4 Kentucky Derby Contenders to Watch

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

When the Breeders' Cup is over, Thanksgiving has passed, and December has begun, racing fans know what time it is--it's time to start thinking about the Kentucky Derby!

Every year at this time, I start looking for lightly-raced, up-and-coming young colts that have yet to run in a stakes race, but which have shown promise with eye-catching maiden victories. For this blog post, I have come up with four horses that fit the profile, and coincidentally, they are all unbeaten and 1-for-1 at this early stage of the Derby trail. Time will tell how far they progress during the next five months, but I think they have the potential to become stakes winners in the near future. So without further ado, here are four Derby contenders to keep an eye on this winter...

Beach Bum

Given the way that California-based three-year-olds have dominated the Triple Crown in recent years (think I'll Have Another, Bodemeister, Paynter, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Firing Line, Dortmund, Nyquist, and Exaggerator), it could be wise to pay close attention to what transpires in California this winter.

One colt to keep an eye on is Beach Bum, a Bob Baffert-trained runner that won his debut impressively on November 6th at Santa Anita. Overlooked at odds of 5-1, Beach Bum endured a wide trip after breaking from post eleven, but shrugged off the disadvantage to take command after a :44.39 half-mile and draw off to win by a decisive 5 ¼ lengths. (Click here to watch the replay.)

With a promising pedigree (by Arch out of the stakes-placed Storm Cat mare Chili Cat), Beach Bum should be able to handle two turns, although his pedigree also hints that turf could be in his future (click here to view his pedigree). In any case, he's likely bound for stakes company after his promising debut, which will give us a chance to see if he can take the next step forward to join the ranks of the elite Derby contenders.


Time will tell if he gives dirt a try or stays on turf, but Conscripted showed a lot of promise winning a one-mile maiden special weight over the Santa Anita turf course on October 30th. Trained by John Shirreffs--who isn't generally known for winning with two-year-old first-time starters--Conscripted was sent off as a longshot at 21-1 and trailed the field by ten lengths early on, but unleashed a powerful rally in the homestretch, closing a three-length gap in the final furlong to win by a nose. (Click here to watch the replay.)

Best of all, Conscripted's burst of acceleration wasn't an illusion--according to Trakus, he ran the final quarter in :23.03 seconds and the final furlong in a stellar :11.37. With a turf-oriented pedigree (he's by Biondetti out of Prized mare Ponderway; click here to view his pedigree), he's likely found a home on grass and might not give dirt a try. But overall, I think Conscripted has the talent to be a very nice horse, and I'm looking forward to seeing where he runs next.

Irish War Cry

One of my favorite stallions in the country is Curlin, because his progeny tend to be versatile, sound, and gifted with stamina. They also get better with age, which is why I take note when a son of Curlin turns in an impressive win sprinting as a two-year-old. Already, Curlin has sired four horses that have won or placed in classics (Palace Malice, Ride On Curlin, Keen Ice, and Exaggerator), and I think it's possible that Irish War Cry could become the fifth.

After being brought to my attention by an Unlocking Winners reader (thanks, Coldfacts!), I gave Irish War Cry a close look and have grown very excited about him. He has only run once, winning a six-furlong maiden special weight at Laurel Park by 4 ½ lengths, but the basic numbers can't describe just how impressive he was. After getting off to a slightly slow start, Irish War Cry was eight lengths back through an opening quarter-mile in :22.83, but despite racing very wide around the far turn, Irish War Cry unleashed a powerful, eye-catching rally to effortlessly sweep past the majority of the field and reach contention as the field turned for home. After making such a big run, it wouldn't have been surprising if Irish War Cry had flattened out, but instead, he ran the fifth furlong in about :11.47 and the final furlong in about :11.56 to win going away by 4 ½ lengths, despite racing greenly and trying to drift in through the homestretch! (Click here to view the replay.)

Needless to say, this was a very exciting debut from a colt that is bred top and bottom to excel in longer races (click here to view his pedigree). Not surprisingly, he received a lot of support in the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, closing as the ninth choice at just under 27-1. Trained by Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, Irish War Cry looks bound for a Derby prep race in the near future, and I think we'll hear a lot from him in 2017.

Saint's Fan

Question: What do Macho Again, Golden Soul, Commanding Curve, and Tale of Verve have in common? Answer: They were all trained by Dallas Stewart, they all hit the board in a Triple Crown race, and they all ran in maiden races during the Churchill Downs fall meet.

Only time will tell if Saint's Fan can follow in their footsteps (or go a step further and win a Triple Crown race!), but he certainly showed promise in his debut on November 4th at Churchill Downs. Unlike his famous predecessors, who were beaten in their debuts, Saint's Fan made it to the winner's circle in a six-furlong maiden special weight, settling about four lengths back through fractions of :21.78 and :45.56 before rallying to win by 1 ¾ lengths. (Click here to view the replay.)

Saint's Fan's sire, Tale of Ekati, has already enjoyed some Triple Crown success as the sire of the above-mentioned 2015 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Tale of Verve, Saint's Fan's broodmare sire--Sky Mesa--has produced several horses that excelled in route races, including General Quarters and Dynamic Sky (click here to view Saint's Fan's pedigree.) And how amazing it would be for Dallas Stewart to win the Derby with a horse that he bred, owns, and trains? Saint's Fan has already breezed twice since his maiden win and should be ready to run again soon; I wouldn't be surprised to see him turn up at Fair Grounds this winter, with the LeComte Stakes (gr. III) as a possibility for his stakes debut.

Now it's your turn! Which up-and-coming two-year-olds have caught your eye?


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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