That’s why lovers of racing will be rooting for a horse — any horse — to excel in the important prep races that will be contested over the next weekends, beginning with Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. The $1 million race pits Union Rags — the top-rated colt on most lists of Kentucky Derby candidates — vs. the formidable El Padrino.
Union Rags would have a perfect record but for a photo-finish loss after a wide trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile — a result that cost him the 2-year-old championship. He came back to win his 3-year-old debut in impressive fashion at Gulfstream. But as a speed handicapper I have to harbor reservations about Union Rags. His best Beyer Speed Figure to date is 95 — a level of performance that wouldn’t make him a Kentucky Derby contender even in a dismal year like 2011. El Padrino — the best of Todd Pletcher’s many good 3-year-olds — has finished strongly to win his two starts this year with figures of 100 and 98.
Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but I expect Union Rags to advance to a new level Saturday. Trainer Michael Matz doesn’t ask his horses to deliver too much too soon; he proved with Barbaro in 2006 that he knows how to prepare a horse to produce a maximum effort in the Derby. When Union Rags captured the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream last month, he looked as if he had plenty left in the tank. Despite his modest speed figures, he has the potential to stamp himself as a genuinely top-class horse.
Another crucial prep-race confrontation will occur April 7 in the Santa Anita Derby, when Creative Cause has a rematch with Bodemeister. The 3-year-olds in California appear to be a deeper, more talented group than their counterparts in the East, and Creative Cause ran a strong race — earning a speed figure of 102 — to beat Bodemeister by three-quarters of a length in the San Felipe Stakes last month. Creative Cause had the advantage of being a seasoned competitor — he finished a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall — while Bodemeister was making only his third career start and his first in a stakes. With triple-digit speed figures in two of his three starts, Bodemeister is obviously a prodigy, and he is in the hands of the most astute trainer of Derby horses, Bob Baffert. The key question about him — in next Saturday’s race and in the Triple Crown— is how much his lack of experience will handicap him.
Some of the other colts on most top-10 lists of Derby contenders don’t have persuasive credentials. Hansen, the champion of the generation as a 2-year-old, has never looked like a colt capable of going 11/4 miles effectively. Nor does the Baffert-trained Secret Circle, winner in five of his six starts, appear able to handle the Derby distance. I don’t understand the widespread enthusiasm for Alpha (with a career-best figure of 91), though he’ll get another chance to prove himself in the April 7 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.