There have already been lofty comparisons made where some of this year's top 3-year-olds are concerned. Dortmund's name has been mentioned in the same breath as champion Point Given and his stablemate, American Pharoah, has prompted some to equate his effortless, early speed with that of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
It is way too early to go down those specific roads just yet. But one proclamation that can, and has, been made is that this current bunch has already proven themselves as one of the best pound-for-pound collections of sophomore runners the sport has seen in recent years.
The depth and ability of this class is one that arguably stands as the best since the 2007 class that featured eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, champions Street Sense and Rags to Riches and Grade I winners Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday.
Starting at the top of the group for 2015, you have Dortmund, an unbeaten multiple Grade I winner who still hasn't touched the bottom of his ability. Then there is American Pharoah, whose effortless triumph in the Arkansas Derby made him the first juvenile champion to win a Grade I Kentucky Derby prep race at 3 since Fly So Free took the 1991 Florida Derby.
Were this any other year, Materiality would normally be a target of much hype, having won the Grade I Florida Derby to remain unbeaten in three career starts. Instead, the son of Afleet Alex isn't even the top seed in his own barn, conceding that to fellow Todd Pletcher-trainee Carpe Diem, whose multiple Grade I wins may only be good enough to make him third choice on the morning line.
"This is the best group of 3-year-olds as a whole that I can remember, dating back to when I was a little kid," said Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who is set to pilot Sunland Derby winner Firing Line in the first leg of the Triple Crown. "This will be my 21st or 22nd Derby, but as far as depth goes, it's there, with American Pharoah, Carpe Diem, Dortmund, Firing Line, Frosted — even Far Right, El Kabeir."
Even the so-called second tier of this year's bunch are legitimate prospects who would make absolute sense if they pulled off the victory. Ken and Sarah Ramsey's International Star is leading the Kentucky Derby standings with 171 qualifying points, having rattled off three straight wins in the Grade III LeComte, Grade II Risen Star and Grade II Louisiana Derby.
Kiaran McLaughlin-trainee Frosted scored a handy victory in the Grade I Wood Memorial, but it wouldn't be surprising at all if the son of Tapit is sitting at double-digit odds come post time.
"You know it's a really good year. I think a horse will win the Triple Crown (again) and this could be the year," said Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen, rider of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed. "American Pharaoh or Dortmund may turn out to be the horse that can do what we have been waiting for all these years. It will be interesting. As a whole this is probably one of the best bunches for a long time."
The Derby Dozen
1. Dortmund: His breeder, Emilie Gerlinde Fojan, said this big baby by Big Brown is now up to 17.2 hands and 1,360 pounds. Fojan also added that exercise rider/assistant Dana Barnes thinks Dortmund actually "is not really liking Santa Anita (the surface), he likes Churchill a lot more." Sit with that for a minute.
1a. American Pharoah: It's too hard to separate him and Dortmund right now, so I'm not going to try. There have been several horses who won their final Derby prep races by huge margins (Eskendereya in the 2010 Wood Memorial, Curlin in the 2007 Arkansas Derby) but it was the way American Pharoah accomplished his 8-length victory in the Arkansas Derby that really impresses. The ears told the story: Where Mr. Z had his pinned flat against his head giving all he could to stay with American Pharoah on the final turn, the reigning juvenile canters around with his up the entire time as if it were a stroll in the park. He never took a deep breath and he proved he didn't need the lead. He's so fast and fluid in his movement, it's scary good because he's not even really trying yet.
3. Carpe Diem: Is slated to work at Keeneland this Sunday in what will be his first move since winning the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 4. The fact that this son of Giant's Causeway is a multiple Grade I winner whose only blemish was a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and still may only be, at best, third choice in the Derby morning line says all you need to know about the quality of this year's crop.
4. Firing Line: Worked 5 furlongs at Santa Anita last Saturday in 59.20 under Stevens, who will be seeking his fourth Kentucky Derby win when he rides the son of Line of David on May 2. That he has Stevens' endorsement says something in its own right. There figures to be a ton of early pace in this Kentucky Derby so where he ends up in the field early on is going to be crucial.
5. International Star: Worked 4 furlongs in 49 flat at Churchill's Trackside Training Center last Saturday in his first move since winning the Grade II Louisiana Derby. His speed figures have improved with every outing this year and he is as brave as they come. And he has the pedigree to match, being by 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus. If there is a sleeper who could pounce should the favorites get a bad post/trip/pace in the Derby, it's this guy. He's given owner Ken Ramsey good reason to practice his rendition of My Old Kentucky Home.
6. Frosted: Put in a bullet work on Thursday, breezing 5 furlongs in 1:01.35 at Palm Meadows Training Center. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's whole barn has been on a hot streak lately in both New York and Keeneland and he sure got this son of Tapit right at the right time in winning the Wood Memorial. The quality that he beat in the race, however, looks to be a cut below.
7. Upstart: Friday was a massive one for the son of Flatter. After spiking a fever last weekend and having a scheduled work postponed, Upstart made a strong appearance back on the worktab Friday, covering 4 furlongs in a bullet 47.40 at Palm Meadows Training Center. It is hugely encouraging to see the Holy Bull Stakes winner bounce back so quickly. Having said that, any kind of setback this close to the first Saturday in May is cause for concern.
8. Materiality: The undefeated son of Afleet Alex worked in company with Stanford last Saturday, impressing with a 48.41-second 4-furlong breeze at Palm Beach Downs and finishing slightly ahead of his workmate. Is slated to have one more breeze this weekend before shipping to Louisville on April 21.
9. Mubtaahij: Officially arrived stateside on Thursday and will reportedly stay at Arlington Park until he clears quarantine and then van to Churchill Downs after training on April 27. His trainer, Mike de Kock, doesn't run much in the States, but his record when he does is exceptional. From six previous starters in the United States, none of de Kock's runners have finished worse than third.
10. Far Right: He was no threat to American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby (who was?) but he also kept digging and fighting in the lane to get past Mr. Z for second place. In nine career starts, the ridgling son of Notional has only been worse than third once. He may not quite be as good as the big boys this year but his history says he's going to be picking up some of the pieces in the stretch.
11. One Lucky Dane: Trainer Bob Baffert confirmed that the Santa Anita Derby runner-up will ship to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby on April 26, along with unbeaten Santa Anita Derby winner Dortmund. Why? Why not?
12. Danzig Moon: His runner-up finish in the Blue Grass Stakes was one of those sneaky-good efforts that suggests more improvement could be in line once he gets 11/4 miles to play with. Pedigree wise, he is ripe with classic ability being by Malibu Moon — sire of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb.
The Next Dozen
Tencendur, El Kabeir, Ocho Ocho Ocho, Frammento, Stanford, Madefromlucky, Itsaknockout, War Story, Mr. Z, Tiznow RJ, Keen Ice, Bold Conquest.