Just when we thought we had the key matchups for final Kentucky Derby preps all figured out, a couple major curveballs from two of the top contenders were thrown March 22.
Hansen, the champion colt who convincingly won the Gotham in his last start and was being pointed toward the April 7 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, is now likely headed for the April 14 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland instead. The decision, according to co-owner Dr. Kendall Hansen, came down to several factors, including staying at home in Kentucky.
After news of Hansen going to the Blue Grass became public, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin wasted little time saying that his top 3-year-old, Alpha, is now more likely to go to the Wood instead of the April 1 Louisiana Derby, which he said earlier in the week was the intended spot for Godolphin's son of Bernardini.
Regarding Hansen, who has won four of five races in his career including the Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the owner said: "I have a long list of reasons. The main thing is that we're at home here and have such a strong fan base here. I really wanted to wait until next week to announce this because we didn't want to upstage the Spiral. But it's out there now. And it's safer for the horse.
"Five weeks before the Derby for the Wood might have been better timing, but we figured the traveling [to New York] would take a few days out of him any way. He can stay in his own stall and just ship over for the Blue Grass. Mike [Maker] also pointed out that since he has already won a grade I on the dirt in the Breeders' Cup, if he won the Blue Grass we could say he is also a grade I winner on the synthetic.
"Also, the extra week between the Wood and Blue Grass would give Ramon's [Dominguez] shoulder more time to get better, although I don't think that's a big factor."
Dominguez, the two-time reigning Eclipse Award winning jockey, is currently sidelined after a spill March 18. He is expected to return to racing by the beginning of April and now becomes available to ride both Hansen in the Blue Grass and Alpha in the Wood.
Alpha, winner of the Feb. 4 Withers at Aqueduct and based with McLaughlin in Florida, still only has $180,000 of graded earnings which does not guarantee him a spot in the May 5 Derby. The connections have wavered over the last couple of weeks as to his next race, making it clear that they would like to find the easiest spot. McLaughlin admitted Hansen's Blue Grass choice was the major reason for changing their minds and opting for the Wood.
"At this moment, at this hour, we are going to the Wood Memorial," McLaughlin said with a laugh, knowing full well how their perceived indecision over the last couple weeks has been a hot topic of Triple Crown trail conversation. "[The Hansen decision] absolutely, 100 percent changed our decision. We were going to Louisiana, but with Hansen not running and Ramon becoming available, it's a big plus for us. We now will get our preferred jockey who has won on him twice, and it will be in New York where we feel like is our home -- we're stabled at barn 11 at Belmont and we're not shipping him to a holding barn or someone else's barn. Our whole team is there. [Gemologist] is running in the Wood so we might not be the favorite, but we're one of the favorites now."
The affable McLaughlin concluded his thoughts with one more caveat, just to put the media on notice.
"If Union Rags doesn't enter for the Florida Derby, we still might go there," he said. "That's why I'm saying, at this hour, we're going to the Wood. But we're very flexible since the horse is already here."