LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs has little space for the losers of the Kentucky Derby.
The names of all 142 winners can be found in several places here. They’re in chronological order on the walls of the grandstand, on mint julep glasses and recorded at the Derby Museum, immortalized for their triumphant two minutes. The most recent winner has his name in gold on the wall of the paddock for a full year, until the next first Saturday in May comes along.
The losers? They’re largely forgotten, consigned to the hay heap of history.
But this Saturday’s Kentucky Derby offers a unique opportunity to remember – and freshly appreciate – what might be the greatest losing effort in the history of a race that stretches back to 1875. Take a look at Always Dreaming, the co-second choice in the morning line at 5-1, and raise a julep glass to his father.
Five years ago, the Bob Baffert-trained Bodemeister set an absolutely blistering pace through the first mile of the 1¼-mile race. He was pressed most of the way by Trinniberg – “cheap speed,” in racing parlance, a pure sprinter lacking the versatility or stamina to hold up for the entirety of the Derby. Bodemeister screamed through the first quarter-mile in 22.32 seconds, the half-mile in 45.38, three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.80 – a suicidal clip for a horse trying to run the farthest distance of his life.
“There’s no way,” Jill Baffert, Bob’s wife, said to him during the race as the fractions were posted.
Yet instead of hitting the cardiovascular wall, Bodemeister actually opened up the lead in the stretch, threatening to shatter the barriers of equine endurance and defy more than a century of established Derby precedent.
“What kind of horse is this?” wondered Churchill Downs executive and resident Derby authority John Asher.
“The term that came to my mind was ‘Freak,’ ” said former trainer Elliott Walden, now president and CEO of WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky. “To run those fractions and then open up at the top of the lane, it was just incredible.”
But incredible met inevitable – Bodemeister eventually, excruciatingly bowed to nature. He slowed, and was passed in the final 200 yards by a surging I’ll Have Another.
The roses eluded Bodemeister, who was named after Baffert’s son, Bode. Instead, I’ll Have Another is the 2012 horse that has his name immortalized at Churchill Downs.
“It hurts,” Baffert said that day. “He ran too well to lose.”
The fact that Bodemeister persevered for second was remarkable enough. Consider the fate of the speedster that pressed him through the first half of the race: Trinniberg faded to 17th that day.
The result of that race actually prompted Churchill Downs to alter the qualifications for the Derby. Ranking horses by graded-stakes earnings was out, and a points system was in.
The new system rewarded horses for performances at longer races – the kind of races that would predict success at the Derby distance of 1¼ miles, or 10 furlongs. Trinniberg, which won a ton of money in races that were never longer than seven furlongs, would never qualify for the Derby under the current format. Horses like him wouldn’t be in there to juice the pace before surrendering well short of the finish line.
That was a welcome change. But it came a year too late for Bodemeister and Baffert.
“Every time they change these rules, I get the bad end of it,” Baffert joked this week.
The dominant thoroughbred trainer of the last 20 years is without a Derby horse this year and said he will watch the race from his couch at home in Southern California, a bowl of popcorn beside him. (An injury to his star 3-year-old, Mastery, dramatically changed the race outlook; he almost certainly would have been a strong favorite if healthy.) But that doesn’t mean Baffert is without a rooting interest in this race.
“I’d like to see one of my sires win one,” he said.
There actually are four Baffert-trained horses that have sired runners in this Derby field: Midnight Lute sired 50-1 shot Sonneteer; Lookin at Lucky sired 20-1 Lookin at Lee; 2009 Derby runner-up Pioneerof The Nile sired favorite Classic Empire; and Bodemeister sired Always Dreaming.
Classic Empire stamped himself the favorite by winning the Arkansas Derby in April, but the headstrong Always Dreaming looms as a serious threat – if he can handle the heat of the moment.
Always Dreaming punched his Derby ticket by rolling to a five-length victory in the Florida Derby on April 1 – his third victory in three starts as a 3 year old. Now the question is whether five career starts is enough seasoning for the horse to be ready for the rigors of a 20-horse field and the longest race of his life.
Always Dreaming turned in a dazzling workout at Churchill last Friday – arguably the most impressive work any of the Derby horses has done here. But he’s been hard to settle down most mornings during routine jogs, prompting some sharpies to question whether he has the demeanor to endure the boisterous crowd and the bloated field size.
But by all reports, Always Dreaming was a much calmer horse Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, doing what trainer Todd Pletcher and exercise rider Nick Bush asked of him. If that carries over to Saturday and Always Dreaming runs his race, it could add another important line to Bodemeister’s growing stallion résumé.
Bodemeister stands at Walden’s WinStar Farm, nestled into the rolling bluegrass hills of Central Kentucky some 67 miles from Churchill Downs. Still early in his stallion career, he is getting it done in the breeding shed.
“He looks like the real deal,” Walden said. “Of all the horses we’ve stood at WinStar, he’s probably the most popular through the first five crops. We’ve never had a horse this popular.”
How popular is Bodemeister? He’s been successfully bred to 175 mares per year. That’s virility.
Sixty-three of Bodemeister’s offspring have gone to the racetrack, with 13 winners and three winners of graded stakes races. His current stud fee is $25,000 per live foal.
“Subject to change, hopefully, after the next few days,” Walden said.
If Always Dreaming finishes in the top two in the Derby, Bodemeister will be the top juvenile sire in North America. And if Always Dreaming wins the roses, that stud fee gets upgraded in a hurry.
Vindication is for humans, not horses. But hopefully someone at WinStar gives Bodemeister an extra carrot or two Saturday night if his son gets a more reasonable pace scenario and finishes what he started in 2012. The greatest loser in the history of America’s greatest horse race deserves a little Derby love.
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