We've reached the final edition of the Derby Watch for this season and if there is one thing that has stood out week after week on this list, it is how much talent seemed to pop up on a regular basis for this class of 2012.
The racing world will coronate a new crown prince beneath the Twin Spires on May 5. But regardless who wins this year's Kentucky Derby, the consensus is that this might be one of the better crops of youngsters in recent times.
Where bashing the sophomore class was a popular pastime just a year ago, this year's group has been widely lauded not just for its overall quality of wins but for its widespread consistency. With Dullahan taking the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes last weekend, he became the ninth horse who ran in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November to come back and win a graded stakes this year.
Even when members of this bunch have been beaten — the undefeated Gemologist excluded — they haven't thrown in head-scratching clunkers. Neither Union Rags, Creative Cause, Hansen nor Dullahan have been worse than third this year, and there aren't too many stone-cold long shots jumping into the expected lineup.
"This is one of the few years when nobody is knocking the crop," said Dale Romans, trainer of Dullahan. "I think this is a stellar group of horses. I think it's a very evenly matched group of horses and it's going to come down to who can get the 11/4 miles and the trip, like it always does in the Kentucky Derby.
"You can definitely go eight or 10 deep with legitimate horses."
The Derby Dozen
1. Gemologist: He worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.84 in company with Overdriven at Palm Meadows on Friday, and he will have his final pre-Derby move in Florida next weekend before shipping to Churchill on May 1. It's hard to knock a horse who has done nothing wrong, especially when said horse is 2-for-2 at Churchill Downs.
2. Union Rags: Physically, the son of Dixie Union really does look like a portrait and he has an effortless way of moving about him. Even though he has lost two of his past three starts, there is still something about this horse that makes people want to forgive his faults. "The two races that he lost, people obviously know there was a problem whether he got shuffled wide or hemmed in, that can happen in any race," trainer Michael Matz said. "We just hope he has a little better outcome in the next race, that's all we can do right now."
3. Hansen: Putting aside all the pre-race drama that went down with his connections in the Blue Grass Stakes, the son of Tapit actually did finish up well that day, coming home in the final eighth of a mile in :12 and change. I have concern over his ability to relax up front and his chances of getting sucked into a speed duel, but on guts and class alone I still think he runs a bang-up effort on Derby Day.
4. Bodemeister: Might be the first horse this year to put real fear into other connections with the way he just toyed with his competition in the Arkansas Derby. "Watching from the sidelines it was like, uh-oh 'cause it looked very, very impressive," said Doug O'Neill, trainer of Santa Anita Derby winner I'll Have Another. Has to overcome the issue of not having a start at 2 and being able to replicate and build off such a big effort in just a three-week turnaround. If he can do that, though, freak won't be a strong enough word to describe him.
5. I'll Have Another: Though he has been on the lead for most of his races, O'Neill doesn't think the colt is a candidate to get caught up in the early fight for the lead. "I kind of like our style because we have enough speed to be in there but stay out of a lot of chaos," O'Neill said. "He's not going to run off to where he has to from the front end." The son of Flower Alley is fresh and fit coming in and it wouldn't be the least bit shocking if he progresses straight into the winner's circle come May 5.
6. Creative Cause: He worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.20 at Hollywood Park on April 17. He's always consistent, always game, but I'm not sure he will be fast enough in the final furlong to close out a victory.
7. Dullahan: Both owner Jerry Crawford and trainer Dale Romans say the son of Even the Score has trained beautifully at Churchill, and you don't see many horses finish as powerfully as he did in the Blue Grass. He still needs to back up his connection's words by actually winning on dirt, but you can't ask for him to come into the Derby in any better shape.
8. Went the Day Well: He no longer has to sweat it out on the graded-stakes earnings bubble as he is solidly in the field now. Team Valor founder Barry Irwin warns not to judge this horse by what he does in the morning and that if you're looking for him to throw down an eye-popping work the way Animal Kingdom did last year at Churchill, you'll be disappointed. "I know a lot of people are going to wait for this horse to come over to Churchill and see if he does what Animal Kingdom did the day Animal Kingdom blew everybody's mind, and I can tell them right now that it is not going to happen," Irwin said. "This is not that kind of horse. But in the afternoon he brings it, that's all that really counts."
9. Take Charge Indy: He had his first serious move since his upset triumph in the Florida Derby, working 5 furlongs in 1:01.47 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Thursday. Might have the ultimate intangible of any contender in that he has three-time Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel in the irons. "Calvin's got a lot of confidence in the horse," trainer Pat Byrne said. "He said he had plenty left after the (Florida) Derby."
10. Alpha: He was treated last week for an infection that resulted from cuts he sustained on his left shin during his runner-up finish in the Wood Memorial. He should have one work in New York before shipping to Churchill on April 30. "He's doing really well," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said Friday. "We're not out of the woods yet, but we're doing well. Most likely we're working him just once, here. We have him on the flight on the 30th, so we would probably work the 28th."
11. Daddy Nose Best: He will have Garrett Gomez in the irons for his Derby with Mike Smith committing to Bodemeister in the wake of the Arkansas Derby. He fired a bullet move in his latest effort over the Churchill track, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.20 on April 16.
12. El Padrino: Another who tuned up on Friday, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.56 at Palm Meadows. Like Matz is with Union Rags, Todd Pletcher is apt to mentally draw a line through El Padrino's fourth-place run in the Florida Derby. "We know he's a very good colt and a talented colt," the trainer said. "When the Florida Derby unfolded the way that it did, it seemed like the logical thing to do to try and keep Union Rags in the spot he was in and as a result of that, it kind of compromised El Padrino a bit and took him out of his regular style."
The next eight (since the field is limited to 20): Prospective, Sabercat, Done Talking, Daddy Long Legs, Rousing Sermon, Mark Valeski, Reveron, Isn't He Clever.
Alicia Wincze Hughes