We are less than sixty days out from the most anticipated race of the year, the Kentucky Derby (GI). The prep races have been heating up, becoming crucial for Derby contenders. This crop of three-year-olds looks to have plenty of depth to it and there already seem to be plenty of human interest stories involved. The Kentucky Derby is, like usual, shaping up to be a tremendous race.
This is the list of my top ten 2012 Kentucky Derby contenders as of March 12. This one required some very tough decisions and I feel as if the last three could be in any order or replaced by a number of the honorable mentions. The top horse has not changed since the first top ten list, however.
1. Union Rags: Though his pedigree is not glowing with stamina, it does give hints that he will be able to get the Derby distance. In addition, the way this colt runs hints that he wants more ground. He has an extremely powerful, keen way of going. His race in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) was very professional and he seems to have matured. He is being pointed toward the Florida Derby (GI) at Gulfstream Park on March 31. For more on why he is a top Kentucky Derby contender, please click here.
2. Creative Cause: Though he did not run very straight in the stretch of the San Felipe Stakes (GII) on March 10, the way he accelerated was breathtaking. He faced a tough horse in Bodemeister, but once their noses became even, the son of Giant’s Causeway effortlessly dug in to draw away to a three-quarters of a length victory before galloping out very impressively. In fact, it seemed as if he was just getting started when he crossed the finish line. The final time for a mile and one-sixteenth was an impressive 1:41.84. Not only did his performance in the San Felipe show that he wants to run all day, but so does his pedigree. A successful router himself, Giant’s Causeway has sired many prosperous distance horses, such as Giant Oak, Heatseeker, and Swift Temper. For more on why he is a top Kentucky Derby contender, please click here.
3. El Padrino: He has a great pedigree for the Derby, as well as an advantageous off-the-pace running style. He clearly has plenty of heart and determination, as he displayed in winning the Risen Star Stakes (GII). He could run next in either the Florida Derby (GI) on March 31 or the Louisiana Derby (GII) on April 1. For more on why he is a top Kentucky Derby contender, please click here.
4. I’ll Have Another: His Robert B. Lewis (GII) win was very impressive, as was the work he had between races on March 3. His pedigree suggests that he should appreciate longer distances, as he is by the Travers Stakes (GI)-winning Flower Alley and out of an Arch mare. He is expected to run next in the Santa Anita Derby (GI) on April 7.
5. Bodemeister: He ran an extremely game second to Creative Cause in the San Felipe, giving the gray colt all he had in the stretch before finishing behind him by three-quarters of a length. He showed in that race that he does not need the lead and though he was a bit rank the first quarter of a mile, he eventually seemed to relax. He drifted out in late stretch, which may hint that he was getting tired, but it was only his third start and the toughest of his career at that. His pedigree is full of stamina and he is learning more with every start. I have been very high on him since his maiden win and am not at all surprised with how well he ran on Saturday.
6. Mark Valeski: In his runner-up finish behind El Padrino in the Risen Star Stakes (GII), Mark Valeski proved that he has grit. In addition, his pedigree is full of stamina, as he is by the runner-up in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, Proud Citizen, and out of a Fortunate Prospect mare. As mentioned in the previous Derby Top Ten, Fortunate Prospect is also the grandsire of this year’s Santa Anita Handicap (GI) winner, Ron the Greek. He may be seen next in the Louisiana Derby (GII) on April 1.
7. Dullahan: He’s already proven that he can compete against the best, as he won the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity (GI) last October before finishing fourth behind Hansen, Union Rags, and Creative Cause in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI). After a slight illness early in 2012, he kicked off his sophomore campaign with a good debut in the Palm Beach Stakes (GIII) on the turf, closing well to finish second behind Howe Great by a length. The winner was sharper than Dullahan, having already started this year, while Dullahan needed to get a race in. It is obvious that he is bred for the Derby, as he is out of Mining My Own, the dam of the 2009 Kentucky Derby (GI) winner, Mine That Bird. Trainer Dale Romans – who finished fourth in the Derby last year with Shackleford and third in 2010 with Paddy O’Prado – is pointing him toward the Blue Grass Stakes (GI) at Keeneland Racecourse on April 14.
8. Heavy Breathing: He is making his first appearance on this list, simply because I just discovered him. His pedigree is one of the most remarkable I've ever seen and the digger I deep while studying his bloodlines, the more impressed I am. His last two starts have come at Gulfstream Park - one in a seven and one-half furlong maiden special weight and one in nine-furlong allowance - and have been extremely impressive. His win in the mile and one-eighth allowance showed that he is ready for more ground and his pedigree hints that more distance will not be a problem. He will likely start next in the Spiral Stakes (GIII) on March 24 at Turfway Park, the same race that produced last year's Derby winner. Expect him to be spotlighted soon.
