Early Kentucky Derby predictions are fun. Whether you spend an enormous amount of time analyzing the form of two-year-olds and newly-turned sophomores or employ a more casual approach, everybody loves to be on the early bandwagon. The problem is that the Derby winner can emerge from relative obscurity in mid-January.
Street Sense (two-year-old champion in 2006) and Super Saver (2009 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes winner) were well-known entities before striking Derby gold, but consider the status of four of the last six winners -- I'll Have Another, Animal Kingdom, Mine That Bird and Big Brown.
People didn't begin to take notice of I'll Have Another until he came back from a five-month layoff with a 43-1 upset in the Robert B. Lewis on February 4. Animal Kingdom, a Polytrack maiden winner with a turf-oriented pedigree, trained exclusively on grass over the winter before making his second start in a March turf allowance. Mine That Bird, a Woodbine juvenile stakes winner, received a New Mexico demotion after finishing last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile for new trainer Richard Mandella, appearing on the Sunland Park worktab by early January. Big Brown, a Saratoga turf maiden winner, trained forwardly in December for his second career start, but the colt went missing from the morning worktab for nearly two months in early January.
All were just maiden winners until at least February or March. Last year's Kentucky Derby favorite at 4-1, Bodemeister, was unraced on January 15. He finished second the next day in a Santa Anita maiden race and didn't record his first win until February 11.
Maiden winners deserve to be part of the discussion at this point of the year and I will take a look at some promising ones, breaking them down by trainers.
Todd Pletcher -- Verrazano, Revolutionary, Palace Malice & Park City
Todd Pletcher, whose lone Derby win came via Super Saver, trains a barnfull of hopefuls. His talented roster includes likely two-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby; unbeaten CashCall Futurity winner Violence; Remsen winner Overanalyze and third-placer Delhomme; and Breeders' Cup Juvenile third-placer Capo Bastone. Those are the big guns, but the possibility remains that an inexperienced three-year-old will outshine all of them.
Verrazano caught the eye when running away to a 7 3/4-length debut win on January 1, earning a 97 BRIS Speed rating in the six-furlong race. Out of a Giant's Causeway mare, the More Than Ready colt is a half-brother to last year's Risen Star winner El Padrino.
"El Padrino is a very good horse, but this colt is even more impressive," Pletcher said after the maiden victory.
Revolutionary is headed to stakes company following an 8 1/2-length romp on Aqueduct's inner track on December 28. From the first crop of champion two-year-old War Pass, he comes from a classy female family (his dam is closely related to Horse of the Year Mineshaft) and registered a whopping 103 Speed rating for the maiden score.
Palace Malice, a good-looking maiden winner at Saratoga, is close to making his first start of the year, recording six workouts at Palm Meadows this winter. The well-regarded colt is from the first crop of Horse of the Year Curlin.
Park City, who won at first asking, is another three-year-old that has been sidelined since the Saratoga meet, but he shows three workouts in advance of his three-year-old bow. He shares the same sire with Shanghai Bobby (Harlan's Holiday), but Park City hails from a much more stamina-oriented female family with Derby winner Pleasant Colony as a damsire (Shanghai Bobby is out of mare by champion sprinter Orientate).
Bob Baffert -- Flashback, War Academy, Code West & Belvin
Bob Baffert owns three wins, three seconds and a pair of thirds from 23 Derby starters and has saddled the favorite five times. He is always looking to invade Churchill Downs with more than one starter.
The Hall of Famer is readying Power Broker, a convincing 6 1/2-length winner of the FrontRunner Stakes last fall, and is also responsible for Den's Legacy, runner-up in the recent Sham Stakes and third in the CashCall Futurity, and Real Quiet Stakes victor Carving. But the focus here is upon the likes of Flashback, War Academy, Code West and Belvin, who all show January workouts for their upcoming first start against winners.
