The Derby trail is heating up as we start to see some three-year-old debuts and some two-year-old carryovers in the middle of winter.
Gulfstream and Santa Anita are fantastic barometers for race fans to feel out this year's crop of youngsters, and the big stakes of those meets are in the very near future.
Let's take a look at the top three-year-olds so far this year.
This Todd Pletcher trainee is the cream of this year's crop. He's got five wins in five tries, and not by lack of competition. This colt's got two Grade I wins under his belt and a Grade II win as a kicker. His Breeder's Cup Juvenile win was impressive, for obvious reasons, but his Champagne Stakes victory was his most impressive.
In the Grade I contest at Belmont, Bobby beat out much of the future BC Juvenile competition to win by a commanding five lengths. While most race fans know a BC Juvenile win does not guarantee Triple Crown triumphs (ahem, Hansen), it is certainly a good start.
By the way, does it not seem eerie that Shanghai Bobby may be picking up where Uncle Mo left off? Mo won the BC Juvie for Pletcher after winning the Champagne, but could not start the Derby. Call it a blessing or a curse, Pletcher's been here before, and he's got a fantastic colt to give him a shot at a Derby win.
Doug O'Neill looks well on his way to repeating his Derby success of last year. O'Neill has at least three contenders in his stable of trainees, but Goldencents is emerging as the favorite in recent weeks. This colt seems to be peaking right now, which could worry some and encourage others.
Last October, Goldencents finished behind a dominating Shanghai Bobby in the Champagne Stakes, but has since run exceptionally well in a pair of Grade III stakes races; the Delta Downs Jackpot and the Sham.
He commanded the tempo in the Delta Downs Jackpot, leading the whole way and winning over a game Bern Identity by one-and-three-quarter lengths. In the Sham, he decided to trail more-than-mild pace the whole way and showed class to beat out a pair of hard running Baffert trainees to the wire.
While his record may not seem as illustrious as Shanghai Bobby or Violence, he has certainly shown he can run with the best of 'em. If Goldencents can keep rolling on and racking up a few wins on the Derby trail, he could be a favorite come May.
Violence could be the sexiest horse in racing right now. He came on like a freight train last month, winning the Grade I CashCall Futurity at Betfair Hollywood Park. Previously, the colt turned in an impressive win at the Grade II Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct.
Violence adds more depth to the Todd Pletcher Juvenile family and could prove a challenge to Shanghai Bobby as Pletcher's best chance at a Derby win. Both of his graded stakes victories came in at good times, and both were at a route distance. He seems to be prepping well, and we'll likely get a chance to see him again in the Grade I Fountain of Youth Stakes on February 23, according to his trainer.
Violence is one of the lighter-raced juveniles in this year's three-year-old field, and if recent history is any clue, that hints to success in the spring. Another Grade I win will solidify the son of Medaglia d'Oro as a force to be reckoned with.
Capo Bastone seems to be playing second (or third) fiddle a lot in his young career. His only win came as he broke his maiden, but he's finished behind some pretty tough company in some high-class races. In his three starts after breaking his maiden, he's started three Grade I races.
It could be time for trainer new trainer Todd Pletcher to start Capo Bastone against some lesser competition to boost Capo's confidence. The Holy Bull at Gulfstream could be up his alley, where he'll have a chance to dethrone Shanghai Bobby against Grade II runners.
Regardless, Capo Bastone has proved that he can run with this year's best, now he only has to beat them.
Uncaptured may seem like a bit of an outsider to be included in the top five of this list. The Ontario-bred has raced mostly up on the all-weather track of Woodbine and could possibly prove to be the third-choice among trainer Mark Casse's Derby prospects.
The truth is, though, Uncaptured has a fantastic resume. He's won six of his seven starts and has two graded stakes wins on his two-year-old season. The highlight was an impressive victory at the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November. His only flaw came with a disappointing run in the Grade III Grey Stakes on his "home track" of Woodbine.
Still, owner John Oxley has his colt stabled down in Florida ready to take on some high-class Derby preps. If he can piggyback on his impressive 2012 season, Uncaptured will be a nice choice leading up to the Derby.
Overanalyze, for what he's lacked in consistency, has made up for in classy wins. His most recent triumph was in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct where beat out a pair of game colts (in Normandy Invasion and Delhomme) to the wire. His dad is Dixie Union, sire of last year's Derby contender and eventual Belmont winner Union Rags.
Overanalyze seems to be maturing at the right time after a few hurdles last season. After breaking his maiden last August, he ran fourth in a star-studded Hopeful Stakes field then answered with a win in the Grade II Futurity Stakes at Belmont.
