The Kentucky Derby is the most coveted prize and the most anticipated event in American horse racing. And there is nothing like picking the winner on the first Saturday in May. Reciting the words “I had the Derby winner” carries a sense of accomplishment and pride to the serious any horse player.

For many of us, the search for the Derby horse doesn’t come during Kentucky Derby Week. It begins when the youngsters are competing in their juvenile season, and trying to identify ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ is no easy task. However, it is most rewarding when a two-year-old you follow makes his way to the starting gate at Churchill Downs for the Run for the Roses.

Different criteria go into the search for my next Kentucky Derby winner, but the main thing that I look for is a horse with a ‘wow factor.’ The phrase has various interpretations, but it works for me.

Examples of the juvenile search

Using 2019 as an example, a trio of two-year-olds with different profiles have indicated to me that they may be something extraordinary.

The debut win by Bob Baffert’s Eight Rings certainly ‘wowed’ me due to his substantial speed. The Empire Maker colt streaked home to a six-length sprint win at Del Mar with ease and was visually impressive doing so. He exits a six-length triumph in the American Pharoah (G1), establishing himself as the likely favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) on November 1.

Maxfield, who romped in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland on Saturday, is another example. After launching his rally on the far turn, the two-year-old ranged up to the leader (and 3-2 favorite) and ran past him as if was standing still. His stature, stride and explosiveness gives him ‘wow’ appeal to me.

Four Wheel Drive won the Futurity Stakes (G3) at Belmont Park over the weekend in the easiest of fashions. Trained by Wesley Ward, the son of Triple Crown hero American Pharoah has dominated two stakes fields to begin his career. And his latest romp was very impressive in the way he won in an effortless manner. While the colt doesn’t fit the profile of a Derby horse just yet with two sprint wins on turf to this point of his career, his raw talent can’t be overlooked.

A race that catches the eye doesn’t have to be limited to a victory, however. A prime example of that is when 2019 Kentucky (G1) runner-up Code of Honor raced in the Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park as a juvenile. The likely Eclipse Award winner nearly went to the ground in the early stages of that race, but rebounded to be a fast-closing second on the day. It was an indicator of what a fantastic athlete the colt is.

Other factors for finding two-year-olds

Several other factors are taken into consideration when trying to find my next Derby horse.

The ability to finish a race with energy is at the top of the list, and using the BRIS Late Pace number as a guide is a great tool to utilize.

American Pharoah was an obvious star in his historic racing career. And it was in his juvenile campaign that he hinted that he could be something out of the ordinary. His tally in the 2014 FrontRunner Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita was a moment of brilliance that gave us a glimpse of his future. The colt won by 3 ½ lengths in the race and registered a 108 BRIS Late Pace number that proved to be an excellent indication that he could carry his brilliant speed a classic distance.

2019 Kentucky Derby star Country House broke his maiden early in his three-year-old season, but he hinted that he might evolve into a horse who would thrive running classic distances. The Bill Mott trainee received an astronomical 123 Late Pace figure going 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park in January and obviously shone at the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance.

Human connections and pedigree, among others things, are factors that I also take into consideration when trying to predict who will be the next horse to wear the garland of red roses beneath the Twins Spires on the first Saturday in May. There is not a specific method to it, which makes it so challenging, but finding a gem in the rough is most rewarding.

Because nothing is quite like saying, “I had the Derby winner.”