The Derby Watch is back from a one-week hiatus and somehow the sophomore picture got even more convoluted than when we left.
Had Union Rags won as expected in the Florida Derby, he might have headed to Churchill Downs as the biggest Kentucky Derby favorite since Empire Maker in 2003. Though the Michael Matz trainee still remains the consensus pick in many polls — including this one — the No. 1 spot is there for the taking should Creative Cause capture Saturday's Grade I Santa Anita Derby or Hansen stroll to victory in next week's Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Creative Cause, a son of Giant's Causeway, will have a hefty albatross to overcome if his form is to translate to a victory on the first Saturday of May.
The last Santa Anita Derby winner to win the Derby was Sunday Silence in 1989. The best finisher in recent years was Pioneerof the Nile in 2009 with a second at Churchill.
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Kentucky Derby trends thought to be set in stone have been demolished in recent years, however — from the dreaded two-prep schedule to the previous blasphemy of having a five-week layoff before the Derby. Given the wide-open nature of this year's crop, it wouldn't be surprising to see another longtime standard go by the wayside come May 5.
"I think we'll continue to see winners of the Kentucky Derby come from all different angles with various prep programs," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle Gemologist in the Grade I Wood Memorial on Saturday. "It's all about everything going just right on that particular day and liking the surface on however it's playing that day.
"There's so many variables that I don't think there's an exact science to it. We've seen all those things change, and a lot of the so-called rules of having to win the Kentucky Derby a certain way have sort of all been shattered in the last 10 years or so."
The Derby Dozen
1. Union Rags: Still drinking the Kool-Aid for now even after the Florida Derby outing. Trainer Michael Matz was openly not thrilled with the ride jockey Julien Leparoux gave the son of Dixie Union last week as he would have benefited from being closer up early on. Chalk it up to a lesson learned and expect these two to still be the main target come Derby week. "I'm not going to trade with anybody," Matz said after the race.
2. Creative Cause: Is certainly the one to beat in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on Saturday and trainer Mike Harrington is taking the blinkers off to see if it results in a more focused colt in the lane. "I think he's grown up mentally quite a bit, and I think also in his races," Harrington said this week. "The only place I can fault him is the last race he was wandering around down the lane. But if removing the blinkers helps that, then I think he'll be mentally fine."
3. Hansen: Breezed 5 furlongs in :59.80 at Churchill's Trackside Training Center on March 31 as he preps for the Blue Grass Stakes on April 14. If the potential lineup for the Blue Grass comes through, the son of Tapit will have no shortage of quality horses to test his mettle before the big day. "Let's say Hansen relaxes the way he did last time (in the Grade III Gotham Stakes), I feel that the horse can run forever," jockey Ramon Dominguez said.
4. Gemologist: With El Padrino not running up to par in the Florida Derby, the son of Tiznow is on deck to reclaim the mantle as Pletcher's leading Kentucky Derby contender depending on how his Wood Memorial effort goes Saturday. Fired a bullet in his last move before the Wood, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.44 at Palm Meadows on April 1.
5. I'll Have Another: Trainer Doug O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam are taking a huge chance by putting a majority of their eggs in the Santa Anita Derby basket, but they both maintain the son of Flower Alley is at his best when he's fresh. Given the depth in the field for Saturday's test, they'll find out for sure if his Robert B. Lewis effort was a sign of the real thing or not.
6. Take Charge Indy: How astute does trainer Pat Byrne look now for bypassing the Tampa Bay Derby? His pedigree — by A.P. Indy out of multiple Grade I winner Take Charge Lady — is as solid as they come and this colt pulled off the key intangible of showing huge improvement from his season debut on Jan. 29 to his Florida Derby win. Ran fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November and is now the eighth horse from the Juvenile to win a graded stakes this year.
7. Alpha: Like I'll Have Another, we'll finally get a chance to see how much — if at all — the son of Bernardini has moved forward since last being seen on Feb. 4. Needs to run in at least the top two in the Wood Memorial to ensure he has the money — and the ability — to make the Kentucky Derby field.
8. Secret Circle: For a horse who has one loss in six career starts, no one seems to have a real grasp on what he is capable of. He keeps clicking off wins even if he doesn't always look pretty doing it. Pretty never won the Kentucky Derby, however, and if he steps up again in the Arkansas Derby, he will have to considered a major threat in May.
9. Went the Day Well: Probably is getting by as much on the reputation of his Derby-winning connections (owner Team Valor and trainer Graham Motion) as he is on his own talent. Looked awfully good winning the Vinery Racing Spiral at Turfway even if he didn't beat much, and there is a sense that he is still figuring the game out mentally.
10. Daddy Nose Best: Has two of the lower-profile wins this year in the Grade III El Camino Real and Sunland Derby but is another who quietly keeps moving forward each time out. Is versatile enough to win on synthetic and dirt but is winless in two previous tries over the Churchill main track.
11. Prospective: Is tuning up for his expected run in the Blue Grass Stakes by prepping at Churchill Downs. Won two of three at Woodbine last year, including the Grade III Grey Stakes, so handling Keeneland's Polytrack shouldn't be an issue.
12. Bodemeister: Will take on stablemate Secret Circle in the Arkansas Derby. He threw down a spectacular work on April 2, covering 6 furlongs in 1:10.40 at Santa Anita. Is another in the camp of horses who needs to at least run second in their final prep in order to get enough graded earnings to crack the Derby field.
The next dozen: El Padrino, Howe Great, Dullahan, Castaway, Daddy Long Legs, Wrote, My Adonis, Mark Valeski, Liaison, Tiger Walk, Drill, Sabercat.