By Liam Durbin
Consistency is a very important consideration in choosing a Derby horse. This time last year the early Kentucky Derby favorites were busy not winning their prep races.
Uncle Mo, the Juvenile winner and early Derby favorite was resting on his laurels, choosing not to race at all until the middle of March, when he sprinted a mere eight furlongs to win the Timely Writer. That meaningless victory was enough to hold his position as the popular Derby choice, at least until his dull effort in the Wood Memorial. To Honor And Serve, another over-hyped horse ran third as the favorite in the Fountain of Youth. Stay Thirsty won as the favorite in the Gotham, but then threw in a dud in the Florida Derby. By the time the Derby rolled around, all of the Derby favorites who were sent off the favorite in their final prep had lost that last prep race. This turned out to be a predictor of inconsistency that continued throughout the Triple Crown.
This year, horse racing amongst three year olds looks much different. Even though it is early, we are seeing much better form from these Derby hopefuls. El Padrino held of Mark Valeski as the 4:5 favorite in the Risen Star. He showed a lot of heart to battle a determined Mark Veleski down the stretch, to win at the wire by a nose. Coming into the race, El Padrino was well hyped but had never won a graded stakes race. As the odd-on choice, he had a lot to prove. And he got it done.
Juvenile champion, Hansen, also had a lot to prove in the Gotham Stakes after having been beaten badly in the Holy Bull. Not only did he lose the Holy Bull to Algorithms, he tired in the stretch, confirming many racing fans’ suspicions that his front-running style would be a liability in Derby preps as well as the Derby itself. Despite that loss, Hansen was the 4:5 favorite in the Gotham. Not only did Hansen win going away, but he overcame his outside post position and being forced wide on the first turn. He also came from a bit off the pace, which he had never done before.
Finally, the Fountain of Youth brought back the Juvenile runner-up, Union Rags, for his three year old debut. Union Rags would be sent off as a strong favorite, at odds of 6:5. In similar fashion as Hansen and El Padrino, Union Rags ran the way a 6:5 favorite is supposed to run, pulling away in a hand ride at the top of the stretch.
Of the three prep races, the most impressive, and indicative of future success, was Union Rags. Regardless of the level of competition, racing surface, or other race-specific conditions, he ran true to his form and breeding, and displayed the sort of kick necessary to win the Derby. Hansen did a lot to disprove concerns about his distance capability, but a lot of handicappers will want to see one more effort before dismissing his poor effort in the Holy Bull. Even his win in the Juvenile was a nail biter, with Union Rags getting to him late. It will be much harder to wire the Kentucky Derby than it was the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. El Padrino’s performance was gutsy, but many handicappers would have liked to have seen him power past Mark Velesi with some authority instead of winning by just a nose.
In horse racing, particularly three year olds, a lot can change from one race to the next. Since these horses are developing quite rapidly at this point in their racing careers, consistency is often hard to find. That said, this year’s early Derby favorites are giving horse racing fans a lot to be excited about. If any of them can hold form in their next (and likely final) prep race, they will come to Churchill Downs very well positioned to win.