The road to the Kentucky Derby is a long and winding road. What you have seen up to now may not be exactly what you see the first Saturday of May.
It all starts every year with the breeders starting to get into their scientific mode. They start to mix and match pedigrees and bloodlines with hopes of making the perfect cross and producing the next Kentucky Derby winner.
It's what every breeder, owner, trainer, stable worker and jockey dreams of. Having in their hands that prodigy that will get into the Kentucky Derby Trail, and end up winning "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" race.
The Kentucky Derby Trail is the series of Stakes races that serve as the filter that determines which three-year-old thoroughbreds will earn a berth in the Kentucky Derby.
Right now there are two top contenders in the three-year-old division, Hansen and Union Rags.
Hansen is by Tapit out of Stormy Sunday by Sir Cat. Owned by Dr. Kendall Hansen and Sky Chai Racing, and trained by Michael Maker.
Union Rags is by Dixie Union out of Tempo by Gone West. He is owned by Chadds Ford Stable and trained by Michael Matz.
They were the stars in the first race of the Derby Trail last November at the Grey Goose's Breeder's Cup Juvenile. They battled through the home stretch, down to the wire to at least get the bragging rights, as the early favorite to the Kentucky Derby.
Hansen won by a nose and there are split opinions as to who is better than the other. You can't go wrong either way, since it's real easy to make a case for either one of them.
Hansen's first serious workout came on January 7 at Gulfstream Park. He made 1:00.40 for the five furlongs handily. The plans right now are to get his first start in the G3 Holy Bull at the end of January at a distance of a mile.
The possibility is that his second race would be the G2 Fountain of Youth in late February. That would mean that we may see an early rematch with Union Rags who is pointing to that very same race as his first race of the year.
Union Rags has only one workout recorded for the year. It came back January 11 at the Palm Meadows Training Center, where he breezed three furlongs in :38.35. He is definitely farther behind in training schedule for his 2012 season campaign debut.
It's rare to see the top two contenders in the division go at it so early in the Derby Trail. But if it happens then that will be a must-watch race.
There have been already three races on the Derby Trail run so far this year. The Gulfstream Park Derby, the Shams Stakes and the Count Fleet Stakes.
The first two contenders come out of the Gulfstream Park Derby. It was ran at a distance of one and one-sixteenths miles on New Year's Day at Gulfstream Park, and produced an exciting finish between Reveron—the winner—and Casual Trick.
Reveron pressing the early pace and entered the home stretch in the lead. From that point on he out-dashed Casual Trick to the wire on an exciting home stretch urging by their jockeys, Fernando Jara and John Velazquez. The final time was 1:44.74.
The favorites in that race were Ancient Rome and Silver Menace, and neither were a factor in the race finishing 10th and sixth, respectively.
Reveron is by Songandaprayer out of Carolina Sunrise by Awesome Again. He is owned by Stipa Racing Stable and trained by Agustin Bezara. He showed great late kick and is being pointed to the G3 Holy Bull.
This will be interesting, he could meet Hansen there if all the planets keep aligning.
As for Casual Trick, he is by Bernardini out of Casual Look by Red Ransom. This is a highly touted prospect from trainer Nick Zito and owner Robert V. La Penta. Same connections as last year's Derby favorite, Dialed In.
He is being pointed to the Fountain of Youth as his next race, although a prep race in between has not been discarded. If he goes to the Fountain of Youth, it gets even more interesting and Hansen, Union Rags, quite possibly also Reveron could meet him there.
The Fountain of Youth could be loaded this year, keep an eye on that race.
The second race of the Derby Trail was the G3 Sham Stakes ran on Santa Anita Park on January 7 at a distance of a mile. Here we were taking a look at the Breeders Cup Juvenile Sprint winner Secret Circle, trying to stretch out his sprint speed.
As it was expected, Secret Circle—with jockey Rafael Bejarano—was heavily favored and settled behind the early pacesetter, Longview Drive. He stalked him into the final turn and took the lead into the stretch, but could not hold off Out of Bounds with a masterful ride by Garrett Gomez.
The final time for the race was 1:34.76.
The Bob Baffert trainee, Secret Circle, is by Eddington out of Ragtime Hope by Dixieland Band. Is owned by Michael E. Pegram. This are the same connections as 2010 Preakness Stakes winner Looking at Lucky.
Right now there are no plans set for the colt. But one thing is certain, and that is that he earned another shot at trying to stretch his speed to the classic distances. The final goal is the Kentucky Derby.
Out of Bounds is by Discreet Cat out of Unbridled Elaine by Unbridled's Song. He is owned by the Darley Stable and trained by Eoin G. Harty, and is being pointed to the G2 San Felipe in early March at Santa Anita.
Darley is the Global Breeding Operation from the Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, who is also the main owner of Godolphin Racing.
Godolphin Racing is the owner of Alpha, the easy winner of the third race of the Derby Trail this year, the Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct this past January 7. The distance was a mile and 70 yards and the final time was 1:42.83.
Alpha is regally bred, another son of Bernardini, out of Munnaya by Nijinsky II. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, this horse has lots of potential but one big problem at the gate.
After winning his debut he finished a clear second to Union Rags at the G2 Champagne. Then he finished a disappointing 11th at the Grey Goose Breeders Cup Juvenile. In both races he had problems at the gate or at the start.
This does not mean he would have won those races, but what can he do if he has a clean break? At the Count Fleet he once again bobbled at the start, but thanks to a lesser degree of competition, he was able to make up the ground and win.
Right now there should be an emphasis on working out his gate problems as he is being pointed to the G3 Withers in early February. They should also start thinking on what they will do with the jockey situation, since Ramon Dominguez also has Hansen.
Right now it is not a problem, but eventually it could become one. Garrett Gomez rode him at the BC but he might be out a while after injuring his heel at Santa Anita on Monday.
The next two Stakes races in the Derby Trail will be the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park on January 16th and the G3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds on January 21st.
On the Smarty Jones, we will get to see the winner of the G2 Golden Rod Stakes, On Fire Baby. This is a nice looking filly by Smoke Glacken, who has won three out of four races thus far.
And on the Lecomte, there are three interesting colts, Exfactor, El Padrino and Ted's Folly.
The roan colt Exfactor has won two stakes races already—Sugar Bowl and G3 Bashford Manor. Here is a horse that has shown grit and has won his last three races. He finished second on his debut.
El Padrino is a Todd Pletcher trainee who has shown a lot of ability on his three races, of which he has won one. His last at the G2 Remsen, he closed fast and was outsprinted to the wire by the winner, O'Prado Again.
Ted's Folly is a little tough horse that reminds me of Jackson Bend. He has won six races in a row, including three stakes races. He steps up in competition, but it's worth to watch this little machine of a horse and see what he can give.
Since I mentioned earlier O'Prado Again, the winner of the G2 Remsen last fall, it's worth mentioning that unfortunately he is one horse we won't see in the Derby Trail. It was reported that he sustained a cracked shin in his right front leg during a routine workout at Gulfstream Park.
The roan son of El Prado was a contender for last year's Preakness Stakes winning trainer Dale Romans.
Keep watching this year's Kentucky Derby Trail, it gets more interesting every race.