly, he should be leading the way into the first turn and the possibility exists that he could settle into a reasonable pace. That would greatly benefit the chances of the other speed horses, including top contenders like Gemologist and Take Charge Indy, who like to be up close during the early stages.
But the possibility remains for a destructive duel up front. Songandaprayer helped ruin the chances of any horses up close to the pace when ripping through splits of :22 1/5, :44 4/5 and 1:09 1/5 in 2001 and late-running longshot Giacomo (50-1) benefited from a ridiculously fast set-up (:22 1/5, :45 1/5 and 1:09 2/5) in 2005.
Here are some of my thoughts on the top 21 horses based upon graded earnings:
Hansen: No doubts surrounding his tenacity and class -- he is fit and will lay it all on the line for trainer Mike Maker; the big concern is distance. Hansen appears better suited to win the Grade 1 King's Bishop Stakes at seven furlongs this summer than a major prize at 1 1/4 miles. The near-white colt likes Churchill Downs, gamely prevailing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile over Union Rags last November, and it will be no surprise to see him in the thick of things turning for home in the Derby. But there's no shaking the belief that he is geared to excel at middle distances and will come up short in the final eighth of a mile. The talented front runner can beat me.
Daddy Long Legs: Difficult to envision him as a major factor in the outcome. He is bred for the main track, but Daddy Long Legs never fired when posting a 12th last fall in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. He's performed at a much higher level on turf/synthetics, posting sharp wins in a Group 2 turf event in England and the U.A.E. Derby on Tapeta. He is questionable for dirt and would be a huge surprise off such a light campaign this season.
Union Rags: Extremely classy two-year-old opened 2012 with a smashing performance in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes, winning by three lengths with seemingly plenty in reserve, but the early Kentucky Derby favorite faltered in the Florida Derby last out, finishing third as the odds-on favorite. That loss makes Union Rags the ultimate bounce back candidate. For one thing, trainer Michael Matz did not have Barbaro cranked for the 2006 Florida Derby, where the heavy favorite was all-out to defeat an unheralded Sharp Humor by a narrow margin, but Barbaro came back five weeks later with a monstrous performance at Churchill Downs, winning by 6 1/2 convincing lengths. And the public let the undefeated colt leave the starting gate as the 6-1 second choice because they put too much stock in his close Florida Derby effort. Union Rags has trained forwardly since his narrow setback and will look for a similar move forward on Derby day. Secondly, Union Rags was trapped down on the rail most of the way last time, experiencing a less-than-favorable trip before coming up about a length short in the final furlong, but that experience could do him a ton of good in the bulky field. The stalker is very dangerous.
Dullahan: The way he picked up Hansen in deep stretch of the Blue Grass was impressive -- he quickly erased a sizable deficit to win going away under the wire -- and Dullahan's late turn of foot is terrific. Trainer Dale Romans has been knocking at the door in recent years, finishing third with Paddy O'Prado in 2010 and fourth last year with Shackleford, and Dullahan owns the right credentials pedigree-wise (a half-brother to 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird.) to deliver him Thoroughbred racing's greatest prize. In his last dirt start, the chestnut recovered from a terrible start to run past more than half the field in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, posting a respectable fourth at Churchill Downs, and the versatile colt will return to dirt off a confidence-building victory over Keeneland's Polytrack (only his second career win). The surface won't beat Dullahan -- it's a matter of whether he gets there in time -- and he's probably the best deep closer in the Derby field. Three-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux is another intangible in his favor.
Creative Cause: Shows only one win from his last four starts, but hard-trying colt never loses by more than a length (from eight career starts) and recorded a respectable third when traveling from California to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall. A Grade 1-winning two-year-old, Creative Cause exits a nose second in the Santa Anita Derby and does his best running from just off the pace. He has been a bit of a head case, refusing to run straight through the stretch of his win in the Grade 2 San Felipe two starts back, and his lack of maturity is a concern as trainer Mike Harrington keeps the blinkers off for a second straight start. Creative Cause also appears more than willing to settle for a minor award, but he's a classy individual with the BRIS numbers to challenge for it all.
