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In toughest Kentucky Derby in years, Bodemeister is horse to beat

Fifteen minutes later, Todd Pletcher, who has won five Eclipse awards as the nation's best trainer and saddled 2010 Derby winner Super Saver (and will saddle Wood Memorial winner Gemologist and Risen Star winner El Padrino on Saturday), sat behind his desk and assessed the 20-horse field. "There are more horses than I can ever remember, who wouldn't surprise me by winning," he said. "It's a very deep field."

And so it has gone. Not just Thursday morning, but throughout the last month, as the field for the most important horse race in the United States became solidified. More than two weeks before the Derby, trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle Arkansas Derby winner and morning line favorite (4-1) Bodemeister, sat in his office at Santa Anita Park, 2,000 miles from Churchill Downs, and said, "A lot of good horses this year. A lot of tough horses."

This is the way trainers always talk before the Derby -- they're a version of every football coach who has ever heaped praise on an upcoming and overmatched opponent. Only the next six months and beyond will determine the true quality of the Derby field or the 2012 three-year-old crop as a whole. But it's patently true that this Derby Field has more accomplished horses with fewer question marks, particularly in the area of their ability to get the distance of 1 ¼ miles, than in most recent years.

In any year, the Derby is a confounding test for even the most astute handicappers. The 20-horse field alone throws reason under the bus, transforming the race into a bizarre rodeo in which more than half the field is, for all practical purposes, eliminated before they get fully into the first turn. And while it's true that many of the best horses in this year's field have the breeding to run 10 furlongs, none of them have done it yet. Add to that a crowd of more than 160,000 spectators and temperatures that could reach 90 degrees (reducing some horses to neurotic, sweat-soaked puddles) and you've got the annual lottery that is picking the Derby, in which you could throw darts at a program and probably do as well at analyzing the race.

There is one unassailable truth to the Derby: The horse that wins will have earned his victory, but he will also have gotten the best of racing luck. This is my 11th Derby and that is one constant. Watch Funny Cide from 2003.Watch Barbaro in 2006. Both of them had absolutely, unbothered perfect trips around the Downs. Both of them, of course, had the tactical speed and athleticism, and a good post position, to avoid early trouble. Now watch Lookin At Lucky down on the rail from 2010. As Michael Matz, who trained Barbaro and this year's potential favorite Union Rags, said this week, "Looking At Lucky was eliminated when they put the tack on him."

The point here is that to a certain extent the best horse will win the Derby, but in almost equal measure, the Derby will decide which horses have a chance to win. Afleet Alex (2005) and Curlin (2007) were sensational racehorses, but both were deeply compromised by very tough Derby trips.

So there is that.

And also there is pace (which is connected to the size of the field, because any horse with speed is well-advised to break sharply and get into the bit early, lest he be shuffled back into the stampede). In 2001 Songandaprayer cooked the field, and favored Point Given, in 44.86 and 1:09.25. Four years later it was Spanish Chestnut who went 45.38 and 1:09.59 to ruin any chance favored Bellamy Road had.

There is a horse just like that in this year's field: The ill-entered Trinniberg, who has never run a race longer than seven furlongs among his seven lifetime starts. Trinniberg will jump to the lead out of the gate, and in theory jockey Willie Martinez will try to get him to slow down and win from the front like War Emblem did for Baffert in 2002. The problem with that strategy is that Trinniberg (unlike War Emblem) has not been conditioned to run another three furlongs. It's like asking Usain Bolt to run the 5,000 meters. He's going to get tired if he's loose out there.

Another problem: He's not going to be loose out there; Hansen will be there, too. The talented -- and white -- winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Hansen will break from the No. 14 post and run off toward the lead, as is in his nature. Hansen's connections say he can rate off the lead. In training Thursday morning, he was rank and fighting his rider. (Bob Baffert, who trains probable favorite Bodemeister and Liaison, was watching Hansen's act and said, facetiously, "Oh yeah, he'll rate."). So toss Hansen.

