Unbeaten Gemologist to face strong Derby field
Gemologist might have what it takes to become the second Kentucky Derby winner in three years for trainer Todd Pletcher and WinStar Farm.
The bay colt is the only undefeated horse in the field. He's a two-time winner at Churchill Downs and Pletcher said the horse's even approach during work reminds him of another superstar - Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.
"To me, he's been Mr. Consistency so far," Pletcher said.
In many respects, he should be the favorite. In this field, he's only carrying the third-best morning line odds at 6-1 behind Bodemeister (4-1) and Union Rags (9-2). Then again, neither was Super Saver in 2010, Pletcher and WinStar's last derby winner.
Gemologist has been largely untested, topping Alpha and Optimizer in prep races. Those horses fell apart against high-level competition such as Union Rags.
WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden said that he's not concerned about a lack of respect for the Tiznow colt.
"He's undefeated. That's special in and of itself," Walden said. "That could change, obviously, this is the toughest race he's going to be in and every race up to this has been a stepping stone where horses have been separated by region mainly and you bring them all together and it creates that `cream of the cream' and we'll see what happens Saturday."
Walden said there are three or four horses that make strong cases to win Saturday's Kentucky Derby, likening it to a Final Four with all No. 1 seeds. The horse already has one big fan in New Jersey Nets coach Avery Johnson, who'll be rooting with Walden and the rest of WinStar on Saturday.
"As much as I love the Derby and WinStar, I'm hoping and praying that I won't see another Derby after this year for another 10 years because I'll be in the playoffs," said Johnson, attending the race for the fourth time.
Johnson became close with WinStar owner Kenny Troutt. They have often discussed the challenges in their respective fields, and Johnson came away impressed with Gemologist when he watched him work as a 2-year-old.
"I always identify a horse that I think could be a Kentucky Derby candidate. I did it two years ago with SuperSaver, I did it last year with Brethren," Johnson said. "In October of last year, after watching some workouts and watching a couple of races, Gemologist became my horse for the Kentucky Derby."
While Johnson has been onto Gemologist from the start, others have found ways to criticize the horse that's 5-for-5 so far, capped by a victory in the Wood Memorial last month when he held off Alpha down the stretch.
Pletcher took Gemologist to Florida to train along with his other Derby entrant, El Padrino, that helped keep the spotlight away until they came in earlier this week.
"Any time you have a horse that's 3 for 3 with two two-turn wins at Churchill, you've got to go into the winter and spring confident that you've got the right kind of horse. You just need to get lucky," Pletcher said. "There is going to be enough pace in here that he's going to be just behind that first wave of speed horses."
Gemologist never trailed in his first start in Louisville, then came from behind in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes to top Ever So Lucky, which dropped off the Derby trail earlier this month.
"I think it's enormous," Pletcher said of having two victories here. "Any time you have success over this track, it bodes well for the future."
Pletcher solidified his own future when he won his first Kentucky Derby with Super Saver. He says his desire to win a second is just as strong as the first, but he recognizes the pressure is now more internal than external.
"You approach it the same way and you try to learn from your previous experiences - some from the win and some from the losses. I guess it takes a little bit of that monkey off your back - that little bit of added pressure if you have won," he said.
And Walden believes Gemologist is in prime position to make them winners again.
"I think if you laid out three or four horses on paper - Union Rags, him, Bodemeister - you could make a case for any one of them," Walden said. "He's getting as much respect as he deserves.