Expect the Unexpected

Before last weekend the 2012 Kentucky Derby trail was pretty easy to figure out: Union Rags was at the top of the mountain, and then there was everyone else.

A win by Union Rags in the Florida Derby would have sent him to Louisville as the undisputed favorite, no matter what happened in the other final preps. It was shaping up to be a straightforward Derby to handicap. Either you liked the consensus favorite, or you were going to try to beat him with an outsider on May 5.

And then they ran the race.

How naïve we were in believing that it was going to be that simple. After what has happened over the past few years (do the names Quality Road, I Want Revenge, Eskendreya, and Uncle Mo ring a bell?), we should have known there was going to be a major hiccup in the road. Luckily, this one did not come in form of injury; it was just that the favorite didn’t run to our expectations.

My take on the Florida Derby is pretty simple. First, give Pat Byrne, Calvin Borel, and Take Charge Indy a lot of credit. Byrne made the right decision to run him in the race (no matter what happens in the Kentucky Derby), Borel took advantage of a race that had little speed, and the colt ran huge off a layoff.

As for Union Rags, Julien Leparoux certainly deserves some criticism for getting him caught inside and not being close enough to the pace on a speed-favoring track. There’s no getting around that. He’s one of the best riders in the sport and I would take him any day of the week, but he didn’t ride the horse the way he needed to be ridden in that race. I think he learned a valuable lesson, Michael Matz said about as much himself.

Leparoux is known for being a patient rider, one that rarely panics and has an uncanny feel for timing his move. That’s why he is so good in turf races. But unlike Javier Castellano, Union Rags’ previous rider, he’s less likely to press the button early or take chances. As talented as Union Rags is, he’s not the kind that can win from anywhere on the track. He has to be near the pace and more importantly, given room to operate. As we saw in the Breeders’ Cup and the Florida Derby, he’s just not fast enough to run by multiple horses in the stretch. He’s probably going to need to have the lead turning for home to win the Derby.

The good news for Leparoux is that he’s going to get another chance. And as good as he is, he probably won’t make the same mistake twice. The question handicappers have to now ask themselves is simple, is Union Rags fast enough to win this race? If you believe in speed numbers, he’s probably going to have a tough time.

I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I am leaning toward staying in his corner and just chalking the Florida Derby up to a learning experience. It’s not as if he got nothing out of the race; he only lost by 1 1/4 lengths and he was gaining ground late. With a good trip, he probably would have won. Plus, he took a lot of dirt and ran a professional race. It’s not as easy to keep him at the top of the pack as it was before Saturday, but for now he’s staying there for me.

As for the Louisiana Derby, I was hoping that Mark Valeski would have his breakout race that day but it didn’t happen. Larry Jones said he thinks the colt pulled a shoe in the post parade and had his heel stepped on at some point in the race, and that could have affected his performance. Not that he ran poorly, but the bottom line is he couldn’t catch a 109-1 shot that ran  1 1/8 miles in 1:50. I’m not sure what to make of him now, though he is still staying on the Derby trail.

We’ll see what happens this weekend with three big preps ahead of us. Depending on the results of the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby, we’ll probably have a new favorite—at least until something else happens on this unpredictable Derby trail. See you on Friday.

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