LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Bode Baffert has never been so nervous about a race. The 7-year-old son of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is the namesake of the 138th Kentucky Derby morning-line favorite, Bodemeister.
"Bode feels a lot of pressure right now," Baffert said. "I said, 'Isn't it exciting, Bodemeister's going to go to the Derby?' And he said, 'Well, what if he loses?'
"You never know, but at least you have a good horse named after you. He didn't know what to think of it."
Bodemeister, at 4-1 odds, is among a 20-horse field that's so stacked that unbeaten Gemologist, trained by Todd Pletcher, is no better than third choice on the morning line behind Union Rags.
"History tells us that you can't throw anyone out," said Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant who is also starting El Padrino. "There have been some winners the past few years that have been way down everybody's depth charts."
Still, just because the odds are big doesn't mean there isn't some serious contenders like I'll Have Another at 12-1 or, at 15-1, Take Charge Indy, who will leave from the No. 3 post with jockey Calvin Borel, a three-time Derby winner.
"This is the best bunch I've seen in a long time," four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "I was out there riding next to some of them, and let me tell you, this is a hell of a group."
Some of the strongest contenders - Hansen, for example - have had the most success running at or near the pace. But their task is complicated by the presence of speedster Trinniberg, who could prove to be enough of a pest on the front end to compromise any horse willing to keep pace with him.
If the early fractions in the 1 1/4-mile race are fast enough, it could set up well for a deep closer like Dullahan, Daddy Nose Best or I'll Have Another.
Baffert, who has won the Derby three times and also has long shot Liaison in the field called it "one of the toughest Derbys I've been in probably the last 10 years."
Baffert has a new outlook on life after a medical scare in March when he was hospitalized with a heart attack in Dubai.
Bodemeister, ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, goes into the starting gate staring down 129 years of Derby history. The last horse to win without racing as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882.
"I've brought some really good horses here, and they were the best horse, but they got beat," he said, referring to Lookin At Lucky, the 2010 race-day favorite who was trapped on the rail and finished sixth. In 2001, his heavy favorite, Point Given, wound up fifth.
Union Rags, the 9-2 second choice ridden by Julien Leparoux, is the best horse trainer Michael Matz has brought to the Derby since he won with undefeated Barbaro in 2006.
"I was lucky enough once," he said. "It's hard to believe you can get lucky twice."