Flashback stamped himself as a prospect with a bright future when taking his career bow on December 8 at the tricky seven-furlong distance. Bet down as the even-money favorite, he performed like a professional, stalking the pace three wide before moving on cue when asked by the jockey, and drew off easily to a 3 1/2-length decision, registering a commendable 98 Speed rating. A son of Tapit, Flashback is a full sister to multiple Grade 1 winner Zazu, a filly that excelled at middle distances, but the presence of Pleasant Colony and Nijinsky II provide a basis for stamina in his female line.
War Academy gave an excellent account of himself when making his only start on November 9, capturing a 6 1/2-furlong test at Hollywood as the even-money choice, and the son of Giant's Causeway possesses an ideal pedigree for longer distances (out of an A.P. Indy mare).
Code West placed in three starts before securing his first victory in a 1 1/16-mile maiden at Santa Anita in late October. He rates as more of a grinder at this early stage, but the son of Lemon Drop Kid is bred to be a late bloomer and merits following as a three-year-old.
Belvin is a half-brother to Grade 3-winning sprinter Apriority, but his bloodlines suggest effectiveness at longer distances. By Empire Maker and out of a Storm Bird mare, the bay colt finished second to talented sprint/middle distance runner Distinctive Passion in his career debut and won at second asking on December 26, driving to a superb one-length maiden tally at six furlongs. He earned a nice 98 Speed rating for that effort.
Mark Casse -- Northern Lion
Mark Casse has not been much of a Derby factor in the past, saddling Seaside Retreat to a 10th in 2006 and Prospective to an 18th-place finish last year, but the Woodbine-based conditioner will be looking to make an impact in 2013. His stable includes Uncaptured, one of the early favorites by virtue of his victory in the November 24 Kentucky Jockey Club, and recent Pasco Stakes winner Dynamic Sky.
Northern Lion is another one to watch from the Casse shedrow. The Lion Heart colt streaked to a commanding 5 1/2-length decision when making his two-turn debut in a December 22 maiden special weight at Gulfstream.
Chad Brown -- Integrity
Chad Brown is one of the brightest young stars on the training scene and the 34-year-old could be a major player this year despite never starting a horse in the Derby. Remsen runner-up Normandy Invasion is his main hope, but Brown has another interesting prospect in Integrity.
Integrity is a son of Hard Spun from a classy female family that stacks up well for classic distances. The dark bay showed high speed from the start of his January 10 debut and drew off in the stretch to a comfortable 3 1/2-length decision going six furlongs. I am looking forward to his first start at two turns.
John Sadler -- Demonic
John Sadler lost Capo Bastone to Pletcher after the Breeders' Cup, but he will look to get involved in the Derby chase with recent maiden winner Demonic. By Bernardini, the up-and-coming colt won his debut at seven furlongs on January 13, netting a 92 Speed rating after closing with a tremendous rush, and Sadler is excited to see what his charge can do at two turns. Demonic is out of a Grade 3-winning mare and his third dam, Furl Sail, was champion three-year-old filly in 1967.
Nick Zito -- Declan's Warrior, Eton Blue, Midnite Poppa & Mountain Eagle
The Kentucky Derby is always the focus for two-time winner Nick Zito, but the Hall of Fame trainer was conspicuously absent from two-year-old stakes in 2012. His hopes rest with a quartet of last-out maiden winners -- Declan's Warrior, Eton Blue, Midnite Poppa and Mountain Eagle.
Declan's Warrior rallied from the clouds to win at first asking in mid-October, taking a Belmont maiden by a head at 34-1 odds, and has recorded a couple of bullet works in South Florida in preparation for his second career start. He is by the young stallion Majestic Warrior and comes from a solid female family.
Eton Blue broke his maiden in his second career start, narrowly winning a one-mile event at Gulfstream on January 5, and hails from regal bloodlines. The Giant's Causeway colt is out of champion three-year-old filly Bird Town, the 2003 Kentucky Oaks winner and a half-sister to 2004 Belmont Stakes and Travers hero Birdstone. Eton Blue could continue to show more as he continues to stretch out in distance.
