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Their memorable stretch run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs designated winner Hansen and runner-up Union Rags as instant equine rivals.

With 

both on the path to the Kentucky Derby, the rivalry has reached a new level, and a debate has developed. Who is the better contender for the Run for the Roses?

Hansen edged Union Rags by a head in the Juvenile and was awarded the Eclipse Award for top 2-year-old male of 2011. Now into their 3-year-old seasons, both have undergone changes. Hansen is learning a new running style and Union Rags grew into a massive physical specimen nearly 17 hands tall.

They continue to progress. Union Rags returned from a nearly four-month layoff and cruised to an impressive four-length victory in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on February 26.

After a disappointing loss to Algorithms on a sloppy track in the Holy Bull, Hansen rebounded with an easy win in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 3.

Union Rags is set to race next in the Florida Derby and Hansen is being pointed to the Wood Memorial, so their next meeting is likely beneath the Twin Spires in the historic 1 1/4-mile test.

Many handicappers and racing pundits have the pair ranked one-two on their Derby lists, with Union Rags on top. Who has the best shot to wear the roses on May 5?

Hansen’s upside: Versatility. Winning the Derby wire-to-wire is a tall task, so learning to relax and position behind horses in the Gotham is a big step forward.

The question mark: Overcoming adversity is a key for the son of Tapit. Stumbles, sloppy tracks, troubled trips - anything can happen in the Derby.

Union Rags’ upside: Although he often gets sweaty before races, the colt is generally easy-going and has a good demeanor, according to trainer Michael Matz. This will help his cause.

The question mark: Stamina. As a son of Dixie Union out of a Gone West mare, he doesn’t have a typical classic distance pedigree. He’ll have just one 1 1/8-mile prep before the Derby - but so will many of his foes.

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About J.J. Hysell

Horse racing/sports writer involved in sports/news media for 15 years. We miss you Hunter S. Thompson.

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