We're 53 days from the Run for the Roses, and we've scantly talked about this year's crop, which is decidedly better than last year's group, which basically consisted of Big Brown and a bunch of hacks. We'll delve more deeply into this crop and try to determine the actual contenders come late April, but right now, who are the eleven horses to watch during the next round or two of prep races?
The Obvious and Boring Contenders
1. Old Fashioned. A finalist for the Eclipse Award for champion 2 year old last year, he won his only start this year in the Southwest Stakes, and is set to run the Rebel-Arkansas Derby route to Kentucky. He's undefeated and has done absolutely nothing wrong yet to date, yet there's a nagging feeling that this guy isn't going to want 10 furlongs and has too much pent up speed to really be a factor late. He's quite reminiscent of Lion Heart, the 2004 Derby runner up. This isn't a bad thing, mind you, it just means he's not the winner.
2. Pioneer of the Nile. Synthetic champ that's got a couple of nice wins...in California over an artificial surface. His breeding indicates he should like dirt, his performances and speed figures though, while okay, are nothing special.
3. Friesian Fire. Like Old Fashioned, he's trained by Larry Jones, who's run 2nd in consecutive Derbies with Hard Spun and Eight Belles. He's also done nothing wrong, but nobody really likes him; more people are talking about the horses that finished behind him in the Risen Star than him, the winner.
4. The Pamplemousse. Arguably the best named horse on this list, he's modestly bred, but has nice tactical speed and looked good winning the Sham in his last. The problem with him, besides the breeding and the synthetics question, is that he's yet to really run against or beat a good horse, but that should be cured in his next start, the Santa Anita Derby.
The Potential Stars
5. Dunkirk. Insanely talented. He's 2-for-2 with a win at 9 furlongs, is impeccably bred, has top connections and a ton of speed. The catch? He didn't run as a two year old, and nobody since Apollo some 130 years ago has won the Derby without running as a 2yo. Derby traditions have been falling left and right the last few years, but this one's still a tough one to beat.
6. Quality Road. The second best freak we've seen this year at Gulfstream after Dunkirk, he was sensational in winning the Fountain of Youth. But is he really a router? His connections didn't think so and didn't nominate him to the Triple Crown. Let's see how he fares when he tackles two turns.
7. I Want Revenge. Romped in the Gotham after running well out West. He should be near the top of everyone's list.
The Sleepers Everyone's Talking About
8. Imperial Council. Ran second to I Want Revenge in the Gotham and got a rather curious ride from the excreable Rajiv Maragh in that race. Definitely look for an improvement when he gets back Edgar Prado in the Wood in 4 weeks.
9. Giant Oak. Everyone's sleepr horse from the Risen Star, he's better bred and more likely to improve than Friesian Fire.
10. Papa Clem. He ran second to The Pamplemousse in his last over a month ago and beat I Want Revenge in that race. Both have since come back to win. Has to bode well for him, right?
11. Desert Party. The sheikhs of Dubai made a huge show out of buying last year's winner of the Breeders Cup Juvenile (Midshipman) and the best East Coast 2yo (Vineyard Haven). So far this year, Midshipman is hurt and Vineyard Haven lookd awful in his race. By contrast, this high priced but less publicized purchase has done nothing wrong since going to the Middle East. It'll still be tough to win the Derby shipping 7000 miles to Louisville, but this guy is talented.
For now, we're leaning towards Imperial Council and Quality Road as our preferred horses, with perpetual bridesmaid Beethoven and potential late bloomer Flying Pegasus on our radar as well. But this looks like a pretty decent year for 3 year olds, and it's kind of exciting.