It is now 2011 and that means we have officially embarked on the Kentucky Derby trail. Here in the East it’s been difficult to see even the slightest hint of rose blossoms buried beneath 20-30 inches of snow drifts. But, heck, they’ve already run the first Derby prep (the Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct), and Florida and California will soon follow suit, so you know the trail has begun, regardless of whether you tread upon it in snow boots or sandals.
This year will be a bit different from other years, because the magical name “Kentucky Derby,” that normally stands on its own, has had to share top billing with that glorious, yet cursed phrase, “Triple Crown.” Instead of each step on the Derby Trail being examined with a magnifying glass, it is apparent that many racing fans are already looking ahead with a telescope, beyond the Derby and beyond the Preakness.
The reason for this broad outlook and bold optimism is this year’s hit show “The Horse From U.N.C.L.E.” Whether you refer to him as super hero or super steed, it looks as if Uncle Mo will have to carry around a burden unlike anything seen since Arazi nearly two decades ago. Arazi, however, was cloistered away in the forests of Chantilly and remained phantom-like until his much-awaited arrival in Louisville. Uncle Mo will have his every move analyzed and scrutinized by those either trying to lift him to the gates of the pantheon or drag him back down to earth.
His Facebook page already has a series of photos of him and his adoring owner Mike Repole sharing some tender moments together down at Palm Meadows.
As we discovered with another red-hot 2-year-old, War Pass, you never know how a young horse will make the transition from 2 to 3, so that first start back, likely in the Tampa Bay Derby, will be an important one.
He’s scheduled to have only two starts prior to the Derby, as is his main threat To Honor and Serve, a trend that has been prominent for several years now in this new conservative era of training. It’s worked for several Derby winners recently, but how will having such little foundation affect a horse’s chances of remaining in top form throughout the Triple Crown? It’s still too early to tell.
As everyone knows, it’s a long road to Kentucky, and there are always promising colts emerging by the week. So, let’s see just how this crop of 3-year-olds is shaping up. It is too early to start ranking them, so we will just begin by rating them (1-10) based mainly on the three “Ps” -- performance, potential, and pedigree.
The first ranking will be the initial “Derby Dozen” the first week in February. This is more of an early scorecard, with the horses listed in alphabetical order. Yes, there will be some that perhaps should be on here that aren’t, but you’re always going to miss some.
ALTERNATION -- A late add, but what a sleeper. By Distorted Humor, out of a Seattle Slew mare, he closed like the proverbial freight train to finish third in his debut at Remington and then made an explosive move from six lengths back to win by seven going a mile and 70 yards, also at Remington. He's training at Oaklawn for Donnie Von Hemel and his next start will tell a lot. Rating: 6.
ARCHARCHARCH – The main thing to like about him is the fact that he won the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Stakes impressively in good time while still a maiden, despite having a distance-oriented pedigree (by Arch, out of a Woodman mare with second dam by Nureyev). His biggest obstacle could be his name. Rating: 5.
ASTROLOGY – Big, handsome colt by A.P. Indy, out of a Quiet American mare, trained by Steve Asmussen. Inbreeding to Round Table gives him additional stamina. Impressive winning the Iroquois (gr. III), then beaten fair and square in the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) at 7-10. Still has to show he’s fast enough. Rating: 7.
AWESOME PATRIOT – Bob Baffert has a talented stayer in this son of Awesome Again, out of an unraced full-sister to Tiznow. After a solid third in the Hollywood Prevue (gr. III), he came back to gamely defeat a tough opponent in Riveting Reason in a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita, coming home his final quarter in :24 3/5. Rating: 7.
BEAMER -- This son of Vindication, trained by Carl Nafzger, easily broke his maiden by 5 1/2 lengths at Tampa Bay going a mile and 40 yards in his second start. Solid enough female family; like the obscure Quack in his fourth generation. Rating: 4.5.