Midnite Poppa did not run very fast when breaking his maiden at Tampa on December 26, but it was his first attempt around two turns and the Unbridled's Song colt needed the confidence-builder. His pedigree screams for longer distances -- he is out of Grade 1 winner Island Sand, who captured the Delaware Handicap at 1 1/4 miles.
Mountain Eagle, a son of Birdstone, showed little when finishing fourth in his career bow at Churchill Downs in November, but graduated in fine style at Gulfstream, rolling to a convincing 4 1/2-length tally on December 8.
Carl Nafzger -- Looking Cool
Carl Nafzger is another two-time Derby winner and his best chance at this early stage is Looking Cool, who broke through with his first win on January 5 at Gulfstream. By the underrated sire Candy Ride, Looking Cool still has much to prove, but he comes from a respectable female family with plenty of two-turn class.
Bill Mott -- Bold Dance
Bill Mott has never been a serious factor in the Kentucky Derby, but the Hall of Famer will look to get involved this year with Bold Dance, who impressively graduated by four lengths in a 1 1/16-mile turf maiden on December 1. Animal Kingdom and Big Brown were both turf performers who made a seamless transition to Churchill Downs' dirt in the spring, and the pedigree is there for Bold Dance to do the same. By Pulpit, the exciting prospect is out a mare that is a half-sister to Horse of the Year Saint Liam.
Al Stall Jr. -- Departing
Al Stall Jr. drew national attention when guiding champion Blame to a victory over Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic, but the well-respected trainer is still looking for his first Derby starter. He has a good-looking prospect in Departing, who impressively rallied from just off the pace to win his career debut going away at Fair Grounds on December 22. That race came at six furlongs, but the Claiborne homebred owns a good pedigree for longer distances.
John Shirreffs -- Omega Star
John Shirreffs upset the 2005 Derby with his first starter, Giacomo, and the trainer is responsible for a dark horse this year in Omega Star. By Candy Ride, the California-bred gelding was transferred to Shirreffs after finishing second his career debut at Aqueduct in mid-December and promptly won his California bow 2 1/2 weeks later, triumphing by three lengths over restricted foes at six furlongs. The first foal out of mare by 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, Omega Star's pedigree is built for a classic route of ground; his second dam, Alpride, was a multiple Grade 1 winner at distances up to 1 1/4 miles and is closely related to a winner of the 1 1/4-mile San Marcos.
Shug McGaughey -- Orb
Shug McGaughey has won a lot of big races in his career, but the Derby is one prize that has eluded the Hall of Famer. He trains a potential nice one this year in Orb. By Malibu Moon, Orb needed four starts to break his maiden, breaking through with a comfortable two-length win at Aqueduct in late November, and was flattered when third-placer Revolutionary came back to run a hole in the wind in his next outing. His Speed ratings are still a little light, but Orb has not traveled two turns yet. There are no distance concerns with this classy female family.
Steve Asmussen -- Proud Strike
Steve Asmussen saddled Curlin to a third in the 2007 Derby and Nehro to a runner-up finish in 2011, but the two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer is still looking for his first Derby winner. His charge Proud Strike generated a buzz when rolling to a 7 1/2-length maiden win in a 1 1/16-mile maiden event at Fair Grounds on January 12, generating a 98 Speed rating, and comes from a female family loaded with graded stakes winners. There are high hopes surrounding the son of Smart Strike.
Kiaran McLaughlin -- Elnaawi
Elnaawi falls into the "last but not least" category for this discussion. A son of Street Sense, the colt finished third when making his debut in early December and came back to post a stylish front-running maiden win on January 12, drawing off by four lengths in his first start around two turns. The well-bred Kiaran McLaughlin pupil counts multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire To Honor and Serve as a half-brother.
The "Road to the Kentucky Derby" continues this weekend with a pair of races -- Saturday's Lecomte at Fair Grounds and Monday's Smarty Jones at Oaklawn -- in the new points system. We'll recap the action from those events and my Derby Top 10 will return as well.