Derby Dozen: The 12 horses with the best shot at reaching the Churchill winner's circle

awincze@herald-leader.comFebruary 9, 2013 

The 12 horses we believe have the best chance of wearing the winner's circle roses on May 4 at Churchill Downs:

CERRO

If the last two seasons have taught us anything, it's to pay attention when Team Valor has a sophomore run well at the start of the year at Gulfstream Park.

Hoping to follow the path of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and last year's fourth-place finisher Went the Day Well, Cerro put himself in the discussion for the first Saturday in May when he won a 11⁄8-mile allowance race over the main track at Gulfstream on Jan. 26.

Cerro's triumph gained much publicity after it was announced that Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman had joined his ownership group. The son of Mr. Greeley has upside besides just his celebrity lure, showing improvement in each of his four stateside starts since beginning his career in Italy.

Because Cerro's races have been notably better as the distances have stretched out, it is not a reach to think he could take Team Valor and trainer Graham Motion back to Churchill Downs for a third consecutive season.

"He's a different type of horse (than Animal Kingdom and Went the Day Well), he's a little smaller and probably has come into hand a little quicker," Motion said. "I do think he's a horse that can handle going 1¼ miles. Whether he's good enough to be a Derby horse I don't know."

Owner: Team Valor

Trainer: Graham Motion

Breeder: Manganaro LLC

Bloodline: Chestnut colt by Mr. Greeley-Ballette, by Giant's Causeway

Career record: Five starts, 2-0-1, $46,125

Last start: Won 11⁄8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26

Next start: Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream on March 3

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Needs to prove himself against stakes company.

FLASHBACK

The annual parade of Todd Pletcher prospects this time of year is almost always matched by the string of Bob Baffert trainees vying to be the leader of one of the most routinely dangerous barns on the Kentucky Derby trail.

For the moment, that distinction appears to belong to Gary and Mary West's beautiful gray runner Flashback, winner of the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 2 — aka the same race that gave us last year's Derby winner I'll Have Another.

The Robert B. Lewis was just the second career start for Flashback after the son of Tapit debuted with a 31/2-length win at Hollywood Park in December. Though it is hard to get a true read on the 11⁄16-mile Lewis considering only three other horses were in the field, Flashback did everything one would want to see from setting easy fractions up front, responding when challenged on the backstretch and kicking on for a 61/4-length victory.

He didn't beat many in the Lewis but there was a good deal of class to Flashback's list of vanquished. Runner-up Den's Legacy is a Grade III winner while third-place finisher He's Had Enough lost by a head to champion Shanghai Bobby in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"I want to thank Gary and Mary West for putting a monster like this in my lap," Baffert said after the race.

Owner: Gary and Mary West

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Breeder: Dr. William Andrade and Michael Hernon

Bloodline: Gray or roan colt by Tapit-Rhumb Line, by Mr. Greeley

Career record: Two starts, 2-0-0, $147,000

Last start: Won Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 2

Next start: TBA

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Lack of experience and needs to show he is not one-dimensional on the lead.

GOLDENCENTS

Having conditioned last year's Kentucky Derby and 3-year-old champion I'll Have Another, trainer Doug O'Neill knows some of the intangibles that comprise a future classic winner. With the way Goldencents has performed in his four starts, the bay colt is sparking some of the same optimism O'Neill had this time last season.

Where I'll Have Another was off most radars until his victory in the 2012 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, Goldencents has already been pegged as one of the top horses on the Derby trail with two graded stakes wins. After running second to eventual 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby in the Grade I Champagne Stakes last October, Goldencents closed his juvenile campaign with a front-running win in the Grade III Delta Jackpot against a field that included future Holy Bull Stakes winner Itsmyluckyday.

Goldencents backed that up with a season-opening victory in the Grade III Sham Stakes, relaxing just off the pace and kicking on to score by 11/2 lengths.

"The Sham was the first time he had ever been off the bridle. (Jockey) Kevin (Krigger) got him to go into neutral," O'Neill said. "That was really good to see because when the waters start getting deeper, you really need to be able to come off and on the bridle. It gave us all a bunch of confidence."

Owners: W.C. Racing, Dave Kenney, and RAP Racing

Trainer: Doug O'Neill

Breeder: Rosecrest Farm and Karyn Pirrello

Bloodline: Bay colt by Into Mischief-Golden Works, by Banker's Gold

Career record: Four starts, 3-1-0, $782,000

Last start: Won Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Jan. 5

Next start: Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park on March 9

Latest work: 6 furlongs in 1:12.40 at Santa Anita on Feb. 4

Potential trouble: Delta Jackpot winners do not have a good history of moving forward on the Derby trail.