BIONDETTI – Who knows when we’ll see this Godolphin colt next, but his fourth in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) following a victory in the group I Gran Criterium suggests he’s a colt with a good deal of promise. He’s by Bernardini and his dam is by Lyphard, out of the top-class Proud Delta, one of those hard-knocking Danada Farm runners. He is a handsome colt and looks to have all the right tools. Preparation is the big question mark. Rating: 6.
BLACK N BEAUTY – The son of Devil His Due is showing tremendous improvement with every start. After a decent fourth first time out, he was beaten a half-length by the highly touted Brethren in 1:08 4/5 at Belmont before breaking his maiden by 2 3/4 lengths at Churchill Downs going 6 1/2 furlongs. Trained by Dale Romans and owned by Zayat Stables, he was bought at the Keeneland yearling sales for a paltry $2,500. Rating: 6.
BOYS AT TOSCONOVA – The talent certainly is there, but that Officer – Valid Appeal cross does not exactly shout stamina. He does have two other doses of In Reality from that stallion’s stamina influences – Relaunch and the mare Hat Brim, a half-sister to Francie’s Hat, who was placed second in the Kentucky Derby on the disqualification of Dancer’s Image. All that In Reality (a strong inbreeding influence) should help him in the long run. We know he’s brilliant -- he ran a strong second to Uncle Mo in the BC Juvenile, despite not having run since winning the Hopeful. Also have to respect Rick Dutrow, who has been downright giddy raving about this horse. Rating: 7.5.
BRETHREN – This half-brother to last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver could be any kind following two victories in his first two career starts, the last one going a mile in allowance company at Churchill Downs. He also broke his maiden at Belmont in a sharp 1:08 4/5, beating Black N Beauty, who came back to break his maiden impressively. He seems to have everything going for him, including an off-the pace style of running. Rating: 7
BUFFUM – If you can forgive his poor effort in the Remsen after a horrendous trip into the first turn, then he could be a sleeper. Son of Bernardini won a good mile maiden race at Belmont and deserves another chance. Waiting to see him on the work tab. Rating: 5
CASPER'S TOUCH -- Son of Touch Gold has a ton of stamina top and bottom, and you had to love his one-mile maiden score at Churchill Downs in his first start since finishing third in the Chesham Stakes at Royal Ascot. He returned to the races five months later at Churchill and rated nicely off the pace, then drew off in the final furlong to win by 2 1/4 lengths for Kenny McPeek. He may be one to watch. Rating: 6.
CLUBHOUSE RIDE – This hard-knocking colt has started 10 times already and has been right there in almost all of them, including third-place finishes in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) and Delta Downs Jackpot (gr. III) and a victory in the Barretts Juvenile Stakes. But he’s only won two races. By Candy Ride, out of a Seeking the Gold mare, his second dam is by Caerleon, so there is plenty of stamina. Rating: 5.
COIL – Son of Point Given, out of a Theatrical mare who is out of an Avatar mare, has a ton of stamina top and bottom, but he currently is sidelined after having a knee chip removed, leaving doubts about him being ready for the Triple Crown. His 3 1/2-length score in a maiden race at Hollywood Park was impressive. Rating: 4.5.
COMMA TO THE TOP – There are some stamina questions regarding this son of Bwana Charlie, but they’re not serious enough to prevent him from going on to bigger and better things if he carries his current form over to the dirt. Riding a five-race winning streak, with three impressive stakes scores to his credit, including the grade I CashCall Futurity, he looks ready to vault trainer Peter Miller into the spotlight. Rating: 7
COOL BLUE RED HOT – It’s hard not to root for trainer Angel Penna Jr., who is not exactly a familiar face on the Derby trail, but is one of the sport’s good guys. He looks to have a runner in this son of Harlan’s Holiday following his 3 1/4-length score in a Calder maiden race going a mile and 70 yards. Stamina should not be a concern. Rating: 5
CROSSBOW -- After his impressive maiden victory at Aqueduct Jan. 2, this Darley-owned son of Bernardini could be a race away from either putting Kiaran McLaughlin on the Derby trail or heading off to Dubai. Female family ios more geared for speed and he hasn't been over six furlongs yet, so we'll see. Rating: 4.5.
