When one has a roster of 3-year-olds as voluminous as the one trainer Todd Pletcher annually maintains, it is natural for the would-be classic contenders in his care to take their respective turns sitting atop of his lofty depth chart.
Last Nov. 26, WinStar Farm's Gemologist owned that distinction having just won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes over Churchill Downs' main track.
Though some of his stablemates rose up over the last 51/2 months to put the son of Tiznow temporarily in the shade, the colt is returning to Louisville carrying the same mantle he left with months ago.
Much like Hollywood, Thoroughbred racing loves to fall for the latest, hottest star.
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In the more than three months Gemologist spent waiting in the wings before making his seasonal bow at Gulfstream Park on March 16, he had stablemates Algorithms, winner of the Holy Bull Stakes; El Padrino, victor of the Risen Star; and even impressive allowance winner Discreet Dancer overtake him as the Great Todd Hope at times.
Once the unbeaten colt got his 3-year-old campaign under way, however, he reaffirmed the beliefs of those who tabbed him this winter as a top contender for Saturday's 138th Kentucky Derby.
After cantering to a 7-length victory in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park to shake the rust off, Gemologist fully reasserted himself when he turned back Alpha in the stretch of the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7 to collect his fifth triumph in as many career outings.
"How this business is, it's kind of like, 'what have you done for me lately?'" Pletcher said. "And it wasn't that he (Gemologist) had done anything wrong, he just hadn't run. So he fell off of some people's radar screens while we were waiting on him to get started.
"Once he won that allowance race as impressively as he did, people jumped right back on. And he certainly backed it up with a good performance in the Wood get to himself back in the forefront."
Because he shares the same connections and similar prep schedule, Gemologist is drawing comparisons to Super Saver, who gave Pletcher and WinStar their first Kentucky Derby triumph in 2010.
Whereas Super Saver's progression featured steady steps of improvement before ultimately peaking in May, the question with Gemologist lies in whether his people have gotten to the bottom of him yet.
Gemologist couldn't find much of a challenge in his first four starts, winning by a combined 153/4 lengths while largely racing on the front end. Those outings weren't merely the product of the 17-hand youngster loving a certain surface as he broke his maiden over the Polytrack at Turfway and triumphed twice at Churchill Downs before heading to Gulfstream Park.
"He's run on four different racetracks and three of them — Aqueduct, Gulfstream and Turfway — he saw for the first time when he set foot on them, and won all of them," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, which purchased Gemologist for $310,000 at the 2009 Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale. "I think that's probably the most important thing, that he doesn't need to take his racetrack with him."
Though not the kind of blowout effort fellow Derby hopeful Bodemeister put down in the Arkansas Derby, the 11⁄8-mile Wood Memorial was a "wow" moment in its own right for Gemologist.
For starters, the bay colt showed he was not a need-the-lead kind of horse by sitting third in the three-wide path off pacesetter The Lumber Guy before ranging up on the final turn and taking the lead in the stretch.
Eventual runner-up Alpha appeared to have Gemologist measured in the final sixteenth only to have the latter refuse to yield on the inside, throwing his ears up at the wire as if to suggest he was ready for another go-round.
"I really felt like at the sixteenth pole he might get beat because Alpha had the momentum and was gaining on him," Walden said. "Nine times out of 10 in that situation you get passed. Literally the thing that impressed me the most was in two strides, he went from kind of playing around to 'okay, let's go' and picked it back up.
"To do it so quickly was, for me anyway, evidence that he had more there."
With Gemologist having already won twice at Churchill Downs, Pletcher and WinStar were more than comfortable in keeping the colt in Florida for his final work Sunday, a 4-furlong move in :50.39 at Palm Meadows Training Center in company with stablemate Disposablepleasure.
"He's been perfect his whole life, so we're hoping to see more of what we've seen," Pletcher said.
The last time Gemologist left Churchill, he did so with the faith he would be making a special return visit in May. As cyclical as those around him have been, the colt is as unblemished as when he started.
"(WinStar Farm owner) Kenny Troutt told me before the Wood the only horse he's had that was undefeated this time of year was one that hadn't started," Walden said. "I hope that doesn't change Saturday."