This is my top ten list of Kentucky Derby contenders as of March 18.
1. Union Rags: This colt is full of pure talent and clearly loves to run. He was extremely professional in his Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) victory, effortlessly galloping to victory. He could face a deep field in the Florida Derby (GI) on March 31, but if he’s as talented as he seems to be, we could see something spectacular from him yet again. For more on why he is a top Kentucky Derby contender, please click here.
2. Creative Cause: He is certainly bred to run all day and was brilliant in his triumph in the San Felipe Stakes (GII), despite running greenly in the stretch, which could be a result of being struck by the whip. The way he accelerated just as he hit the wire was incredibly impressive, especially considering how far ahead of the others he galloped out. It also must be noted that he galloped out in front of every horse after the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI). Once Creative Cause has his mind on running, it is hard to defeat him. He is expected to run next in the Santa Anita Derby (GI) on April 7. For more on why he is a top Kentucky Derby contender, please click here.
3. El Padrino: He is a tough, gritty colt with bloodlines and conformation that should allow him to handle long distances. He has run extremely well both over fast and sloppy tracks and has displayed professionalism in each of his starts. He could start next in 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. Gemologist: He made the top ten of the first two editions of this list, but became an honorable mention the longer his sophomore debut was put off. He needed to get a race in which he displayed that he had matured and grown faster over the winter. He ran exactly that race on Friday at Gulfstream, defeating the grade one-winning Currency Swap in a one-mile open allowance that became practically his only choice when travel complications kept him from shipping to Oaklawn for the Rebel Stakes (GII). He was hardly asked at all by Javier Castellano en route to a 7-length victory. In fact, he was in hand for the majority of the homestretch. He completed the final quarter of a mile in 24.69 seconds despite only slight urging. He completed the eight-furlong distance in 1:35.95, a much faster one-mile clocking than his one-mile splits in his allowance optional claiming (2.57 seconds quicker) and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII) (1.79 seconds quicker) victories as a juvenile. It was the perfect sophomore debut. He may have led the entire way in the allowance on Friday, but he has proven in the past that he can rate off the pace. By Tiznow and out of a Mr. Prospector mare, Gemologist surely should be able to handle the Triple Crown distances. In addition, he already has two very important wins over the Churchill Downs surface. His final prep is undecided, but is likely to come in April.
5. I’ll Have Another: Though I do not particularly care for his connection’s decision to not give him a race between his Robert B. Lewis Stakes (GII) win and the Santa Anita Derby (GI), I believe this colt is underrated. He has good form, a pedigree that hints at a future in route races, and he clearly enjoys to race. He will need to turn in a terrific performance in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, but I believe he is capable of doing so.
6. Bodemeister: He did appear to be slightly fatigued after his game effort in the San Felipe, but he ran extremely well in that race and it was his first try around two turns. He will grow more robust under the care of Bob Baffert, especially considering his connections think highly of him after his dazzling maiden victory and tremendous second-place effort in the San Felipe. He may make his final prep for the Kentucky Derby in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
7. Mark Valeski: He was extremely tough in his runner-up finish behind El Padrino in the Risen Star Stakes (GII), giving the colt all he had before falling a nose short. His pedigree suggests that he will be able to get the Derby distance of ten furlongs, as he is by a Derby runner-up and has the same broodmare sire, Fortunate Prospect (RIP), as this year’s Santa Anita Handicap (GI) winner, Ron the Greek. He will likely race next in the Louisiana Derby (GII) on April 1.
8. Dullahan: If any horse has the pedigree to be able to be competitive at the Derby distance, it’s Dullahan, as he is a half-brother to the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird. He has proven that he is talented, as he won the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity (GI) at Keeneland as a two-year-old before closing well to finish fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile behind Hansen, Union Rags, and Creative Cause. His 2012 debut in the Palm Beach Stakes (GIII) on March 11 was very respectable, as he closed to finish second after not having run in four months. It is anticipated that Dullahan will make his final prep for the Kentucky Derby in the Blue Grass Stakes (GI) over the same racetrack at which he ran his best race.
9. Hansen: We all know he is brilliant, but there is plenty of room for doubt when it comes to the distance question. He can get a mile and one-sixteenth and certainly has the potential to get nine furlongs, but I am unconvinced that he can be victorious at ten furlongs. He has improved, proving that he can rate, but that does not confirm that he will be triumphant at long distances. He is expected to make his final start before the Kentucky Derby in the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) on April 7.
