The top 20 Triple Crown noisemakers

Was this ever easy? It once seemed easy, this looking ahead to the Triple Crown. The best 2-year-olds usually became next year's best 3-year-olds. What could be more simple? But much has changed since I began making this list of top Triple Crown prospects, or noisemakers, 25 years ago.

The most significant change, of course, is that horses race less frequently than they once did, and so their talents are less likely to emerge during their juvenile campaigns. Alysheba, for example, the 1987 Kentucky Derby winner, ran seven times as a 2-year-old; Animal Kingdom, last year's Derby winner, ran twice at 2. And trainers who quickly identify their Triple Crown prospects sometimes bring them along slowly and cautiously, as if the ultimate goal has become getting there, just getting to Kentucky and to the hallowed post parade that skirts the shadows of those famous twin spires on the first Saturday in May with the band striking those notes that have become so familiar to everyone in horse racing.

Anyway, with synthetic surfaces and fluctuating schedules and foreign possibilities -- well, looking ahead to the Triple Crown requires a crystal ball in addition to the traditional binoculars. The assumption that the best 2-year-olds will become the best 3-year-olds has lost its validity, or at least misplaced it for the moment. Animal Kingdom, Big Brown Giacomo, Grindstone and Charismatic all won but a single race during their juvenile campaigns; Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos didn't win a single race at 2; but, of course, they all went on to win the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown and Charismatic also won the Preakness.

In 25 years, only five Kentucky Derby winners have not been in this top 20, which means, of course, 80 percent of the winners have been. But recent results have confounded traditional assumptions, and most of those five are relatively recent: Animal Kingdom, Mine That Bird and War Emblem, a trio that insists on a wider perspective for looking ahead to the sport's famed series, which begins this year on May 5.

And so here are the top 20 noisemakers on the road to the Triple Crown, as viewed from this corner anyway. This final list is distilled from thousands of juveniles seen in 2011 and then from a preliminary list of more than 1,500. The top noisemakers include some horses that obviously won't be in the Kentucky Derby but who could still have a clamorous impact along the way, perhaps in sprints or turf races. If there are some conspicuous omissions, it could be because the horses are unlikely to participate in the Triple Crown or in many of its preps. Overdriven, for example, flashed brilliance as a 2-year-old, but his trainer, Todd Pletcher, said the horse hasn't yet resumed serious training and will probably be aimed at a race such as the Woody Stephens Stakes in June.

This list is more about potential than accomplishment, more about what horses might do than what they've done. Still, like all such lists -- and they will soon proliferate -- this means little when compared to the horses' performances on the track, where they will ultimately and inevitably decide their hierarchy and their futures.

Top 20 as of January 5, 2012

1. Union Rags
Record: 4-3-1-0
Earnings: $858,800
Sire: Dixie Union
Trainer: Michael Matz

Physically precocious and bursting with talent, he could overwhelm rivals last year, as he showed in the Champagne Stakes. But how much better can such a physically mature colt get? Well, with any significant positive development, he could become a superstar. He's aimed for a return in next month's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

2. Fed Biz
Record: 2-1-0-0
Earnings: $36,300
Sire: Giant's Causeway
Trainer: Bob Baffert

The handsome colt seems to possess gears. While winning recently at Santa Anita, he flashed speed, then dropped back and then charged, completing the mile in 1:35.48 and drawing clear to suggest this might just be the beginning.

3. Algorithms
Record: 2-2-0-0
Earnings: $61,500
Sire: Bernardini
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

A minor injury compromised his juvenile campaign, but he returned with a sharp performance last month to announce his potential and to prepare for his stakes debut Jan. 29 in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream. Lightly raced with a pedigree that insists his best distance will include two turns, he has considerable room to improve and develop.

4. Secret Circle
Record: 3-3-0-0
Earnings: $348,990
Sire: Eddington
Trainer: Bob Baffert

He flashed brilliant potential last year while winning two stakes, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint, and his pedigree suggests he should succeed at longer distances. The road to the Triple Crown is where such suggestions are either confirmed or dispelled. He'll stretch out Saturday, in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita.

5. Creative Cause
Record: 5-3-1-1, $521,000
Sire: Giant's Causeway
Trainer: Mike Harrington

The Norfolk Stakes winner finished a length back in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Solid and reliable, he could move forward as he becomes stronger; and he has a pedigree that suggests he could prosper as the distances get longer. To begin his campaign, he's aimed at the San Vicente on Feb. 19 at Santa Anita.

6. Hansen
Record: 3-3-0-0
Earnings: $1,153,305
Sire: Tapit
Trainer: Mike Maker

The gray colt isn't very big, but he's very fast. He never has been behind in his races, and after setting the pace in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he held on gamely and admirably for the length of the Churchill Downs stretch. Is he as good as that Juvenile victory suggests, or did circumstances contribute to his win? How much will he improve? Could his speed possibly take him even farther, as far as the classic 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby? How will he respond when confronted with opposing speed? What will he do if he can't grab an early advantage? Will he rate? Some of these questions could be answered on the road to the Triple Crown, perhaps starting with the Holy Bull Stakes.