DECISIVE MOMENT – Tough and consistent son of With Distinction came off a third in the In Reality Division of the Florida Stallion Series to finish a good second in the Delta Jackpot. Hasn’t been worse than fourth in five starts. Rating: 4
DIALED IN – At this point he looks to be Nick Zito’s top Derby hopeful following a come-from-the-clouds victory at Churchill Downs in his career debut going 6 1/2 furlongs at Churchill Downs. The son of Mineshaft should have enough distance breeding to keep stretching out. Rating: 5
EL GRAYLING – Hard to know what to make of this colt. He has the pedigree to run all day (by El Prado, out of a Dynaformer mare), but was just so-so in his first five starts, all on grass. Then when Mike Maker tried him on dirt in a mile allowance race at Churchill, he finished a good second to the highly promising Brethren, beaten 1 3/4 lengths, at 33-1. He may have been a dirt horse crying out for the dirt. Rating: 5.
ELITE ALEX – Son of Afleet Alex hasn’t run since sharp maiden score at Delaware Park going five furlongs, but is back working at Oaklawn Park for Tim Ritchey. He has a very strong female family, so stretching out should not be a problem. First race back will tell a lot. Rating: 5.
FREE POURIN – Baffert-Pegram team could have a nice colt in this son of Roman Ruler, who scored a game maiden victory at Hollywood after a dismal performance in his career debut. Still has a ways to go. Rating: 4.
GOURMET DINNER – Not crazy about his pedigree to stretch out to 10 furlongs, but he’s got a lot of ability, he’s consistent, and he has the right running style. He was impressive winning the Delta Jackpot by daylight and ran a good race to be fourth in the CashCall Futurity in his debut over a synthetic track. Steve Standridge has himself a real money maker who has already qualified for the Derby. Rating: 6.
HERP – Son of Arch has won two in a row, including an impressive allowance score going six furlongs at Fair Grounds. Trainer Bret Calhoun is on a roll following a pair of Breeders’ Cup victories. He should have no trouble stretching out to two turns. Rating: 5.
JAYCITO – Bob Baffert has taken over his training following his bizarre antics in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he wound up a well-beaten seventh after swerving badly. But he was impressive winning the Norfolk Stakes for Mike Mitchell and he has the breeding. Baffert has had to work on a lot of issues with him, and we’ll have to see how he comes back. Rating: 6.
J. B.’s THUNDER – He looked good winning on the turf at Saratoga and on Polytrack at Keeneland, capturing the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity, but he ran poorly in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, stopping badly after tracking the pace. So, who knows what to make of this son of Thunder Gulch? His next start, likely at Fair Grounds will tell us more. Rating: 6 (if the BC was a fluke) 3 (if that’s as good as he is on dirt).
J P’s GUSTO – Bounced back from a well-beaten sixth in the BC Juvenile to finish a fast-closing second in the CashCall Futurity. With victories in the Del Mar Futurity, Best Pal, and Hollywood Juvenile Championship, and a second in the Norfolk Stakes, this son of Successful Appeal is a dream horse for any trainer. The big question is how far he wants to go, as he has a ton of speed top and bottom. Top trainer in Dave Hofmans. Rating: 7.
JUSTIN PHILLIP -- Love his female family, out of a crypotoclearance mare; second dam is a stakes winner by Avatar. Broke his maiden impressively at Belmont in September before finishing third twice in allowance company at Churchill Downs. Sent to Fair Grounds, he relished the slop and two turns, winning an allowance race by 3 1/4 lengths. May be finding his best stride. Rating: 6.
LAUBURU – This half-brother to champion Ashado has won his only start by a nose going seven furlongs at Aqueduct after overcoming a bad start. A $925,000 yearling purchase, he still in unproven, but has potential. Rating: 5.
