LOUISVILLE — All along, Bob Baffert has said that he fought the urge. He didn’t allow even an idle moment to be filled with the blurry, soaring dreams that can be ignited by training a horse as promising as Bodemeister.
He insisted on waiting until the post position draw and the announcement of the morning line.
When, on Wednesday, Bodemeister drew the No. 6 spot in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby and was named the initial 4-1 favorite, Baffert relented only partially.
“I’m just relieved I didn’t draw the one hole,” he said. “I’d said we were looking for anywhere from 5 to 16, and that would have been fine.”
Union Rags, the Michael Matz-trained colt, was named the second choice by Churchill Downs handicapper Mike Battaglia, at 9-2. He’ll start from the fourth position. Matz had hoped his horse would be further from the rail — he was boxed off and tentative in traffic in his last race, finishing third at the Florida Derby — but he thinks Union Rags has enough speed to break from the pack.
“I really don’t think it ended up as bad as it could have been,” Matz said.
That the top two choices have taken such different paths to the Derby has helped build to an anticipated showdown on Saturday.
Bodemeister went un-raced as a 2-year-old but burst into the national conversation when he won the Arkansas Derby by 91 / 2 lengths.
Union Rags, meanwhile, was a star last fall, and many considered him the strongest horse after dominating his first race of the year.
Their trainers make for an interesting contrast as well. Baffert is affable and relaxed, always talking racing with whoever asks. Matz, who won the Derby with Barbaro in 2006, is stoic and calculated.
Bodemeister’s performance last time out gave him the edge in the initial odds.
“It was an impressive performance, and he’s one of those horses that is just improving at the right time,” Battaglia said. “He’s really gotten better, so I gave him a little edge over Union Rags, who had the excuse in Florida . . . and he’s trained so well here.”
In what has been hailed as one of the deepest crops of 3-year-olds in years, Battaglia said his top two choices were near co-favorites.
“I haven’t had the two favorites this close, actually, since Street Sense and Curlin,” he said.
It does figure to get crowded initially on the inside, as 8-1 pick Dullahan (fifth post position) and 15-1 shot Take Charge Indy (third) will start on either side of Union Rags.
Baffert wouldn’t speculate about the possible pace of the race. He’s heard talk that a sprint could break out; rarely do this many strong horses led by daring jockeys operate in such close proximity.
“Nobody wants to go too fast,” he said at first, before meandering further into his answer. “If somebody does go crazy … you just don’t know who’s going to go crazy. You can’t really predict it until those gates come open.”
Trinniberg, the sprinter who has never run more than seven furlongs, drew the No. 9 spot.
Undefeated Gemologist, at 6-1, will start from the No. 15 position and have juvenile champion Hansen (10-1, 14th), another sprinter, to contend with. Gemologist trainer Todd Pletcher was pleased.
“It worked out perfect,” he said. “I love the 15, the first one in the auxiliary gate. There’s a little space there. He’s outside all of the speed.”