Hence stamped his Kentucky Derby ticket romping by 3 ¾ lengths in the Sunland Derby (G3) but where he stands among peers is anybody’s guess. Does he rate as a rapidly-improving sophomore who will be able to hold his own against better competition this spring or is it best to take this performance with a grain of salt?

The Calumet Farm homebred didn’t bring high expectations into the 1 1/8-mile race. By Street Boss, the chestnut colt needed four starts before narrowly breaking his maiden at Oaklawn Park on January 16 and registered only an 86 BRIS Speed rating. He was overlooked at 23-1 while jumping straight to stakes company in the February 20 Southwest (G3) and failed to make an impact finishing a well-beaten seventh.

Trainer Steve Asmussen opted to ship his charge to New Mexico and Hence looked like a different performer, rallying last-to-first in eye-catching fashion as the 10-1 seventh choice among 11 runners. He received a whopping 103 BRIS Speed rating, 17 points greater than his previous best, and such a huge increase leads to suspicions of a possible “bounce” next time, a regression toward the mean.

But there’s no guarantee he will take a step back. Horses can improve significantly over a short period of time early in their racing careers (Kentucky Derby winners Charismatic and War Emblem are examples of massive form turnarounds) and Hence could be a late-blooming type who has simply evolved into a formidable 3-year-old.

The fact remains he defeated a questionable group of rivals and Hence still has something to prove. The last two Sunland Derby winners – Firing Line and Chitu – trained up to the first Saturday in May, but Asmussen is considering one more prep, with the April 15 Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park and April 22 Lexington (G3) at Keeneland as options. And that promises to shed more light on whether Hence rates as a legitimate Kentucky Derby win contender.