They're like cautionary road signs. The road to the Kentucky Derby is decorated with the names of horses that sparkled in February and March but either disappeared or flopped in May -- Soldat, Vicar, Union Rags, Premier Pegasus, The Factor, Sidney's Candy, Consolidator, Read the Footnotes, Hansen. Will Social Inclusion add his name to that list? Is he a fraud or a superhorse? Well, he probably will find a home in between those extremes.
Hall of Fame possibilities and realities, their credentials flapping in the wind like bunting, adorned the past week. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey saddled Honor Code for the handsome colt's return to competition. Hall of Fame trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert renewed an old rivalry in the Rebel Stakes, with future Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen joining them. But Social Inclusion, whose impact on the week, in retrospect, seemed more like a social intrusion, stole the show.
Or rather he put on a show of his own, beating Honor Code by 10 lengths and setting a track record at Gulfstream Park; and in doing so, Social Inclusion put himself on the road to the Kentucky Derby, joining the ESPN.com Power Rankings and debuting at No. 9, in a tie with Wildcat Red. But is Social Inclusion a fraud or a superhorse? The voters in the Power Rankings poll seem skeptical.
Hoppertunity, the Rebel Stakes winner, also joined the Power Rankings, coming in at No. 7. Dropping out of the Top 10 were Strong Mandate, who disappointed in the Rebel, and Shared Belief, whose connections conceded the foot issues that have compromised the champ's training will also prevent him from joining the cavalcade to Kentucky.
Besides joining the Top 10 in the same week, Hoppertunity and Social Inclusion have this in common: Neither raced as a 2-year-old. His record-setting victory at Gulfstream, where he ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:40.97, was only Social Inclusion's second start. Last month, he won his debut by more than seven lengths. Hoppertunity, who in January finished fifth in his debut, also has made remarkable progress in a short time. The Rebel was only his fourth start. And his winning time of 1:43.90 for the 1 1/16 miles was about two lengths faster than Close Hatches' in the Azeri Stakes two races earlier. Hoppertunity, in other words, despite racing wide in both turns and overcoming a rough run through the lane, ran two lengths faster than one of the best older fillies in the country, a filly who'll probably challenge for championship honors and who already has earned nearly $1.5 million.
So why is it important that they never raced as juveniles when they so obviously have caught up to and surpassed most of their rivals? Well, no Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 was unraced as a juvenile. The a priori thinker looking for a Derby winner will no doubt consider it a deal breaker then if a horse didn't race as a 2-year-old. Quite obviously, even the most talented horse can be constrained by inexperience.
But it's going to happen. When Pulpit in 1997 won the first two starts of his career by 14 lengths and then won the Fountain of Youth, it seemed extraordinary that a horse unraced at 2 could burst upon the scene with such panache. But each year, more and more of these horses that arrive late seem to join the parade to Kentucky, even if it's already in progress. Horses simply don't race as frequently as they once did, especially at 2, and someday, perhaps someday soon, a late arrival could have sufficient talent to overcome his inexperience.
1. Cairo Prince
Cairo Prince again worked on Saturday at Palm Meadows in Florida, this time going five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.80. Last week he worked a half-mile 49.45 seconds, and a week earlier he worked five-eighths of a mile in company with the older stakes winner Long River in 59.95 seconds. Cairo Prince hasn't raced since winning the Holy Bull Stakes by nearly six lengths, but he seems to be training well and, most important, steadily. He's aimed, of course, at the Florida Derby on March 29, which is beginning to take shape and looking very strong.
2. Candy Boy
Candy Boy worked five-eighths of a mile Friday at Santa Anita in 59.40 seconds; it was the second-fastest move of the morning at the distance. A week earlier, he worked five-eighths in 1:01.20. He's aimed squarely at the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, where he'll need to pocket some qualifying points. His victory in the Robert Lewis Stakes was outstanding and suggested that the long-striding colt could be even better when he takes the next two steps, to 1⅛ miles and then to 1¼ miles.
3. California Chrome
California Chrome is moving up in the Power Rankings. Could this Cal-bred go to Kentucky as the Derby favorite? Maybe. And he might deserve it. He has won his past three races by a total of 19 lengths, and his San Felipe performance was outstanding. He ran the opening half-mile in 45.55 seconds and the opening three-quarters in 1:09.45, and then he just kept going. The Santa Anita Derby is possible for his next start, or he could train up to the Kentucky Derby.
