It's not too late.
True, the first of March is here and Kentucky Derby hopefuls like Honor Code and Bond Holder have yet to make their sophomore debuts. Grade I winner and Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Havana will be making his first outing of 2014 in Saturday's Grade II Swale Stakes, facing the likes of Group I winner No Nay Never.
Though several 3-year-olds are dealing with a bit of a time crunch, getting a later start has not doomed Kentucky Derby contenders in recent years.
Beginning with Street Sense's triumph in the 2007 Kentucky Derby, five of the last seven winners on the first Saturday of May have made their season debuts on Feb. 28 or later. Street Sense didn't make his 3-year-old debut until that year's Tampa Bay Derby on March 17, Big Brown (2008) didn't showcase himself until March 5 and Super Saver (2010) didn't surface until March 13.
Much of that trend is due to the fact that the once-dismissed two-prep route became all the rage after Street Sense, with last year's winner Orb the first since 2007 to win the Derby off three prep races. Thus, a later debut shouldn't spark concern as long as it aligns with the original game plan.
Honor Code sat out last weekend's Fountain of Youth because of missing training time with slight bruising of his hind ankles. Assuming he comes back for the Rebel Stakes on March 15, he'd still have time to get his planned two preps in before May.
Same, too, goes for Grade I winner Bond Holder, who is being rerouted to the Tampa Bay Derby on March 8 after body soreness from a rough flight knocked him out of last weekend's planned start in the Risen Star.
The design of the Derby points system makes it so that as long a horse hits the board in the final round of preps, he has a strong chance of making the field for May 3. So hold off on the panic button if your hopeful has yet to put in a race.
That is unless you're a fan of juvenile champion Shared Belief, whose foot issues have prevented him from working out since Jan. 3. His Derby chances are looking as if they'll need a Lazarus-like comeback at this stage.
The Derby Dozen
1. Cairo Prince: The Holy Bull Stakes winner has new ownership involved as it was announced Friday that Sheikh Mohammed's Darley operation had purchased a majority interest in the son of Pioneerof the Nile. Cairo Prince will remain with current trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and race in the colors of Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Stable, along with owners Terry Murray, Paul Braverman, Harvey Clarke and Craig Robertson III. "It's just a great story right now, I'm so happy Darley is involved," said McLaughlin, who added that Cairo Prince is slated to have his third work since the Holy Bull on Saturday in preparation for the Grade I Florida Derby on March 29. "He's doing great, it's just time now, training him to the Florida Derby. But he's a special horse and it would be lovely to continue to win races with this horse."
2. Top Billing: Normally leery of horses who gain in stature after losing but, given the way the Gulfstream Park track was playing to speed last weekend, his rally from the back of the 12-horse field to get third in the Grade II Fountain of Youth confirmed his potential for many. Trainer Shug McGaughey indicated he would wait a few weeks before deciding whether Top Billing will head to the Florida Derby or if he would look toward the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. "The Florida Derby is where I would like to run him, but I'm going to wait and see what the track's like and how he bounces out of it," McGaughey said.
3. Candy Boy: Worked 4 furlongs in :48.20 at Santa Anita on Wednesday in his first move since his victory in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 8. The Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 5 is the next hurdle.
4. Honor Code: The Grade II Remsen Stakes winner worked a half-mile in :52.06 at Gulfstream on Tuesday. McGaughey said Friday he plans to "work him again over the weekend and will probably put him in company" in preparation for a likely start in the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 15.
5. Intense Holiday: Has been quietly improving since last fall, finally breaking through with his rallying nose victory over Albano in the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds last weekend. The son of Harlan's Holiday was coming off a third-place run in the Holy Bull Stakes after finishing fourth in both the Remsen and Nashua last November. Has taken a step up but that must be weighed against how much he benefited from getting away from the Cairo Princes and Honor Codes of the world.
6. Tapiture: Weather permitting, the son of Tapit is slated to work Saturday in what will be his first move since winning the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 17. Some debate whether his form can extend to 10 furlongs, but his dam sire, Olympio, took the 1991 Grade II American Derby going 11/4 miles and — if you like omens — won that year's Arkansas Derby as well.
7. Strong Mandate: Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas wasted no time putting the son of Tiznow back to work after his runner-up effort in the Southwest Stakes, breezing the colt 4 furlongs in a bullet :48 flat on Tuesday. Has all the ability in the world, but needs to be more professional in his expected next start in the Rebel.
8. Conquest Titan: Trainer Mark Casse looked wise in bypassing the Fountain of Youth on a day when it would have probably been impossible for this colt to effectively use his late-running style. Worked 4 furlongs in :48.30 at Palm Meadows last Saturday and is now slated to contest the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 8.
9. Albano: Had the Grade II Risen Star Stakes won until the final jump when Intense Holiday nailed him at the wire. This Larry Jones trainee is a half brother to graded stakes winner Mark Valeski, second in the 2012 Louisiana Derby, and ran third when he made his career debut going 6 furlongs at Churchill Downs last October. "Albano reminds me so much of Mark," Jones said. "He looks just like him and he acts just like him. I just hope we don't get the same result in the next round like we did two years ago."
10. Constitution: Handily defeated the likes of Tonalist and Mexikoma in what was considered a stakes-quality field in a 11⁄16 miles allowance race on the undercard of the Fountain of Youth. The son of Tapit was only making his second career start and while he may have benefited from the way the track was playing, he already had buzz after he broke poorly but recovered to win his career debut going 7 furlongs at Gulfstream on Jan. 11.
11. General a Rod: The perceived track bias means the jury is going to be out on how we should rate both him and Fountain of Youth winner Wildcat Red. Here is what we know for sure about the Gulfstream Park Derby winner: He's never been worse than second in four starts, was second to Conquest Titan at Churchill last fall and there is evidence in his pedigree to suggest 11/4 miles could be within his reach. Everyone is looking for progress this time of year and the son of Roman Ruler keeps showing that.
12. Samraat: Brings his unbeaten record into the Grade III Gotham Stakes on Saturday. Showed a ton of mettle in dueling with, then prevailing over, Uncle Sigh in the Withers Stakes. Question is how much did that on-the-belly effort take out of him?
The Next Dozen
Wildcat Red, Bayern, California Chrome, Kobe's Back, Tamarando, Vicar's in Trouble, Tonalist, Mexikoma, Vinceremos, Bond Holder, Uncle Sigh, Commissioner.