Here's the Kentucky Derby picture as of this moment, a candid group portrait: a dozen horses of varying sizes and shades all crowded together with only two lengths separating them. Horseflesh and uncertainty fill the frame.
At this point, in other words, 12 3-year-olds on the famously circuitous road that leads, in defiance of all known methods of cartography, to the Kentucky Derby are performing within two lengths of each other. And that's looking only at two-turn races run this year. Attach another lens, take the grouping back another length, and there are 15 horses; include sprints, and there are 19, all of this, of course, based on personal speed figures and assessments. And for the moment even that wide-angle picture doesn't include last year's champion juvenile, Shared Belief, or the Remsen winner, Honor Code, the two horses that began the season as the most highly regarded of the group but have yet to race.
So, aside from the obvious conclusion that nobody stands out and that such a large number of possibilities suggests a contingent outcome at Churchill Downs, what does this snapshot of the run-up to the Derby mean? Well, when one or two horses stand out this early and seem to be soaring a few lengths ahead of everyone else, it almost certainly means they've peaked too soon; on the other hand, for so many horses to have reached a high level of performance almost simultaneously is unusual. Some of them have probably peaked already. Wildcat Red, the Fountain of Youth winner who this week drops out of ESPN.com's Power Rankings, might be such a horse, as could Vicar's In Trouble.
But others are just starting to roll. And this group portrait, most of all, means the horses that are going to succeed at Churchill Downs will be those that have just begun to define themselves and could improve dramatically over the next two months. They might improve because of maturity or conditioning, or they could step forward in appreciation of additional distance, but they're going to have to continue to improve, make no mistake about it, if they're to enjoy any success on May 3.
The next two weekends, with the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita and the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, will hint at that improvement, which will then become most apparent in the last round of preps. As Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has pointed out many times, it's the 1 ⅛-mile distance that separates the contenders from the crowd. The final eighth of a mile in a nine-furlong race often proves to be a solvent for flash and pretense.
Until then, the Derby picture remains crowded. There's clarity, though. The picture is clearly teeming. Samraat, Uncle Sigh and In Trouble became the latest to rush into the group shot. And in winning Saturday's Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, Samraat also joined the ESPN.com Power Rankings, at No. 8.
With a dominant advantage in talent, the King of Queens defeated New York-breds in his first three races. And except for his debut at Belmont, he has raced exclusively at Aqueduct, where the winterized inner track brings out the best in some horses, the worst in others. But as his trainer, Richard Violette, pointed out, Samraat "proved he's a real racehorse" in the Gotham.
He raced wide in the first turn to put himself in stalking position, he advanced in the second turn to get on even terms with the early leaders and then he outfinished them down the stretch to win by a neck, completing the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.44, or about three lengths faster than Teen Pauline's winning time a race earlier in the Top Flight Handicap. Despite being jostled between horses down the lane, Uncle Sigh never capitulated. And In Trouble, the early leader, fought gamely despite not having raced since he won Belmont's Futurity back in September. But Samraat was the star, the King of Queens.
He was never more than 1 ½ lengths behind; still, he won over a dull surface that was very kind to front-runners all day. (Six of the 10 winners led after the opening half-mile, and in two-turn races, three of the five horses to hit the wire first led throughout.) He rated kindly and finished strongly, winning without jockey Jose Ortiz having to use his whip. And although the winning margin was a neck, Samraat and Ortiz left no doubt about the eventual outcome through the final furlong, for they controlled the moment. Samraat, in other words, made a very positive impression, as if arguing that he could be among those horses that will continue moving forward on the famously circuitous road that leads, in defiance of all known methods of cartography, to the 140th Kentucky Derby.
1. Cairo Prince
On Saturday, at Palm Meadows in Florida, Cairo Prince worked five-eighths of a mile in 59.95 seconds. It was the bullet, meaning it was the fastest time of the morning. In fact, though, the move only equaled the fastest of the morning, for Cairo Prince worked in company, and on even terms, with Long River. A multiple stakes winner, Long River is one of the better older horses in the country. Cairo Prince's ability to stay with Long River speaks highly of the 3-year-old.