ITSMYLUCKYDAY

Though he has a name that will draw support from numerous playful hunch bettors, Itsmyluckyday has carved out his string of favorable results on his own merit.

Trainer Eddie Plesa's protege shed his under-the-radar status when he defeated Shanghai Bobby by 2 lengths in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26, handing the reigning juvenile champion his first career loss.

Perhaps the best tribute to Itsmyluckyday's form is that few if any viewed his track-record-setting Holy Bull victory as a fluke. The son of Lawyer Ron has a career's worth of seasoning with five wins in nine starts, so there aren't too many race scenarios the dark bay colt hasn't already experienced.

With the exception of his sixth-place run in the Grade III Delta Jackpot where he was near the back of the field early, Itsmyluckyday has shown the tactical ability to settle just off the leaders and power past his rivals when he gets clear running. The fact his connections have already shipped him to four different tracks also speaks well of his disposition.

From a versatility standpoint, Itsmyluckyday has won over both a sealed sloppy track and fast surfaces.

"Everybody's excited because of the Kentucky Derby. It's hard not to get wrapped up in that," Plesa said.

Owners: Trilogy Stable and Laurie Plesa

Trainer: Eddie Plesa

Breeder: Liberation Farm and Brandywine Farm

Bloodline: Dark bay colt by Lawyer Ron-Viva La Slew, by Doneraile Court

Career record: Nine starts, 5-1-1, $425,600

Last start: Won Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26

Next start: Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 30

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Can he keep improving after running so fast this early in the year?

NORMANDY INVASION

Normally, a Kentucky Derby prospect gains in stature by throwing down a visually impressive victory. Normandy Invasion was defeated in his most recent outing, but the effort he put out was enough to earn him nearly as much credibility as if he had won.

In the Grade II Remsen Stakes last November, Fox Hill Farm's Normandy Invasion was near the rear of the pack early in the 10-horse field before advancing with a huge move on the turn, hooking eventual race winner Overanalyze in the lane of the 11⁄8-mile race.

Normandy Invasion lost the stretch battle by a bob at the wire, but the sustained kick he showed was just what many like to see from developing horses.

The bay son of Tapit does have some stamina question marks in his pedigree, but more than one talented horse has outrun what their bloodlines suggest going 11/4 miles. In his maiden victory that came in his second time out, Normandy Invasion again was well back early only to come with a big rally four wide to score a 91/4-length win going a mile.

"He's a very talented horse. He's still learning the game," said trainer Chad Brown. "He can obviously handle two turns. Distance won't be a problem for him moving forward. If he continues to learn and progress, he could be a horse on the (Derby) trail."

Owner: Fox Hill Farms

Trainer: Chad Brown

Breeder: Betz Kidder/Gainesway/Graves/D.J. Stable/Cole

Bloodline: Bay colt by Tapit-Boston Lady, by Boston Harbor

Career record: Three starts, 1-1-0, $92,240

Last start: Second in Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 24

Next start: Possible for Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 23

Latest work: 5 furlongs in 1:01.23 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Feb. 3

Potential trouble: Will that big turn of foot hold up or flatten out over longer distances?

ORB

Given that Shug McGaughey has started a grand total of six horses in the Kentucky Derby during his Hall of Fame career, it takes a special type of sophomore to even get the veteran trainer pondering a serious run at the first leg of the Triple Crown.

With his proven ability at a longer distance and top company he has been keeping, Stuart Janney and Phipps Stables' homebred colt Orb has succeeded in at least planting that ambitious seed in McGaughey's head.

If you loved Revolutionary's display of guile in winning the Withers Stakes, you must also take heed of Orb's form in his last two starts. The son of Malibu Moon defeated Revolutionary by more than 4 lengths when he broke his maiden going a mile at Aqueduct on Nov. 24 and opened his 2013 campaign with a last-to-first rally in a 11⁄8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26.

Though it took Orb four times to notch his first win, he was beaten little more than a length by eventual Grade I winner Violence in his career debut at Saratoga and hooked unbeaten graded stakes winner Vyjack in his third outing.

"He kind of hit me on the head (with his win at Gulfstream) ....but he's going to have to tell me (if he's a Derby horse)," McGaughey said. "It's not something I'm going to push for."

Owner: Stuart Janney and Phipps Stable

Trainer: Shug McGaughey

Breeder: Stuart Janney and Phipps Stable

Bloodline: Bay colt by Malibu Moon-Lady Liberty, by Unbridled

Career record: Five starts, 2-0-1, $81,050

Last start: Won 11⁄8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26

Next start: Possible for Grade II Fountain of Youth on Feb. 23 or allowance race

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Has not started in a stakes race and has no points in the new Derby system.

