One of the rites of passage on the Kentucky Derby trail is the annual debate regarding the 20-horse field size for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Though some decry having such a large number of spots available for the most famous American classic, recent history — especially that of this weekend's slate of prep races — has probably ensured the Derby's entry box won't shrink any time soon.
As 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and 2009 hero Mine That Bird can attest, the horse who will ultimately reign on the first Saturday in May can emerge from the most unexpected of places.
Last year saw Animal Kingdom earn his first graded stakes victory and a subsequent trip to Louisville when he won the Grade III, $500,000 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. The impact of having a Derby winner come off its track was evident this year as nominees for the Spiral were up nearly 27 percent. A full field of 12 are slated to be in the gate for Saturday's edition.
Few used to give much weight to the Sunland Derby when assessing results of Kentucky Derby prep races — that is until 2009, when the fourth-place finisher of the then-ungraded Sunland contest went on to hit the Churchill Downs wire 63/4 lengths in front of his competition.
When the now-Grade III Sunland Derby is run Sunday, entries from the illustrious barns of Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen will make up half of the eight-horse field for the $800,000 race.
Though the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial still carry the majority of the cachet in the run-up to May, those whose job it is to try and get their horses into the Derby starting gate are taking so-called lesser preps more seriously.
While it doesn't mean this year's winner will be in action this weekend, dismissing the impact these races could have on May 5 might be as futile as hoping for a 14-horse Derby field in the near future.
The Derby Dozen
1. Union Rags: With all the flip-flopping between races that has taken place among his competitors in recent days, kudos go to trainer Michael Matz for having the confidence in this colt to stick to his plans regardless of what others do.
Matz announced at the beginning of the year the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby would serve as the best pre-Kentucky Derby schedule for Union Rags and he hasn't wavered even as the lineup of possible rivals has. Among the many luxuries of having one of the top guns is the faith that it can prevail in any battle.
2. El Padrino: Hard not to get excited about the expected showdown between this son of Pulpit and Union Rags in the Florida Derby on March 31. Have similar styles in that each can lay just off the pace and get rolling in the stretch so the stage could be set for a thrilling duel for pre-Derby supremacy.
If they both run to their apparent talent, even the loser shouldn't lose much luster in the aftermath.
3. Creative Cause: Not a lot of holes to pick at right now with the son of Giant's Causeway. With seven career starts and four wins, he has both the foundation and the proven mettle you want to see in a Derby contender.
Even when he doesn't run up to par, he has never been worse than third. The epitome of quiet consistency.
4. Hansen: Perhaps the biggest winner of his connections' decision to point him to the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes rather than the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct is Keeneland. It gives the track's signature prep race — which has been maligned in recent years for producing less than relevant winners in terms of Derby potential — a boost of credibility.
The son of Tapit has already proven he can make the synthetic-to-dirt transition without a bobble, but those who think he will have an easier time competitively better hope both Dullahan and Howe Great follow recent trends and reroute elsewhere.
5. Gemologist: The second-biggest winner of Hansen's apparent defection to the Blue Grass Stakes. This massive son of Tiznow could not have made things look any easier in his season debut, and as long as he hits the board in the $1 million Wood Memorial, he should have enough graded earnings to secure his place in the Derby field.
6. Alpha: For a horse who hasn't run since taking the Grade III Withers Stakes on Feb. 4, he's had a ton of travel schedules approved then nixed then approved again.
He's now back to being pointed for the Wood Memorial after being likely for the Florida Derby a few weeks ago and headed to the Louisiana Derby earlier this week. He continues to be steady, working 5 furlongs in 1:01.01 at Palm Meadows Training Center on March 17.
Considering he's 3-for-4 lifetime at New York tracks and 2-for-2 at Aqueduct — albeit over the inner surface — maybe the Wood is the best spot for him after all.
7. I'll Have Another: The son of Flower Alley hasn't run since winning the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 4, but trainer Doug O'Neill said this week the gap between that effort and his expected start in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 7 is by design.
"He ran so well fresh off a five-month rest and now he's earned just about enough (graded) money ... so we figured we wouldn't be too tough on him," O'Neill said. "He's always shown a lot of talent, so we're just hoping he keeps moving forward."
8. Mark Valeski: Had his first work since running second in the Risen Star Stakes, covering 5 furlongs in a bullet :59.40 at Fair Grounds on March 20.
"When I looked at him going into the last race I thought he was fat," trainer Larry Jones said. "I started second-guessing myself as we were leading him over. But he really looks the way we want him right now."
9. Bodemeister: Might have the most raw talent of any of trainer Bob Baffert's contenders but he's being asked to grow up quickly.
He did not make his career debut until Jan. 16 and no Kentucky Derby winner has triumphed without at least one juvenile start.
10. Secret Circle: His win in the Grade II Rebel Stakes last Saturday is impressive considering how unhappy the son of Eddington appeared to look doing it.
He didn't seem like he loved the track and continues to drift when he runs, yet he still got there.
The Arkansas Derby on April 14 probably will be his final pre-May test.
"Secret Circle doesn't dazzle you when he trains in the mornings and he doesn't dazzle you in his races, but he's a good horse," Baffert said.
11. Dullahan: This is another who will have to defy history in order to wear the roses.
Out of the Smart Strike mare Mining My Own, Dullahan is a half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.
No mare has ever produced two Derby winners.
12. Howe Great: This time last year, trainer Graham Motion wasn't thinking Animal Kingdom was going to be the one to give him his first Derby win.
So although Team Valor founder Barry Irwin maintains Howe Great is better on grass, the ease with which he runs is going to keep him on this list until he proves otherwise.
The next dozen: Prospective, Optimizer, News Pending, Take Charge Indy, Liaison, Sabercat, My Adonis, Daddy Nose Best, Golden Ticket, Midnight Transfer, Went the Day Well, Castaway.