My rule of thumb for preparation for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs is this: when the countdown hits 100 days, it’s like the Derby is tomorrow.
Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but the pace of all preparations for the 137th Run for the Roses on Saturday, May 7 is quickly gaining momentum and we have now shaded that 100-day mark.
And if it’s busy at Churchill Downs, imagine how anxious owners, trainers and jockeys must feel as the importance of every workout and prep race is exacerbated the calendar.
Sunday’s $400,000 Holy Bull at Florida’s Gulfstream Park is a major early Kentucky Derby prep. That one-mile race is expected to attract about 10 3-year-olds headed by Boys at Toscanova, the runner-up to 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo in November’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
With the Kentucky Derby Prep season set to kick into high gear with the Holy Bull, it seems a good time to take a look at early contenders.
The huge favorite for the Derby – and deservedly so – is Mike Repole’s Uncle Mo. The son of Indian Charlie is perfect in three races, all lopsided victories that were capped by his impressive romp beneath the Twin Spires on Breeders’ Cup Saturday.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who ended a frustrating pursuit of a Kentucky Derby victory when he saddled WinStar Farm’s Super Saver to win last year’s race, is now a heavy favorite to give Pletcher his second consecutive Derby win with Uncle Mo. Pletcher’s star has looked, like the second coming of 1977 Derby and Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew thus far, and he’s sure to be a strong individual favorite when the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool launches its Feb. 18-20 run.
While he is a very logical choice to win Kentucky Derby 136, Uncle Mo does not occupy the top spot in my first Derby Top 10 of 2011. That honor goes to:
1. To Honor and Serve – Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott remains the all-time leading trainer at Churchill Downs by a substantial margin, but he has yet to come close to winning the greatest race at the track he once called home. But Mott has a serious player in this son of 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini, who won Aqueduct’s Remsen and has pedigree filled with distance-loving mares from famed Darby Dan Farm.
2. Uncle Mo – Why take a favorite in a race that has seen only three people’s choices – Smarty Jones, Street Sense and Big Brown – win since 1979? Street Sense is the only 2-year-old champ to win during that span.
3. Dialed In, – He did everything wrong in his November debut at Churchill for two-time Derby winner Nick Zito, but still won. He was scheduled to run last week at Gulfstream, but scratched because of a wet track. He could jump into deep water in the Holy Bull.
4. Brethren – WinStar Farm’s half-brother to Super Saver was impressive in a one-mile allowance win last fall at Churchill Downs and gives Pletcher another top hope. He might be better than his brother.
5. Boys at Toscanova – There’s no Uncle Mo in the Holy Bull, so he’ll have an early chance to shine for trainer Rick Dutrow, who won the roses with Big Brown.
6. Tapizar – Trainer Steve Asmussen could have his best Derby shot since Curlin, 3rd in 2007, with this colt who dazzled in a maiden win last fall at Churchill Downs and improved on that effort in a romp in Santa Anita’s Sham Stakes.
7. Mucho Macho Man – He chased To Honor and Serve last fall in New York, but has trained brilliantly in Florida and could become a major player in the Holy Bull.
8. Comma to the Top – Has won five in a row in California, but has a sprinter’s pedigree and has, yet to race on actual dirt.
9. Casper’s Touch – An interesting son of Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold from the barn of Kentucky-based Ken McPeek. He won impressively last fall at Churchill after traveling to England in the summer for a Royal Ascot run..
10. Indian Winter – A very intriguing candidate from trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who trained last year’s Kentucky Oaks winner and 3-year-old filly and is in the right hands with a trainer who should be elected this year to racing’s Hall of Fame.
Next week we’ll look at early Kentucky Oaks contenders, but do not miss Sunday’s Forward Gal at Gulfstream, which will be the 3-year-old debut of John Oxley’s Dancinginherdreams. The John Ward trainee, who is so gray she is nearly white, had dazzling wins last fall at Keeneland and in Churchill’s Pocahontas and has the talent to be one of the best of her generation – male or female. She’s my early choice to win the Oaks and I cannot wait to see how she has developed since early November.