As often happens, the prep races before the Derby serve to muddy the issue rather than clear it. This past weekend was no exception as we watched the Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes. Bodemeister led the Arkansas from wire to wire and was convincing in his nine length win. It looks as though trainer Bob Baffert will be shipping at least three colts to Louisville.
Hansen, the white colt, went to the gate as the favorite and was soundly beaten by Dullahan. If we look to Hansen's owner, Dr. Hansen, I think the colt has an excuse for his second place finish. To be blunt, Dr. Hansen doesn't have a clue about racing etiquette or appropriate behavior as an owner. He went to the barn the morning of the race and dyed his white horse's tail an obscene shade of blue. Not coincidentally, his racing colors are blue and white. Well, the paddock stewards took offense, and rightly so. The American Jockey Club has this funny rule about not altering a horse's appearance - imagine that! The stewards informed Dr. Hansen that if the colt wasn't returned to original condition, he would be scratched. Then the trainer got wind of the situation and the tension between owner and trainer spilled over, nasty words followed but the horse went to the post with a pristine white tail. I can only think that all the attention paid to his rear end in the hours before the race distracted Hansen. Horse people are a superstitious bunch and we hate changes in routine, especially on the day of the race.
Dullahan was spectacular. He came from 10th in a field of 13 with three furlongs to go and defeated Hansen by two lengths. Not too shabby for a horse named for a character in Irish fairy tales. I watched him in the paddock and he looked as though he would have happily engaged in a physical altercation with every horse around him. Of course these are three year old colts that are just figuring out that they are boys, but this guy wasn't acting coltish, he looked ready for a fight. I like this horse a lot.
I did notice one thing about Dullahan during the run-out (after they cross the wire and are slowing to go to the winner's circle). He seemed to be taking some slight missteps which could be caused by any number of things but primarily we would look for pain and/or exhaustion. There haven't been any reports of problems after the race but this horse has a history of injuries.
What about Union Rags? I like Mike Matz a lot and I know him pretty well, but I'm just not sure what's going through his mind. He hasn't raced this horse since the Florida Derby in March where he was beaten. The horse has been in Florida until last week when he shipped to Keeneland. He's bringing a "cold" horse to Churchill Downs this weekend to work him over the Derby track. Maybe Mr Matz has a secret training strategy that he's going to spring on all of us.
Having said all that, I can't pick either Hansen or Union Rags as my favorite contenders. I'm still leaning heavily towards Gemologist and I can't discount Bodemeister or Dullahan. We'll see what happens on May 5, which also happens to be a full moon. Could the omens be any stranger?