A month later, he disappointed in the Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs where he finished eight lengths back to show. Not to be counted out, the Pletcher trainee roared back with an impressive win in the Remsen.
Inconsistency is a concern, but a lot of that can be paired with juvenile immaturity. If Overanalyze can figure out his sweet spot and score a big Derby prep win, he'll be a top-five contender.
Power Broker was the talk of the town in the fall of 2012 after his dominating performance in the Grade I Frontrunner Stakes in September. After a disappointing fifth-place finish in the BC Juvenile, he's seemed to slip under the radar.
The Baffert trainee might have one of the more impressive pedigrees in this year's juvenile field. He is the son of the great sire Pulpit, making him a grandson of A.P. Indy. His damsire is Wild Again, the winner of the 1984 Breeders Cup Classic.
The colt was lightly raced as a two-year-old, which seems to be an advantage in recent years, but has some great experience in graded stakes. He showed fantastic speed and closing ability in the Grade I Frontrunner, but got an awful trip in the BC Juvenile that didn't allow him to stalk the lead as he would've liked.
There are some similarities between Power Broker and last year's Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags in running style. This colt might encounter the same "he's not tough enough to handle the large, chaotic field of the Derby" that Rags did. He'll have a lot to prove after his BC Juvie disappointment, but he looks to be a good prospect for Baffert's Derby chances.
2012 was a great year for Bern Identity. In his six starts, this tough colt has never finished outside the top three. His two-year-old season was highlighted by an impressive victory in the Grade II Sanford Stakes at Saratoga where he was the odds-on favorite.
While he is not necessarily a consistent winner, he is a consistent top-three finisher, and he's proven he can run with the best contenders this season.
Following that nice Sanford win, he ran a game third to Shanghai Bobby and Fortify in the Grade II Hopeful Stakes. That finish seemed to be disappointing for the colt as he answered with an impressive win in the Jean Lafitte Stakes, a prep for the Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes in Vinton, LA.
While he beat out ungraded-stakes competition in commanding fashion to qualify for the Delta Downs Jackpot; he lost a heartbreaker in the latter race, losing by one-and-three-quarter lengths to top-flight Goldencents.
The jury should not be out on Bern Identity. As checkered as his win record is, his overall record gleans nothing but quality. He's got solid graded stakes experience with the success to accompany it. If he can score a big Grade II or Grade I win in the lead-up to the Derby, I'd expect the Kelly Breen trainee to be on a lot of fans' radar.
If people are starting to handicap Belmont Stakes prospects this early, I guarantee Fortify tops many a list. The son of Distorted Humor is out of an A.P. Indy mare, meaning his pedigree oozes distance. The youngster was bred by Darley, is owned by Godolphin and is trained by Kiaran McGlaughlin. This can only mean one thing: Kentucky Derby-bound.
Fortify has a nice race record so far, although he was relatively lightly raced as a two-year-old. He broke his maiden in superstar fashion, winning by five-and-a-half lengths. Four weeks later, Fortify gave the immaculate Shanghai Bobby a run for his money in the Grade II Hopeful Stakes, running stride for stride with Bobby until he was outrun in the final lengths to the wire.
Following that impressive showing, he went on to run third behind Shanghai Bobby and Goldencents in the Grade I Champagne Stakes.
The most interesting aspect of Fortify's "contender-ship" is the fact that he is one of a very few young colts to regularly race without Lasix. Whether or not this proves to be an advantage has yet to be determined, but it is an interesting characteristic nonetheless.
Most importantly, though, Fortify has shown the ability to race with the best of 'em, and he looks to be a legitimate contender right now.
This Baffert-trainee is one of the harder-raced colts in this year's Juvenile crop. While, he looks to be a sort of late bloomer, as it took him three tries to break his maiden and went three more races until he got his second win.
The record also shows a horse that has consistently been tested at distance against Grade I and Grade II competition, and has performed well. In his nine career starts, Den's Legacy has two wins, four places and one show. His only stumble was a fifth-place finish in the Grade I Frontrunner Stakes.
It has taken a while for this son of Medaglia d'Oro to find his sweet spot. He's raced on turf, dirt and all-weather, at sprint and route distances, and against stiff and not-so-stiff competition.
If there's anyone who can straighten the youngster out it's Baffert, and if the two can perform well down the Derby trail, I wouldn't be surprised to see them as a top-three betting choice come Derby day.
Frac Daddy is certainly not the most experienced colt in this year's field, but he might have the most upside. This son of Scat Daddy broke his maiden by finishing nine-and-three-quarter lengths ahead of the second-place finisher.
