Welcome to the fourth year of the Paulick Derby Index, a comprehensive weekly poll ranking the top 10 3-year-olds of 2012 on the road to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.
Thanks to Vinery, Dr. Tommy Simon's full-service Lexington Thoroughbred stallion station, nursery and sales agency that is along for the ride again this year as the PDI title sponsor. Also thanks to our committed group of voters, who sort through past performances, race videos, workout analysis, pedigrees, and other data to rate this year's crop of 3-year-olds as that first Saturday in May approaches.
For horse racing devotees, the only thing more interesting and exciting than watching which horses rise to the occasion of this demanding Triple Crown series each spring is the “search” – that puzzling, sometimes satisfying, often infuriating, contentious debate that precedes it. There are the proven commodities, the late bloomers, the up and comers, the hidden gems that we are all trying to sort through.
There is no sure-fire way to predict who will become the next Kentucky Derby winner. If there was, wouldn't that take all the fun out of it?
We know this much. Money can't buy a Derby. We have Funny Cide and Smarty Jones and Real Quiet, among others, to remind us of that. Derby winners hail from all types of backgrounds: homebreds, yearling auctions, 2-year-old sales, private purchases. They come from East, West, North, and South, from Hall of Fame trainers to little-known horsemen. Some are bluebloods, others obscurely bred.
Many of the “old rules” for a Derby winner have been tossed aside: proven 2-year-old stakes form, more than a couple of prep races, experience on dirt. That makes it tougher than ever to solve one of our sport's most unique puzzles.
We've already had some prep races in 2012: Out of Bounds, charging down the stretch to win the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, Mr. Bowling proving game to the wire in the LeComte at Fair Grounds, and more.
This Sunday will give us a chance to see the 2011 Eclipse Award winner as outstanding 2-year-old male, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Hansen, as he makes his seasonal debut in the one-mile Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
A week later it's a trio of races from Aqueduct (the Withers), Tampa Bay Downs (Sam F. Davis Stakes), and Santa Anita (Robert B. Lewis Stakes). There will only be a handful of weekends between now and late April when we won't have an chance to learn about some of this year's leading contenders.
Here are my top 10 for the initial installment of the 2012 Paulick Derby Index. Let us know who you like in this early-season debate.
1. Union Rags. He didn't get my vote for champion 2-year-old male, but that's because this Dixie Union colt didn't win his biggest race. Trainer Michael Matz has been down this path before, with Barbaro, and knows that he's got a very talented horse on his hands.
2. Liaison. Can this son of the recently deceased Indian Charlie do what his sire couldn't and win going a mile and a quarter? He certainly has shown a lot in his last two starts, and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has been very patient with the colt.
3. Hansen. Tapit colt has blazing speed, just lasting against Union Rags in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The Kentucky Derby has become increasingly difficult to win on the lead, but it's not an impossible task.
4. Out of Bounds. Loved the way son of Discreet Cat finished to win the Sham Stakes in only his third start. Trainer Eoin Harty looking for his first Derby as head trainer, but he knows what it takes, having been there as No. 1 assistant during Bob Baffert's Derby glory days.
5. Fed Biz. Baffert has a deep roster of potential Derby horses, and this lightly raced son of Giant's Causeway only broke his maiden on Dec. 30 at Santa Anita. But the way he did it, going a mile, suggests there is a lot of horsepower in that engine.
6. Creative Cause. Another son of Coolmore/Ashford's Giant's Causeway, this Mike Harrington trainee was far from being disgraced when third, beaten a length, in the BC Juvenile. We know how tough his sire was, but broodmare sire Siberian Summer won the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita when it was a G1 race going the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter.
7. Alpha. Top-class 2-year-old by Bernardini looked strong winning his 2012 debut in the Count Fleet at Aqueduct. With the firepower of Godolphin in his stable, it's only a matter of time before Kiaran McLaughlin wins his first Kentucky Derby.
8. Stephanoatsee. There's no reason to think a son of A.P. Indy in the hands of 2011 Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion is going to pushed early, so we look for this one to show steady improvement. Good second to Alpha in Count Fleet.
9. Dullahan. One thing I'm pretty confident about. This son of the Unbridled's Song stallion Even the Score will not be battling with a horse like Hansen on the front end. Closed with a rush in the BC Juvenile to get fourth after winning Keeneland's Dixiana Breeders' Futurity with similar move.
10. Mr. Bowling. Son of Gone West stallion Istan (a very good miler) has been a consistent, quality runner and he was impressive showing his grit down the stretch of last weekend's LeComte.
EDITOR'S NOTE: It was reported Tuesday, following the tabulation of the Paulick Derby Index votes, that Stephanoatsee suffered an injury and is off the Derby trail.
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