To anyone who calls himself a speed handicapper, there should be no doubt about the identity of the best colt in the Kentucky Derby. When Bodemeister won his final prep race, the Arkansas Derby, he appeared to be in a class by himself.
Bodemeister did not merely demolish his rivals by 91 / 2 lengths. He ran 11 / 8 miles in 1:48.71, just after a solid field of older horses in the Oaklawn Park Handicap had covered the same distance in 1:49.94. It is unusual — and a convincing mark of excellence — for a young horse to run so much faster than high-class elders. No member of this 3-year-old crop has given a performance nearly as good.
Some of them have records that are superficially impressive. Hansen and Union Rags ran 1-2 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall and have continued to display good form this spring. The Todd Pletcher-trained Gemologist is undefeated in five career starts. But they’ve been slow — painfully slow.
The average winning Beyer Speed Figure in the Kentucky Derby is 108, and top contenders are expected to approach that number in their prep races. Hansen and Union Rags have never run better than 96. Gemologist’s modest 98 in the Wood Memorial Stakes was the best in any Grade I event for 3-year-olds — until Bodemeister unleashed a 108 at Oaklawn Park.
This was no fluke; he had run back-to-back numbers of 101 in his two prior starts at Santa Anita. He has as many triple-digit speed figures as the rest of the field combined.
Despite his superior talent, Bodemeister faces two potential pitfalls at Churchill Downs. He is short of experience, with only four career starts, and such lightly raced horses have a poor record in the Derby, though Bob Baffert’s training should help him overcome this disadvantage. The more serious problem that Bodemeister will face is the expected fast pace of the Derby.
The sprinter Trinniberg is as quick as any horse of his generation, and he’ll be flying through the early furlongs until he runs out of gas. Hansen possesses blazing speed, too, and his jockey has rarely been able to harness it. Bodemeister has set or pressed the pace in each of his races, and several other members of the field are speedy types, too.
All of the jockeys will hope to restrain their mounts so they are not harmed by Trinniberg’s fast early fractions, but this is easier said than done. When the leader in the Derby runs the first half mile in 46 seconds or faster (which Trinniberg could do in his sleep), all of the horses near the lead are apt to collapse. Three times since 2000 the Derby has been run with a sub-46 pace, and the winners rallied from 15th, 13th and 18th place, respectively.
I hope Bodemeister has such talent that he can withstand a hot pace, but the other quick horses aren’t good enough to do so, and in playing trifectas and superfectas I’ll throw out all of them. Hansen won’t be on any of my tickets, nor will Gemologist, I’ll Have Another or Take Charge Indy — each of them a winner of a Grade I race.
Although the pace scenario should favor stretch-runners, most of the colts with the right running style don’t have convincing credentials — not even Union Rags, the probable second choice in Derby wagering. Racing fans remember how Michael Matz trained Barbaro brilliantly in 2006 and got him to deliver a peak performance in the Derby. They expect him to do the same with Union Rags, and indeed, Matz said, “Since we’ve brought him to Kentucky, he’s starting to peak.”
But just how good is Union Rags? He couldn’t catch the tiring Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and he didn’t have enough late punch when he lost the Florida Derby in his last start. These are Union Rags’s speed figures in his last five starts, beginning in August: 95, 92, 94, 95, 93. If Matz has an ace in the hole, he’s concealing it pretty well.
Alpha will get plenty of support after encountering some trouble in the Wood Memorial, but the trouble was overrated and he was losing ground to Gemologist in the final yards of the race. Creative Cause rallied to beat Bodemeister in the San Felipe Stakes, but his subsequent nose loss in the Santa Anita Derby was a mild disappointment.
Of the stretch-running threats in the 138th Derby, the most credible may be Daddy Nose Best. He never attracted much attention as a Derby candidate because he spent the majority of his career running on the turf. But when he finally got the chance to run beyond a mile on dirt, he rallied to win the Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico. Although this was a relatively minor prep race with a relatively weak field, he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 100, the best last-race number in the field except for Bodemeister. With the right style, a solid foundation of experience and one of the nation’s leading trainers in Steve Asmussen, the 15-to-1 shot is a strong contender.
Before Bodemeister performed so brilliantly in Arkansas, I was planning to pick and bet Daddy Nose Best in the Derby. But as a speed handicapper I have to believe in Bodemeister. I will play trifectas and superfectas using both Bodemeister and Daddy Nose Best in the top spot, with a mix of stretch-running types underneath them. But my key Derby play is a cold exacta: Bodemeister-Daddy Nose Best.
For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.