As we close in on the milepost of 40 days to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, major players Union Rags, Hansen, Creative Cause and the rest all face major final preps over the next three weeks.
The top contenders â€“ Union Rags, Hansen, Creative Cause and most of the field from what appears to have been a very strong running of last fallâ€™s Grey Goose Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs â€“ will participate in major prep races over the next three weeks.
Unless those horses have serious missteps in their final preps, their place on the road to the 138th Kentucky Derby figures to change little. But the run of preps on the near horizon, which includes races like this weekendâ€™s Spiral at Turfway Park, the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby and Toyota Blue Grass, will provide opportunities for horses currently looming just under the radar to make their cases for a spot in among the 20 slots in the Churchill Downs starting gate for the Derby.
The Dark Horses
Hereâ€™s a look at some horses that could emerge as the much sought after â€œdark horsesâ€ for the 2012 Run for the Roses in the prep races looming just around the corner.
On Fire Baby â€“ This filly trained by Shively native Gary Hartlage was mentioned last week as a potential candidate to become just the fourth female in 138 years to beat the boys on the biggest day in American racing. Her next race will either be a run against fillies in the Fantasy at Oaklawn Park, a race that could make her the favorite for the Kentucky Oaks, or a bid to beat males in the Arkansas Derby. She was third earlier in the year in her only career run against the boys, but her most recent win over fillies in the Honeybee was a dazzler and Hartlage is giving the Arkansas Derby, a key prep for the Kentucky Derby in recent years, strong consideration.
Went the Day Well â€“ Heâ€™s coming off his first career victory in a race at Floridaâ€™s Gulfstream Park, but will run in the Spiral in a quality check for owner Team Valor. Thatâ€™s the group that successfully used a Spiral victory by Animal Kingdom last year as a springboard to success in the Kentucky Derby.
Najjaar â€“ He was so far back in the early going of last weekâ€™s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park that he reminded one of Mine That Birdâ€™s early run in a different time zone before he rallied to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby.
A Sneaky Borel
Not surprisingly, ultra-patient Calvin Borel was aboard Najjaar, who rallied in the stretch to finish sixth and carved his deficit from an early 21 lengths to lose by just under five lengths. It was a sneaky good run by Najjaar, who should appreciate more distance in the Arkansas Derby and could some help from a hot pace on the front end. Heâ€™s Calvinâ€™s sleeper for 2012.
Street Life â€“ His next race will be a make or break affair for his Derby chances and that will likely occur in Aqueductâ€™s Wood Memorial. If he runs a big one in the Wood, a lot of Derby fans will love this son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. He is a real stretch runner â€“ a style that attracts fans on any day, but especially on Derby Day â€“ and his out-of-the-clouds style and his pedigree will make him a fashionable longshot if he can amass enough graded stakes earnings to get him into the field. At this moment, he does not have a penny in those earnings, so there is much work to be done.
Neck â€˜N Neck â€“ He did not come close to threatening Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, but his fourth-place run was much better than it looked. He had troubles around the first turn and was wide a good bit of the way. Heâ€™s a long shot to win with continued development.
Cigar Street â€“ He got his career underway awfully late to be thinking about the Kentucky Derby, but was so spectacular in a dominant win in his second career start that his next outing will draw strong attention. He could get two starts in before Derby if he makes progress.
Stat â€“ Trainer Todd Pletcher unleashed this one for an impressive win at a mile last weekend at Gulfstream Park. The son of Unbridledâ€™s Song ran faster in winning a one-mile allowance race than unbeaten stablemate and high-level Derby contender Gemologist did 24 hours earlier.
File those names away, and now weâ€™ll focus on the top of the crop. Hereâ€™s the current Asher Derby 138 Top 10:
- Union Rags
- Creative Cause
- El Padrino
- Mark Valeski
- Iâ€™ll Have Another