As last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile reached its critical point at the head of Churchill Downs’ long home stretch, it quickly became apparent that it was three for the money – two grays and a bay.
The battle being joined served as confirmation of the opinion of handicapping experts and those wagering on the race alike – these three were the cream of this crop.
As they separated from the remainder of the field, the almost white Hansen, hugging the rail, held the lead as he had from the start. To his outside, the darker gray Creative Cause loomed menacingly as he launched his challenge, a stalker from the outset and now a factor to be reckoned with. Out in the middle of the track, Union Rags, the big bay with the white blaze and the staunch favorite of the betting public, surged into contention from farther back in the pack after a wide trip around the race’s two turns.
Whips flashed, horses and riders strained, and the roar of the crowd reached triple forte as the embattled trio reached the furlong pole, 220 yards from the finish.
Hansen was holding on tenaciously. Union Rags, swerving some under pressure, was but a half-length from the lead. And Creative Cause, between the two, was still very much in contention.
The finish line arrived just in time for Hansen, as he lasted to win by a head from Union Rags, with Creative Cause a length behind, after hesitating briefly when Union Rags drifted inward in the final strides.
This slim margin, about a foot-and-a-half, made Hansen the 2-year-old champion and left, in the thoughts of the connections of his two narrowly beaten rivals, the time-honored notion of “Wait ’til next year.”
As the calendar turned and winter set in, fans of thoroughbred racing eagerly awaited the seasonal debut of each of the “Big Three,” wondering whether they would hold the form that had elevated them to the top of their generation, and anticipating a rematch in the Kentucky Derby.
Hansen emerged first, contesting the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida. The result was a shocker, as the defending champion was beaten five lengths by a newcomer, Algorithms.
While a subsequent injury derailed Algorithm’s Derby hopes, Hansen rebounded with an impressive three-length victory in the Gotham Stakes and appeared to be back on the Derby trail.
Creative Cause came forth next, in mid-February, and was a closing third in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes in California. This sprint was intended as a tightener for the colt and served its purpose admirably when
Creative Cause returned three weeks later in the San Felipe Stakes. In that event, the steel gray colt delivered a smashing performance, running down the pace-setting Bodemeister and pulling away to win by almost a length.
It was not until the last weekend in February that Union Rags was seen under colors and he literally waltzed to victory over relatively undistinguished company in Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth Stakes.
By late March, the “Big Three” seemed again firmly atop their division.
It was actually beginning to appear, for the first time in a decade, that this year’s edition of the Kentucky Derby might have a manageable field of considerably less than the 20-horse limit imposed by Churchill Downs.
All that remained was for the leaders to continue to dominate in their final Derby preps.
However, what followed was re-enforcement of the old adage, “There are no sure things on the race track.”
Union Rags, in heavy traffic for most of the race, was unable to catch the front-running Take Charge Indy and finished third in the Florida Derby.
The following week, Creative Cause, again locked in battle between horses, was nosed out by I’ll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby.
A week later, Hansen turned for home with a comfortable lead in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes, only to be run down and soundly defeated by Dullahan.
The ultimate result is that, once again, the Kentucky Derby is a wide-open affair, with a strong likelihood of a full field of 20 going to the post.
Will one of the “Big Three” rebound and wear the garland of roses in the winner’s circle adjacent to Churchill Downs’ presentation stand?
There’ll be plenty of speculation in the interim, but the answer will be available around 6:30 on Saturday evening.