With about 50 days remaining in the countdown to the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the long roster of possible contenders for Americaâ€™s greatest race is, despite some defections, as interesting as any year in memory.
While weâ€™re always on the lookout for new contenders and rising stars, the horses that were stars of last yearâ€™s 2-year-old crop have remained at the top of the crop on the unfolding road to Churchill Downs.
And all of those horses were major players in the Grey Goose Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, a race that is not always indicative of success six months later under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
If the Derby were run today, once-beaten Union Rags would likely be the betting favorite.
He opened the year with an easy victory at 1 1/16 miles in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park that suggested the Derbyâ€™s mile and a quarter might well be within his grasp.
His next run and finale Derby prep for trainer Michael Matz, who saddled Barbaro for his unforgettable victory in the 2006 â€œRun for the Roses,â€ is expected to be the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 31.
The lone defeat on Union Ragsâ€™ impressive career was dealt by Hansen, who earned the title of 2-year-old champion with that victory in the Grey Goose Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
He was beaten by the talented, but now injured, Algorithms in his season debut in the Holy Bull, but bounced back with an emphatic win in Aqueductâ€™s Gotham.
Hansenâ€™s admirers quickly forgave the colt for his earlier misstep and his impressive Gotham win put him back at the top of roster of Derby 138â€™s major contenders.
Last weekend it was the turn of Creative Cause, who had finished a close third behind Hansen and Union Rags when that duo was separated by a head in the Breedersâ€™ Cup.
Creative Cause had finished an even third in his season debut in the seven-furlong San Vicente, but returned to form in style last Saturday with a strong victory in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe at Santa Anita.
The son of Giantâ€™s Causeway clearly needed that first race as he unleashed a powerful move on the far turn and, despite a somewhat erratic run through the stretch, leveled off in the final yards to put away the lightly-raced Bodemeister.
As strong as the 2-year-old season for Creative Cause was, the victory by trainer Mike Harringtonâ€™s gray son of Giantâ€™s Causeway clearly placed him in the upper echelon of Derby 138 contenders.
Heâ€™s a major player for Harrington, who is hoping to participate in his first Kentucky Derby. Both Creative Cause and Bodemeister (pronounced BO-dee-my-ster and named after Baffertâ€™s son, Bode) should improve off their efforts and will likely meet again in the Santa Anita Derby.
A day after the run by Creative Cause, the fourth-place finisher in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile turned in a solid performance in his first race of the year. The Dale Romans-trained Dullahan, fourth to Hansen on Breedersâ€™ Cup Day, ran a good second to Howe Great in Gulfstream Parkâ€™s Palm Beach Stakes on the grass.
The half-brother to Mine That Bird, the longshot winner of the 2009 Derby, should, ran very well in his first race back and could make his final Derby prep in Keenelandâ€™s Toyota Blue Grass.
Itâ€™s very interesting and, given the historical record, a little surprising that the form of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile has held up so well.
Remember that only Street Sense, winner of the 2007 Derby, has won both races since the inaugural Breedersâ€™ Cup in 1984.
But rarer than the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile-Derby sweep is a victory by a filly in Americaâ€™s greatest race.
Only three â€“ Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988) â€“ have beaten the boys in 137 years, but at least two fillies are shaping up as possible challengers for the best boys of their 3-year-old crop.
One is Anita Cauleyâ€™s On Fire Baby, winner over fillies in the Pocahontas and Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs and a dazzling winner last weekend in the Honeybee at Oaklawn Park.
Trained by Churchill Downs veteran and Shively native Gary â€œRed Dogâ€ Hartlage, On Fire Baby was nominated to the Triple Crown was well as the Kentucky Oaks and Hartlage is considering a run against males in the Arkansas Derby in her next outing.
Another to watch for both the Oaks and the Derby is Peachtree Stableâ€™s Princess Arabella, an unbeaten daughter of Any Given Saturday trained by Baffert.
Like On Fire Baby, she was nominated to both the Derby and Oaks and reports from the West say sheâ€™s an impressive physical specimen.
Princess Arabella is expected to make her stakes debut on March 25 in the Sunland Park Oaks.
While the top male stars of 2011 have started this year in good form with apparent room for improvement, itâ€™s possible that these fillies could emerge as stars of the crop.
With recent female Horse of the Year honorees Rachel Alexandra (2009), Zenyatta (2010) and Havre de Grace (2011) continuing to emphasize an era of female power in American racing, this could be the year for another filly to wear the roses on May 5 at Churchill Downs.