Kentucky Derby wide open
Saturday's $2.2 million Kentucky Derby is looming as one of the most open in its 138 years with at least 12 of the 20 entrants having a genuine shot at winning America's famous and revered horse race.
That does not bode well for the eternal hope the Run For the Roses will produce another champion to emulate the likes of Secretariat and Seattle Slew by winning the Triple Crown but it does offer the promise of a classic race.
"This is one of the toughest Derbies I've been in probably the last 10 years," said Bob Baffert, the trainer of the 4-1 race favourite Bodemeister. "It's a really competitive field."
With no standout horse from this year's capacity field of three year old colts, but plenty of regally-bred thoroughbreds in great form, Bodemeister was promoted to the head of the betting lists after winning last month's Arkansas Derby by an eye-popping nine and a half lengths.
But Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby three times and is recovering from a heart attack he suffered last month, was not making any bold predictions despite getting the stamp of approval from bookmakers.
"I've brought some really good horses here, and they were the best horse, but they got beat so I don't want to get myself too pumped up," he said.
Union Rags, the sentimental favourite for the race, was listed at the 9-2 second pick, despite being beaten in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile on his first run on the dirt at Churchill Downs, as well as the recent Florida Derby.
His trainer Michael Matz won the 2006 Derby with the ill-fated Barbaro, who was lurking as a real contender to complete the Triple Crown before breaking down, but said it was unfair to compare the two.
"Barbaro was undefeated, Union Rags has lost two races by a total of a length and a half," Matz said. "They're both big, good-looking, fast and athletic (but Union Rags) still has to live up to what Barbaro did."
Bodemeister and Union Rags drew in the first six post positions as did Take Charge Indy, the surprise winner of the Florida Derby. He will be ridden by Calvin Borel, who won the race three times between 2007 and 2010.
"Nobody has really looked at us," said Chuck Sandford, owner of Take Charge Indy. "He's been under the radar. We win a Grade I and we're still under the radar. He's like the Rodney Dangerfield of horses, absolutely getting no respect."
All of the main favourites fared well in the draw, even the horses that wanted to draw wide.
Hansen, the all-white colt who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, will break from 14 while the unbeaten Gemologist, who finished off his preparations with a stylish win in the Wood Memorial, was just outside him in 15.
Gemologist's trainer Todd Pletcher won the Derby two years ago with Super Saver and has given Gemologist a similar lead-up into Saturday's race.
"He is doing as well as he could possibly be doing," said Pletcher. "However good he is, I think that's what we'll see on Saturday."
The lone international entrant this year is Daddy Long Legs, trained in Ireland by Aiden O'Brien. He booked his place in the field by winning the United Arabs Emirates Derby but drew barrier one, a notoriously difficult gate to win from because of the risk of being boxed in on the tight, oval track.
"I know the draw is not ideal but we can't change that," said TJ Comerford, O'Brien's travelling head lad. "We're here now and hope for the best."
An expected crowd of 160,000 will cram into Churchill Downs while tens of millions of people will watch on television as the race, steeped with tradition including the singing of My Old Kentucky Home and the drinking of Mint Juleps, unfolds.