Kentucky Derby: Preview and selections

Churchill Downs - hosts Kentucky Derby

It isn’t just Newmarket that has the attention of the racing world this weekend. Across the Pond, there’s a renewal of one of the older races on the calendar there.

Churchill Downs, deep in the heart of Kentucky, hosts the 138th running of what many Americans refer to as “The Fastest Two minutes in Sport”, others call “The Run for the Roses”, and we know as The Kentucky Derby. It’s a day full of tradition, from Mint Juleps sipped from souvenir glasses embossed with the names of all the previous winners of the race, through to burgoo stew, a thick mix of pork, beef, chicken and vegetables.

As the horses parade before the race, the strains of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” will reverberate around the stands.

You don’t want a horse that will be upset by drawn out preliminaries. Neither do you want to be drawn in gate 1 for the ten-furlong event. Unfortunately for Aiden O’Brien, that’s where the horse he trains, Daddy Long Legs is berthed, which goes some way to making it likely that European trained runners will continue to draw a blank in the race. Daddy Long Legs likes to race up with the pace, and will have to be very quickly away if he’s not to be boxed in by other horses crossing to the inside.

Current favourite Bodemeister (4/1) also has history (or stats) to overcome if he is to be blessed with the blanket of 554 red roses that garland the winner into the enclosure after the race. Bodemeister didn’t make his racecourse debut until January this year, and no horse that failed to race as a 2 year-old has won the race since Apollo in 1882. Will the gods be with him tomorrow? I don’t think so.

Curlin, the 2007 horse of the year in America, tried to do so and failed. It’s true he didn’t make his racecourse debut until three weeks later than Bodemeister. It’s true that Curlin had only three races before the Kentucky Derby, whereas Bodemeister has had four. But the stats show regardless of how much talent a horse has, four months isn’t long enough to build up the experience needed in such a demanding race.

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One horse that built up experience in his first season is Union Rags, (5/1) winner of his first three races, before finishing a head behind Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November. He was the favourite for that race, and looked the best horse, as he was pushed wide on the home turn, before wandering in the straight and just losing out. A similarly unfortunate bout of heavy traffic in the Florida Derby at the end of March led to Union Rags being just touched off by Take Charge Indy.

Both horses to have beaten him are in the line up at 11.24pm UK time tomorrow evening. It may well turn out that Union Rags is the best of the three, but you have to exercise caution on a horse that regularly finds itself caught up amongst others. He’s another with a distinctly disadvantageous inside draw. At least Take Charge Indy has the benefit of Calvin Borel on board. He’s partnered three of the last five winners of the race.

Gemologist is another well-fancied horse (7/1), largely on the strength of two wins at Churchill Downs. But there are good grounds to question the strength of that, as he didn’t face particularly strong opposition in either race. He had to work hard to overcome Alpha in his last run at Aqueduct.

That leads me to consider two other horses. I’ll Have Another has a lot going for him. He’s drawn 19 o the 20 runners, and showed a good cruising speed and late acceleration when winning the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in his last run. I’ll Have Another’s breeding is another positive, as his sire, Flower Alley was successful over one and a quarter miles, and there’s stamina on the dam side as well.

If Europe is to have any say in the race, it’s likely to come from outsider Went The Day Well (25/1). That’s not because he shares a name with the Ealing Studio World War 2 propaganda film, which saw the debut of Thora Hird. Last year, Went The Day Well was trained in England by Ed McMahon. He was runner up in maiden races at Haydock and Leicester before being sold and moving over to the States. Now trained by Cambridge born Graham Motion, he’s had three races already this season, winning twice, most recently coming home over 3 lengths clear of Holiday Promise. His detractors will point out that he raced on Polytrack then, but his earlier win was on a dirt track as is the Kentucky Derby.

Motion says, "I really feel good about running this horse. And I feel fortunate to be back here with a horse who really belongs in the race." It will be a fine achievement to pull off a win – the team of Motion, jockey John Velasquez and owners Team Valor were responsible for last year’s surprise winner Animal Kingdom, and back to back winners don’t come along too often.

Best bets:

Likely winner:
Union Rags

Interesting outsider: Went The Day Well

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