More impressive, that maiden race was run at one-and-one-sixteenth miles on dirt. When a horse shows that liking to distance and dirt early in his career, the trainer has to be thinking Derby.
Ken McPeek thought exactly that. After his dominating maiden win, McPeek took Frac Daddy up to Churchill Downs to race in the Grade I Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. The colt was thrown up against some top-flight competition and finished second by a neck to Uncaptured. This had to be nothing short of encouraging for McPeek who obviously sees a legit Derby prospect.
We should get another glimpse of the dark gray colt in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, where he'll face Shanghai Bobby among others. Frac Daddy has the skills to compete against top Derby contenders, but he'll need another win or two under his belt to be considered a favorite.
One of the most promising prospects of the Mark Casse-John Oxley partnership is Dynamic Sky. Recently, an impressive win in the ungraded Pascoe Stakes has catapulted the colt into the spotlight. Perhaps his most impressive running was his second-place finish in the Grade II Dixiana Breeders Futurity last year.
The Ontario-bred colt has the experience of a veteran two-year-old and look to be on track for a big three-year-old season as well. Previously discounted because of his "non-winner of two" race eligibility, his win in the Pascoe has solidified him as Casse's best Derby contender.
There are still some blemishes on his record, such as a third-place finish in the ungraded Vandal Stakes at Woodbine and a sixth-place run in the BC Juvenile. Aside from those races, though, we see a tough horse who's shown he can handle distance.
Balance The Books is a great horse...on turf. He's raced against the toughest competition...on turf. He's handled route distance extremely well...on turf. You get the picture, the colt is a grass-lover.
Historically, horses who have turf-heavy experience before the Derby do pretty well. Most notably, Barbaro had only raced on turf before his first Derby prep, the Holy Bull Stakes.
The colt is no slouch, though, in any capacity. Of his three starts after breaking his maiden, all three have bee graded stakes. He's won at the Grade II and III level and laced in the Grade I BC Juvenile Turf. He's never finished out of the money and has been successful against quality competition.
His pedigree speaks to his quality as well. He is the son of Lemon Drop Kid, who won the 1999 Belmont Stakes and raced in Grade I races like it was his life's calling.
Trainer Chad Brown says that he'll race Balance the Books on the all-weather in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes as his off-turf test. If he does well, off the the Derby it is; if he performs poorly, Books will skip the Race for the Roses. If Balance the Books can win off the turf, he could be a force in the juvenile field.
Fury Kapcori has had a case of bridesmaid's syndrome lately. That is to say, he's lost some close races on the big stage and no one seems to be recognizing him as a legitimate Derby horse. The son of Tiznow finished second to now-superstar Violence in the Grade I CashCall Futurity and hasn't been back to racing since. Although he's put in some great six furlong workouts for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer at Betfair Hollywood Park.
Before finishing a game second to Violence in the CashCall, Fury Kapcori had finished second to Carving in the ungraded Real Quiet Stakes. Before that, he beat up on some amateur competition in the ungraded Charlie Palmer Futurity in Fresno. He's never finished out of the top two spots, but his only win has come in a very amateur ungraded stakes race.
Fury Kapcori has a long way to go to solidify his place in the Derby contender conversation, but he seems to have the talent to run with the quality field he'll face in the Derby. All he needs is a good running in a Grade I or II Derby prep and he'll have a contender stamp of approval from many race fans.
It is unusual that we've taken this long to get to a D. Wayne Lukas trainee. Oxbow is certainly not a consistent winner, nor is he an especially successful colt as compared to some other horses on this list. He was pulled up in his first career start and vanned off.
It then took him three tries after his injury to break his maiden. However, since breaking his maiden, Lukas entered his colt in a pair of high-class graded stakes, the Grade I CashCall Futurity and the Grade III LeComte Stakes.
He finished well behind the leading trio in the CashCall, almost nine lengths back of the third-place horse. However he scored an impressive victory in the LeComte, winning by eleven-and-one-fifth lengths in a rout on dirt.
The win rocketed Oxbow onto many fans watch list. Still, the colt needs to notch a few great showings in derby preps to be seen as legitimate.
Doug O'Neill and Reddam Racing have touted this son of Tapit as the heir to I'll Have Another's Triple Crown success. There have been flashes of brilliance, but in between those flashes are gaps filled with under-performance and disappointment.
Granted the young gray colt has started three Grade I races in just five career starts, so he may have an excuse for a blemished race record.
After breaking his maiden on the first try at Del Mar last year, O'Neill took his colt to the turf in an ungraded stakes where he finished sixth. In a surprise move a month later, He's Had Enough started the Grade I Dixiana Breeders Futurity, finishing a dismal 11th.
