When Uncle Mo suffered his stunning loss in the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 9, the sophomore division seemingly lost its clear-cut leader, leaving many to think this could be a good Kentucky Derby for those whose handicapping skills lean toward picking random colors, numbers or names.
While the lack of clarity surrounding this year's class has become the dominant topic less than two weeks out from the 137th Kentucky Derby, recent hindsight shows it would be foolish for any of us to think we could have any real handle on how the race will play out until the calendar actually flips to the first Saturday of May.
Eskendereya was supposed to be the superstar of the 2010 crop off his stirring Wood Memorial victory, but the days leading up to his arrival at Churchill were peppered with questions about his soundness.
Sure enough, the colt had to be withdrawn from the Derby the Sunday before the race because of a front leg injury that ended up being career ending — leaving the door clear for stablemate Super Saver to collect the roses.
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The year before wasn't any better from a prediction standpoint. Wood Memorial winner I Want Revenge was scratched the morning of the Derby due to a leg injury. Even with the would-be favorite out of the picture, no amount of last-minute studying could have told you it would be Mine That Bird ending the day in the winner's circle.
As discombobulated as the current Derby climate may be, expecting the unexpected really has become the norm. Many trainers want more time and fewer starts coming into the race and, at times, it seems collecting graded earnings against softer company has become more important than proving your horse actually belongs. It is little wonder the Derby starting gate could feature horses that still qualify for allowance conditions.
Add to that the fact horses are still dropping in and out of the Derby picture by the moment. Grade I winner Jaycito became the latest to defect Sunday as various outlets reported his bruised foot will keep him out of the first leg of the Triple Crown.
So if you're struggling to decipher what has transpired since January and how it will all translate come May 7, stop beating your head against the wall temporarily. This muddled picture isn't done mixing itself up yet, and even when this year's crop does finally get into the gate, there is a good chance the end results won't provide any more clarity as to who the superior member of this class will end up being.
1. Dialed In: Hasn't done much wrong in his short career and deserves to carry the tag as the likely Derby favorite at this stage. Explosive as his turn of foot is, his late-closing style will likely be his main challenge — it puts him at the mercy of 19 others on May 7. Will have his final work at Palm Meadows Training Center before shipping to Churchill Downs on April 30.
2. Uncle Mo: Many couldn't get off his bandwagon fast enough following his Wood Memorial loss and subsequent diagnosis of a GI tract infection, but trainer Todd Pletcher said he has been encouraged with the way the reigning juvenile champion has responded to his treatment.
"His appetite is the best it's been since the Wood, and I'm feeling really good about the direction we're heading," Pletcher said on Sunday. "Like I said when we got here, we need to have a really good 19 days and, so far, we've had a really good five here. We need to have 13 more, but we're really, really pleased with the progress we're making at the moment."
Will have his first serious move since his third-place run in the Wood Memorial this Tuesday at Churchill Downs with jockey John Velazquez flying in for the 5-furlong work.
3. Archarcharch: Barring injury or illness, he will represent the first Kentucky Derby starter for journeyman rider Jon Court and his father-in-law, trainer Jinks Fires. Was most effective when Court took him back and made one big run to win the Grade I Arkansas Derby, but his past form shows he has tactical ability. Has as good a chance as any right now.
4. Mucho Macho Man: Has been outstanding in his recent works, the latest being a 7-furlong move in 1:29.20 over a sloppy Churchill Downs track Sunday.
"I was very happy with it and Rajiv also seemed to be," said trainer Kathy Ritvo, referring to jockey Rajiv Maragh, who was aboard for the move and will ride Mucho Macho Man in the Derby. Is slated to have his final work this coming Saturday or Sunday.
5. Toby's Corner: The talk since the Wood Memorial has been more about Uncle Mo losing than Toby's Corner winning, and understandably so. Still not quite sure what to make of the son of Bellamy Road, but he has never been worse than third in his life and reportedly bounced out of that effort stronger than ever. "He's done better coming out of the Wood than out of the Gotham," trainer Graham Motion said. "I know he hasn't been flashy but he hasn't done a lot wrong." Is training at Fair Hill right now and is slated to ship to Churchill Downs next Monday.
6. Nehro: Pencil him in as the potential wise-guy horse this year. Though he only has a maiden win to his credit, the way he closed to get second in both the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby has inspired a lot of positive talk — especially as most of the favorites began to topple over. Is scheduled to work at Churchill Downs on Monday.
7. Soldat: Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is absolutely loving the wet weather that has and still is scheduled to hit Kentucky. It was his charge who won by 103/4 lengths over a sloppy Gulfstream Park track in January. McLaughlin was also extremely pleased with the way the son of War Front worked 5 furlongs in :59 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Thursday and added that Soldat has been the picture of physical health throughout the grind of the Kentucky Derby trail.
"He's just flying right now," McLaughlin said. "He worked better than I was looking for, and that's usually a good sign,"
Will ship to Churchill on April 30.
8. Pants On Fire: Arrived at Churchill Downs on Sunday after working 5 furlongs in 1:00.80 at Palm Meadows on Saturday.
9. Midnight Interlude: Worked 5 furlongs in :59.20 at Santa Anita Park on Wednesday and most likely will have his first serious move over the Churchill Downs track this Tuesday, weather permitting. With Jaycito officially declared out of the Derby on Sunday and The Factor's status still up in the air, this son of War Chant — who didn't begin his career until January — could end up as trainer Bob Baffert's lone hope for the roses this year. A perfect example of how quickly the Derby trail can change.
10. Shackleford: Trainer Dale Romans could not have asked for more after the Florida Derby runner-up covered 5 furlongs in 1:00.20 at Churchill on Saturday. Jaycito's defection helps Shackleford's quest to make it into the top 20 of the graded stakes earnings list as he is now in the 21st spot.
"It's frustrating because I think a lot of people are going to run because they have the earnings and they can get in, whether they should or shouldn't," Romans said. "I think we're a legitimate contender if we get in."
11. Stay Thirsty: Worked 5 furlongs in company at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning, covering the distance in 1:00 with jockey Calvin Borel up.
"We leaned on him a little bit this morning," Pletcher said. "I told Calvin we wanted a good, solid work and I think we got that. We might have a similar-type work next week."
Although Pletcher stressed Borel's presence in the saddle was simply the product of the three-time Derby winning rider being available for the move, he left the door open for Borel to maybe gain the mount for May 7.
"I'd say it's a possibility, but we haven't done anything yet," Pletcher said.
12. Santiva: Will be reunited with jockey Shaun Bridgmohan for his expected start in the Derby. Bridgmohan guided the son of Giant's Causeway to victory in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill last November, the colt's lone win in six career starts.
The next dozen: Animal Kingdom, Brilliant Speed, The Factor, Comma to the Top, Decisive Moment, Master of Hounds, Anthony's Cross, Twinspired, Watch Me Go, Twice the Appeal, Sway Away, Mr. Commons.