2. Honor Code
Honor Code worked five-eighths of a mile Sunday in 59.18 seconds at Gulfstream Park. It was his fourth workout since he missed some training because of bruised ankles. When the season began, he appeared to have more classic potential than any other horse of his generation. But he has yet to race in 2014, and so he's playing catch-up, with his return to competition set for the Rebel Stakes on March 15 at Oaklawn Park. But it's only a late start, not a derailing. Super Saver and Street Sense didn't make their seasonal debuts until mid-March, and both, of course, went on to win the Kentucky Derby. The late start for Honor Code simply means he's on a tight schedule with little flexibility.
3. Candy Boy
Candy Boy worked an easy half-mile last week in 48.20 seconds in preparation for the Santa Anita Derby. He announced his prominence on the Derby road with a victory in the Robert Lewis Stakes, where he gave one of the most impressive performances of the season. He rated behind the speedsters, angled out in the stretch and responded powerfully when asked. He seemed tireless when he galloped out strongly beyond the wire.
He put in a strong workout Sunday at Oaklawn Park, five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.40. His first workout since his convincing victory in the Southwest Stakes, it was the second-fastest move of the day in Hot Springs, Ark., and somewhat unusual for a horse trained by Steve Asmussen, who tends to take things slowly and deliberately in the mornings. Tapiture's actual birthday is May 3, which also happens to be Derby Day. That means he's a couple of months behind most of these in terms of development, but it also means he might have more room for improvement in the next two months.
5. Top Billing
Although he never has won a stakes race and finished third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Top Billing continues to rank highly in the Power Rankings because he always finishes powerfully and appears brimful of classic potential. A handsome son of Curlin, Top Billing actually had no chance in the Fountain of Youth because of the speed-favoring nature of Gulfstream surface; nevertheless, he rallied strongly. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, said he'd like to come back with Top Billing in the Florida Derby, where he'll need to pick up some Derby points. But will Gulfstream still be handing out free passes to speedsters?
6. Intense Holiday
Intense Holiday finally stepped up and forward while winning the Risen Star Stakes. The long-bodied colt, in fact, seemed to grow up in New Orleans and figure out what's expected of him. And his win there was even more promising than it was impressive because after the wire, he galloped out strongly while pricking his ears, as if to suggest that he not only enjoyed the whole experience, but that he's eager for more. The long stretch at Fair Grounds plays to his strength, and his trainer, Todd Pletcher, said Intense Holiday, who's training in Florida, will visit New Orleans again for his next start, on March 29, in the Louisiana Derby.
7. Strong Mandate
If Strong Mandate and Lady Luck ever reconcile, he's going to be tough to beat. He seems relentlessly eager. Not even his most recent lesson in humility -- the Southwest Stakes, where he missed the break, got bumped, got stopped and raced wide all the way around the racetrack, or at least to the stretch, where he then changed leads, or strides, five, yes five, times, before finishing second -- discouraged him. He returned to work a bullet half-mile at Oaklawn. He's one of the most talented horses on the road to the Derby and maybe one of the unluckiest, but perhaps not one of the smartest.
And so how good is the King of Queens? At this point, the question seems rhetorical. That wasn't the case when he was taking advantage of New York-breds. But after his victories in the Withers and, more recently, the Gotham, he's obviously, well, very good. An April foal who has learned how to control his speed and who won the Gotham without feeling the whip, he, too, could be among those who continue forward. He's aimed at the Wood Memorial.
Here's another whose birthday is Derby Day, which means he, too, could take some significant steps forward in the next two months, possibly starting with Saturday's San Felipe. With only two races, he's far behind some of these in terms of experience, but he's very talented, according to his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert. In preparation for the San Felipe, Bayern worked an easy five-eighths of a mile in 59.80 seconds Monday at Santa Anita.
10. Shared Belief
The unbeaten champion juvenile of 2013 hasn't had a published workout since Jan. 3 because of a problematic foot that cost him some important training time. And so with each passing day his being ready for the Kentucky Derby becomes increasingly doubtful. Although he has resumed training at Golden Gate, he's far behind at this point; and although he's enormously talented, as he proved last year with his romp in the CashCall Futurity, he probably won't be ready to display his gifts until April.
Also receiving votes: Wildcat Red (24), Conquest Titan (14), Midnight Hawk (14), California Chrome (11), General A Rod (11), Chitu (8), Tamarando (7), Uncle Sigh (7), In Trouble (6), Mexikoma (5), Vicar's In Trouble (5), Albano (4), Commissioner (4), Havana (4), Bobby's Kitten (3), Giovanni Boldini (3), Kristo (3), Bond Holder (2), Constitution (2), Rise Up (2).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.