Posted: Friday May 4, 2012 1:10PM ; Updated: Friday May 4, 2012 1:30PM
Gene Menez
Gene Menez>INSIDE HORSE RACING

Handicapping the Kentucky Derby

Story Highlights

The fast-closing Dullahan is the pick to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday

Union Rags and Bodemeister are among the other contenders to watch

Daddy Nose Best got a good draw; Alpha a sneaky play; Hansen faces questions

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Don't look for the much-improved Dullahan at the front of the pack early in the Kentucky Derby, as he tends to come off the pace.
Don't look for the much-improved Dullahan at the front of the pack early in the Kentucky Derby, as he tends to come off the pace.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Handicapping the Kentucky Derby is an impossibly difficult, sleep-depriving, hair-pulling exercise. And that's in an "easy" year. This year's Run for the Roses poses even more of a challenge because of the quality of the field. A case could be made for at least 12 horses to enter the Churchill Downs winner's circle around 6:30 p.m. ET Saturday, which makes a trifecta box a bit, shall we say, cost-prohibitive.

Trying to pick the winner of the Derby begins by analyzing how much speed is in the race. This year features an abundance of front-runners (Bodemeister, Hansen and Trinniberg) and pace-pressers (Daddy Long Legs, Gemologist, I'll Have Another and Take Charge Indy) who should be cooking on the front. That would seem to favor those coming from off the pace, and for that reason, the classiest closer in the Derby is the pick.

The selections, in order:

Win

5 Dullahan
Record: 8-2-2-2 (8 starts, 2 wins, 2 places, 2 shows)
Trainer: Dale Romans
Jockey: Kent Desormeaux
Morning-line odds: 8-1

Don't try to find him early because he won't make his presence felt until late. That's how he won the Blue Grass Stakes, and the pace setup for the Kentucky Derby should be even hotter than it was at Keeneland last month. His critics say that he's a grass or synthetic horse and not a dirt one, but the same thing was said about Animal Kingdom and Barbaro before they donned the blanket of roses. He'll need some luck trying to navigate his way past tiring horses, but Desormeaux worked out a perfect trip on 2000 winner Fusaichi Pegasus, and he'll need another one of those on Saturday.

A horse who has improved greatly from 2 to 3 and has the best closing kick in the race, Dullahan is the top choice.

Place

4 Union Rags
Record: 6-4-1-1
Trainer: Michael Matz
Jockey: Julien Leparoux
Morning-line odds: 9-2

He was atop many early Kentucky Derby contenders lists until his last race, when he finished third in the Florida Derby on March 31, but he can be forgiven for that one. The winner, Take Charge Indy, set a soft pace on a speed-favoring track, and Matz didn't have Rags fully cranked, knowing the first Saturday in May was the real goal. Since arriving in Louisville, the horse has trained impressively, according to trackside observers, and his work last Saturday was arguably the best among all Derby contenders.

His Best Beyer Speed Figure (95) is still on the light side compared with others in the field, and an outside post would have been preferred. But he'll be a major factor down the stretch.

Show

6 Bodemeister
Record: 4-2-2-0
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Mike Smith
Morning-line odds: 4-1

While in Las Vegas in mid-February, I placed one modest bet for the Kentucky Derby, on a lightly raced Baffert trainee who had just broken his maiden with a nine-plus-length win and a 101 Beyer. His name was Bodemeister, and his odds were 75-1.

Two and a half months later, Bodemeister enters the Derby as the morning-line favorite at 4-1, coming off a nine-plus-length runaway in the Arkansas Derby that was undoubtedly the most impressive performance of anyone on this list. That race produced a 108 Beyer, the best of the field by far and his third straight figure of at least 101. (Only Creative Cause has reached the 101 mark, and he did that only once.) If you're a believer in Beyers, Bodemeister has to be atop the majority of your tickets.

He could very well be the best 3-year-old in the crop and turn Saturday into the Romp for the Roses. Three factors are working against him, however: 1) the abundance of speed in the race; 2) the difficult task of at least trying to repeat his last performance off just three weeks of rest; and 3) having to start inside the other speed, Hansen and Trinniberg. Major contender.

Fourth

10 Daddy Nose Best
Record: 10-4-2-1
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Jockey: Garrett Gomez
Morning-line odds: 15-1

This Asmussen trainee arrived in Louisville to little fanfare, after defeating a ho-hum field in the unheralded Sunland Derby on March 25. But since then he has trained lights out and become the wiseguy choice to enter the winner's circle.

Raced mainly on the grass last year, Daddy Nose Best has shown great improvement as a 3-year-old and seems to be peaking at the right time. His mid-pack running style should suit the shape of the race, and he couldn't have drawn any better. He has a big chance, but it's unlikely he'll go off at 15-1.

 
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