The argument could be made that Tapiture ran at least as well as the winner in the Rebel Stakes. Tapiture entered the stretch blocked behind the leaders. He courageously forced his way through a sliver that he expanded to an opening, but then he took the worst of the bumping down the stretch, where he found himself, somewhat uncomfortably, between horses. Beyond the wire, he galloped out with the winner and, if anything, looked stronger. A late foal, Tapiture will actually turn 3 on Derby Day, May 3.
5. Intense Holiday
The light went on when he won the Risen Star Stakes. On Saturday, at Palm Meadows in Florida, he worked a bullet half-mile in 48 seconds -- that is, he turned in the fastest workout of the morning at the distance. Never before had he worked a bullet. Not once. For the most part, throughout his young career, Intense Holiday has been tepid in his workouts; he hasn't turned heads in the mornings, which isn't surprising for a late-runner. But since he won the Risen Star, he has had two outstanding workouts. Heads almost certainly turned. Here's a horse, always highly regarded by his trainer despite some rather ordinary outcomes, that has suddenly realized his purpose. He also has found his track. The long stretch at Fair Grounds plays to his strength, and although he's training in Florida, Intense Holiday will return to New Orleans for the Louisiana Derby on March 29.
The King of Queens worked an easy half-mile (50.55 seconds) Saturday in Florida, but he'll probably return to New York for the Wood. As he showed with his victories in the Withers and the Gotham, this New York-bred is very good; he has considerable speed, he's tractable and, most of all, he's tenacious.
Hoppertunity raced wide around both turns and then, after overcoming some bumping down the lane, finished with determination to win Saturday's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. It was a remarkable effort for a horse making only the fourth start of his career, and it placed Hopportunity in the vanguard going to Kentucky. If he improves as much in the next two months as he has in the last two, he'll win the Kentucky Derby. He could make his next start in either the Santa Anita or the Arkansas Derby.
8. Honor Code
After Honor Code finished a distant second in his first race of the season, the knee-jerk reaction might be to give up on him and his Derby chances. Actually, though, he ran exactly as he should have in his debut as a 3-year-old, basically matching his top level of performance as a 2-year-old. And now he's poised to move forward. The problem, of course, is that ideally he should have run this race in February. He's about a month behind where he needs to be. Honor Code remains one of the most promising and physically gifted horses of his generation, and he's trained by one of the sport's great horsemen; so he should still be regarded as one of the foremost Derby contenders. But his next race, whether it's the Wood or the Florida Derby, will say much about his chances.
9T. Wildcat Red
The Fountain of Youth winner worked a half-mile Saturday in 47.98 seconds at Gulfstream, a maintenance move in preparation for the Florida Derby. Wildcat Red's ability is obvious and his talent indisputable. The question has been whether he'll be able to carry his speed beyond 1 1/16 miles? That question looks even larger with the emergence of Social Inclusion, another speedster who could aim for the Florida Derby. But Wildcat Red always has been tenacious. Will tenacity suffice at 1⅛ miles?
9T. Social Inclusion
Superhorse or fraud? -- that's the question. He looked like a superhorse in beating Honor Code by 10 lengths and setting a track record. But at Gulfstream this year, track records have fallen like autumn leaves. And on Wednesday, when Social Inclusion led from start to finish, he was simply following the well-known formula. Three of the five winners on the main track that day were speedsters that had the lead after the opening half-mile, and Social Inclusion was allowed to steal away with an opening half in 47.52 seconds. In other words, on a habitually speed biased surface, he got an easy lead in slow fractions; so of course he looked sensational. The performance probably wasn't as good as it appeared, and Social Inclusion probably isn't a superhorse. But he's obviously good.
Also receiving votes: Bayern (15), Ring Weekend (13), Tamarando (13), Strong Mandate (12), Vicar's In Trouble (9), General A Rod (7), Conquest Titan (6), Constitution (6), Giovanni Boldini (6), Albano (4), Uncle Sigh (4), Midnight Hawk (2), Rise Up (2), Bobby's Kitten (1).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.