None of the horses expected for the upcoming Lexington Stakes at Keeneland are being aimed at the Kentucky Derby. And the Lexington is the last race offering qualifying points. In other words, this past weekend, with the running of the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, was it. That was the conclusion of the preseason, the final steps in the run-up. Everything to this point has been prelude, but the points are totaled: If you're in, you're in; if you're not, think Baltimore.
And Cairo Prince is in. With 24 points, the winner of the Holy Bull Stakes is ensured a place in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on May 3, and so he rejoins the ESPN.com Power Rankings at No. 6. Wildcat Red, the Fountain of Youth winner, also rejoins the Power Rankings, at No. 10, as Tapiture and Bayern drop out.
Making his first start in two months, Bayern set the pace in the Arkansas Derby, taking the field through an opening half-mile in 47.71 and three-quarters in 1:12.29. He faded to third, beaten more than five lengths. Still, he gave a good effort, especially for a colt making only the third start of his career; but the 20 qualifying points he earned might not suffice. He's No. 26 on the Derby leaderboard.
But the field for the Kentucky Derby is hardly set. Although Dance With Fate won the Blue Grass Stakes, he's not aimed at a roseate run. In fact, his trainer, Peter Eurton, said Dance With Fate, who's No. 3 on the leaderboard, is unlikely to run in the Kentucky Derby because he's better on synthetic surfaces or turf. This, of course, was the last Blue Grass to be run over Keeneland's synthetic Polytrack.
Tapiture, the Southwest Stakes winner and the Rebel runner-up, leaves the Power Rankings after finishing fourth at Oaklawn Park. A tightly wound colt, Tapiture raced wide in the Arkansas Derby; still, he offered little in the stretch and finished more than seven lengths back.
Although they don't join the Power Rankings, the first two horses in the Arkansas Derby will move forward to the Derby. Making only the fourth start of his career and his first around two turns, Danza shot through an opening inside and finished with a surge of energy, running the final three-eighths of a mile in 37.09 seconds and winning by nearly five lengths over Ride On Curlin, who rallied wide but effectively. Then Danza galloped out strongly, his energy still flowing. And his final time, 1:49.68, was only 0.13 seconds slower than Will Take Charge's winning time in the Oaklawn Handicap. Danza, who was actually No. 11 in the Power Rankings poll, could make some noise in Kentucky.
1. California Chrome
Mike Battaglia, the Churchill Downs oddsmaker, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that he'd make California Chrome the 4-1 or 5-1 Kentucky Derby favorite "right now." Of course, Battaglia won't make the morning line for a couple of weeks yet, and much can happen. Still, the flashy chestnut looks like a solid favorite. Among all the horses being considered for the Derby, he's the only one who's already performing at a level that would generally be good enough to win the race. All the others will have to step up and improve, but California Chrome probably can win on May 3 if he duplicates his performance in the Santa Anita Derby, where he ran a fourth quarter-mile in 24.22 seconds to put the outcome on ice. He won by more than five lengths, pricking his ears at the wire. It was his fourth consecutive stakes victory: He's not only good; he's consistently good.
Hoppertunity's Santa Anita Derby might have been better than it looks at first glance. He had to rally into a moderate pace and wait for an eyeblink or so in traffic. He never really got close to California Chrome; but after the wire, Hoppertunity galloped out beyond the winner. It will be very interesting to see how he trains at Churchill Downs, where the surface generally isn't nearly as kind to early speed as Santa Anita's. He could be poised to take a major step forward in the Derby.
3. Wicked Strong
Third last year in Aqueduct's Remsen Stakes, he apparently had to return to New York to regain form. With a powerful run through the Aqueduct stretch, he drew clear to win the Wood Memorial by three lengths, and so he didn't just regain form: He soared to a new level. His Wood was among the best performances of the season by a 3-year-old. Wicked Strong, of course, still has many questions to answer, not the least being whether he can transfer his Aqueduct form elsewhere. If he can, he'll be a threat in Kentucky. His trainer, Jimmy Jerkens, said the son of Hard Spun will prepare for the Derby at Belmont Park and probably travel to Churchill Downs on Monday, April 28.
