One of the best Kentucky Derby performers returns to action for the first time since the Churchill Downs classic, and his effort may signal whether he’s a genuine contender for 3-year-old championship honors.

Practical Joke has been a “nearly” horse since winning the Hopeful Stakes (G1) and the Champagne Stakes (G1) as a 2-year-old. He subsequently finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), second in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2), and a brave fifth in the Kentucky Derby (G1).

The impression that trainer Chad Brown had immediately after the Derby was that 1 1/4 miles might be too far for the son of Into Mischief, something his breeding also suggests. He will probably benefit from a return to a mile in the Dwyer Stakes (G2) at Belmont Park July 8.

Indications are that he might still head to face many of the best 3-year-olds in the Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park July 30, over 1 1/8 miles. The Dwyer will be a solid indication about his prospects in that, as his four opponents include highly-rated Wood Memorial (G2) runner-up Battalion Runner.

If the Haskell proves too far for him, Practical Joke may prove to be an ideal horse for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) rather than the 1 ¼-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The day before the Dwyer, one of the buzz horses leading into the Derby, Hence, starts in the Iowa Derby (G3) at Prairie Meadows.

Hence looked to have an upset chance in the Derby after winning the Sunland Derby (G3). Finishing behind him that day were subsequent Arkansas Derby (G1) runner-up Conquest Mo Money, subsequent Illinois Derby (G2) runner-up Hedge Fund, and Irap, who has since won the Blue Grass Stakes and Ohio Derby (G3).

Connections thought Hence didn’t stretch out in the wet conditions when finishing 11th in the Kentucky Derby, but he was a distant ninth in the Preakness Stakes. The competition will be easier in the Iowa Derby, though still challenging.

Another player from the Triple Crown races also returns July 8. Senior Investment didn’t run in the Derby but finished third in the Preakness Stakes and fifth in the Belmont Stakes. Trainer Kenny McPeek is moving him to turf for the $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational (G1), where he should be a solid chance if he handles the new surface. It could indicate whether he has Breeders’ Cup prospects on turf.

Among Derby runners from earlier years, 2015 contestant Keen Ice, who beat American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes (G1), runs for the first time since the Dubai World Cup (G1) in March when he contests the Suburban Handicap (G2) at Belmont Park. He finished fourth in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic and third in last year’s edition.

(Photo by Chelsea Durand/Adam Coglianese)