Finding a Derby contender in early Feb. is much like Punxsutawney Phil predicting the weather.
We can state the obvious, but the truth is very shadowy and the forecast for May 5th is next to impossible.
At this time last year, eventual Derby winner Animal Kingdom had won just a maiden race. The same could be said of Preakness winner Shackleford and Belmont champion Ruler on Ice.
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the early prep races of Jan. and Feb. seem to have little relevance to a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May.
The past several weekends have been more about dashing hopes than dashing along the Derby Trail.
For instance there was a huge upset among the three-year-olds at Santa Anita. I'll Have Another, a 43-1 shot, embarrassed a field of Derby hopefuls, including the highly touted Liaison, who not only was outrun, but lost his rider in the stretch. I'll Have Another had not run a race in five months, and may be the classic example of a horse that had modest success as a two-year-old, and then surprised everybody at three.
He's by Flower Alley, out of an Arch mare, so his breeding indicates distance on either grass or dirt. Owner Paul Reddam bought the colt for just $35,000 at the OBS two year old in training sale in Fla.
Earlier in the day, there was another stunner at Tampa Bay when a maiden named Battle Hardened, won the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis. Trainer Eddie Kenneally passed on a maiden race at Gulfstream and took a chance with the Davis and banked 120 thousand in graded stakes money.
The time for a mile and a sixteenth was 1:44.58, which is relatively slow, but Tampa is a sandy track with a reputation of producing horses that run well at Churchill Downs.
There was a three way photo for second place, and all three, Reveron, Prospective and Ravelo's Boy did not hurt their chances to move along the Derby trail. The Tampa Bay Derby comes up March 10th.
In two other Derby preps, the favorites were easy winners but who did they beat?
Alpha, now in Godolphin's first string, made it two for two in stakes at Aqueduct by winning the Grade 3 Withers and now points for the Gotham or the Wood Memorial. Alpha, is one of several Bernadini colts, who have emerged as Derby contenders. And this colt out of a Nijinsky mare, should be able to run all day.
Speightscity was second in the Withers and could also advance to the Gotham on March 3.
At Turfway Park, Louisville owner Tom Conway got on the Derby Trail with Mr. Prankster. The sire of this Derby contender is It's No Joke who stands for a modest 2500 dollars in Fla.
Conway was touting this colt last fall at Churchill Downs but Mr. Prankster's best work has been on Polytrack, with two straight stakes wins at Turfway. Next, the Prankster needs to beat tougher company and get some graded stakes money.
And so we arrive at an almost random list of Derby candidates, who will try to take the next step in the weeks ahead. And honestly, the races of Jan. are usually long forgotten by May.
So let's start with the first horse in the Alphabet...
He has a great Bernadini pedigree, and he may be Godolphin's best shot at the Derby in years. And more importantly, he's trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and Godolphin seems ready to prepare this horse on the traditional American dirt path to the Derby. In past years, they've trained in Dubai with little success. It looks like this Grade 3 winner will stay in New York.
This colt is also by Bernadini and the pedigree may be just as attractive.
But Algorithms beat two year old champion Hansen in the Holy Bull and collected 240 thousand in stakes money. That pretty much puts you in the Derby, if you keep moving and stay healthy. Todd Pletcher is in charge of that project. And keeping in mind the weather on Derby Day, Algorithms won the Holy Bull in the mud.
3. I'll Have Another
Sorry Bourbon lovers we're not talking adult beverages here. The horse is named after Paul Reddam's response to his wife's offer of more cookies.
And this cookie can cook. I'll Have Another won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes by almost three lengths and covered a mile and one sixteenth in 1:40.84. But more importantly he beat two Derby contenders from the Baffert Barn and a full brother to filly champion Royal Delta. Doug O'Neill may have his Derby horse as the West Coast preps sort out the challengers.
4. Union Rags
He was everybody's favorite two year old until he finished second in the Breeders Cup Juvenile. But Union Rags still seems to have more promise than the horse that beat him ins November. He is high weight in the experimental handicap and is a dual qualifier, meaning his dosage index of 2.14 is Derby material. He just breezed a four furlong bullet at Palm Meadows and will start his three year old season at the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 26. Michael Matz of Barbaro fame is the trainer.
He won two races at Churchill Downs last year including the Kentucky Jockey Club for two year olds. This colt is brought to you by the same connections that raced Derby winner Super Saver. Todd Pletcher trains for WinStar and the question with Pletcher is always, how will he place and race all of his talented three year olds? Gemologist is by Tiznow and 10 furlongs should be perfect.
If you win the Delta Jackpot, you can smell the Roses. The One Million Dollar Jackpot at Delta Downs is a "win and you're in" for Derby contenders, providing you can keep the horse healthy for six months. This son of
Bluegrass Cat is now training in California for Steve Asmussen. He rallied from tenth to first at Delta Downs. He's tough. But this spring will answer the question. "How fast is he?"
6. Discreet Dancer
Speed. Speed. And more Speed.
He set the track record for 5 1/2 furlongs in his first race and then distanced a good allowance field at one mile. He's training in Florida and figures into the mix as Pletcher tries to place his Derby contenders. And the stakes challenge for Discreet Dancer will be to stretch out his blazing speed against good competition.
7. El Padrino
This is yet another Pletcher candidate, who was third in the Remsen Stakes and just won an allowance race over the regally bred Take Charge Indy. He's by Pulpit out of a Giant's Causeway mare and that has distance written all over the page. Has a 100 Beyer Speed figure to his credit and now faces his first stakes race as a three year old.
Love the name and at least this choice gets us out of Florida.
Junebug is a Corinthian colt who won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn.
This colt has now won twice at a mile but will have to pick up his game for trainer Steve Hobby as the name trainers begin dropping in for the Derby prep series in Arkansas. Is this the Smarty Jones of 2012.
I know. Why did it take so long to get to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Champion? Well, here are the reasons that Hansen won't win the Derby. He won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, always a curse. His Dosage Index is higher than the Louisville area code. At Gulfstream he looked like cheap speed when Algorithms sailed past in the Holy Bull and posted a 105 Beyer. He did stumble in the Holy Bull, but I think Hansen will make a lot of money running races at about a mile.
10. Creative Cause
Has one of the best resumes among the new three year olds. He won the Best Pal Stakes at Delmar and the Norfolk at Santa Anita. Then came a third place in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He's back training at Hollywood Park for Mike Harrington and we might compare Creative Cause to Belmont and Breeders' Cup winner Drosselmeyer. He's not terribly fast, but he's a grinder who will wear down other horses. The longer the race, the better his chances.
And that's the Top Ten on a day in Feb. when it's difficult to find ten horses that might make the starting field, let alone win the Kentucky Derby. But then, this is a good column to save and revisit on May 6. Did we have any clue? Or is Animal Kingdom still out there is a barn, waiting to be discovered?
Thanks for reading.