10. Secret Circle: Despite the fact that he has a pedigree full of stamina, it seems as if Secret Circle has distance limitations. However, his victories in the Southwest Stakes (GIII) and the Rebel Stakes (GII) were certainly steps in the right direction. His Rebel win on Saturday was very impressive, as, instead of running on or just off a quick pace, he found a position in fourth. Yet another factor of his triumph in the Rebel that was remarkable was that the son of Eddington dug in to get past Scatman in late stretch though it has been revealed that the colt is not the best about going past horses in the stretch. Optimizer was gaining ground on him, but Secret Circle found enough to hold him off. His final time for the mile and one-sixteenth race was 1.87 seconds (approximately 9 ½ lengths) slower than Union Rags’ time in the Fountain of Youth and .71 seconds (about 3 ½ lengths) slower than Hansen’s time in the Gotham. However, though Secret Circle’s final sixteenth of a mile was .48 seconds slower than Union Rags’, it was only .04 seconds slower than Hansen’s. Secret Circle is a horse that is bred for long distances but will likely be more successful at shorter ones. He may make his next start in the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby (GI) on April 14, which should tell us more about him. For more on why he has the potential to become a top Kentucky Derby contender, please click here.
Alpha: He is definitely talented and well-bred, but has not been beating up on much. His connections have been quite indecisive on his final start before the Kentucky Derby, which could come in the Florida Derby on March 31, the Louisiana Derby on April 1, the Louisiana Derby on April 1 or the Arkansas Derby on April 14. They do not want to run him against horses they view as extremely tough, such as Union Rags and Hansen, but the colt needs to prove himself and needs to get a race in.
Castaway: He easily won the first division of the Southwest Stakes (GIII), but it was slower than Secret Circle’s victory in the second and final division. He was also recently outworked by Secret Circle, which may show that he is simply not fast enough. However, his pedigree (sired by Street Sense and out of a Storm Cat mare) shows that he very well may be much more appreciative of longer distances.
Heavy Breathing: Heavy Breathing is royally bred, being by Giant’s Causeway and out of a direct descendant of La Troienne that has already produced a grade one winner. He has been impressive in his two starts, winning them both handily. However, he will need to prove that his royal bloodlines and remarkable performances are legitimate. He will get his chance to do so in the Spiral Stakes (GIII) on March 24, which Animal Kingdom used as a launch pad prior to his Run for the Roses victory.
Howe Great: He has been brilliant this year and is proven on dirt, but though the sire of his sire is the Kentucky Derby and Preakness-winning Sunday Silence, his pedigree does not offer much encouragement as far as Triple Crown distances are concerned. However, he has the right connections to get him there: Graham Motion and Team Valor.
Optimizer: After a string of very disappointing finishes, which included an eighth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and a ninth-place finish in the Risen Star Stakes (GII), Optimizer ran an impressive second in the Rebel, closing quickly to finish second behind Secret Circle. The fractions may have set him up for this, but the D. Wayne Lukas trainee may have turned a new page.
Paynter: He is certainly talented, but I no longer feel as if he has a position in the top ten. Yes, he is making his next start in the Illinois Derby (GII), but he is going from five and one-half furlongs to nine furlongs, which is a huge jump. In addition, contending in the Kentucky Derby off of just two starts is not an advantage by any means. Though I would love to see him in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May, I believe it would be rushing things. Perhaps his connections should await the Preakness Stakes (GI), or at least make the goal the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). After all, he is by Awesome Again and out of a full sister to Tiznow.
Prospective: He was a good juvenile in Canada, but finished last in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile against many of these horses. He has flourished at Tampa Bay Downs this year, winning two of three starts, including the Tampa Bay Derby (GII). Yet I am not extremely confident in how he would compete against many of the top Derby contenders.
Street Life: He has appeared on the honorable mentions list here several times (as well as in my article, Late Blooming Three-Year-Olds), as he impressed me in his breathtaking maiden victory, in which he closed in spectacular fashion to win. He won the Broad Brush Stakes on Saturday in similar fashion, but the race was not graded. By the Derby-winning Street Sense and out of a mare that is by the 1996 Derby winner, Grindstone, he is undoubtedly bred for the Derby. However, he would have to acquire a large amount of graded stakes earnings in his next start, which would need to come in time for the Derby. Perhaps he will not make it to Kentucky Derby, but look for him later on down the road.
Read more about many of the honorable mentions in my article, Late Blooming Three-Year-Olds.
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