While discussing his potential Kentucky Derby contenders after the draw for Saturday's Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, Team Valor CEO Barry Irwin joked that whoever prevails on the first Saturday in May will have prevailed in more than one heated contest.
"Nowadays there are two races, the race to get into the Derby and then the Derby ... but the race to get into the Derby is getting way out of hand if you ask me."
With the threshold for graded stakes earnings at an especially lofty level this season, the scramble has intensified for those connections who have horses on the cusp of the 20-horse cutoff for the Kentucky Derby. Saturday will see a number of fates determined by how big a check — if any — horses cash, as the $1 million Arkansas Derby and $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes are contested at Oaklawn and Keeneland, respectively.
With just $60,000 in graded earnings, the Bob Baffert-trained Bodemeister is in the ultimate "win and you're in" spot as he needs to capture the Arkansas Derby to lock himself into the Kentucky Derby field or run second to at least get on the bubble. The son of Empire Maker has shown tremendous raw ability in his three career starts but he has little room for growing pains if he is to make his presence known in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
However, missing the Derby because of a lack of earnings has at times been a blessing in disguise. In 2004, both Eddington and Rock Hard Ten missed the Derby cutoff and both went on to become Grade I winners as older horses.
Rock Hard Ten and Eddington — who ended up running second and third, respectively, in that year's Preakness — hit their stride with more seasoning. Rock Hard Ten took the Grade I Malibu Stakes in December 2004, which kicked off a four-race win streak, including the 2005 Santa Anita Handicap, before injury ended his career.
Eddington concluded his racing days on a similar high note. The chestnut horse — the sire of current Derby contender Secret Circle — won two of his three career graded stakes as a 4-year-old, highlighted by his victory in the 2005 Grade I Pimlico Special.
Of course, a horse only has one chance to become a Derby winner — hence the rush and push to get them into the starting gate.
The Derby Dozen
1. Gemologist: We're counting on the son of Tiznow to break the recent Wood Memorial hex and actually make it to the Kentucky Derby starting gate — something the last three winners of that race have failed to do. The questions surrounding Gemologist before his Wood effort were whether he a) got enough out of his season debut and b) had the mettle to stretch out against top company — both of which he turned into moot points. Alpha had every chance to blow by him and couldn't, and the way Gemologist galloped out looked like they could have gone around again without the result changing. It takes a special horse to win the Derby while still unbeaten, but there is no reason to think he can't join those ranks.
2. Union Rags: Put in an impressive 4-furlong move in :48.40 at Palm Meadows on April 12, his first breeze since finishing third in the Florida Derby. He is slated to ship to Keeneland this weekend and work there before having his final move at Churchill Downs on either April 28 or 29.
3. Hansen: Has an opportunity to re-establish himself as the leader of this crop with a win in the Blue Grass. With so much potential speed in the Blue Grass field, the son of Tapit will either have to relax off the lead — as he did in the Gotham — or take some heat up front and have to keep going. If he does either of those in successful fashion, he will be the talk of Louisville heading into May 5.
4. I'll Have Another: What a huge leap of faith trainer Doug O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam took in keeping this horse fresh for the Santa Anita Derby, and what a huge payoff they got when he outfought Creative Cause for the win. To deliver that kind of a run in his first start since the Robert B. Lewis on Feb. 4 speaks to the amount of upside the son of Flower Alley has. This colt has the pedigree to hold up over 11/4 miles, and O'Neill has lauded him for months for having a mind as stout as his physical ability.
5. Creative Cause: Can't knock him too much for what was essentially a winning race in the Santa Anita Derby — save for the end result. Trainer Mike Harrington said he probably will leave the blinkers off for the Kentucky Derby and is set to ship to Churchill on April 28. The biggest concern about the son of Giant's Causeway is that he doesn't seem to be able to quicken that explosively in the lane.
6. Alpha: Pretty much did everything he needed to do short of winning the Wood Memorial, getting a good, foundation-building race in his first start since the Grade III Withers on Feb. 4. He behaved well in the gate, something that will be key when he has 150,000 screaming people in his ear on Derby Day, but he had no reason for not getting by Gemologist in the stretch.
7. Take Charge Indy: Though he won the Florida Derby in gate-to-wire fashion, the son of A.P. Indy has shown in his previous efforts he can take back to midpack if needed, so this is not a one-dimensional horse.
8. Secret Circle: Stands to get his toughest test from stablemate Bodemeister in Saturday's Arkansas Derby. Not flashy by any means, but he keeps clearing hurdles at every turn.
9. Went the Day Well: Could potentially be knocked out of the top 20 on the graded stakes earnings list if his stablemate Howe Great takes Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes. Irwin believes this son of Proud Citizen is his best classic-type horse and will be watching the earnings list closely in the coming days.
10. Daddy Nose Best: Worked 5 furlongs in 1:02.40 at Churchill Downs on April 9 in his first move since winning the Sunland Derby. "He went over the racetrack really well and he's in great physical shape," trainer Steve Asmussen said.
11. Prospective: Might be one of the wise-guy horses in the Blue Grass Stakes and could be in a prime stalking position if the pace scenario goes as expected. "We will be sitting in the second flight and then come running," trainer Mark Casse said.
12. Bodemeister: Tuned up for the Arkansas Derby with a 5-furlong breeze in 1:00.40 at Santa Anita on April 8.
The next dozen: El Padrino, Howe Great, Dullahan, Castaway, Daddy Long Legs, Wrote, My Adonis, Mark Valeski, Liaison, Tiger Walk, Drill, Sabercat.