LEAVE OF ABSENCE – This well-bred son of Harlan’s Holiday, trained by Rick Violette, looked good breaking his maiden at Aqueduct, rattling off six furlongs in a sharp 1:09 2/5. He’s already had a number of good works down at Palm Meadows and should come out running in his 3-year-old debut. Rating: 6
MACHEN -- It looks like Neil Howard has himself a real runner in this son of Distorted Humor, who did everything the right way in breaking his maiden first out by 5 1/2 lengths at Fair Grounds, the six furlongs in a solid 1:10 2/5. More Than Ready questionable as a broodmare sire, but inbreeding to Hail to Reason and Naskra gives him plenty of class and stamina. Rating: 5.
MAJOR GAIN – This son of More Than Ready has a good deal of speed top and bottom, but his tail-female family is strong and should carry him an extra furlong or two. He won the Arlington Futurity, finished a troubled fifth in the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity, and was a close third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in his dirt debut. He looks like a solid horse for Wayne Catalano. Rating: 6.
MANICERO – Who knows how good this son of Mass Media is after three straight wins, including a romp in the Jack Price Juvenile at Calder and the Inaugural Stakes at Tampa. After four starts it’s time to stretch him out to two turns to see just what’s there. He has a ton of stamina in his female family, and his sire is a son of Touch Gold. Rating: 5.
MONZON -- This son of Thunder Gulch is two-for-two on the dirt, including an impressive late-closing victory in the Count Fleet Stakes. In his only other dirt start, he broke his maiden by 12 1/2 lengths at Laurel, so it's obvious dirt is his preferred surface, although he has run some bang-up races on grass. Tail-female family is solid French breeding, so distance should be no problem. Rating: 6.
MOUNTAIN TOWN – Definitely the 2-year-old claim of the year last year, as the Nick Zito-trained, Marylou Whitney-owned son of Cape Town was snatched out of his debut victory for $75,000 by Rick Dutrow and the Paul Pompa team. He came right back to finish a strong second to champion Uncle Mo in the Champagne Stakes and a troubled third in the Remsen Stakes behind To Honor and Serve, arguably the second-best 2-year-old in the country. Tail-female family is all Whitney blood. Rating: 7.
MUCHO MACHO MAN – He could be one the best stories of the year following good seconds behind To Honor and Serve in the Nashua and Remsen Stakes, making up two lengths in the final furlong in the latter. What makes him so interesting is that he’s already run five times and he won’t actually turn 3 until four days after the Belmont Stakes. Rating: 7.
PREMIER PEGASUS – This undefeated son of Fusaichi Pegasus, who has two sprint stakes scores under his belt, missed the CashCall Futurity and hasn’t been seen on the work tab since mid-November, so there are question marks regarding his current status. He obviously has ability and a ton of speed. Rating: 5.
RIVETING REASON – Another son of Fusaichi Pegasus, he’s already made eight starts, including thirds in the Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk Stakes. His fifth-place finish in the CashCall Futurity wasn’t that bad an effort. He then finished a close second to Awesome Patriot in a one-mile allowance, which definitely flattered the winner. Both he and Premier Pegasus are owned and trained by Myung Cho. Rating: 5
ROCKING OUT – Son of Include turned in an explosive stretch run to win his career debut at Aqueduct for Rick Dutrow, coming from 4 1/2 lengths back at the eighth pole to win by 4 1/4 lengths in 1:10 3/5. Let’s see if he shows up on the work tab soon, as he is playing catch up. Rating: 5.
ROGUE ROMANCE – Trained by the always-dangerous Kenny McPeek, this son of Smarty Jones won the Bourbon Stakes on turf before finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after losing a lot of ground on the first turn. His pedigree is all over the place, with Smarty Jones, Afleet, and Manila his prominent influences, so figure on him running well on any kind of surface. Rating: 7.
