It’s get serious time for Derby contenders

| February 11, 2011

Another significant milepost on the journey to Kentucky Derby 137 arrives this weekend when the roster of 3-year-olds nominated to the big race during its early nomination phase is released by Churchill Downs and its fellow Triple Crown tracks, Pimlico and Belmont Park.
It’s a good guess – but not an absolute cinch – that the winner of this year’s Run for the Roses is on that list of nominees. But a lot can happen over the next 85 days or so along the road to the big race on Saturday, May 7, at Churchill Downs.

Most of you are familiar with the big names atop the roster of Derby hopes: unbeaten 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo, Remsen winner To Honor and Serve, the impressive Holy Bull winner Dialed In and Boys at Tosconova, runner-up to the champ in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

As we await the list of early Kentucky Derby nominees, it seems a good time to take a look at some horses that are just below the radar as we enter the season of total Derby 137 analysis and, yes, over-analysis. Regular readers of this column will see a couple of familiar names, but most of these horses have the opportunity to become major players in the Kentucky Derby discussion between now and May 7.

Indian Winter – Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s Kentucky Oaks victory with last year’s 3-year-old filly champion Blind Luck was his third in the Derby for fillies, but this son of Indian Charlie has a shot to give his trainer his first success in the biggest race run at Churchill Downs. Indian Winter has won two-of-three starts, with his only setback being a troubled third in the Del Mar Futurity. He was an impressive stretch-running winner of the 6 1/2-furlong San Pedro at Santa Anita last month and appears to be a rising star for Hollendorfer, who should get a strong push in 2011 for an overdue enshrinement in racing’s Hall of Fame.

The Factor – This Bob Baffert trainee, named in honor of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, has the potential to be a major factor on the Derby 2011 scene after a scorching maiden win over a super-fast dirt track at Santa Anita. Distance might be an issue for the son of second-year sire War Front, but fast is fast and brilliant speed can never be dismissed. For a reminder, check Spend A Buck in the 1985 Derby.

Machen – Trained by Churchill Downs-based Neil Howard, the Distorted Humor colt has overcome poor starts to win both of his career starts at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds with ease. Has done many things wrong in both races and still won, which is a very good sign – as long as he eventually learns the right way to do his job.

Soldat – Another son of War Front, this colt skipped through the mud to romp by more than 10 lengths in what appeared to be a very strong Gulfstream Park allowance race. He was runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall at Churchill Downs, but I’m a guy who loves grass in the pedigree in horses running over the distinctive main track beneath the Twin Spires. He’s trained by Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin.

Shackleford – Trained by Louisville native Dale Romans, this son of Forestry notched his first career win last fall at Churchill Downs and followed that with a victory in a strong 1 1/8-mile allowance race last Sunday at Gulfstream Park. He has an interesting pedigree, as his dam, Oatsee, is a daughter of 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled.

Casper’s Touch – Trainer Ken McPeek’s colt finished a troubled runner-up to Shackleford, but he had such a tough trip it is not a stretch to say he might have been more impressive than the winner. His interesting career path includes a trip to Britain’s famed Royal Ascot last summer and an impressive win last fall at Churchill Downs.

Toby’s Corner - Aqueduct’s Whirlaway Stakes is not normally a spot to start a serious search for a Kentucky Derby winner, but this son of beaten 2005 Derby favorite Bellamy Road deserves a look after winning that race in the mud last weekend.

He’s in the barn of Graham Motion, an outstanding trainer still looking for his first major Derby player, and the Whirlaway did produce Prairie Bayou, the talented gelding who won the 1993 Preakness and was an unlucky second to Sea Hero in the Derby.

Cal Nation – Yes, he’s named for THAT Cal, and WinStar Farm’s homebred half-brother to 2006 Derby runner-up Bluegrass Cat scored a 7 3/4-length win in his career debut last week at Gulfstream Park. The Todd Pletcher-trainee is by Distorted Humor, so he’s got the right pedigree, but early February is awfully late to start a career if you have the Derby in mind.

Arch Traveler – This Sky Mesa colt scored his first victory in his third start on Sunday at Gulfstream Park. He’s trained by the talented Jimmy Jerkens, who had a possible 2009 Derby favorite in Quality Road before problem feet knocked that talented colt off the Derby Trail.

Beamer – Trained by two-time Derby winner Carl Nafzger and owned by Jim Tafel, the team that brought you 2007 Derby winner Street Sense. This son of Vindication was a distant – but perhaps better than it looked – third to Soldat in that January allowance in the Gulfstream mud and deserves another shot.

Elite Alex – Canadian-bred son of Afleet Alex, the beaten favorite in the 2005 Derby who romped in the Preakness and Belmont, is prepping at Oaklawn Park for Tim Ritchey, who trained his sire.

Twinspired – This gray son of Harlan’s Holiday, another beaten Derby favorite, ran poorly in his only race on traditional dirt, but a win in last week’s WEBN Stakes at Turfway Park made him 2-for-2 on synthetic Polytrack. His races on grass were good enough to make me think he might fare well on Churchill Downs dirt. He’s a true longshot, but has there ever been a more fitting name for a Kentucky Derby winner?

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