Less than two months from now, a three-year-old will stand before the Twin Spires with red roses draped over its withers. Its connections will joyously smile for the many cameras, spectators at the renowned Churchill Downs will cheer the horse on as it returns to the barn, and racing fans across the world will revere the horse. Why? Because the horse will have just won the most prestigious race in the world: the Kentucky Derby (GI).
Along the Derby trail, things can change drastically in the blink of an eye. There have certainly been changes since last week’s top ten, but the list topper remains the same.
This is the list of my top ten 2012 Kentucky Derby contenders as of February 27.
1. Union Rags: He solidified his position as the top horse on this list in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) yesterday, only giving me more reason to keep him at the pinnacle. He settled off the pace beautifully before effortlessly drawing away to win by four lengths in a final time of 1:42.68 for a mile and one-sixteenth, finishing the final sixteenth in 6.40 despite being geared down. He displayed his breathtaking, ground-covering stride as new rider Julien Leparoux held him in hand in the final yards. This colt is absolutely brilliant, classy, and has the potential to be great. He is more deserving than any other horse to be number one here. His final prep for the Kentucky Derby will likely be made in the Florida Derby (GI) on March 31. For more on why he is a top Kentucky Derby contender, please read my Derby Hopeful article on him here.
2. El Padrino: Just as I expected he would, El Padrino proved those who believed he could only win over an off track wrong. In his Risen Star Stakes (GII) victory over a fast track, the beautifully-bred colt displayed his grit, determination, and heart by putting on a true horse race. He did not dominantly win his race like Union Rags, but he showed the very important characteristic of heart when dueling with Mark Valeski to win by a nose. He actually finished more quickly than Union Rags, completing the final sixteenth in 6.08 seconds. However, he exerted more energy and was asked for much more than Union Rags. Nonetheless, this is a very talented, hard-trying colt with a pedigree that strongly supports him to go the Derby distance. For more on why he is a top Kentucky Derby contender, please read my Derby Hopeful article on him here.
3. Creative Cause: He came home very quickly in the San Vicente Stakes (GII) and was just getting started at the end of the seven-furlong race. His pedigree and past performances show that he will enjoy a lengthening of distance, which is one of the most important characteristics in a Derby contender. He could start next in the March 10 San Felipe Stakes (GII) at Santa Anita or in the Rebel Stakes (GII) at Oaklawn Park on March 17. For more on why he is a top Kentucky Derby contender, please read my Derby Hopeful article on him here.
4. I’ll Have Another: He definitely has plenty of doubters out there, which only goes to show how much he needs to prove himself. His win in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (GII) on February 4 was impressive, but he will need to verify that it was not a fluke. His pedigree (by Flower Alley and out of an Arch mare) suggests that distance will not be a problem and other than his race in the Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes (GI) – which can likely be thrown out – I’ll Have Another has very good form. We’ll learn more about him in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
5. Fed Biz: He has nearly everything that a top Derby contender needs: a distance-oriented pedigree, a beneficial stalking running style, and of course, undeniable ability. However, the main thing he lacks is graded stakes earnings. He will need to acquire those soon in order to secure both his validity as a talented racehorse and a position in the starting gate on the first Saturday of May. He will have his first chance to do so in the San Felipe on March 10.
6. Out of Bounds: He has learning to do, but he has a great foundation to build on. Out of a female family number twelve mare that won the renowned Breeders’ Cup Distaff (GI), Out of Bounds certainly has a royal family. He is also very talented, but will need to keep up his good form in the San Felipe.
7. American Act: He’s only won once, but the grit and determination he displayed in the San Vicente Stakes (GII) was very impressive. Though he finished second in that race, he was passed before coming back in late stretch, only to just miss. Also to his advantage is that he is Derby-bred through and through.
8. Mark Valeski: He showed much perseverance when battling El Padrino in the stretch of the Risen Star, only to lose by a nose. Before his impressive graded stakes debut, he had won two straight races: a maiden special weight at Delaware Park in a romp and an allowance optional claiming with determination. He has shown plenty of fight, which is certainly very important.
9. Bodemeister: Straight from the blazing Bob Baffert barn, Bodemeister is brilliant and beautifully bred. Though he has only started twice – in maiden special weight races – and only has one win to his credit, he has already proven himself. The colt that defeated him in his debut was none other than American Act and in his second start, he flew to a 9 ¼-length victory. He needs to acquire graded stakes earnings, but in the words of Bob Baffert, “We have plans.”
10. Algorithms: He takes a significant drop from third to tenth, but I am very wary of his splint injuries. It is true that popped splints typically do not take very long to heal and are usually just an interruption in training, but on the Derby trail, interruptions in training can be detrimental. This is especially true for this colt, who will need plenty of racing experience before the Derby. Though bred for distance, he has never been around two turns and he will need to get that experience before the Run for the Roses. In addition, the Kentucky Derby has proven to be very taxing on a horse and will take an extremely tough horse to win. An injury – even one as minor as a popped splint – is not a good sign.
Alpha: He has been visually impressive at Aqueduct this year, but his times have not been spectacular and neither have most of the horses he has defeated. He has certainly improved since being medicated with Lasix and his pedigree definitely suggests that he can get the Derby distance. He will need to train very well and run a great race in the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) on April 7.
Castaway: He has great bloodlines for the Derby and is coming off an excellent win in the first division of the Southwest Stakes (GIII). He did break his maiden until his sixth start, but since then has been on a roll. He is yet another horse out of the en fuego Bob Baffert barn.
Gemologist: He is by all means full of talent, but he will need to improve his times. He is also a bit behind the others, having only worked four times this year. He could be seen next in the Rebel Stakes (GII) or Tampa Bay Derby (GII).
Hansen: We all know he is talented and has heart, but he will have to prove that he can be just as brilliant as a three-year-old as he was as a two-year-old. He will also need to show that he can stretch out in distance. He is expected to race next in the Gotham Stakes (GIII) at Aqueduct on March 3.
Paynter: Though other Bob Baffert trainees are ranked more highly than him, I am more impressed by him than any of the others. The only thing that keeps him from being in the top ten is the fact that he did not debut until February 18. Though he may have discouraged some or thrown people off by shaking his head in the stretch, he only did so as a result of his forelock becoming unbraided and flying into his ear. Actually, Paynter performed extremely professionally and despite being indisputably bred for distance, he dominantly won a five and one-half-furlong maiden special weight. Hopefully, he will obtain enough graded earnings to be able to enter the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. Whether he makes it to the Derby or not, I believe he is a future star.
Secret Circle: Though he is bred for distance, he has not shown much liking for stretching out. His win in the second division of the one-mile Southwest Stakes (GIII) was a step in the right direction, though he was drifting out in late stretch like he did in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, in which Secret Circle helped set blazing fractions over a tiring track. He may not get the Derby distance, but he is certainly a brilliant colt with a bright future ahead of him.
Street Life: His maiden win was impressive, but he has not worked since. In order to make the Derby, he will need to rapidly garner graded stakes earnings. His pedigree suggests that distance and class will not be an issue.
*Discreet Dancer, who was ranked second, will likely no longer appear on this list. I am still very high on him and believe he is an extremely talented colt, but I believe his biggest success will come in one-turn races or two-turn miles. In my opinion, his connections should not point him toward the Triple Crown, but rather set their sights on one-turn races.
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