Three seconds into the 138th Kentucky Derby, jockey Mike Smith threw the reins wide open at his horse, Bodemeister, and sent a signal to the 19 other horses in the race: Prepare to be run off your feet.
The move, known as throwing a cross, urged Bodemeister, the 4-1 favorite, to surge to the lead, where he set an early pace that Daily Racing Form measured as among the five fastest in Derby history. For a late-blooming colt that had never experienced being stuck behind other horses in a race, this seize-the-initiative approach was the only chance he had from the inside post position he was given, his trainer, three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, would say afterwards.
And while the effort came up just short as Bodemeister surrendered the lead late to the winner, I’ll Have Another, a look at the finishes of those who tried to chase the pacesetter in the early stages shows he was superior to all in the race.
The five horses that were in second through sixth place after the first half-mile (0.8 kilometer) of the May 5 race finished ninth, 16th, 17th, 19th and 20th, according to data compiled by Equibase Company.
Combined, those horses -- which included my top pick, Gemologist, as well as the colt ridden by three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel -- were beaten by more than 100 lengths. The last of them failed to finish the 1 1/4-mile race. Bodemeister, by comparison, lost by 1 ½ lengths.
While Bodemeister was dueling with challengers in front, I’ll Have Another cruised comfortably in seventh place at the beginning, some eight lengths (or about 1.6 seconds) behind. The third, fourth and fifth place finishers were even farther back, running among the last 10 in the race after three-quarters of a mile.
In the parlance of handicappers, this is a pace meltdown. And to have one among the group of early leaders hold on for second while all the rest faded from exhaustion earns that colt the highest mark in the race (and could potentially make him a horse to bet on next time out).
Take nothing away from the winner, a colt that is a perfect three for three in 2012. He broke well from the starting gate, relaxed nicely behind the leaders and responded when his jockey Mario Gutierrez urged him to make his move entering the homestretch. His winning race just grades out a notch below that of the second-place finisher.
Early indications are that I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister will meet again in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes on May 19 in Baltimore, Maryland. While the full field hasn’t been determined, I’d set initial odds estimates for the two as such: Bodemeister becomes an even bigger favorite after his Derby effort, with his odds falling to 8-5; I’ll Have Another drops to 3-1 (from 15-1).
Don’t ask me yet which horse I like. The only decision I’ve made so far is that I will not be picking Gemologist.
(David Papadopoulos, the team leader for Latin America markets coverage at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)