RUSTLER HUSTLER – Love this colt’s pedigree, especially his broodmare sire Cozzene, maternal great-grandsire Danzig Connection, and great-granddam Our Relation, a daughter of Ribot and the classy Aunt Edith II. He handles both dirt and grass, winning a pair of stakes on grass. He tired to finish sixth in the CashCall Futurity in his synthetic surface debut. If you’re willing to throw out that race he could be a fascinating Derby prospect. Here’s the Dutrow-Pompa connection again. Rating: 6.
SANTIVA – He finishes second and third in his first two starts for McPeek – gone. He then finishes a fast-closing second in the Breeders’ Futurity for Todd Pletcher – gone. In his last start, he wins the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes for Eddie Kenneally, who we understand still trains him. The son of Giant’s Causeway has had quite a barn-hopping journey so far, but the bottom line is, he can flat out run. Even with Safely Kept’s dam, Safely home, as his maternal granddam, he still has plenty of staying power. Main question is whether he’s fast enough (see Tapizar). Rating: 7.
SHACKLEFORD – Son of Forestry rebounded from a ninth-place finish in his career debut to win a seven-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs, coming again in the final furlong. Out of an Unbridled mare, he should have enough stamina in his female family to stretch out, but still is an unknown quantity. Rating: 4
SHADOW WARRIOR – The son of A.P. Indy has a sensational pedigree top and bottom with plenty of stamina on both sides, and you have to love both his starts, flying home out of nowhere to finish a close fourth in his debut and then drawing off to break his maiden by three lengths going a mile at Churchill Downs. Trained by Rusty Arnold, this colt has a lot going for him. Rating: 6.
SHERRIFF COGBURN – Have no idea if he’s still around or has any shot of getting on the Derby trail, as he hasn’t started since his 9 1/4-length romp in the Prairie Meadows Juvenile Mile, his second runaway score in as many starts. Nowhere to be found on the work tab yet, so he’s pretty iffy at best. Rating: 4.
SINAI – Baffert-trained son of Rockport Harbor won his career debut by two lengths going 6 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood. If stays sound he could be heard from; strong female family. Rating: 4.
SMASH – Baffert again, with another well-bred, untested colt. The son of Smart Strike broke his maiden first out by 2 1/2 lengths in :57 4/5 back in July. He’ll need to get back on the work tab soon and start making up for lost ground. Rating: 4.
SOLDAT – Top-class grass horse who ran a bang-up second in the BC Juvenile Turf, he has enough dirt influences to believe Kiaran McLaughlin will at least give him a try on the dirt. He has the talent, he’s ultra-consistent, and you never know. Rating: 5
SOVEREIGN DEFAULT – It doesn’t take a genius to know by the name he’s owned by the Wall Street glossary Klaravich Stables. The son of Northern Afleet broke his maiden by two lengths in 1:03 3/5 for 5 1/2 furlongs at Belmont in July and hasn’t been out since, but has been working steadily at Palm Meadows. Rating: 4.
STAY THIRSTY – Still believe this is a serious horse, despite his dipsy doodle move in the stretch in the BC Juvenile. Have to believe he was short for that race, not having run since the Hopeful. Absolutely love his pedigree, by Bernardini, out of a powerful King Ranch family that produced Belmont runner-up Andromeda’s Hero. He ran huge to finish second in the Hopeful, will run all day, and should be a major force once he gets over that greenness and the distances stretch out. Can’t help but like this colt. Rating: 7.5.
SWAY AWAY – This promising son of Afleet Alex, out of a Seattle Slew mare, broke his maiden easily first-time out at Pleasanton before finishing a strong second to J P’s Gusto in the Best Pal Stakes. He hasn’t been out since, but is back working. Rating: 5.
SWEET DUCKY – If you think highly of Curlinello, you have to love this horse after his two victories over the Pletcher-trained colt. Trained by the sharp Kelly Breen, he ran an OK fourth in the Delta Jackpot, but no one is going to hold that against him on that small track. The son of Pulpit has a decent enough pedigree and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Rating: 6.
