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Handicapping the Kentucky Derby

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:

5 DullahanRecord: 8-2-2-2 (8 starts, 2 wins, 2 places, 2 shows)Trainer: Dale RomansJockey: Kent DesormeauxMorning-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.

4 Union RagsRecord: 6-4-1-1Trainer: Michael MatzJockey: Julien LeparouxMorning-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.

6 BodemeisterRecord: 4-2-2-0Trainer: Bob BaffertJockey: Mike SmithMorning-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.

10 Daddy Nose BestRecord: 10-4-2-1Trainer: Steve AsmussenJockey: Garrett GomezMorning-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.

15 GemologistRecord: 5-5-0-0Trainer: Todd PletcherJockey: Javier CastellanoMorning-line odds: 6-1

The winner of the Wood Memorial by a game neck on April 7 Gemologist is the race's only undefeated starter and already has two wins around two turns at Churchill. Like his sire, Tiznow, Gemologist is one tough hombre to pass in the stretch.

He drew well, being on the outside, and he's another horse who has turned heads since arriving in Louisville. There's little not to like here, but detractors could point to his slow last furlong in the Wood (13-plus seconds) and his awkward "paddling" leg motion. Must consider.

11 AlphaRecord: 6-3-2-0Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlinJockey: Rajiv MaraghMorning-line odds: 15-1

He's coming off a trouble-trip second in the Wood in which he suffered cuts to a leg that became infected after the race. That he missed four days of training is a concern, but he has made a favorable impression at Churchill and should benefit from the added furlong in the Derby. A sneaky play at a price.

19 I'll Have AnotherRecord: 5-3-1-0Trainer: Doug O'NeillJockey: Mario GutierrezMorning-line odds: 12-1

The game winner of the April 7 Santa Anita Derby has the tactical speed to work out an ideal trip and overcome the 19 post position. The questions are whether having two races since September is enough and how the unproven Gutierrez handles riding in the most pressure-packed race of the year.

12 ProspectiveRecord: 8-4-2-0Trainer: Mark CasseJockey: Luis ContrerasMorning-line odds: 30-1

The Tampa Bay Derby winner is another hopeful who has thrived at Churchill and should be considered for gimmicks by those who can forgive his last start, a sixth in the Blue Grass.

3 Take Charge IndyRecord: 6-2-2-0Trainer: Patrick ByrneJockey: Calvin BorelMorning-line odds: 15-1

Indy may have received a perfect trip last time out in the Florida Derby, but this is still a colt improving at the right time. Expect Borel to go right to the rail, behind the speed, and try to skim the wood all the way to the finish.

18 SabercatRecord: 8-3-0-2Trainer: Steve AsmussenJockey: Corey NakataniMorning-line odds: 30-1

The other Asmussen trainee is training almost as well as Daddy Nose Best and is coming into form at the right time. If the pace melts down as expected, Sabercat could pick off enough tiring runners to hit the bottom of the exotics.

8 Creative CauseRecord: 8-4-2-2Trainer: Mike HarringtonJockey: Joel RosarioMorning-line odds: 12-1

Highly regarded because of his consistent record (he has never lost by more than a length), Creative Cause raised a red flag this week by walking two straight days instead of going to the track. In a race in which any hiccup can kill a horse's chances, this is not ideal.

14 HansenRecord: 6-4-2-0Trainer: Michael MakerJockey: Ramon DominguezMorning-line odds: 10-1

There are major questions whether the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner can rate and get the 1ΒΌ-mile Derby distance. Prefer others.

13 Went the Day WellRecord: 5-2-2-0Trainer: Graham MotionJockey: John VelazquezMorning-line odds: 20-1

Many will make the comparison to last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, who also was owned by Team Valor, trained by Graham Motion, ridden by John Velazquez and prepped for the Derby by winning the Spiral Stakes. But the similarities end there.

16 El PadrinoRecord: 6-3-1-1Trainer: Todd PletcherJockey: Rafael BejaranoMorning-line odds: 20-1

His recent dull work of 53 seconds and change is another reason to think that this one-time rising star hasn't been the same horse since winning the Risen Star in February.

1 Daddy Long LegsRecord: 5-3-0-0Trainer: Aidan O'BrienJockey: Colm O'DonoghueMorning-line odds: 30-1

Every time a runner from the UAE Derby has shipped in from overseas for the Kentucky Derby, that runner has failed to hit the board. This year that's Daddy Long Legs, who has run only that one race this year, which he won on March 31. The No. 1 post will not help his stalking style.

7 Rousing SermonRecord: 9-2-2-4Trainer: Jerry HollendorferJockey: Jose LezcanoMorning-line odds: 50-1

An off-the-pace type who has not won since last October, Rousing Sermon will need a complete pace meltdown in order to threaten the bottom of the board.

2 OptimizerRecord: 9-1-2-1Trainer: D. Wayne LukasJockey: Jon CourtMorning-line odds: 50-1

If Lukas, at age 76, somehow wins his fifth Kentucky Derby, he'll do so with a horse who has lost his four races this year by a combined 41 lengths. No thanks.

17 Done TalkingRecord: 7-3-0-2Trainer: Hamilton SmithJockey: Sheldon RussellMorning-line odds: 50-1

This deep closer came home slowly last time out in the Illinois Derby on April 7. Good thing for him that everyone else came home slower. He won't meet that soft Illinois field on Saturday.

20 LiaisonRecord: 7-3-0-1Trainer: Bob BaffertJockey: Martin GarciaMorning-line odds: 50-1

Baffert defends the entry of Liaison, saying the horse did not like the track at Santa Anita. Even if true, there's little to like in a horse who has three ugly defeats this year in three starts.

9 TrinnibergRecord: 7-3-2-0Trainer: Bisnath ParbooJockey: Willie MartinezMorning-line odds: 50-1

Last-minute entry Trinniberg is one of the fastest horses in the country -- at seven furlongs. The Derby is 10 furlongs. The possible pace-setter, Trinniberg is the 1-9 favorite to finish last.

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