Early Nominations In, Derby Trail Heats Up

Another important milepost on the road to Kentucky Derby 138 was reached last weekend with Saturday’s deadline when early nominations to the big race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May and the Triple Crown series were due.

On Super Bowl Sunday, we’ll know which 3-year-olds have displayed enough merit or potential to compel their owners and trainers to write a check for $600 to make their horses eligible to run in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Two more opportunities remain for owners and trainers to make their horses eligible, at significantly higher cost, for the three-race series, but the name of the Derby winner is usually on that first list.

As you read this, another milepost will have been reached on Jan. 26, which is the point on the 2012 calendar at which will be exactly 100 days before the “Run for the Roses.”

That might seem like a considerable amount of time, but from the perspective of a member of the team that works to present that race each year, be assured that the job is a sprint from the 100-day mark.

And both the clock and calendar move even faster for those involved with the horses that will make up the maximum field of 20 3-year-old Thoroughbreds that will break from the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 5.

If you find your horse a bit behind schedule, or training is interrupted by weather, illness, or injury, the minutes, hours and days jump into something akin to the speed of light.

After his eventual Horse of the Year Sunday Silence defeated rival Easy Goer in the first of their showdowns in the 1989 Kentucky Derby, the legendary Charlie Whittingham noted that his California-based victor enjoyed a perfect run-up to the Derby.

The colt was healthy, all of his works and races were on schedule and weather never presented a problem.

“He never had a straw in his path,” Whittingham said of Sunday Silence’s journey to Churchill Downs for the biggest race of them all.

That’s the roadmap owners and trainers of this year’s crop of 3-year-olds are dreaming of, but none could reasonably be counting on.

Against that backdrop, you’ll be hearing much more news on the progress of horses already established as major contenders for Derby 138.

Many of those will be hitting the track soon for their first races as 3-year-olds on the long, difficult and frequently unpredictable road to Louisville.

Foremost among those horses will be the two that were acknowledged to be at the top of their age group at the end of 2011: unbeaten Eclipse Award champion Hansen and once-beaten Union Rags, the 1-2 finishers in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

Churchill Downs-based trainer Mike Maker, who had his hands on many good 3-year-olds during his years as an assistant to four-time Derby winner and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, is preparing to send Hansen out for his first race on the Derby Trail this Sunday in the one-mile Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

The front-running gray son of Tapit, owned by Dr. Kendall Hansen and the Louisville-based Skychai Racing partnership headed by Harvey Diamond and Jim Shircliff, worked a quick five furlongs last weekend at the Florida track in preparation for the 1 1/16-mile race.

Union Rags had a similar work at Gulfstream and trainer Michael Matz, who guided the ill-fated Barbaro to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle in 2006, is targeting the Feb. 26 Fountain of Youth as the first outing of the year for his Eclipse Award runner-up.

If all goes well for Hansen in the Holy Bull, the Fountain of Youth could be the first meeting between the two horses since Union Rags finished a head short of catching the champion at Churchill Downs on Breeders’ Cup Saturday.

So, we await the 3-year-old debuts of the big two contenders, and others including WinStar Farm’s unbeaten Gemologist, trainer Todd Pletcher’s winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs, and Arnold Zetcher’s Liaison, winner of Hollywood Park’s CashCall Futurity for trainer Bob Baffert.

While watching for those names to return to the Derby radar screen, we can assess the victory by the J. Larry Jones-trained Mr. Bowling in last week’s Lecomte at Fair Grounds and other early 2012 stakes wins by Out of Bounds in Santa Anita’s Sham Stakes; Alpha in the Count Fleet at Aqueduct; Russian Greek in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields; Reveron in the Gulfstream Park Derby and a victory by Junebugred in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park.

The latter came at the expense of third-place finisher On Fire Baby, an impressive filly trained by Louisville-based Gary Hartlage whose connections apparently have the Derby on their radar as well as the more likely target of the Kentucky Oaks.

Those are a few of the more-accomplished names already solidly on the road to Churchill Downs for Kentucky Derby 138.

But that road will get more crowded very soon as the mileposts zip past quickly now that we find ourselves with fewer than 100 days remaining until the first Saturday in May.