A few years ago when I started doing this blog I used to put out a Kentucky Derby top 10 list every few weeks beginning in February. Then I realized what a fruitless task it was and I stopped. We all have enough difficulty picking a winner on the first Saturday in May, so to say a horse is ranked seventh on Feb. 22 or fifth on March 20, is pretty much meaningless. We can try to group them into different categories, like contender vs. pretenders, but things change daily on the Triple Crown trail and there are too many variables to attach an accurate ranking to any particular horse, so why even try?
As Bob Baffert says, nobody really knows what they have until the final Derby preps are run, so we might as well wait to see how things play out. Now, this is not to say that we can't have fun with the Derby trail, study pedigrees, and bet on who we like. Everyone has their favorites and the build-up to the race is almost as important as the race itself. But that's as far as I'll go until the field is drawn and final picks are made a couple days before the race.
What I do think is neat about this time on the calendar--that is, just before the final preps are run--is that we can kind of pinpoint the major matchups about to take place. Those all important final preps begin this weekend with the Spiral Stakes and the Sunland Derby. The following weekend is the Florida and Louisiana Derby, followed by the Illinois Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial. The Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes cap off a wild month of 3-year-old racing.
There are always going to be new shooters in every race and the possibility for upsets (How about this 14-length maiden winner Cigar Street pointing for the Louisiana Derby?) is always there, but as best as I can tell here are the major matchups we have to look forward to in the final preps. Think of this as a cheat sheet leading up to final exams.
Spiral (March 24): This one looks as wide-open as any prep I've seen with a couple of Graham Motion trainees, State of Play and Went the Day Well, and undefeated and lightly-raced Pletcher horse Heavy Breathing likely to take much of the action. John Battaglia runner-up Ill Conceived and Gotham runner Stealcase are also horses to watch in what figures to be a full field.
Sunland Derby (March 25): Southwest winner Castaway will be the one to beat after looking great in his last start. Baffert will also send recent maiden winner Stirred Up, but the other main contenders will be El Camino Real winner Daddy Nose Best, Longview Drive, and impressive Pletcher maiden winner Ender Knievel. A win by Castatway will put him in the upper-echelon of Derby contenders.
Florida Derby (March 31): It's being billed as a showdown between Union Rags and El Padrino, who are ranked as top contenders by almost everyone. Union Rags is going to be the heavy favorite. If he wins and does so convincingly, the Triple Crown hype will officially start. Also aiming for the Florida Derby are two horses who need a big showing-Fountain of Youth runner-up News Pending and Take Charge Indy, who bypassed the Tampa Day Derby to wait for this race. (I'm still confused about that decision).
Louisiana Derby (April 1): With word that Alpha is now going here, it's gives the race a shot in the arm. They were looking for the easiest spot for the Withers winner and they probably found it. That's not to say the race will be a walkover, but a top three finish will get him into the Derby. Alpha might be favored, but Mark Valeski is going to take a lot of money (including mine). He loves the track and apparently has only gotten better since the Rise Star. Also in the field will be Z Dager, Shared Property, Mr. Bowling, and possibly the aforementioned Cigar Street.
Santa Anita Derby (April 7): It looks like a rematch between San Felipe winner Creative Cause and Baffert's improving runner-up Bodemeister, with a little I'll Have Another sprinkled in. Creative Cause probably established himself as the best of the West, but he'll need to repeat his performance to prove it. Liaison, fourth in the Lewis, will also take one more shot for Baffert. Sabercat might stay out in California for this one too after a so-so Rebel effort.
Wood Memorial (April 7): The matchup right now centers on champion Hansen vs. undefeated Gemologist. Can Hansen carry his speed a little further or is Gemologist heading back to Churchill undefeated where he already has two wins? Other interesting horses looking at the Wood are recent inner track stakes winner Street Life, My Adonis, and perhaps Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective.
Illinois Derby (April 7): Late nominations don't close for this race until Saturday, and I don't think even Hawthorne knows who the probables are for this race. With a purse increase to $500,000, it will probably include a host of horses on the fringe looking for one shot at the Derby. Our Entourage, a Pletcher/Repole colt that was pretty good in winning a turf allowance last out, is one of the possible favorites-if he goes. Also pointing to the race is Paynter, an extremely talented Baffert horse who has just one start-a maiden win going 5 1/2 furlongs on Feb. 18.
Arkansas Derby (April 14): Well, we know Secret Circle will be favored. Optimzer, Scatman, and Jake Mo will be back too. One interesting name popping up is On Fire Baby, the filly who won the Honeybee on March 10 and who just might take on the boys. We'll see.
Blue Grass (April 14): Howe Great and Dullahan will probably take on each other again after a close race in the Palm Beach. Prospective might show up here if he doesn't go to New York. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.
I'm sure I missed a few. And I'm sure there will be some upsets along the way to Louisville.