Around this time last August, Nyquist dominated the Best Pal (G2) at Del Mar, and Exaggerator bulled through to take the Saratoga Special (G2). Few of us would have realized it back then, but we’d just seen the future top two finishers in the 2016 Kentucky Derby (G1).

This past weekend, the same two 6 1/2-furlong races were held for promising juveniles, and their respective winners have some big shoes to fill. At Del Mar on Saturday, Klimt gave Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his eighth victory in the Best Pal, while on Sunday at the “Spa,” Gunnevera sprang an upset in the Saratoga Special.

Klimt was sent off as the even-money favorite in the Best Pal, thanks to a resounding maiden win at Santa Anita on July 10. After prompting the pace set by flashy debut winner Big League , Klimt challenged the leader and asserted in deep stretch to draw off by 2 3/4 lengths.

This was an especially encouraging effort from Klimt because he’s bred to prefer more distance than the sprint-oriented Big League. For Klimt to beat the speedy Big League at his own game, so to speak, is a hint of his ability.

Klimt is by Quality Road, who was the early favorite for the 2009 Kentucky Derby before foot problems derailed him. On his maternal side, Klimt counts as his great-granddam (i.e., third dam) a full sister to 1994 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) hero Concern.

So despite the good speed he’s shown, Klimt has the potential to stretch out successfully. He could be a better long-term prospect than most of Baffert’s past Best Pal winners. Of his previous seven, only two developed into top three-year-olds, Roman Ruler (2004 Best Pal) and Lookin at Lucky (2009). Lookin at Lucky was a champion at both two and three. A badly troubled sixth in the 2010 Kentucky Derby, he rebounded with victories in the Preakness (G1) and Haskell Invitational (G1).

But before putting Klimt in that category just yet, he’s got to pass a stiffer test in the September 5 Del Mar Futurity (G1), where he’s expected to square off against jaw-dropping maiden winners Straight Fire and Chasing Aces .

Gunnevera has a different profile from Klimt in that he’s a deep closer who rallies from far back. Based in Florida with trainer Antonio Sano, he made his first start away from Gulfstream Park in the Saratoga Special. Gunnevera relaxed in last early behind a hot pace, gathered momentum down the stretch, and ran down 2-5 favorite Recruiting Ready .

In the replay, watch an incident going into the far turn, when Recruiting Ready (on the outside) body slams Tip Tap Tapizar and causes him to bounce into Sonic Mule. For hampering his rivals, Recruiting Ready was disqualified from second and placed fourth.

Gunnevera’s pedigree suggests he wants to go a lot further, although with his running style, he’s going to be hostage to the pace scenario. His sire, Dialed In, was the same way. The 2011 Florida Derby (G1) and Holy Bull (G3) winner, Dialed In was only eighth as the lukewarm favorite in that year’s Kentucky Derby. Gunnevera’s dam is by 1990 Kentucky Derby champion Unbridled, and his granddam (second dam) is by Graustark, who would have been the prime player in the 1966 Kentucky Derby, if he hadn’t suffered a career-ending injury in the Blue Grass.

Prior to breaking his maiden, Gunnevera was chasing Florida’s top juvenile, Three Rules, who is now unbeaten in three starts. Three Rules just trounced his foes in the Dr. Fager division of the Florida Sire Stakes on August 6:

Gunnevera’s Saratoga success thus underscores the quality of Three Rules, reminding us that good juveniles aren’t exclusive to Saratoga or Del Mar.

“He’s a special horse,” Three Rules’ trainer, Jose Pinchin, told Gulfstream publicity. “He’s a runner. He was galloping today. He’s the real deal. He should probably be in Saratoga.”

But Three Rules is likely to stay at Gulfstream, leaving Gunnevera to boost his form up at the Spa.

The Saratoga Special result also has an indirect bearing on Classic Empire, who’d previously beaten Recruiting Ready in almost identical fashion. In Churchill Downs’ Bashford Manor (G3), Classic Empire caught Recruiting Ready in the last strides – a foreshadowing of what Gunnevera did to him on Sunday. Recruiting Ready has blown big leads in both races, and that has to put Classic Empire and Gunnevera’s wins in context. Are they both very good prospects, or were they inflated by Recruiting Ready’s tendency to give up the ghost?

We’ll find out in the September 3 Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga. That’s where Classic Empire and Gunnevera are set to meet, along with two of the Spa’s most convincing winners, Todd Pletcher’s highly regarded debut victor Theory and smashing Sanford (G3) hero Bitumen.

Speaking of Bitumen, who had run away with his career debut at Churchill June 30, the beaten favorite from that maiden race came back to romp at Ellis Park last Friday. Not This Time , a slow-starting fifth behind Bitumen, was much more professional in this second try.

Ellis Park isn’t to be overlooked as a place to nurture developing youngsters. Horses can get confidence-boosting wins here before tackling the big leagues, and trainer Dale Romans is using just such a path for Not This Time.

“He’s the real deal,” Romans told Ellis Park’s Jennie Rees. “I told Robby (Albarado) the first time he rode him that he might be as good a horse as he’s ever ridden. Of course, he didn’t break that day. This is a serious, serious racehorse.”

Not This Time broke sharply on Friday, set a measured pace, and left his overmatched rivals toiling as he bounded right away by 10 lengths.

“Wow! Wow! Wow!” Albarado exclaimed.

“That’s impressive. What I felt was extreme talent there.

“I’ve been on just a few of those. Just a few,” added Albarado, who rode Hall of Famer Curlin and Mineshaft, both past Horses of the Year.

“That was pretty spectacular,” Romans said, “but I expected a big effort. I knew that he was special. It’s nice for him to go on and back up what he was showing in training.”

Plans call for Not This Time to make his stakes debut in the September 17 Iroquois (G3) at Churchill Downs, a Kentucky Derby points race as well as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

Not This Time is a half-brother to last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) star Liam’s Map. Owner/breeder Albaugh Family Racing sold Liam’s Map as a yearling for $800,000, but didn’t want to part with his younger half-sibling by Giant’s Causeway. Hence his name, “Not This Time.”

Photo credits: 

Klimt by Benoit Photo

Gunnevera by NYRA/Coglianese Photography

Three Rules by Coglianese Photography

Not This Time by Coady Photography (tweeted by Jennie Rees)

Video credits: 

Los Angeles Times, NYRA, Gulfstream Park, Paulick Report