LOUISVILLE — As if the Kentucky Derby road won't have enough twists and turns before the first Saturday in May, the official start of that trail only served to muddy the waters.
Hansen, trained by Mike Maker and owned by Dr. Kendall Hansen and Harvey Diamond, scored a wire-to-wire victory in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Saturday.
But it was the 6-5 favorite Union Rags, trained by Michael Matz, who may have been the most impressive entrant in the race. Forced wide throughout, then drifting out in the stretch, Union Rags still managed another push at the end, only to wind up second by a head.
Creative Cause, winner of the Norfolk, ran third, a length behind Union Rags. Dullahan, trained by Dale Romans, ran fourth, 6 lengths behind the winner. Take Charge Indy, trained by Patrick Byrne, ran fifth.
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A speed horse, Hansen won the race by traveling the shortest distance. According to the Churchill Downs formula, Union Rags traveled 78 feet farther than Hansen did and still nearly won.
"They were wide on the first turn; they were wide on the second turn," Matz said. "He (Javier Castellano) said the other horse had it his own way, and (Union Rags) galloped out good and strong. He said, 'One more jump and we would have had him.' "
A gray son of Tapit, Hansen had been a runaway winner in his previous two races, both at Turfway Park. He won a maiden special weight by 12¼ lengths on Sept. 9 on the Polytrack. He came back on Sept. 24 to win the Kentucky Cup Juvenile by a ridiculous 13¼ lengths. Both were wire-to-wire wins, an impressive feat on the Turfway surface.
Union Rags entered the race 3-for-3, having broken his maiden at Delaware on July 12, then winning the Saratoga Special on Aug. 15 and the Champagne at Belmont on Oct. 8.
Those victories brought many to believe Matz had his best Derby possibility since the ill-fated Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.
But Union Rags experienced his own round of bad luck, pushed wide on the first turn. He continued wide down the backside, took the middle of the track in the stretch, but showed his inexperience and lack of stamina by drifting wide.
Somehow, Matz's horse regained his stride and made another run, only to come up a head short to the game Hansen.
"It's disappointing, that's for sure," Matz said, "but I guess that's horse racing."
Meanwhile, having won his first race on dirt, Hansen stamped himself as a definite Derby contender.
"He had just been playing up until today," Dr. Hansen said. "The first two races they didn't really ask him for all he's got. It was nice to see him dig down and earn what he got."
"Even though he won the races pretty handily, he's always been a fighter," Maker said. "He's a tough horse to handle on a daily basis."
Diamond's Sky Chai Racing purchased a piece of Hansen after the Kentucky Cup Juvenile. "He was very receptive to our offer," said Diamond, who said he made the offer after a horse of his worked with Hansen and trailed by 15 lengths. "We feel fortunate to be sitting here today."
What did jockey Ramon Dominguez tell Maker after the race?
"See you in May," Maker said.
Union Rags showed he should be there in May at the Derby, too.