But even with Trinniberg over his head and Hansen thrown out of consideration for chasing him, a bunch of horses will surely be close enough to their fierce pace to get beat up by it. The central question becomes which of these close-up horses can survive a relatively fast, but not suicidal pace? Or will none of them survive it, opening the race to the closers?

I'm banking on the former and I think the horse that can do it is Bodemeister. There's no disputing that his 9½-length romp in the Arkansas Derby was by far the most impressive of any prep race. (Gemologist's Wood Memorial was good, too; and both I'll Have Another and Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby). There are three basic raps against Bodemeister. Let's consider them:

• Rap 1: He won the Arkansas Derby by making an easy lead, then jockey Mike Smith slowed down the pace in the second quarter and easily galloped home.

Answer: It's a fair criticism, but Bodemeister also ran a brisk 1:48 3/5 while Smith tapped him once with the whip. And in the San Felipe on March 10 in California, Bodemeister battled the very tough Creative Cause all the way to wire before losing by three-quarters of a length.

• Rap 2: He will bounce off that performance.

Answer: Baffert says it was the San Felipe that was Bodemeister's go-deep effort. As I wrote in this feature on Baffert early in Derby week, Baffert said, "He washed out in the post parade, got rank in the race, and ran really, really hard. He came back all full of lactic acid. He needed a tough race like that to get him ready for the Derby. That race made a man out of him." I think the Arkansas Derby was Bodemeister's recovery race and he's sitting on another big effort.

• Rap 3: The Apollo shutout. Bodemeister did not race as a two-year-old. The last horse unraced as a two-year-old to win the Derby was Apollo in, gulp, 1882. That's a 30-year streak.

Answer: Bodemeister ran his first race this year on Jan. 16. If he had run 17 days earlier, he would have been a two-year-old. Additionally, horses are trained differently now. They have softer schedules. Curlin (2007) was an unraced two-year-old. He lost the Derby because Calvin Borel gave Street Sense an incredible ride on the wood. Apollo is coming off the books; this year or very soon. I say this year.

If you're moved by the non-qualitative elements of a Bodemeister victory, Baffert's fourth Derby win would come barely a month after a heart attack and emergency coronary stent surgery in Dubai.

And there's this: Of all the horses in this year's Derby, only one looks to me like a potential super horse. That's Bodemeister. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But if he is, I don't want to take a stand against him, watch him win, and then feel the derision when I tell people I knew this might happen. And rest assured, anyone who cares about horse racing wants to see a super horse. Even if only for five weeks, which is all it would be.

There will be another terrific story in second place. Union Rags, who was almost certain to be the Derby favorite until his dull, third-place finish in the Florida Derby, is trained by Matz, with his first real chance to win the Derby since the ill-fated Barbaro six years ago. (Actually, we're all ill-fated, now that I think about it; but Barbaro went sooner than most horses, less than nine months after this Derby win.) Union Rags is owned by Phyllis Wyeth and he is the last chance for her to win the Derby with a horse from her family's royal breeding line.

Union Rags is a serious racehorse. Clockers have been impressed with his works in Kentucky and jockey Julien Leparoux, grilled for his troubled ride in the Florida Derby, will be sharper in the Derby. He'll run well and finish strongly. But from my view, Bodemeister is just better.

I like Dullahan for third, not only because his name is even more Irish than mine, but also because it's going to be fast and at least one closer is going to get there. It's possible that Dullahan is synthetic-loving and he's surely one-dimensional. His trainer, Dale Romans, did great work stretching out Shackleford last year.

There are good horses I thought hard about: Pletcher's unbeaten Gemologist, Daddy Nose Best (from the Sunland Derby that gave us Mine That Bird three years ago) and Take Charge Indy, with the estimable Calvin Borel. I'll Have Another and Creative Cause are hard-knocking competitors from California. Went the Day Well, for the Graham Motion-Barry Irwin team that won last year with Animal Kingdom out of the same prep race (The Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park). Any of them could win the race.

But they'll have to beat Bodemeister and he's too good for them.