9. Paynter: He’s very highly ranked for a horse who has only raced once and has no graded stakes earnings, but I feel as if he is a future star. The way he won his debut was tremendously impressive and despite his forelock blowing into his ear and causing him to shake his head, he was very professional. By the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI)-winning Awesome Again – who has produced several ten-furlong winners, including Awesome Gem, Game on Dude, Ghostzapper, and Ginger Punch – and out of a full-sister to the two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI)-winning Tiznow, Paytner is by all means bred for distance and top-class races. He will need some thorough training to get him ready for longer distances and a race in which he can garner plentiful graded stakes earnings. I would love to see him make the Kentucky Derby, so hopefully he will make his graded stakes debut soon.
10. Hansen: He is clearly talented and has heart, but his ability to get ten furlongs is hazy. His sire, Tapit, has only sired one ten-furlong winner and his dam, Stormy Sunday, was never victorious at a distance longer than six furlongs. In fact, Hansen’s second dam never produced a foal that won farther than one mile. He’s an impressive horse and has matured, but there’s more to a racehorse than its flashiness. He is likely to make his final prep in the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) on April 7.
Alpha: Rather than staying in New York, Alpha is headed for the Florida Derby (GI) for his final Derby prep race. This is likely a good move and not just because many view the Wood Memorial as a cursed race, but because he will face stiffer competition for his last start before the toughest race of his career. He has not been beating much in New York, but if he performs well against the tough horses lined up for the Florida Derby, he will solidify himself as a top Derby contender. Nonetheless, I am doubtful of how he will contend against the likes of Union Rags and others.
Castaway: The way he runs and his pedigree hint that he will enjoy longer distances. He was slower than Secret Circle in the Southwest Stakes (GIII) and when they worked together on Saturday, Secret Circle easily outworked him and galloped out far ahead of him. He will likely be seen next in the Sunland Derby (GIII) on March 25.
Gemologist: Rather than making his first three-year-old start in the Rebel, Gemologist will race for the first time in 2012 on March 16 in a one-mile allowance at Gulfstream. This decision was made due to problems with travel plans, but it is discouraging that Gemologist will only get an eight-furlong race into him rather than the extra sixteenth of a mile he would race over in the Rebel. He will need to run a spectacular race in Friday’s allowance.
Howe Great: He is considered by many to solely be a turf horse, but so was Animal Kingdom before he won the Kentucky Derby last year. Another similarity between the two is that they have the same connections: Team Valor International, Graham Motion, and John Velazquez. However, unlike Animal Kingdom, Howe Great has already started over the dirt. In fact, the first two races of his career came over conventional dirt: a second-place finish in a seven-furlong maiden special weight at Parx Racing and a victory in a six and one-half furlong maiden special weight over the same track. He shipped to Gulfstream Park for the winter, reeling off victories in a mile and one-sixteenth turf allowance, the Kitten’s Joy Stakes, and the Palm Beach Stakes (GIII). In the latter race, he proved that he could rate rather than set the pace like he had in his past two starts. By the group one-winning son of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes-winning Sunday Silence in Hat Trick – who was a champion miler in Japan – and out of a Western Winter – who never won beyond seven furlongs – mare, there does not seem to be much stamina in his pedigree. He has been successful at a mile and one-sixteenth and will add another sixteenth in the Blue Grass Stakes (GI). However, the Blue Grass is a full furlong shorter than the Kentucky Derby. Howe Great is talented, but I am not overly confident in his ability to go much longer.
Prospective: After winning the Grey Stakes (GIII) at Woodbine at two, he faced top two-year-olds – many of which are now on this list – in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI). He was never a threat in the prestigious race and finished last. He has great form at Tampa Bay Downs, with a win in the Pasco Stakes, a runner-up finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII), and a win in the Tampa Bay Derby (GII), but I am unsure of how he will fare against the top horses of the same age at Churchill Downs. Last time he faced them, it did not turn out well.
Secret Circle: He’s talented and fast, but, even though his pedigree is full of stamina, he doesn’t seem to want much more ground. On Saturday, he had a beautiful six-furlong work in company with Castaway, easily drawing away from the other colt and galloping out far ahead of him. This is very encouraging, as it could hint that he is growing more accustomed to longer distances. He could be seen next in the Rebel Stakes (GII) on March 17.