In the most dominating performance seen in any of the major preps for the Kentucky Derby, Bodemeister ran away with Saturday's Arkansas Derby by 9 1/2 lengths, and more than likely will be favored to give Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert a fourth win in the May 5 Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.
As impressive as the margin of victory at Oaklawn Park was, there were more substantive things to like about Bodemeister's effort.
The Arkansas Derby was merely the fourth career start for the colt, whom owner Ahmed Zayat named after Baffert's son, Bode. Hampered by shin problems as a 2-year-old, Bodemeister did not make his first appearance under silks until Jan. 16, so he's come an incredibly long way in three months.
Bodemeister won the Arkansas Derby the hard way - on the lead throughout - and did so in a style generally seen from more experienced runners. A colt with a high cruising speed, Bodemeister ran the first two quarters of the Arkansas Derby in :23 and :23 2/5, before dialing it back a bit and getting a breather from jockey Mike Smith.
Despite subsequent quarters in :24 4/5 and :25 2/5, Bodemeister still held a comfortable advantage at the top of the stretch and was able to gradually extend his lead to the eighth pole. Having turned back his only real challenge, from stablemate Secret Circle, Bodemeister then blew the doors open in the final furlong, which he completed in a highly impressive :12. The final time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:48 3/5.
Bodemeister's preliminary BRIS Speed rating was 106, which represents further progression off earlier ratings of 93, 101 and 103. The latter was earned in a close second-place effort to Creative Cause in the San Felipe at Santa Anita.
Like some other recent preps, the Arkansas Derby shared its racing program with a major stakes for older horses. A comparison of the final times between the two races provides a decent frame of reference for how good the three-year-old performed. In this respect, Bodemeister's effort stands out.
One race prior to the Derby, Alternation won the Oaklawn Handicap in wire-to-wire fashion over the likes of Santa Anita Handicap hero Ron the Greek and Donn Handicap winner Hymn Book. Despite constituting many of the nation's leading older males, the Oaklawn Handicap was run in 1:49 4/5. Alternation led throughout, set a generally slower and steadier pace, but could not finish off in the style of Bodemeister. His final furlong was achieved in :12 2/5.
While one could denigrate the comparative quality of this year's older males and the opposition in the Arkansas Derby itself, Bodemeister acquits himself well as he won in the manner he should have if the critics are right about the relative ability of the two groups in question.
Undoubtedly the biggest talking point about Bodemeister heading into the Kentucky Derby will be the fact he was unraced as a juvenile. Many "Derby Rules" have fallen by the wayside in recent years, but one that has stood since Apollo's victory in 1882 is that a horse has not won the 1 1/4-mile classic without having raced as a two-year-old.
Most major Kentucky Derby contenders of the past have had juvenile form, though there have been exceptions. The most recent high-profile example is Curlin, who made a winning debut on February 3, 2007, and then won the Rebel and Arkansas Derby before running third at Churchill Downs. Curlin later won the Preakness and Breeders' Cup Classic en route to Horse of the Year honors, but even he was unable to break the hoodoo that has now lasted nearly 130 years.
Only two of Bodemeister's Arkansas Derby foes will join him in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Secret Circle, who won a division of the Southwest and the Rebel at Oaklawn previously, was in a good stalking position throughout, had dead aim on Bodemeister entering the stretch, but simply wasn't good enough.
More discouraging is the fact Secret Circle once again drifted out through the stretch, a habit he was able to overcome in his two prior Oaklawn wins but not against a quality opponent like Bodemeister. Whether it's a lack of maturity, distance limitations or an aversion to crowd noise (there were more than 63,000 on hand at Oaklawn), it's not a problem Secret Circle needs moving on to the biggest race of his life.
Sabercat had enough graded earnings to make the Kentucky Derby field regardless of how he performed in the Arkansas Derby, but his improved third-place finish gives owner Ron Winchell and trainer Steve Asmussen a legitimate reason to press on to Louisville. Only eighth in his three-year-old debut in the Rebel, his Arkansas Derby showing was at least a step in the right direction even if the margin of defeat this time was worse.
The weekend's other major prep, the Blue Grass at Keeneland, has historically been the most important Kentucky Derby prep, though not so much in recent years nor since the main track was converted from dirt to the synthetic Polytrack several years ago. Since 1993, only three Kentucky Derby winners have made their final prep in the Blue Grass.
Dullahan and Hansen, the top two finishers Saturday, both had adequate graded earnings prior to the race to make into the starting gate at Churchill, and could be the only two who will move on from the 1 1/8-mile race.
Making just his second start of the year, Dullahan broke slowly and was kept near the back of the 13-horse field as the front-running Hansen sped off to an uncontested lead. The 6-5 favorite, juvenile champion Hansen attempted to run the field off their feet as he had done so in previous races, setting a solid pace of :23, :46 3/5 and 1:11 1/5.
Hansen still looked strong at the top of the stretch, and even extended his lead to 2 1/2 lengths with a furlong to go. However, Dullahan, who had made steady progress rounding the far turn while saving as much ground as possible, was shifted off the inside by jockey Kent Desormeaux when an opening appeared in the stretch. Finishing full of run down the middle of the track, Dullahan inhaled a tiring Hansen in the final yards to win going away by 1 1/4 lengths.
Winner of the Blue Grass and Keeneland's Breeders' Futurity, Dullahan is now two-for-two on Polytrack. He's also multiple graded stakes-placed on turf, but his ability on dirt is still a bit of a question. Not swift enough to contend in a pair of juvenile sprints at Churchill last summer, he performed better in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile when a closing fourth after getting bumped at the start and trailing the field for the opening half-mile.
A half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby upsetter Mine That Bird, Dullahan probably is as capable on dirt, but will likely need a great trip in the Run for the Roses if he has to come from far out of it. He had one in a 13-horse Blue Grass, but might not be so fortunate in a 20-horse Derby field.
There are no surface concerns for Hansen, who won that Breeders' Cup Juvenile in addition to the Gotham at Aqueduct earlier this year. However, the charismatic gray will need to harness his speed a lot more to be effective at 1 1/4 miles. We saw glimpses of his potential rating ability in the Gotham, where he was virtually forced to settle slightly off the pace breaking from post 12. Breaking from post 4 in the Blue Grass, jockey Ramon Dominguez had no serious option other than to put Hansen on the lead and let him run his race.
His co-owner's (so far) futile attempts at coloring his tail before his races notwithstanding, Hansen should be one of the most talked-about horses at Derby time. His beautiful coat, which borders on white, and his gung-ho style of running, will make sure of that. With respect to the latter, however, too much probably won't be such a good thing on the first Saturday in May.