Bodemeister almost pulled off rare front-running effort at Kentucky Derby

May 6, 2012

When jockey Mario Gutierrez won the Kentucky Derby aboard I’ll Have Another, his triumph was the sort that usually happens only in corny racing fiction. Casual fans surely appreciated his saga, though they may not have recognized the other main story line of the Derby.

The Mexican-born Gutierrez had spent most of his career riding at minor league Hastings Park in Vancouver before being plucked out of obscurity by owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill, who gave him the mount on I’ll Have Another in California this winter. Gutierrez had won only 14 races in all of 2012 when he came to Churchill Downs.

But he was seemingly impervious to the pressure of the Derby and delivered a flawless ride. Despite starting from post position No. 19, he secured a perfect trip for his mount and rallied to beat the pacesetter, Bodemeister, by 11 / 2 lengths.

His post-race excitement after the race was infectious. When an interviewer-on-horseback stuck a microphone in his face after he had crossed the wire, Gutierrez may have thanked more people in a shorter time than any Academy Award recipient in history. It was a feel-good story that NBC and its viewers surely relished.

To many serious racing fans, however, the most dramatic part of the Derby was the performance of the loser, Bodemeister. His front-running effort was like few in the history of the race.

Bodemeister is a fast colt who was facing two very fast rivals: Hansen, the reigning champion of this generation of 3-year-olds; and Trinniberg, a sprinter who was certain to display his high speed and then run out of gas. Most people expected Bodemeister’s jockey, Mike Smith, to sit behind Trinniberg. But when the gate opened, Bodemeister broke more sharply than any of his rivals.

“He was flying leaving there,” Smith said. “He was two [lengths] in front leaving the gate.” Smith and trainer Bob Baffert had talked before the race about such a scenario, and Baffert had no reservations about letting his colt go to the front.

Trinniberg showed his natural high speed, but jockey Willie Martinez wasn’t sending him on a suicide mission. So Smith was committed to try to lead the Derby from start to finish. Over the very fast Churchill Downs surface, Bodemeister sped the first quarter-mile in 22.32 seconds, a half mile in 45.39 and three quarters of a mile in 1 minute 9.80 seconds. NBC’s commentators noted that this was the fifth-fastest pace in the race’s history, but even that fact does not begin to suggest the difficulty of what Bodemeister was trying to do.

In the Derby’s 137 previous runnings, a total of 10 horses had sped the first half mile in 45.4 seconds or less. There were some legitimate contenders among them, but all ten of them virtually collapsed after this exertion. All finished in 10th place or worse. Yet Bodemeister kept on going.

Some second-guessers have criticized Smith for letting his mount go so fast in the early stages, but he was making a reasoned decision. Bodemeister had raced only four times in his career, and Baffert had not had the luxury of experimenting to learn whether he could be restrained to sit behind other horses. “I didn’t want to change his style,” the trainer said, knowing that the Derby is no place to experiment.

As Bodemeister started to weaken, Gutierrez had put I’ll Have Another in perfect striking position. After breaking from his wide post position, he had managed to angle inside at the first turn—he was only about one horse-width from the rail—and to sit in the second flight behind Bodemeister, Trinniberg and others. He never encountered any traffic trouble in the 20-horse field, and on the final turn he angled to the outside for clear sailing past the leader.

Even though he had a perfect trip while the fast pace was enervating all the early leaders, I’ll Have Another finished the 11 / 4 miles in 2:01.83, a slow time over such a fast track. The time translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 101, the second-worst of any Derby winner in the last 20 years (next to Giacomo’s 100 in 2005.) If I’ll Have Another can’t do any better than this on a day when everything was in his favor, it surely would be rash to speculate that he might be able to sweep the Triple Crown series.

If the winner’s performance was unimpressive by the historical standards of the Derby, the horses behind I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister were terrible. The hot pace should have created a great opportunity for stretch-runners to make bold late moves. Dullahan and Went the Day Well could only muster too-little-too-late rallies to finish third and fourth. The favorite, Union Rags, got off to a slow start that compromised his performance, never accelerated significantly and finished seventh.

Well-regarded contenders Alpha and Gemologist were beaten by 19 and 30 lengths, respectively, with no excuses. This group of 3-year-olds appears even worse than the weak crops of 2011, 2010 and 2009, with the notable exception of Bodemeister, whose effort on Saturday was so good that the defeat didn’t even sting Baffert. “This is the only time I’ve run second where I’ve been happy because he ran his race,” the trainer said. “He’s a brilliant horse.”

For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.
com/beyer.

Andrew Beyer has been The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist since 1978 and is considered one of the leading experts on the subject.
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