Just when everyone thought the horse was done for he gives Shanghai Bobby a run for every cent of his money in, the Grade I BC Juvenile and scores a Grade I second-place finish on his record. After his triumph, the colt went on to disappoint yet again, finishing fifth in the Grade I CashCall Futurity.
I get the the feeling that this kid hasn't "had enough." Let's remember that last year at this point, I'll Have Another had only one win (maiden), a second-place finish in a Grade II stakes and a sixth-place finish in a Grade I. O'Neill might know what he's doing with this one, so he's got to be on the radar.
This colt's racing team might be even more intriguing than the horse himself. The Baffert-trained, Bode Miller/Baffert-owned son of Any Given Saturday is out of a Giant's Causeway mare. He's another youngster whose pedigree hints toward distance with his sire being a son of Distorted Humor out of an A.P. Indy mare. Pedigree and future aside, Carving has put together quite an impressive start to his career.
After breaking his maiden in a five-furlong sprint on all-weather, Carving took a small step up to win an ungraded stakes at seven furlongs on the dirt, in commanding fashion. Then, it was time to graduate. Baffert put his young prospect in the Grade I Frontrunner, where he finished 10 lengths back in fourth place. His most significant achievemant was a victory in the ungraded Real Quiet Stakes.
Inconsistent as he may be, Carving shows promise. He's got a ways to go to prove he belongs in the Derby, but if he can gain some traction and win a race or two on his way to May, he could be in the conversation.
Most race fans have been itching to get another glimpse at the Grade I winning Rolling Fog since he was placed on the injury shelf last fall. The speedy colt looked like an early Derby favorite after winning the Grade I Del Mar Futurity one month after breaking his maiden. However, Rolling Fog suffered bucked shins after that race and was put on the back-burner until 2013.
We still have yet to see a published workout from the son of graded stakes-winning Posse. There are no rumblings of his next race, either. I'd imagine Baffert is keeping the young speedster fresh and in form in preparation for an early spring stakes. He doesn't have the win total that some other contenders have, but he has a huge upside and could prove to be a surprise favorite come May.
Everyone seems to be talking about Normandy Invasion. He fits the recent prototype of a well-bred, well-trained, lightly raced three-year-old who is poised to take the Derby trail by storm. Still, the "lightly raced" aspect gives way to skepticism. This is a colt who only saw three races worth of action last year and has yet to start in 2013. As of now, there are more questions than answers.
That being said, Normandy Invasions last race out was a straight-up test in the Grade II Remsen. He finished second by a nose to Overanalyze at a mile and an eighth on the dirt of Aqueduct. If there was ever a race to prove oneself in, that was it. The colt could be trainer Chad Brown's ace in the hole, but he'll need to capitalize on his publicity with a quality win or two leading up to the Derby.
The last spot in the top 20 goes to Baffert-trained Manando. The last spot is always the toughest to judge because there is usually a handful of horses that could fill it. This was exceptionally true of this list.
Manando gets in because of his gaining progress. He was a fringe competitor leading up to the Grade III Sham Stakes earlier this month, but with a great run to finish third he creeps up into the rankings.
Granted, many will say that Manando finished third in a field of five, which is no grand accomplishment. However he ran right down to the wire with two top-rated contenders in Goldencents and Den's Legacy.
He's finished third in four of his five career starts and needs to notch a win soon if he wants to stay a contender. However he's in the Baffert stable and he's got a good pedigree, so he's a nice prospect so far.
22. Know More
23. Brown Almighty
The Baffert-trained hopeful is garnering all sorts of buzz around racing. Baffert is high on him and he broke his maiden at seven furlongs on all-weather last December. He's currently training at Palm Meadows.
2. Northern Lion
It took three tries for this Lion Heart colt to break his maiden, but when he did he broke it wide open. Winning a one and one-sixteenth mile route on dirt by more than five lengths shows this horse has some class.
3. Proud Strike
If you thought Northern Lion maiden-breaker was stylish, look at Proud Strikes. Winning at that same 8.5 furlong distance by seven-and-a-half lengths on his third try, this son of Smart Strike looks ready for a tour-de-Derby preps.
4. War Academy
Everyone's got to be tired of Baffert hopefuls, but his stable is too good to not make a list. This colt just broke his maiden in less-than-superstar fashion, but the quality lies in his pedigree. The son of Giant's Causeway out of an A.P. Indy mare is bred for endurance. He could turn out to be a shadow of Creative Cause.
If pedigree means anything, this John Sadler colt has something. He's out of Bernardini with a Native Dancer-heavy female line. He just broke his maiden a week ago, and he's turning in some hot workouts for Sadler gearing up for Santa Anita.