Gemologist: Unbeaten colt looks like a major player for Todd Pletcher. Gemologist is two-for-two at Churchill Downs, including the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in his juvenile finale, and returns to the Louisville track off a stellar victory in the Wood Memorial that netted him a career-best 102 BRIS Speed rating. The speedy colt surged to a clear lead leaving the far turn, but the fast-charging Alpha appeared ready to roll past him when reaching even terms in deep stretch. Instead of surrendering, Gemologist found more and was drawing back away from his rival as they hit the wire. The lightly-raced Tiznow colt is bred to relish the 1 1/4-mile trip and will be a handful for his Derby foes if he continues to move forward off his extremely encouraging Wood performance.
Sabercat: Guaranteed himself a spot in the Derby starting gate when capturing the Grade 3, $1 million Delta Jackpot Stakes last November, but Sabercat has been well-beaten in both starts this year and does not look fast enough with only a career-best 94 Speed rating
Take Charge Indy: Well-bred colt enters on the upswing and will attempt to give his all-time great sire, the now-pensioned A.P. Indy, his first Derby winner. Take Charge Indy was not much of a factor finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and fourth in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity last fall, but he's performed at a much higher level this season, recording a strong runner-up allowance effort prior to his wire-to-wire score in the Florida Derby. The Pat Byrne-trained colt registered BRIS Speed ratings of 104 and 109 for those efforts, but the dark bay took advantage of a speed-favoring Gulfstream track last time as the lone speed. Take Charge Indy will face a different pace scenario in the Derby, but the improving colt should be up close stalking the front runners and can't be dismissed with three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel.
Bodemeister: Established himself as the likely Derby favorite with a scintillating 9 1/2-length romp in the Arkansas Derby, netting a 105 BRIS Speed rating that will be the top last-race figure in this year's Derby field, and the talented colt will drill his Derby foes if he continues to move forward off that effort. Trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, Bodemeister was unraced at two and must overcome 130 years of Derby history to prove best, but he is extremely fast (century-topping BRIS Speed ratings in his last three outings) and the son of Empire Maker is bred to excel at classic distances. His pre-race behavior is a potential drawback -- he was dripping wet prior to a runner-up in his stakes debut two starts back -- and an extremely fast pace will do him no favors, but Bodemeister is the type that you can't leave out of your multi-race wagers because he is too good. A lack of seasoning is the only viable concern.
I'll Have Another: Returned from a six-month layoff with a massive upset in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis, winning by 2 3/4 lengths at 43-1 oddds, and backed up that performance nine weeks later in the Santa Anita Derby, gamely prevailing by a nose over Creative Cause. I'll Have Another won't have months to recuperate from that hard-fought effort -- the Derby is only four weeks later -- and recently underwent "shock wave therapy" to relieve pain in his back. He is a candidate to regress off his last win, but the Doug O'Neill trainee has produced a pair of 109 BRIS Late Pace ratings this year and looks well-suited to the 1 1/4-mile distance with his breeding.
Daddy Nose Best: Dedicated closer runs on anything -- dirt, turf and synthetic -- and will enter the Derby on the upswing for Steve Asmussen, posting a nose score in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby prior to his near one-length tally in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby that netted him a career-best 101 BRIS Speed rating. Daddy Nose Best faces a stiff class test and could find himself overwhelmed at this level, but the in-form colt will be running late and offers some appeal at longs odds for a small share.
Liaison: Looked like a major Derby contender in the making when capturing the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity last December, but little has gone right for Liaison in 2012. He clipped heels, stumbled and dislodged his rider after coming up empty in the stretch of the Lewis, and followed with a pair of unplaced efforts in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. Bob Baffert hopes a change in venue makes a difference for the late runner, but the Indian Charlie colt has never earned a triple-digit Speed rating and does not look sharp enough presently to challenge.
