Staff writer Alicia Wincze Hughes tracks the progress of the Kentucky Derby contenders every week from now until the first Saturday in May:
Even though he lost the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by a head and the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male to Hansen by 142 votes, there seemed to be a general consensus Union Rags was ultimately going to win out as the most fearsome 3-year-old on the Kentucky Derby trail.
While many of his classmates have already been tripped up by rust, immaturity or injury this year, Union Rags used last Sunday's Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes to validate those who believe the son of Dixie Union has the kind of talent needed to become a classic contender.
Unlike Hansen and fellow Grade I winner Creative Cause — both suffered losses in their first starts of 2012 — a less than fully cranked Union Rags was still effortlessly better than his competition in the Fountain of Youth, leaving you to wonder how scary good the bay colt will be when trainer Michael Matz really starts pushing his buttons.
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Though he lost his biggest challenger when Holy Bull Stakes winner Algorithms had to scratch out of the race Sunday morning with a fractured splint that will force him to miss the entire Triple Crown, Union Rags did everything asked of him in his first start since November.
The way he strode out in the lane was ridiculously smooth and — unlike his antics in the stretch of the Breeders' Cup — he maintained a straight course throughout.
But one triumph does not equal a coronation. The Kentucky Derby trail is a notorious battle of attrition, and the fact Union Rags is unscathed thus far in every sense gives him the early lead in this race.
1. Union Rags: The comparisons between him and Matz's 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro are inevitable, and he will try to follow the same course as his predecessor by pointing to the Grade I Florida Derby on March 31. By far the most impressive sophomore male thus far.
2. El Padrino: Salvaged a disappointing weekend for trainer Todd Pletcher when he showed he a) had serious guts and b) could win over a fast track by outfighting Mark Valeski to take the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds. His running style and pedigree should relish longer distances, and he picked up $180,000 in graded earnings Saturday. The $1 million Louisiana Derby on April 1 could be next.
3. Alpha: Covered 4 furlongs in :49.71 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Feb. 25 and is under consideration for either the Grade I Florida Derby or the Grade I Wood Memorial, according to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The son of Bernardini was ultra impressive in winning the Grade III Withers but there is some concern the worst race of his life (11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile) came over the Churchill Downs track.
4. Gemologist: Has yet to start in 2012 and thus, has sort of become the forgotten horse in Pletcher's lineup. The son of Tiznow is working steadily toward his season debut in the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 17, putting in a bullet 5-furlong breeze in 1:00.92 at Palm Meadows on Feb. 26.
5. Fed Biz: The son of Giant's Causeway looked like the definition of raw talent when he cruised to an allowance win at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 9. He didn't really switch leads until he was nearing the wire and will possibly get his first test against stakes company in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes on March 10.
6. Creative Cause: The good news was the 7-furlong San Vicente was probably too short for the Grade I winner and his style. The bad news is he really wasn't threatening 1-2 finishers Drill and American Act in the stretch. Trainer Mike Harrington has another promising 3-year-old in Empire Way so keeping those two apart will be a happy problem.
7. Hansen: Has chance to re-establish himself after the Holy Bull when he starts Saturday in the Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Doesn't look like he will face the toughest bunch so this should be an ideal spot to get his mojo back. If he loses this one, however, even a legitimate excuse may not restore his luster.
8. Out of Bounds: The son of Discreet Cat worked 7 furlongs in 1:25.60 at Hollywood Park on Monday as he readies for his expected start in the Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 10. One of the big questions surrounding the offspring of Discreet Cat is how far they want to go, and Discreet Dancer's third-place run in the 11⁄16-mile Fountain of Youth didn't do much to dispel those concerns.
9. I'll Have Another: The winner of the Grade II Robert B. Lewis drilled 4 furlongs in :48.60 at Hollywood Park on Feb. 23 with the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 7 as his next target. "He is very reserved but when you ask him to do something he is very active," trainer Doug O'Neill said about the colt. "He's just got the perfect personality for a big-time racehorse."
10. Mark Valeski: Stunned even his connections with his second-place finish in the Grade II Risen Star where he was beaten just a nose by El Padrino. The son of Proud Citizen was making his stakes debut and trying two turns for the first time so who knows how good he might get with more experience.
11. Motor City: The Grade III winner worked 4 furlongs in :52.22 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Feb. 29. That breeze was the sixth timed move for the Street Sense gelding since returning to the work tab in late January, but trainer Ian Wilkes is still debating where his potential Kentucky Derby contender might make his 3-year-old debut.
12. Secret Circle: The Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint winner put himself in the Derby picture when he took a division of the 1-mile, Grade III Southwest Stakes on Feb. 20.
The next dozen: Sabercat, Dullahan, Liaison, Empire Way, Battle Hardened, Bodemeister, Castaway, News Pending, Spring Hill Farm, Take Charge Indy, American Act, Howe Great
Off the trail: Algorithms, Consortium, Junebugred