7. Liaison
Record: 4-3-0-1
Earnings: $469,560
Trainer: Bob Baffert

He improved steadily as a juvenile, concluding his campaign with victories in the Real Quiet Stakes and the CashCall Futurity. More professional than flashy, he seems to have quickly grasped the purpose of all this running in circles: And that's to get into the winner's circle. He could put himself there again on Feb. 4, after the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.

8. Gemologist
Record: 3-3-0-0
Earnings: $145,855
Sire: Tiznow
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Unbeaten with two of his victories at Churchill Downs, the physically mature colt was uncommonly professional as a 2-year-old. He arrived at Pletcher's barn in Florida this week to begin preparing for his journey down that celebrated road that leads to Kentucky, then Maryland and then New York. He will probably have two starts prior to the Kentucky Derby, according to his trainer.

9. Consortium
Record: 2-1-1-0
Earnings: $39,350
Sire: Bernardini
Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin

He easily won his New York debut against a solid field and then chased Algorithms home at Gulfstream. Consortium appears to have considerable potential for growth and development. More distance should only help him become a major player.

10. Rousing Sermon
Record: 6-2-2-2
Earnings: $274,000
Sire: Lucky Pulpit
Trainer: Jerry Hollendorfer

He finished fastest of all when he ran second in the CashCall Futurity. He never has been worse than third, and he seems to be relentless. Win or lose, he's going to raise a ruckus on the California road to the Triple Crown.

11. Sky Kingdom
Record: 4-1-0-0
Earnings: $91,130
Sire: Empire Maker
Trainer: Bob Baffert

He closed well to be fourth in the CashCall Futurity and then galloped out strongly just to confirm his affinity for more distance. He's moving forward, and he recently turned in a bullet workout at three-quarters of a mile at Santa Anita.

12. Alpha
Record: 3-1-1-0
Earnings: $90,000
Sire: Bernardini
Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin

After an easy debut victory, he finished second to Union Rags in the Champagne Stakes but then flopped in the Breeders' Cup after some fractious misbehavior in the gate. He's the 4-5 favorite in the morning line for Saturday's Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct.

13. Dullahan
Record: 6-1-1-2
Earnings: $392,091
Sire: Even The Score
Trainer: Dale Romans

After a troubled start, he rallied from last to finish fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But that's what he does: While he never has run a poor race, he has won only once.

14. Empire Way
Record: 3-1-0-0
Earnings: $72,000
Sire: Empire Maker
Trainer: Mike Harrington

The full brother to Royal Delta raced very wide when fifth in the CashCall Futurity, but galloped out strongly enough to reach the leaders. Empire Way looks like a colt who's going to grow and continue to improve, perhaps in time for a roseate run.

15. Discreet Dancer
Sire: Discreet Cat
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

The flashy chestnut sparkled in his debut, winning by nearly 10 lengths and setting a track record. But that was at 5 1/2 furlongs, and his breeding -- his sire was best at a mile, and his half-brother, Travelin Man, never has won beyond seven-eighths of a mile -- insists there could serious distance limitations here. How far will Discreet Dancer go? His trainer says the colt will run farther than his brother. And Discreet Dancer certainly looks like more than a sprinter. So how far will he go? That's a question for the road to the Triple Crown. He'll try a mile Saturday at Trainer: Gulfstream Park.

16. Hierro
Record: 3-1-1-0
Earnings: $41,600
Sire: Hard Spun
Trainer: Steve Asmussen

A handy winner at Churchill Downs in November, he has been training sharply, according to his trainer, since moving to Santa Anita, where he'll make his seasonal and stakes debut Saturday in the Sham.

17. Optimizer
Record: 5-1-1-1
Earnings: $108,975
Sire: English Channel
Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas

After walking out of the gate in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he could do no better than eighth. Other than that, he has been consistent if unspectacular, getting close in three stakes. But he's improving, according to His Hall of Fame trainer, who says this is his Derby horse. Optimizer has put up some bullet workouts at Oaklawn Park in preparation for his return to competition.

18. Brother Francis
Record: 3-0-2-1
Earnings: $129,000
Sire: Lion Heart
Trainer: James Cassidy

The maiden nearly won the Hollywood Prevue Stakes and then ran third in the CashCall Futurity despite a wide trip and a lost whip. And, yes, there has has been a horse who in the Kentucky Derby won for the first time in his career.

19. Sabercat
Record: 6-3-0-1
Earnings: $681,420
Sire: Bluegrass Cat
Trainer: Steve Asmussen

He concluded his juvenile campaign with consecutive stakes victories, including a charging romp in the lucrative Delta Jackpot, a win that ensures him a spot in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. He has resumed training in New Orleans.

20. Fly Lexis Fly
Record: 5-3-1-0
Earnings: $101,382
Sire: Badge of Silver
Trainer: Neil Drysdale

The most intriguing horse on the road to the Triple Crown comes here from Peru, where he won the 1 1/2-mile Derby Nacional by nearly 11 lengths and the 1 1/4-mile Clasico Ricardo Ortiz de Zevallos by four. And keep in mind, amazing as it might seem, that as a 2-year-old he raced against southern hemisphere 3-year-olds. Could he be the next Canonero? Fly Lexis Fly has joined the Drysdale stable in Southern California and is an early nominee to the Santa Anita Derby.