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Derby field rich with 2011 juvenile crop

In this photo released by the New York

In this photo released by the New York Racing Association (NYRA), Gemologist, ridden by Javier Castellano, wins the Wood Memorial horse race at Aqueduct racetrack. (April 7, 2012) Credit: AP

For its first 22 runnings, a Breeders' Cup Juvenile victory forecast failure or absence in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. It was win and you're in . . . the Derby dumpster. Only 12 Juvenile champions even made it to the big race, with all but one out of the trifecta. In 2007, Street Sense finally hit the Juvenile-Kentucky Derby double, but the next four Juvenile heroes -- War Pass, Midshipman, Vale of York and Uncle Mo -- sat out the Derby.

Like the snow, the Juvenile jinx never materialized this year. Instead of getting sick or injured or going off form, last season's Juvenile runners are thriving. Nine have won graded stakes as 3-year-olds, and eight of them are expected to be entered Wednesday afternoon in Saturday's 138th Derby.

Barry Irwin owns last year's Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, and has made his fortune assessing and buying thoroughbreds. In racetrack lingo, Irwin has "a very good opinion,'' and he's hard to impress.

"This crop looks like it's a lot deeper than last year's, for sure,'' said Irwin, who will try to repeat with long shot Went the Day Well. "I'd say Union Rags and Bodemeister are 'A' horses. I think Gemologist and Hansen would be B-plus. I think Creative Cause is probably a very good horse.''

Hansen, Union Rags and Creative Cause ran 1-2-3 in the Juvenile, whose 1996 renewal produced zero runners for the Derby. Stay Thirsty was the only 2010 Juvenile participant in last year's Derby, and he ran 12th.

Dale Romans trains Blue Grass Stakes winner Dullahan, fourth in the Juvenile. "This is an extremely good crop of horses,'' Romans said. "Usually at this time of year, you're hearing about how bad the 3-year-olds are. This year, everybody's realizing what a good crop this is, and it's pretty exciting to have one of the best crops we've seen in a long time.''

And Bodemeister and Gemologist, who will be among the top three betting choices, weren't even in the Juvenile.

A year ago, Juvenile winner and 2010 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo owned the spotlight until his shocking defeat in the Wood Memorial. Then his mysterious illness -- later diagnosed as a rare liver ailment -- kept him in the headlines until he was scratched the day before the Derby. The 2012 3-year-olds have been taking turns as the flavor of the month -- first Hansen, followed by Union Rags, then Gemologist, and now Bodemeister.

Until the Arkansas Derby, when Bodemeister freaked with a 108 Beyer speed figure, the only knock on this generation was that nobody had run very fast. Now there's the hope that Bodemeister could become a superstar for trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner. "The horse that impressed me the most so far is that Bodemeister,'' Irwin said.

After the Wood, Todd Pletcher said his 5-for-5 Gemologist "may be the closest thing we've ever had to a Derby favorite.'' In almost any other year, an undefeated two-time winner at Churchill Downs trained by Pletcher might have been even-money, but a week later came Bodemeister's 9 1/2-length dazzler.

Like Pletcher's only Derby winner, Super Saver in 2010, Gemologist was bred and is owned by WinStar Farm. Elliott Walden, its CEO and racing manager, would prefer less competition but sees beyond self-interest to savor the big picture.

"I'd rather be 3-5,'' Walden said with a laugh, "but I think for all of us in the sport, it's exciting to see all of the No. 1 seeds show up. I think it's going to be a great spectacle during Derby Week and a great race because you have some very good horses in there.''

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