OXBOW

It's not that Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas has been out of the Kentucky Derby picture of late, with three starters in the last four years adding to his record total of 45.

It has been some time, however, since the four-time Derby-winning trainer has headed toward the first Saturday in May with a horse considered a major threat. Enter Calumet Farm's Oxbow, he of the facile win in the Grade III LeComte Stakes with a classic pedigree.

Seeing Oxbow run away and hide from his foes during his 111/2-length victory in the LeComte further emboldened Lukas' belief that he still has a Triple Crown win or two left in him. While the son of Awesome Again didn't face the toughest of fields that day, there are ample positives in Oxbow's form beyond the gaudy margin of victory.

After starting his career with three losses — including being pulled up in his debut — Oxbow broke his maiden at Churchill Downs in front-running fashion last November. The bay colt was then a respectable fourth in the Grade I CashCall Futurity but sure had the look of a young horse turning the corner in the LeComte.

Oxbow's female family is also outstanding as his dam, Tizamazing, is a full sister to champion and leading sire Tiznow as well as Tizso, dam of Grade I winner Paynter.

Owner: Calumet Farm (Brad Kelley)

Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas

Breeder: Colts Neck Stables

Bloodline: Bay colt by Awesome Again-Tizamazing, by Cee's Tizzy

Career record: Six starts, 2-0-1, $217,500

Last start: Won Grade III LeComte at Fair Grounds on Jan. 19

Next start: Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 23

Latest work: 5 furlongs in 1:01.40 on Feb. 4 at Oaklawn.

Potential trouble: No LeComte winner has ever won the Kentucky Derby.

REVOLUTIONARY

It was one of those races where no matter how often you watch it, the outcome doesn't cease to amaze. After WinStar Farm's Revolutionary rallied from last off a soft pace, angled relentlessly to find racing room in the lane and somehow got up by a neck between foes to take the Grade III Withers on Feb. 2 despite his greenness, the most resounding question next to "How did he do that?" was what a more professional version of the colt might be capable of doing.

About the only thing that went right for Revolutionary in the Withers was the final outcome as he got what WinStar President Elliott Walden deemed "three races worth" of education in the 11⁄16-mile test. Any young horse who shows the fortitude to keep coming despite repeated checks to his momentum is one that automatically leaps up the depth chart — especially when combined with the dominating ability displayed during his 81/2-length maiden score at Aqueduct on Dec. 28.

If he can get his maturity to come around, Revolutionary has an enviable pedigree to back up a potential Derby run. His sire, War Pass, was the juvenile champion of 2007, and he is out of the A.P. Indy mare Runup the Colors, winner of the 1997 Grade I Alabama Stakes going 11/4 miles.

"He couldn't blow out a match in the winner's circle," Walden said after the Withers.

Owners: WinStar Farm

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breeder: William S. Farish

Bloodline: Dark bay colt by War Pass-Runup the Colors, by A.P. Indy

Career record: Five starts, 2-1-2, $188,500

Last start: Won Grade III Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 2

Next start: TBA

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Has not been good getting out of the gate, something that could spell trouble in tougher fields.

SHANGHAI BOBBY

Whatever side of the fence you were on with reigning juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby probably didn't shift a whole lot when he suffered his first career defeat at the hands of Itsmyluckyday in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes.

If you love the son of Harlan's Holiday, the way he hung tough for second after taking front-end heat signaled he still has more upside in his development. If you are in the camp that believes the bay colt's bloodlines dictate he will hit a wall beyond 11⁄8 miles, you now have exhibit A in that argument.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown of winterbook Kentucky Derby favorite, but there are worse problems than being targeted for your proven ability. Until his defeat in the Holy Bull, there wasn't a lot to knock on Shanghai Bobby. He was unbeaten in five starts as a 2-year-old, culminating with his Eclipse Award-clinching win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November.

Though losing his season debut was no disgrace, Shanghai Bobby will have even more scrutiny when he makes his expected start in the Grade I Florida Derby. His female family leans heavily toward speed and precocity, so how much improvement he shows in his final pre-Kentucky Derby outing will be a key indicator of whether he can be that elite juvenile who keeps his classmates from closing the gap on him.

Owners: Starlight Racing, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, and Derrick Smith

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breeder: Stonehaven Steadings

Bloodline: Dark bay colt by Harlan's Holiday-Steelin', by Orientate

Career record: Six starts, 5-1-0, $1,767,000

Last start: Second in Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26

Next start: Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 30

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Recent history has not been kind to juvenile champions come Derby Day.

