Much ground will be covered and analysis offered over the nine weeks leading up to Kentucky Derby 138, but â€“ at least for the moment â€“ we have a serious favorite for the â€œRun for the Roses.â€
That issue was at least temporarily settled in the homestretch at Floridaâ€™s Gulfstream Park on Sunday afternoon when Union Rags galloped to a four-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes in a sensational return to competition.
The last time Union Rags had stepped onto the track for competition was on the first week of November at Churchill Downs, where he suffered his first loss in four races when he came up a head short of catching eventual 2-year-old champion Hansen in the Grey Goose Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile.
Sundayâ€™s performance was what many observers had expected to see from Union Rags in the Breedersâ€™ Cup, where he was hampered by a bit of a wide journey and a strong opponent who ran a terrific race.
But the Derby favorite had displayed poise and versatility in his first three starts, and his obvious talent is now combined with a larger and stronger frame.
Trainer Michael Matz, who saddled the star-crossed Barbaro for his romp in the Kentucky Derby in 2006, now cares for the favorite for the 2012 renewal of Americaâ€™s greatest race on Saturday, May 5, at Churchill Downs.
â€œYou never know after a four-month rest â€“ Do you have the horse fit enough? Did you do this? Did you do that? You always go through 51 questions,â€ Matz said after the Fountain of Youth. â€œI guess we did it right this time.â€
Another individual in a good spot is jockey Julien Leparoux, who was in the saddle aboard Union Rags for the first time. Leparoux, a nine-time leading rider at Churchill Downs who has not yet come close to winning the trackâ€™s biggest race, was beaming after the tour de force run by Matzâ€™s colt.
â€œI was hoping he would run a good race, but I was not expecting that. Heâ€™s such an easy horse to ride and did everything so easily,â€ Leparoux said. â€œIâ€™m sure he was not 100 percent today, which means he should just get better.â€
Leparoux was aboard the Kentucky Derby favorite a year ago in Dialed In, but Nick Zitoâ€™s stretch-runner finished eighth.
Thoroughbreds can change a lot from two-to-three, and their continued physical and mental development is critical to becoming Derby contenders.
Itâ€™s a race during which those horses â€“ who can best be compared to still-developing human athletes in their teens or early 20â€™s â€“ face a long list of challenges and experiences for the first â€“ and in many cases, the only â€“ time in their careers.
In my experience as a racing fan, the greatest individual performance I have witnessed was victory by the French-based Arazi in the 1991 Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
His last-to-first run remains breathtaking today, and it established the colt as a huge favorite to return to the U.S. and win the Derby the following spring.
He indeed left the starting gate as the odds-on favorite, but did so after a winter during which he had undergone supposedly â€œminorâ€ knee surgery and preparation that included one decidedly-soft prep race in Europe.
And Arazi, a tiny colt on his best day, did not appear to have gained an ounce of weight or muscle during those months.
The result was an eighth-place finish in the Derby won by Cal Parteeâ€™s Lil E. Tee and Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day. It was the worst finish by an odds-on choice in Derby history.
While there is a long way to go until Derby 138, it is encouraging that a glance at Union Rags shows he was no freshman phenom.
He has matured significantly in the four months since his lone loss at Churchill Downs.
â€œHeâ€™s more mature and has grown,â€ Matz told Daily Racing Form. Heâ€™s 17 hands now.â€
The Fountain of Youth provided major disappointment before the race for Starlight Racing and trainer Todd Partner as their pre-race favorite Algorithms was scratched because of a splint bone injury.
The injury arrived at a critical time on the Derby and Triple Crown trail, and Algorithm was pulled from Derby contention early in the week.
Starlight is a partnership managed by Louisville native Jack Wolfe, and his partners with Algorithms include Louisville attorney Ed Glasscock and his son, Clint.
Pletcher still saddled the post-time Fountain of Youth favorite in previously unbeaten Discreet Dancer, but he faded to third as Union Rags easily galloped away.
The trainer could take some solace in a victory by another of his Derby hopes, El Padrino, in Saturdayâ€™s Risen Star at New Orleansâ€™ Fair Grounds. But a possible extended stay on the sidelines for Algorithms and the setback for Discreet Dancer were significant setbacks for Pletcherâ€™s Derby 2012 hopes.
The scratch was also a painful turn of events for jockey Javier Castellano, who had given up the mount on Union Rags to ride Algorithms in the run to the Derby.
With just over 60 days to go, Union Rags stands as the clear front-runner on the road to Derby 138 after his dominant performance in Florida.
He figures to be a clear individual favorite â€“ if not the overall choice â€“ in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which opens its three-day run on Friday.
The biggest race this weekend is the Gotham at New Yorkâ€™s Aqueduct, where champion Hansen is scheduled to attempt to restore luster to his star.
It was tarnished by the previously unbeaten coltâ€™s loss to Algorithms in Gulfstreamâ€™s Fountain of Youth.