All eyes on the 3-year-olds

Algorithms, Union Rags, Discreet Dancer and El Padrino, Saturday's Risen Star Stakes and Sunday's Fountain of Youth -- they could all confirm what's already suspected, corroborate what's believed: that this group could be exceptional. These 3-year-olds have the collective potential to become the most talented cavalcade to travel to Kentucky in years.

Consider this: Secret Circle's performance Monday in winning his division of the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park was better, as measured and quantified by personal speed figures, than Dialed In's victory in last year's Florida Derby, better, too, than Archarcharch's Arkansas Derby, Midnight Interlude's Santa Anita Derby and Animal Kingdom's Spiral. Even Scatman, who finished second to Secret Circle, ran better than most (The Factor and Soldat being exceptions who come to mind) of the winners on the road to last year's Triple Crown.

This year's traffic is thick with talent. Out Of Bounds' winning Sham Stakes effort, for example, was two lengths better than Pants On Fire's victory in last year's Louisiana Derby and three better than Brilliant Speed's Blue Grass. In winning their recent allowance races, El Padrino and Fed Biz gave performances that would have been good enough to put them in some celebrated winner's circles last year; their efforts, for example, were superior to anything seen from Ruler On Ice, Shackleford, Toby's Corner or Uncle Mo last winter. Even Bodemeister's recent maiden victory -- yes, a maiden score -- was several lengths better than Joe Vann's win in last year's Illinois Derby. And consider this: Late February, with more than three weeks of winter remaining, and already Algorithms and Secret Circle have reached a level of performance that last season's top 3-year-olds didn't approach until the spring and summer.

Yes, it's far too early to jump, no matter how tantalizing the conclusion -- and any conclusion based on comparisons of races run under different circumstances several months apart would invite skepticism. And, yes, some groups in the past have sparkled with their collective potential only to get bogged down by injuries or illness.

But, still, at least five years have passed since so many 3-year-olds looked so good so early. And this season's 3-year-olds could look even better after a weekend with the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

The Fountain of Youth will almost certainly produce the early Kentucky Derby favorite. And that will probably be Algorithms. If he duplicates his Holy Bull performance, he'll win Sunday, and if he steps forward in his first outing around two turns, he'll win easily and the Florida sky will rain accolades.

"He might be a special horse," said Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing, the partnership that owns the powerfully handsome colt. Saying it's all starting to get a "little scary," Wolf sounds like a guy who's trying not to become too excited, a naturally polite guy who's trying to maintain his poise even though he's holding a ticket that has the first five winning lotto numbers.

In only his third start, Algorithms won the one-mile Holy Bull Stakes, blowing by juvenile champion Hansen in the Gulfstream stretch and then drawing clear by five lengths. Algorithms' sire, Bernardini, in only his third start, won the one-mile Withers Stakes, drawing clear by nearly four lengths. Although they're separated by six years, a comparison of the performances is worthwhile.

Agorithms settled behind Hansen's rapid pace and ran the opening half-mile in 46.67 seconds. He then ran a quarter-mile around the turn in 23.84 -- which suggests an athleticism that can be imperative in Kentucky, where the Derby is often won with a bold move around the second turn. Cruising home through a slow final quarter-mile, Algorithms ran his second half in 49.50, for a final time of 1:36.17.

Six years ago, on an Aqueduct strip that was much faster (about six lengths) than the Gulfstream surface for the recent Holy Bull, Bernardini was able to stalk a moderate pace, running the opening half-mile in 46.34 seconds. He ran the second half in 48.73, for a final time of 1:35.07. (Prior to the Withers, on a very quick Gulfstream surface, Bernardini had won a one-mile maiden race by nearly eight lengths, running the opening half in 46.49 and the second half in 49.08.)

Following the Withers, in his first start around two turns, Bernardini took another step forward and won the Preakness. But perhaps what's most important to recall is that Bernardini, who didn't race as a 2-year-old, developed and improved throughout his campaign. His Preakness was better than his Withers, and his Travers improved on his Preakness.

And so will Algorithms, the colt who just might be special, improve Sunday? He could. He has sufficient speed to control the pace, but he'd probably learn more if he allows his stablemate, Discreet Dancer, or somebody else to have the early advantage. Either way, though, with the short run to the first turn and without Hansen out there sizzling, Algorithms should be able to settle early and then take control with a strong move around the second turn, where, of course, Union Rags will join the cavalcade going to Kentucky.

Our main objective is not the first race but two races later … That's what we're getting ready for.

-- Michael Matz, trainer of Union Rags

"Our main objective is not the first race," said Union Rags' trainer, Michael Matz, about the Fountain of Youth, "but two races later … That's what we're getting ready for."

In other words, Matz has Union Rags aimed at the Kentucky Derby, and the Fountain of Youth is merely preparation.

"What we're looking for is a good race," Matz said, and that doesn't necessarily mean a victory.

The most accomplished 2-year-old of 2011, Union Rags has proven himself to be an elite competitor. He has raced around two turns, he has been the distance and he has a bankroll that guarantees him a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 5.

As a 3-year-old, Union Rags has "really grown up," Matz said, and has developed into a "magnificent horse." And so Union Rags needs only to produce the kind of effort that a campaign can build upon, a solid performance that matches his best effort as a juvenile and so points him towards the next step, the Florida Derby, where he'll move forward and then ultimately down the Triple Crown road to Kentucky.

With the plumes of potential still visible in Arkansas and Algorithms and Union Rags poised in Florida; with El Padrino in New Orleans, where Shared Property and Optimizer and Mark Valeski could upset; with Out Of Bounds, Creative Cause and Fed Biz poised in California, where Empire Way and Bodemeister loom; and with horses such as Hansen, Take Charge Indy, Alpha and My Adonis all threatening the vanguard, this could be and, yes, quite possibly will be an exceptional year for traveling down the road to the Triple Crown.