As you read this, weâ€™ll be closing in on the most wonderful time of the year â€“ well, maybe itâ€™s 1A to the Christmas saddle towel that bears No. 1, or vice versa. But weâ€™re in the neighborhood of 140 days until the first Saturday in May and the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
Last week, we looked at the outstanding performances by 2-year-olds during the Fall Meet at Churchill Downs. Now, weâ€™ll look at the bigger picture and the young stars that, in the view of this corner, loom as the major plays on the road to the Kentucky Derby roses.
And we start the early Derby 142 Top 10 with a native Kentuckian at the top:
1. MOHAYMEN â€“ Neither Lexington-born trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, a one-time assistant to four-time Kentucky Derby winner and Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, nor owner Shadwell Stable has won a Kentucky Derby, but the team has a major Derby player this year in Mohaymen, an unbeaten son of hot sire Tapit. He scored an easy win in Aqueductâ€™s Remsen to wrap up a brief and perfect three-race 2-year-old season. Shadwell purchased the colt for $2.2 million at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, and his dam, the McLaughlin-trained Dixie Union mare Justwhistledixie, also produced 2013 Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile winner New Yearâ€™s Day. He has, so far, lived up to his pedigree and auction price, and we wonâ€™t have to wait long to see him in the New Year. The first race on McLaughlinâ€™s 2016 agenda is the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes, which will be run at 1 1/16-miles at Floridaâ€™s Gulfstream Park on January 30.
2. NYQUIST â€“ Hailing from the owner-trainer-jockey team that brought us 2012 Kentucky Derby winner, Iâ€™ll Have Another, Nyquist, the unbeaten winner of the Sentient Jet Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile and sure-bet-to-be champion 2-year-old of 2015, would seem to possess most anything one would want in an early contender for the May 7 Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. But a win in the Breedersâ€™ Cup event and possession of a 2-year-old championship brought have meant little in the Kentucky Derby in recent decades. Winners of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile, which debuted in 1984, were 1-for-31 in the Derby prior to this yearâ€™s triumph by Nyquist, who is a member of the first crop of offspring by Uncle Mo, another juvenile champion that failed to win the Derby at 3. Since 1978, 2-year-old champ Spectacular Bid won the Derby the following spring, Street Sense (2007) and American Pharoah are the only 2-year-old champions to wear Derby roses. Street Sense is the only horse in 31 years to win both races, so the bar for Nyquist has been set pretty high.
3. BRODYâ€™S CAUSE â€“ Half of Churchill Downs-based trainer Dale Romans duo of Kentucky Derby hopes, this son of Giantâ€™s Causeway closed out the year with a third-place run from far back in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile preceded by a win in Keenelandâ€™s Breedersâ€™ Futurity. He notched his first career victory at Churchill Downs, which makes him one of three members of this Derby Top 10 with a win on the track over which the 2016 Derby will be run. Romansâ€™ other Derby hope, Unbridled Outlaw, ran 12th of 14 in the Breedersâ€™ Cup race, but is far better than that.
4. CONQUEST BIG E â€“ After running a disappointing eighth in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile, the Mark Casse trainee returned to Churchill Downs to score an emphatic win on sloppy going over Unexplained, one of the more impressive 2-year-olds who competed during the Fall Meet. Another son of Tapit, Conquest Big E offered an impressive and promising farewell to 2015 in his Churchill Downs win and should be one of two major players on the run to Derby 142 for trainer Mark Casse and son Norman, his top assistant. Conquest Big E was a solid runner-up to No. 3 Brodyâ€™s Cause in a September 11 maiden race at Churchill Downs that looks pretty good right now.
5. AIROFORCE â€“ Team Casseâ€™s other major Kentucky Derby hope is Airoforce, the more accomplished member of the duo following a narrow loss in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile Turf to Aidan Oâ€™Brienâ€™s Hit It a Bomb and his comfortable victory over the well-regarded Bob Baffert trainee Mor Spirit over sloppy footing in Churchill Downsâ€™ Kentucky Jockey Club on November 28. Heâ€™s clearly versatile, and I love youngsters who possess solid turf pedigree and/or performance when they step onto the main track at Churchill Downs.
6. SWIPE â€“ If Nyquist becomes the Affirmed of his generation, Swipe could well be this cropâ€™s Alydar. The son of 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone (who denied previously unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones a Triple Crown) has proven this year that he can run with the best of his generation, but visiting the winnerâ€™s circle has been an issue. Swipe ran seven times in 2015 and managed only a single victory, which came by a head in a stakes race at Los Alamitos. He did finish second on five occasions that included four runner-up finishes in major races Nyquist. On a positive note, Swipe is getting closer: The last two losses to Nyquist â€“ including a half-length setback in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile â€“ were by margins of less than a length.
7. GREENPOINTCRUSADER â€“ Trainer Dominic Schettinoâ€™s son Bernardini was an emphatic winner in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park but finished an eight-wide seventh in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile. Greenpointcrusaderâ€™s traffic woes in that performance merit a very close look at the race. Much better things could lie ahead for him in the New Year.
8. GUN RUNNER â€“ Trainer Steve Asmussenâ€™s colt led in the stretch before finishing a solid fourth in his stakes debut in the Kentucky Jockey Club. He downed the promising Uncle Jerry in a Keeneland allowance prior to the KJC, and the son of Candy Ride (ARG) should take a big forward step off his stakes debut. Gun Runner is out of a Giantâ€™s Causeway mare, so thereâ€™s much to like in his pedigree.
9. MOR SPIRIT â€“ One of trainer Bob Baffertâ€™s top hopes for a successful encore to American Pharoahâ€™s 2015 Kentucky Derby win, the son of Eskendreya ran a strong second to Airoforce in what I believe was a very good renewal of the Kentucky Jockey Club. He is one of three possible Baffert runners aiming for Saturdayâ€™s Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity, and that race could tell us more about his quality and the overall strength of the KJC.
10. GIFT BOX â€“ William S. Farishâ€™s Twirling Candy colt defeated the well-regarded Matt King Coal by a nose in a fast 1 1/16-mile maiden race before running a solid third to current No. 1 Mohaymen in the Remsen. Trainer Chad Brownâ€™s colt has a chance to improve significantly as he preps for the Derby in Florida over the winter. VT