Alpha: What is the status of the Wood Memorial runner-up? After being sawed off during the early stages, the well-bred colt exited the Wood with cuts to his leg and he developed an infection a few days later, which pushed his travel plans back nearly two weeks. He is now scheduled to work at Belmont Park this weekend before shipping to Churchill Downs on Monday. If Alpha works well for Kiaran McLaughlin, he could be back on track for the Derby. But his connections refusal to name a jockey until he works leads to speculation that all is not well. It is difficult to imagine that he will be in peak form on Derby day.
Prospective: Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby winner was never a factor finishing sixth in the Blue Grass and trainer Mark Casse said afterward that Prospective has never favored synthetic tracks. That begs the question -- why run him in the Blue Grass? And will Prospective get anything out of the disappointing effort? The well-bred son of Malibu Moon owns plenty of pedigree for the 1 1/4-mile distance, but he's earned lower Speed ratings while beating up on questionable company this winter and rates as a major outsider in the Derby field.
Trinniberg: Speedball has rolled to easy wins in the Grade 3 Swale Stakes and Grade 3 Bay Shore Stakes this year, but he's never raced past seven furlongs and is bred to excel at shorter distances. Trinniberg will take them as far as he can before retreating toward the back of the pack.
Done Talking: Punched his Derby ticket by rallying past a staggering group of rivals in the stretch of the Grade 3 Illinois Derby, registering a pedestrian 92 BRIS Speed rating, and the Maryland-based colt could easily find himself overmatched in the Derby. But Done Talking owns a puncher's chance for a minor prize -- the one-run closer hopes to get plenty of pace up front.
Went the Day Well: From the same connections of Animal Kingdom (owner Team Valor; trainer Graham Motion; and jockey John Velazquez), Went the Day Well is following the same path as his famous stablemate, earning a Derby berth with a victory in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes over Turfway Park's Polytrack, but is unlikely to deliver another massive upset on Derby day. Went the Day Well is more of a late bloomer, breaking his maiden on March 3, and his dirt form this winter offers little encouragement for the Derby. Look for more down the road from the Proud Citizen colt.
Rousing Sermon: Offered a belated rally for third in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby but failed to make much of an impact in all three starts this year. Described as a Belmont Stakes contender by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, the deep closer will attempt to clunk up for a minor award at long odds, but Rousing Sermon probably needs an easier spot to challenge.
Mark Valeski: Bred for speed on the female side of his pedigree, Mark Valeski ran a big race when making his two-turn and stakes debut in the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star Stakes, but faltered as the favorite when trying nine furlongs in the Louisiana Derby. He exited the race with a foot injury and it would be a surprise to see him rebound with a strong showing at 1 1/4 miles.
El Padrino: Closed his juvenile campaign on a good note, recording a close third in the Grade 2 Remsen at 1 1/8 miles, and El Padrino ran big in his first two starts this year, defeating Take Charge Indy in a Gulfstream allowance before earning his first stakes win in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds. El Padrino was never a serious factor in the Florida Derby last time, but he wasn't passed him in the stretch and finished only three lengths back of the winner in fourth. And jockey Javier Castellano was arguably more attuned to beating Union Rags than giving El Padrino his best chance to run well. The chestnut colt has returned to the worktab for Pletcher, posting two recent works at Palm Meadows, and is eligible to rebound with an improved showing on Derby day. And plenty of horses have flopped in their final prep before rebounding with a strong showing at Churchill Downs. El Padrino owns one of the best pedigrees for the Derby and will probably be overlooked in the wagering. He looms as an interesting longshot.
Optimizer: Bred for turf, the son of English Channel ran well on grass last year but will be looking to make his fifth dirt start of 2012 in the Derby. Optimizer has run poorly in three of those starts, a rallying second in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes serving as the lone exception, and posted some terrible Speed ratings. The late runner does have four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas in his corner, but he will probably be in too deep if he makes the field (currently 21st on the graded earnings list).
I will offer a final preview of the Kentucky Derby next Friday.