LOUISVILLE — Other than the 20 3-year-olds slated to jaunt down the Churchill Downs track Saturday in the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, one horse who has been in the forefront of many minds this week has been the 13th-place finisher in the 2001 edition of the race.
Eleven years ago, the blazingly quick Songandaprayer set the stage for the second-fastest running of the Derby in history, zipping through fractions of :22.25, :44.86 and 1:09.25 before the reality of his distance limitations hit him like a brick wall.
Given the amount of front-runners present in this year's bunch of contenders, Songandaprayer could have some company this weekend in the category of most game-changing speedsters in Derby history.
The only topic more hotly debated than who might win this year's Kentucky Derby is whether the pace of the 11/4-mile classic will be as suicidal as some predict.
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When 2-year-old champion Hansen won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs in gate-to-wire fashion last November, the discussion immediately turned to whether the son of Tapit could pull off a duplicate feat going 10 furlongs on May 5.
In recent weeks, however, any notion that Hansen would be the lone wolf up front has all but gone by the wayside thanks to the additions of brilliant Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister and top sprinter Trinniberg.
Like Hansen, both Bodemeister and, in particular, Trinniberg count the front end as their bread and butter. Bodemeister has never been worse than third at any point of call in his four-race career and has earned each of his two career wins, including his 91/2-length Arkansas Derby triumph, by heading every point of call.
That Trinniberg was entered in the Derby was a shock to some considering the front-running winner of the Grade III Swale and Bay Shore Stakes has never been beyond 7 furlongs.
The son of Teuflesberg is expected to gun it out of post nine under jockey Willie Martinez and go as far as he can for as long as his speed holds up. The $64,000 question is, will Hansen and Bodemeister relax enough to let Trinniberg fly solo or will the adrenaline conspire to make for break-neck speeds.
"No one wants to go too fast like the year of Songandaprayer," said Bob Baffert, who will saddle both Bodemeister and Liaison in his quest for a fourth Derby win. "But you just don't know. If they break and they're on the engine 3-4 abreast, they might just kick on, and once they get running you can't really slow them down.
"Trinniberg is very fast and Hansen, those are one-dimensional type horses. You never know what they're going to do but nobody wants to go out there blazing if they want to win going 11/4 miles so we're all in the same boat."
One of the many variables adding to the intrigue of the potential pace scenario is that both the horses expected to be up front and the ones who figure to sit back might be some of the best-quality babies of recent seasons.
It has been well documented that nine of the horses who ran in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile have already come back to win graded stakes this year. Despite being the undefeated winner of the Grade I Wood Memorial, WinStar Farm's Gemologist was only the third choice on the morning line at 6-1 while fellow Grade I winner Liaison was one of five horses deemed a 50-1 long shot.
"The Derby usually seems to have an unrealistic fast pace and there are fast horses in this race. The problem is they're quality so they could keep right on going," said trainer Dale Romans, who will send out multiple Grade I winner Dullahan in the Derby. "It's going to be interesting to see how it unfolds. I think this is a deep field of quality horses. I think this is a good crop."
Count Romans among those who would love to see neck-snapping fractions put up as Dullahan is among the stone-cold closers who will benefit should the front-runners start slowing down.
If the pace proves too unreasonable, even those sitting off that first tier could be in jeopardy. When Songandaprayer went winging away in 2001, he ended up cooking every horse within a handful of lengths of him — save for Congaree who hung on for third — including heavily favored Point Given. That cleared the way for Monarchos to charge to victory.
"I think from a pace scenario you want things to work out to your advantage but just like last year, what you're hoping for and what you get on race day are not always the same thing," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who will send out both Daddy Nose Best and Sabercat. "There are going to be some very good horses get beat a long ways."