By the time many eyes fall upon these lines, the gates to the Churchill Downs stable area will be open and Thoroughbreds will populate the barns in the historic track for the first time since December 31.
With the end of traditional winter break, during which the track’s staff does repair and improvement work on its racing surfaces and stabling facilities, horses start flowing back into the barns on March 9 and training resumes the following day.
When it comes to harbingers of spring, the return of training beneath the Twin Spires ranks right up there with the first robin and jonquils and tulips that so vividly announce the approach of the season.
The rapid approach of spring coincides with the shrinking calendar for owners and trainers who hope to see their 3-year-olds in the starting gate for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on Saturday, May 5.
As the days quickly pass, the importance of each step on the road to Churchill Downs is magnified. And the missteps become all the more painful.
On the happy side of that equation are those connected to reigning 2012 2-year-old champion Hansen, who returned both to form and consideration as one of the most serious of Derby 138 contenders with a sharp victory in last Saturday’s $400,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
Hansen earned his championship honors and status as a major Derby contender in early November when he held off the favored and previously unbeaten Union Rags in a front-running win in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
But his star was dimmed in his first start of 2012 when he finished a soundly-beaten runner-up to Algorithms at the demanding one-turn mile distance at Gulfstream Park.
The flashy gray colt – a lot of Derby fans will call him white and bet on him because of that as the Derby draws near – got away from the gate poorly that day and rushed to the lead.
He ran out of gas that day, but lost to a very good horse in Algorithms and held off the late run of another nice one, My Adonis, to hold for second that day.
But the first loss of Hansen’s young career produced doubts and questions.
Could trainer Mike Maker ever harness the colt’s speed?
Can Hansen make it a mile and a quarter?
The latter question, of course, will not be answered by a member of this 3-year-old crop until the early evening of May 5, but the former posed a legitimate doubt.
And it loomed larger when Hansen drew an outside post in a full field of 12 horses in his return in the Gotham.
Maker, a soft-spoken former assistant to four-time Kentucky Derby winner and Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, made some changes for the Gotham, the most obvious being the removal of Hansen’s blinkers.
The tweaks, and the race underneath the colt, had a resounding impact and Hansen overcame the outside gate, a wide run around the first turn and then settled behind the leaders before moving to the lead and galloping to an impressive win over My Adonis.
The latter almost caught him in Florida, but never really threatened to do so in Saturday’s stretch run in Queens.
The return to form, and the sight of the champion relaxing nicely off the lead, was great news for his Kentucky-based owners, Dr. Kendall Hansen and Louisville’s Skychai Stable, a partnership headed by Harvey Diamond and Jim Shircliff.
Fans responded to Hansen’s big effort by making him a solid third choice in last weekend’s second of three pools in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.
So as we welcome Hansen back to the roster of major Derby 138 players, the joy is tempered by the loss of Out of Bounds from the road to Louisville.
Darley Stable’s winner of the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita suffered condylar fracture in his left front cannon bone during work out at the Southern California track.
It’s a not a career-ending injury, or perhaps not even a season-ender. But it halted the Derby 138 dream of trainer Eoin Harty.
Now he joins the very talented Holy Bull winner Algorithms and Junebugred, who won the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park, on the sidelines for the Derby season.
Out of Bounds was a serious racehorse, though his pedigree was a bit questionable for a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May. My Derby Top 10 had Out of Bounds in the second spot behind Union Rags.
With his departure, here’s my Derby 138 Top 10 for this week, viewable on www.KentuckyDerby.com:
- Union Rags
- El Padrino
- Fed Biz
- Creative Cause
- Mark Valeski