It's not that every race for 3-year-olds thus far in 2012 has been meaningless, but we are about to find out over the next three weeks who the real contenders are for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby.
It begins this Saturday at Gulfstream Park with the Grade 1 Florida Derby, followed by Sunday's G2 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The next week takes us to the No. 1 preps in New York and California, with the G1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and G1 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park. Throw in the G3 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne in Chicago, a race that can produce a legit contender now and then.
Then, on April 14, the last of the G1 Derby preps take place at Oaklawn Park with the Arkansas Derby and Keeneland with the Toyota Blue Grass.
All told, these seven races will offer $6 million in purses, but more importantly will give horsemen, fans, and horseplayers a better idea of who has the best chance to win the Kentucky Derby.
I've written before that winning a prep races isn't an absolute necessity, but horses can't throw in a clunker and be expected to come back to win the Kentucky Derby three or four weeks later.
For every Smarty Jones or Big Brown – who came into their Kentucky Derby off smashing victories in their previous starts – I think of horses like 1986 Derby Ferdinand, Unbridled (1990), Thunder Gulch (1995), or Giacomo (2005), whose better than looked performances in their final prep set them up perfectly for the Run for the Roses.
Ferdinand, trained by the ever-patient Charlie Whittingham, finished third in the Santa Anita Derby, and the Bald Eagle was not the least bit bothered with the effort. Same goes for Carl Nafzger following Unbridled's third in the Blue Grass and D. Wayne Lukas-trained Thunder Gulch's fourth in that same event five years later. Each trainer knew his horse had ability, and the final prep moved them forward to have the best chance possible on the first Saturday in May.
It's probably no coincidence that all of those horsemen are in the Hall of Fame.
Ten years after Thunder Gulch won Kentucky Derby came Giacomo, who put in a strong stretch run to be fourth on the speed favoring Santa Anita strip in that track's Derby. John Shirreffs, who surely deserves consideration for the Hall of Fame one of these days, wasn't sitting in the same spot as Whittingham, Nafzger and Lukas because Giacomo had yet to win a stakes race of any kind when the colt arrived at Churchill Downs. But like the others, he is a consummate horseman who knows how to bring a top-class runner up to a specific challenge in the very best condition possible.
So as I have suggested before, watch these prep races over the next few weeks with an toward May 5. See which horses are finishing with something left in the tank, whether they are winners or off the board. Are they galloping out past the finish with an enthusiasm that suggests they want more distance, or are they shutting down quickly as if to say “enough”?
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