VERRAZANO

Every season on the Kentucky Derby trail, there seems to be at least one prospect everyone can't help falling for despite all the red flags waving about. Even though Verrazano bears the curse of not having raced as a juvenile and has yet to try stakes company, the level of brilliance he has shown in his two career starts has put his name in the same breath as some more accomplished divisional counterparts.

On the same day his stablemate Revolutionary epitomized grit during his win in the Grade III Withers Stakes, Verrazano dropped jaws the conventional way, winning a 1-mile allowance race at Gulfstream by 161/4 lengths Feb. 2. That outing came just a month after the son of More Than Ready broke his maiden by 73/4 lengths on Jan. 1.

His future Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher is not one for hyperbole, which makes his post-race statement that Verrazano "was about as impressive as you'll see one run" bulletin board material in a barn that houses — among others — champion Shanghai Bobby and Grade I winner Violence.

How that ability holds up once the waters get deeper is anyone's guess, but Verrazano has already shown he can rate honestly. His half-brother, Grade II winner El Padrino, was 13th in the 2012 Kentucky Derby so there is also classic potential in the bloodlines.

Owner: Let's Go Stable

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breeder: Emory Hamilton

Bloodline: Bay colt by More Than Ready-Enchanted Rock, by Giant's Causeway

Career record: Two starts, 2-0-0, $51,300

Last start: Won 1-mile allowance race on main track at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 2

Next start: TBA

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Not since Apollo in 1882 has there been a Kentucky Derby winner who didn't race as juvenile.

VIOLENCE

Of the voluminous top Derby hopefuls trainer Todd Pletcher boasts at this stage, Black Rock Thoroughbreds' Violence has the distinction of having the fewest holes to pick at when trying to dissect his future.

While Medaglia d'Oro has had his stud career defined by the success of his female runners to date, his son Violence has emerged among the leaders of the sophomore male division with his Grade I form and unblemished record in three starts.

After breaking his maiden at Saratoga in August, Violence made the transition to stakes company seamlessly with a 2-length win in the Grade II Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct in November. From there, the dark bay colt crossed the country to start over a synthetic surface for the first time, posting a 11/4-length win in the Grade I CashCall Futurity over the likes of Oxbow and Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up He's Had Enough.

Everything about Violence reeks of a colt with good mind about him — from his classic stalk-and-pounce running style to the way he finishes his races. If he can continue to grow into his leggy frame without losing the beyond-his-years ability he showed during his juvenile year, Violence could be the workmanlike runner standing tallest of all on the classic trail.

Owners: Black Rock Thoroughbreds

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breeder: Dell Ridge Farm

Bloodline: Dark bay colt by Medaglia d'Oro-Violent Beauty, Gone West

Career record: Three starts, 3-0-0, $543,000

Last start: Won Grade I CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 15

Next start: Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 23

Latest work: 5 furlongs in 1:02.29 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Feb. 3

Potential trouble: Since 1980, only five Kentucky Derby winners have been Grade I winners at age 2.

VYJACK

There have been flashier performers on the Derby trail with higher-profile wins. But while widespread respect has been slower to come to Vyjack, all the bay gelding has done is click off wins and handle each new test flawlessly.

In three starts over his base at Aqueduct, the Rudy Rodriguez-trained Vyjack has prevailed each time at distances from 61/2 furlongs to 1 mile, 70 yards last time out in the Grade II Jerome Stakes. His effort in the Jerome was particularly encouraging as the gelded son of Into Mischief fought back after being passed on the inside by Siete de Oros coming for home, ultimately getting up by a head for his first graded score.

What has continued to flatter Vyjack is how some of the horses he has already beaten have gone on to perform. Orb, fourth behind Vyjack on Nov. 10, went on to beat eventual Wither Stakes winner Revolutionary later that month.

Running second to Vyjack that same November day was Clawback, who went on to win the Jimmy Winkfield this January.

"He's still learning and hopefully he keeps learning," Rodriguez said after the Jerome. "Hopefully this race will wake him up a little bit and put him more in the game because he's got a lot of talent."

Owners: Pick Six Racing

Trainer: Rudy Rodriguez

Breeder: Machmer Hall

Bloodline: Bay gelding by Into Mischief-Life Happened, by Stravinsky

Career record: Three starts, 3-0-0, $202,200

Last start: Won Grade II Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct on Jan. 5

Next start: Grade II Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 2

Latest work: 5 furlongs in 1:03.03 at Aqueduct Jan. 27

Potential trouble: Has never raced outside of his home track and probably won't leading up to the Derby if he sticks with the Gotham-to-Wood Memorial path.

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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