Juvenile stars grow up to form deep Derby field

The strength of the 138th Kentucky Derby can be measured by the fact that a whopping nine of 13 colt

The class reunion begins at 6:24 p.m. today.

The boy voted Most Likely to Succeed last year will be back, along with Most Attractive.

And there will be party-crashers.

The strength of the 138th Kentucky Derby can be measured by the fact that a whopping nine of 13 colts who ran in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile are back at Churchill Downs to face each other again.

Union Rags, deemed the BC fav­orite by the bettors, gets a rematch against the striking white Hansen, who won the 2-year-old championship after holding off Union Rags by a desperate head in November.

This 20-horse Derby is considered by many veteran observers to be the classiest fields in years, not just because of the presence of all the Juvenile runners, but also because of several others who have emerged during the Derby preps.

Among those is Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister, the 4-1 morning-line favorite named after Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s 7-year-old son, Bode.

The previous high number of BC Juvenile horses to run in the Derby the following year was six; this year’s race includes the top five finishers — Hansen, Union Rags, Creative Cause, Dullahan and Take Charge Indy, and four others.

“This is one of the toughest Derbies I’ve been in in probably the last 10 years,” said Baffert, who has started 21 horses in the Derby and won it with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem.

“It’s amazing how well the major contenders have held their form and arrived here,” said Steve Asmussen, who trains Daddy Nose Best and Sabercat.

In 26 runnings of the Derby since the Breeders’ Cup began in 1984, a total of 71 horses who ran in the Juv­enile even made it to the Derby. Of those, Spend a Buck, Alysheba, Sea Hero, Street Sense and Mine That Bird won the Derby, and only Street Sense (2006) was a dual Juv­enile-Derby winner.

The 2012 Derby also marks the return of the same connections who won it last year with

Animal Kingdom, Team Valor Inter­national, trainer Graham Motion and jockey John Velazquez. They have Went the Day Well, who, like Animal Kingdom, won the Spiral as a final Derby prep.

Another Derby-winning trainer who is back is Michael Matz, who will saddle Union Rags for owner/breeder Phyllis Wyeth, wife of famed artist Jamie Wyeth, son of renowned artist Andrew Wyeth.

Despite the depth of the all-star lineup, much of the talk on the backstretch during the week has been about Gemologist, who also represents previous Derby-winning connections, trainer Todd Pletcher and WinStar Farm, who had Super Saver two years ago.

Wood Memorial winner Gemol­ogist did not run in the Breeders’ Cup, but comes into the Derby as the only undef­eated colt in the field.

He’s won five races by a combined 16 lengths and has been wowing everyone with his size and muscle tone.

As muddled as this Derby picture is, with all the talent going into the gate, most trainers and owners are operating under the belief that Bay Shore winner Trinniberg and Bodemeister, who won the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby by 91⁄2 lengths on the front end, will lead the field into the first turn.

The plan for the high-energy Hansen is to get out quickly and cut over for a stalking position.

“I hope we’re in close pursuit,” trainer Mike Maker said.

Motion said that scenario should work out well for Went the Day Well, who, after beginning his

career in England, came from off the pace to break his maiden in the U.S. and to win the Spiral.

“I don’t think he’ll be too far off the pace,” Motion said. “It depends how fast they go. If they go fast early, he’ll probably be somewhere in the middle of the pack. If they go more sensible early, he should be closer.”

“There’s always pace, but this year, it’s going to be solid,” said Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won four Derbies and has long shot Optimizer in post No. 2. “They talk about a couple of quick horses . . . and there’s more than one quick horse in this race. Then you get the adrenaline going.”

Eleven of the Derby starters are coming off a victory in their last start. Three of those races were Grade I’s that each sent the top two finishers.

Gemologist and Alpha are from the Wood at Aqueduct, I’ll Have Another and Creative Cause come out of the Santa Anita Derby, and Dullahan and Hansen were 1-2 in the Blue Grass at Keeneland.

Eight in the field — Optimizer, Union Rags, Dullahan, Trinniberg, Daddy Nose Best, Alpha, El Pad­rino and Sabercat — raced at Saratoga Race Course last year.

Trinniberg was fifth to Union Rags in the Saratoga Special and second to Currency Swap in the Hopeful. Alpha, Daddy Nose Best and Optimizer each broke his maiden there.

A victory by Dullahan would be popular in Louisville, as trainer Dale Romans grew up not far from the track.

He was fourth last year with eventual Preakness winner Shackleford, and said he’s more nervous for this year’s Derby because he’s so confident that he has a better shot to win it.

Dullahan won the Breeders’ Fut­urity as a 2-year-old and exploded down the stretch to beat Hansen in the Blue Grass.

“How many horses have two career wins, and both are Grade I’s?” Romans said. “Hansen was still running. He didn’t give it to us.”

Asmussen has remained relatively off the radar of the Derby buzz with his two horses, Daddy Nose Best and Sabercat, but is pleased that he’s been able to give them a calculated campaign this spring, with just two starts each.

“Four starts to break their maidens wasn’t by design, but two races to get to the Derby was by design,” he said. “What they had done as 2-year-olds allowed them to do it. It puts you in position where you don’t have to keep earning money to get here.”

“History tells us that you can’t throw anyone out,” Pletcher said. “There have been some winners the past few years that have been way down on everybody’s depth chart.

“I think Union Rags is still the horse to beat. He had a legitimate excuse last time. He was very impressive in the Fountain of Youth. He’s run well over this track.”

“I’ve brought some really good horses here, and they were the best horse, but they got beat,” Baffert said. “I don’t want to get myself too pumped up. Even my son, Bode, doesn’t want to talk about it.”

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