TAPIZAR – Son of Tapit looked fairly ordinary in his first three starts, but then blew the doors off a maiden field at Churchill Downs, winning by 10 1/2 lengths in 1:44 for the 1 1/16 miles, which was more than a full second faster than they ran the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes the same day. The pedigree is there; we just don’t know yet what we’re dealing with. Rating: 7
THE FACTOR – Bill O’Reilly’s favorite horse stunned everyone with his spectacular maiden victory at Santa Anita, in which he won by 8 1/4 lengths in an unheard of 1:06 4/5 for six furlongs. Blazing track or not, that is incredible time for a maiden 2-year-old. The question is, was it too fast? He does get stamina from broodmare sire Miswaki, but with sire War Front and female family stallions Icecapade and Bold Forbes, there is quite a lot of speed. It is, however, speed that can stretch out, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Rating: 6.5
THIRTYFIRSTSTREET -- The leading Cal-bred 3-year-old, he's ready to step up into open company after victory in the California Breeders' Champion Stakes. Solid pedigree, and if you're a fan of the Rasmussen Factor (RF), he is inbred top and bottom to Rough Shod through her daughters Moccasin and Thong. Rating: 5.
TIZ BLESSED – This son of Tiznow broke his maiden by a nose at Saratoga first time out in a gutsy effort, then was fourth in the Garden State Stakes to Sweet Ducky before taking to the Polytrack, winning Woodbine’s Display Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths. Can’t wait to see what he does back on dirt. Rating: 5.
TO HONOR AND SERVE – Everything is there – pedigree (by Bernardini, out of a strong Darby Dan female family), talent (won his last three starts, including the Remsen and Nashua Stakes), looks, and he’s trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who finally got off the classic schneid last year with Drosselmeyer. He’ll likely keep away from Uncle Mo and should pave his own trail to Louisville. Rating: 8.
UNCLE MO – Nothing much to add to what’s already been written about him. He has the potential to be ones of the ones, and although his BC Juvenile romp was an amazing performance, displaying push-button acceleration, you can’t overlook his going a half in :45 4/5 and three-quarters in 1:10 2/5 in the Champagne and still coming home his last quarter in :24 flat. Only special horses can do that. Throw in his career debut, a 14 1/4-length procession in 1:09 1/5 at Saratoga and you have one of the most impressive 2-year-old campaigns ever. And his pedigree, although not loaded with stamina, should be strong enough if he maintains the same talent level at 3. Rating: 9.
UNCLE SAM – He may be the other Uncle right now, but with his pedigree and his strong 2 3/4-length maiden victory going a mile at Santa Anita, the son of Tapit, out of a Pleasant Colony mare, could move up the ranks quickly for Baffert, who is high on the colt. Rating: 6.5.
WILLCOX INN -- Son of Harlan's Holiday, out of a Gone West mare, ran huge thirds in the Breeders' Futurity and BC Juvenile Turf after breaking his maiden at Arlington Park. Only question now is how he'll take to the dirt. He's never even worked on it and hasn't been on any work tab since the Breeders' Cup.Rating: 5
WINE POLICE -- Don't know how far this son Speightstown wants to go, but he does have some decent stamina in his tail-female family. He was impressive breaking his maiden by 7 3/4 lengths at Saratoga back in July, then tired a bit in the stretch when finishing third in the Hopeful Stakes. He hasn't been out since, but recently had his first work back at Fair Grounds. Rating: 5.
ZAYDA -- This could be live El Camino Real Derby horse after his monster move winning a mile maiden race at Golden Gate. By Bluegrass Cat, you have to love his female family, with broodmare sire Unbridled, great-grandsire Pleasant Colony, and great-great-grandsire Stage Door Johnny. We're talking big-time class and stamina: Rating: 5.