LOUISVILLE, Ky. — All along, Bob Baffert has said that he fought the urge. He didn’t allow even an idle moment to be filled with the blurry, soaring dreams that can be ignited by training a horse as promising as Bodemeister.
He insisted on waiting until the post position draw and the announcement of the morning line.
When, on Wednesday, Bodemeister drew the No. 6 spot and was named the initial 4-1 favorite, Baffert relented only partially.
“I’m just relieved I didn’t draw the one hole,” he said. “I’d said we were looking for anywhere from 5-16, and that would have been fine. “
Union Rags, the Michael Matz-trained colt, was named the second choice by Churchill Downs handicapper Mike Battaglia, at 9-2. He’ll start from the fourth position. Matz had hoped his horse would be further from the rail — he was boxed off and tentative in traffic in his last race, finishing third at the Florida Derby — but he thinks Union Rags has enough speed to break from the pack.
“I really don’t think it ended up as bad as it could have been,” Matz said.
That the top two choices have taken such different paths to the Derby has helped build to an anticipated showdown on Saturday.
Bodemeister went un-raced as a two-year old but burst into the national conversation when he won the Arkansas Derby by 9 ½ lengths.
Union Rags, meanwhile, was a star last fall, and many considered him the strongest horse after dominating his first race of the year.
Their trainers make for an interesting contrast as well. Baffert is affable and relaxed, always talking racing with whoever asks. Matz, who won the Derby with Barbaro in 2006, is stoic and calculated.
Bodemeister’s performance last time out gave him the edge in the initial odds.
“It was an impressive performance, and he’s one of those horses that is just improving at the right time,” Battaglia said. “He’s really gotten better, so I gave him a little edge over Union Rags, who had the excuse in Florida … and he’s trained so well here.”
In what has been hailed as one of the deepest crops of 3-year-olds in years, Battaglia said his top two choices were near co-favorites.
“I haven’t had the two favorites this close, actually, since Street Sense and Curlin,” he said.
It does figure to get crowded initially on the inside, as 8-1 pick Dullahan (fifth post position) and 15-1 shot Take Charge Indy (third) will start on either side of Union Rags.
Baffert wouldn’t speculate about the possible pace of the race. He’s heard talk that a sprint could break out; rarely do this many strong horses led by daring jockeys operate in such close proximity.
“Nobody wants to go too fast,” he said at first, before meandering further into his answer. “If somebody does go crazy … you just don’t know who’s going to go crazy. You can’t really predict it until those gates come open.”
Trinniberg, the sprinter who has never run more than seven furlongs, drew the No. 9 spot and is the odds-on favorite to go crazy (no, they don’t really set a line for that).
Undefeated Gemologist, at 6-1, will start from the No. 15 position and have juvenile champion Hansen (10-1, 14th), another sprinter, to contend with. Gemologist trainer Todd Pletcher was pleased.
“It worked out perfect,” he said. “I love the 15, the first one in the auxiliary gate. There’s a litle space there. He’s outside all of the speed.”
Graham Motion got what he hoped for when Went the Day Well ended up in the 13th position.
“I’d said all along that 10-16 would be perfect,” he said. “We got 13. That puts us in position to feel pretty comfortable about it with where the speed is.”
Motion won last year’s race with Animal Kingdom, who chased from behind after starting at No. 16. Like Animal Kingdom, Went the Day Well has shown an ability to find not only reserves but an extra gear late. Like Animal Kingdom, he’ll start as a 20-1 long shot.
But Motion didn’t even bother trying to map out how the race might unfold.
“I’m going to leave it up to Johnny [Velazquez],” he said, referring to the jockey who also rode Animal Kingdom. “He knows what to do. I don’t have to give him any instructions.”
Baffert took a similar tact, saying that he’d leave Bodemeister’s strategy up to Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
“It’s up to him how the race goes,” Baffert said.
Said Smith: “The ideal thing would probably be to be to the outside of the other speed, but it is what it is. We’ve all got to get in there and we’ve all got to break well. … I think if he gets away well, like I’ve been saying all along, if he’s given the opportunity, he’s going to run extremely well.”
Done Talking, trained by Laurel Park’s Hamilton Smith, drew the 17th spot. No horse has ever won from that position, but Smith had said he did not think post position would matter much for his horse.
“He’s going to have to chase them down anyway,” said Smith, who is in the Derby for the first time.
Said 24-year-old Done Talking jockey Sheldon Russell, himself a rookie: “I guess we’re really going to have to shock the world now.”
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Horse (trainer/jockey)Last race Odds
1. Daddy Long Legs (O’Brien/O’Donoghue)1st UAE Derby 30-1
2. Optimizer (Lukas/Court)9th Arkansas Derby 50-1
3. Take Charge Indy (Byrne/Borel)1st Florida Derby15-1
4. Union Rags (Matz/Leparoux)3rd Florida Derby 9-2
5. Dullahan (Romans/Desormeaux)1st Blue Grass 8-1
6. Bodemeister (Baffert/Smith)1st Arkansas Derby 4-1
7. Rousing Sermon (Hollendorfer/Lezcano)3rd Louisiana Derby 50-1
8. Creative Cause (Harrington/Rosario)2nd Santa Anita Derby12-1
9. Trinniberg (Parboo/Martinez)1st Bay Shore 50-1
10. Daddy Nose Best (Asmussen/Gomez)1st Sunland Derby 15-1
11. Alpha (McLaughlin/Maragh)2nd Wood Memorial15-1
12. Prospective (Casse/Contreras)6th Blue Grass 30-1
13. Went the Day Well (Motion/Velazquez)1st Vinery Racing Spiral 20-1
14. Hansen (Maker/Dominguez)2nd Blue Grass 10-1
15. Gemologist (Pletcher/Castellano)1st Wood Memorial 6-1
16. El Padrino (Pletcher/Bejarano)4th Florida Derby 20-1
17. Done Talking (Smith/Russell)1st Illinois Derby 50-1
18. Sabercat (Asmussen/Nakatani)3rd Arkansas Derby 30-1
19. I’ll Have Another (O’Neill/Gutierrez)1st Santa Anita Derby 12-1
20. Liaison (Baffert/M. Garcia)6th Santa Anita Derby 50-1
Also eligible (can run if there is a scratch by 9 a.m. Friday)
My Adonis (Breen/Trujillo)7th Wood Memorial 50-1