(PhatzRadio / USA Today) — Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia will wait until post positions are drawn Wednesday to decide whether he will establish Bodemeister or Union Rags as the early favorite for the 138th Kentucky Derby.
“If Bodemeister has a bad draw, then it’s got to be Union Rags,” Battaglia told USA TODAY Sports. “And if Union Rags has a bad draw, it would be the other way around.” He noted that the rail would be an extremely difficult position to overcome with a full 20-horse field anticipated.
According to Battaglia, the early odds on either horse will not be lower than 4-1, yet another indication of how closely matched the top contenders are. That is music to the ears of serious handicappers who will wager equally serious money.
“You are not going to get a short price on anything,” Battaglia said.
Backers of Bodemeister and Union Rags have reason to pause. Bodemeister will try to overcome an enormous amount of history. No Derby victor was unraced at 2 since Apollo in 1882. The only horses in recent years to come close to outrunning their inexperience were Strodes Creek (second, 1994) and Curlin (third, 2007).
“It will come into play,” Battaglia said of the history that seemingly works against Bodemeister, who is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. “Everybody knows that statistic. He is so lightly raced, and they’ve asked him to do a lot in a short period of time.”
In addition, Bodemeister’s style is to flash his speed early. The same goes for Hansen, the juvenile champion, and Trinniberg.
The ability to relax off what looms as a hot pace will go a long way toward determining Bodemeister’s chances in his fifth career start. He’s coming off an overwhelming 9½-length victory in the Arkansas Derby.
Battaglia is leaning toward giving Union Rags the benefit of the doubt after his third-place finish in the Florida Derby. Jockey Julien Leparoux took the blame for that result after that 1-mile prep, saying he did not steer his colt into the clear early enough to tackle frontrunning Take Charge Indy.
“I’m not sure how tight he was for the Florida Derby,” Battaglia said. “That wasn’t their main objective.”
Union Rags narrowly missed overcoming a wide trip when Hansen nipped him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November at Churchill Downs.
The oddsmaker also can envision Gemologist emerging as the top choice by the time the 3-year-olds go to the post Saturday. The colt extended his perfection to 5-for-5 in winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York on April 7.
“It wouldn’t surprise me even a little bit,” Battaglia said. “He’s won at Churchill, and he’s gotten better every race.”
Dullahan presents another intriguing contender after a powerful rally that allowed him to take the Blue Grass Stakes in mid-April at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky. He’s 2-for-2 on Keeneland’s Polytrack but winless elsewhere.
Battaglia warns not to put too much into past performances. “The Derby is about who is good right now,” he said, “not your 2-year-old form.”