Cairo Prince is the front-runner for horse racing's first jewel and its famed roseate blanket and its unblinking spotlight, as well as the celebrity and immortality that attend the winner of the most famous and turbulent of races, the Kentucky Derby. He's the leader for the moment at least, foremost in the vanguard and head honcho of the caravan, on the long road that leads to Churchill Downs and the 140th Kentucky Derby, according to the ESPN.com first Power Rankings.
But 10 weeks remain on this road, which for some will take some unexpected turns or even stall in a washed out swale, but which for others could bring out some surprising and previously unknown talents. And even if Cairo Prince remains there atop the poll, much is sure to change. That's the nature of this journey, with Triple Crown prep races run every weekend until April 19 and with the horses themselves changing dramatically.
Keep in mind that these horses aimed at the Triple Crown are still youngsters, like teens in high school. Although they're officially 3, many of these horses are actually still 2, and at this stage in their development, they can change with shocking suddenness. Tapiture, for example, took a long step forward on Monday when he won the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. He's tied for the fourth spot in the initial Power Rankings.
Making his seasonal debut Monday, Tapiture stalked the pace while saving ground inside, took control, and then drew clear, despite drifting, to win by 4¼ lengths. The Oaklawn surface was rather dull, and the final time of 1:44.95 for the 1 1/16 miles was actually quite solid for the day.
Tapiture's trainer, Steve Asmussen, said he was impressed with the colt's improvement. Tapiture had won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs to complete his juvenile campaign, but Monday's performance was even better, much better in fact. The trainer wisely pointed out, though, that Tapiture will have to continue to develop if he's to succeed in the spring. Indeed, for all these horses on the road to Kentucky, getting there with a chance is all about development. Not one of them has given a performance that would win the Kentucky Derby. To reach that level, even the best of them must mature, not just in terms of physical prowess but also in professionalism and understanding. The essential question isn't so much about their ability as about their progress.
And as one of the younger horses on the road to the Derby, Tapiture might inspire more lofty expectations than most simply because he has so much room for development. Although not inevitable, his improvement can be reasonably expected, even anticipated. He was foaled, or born, in May. In other words, he's such a late foal that it's almost as if this were November for him, and the Southwest his Breeder's Cup. Biologically, Tapiture won't be a 3-year-old until May 3, Derby Day.
While Tapiture had a smooth-sailing-with-a-banana-split of a trip to win the Southwest, Strong Mandate, the even-money favorite, had an agonizing journey. In the stretch, it was indeed as if he was tossing and turning in a nightmare, for he changed strides repeatedly. He changed to his left lead, then back to his right, then back to his left, and then back to right again, while drifting in and out. And that wasn't the worst of it.
Strong Mandate hesitated for a blink of bribed eye at the start, just long enough to get bumped. That left him in an awkward spot going into the first turn, where he raced four- to five-wide. He began to advance on the backstretch, checked, and ended up even wider in the second turn. And then he ran through the lane as if still in a nightmarish daze. It was an Edmund Fitzgerald kind of trip, but somehow, instead of sinking, Strong Mandate finished second. He's No. 6 in the first Power Rankings, but he, too, could improve dramatically in the coming months.
Almost certainly the Power Rankings will shift next week. Saturday Is a major stop on the road to Kentucky, with two major preparatory races: The Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.
1. Cairo Prince
Cairo Prince's victory was visually stunning in the Holy Bull Stakes, in which he advanced three-wide in the second turn and then easily drew clear in the stretch to win by nearly six lengths. That performance has him sitting handsomely atop the ESPN.com Derby Power Rankings. But skepticism has an argument, as it does for all these horses this time of year. In the Holy Bull, Cairo Prince enjoyed a comfortable and nearly perfect trip behind dueling pacesetters, Almost Famous and Coup de Grace. And although Cairo Prince spurted away in the lane, he looked spent at the wire. The horses that finished immediately behind him -- Conquest Titan, Intense Holiday and Almost Famous -- all galloped out beyond the winner. And then there's the not-very-small matter of pedigree. Cairo Prince's dam, Holy Bubbette was strictly a sprinter, winning two minor stakes at three-quarters of a mile, but never winning beyond that distance. Still, with a victory in the Florida Derby, Cairo could go to Kentucky as the Derby favorite.
2. Honor Code
Arguably the most promising youngster to race in 2013, Honor Code was expected to make his seasonal debut Saturday, in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. But bruised ankles forced him to miss some training, which in turn forced his trainer to move back the Remsen winner's return to competition. The Rebel Stakes on March 15 at Oaklawn Park has become the objective, which means this grand looking colt from the last crop of A.P. Indy will be on a tight schedule. Super Saver didn't make his seasonal debut until March 13 and Street Sense until March 17, and both, of course, went on to win the Kentucky Derby. But the late start for Honor Code means there's no longer any such thing as a minor issue or setback. At this point, everything is major.
3. Candy Boy
Candy Boy's victory in the Robert Lewis Stakes was certainly one of the more impressive of the season. He rated behind the speedsters, angled out in the stretch and responded when asked. His Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, allowed Candy Boy to gallop out freely beyond the wire, and the big tireless colt looked as if he would have liked to go around again.
Tapiture won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes by more than four lengths to complete his juvenile campaign, and he won the Southwest Stakes by the same margin to begin this year's. As Steve Asmussen, his trainer, pointed out, the Southwest represented another significant step forward for the handsome chestnut colt, who might be counted on to continue improving since he's a late foal and relatively young. Tapiture was foaled, or born, on May 3, 2011, which means his actual birthday will also be Derby Day.
