He was the forgotten Derby contender.
Union Rags was upset by Hansen in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and then came a long winter of doubt. There was so much doubt that his jockey jumped to another horse. Javier Castellano moved his saddle to Algorithms as his primary Derby mount.
But that was winter. Sunday morning, everything changed.
Algorithms was scratched. It was a splint injury in his right front leg, prognosis still unknown but he'll be out of training while being treated with anti-inflammatory drugs.
Any hiccup this time of year can end Derby hopes and Algorithms is now a question mark.
Castellano was left to sit in the jocks room and ponder what might have been.
Meanwhile the betting public still gave Union Rags no respect and made another Pletcher horse, Discreet Dancer, the 4-5 favorite. Those were bad bets.
In one minute and 42 seconds, Union Rags went from forgotten to Derby favorite.
New rider Julien Leparoux had Rags just off the pace and then passed Discreet Dancer and 28 to 1 shot News Pending to win by four lengths. Trainer Michael Matz said his jockey never touched the whip.
With more than a million dollars in earnings, Union Rags will now be pointed toward the Florida Derby and eventually a trip to Kentucky.
And right now, he is number one on most Derby ratings.
But there is a 1A. El Padrino won the Risen Star Stakes at the Fairgrounds in a breathtaking finish, beating Mark Valeski by a nose. The time was comparable to the Fountain of Youth but this was a driving finish, while Union Rags was under wraps at the wire.
And don't feel too bad for Javier Castellano, because he was in New Orleans to ride this winner, and many still feel that El Padrino could be Pletcher's best Derby chance.
And Mark Valeski, a Proud Citizen colt being stretched to a longer distance for the first time, certainly made his mark as a Derby contender. Trainer Larry Jones will be thinking Louisiana Derby, and if El Padrino stays in Florida, Valeski could be the favorite.
So here is our Top Twenty two months before Kentucky Derby 138.
1. Union Rags.
If he wins the Florida Derby, he's the betting favorite in Louisville.
2. El Padrino.
He probably got a lot out of the Risen Star. It was tough race. Now with Algorithms on the sidelines and Discreet Dancer showing distance limitations, will Pletecher keep this Pulpit colt in Florida for his next race.
3. Mark Valeski.
Showed speed and courage as he battled to the wire with El Padrino. Rosie Napravnik is the jockey and she may bring a big story to the Derby, a female jockey with a great chance to win.
He already has two distance wins at Aqueduct and will wait for the Wood Memorial as his final prep for the Derby. That doesn't leave much room for error but Kiaran McLaughlin is a master at bringing horses up to big races. Alpha needs a good race in the Wood and he's still unproven against high level horses.
5. Secret Circle.
Baffert shipped him to Arkansas and he won a mile race with ease.
There are concerns about distance limitations but right now, he's running and winning. That's more than we can say for many contenders.
He won the other division of the Southwest and he's a Street Sense. That means there are no distance limitations and his Beyer number at Oaklawn was 92. But which horse, if any, will Baffert send back to Arkansas for the Rebel on March 17.
First we have a correction. The people who compute the Dosage Index have changed Hansen's Dosage from 5 something to 3.5. That means he would fall within the parameters of a Derby winner. But with the number crunchers now on his side, he needs to produce on the track. Hansen needs a good performance in the Gotham Stakes on March 3 to help us forget his muddy disaster in the Holy Bull. He does have enough graded stakes money to make the Derby no matter what he does in the next two months.
8. News Pending.
Dale Romans has developed a profile of finding good turf horses, like Paddy O'Prado, and then switching them over to dirt with good results for the Derby. For more information on this approach see Animal Kingdom. News Pending broke his maiden on the turf at a mile and an eighth. But Harlan's Holiday is a fine dirt pedigree and the second place in the Fountain of Youth indicates this guy might make big news before it's over.
9. Take Charge Indy.
This is my pedigree longshot and this might be the horse that puts everything together on Derby Day. He moved too soon in his last race against El Padrino and the next move to a stakes race will be very important. This colt is by A.P. Indy out of the champion mare Take Charge Lady. Pat Byrne is the trainer and maybe he's due for a big one.
10. Fed Biz.
You need a program to track the Bob Baffert horses in California and you need a crystal ball to figure where they will run next. Feb Biz has won two races at Santa Anita and now moves into stakes company. He's by Giant's Causeway and that means any distance or surface is possible. And with Bob Baffert any location is possible.
He has not raced since winning the Delta Jackpot and 600 thousand dollars in November but he's working at Santa Anita. The scheduled return is the San Felipe Stakes on March 10. That prep for the Santa Anita Derby should be loaded with speed. Steve Asmussen plans two preps for Sabercat. He has enough money to run on May 5 but is he fast enough.
12. I'll Have Another
And he will have another race but not until the Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
That means his preparation for the Kentucky Derby will be one race over a span of two months. He burst on the scene with an upset in the Bob Lewis Stakes. Suddenly Doug O'Neill was thinking Derby but can this son of Flower Alley make it two good races in a row.
13. Creative Cause.
His return to the races got mixed reviews when he finished third in the San Vincente. It was a seven furlong race for a horse that is bred to go much longer.
Now he has to put his talent and pedigree to work in a distance race. A good performance would put him back in the Top Ten. Another clunker might keep him at home.
14. Out of Bounds.
He became something of a "now" horse when he won the Sham Stakes way back in January. I've been reluctant to include him in the Top Twenty because of pedigree limitations. His Dosage Index is 6.00. And no, it hasn't been changed. He goes in the San Felipe and he is fast. But how far can he go?
Another Pletcher horse, who won the Jockey Club in November at Churchill. WinStar has planned a two race schedule to get him to the Derby. But with Pletcher's problems in the Fountain of Youth, Gemologist may be moved up in the pecking order. He's training again with the possible return in the Rebel at Oaklawn.
You can't completely dismiss a horse that has shown this much talent but even a minor leg problem might put the Derby out of reach. If this horse misses more than a week of training, then a return in the summer would be probable.
Dale Romans grass horse, part two.
I was at Keeneland the day he won the Breeders' Futurity on Polytrack and a return for the Bluegrass Stakes seems a real possibility. In Florida, Dullahan will prep on the grass.
18. Howe Great.
They wouldn't dare do it again?
From the team that brought you Animal Kingdom, we ask the question Howe Great can this colt be? He's by Hat Trick and he's won three in a row and will try the Palm Beach Stakes on grass at Gulfstream. But with last year's experience, Graham Motion certainly wouldn't hesitate to try the Derby. By the way Hat Trick is by Sunday Silence and that screams Derby and dirt.
19. Mr. Prankster.
He's modestly bred but has run by everything that Turfway Park has offered. Now the competition gets serious for Mr. Conways' horse at the Battaglla and the Spiral Stakes that produced last year's Derby winner.
20. Battle Hardened
And the last horse in the Derby gate won the Sam F. Davis at Tampa, which is a pretty good predictor for Derby horses. But let's see if he can hit the board when the invaders arrive for the Tampa Bay Derby on March 10.
This week was our first significant reminder of how fickle the Derby trail can be.
A week ago, Algorithms was at the top of everybody's Derby contenders.
One bad step changed everything.
And each step along the Trail is fraught with promise and peril.
Thanks for reading.