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The Cast Is Nearly Complete

After weekend triumphs in major prep races by unbeaten Dortmund on the West Coast and Carpe Diem in the East, all but two of the likely cast members for this year’s 141st Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands have made onstage appearances at stops along the road to Churchill Downs.

The runs by trainer Bob Baffert’s Dortmund in a front-running romp in the Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita and Carpe Diem, trainer Todd Pletcher’s winner of the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby in his first race since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in early November, justified the universal top-five assessment for each colt in pre-Kentucky Derby rankings.

As the Kentucky Derby countdown clock rolls down to 50 days, the stage will be set for the stretch run to the Derby over the next few days when reigning two-year-old champion American Pharaoh makes his season debut in the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas and a return to serious training by Texas Red, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Trained by three-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert, American Pharaoh’s Rebel run will be his first race since Sept. 27, an extraordinarily long time between efforts by a major contender for any Kentucky Derby. He was knocked out of a planned run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by injury and Baffert has taken a slow and careful approach to his return to racing.

He was a dominant force at two, and the Rebel will provide a strong indication as to whether that is still the case six months after he most recent race. Texas Red scored a runaway win in the Breeders’ Cup race in the champion’s absence, but was beaten nearly five lengths by American Pharoah in a meeting in Santa Anita’s Grade I FrontRunner.

Saturday’s return by American Pharoah was to have been enlivened by a Rebel showdown with Take Charge Brandi, the D. Wayne Lukas-trained 2-year-old filly champion of 2014.

It would have been the first pre-Kentucky Derby meeting ever between the male and female juvenile champions, but that on-track drama was dashed early Tuesday by word from Lukas that his star filly would head to the sidelines for at least 60 days after she suffered a bone chip in her right knee.

American Pharoah would have been a decided favorite over the filly in his first race following a breathtaking juvenile season in which he toyed with the best horses the West Coast had to offer. But the potential boys vs. girl contest with Lukas’ filly would have offered compelling theater, especially given Lukas’ penchant for pulling major surprises in big races.

While we wish Take Charge Brandi the best and bemoan the loss of Lukas’ champion as a prospective contender for either the Kentucky Derby or the Longines Kentucky Oaks, we’ll continue to look forward to the return of American Pharoah. He has been training brilliantly for his return, capping his pre-race workouts with a six-furlong sparkler from the starting gate last week at Santa Anita.

Training is one thing, but racing is quite another. Will we see the dominant American Pharoah of 2014 or will the Rebel show that the Zayat Stables’ homebred has much work to do before Saturday, May 2?

Despite the absence of Take Charge Brandi, the Rebel will still be must-see racing.

Meanwhile, the ticking of the Derby clock for Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red grows louder, but there is positive news from his camp. Texas Red has finally returned to Santa Anita following farm rest because of a foot abscess discovered after his 2015 debut as runner-up in the Grade III San Vicente on Feb. 1 at Santa Anita. Trainer Keith Desormeaux, brother of three-time Derby-winning jockey Kent, hopes to work Texas Red each of the next two weekends and, if all goes well, run his colt in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, an April 4 race in which he would face the imposing Dortmund.

With respect to Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs and the Triple Crown races, all of these contenders are off-Broadway as they prep for their turn in the big stage spotlight. But, with about 50 days to go until the Derby, each day and each race or training move grows in importance for American Pharoah, Texas Red and every other horse bidding to compete in the race on the first Saturday in May.

The Kentucky Derby is the race that everyone wants to win, but only one horse will. What happens over the next few weeks will determine which horse is ready for that singular spotlight beneath the Twin Spires when their defining moment arrives. VT