The list of intangibles a horse needs to hit the wire first in the Kentucky Derby is about the length of the Churchill Downs stretch.
You have the usual criteria — stamina, speed, tractability.
Mettle is also a popular one. How much of that juvenile champion American Pharoah possesses is a key question as he prepares for his final pre-Kentucky Derby start in Saturday's Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
Trainer Bob Baffert has repeatedly said he marvels at how easily things seem to come for American Pharoah, from the way he gets over the ground to how he accelerates while barely twitching a muscle.
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When the ultimate goal is winning a race that will be the toughest, and often the roughest run, of a young horse's career, there is a train of thought that says it's not the worst thing for a Derby contender to face serious challenges at least once ahead of time.
In winning his last three starts by a combined 131/4 lengths, including a 61/4-length victory in the Grade II Rebel Stakes on March 14, American Pharoah has been unchallenged on the lead. Though his connections maintain he can rate if needed, they also take issue with anyone holding the colt's brillance against him.
"That's a concern to anyone that your horse has never been battle tested, but I think that's more of a credit to the horse himself," said Justin Zayat, racing manager for owner/breeder Zayat Stables. "He's a naturally brilliant, brilliant horse. I think he's got the talent to do it, and if I'm worried about seasoning with Bob Baffert then I'm in the wrong hands.
"I just think this horse honestly is just a spectacular horse, and that's the reason why he's been unchallenged in all his races."
With fellow Zayat-owned Mr. Z and his early speed in the Arkansas Derby, American Pharoah may indeed get his chance to show he can take back a bit. Thing is, even the Zayats aren't certain Mr. Z has it in him to do what no horse has done since American Pharoah lost his career debut — get in front of him.
"I honestly don't think he can hold a candle to American Pharoah at this moment," Zayat said of Mr. Z. "I'm not looking to rate (American Pharoah) or see what's going to happen. If that develops, the horse is capable of doing it. But we're just coming in the race to win right now. That's all I'm looking for."
The Derby Dozen
1. Dortmund: Another race, another step forward for Dortmund. His victory in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby never seemed in question, and despite being on the lead the whole way, he's already shown he can sit just off the front if needed, cruising along with that massive stride. It's amazing how athletic this horse is considering word out of his camp is that he is up to 17.2 hands. Just a brilliant beast.
2. American Pharoah: One last tidbit for those who feel he needs to be tested in the Arkansas Derby: 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome won his four prior starts leading into the Derby by a total of 241/4 lengths with an average win margin of 6 lengths in that time.
3. Carpe Diem: Handled business as expected in last Saturday's Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, sitting just outside Ocho Ocho Ocho through early fractions then going on for a 3-length win. Jockey John Velazquez said when the son of Giant's Causeway made the lead, he idled a bit which is why Velazquez kept after him with a few taps in the lane. And where he has had problems loading in the gate in the past, he walked in with little fuss on Blue Grass Day. The only time this colt has ever stubbed his toe, if you can call it that, was when he was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile — hardly disappointing when you look at how far out of it he was and the sustained run he made.
4. Firing Line: Dortmund's excellence continues to elevate this colt when you look back at their battles in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Not a lot separates the two in talent, but at this stage it's the intangibles that put a horse in elite company. And he did give it up to Dortmund after twice having him on the ropes.
5. International Star: Owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey have every right to beam about this colt because he has arguably answered more questions than any of his Derby trail companions. He can take dirt in his face, he can handle being in tight on the inside, and if he gets any kind of pace to work with you know he's going to close. His speed figures have also improved each time out. Toss him on Derby Day at your own risk.
6. Frosted: Wonderful job by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin doing everything possible to get this son of Tapit back on course to deliver a clutch win in the Grade I Wood Memorial. Following Frosted's fourth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth where he stopped while on the lead at the head of the stretch, McLaughlin switched jockeys, adjusted his blinkers, had a minor procedure done on his throat to eliminate any risk of a breathing problem, and tinkered with his training. The result was Frosted kicking home to a 2-length win in the Wood, and the horse many wrote off after the Fountain of Youth now has some of the same wondering how much more he can improve on May 2.
7. Upstart: How he trains at Churchill Downs will merit special attention to see how much he has left after his Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby outings. The hope for his connections is that the tiring Gulfstream Park course put some bottom into him and made him tougher and better. He's going to have to be with this many good 3-year-olds in the class with him.
8. Materiality: The history he has to overcome with being unraced at age 2 clouds much of his assessment. Curlin was a future two-time Horse of the Year freak and he couldn't pull it off. This is a classy colt but he's being asked to do so much in a year when the top 3-year-olds have shown no mercy.
9. Mubtaahij: The UAE Derby winner will be the biggest wild card this year. Have no idea how the competition he beat in Dubai stacks up against what he will face May 2, but he sure ran like a horse with star power to him.
10. Far Right: Not sure he'll get the pace scenario needed for him to close in the Arkansas Derby, but he sure fired in winning the Smarty Jones Stakes and Grade III Southwest over the Oaklawn track this winter. Trainer Ron Moquett says those outings still didn't demonstrate the best of what his charge has to offer and, regardless what American Pharoah does, he is confident that Far Right is going to be putting the heat on as the finish line approaches. "I would say that if everything goes cool — if I'm within 2 or 3 lengths of him at the sixteenth pole — I'd feel comfortable," Moquett said.
11. One Lucky Dane: Trainer Bob Baffert gets a bonus Derby contender in this colt whom he astutely predicted was turning a corner before the Santa Anita Derby. The son of Lookin At Lucky was easily handled by stablemate Dortmund but was a clear runner-up, finishing 21/4 lengths in front of Bolo. "This distance is not going to be a problem for him," Baffert said. "He qualified in Bob Baffert's eyes. I don't need 40 points. They've got to qualify in my eyes."
12. El Kabeir: His third-place finish in the Wood Memorial was a step backward, but not a completely disheartening effort. He was tracking along last in a field of seven behind a pedestrian half-mile in :49.04 but still put in a decent enough finish to get on the board. He's probably a cut below the best of this class, but on grit alone he could fight his way through to finish in the top half of the field in the Kentucky Derby.
THE NEXT DOZEN
Tencendur, Danzig Moon, Ocho Ocho Ocho, Frammento, Stanford, Madefromlucky, Itsaknockout, War Story, Mr. Z, Tiznow RJ, Keen Ice, Bold Conquest.