4T. Top Billing
The easiest of winners in his debut, Top Billing announced his potential when, after having to wait in traffic, he finished strongly to be second to Commissioner. And when he made a four-wide move to win his next outing easily, he ran the 1 1/16 miles a half-second, or about 2½ lengths, slower than Cairo Prince's winning time that same day in the Holy Bull. The stretch-running son of Curlin will make his stakes debut in the Fountain of Youth.
6. Strong Mandate
Strong Mandate has hit a patch of bad racing luck; on the other hand, these experiences might prove valuable in May. In the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, to overcome his No. 13 post position and avoid being wide in the first turn, he had to use his speed. Well, maybe he used it too much, taking the field through an opening half-mile in 45.38 seconds and three-quarters in 1:09.70 while still racing four-wide. Despite the overheated pace and wide trip, he held on for third, and in doing that he probably gave the best performance in the Juvenile. Then in his seasonal debut, in Monday's Southwest Stakes, he got bumped at the start and ended up in the middle of the track. He raced four- to five-wide the entire journey but still finished second. If the wheel turns, he could be tough in the Rebel Stakes.
Already, Commissioner has won two races at 1⅛ miles. His sire, A.P. Indy, and both his grandsires, Seattle Slew and Touch Gold, all won the Belmont Stakes at 1½ miles. And so it's probably safe to say, even at this point, that Commissioner is one of the few 3-year-olds for whom the classic distance won't be a problem. When he won his seasonal debut last month at Gulfstream, he also showed considerable determination. Like Top Billing, Commissioner had to wait for an opening, and when he swung to the outside at the top of the stretch he seemed to momentarily lose his momentum. But as Top Billing made his charge and drew alongside, Commissioner reached deeply into his reservoir of stamina and grit. Top Billing never got by, not even in the gallop-out. Commissioner also makes his stakes debut in the Fountain of Youth.
8. Shared Belief
The champion juvenile of 2013 has been sensational in his brief career, winning the CashCall Futurity by nearly six lengths and his three outings by a total of 20½ lengths. He has coruscating talent, a crown and a Hall of Fame trainer. But he also has a problematic foot. Because of a quarter crack, or cracked hoof, he hasn't had a serious workout since Jan. 3, and his being ready for the Kentucky Derby becomes increasingly doubtful with each passing day. At this point, the Derby Trial and Preakness might be more realistic objectives.
A scintillant maiden winner in January, Bayern returned last week at Santa Anita to win by 15 lengths in a performance that had to remind some observers of another flashy colt trained by Bob Baffert, Bodemeister. In February 2012, he won the second start of his career, also at Santa Anita, by more than nine lengths. Two races later he won the Arkansas Derby before finishing second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Bayern has far to go before proving himself as talented as Bodemeister (whose win was actually much faster -- 1:34.45, compared to 1:35.77 for Bayern), but he's very exciting. He had a perfect trip in that recent romp and, yes, got away with casual fractions, a 47.77 seconds opening half-mile, but he finished with good energy. In fact, and this is highly unusual for a front-runner on the dirt, he ran the final quarter-mile faster than the first (24.03 seconds, 23.74 seconds, 24.00 seconds and 24.00 seconds).
Another who's unbeaten, Samraat dominated New York-breds in his first three races. But the Withers showed his talents to be sufficiently capable of taking him beyond the comforts of state-bred company. He won by a length, with another New York-bred, Uncle Sigh, second, and it was another 10 lengths back to the third horse, Scotland. A superficial look at the Withers might leave the impression it wasn't much of a race. After all, the final time for the 1 1/16 miles was a modest 1:46.63 and the opening half-mile a seemingly soporific 48.33 seconds. But Aqueduct was uncommonly slow that day -- the Busher Stakes, also at 1 1/16 miles, was run in 1:48.49 with an opening half in 50.28 seconds. Samraat will return next month in the Wood Memorial, and if he eventually puts himself beneath that glorious roseate blanket, he won't be the first New York-bred to do so. Funny Cide was also bred in New York.
10T. Midnight Hawk
After winning his first two starts, including the Sham Stakes, Midnight Hawk disappointed as the 6-5 favorite in the Robert Lewis. He stalked the pace, tried to challenge in the second turn, and then flattened out, finishing third, nearly two lengths behind Candy Boy. That performance by itself wouldn't be too discouraging, but Midnight Hawk's breeding doesn't inspire confidence in his ability to succeed much beyond a mile. His dam, Miss Wineshine, was a speedster whose only victory came at three-quarters of a mile, in a minor stakes at Lone Star Park. On the other hand, Midnight Hawk is another late foal (May 14) who could improve dramatically in the next few months.
10T. Rise Up
With a bankroll of more than $810,000, Rise Up is the richest member of the top 10. Last year, he won the million-dollar Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs, leading throughout to defeat a solid field by six lengths. Everything from here on might be lagniappe, but he has the talent to push his earnings much higher. His only losses have come in races in which he didn't grab an early advantage. A speedy, free-rolling colt, he'll be the one to catch when he makes his seasonal debut Saturday in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans -- but that isn't meant to suggest somebody will catch him.
Also receiving votes: Vicar's In Trouble (18), Havana (14), Noble Moon (11), California Chrome (10), Conquest Titan (10), Indianapolis (9), Tamarando (8), Gold Hawk (6), We Miss Artie (6), Bobby's Kitten (5), Bond Holder (5), Kristo (5), Chitu (4), MexiKoma (4), Giovanni Boldini (3), Harpoon (3), Hoppertunity (2), Ring Weekend (2), Commanding Curve (1), Intense Holiday (1), Kobe's Back (1).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.