Like Hoppertunity, Constitution didn't race as a juvenile. And not since 1882, when Apollo scored a stunning upset, has there been a Derby winner that didn't race as a 2-year-old. That's something that will come up repeatedly in the coming weeks, and it's not just a historical or statistical quirk. The Derby clearly rewards experience. But with a good draw and a clean trip, Constitution just might have sufficient talent to overcome his inexperience. His win in the Florida Derby, where he ran down a capable horse, Wildcat Red, that had proven himself at Gulfstream Park and had stolen away with a comfortable lead in the slowest opening half-mile of the day, was among the best performances of the season by a 3-year-old. And the long-striding son of Tapit looks like he might appreciate the classic distance. He had an easy half-mile workout Sunday at Palm Meadows, in 50.60 seconds.
He might not be the most capable or talented horse going to Kentucky, but he's among the most admirable. He always gives an outstanding effort, no matter the circumstances. And while his runner-up performance in the Wood was another in a long streak of outstanding efforts, it left some doubt about his ability to succeed at the classic distance, simply because he needed more than 13 seconds to run that last eighth of a mile. Like Wicked Strong, he'll train in New York, although at Aqueduct, before traveling to Kentucky on the Monday before the Derby.
6. Cairo Prince
No. 1 in the Power Rankings for weeks, he disappeared from the rankings after finishing fourth in the Florida Derby, when it seemed he might not have sufficient qualifying points to run in Kentucky. But he's in. With 24 qualifying points, he's No. 20 on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, and, of course, the field will be limited to 20. The winner of the Holy Bull Stakes deserves to be in field. He went into the Florida Derby after a layoff, he raced a little wide and he tried to rally on a notoriously speed-biased surface. He worked a half-mile Sunday at Palm Meadows in 48.60 seconds and should be ready to take a big step forward in his next start.
7. Vicar's In Trouble
Vicar's In Trouble, like Samraat, is very admirable. But in Kentucky, the Vicar probably won't be able to control the pace, as he did while winning the Louisiana Derby. And both his pedigree and his performances suggest the classic distance could be beyond the reach of this son of Into Mischief. When he won recently at Fair Grounds, he ran the final three-eighths of a mile in 38.63 seconds, which doesn't compare to California Chrome's 36.71 in the Santa Anita Derby and Wicked Strong's 37.35 over a dull Aqueduct surface and Constitution's 36.76 in the Florida Derby. Already in Kentucky, at Churchill's training center, he worked a half-mile Saturday in 48.20 seconds.
8. Intense Holiday
He's more talented than his runner-up effort in the Louisiana Derby might indicate. Perhaps he was too close to the early pace -- less than two lengths back after the opening half-mile, compared to six back after a much slower opening half when he won the Risen Star -- or maybe the performance was the result of a mental error, as he ducked in after turning into the stretch and nearly hit the inner rail. He also got bumped around in the second turn. Still, the long-bodied colt looks like he will appreciate the classic distance. If he recovers his best form and steps forward, he could threaten in Kentucky. For the moment, though, he's still at Palm Meadows, where he worked a half-mile Sunday in 48.90 seconds.
9. Candy Boy
He had no obvious excuse while finishing nine lengths back in the Santa Anita Derby, where he obviously regressed. But when he won the Robert Lewis Stakes, he gave a performance that suggested he indeed could threaten in Kentucky. And so the question becomes which colt will show up on May 3. If Candy Boy has his Robert Lewis persona going that day, he'll still have to step forward if he's to have an impact.
10. Wildcat Red
A speedster, Wildcat Red never has raced away from Gulfstream Park, which resolutely favors speed. He has an admirable record, never finishing worse than second and winning the Fountain of Youth with a determined effort. But how will Wildcat Red perform away from home? More important, if he couldn't successfully carry his speed 1 ⅛ miles in the Florida Derby, where he was allowed to cruise early, then how will he succeed at the 1 ¼ miles of the Kentucky Derby, where the pace could be faster and more contentious?
Also receiving votes: Danza (32), Chitu (28), Ride on Curlin (17), Dance With Fate (10), General a Rod (8), Medal Count (7), Tapiture (6), Commissioner (5), Commanding Curve (3), Social Inclusion (2), We Miss Artie (2).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.