Grading the best in class

For anybody still dozing or still befuddled and hung over from the Eclipse Awards, for anybody lolling around waiting for a Super Bowl, a punch bowl, a fruit bowl or a Grand Marnier souffle in a ramekin, this Holy Bull Stakes is a blast of wasabi up the old snoot -- whoa, yeah, the road to the Triple Crown, ok, let's get started.

Here it is the fourth week in January, and the undefeated champion juvenile is already making his seasonal debut. Just as amazing, nine horses are taking him on. They're not ducking, not thumbing a ride down the road to Tampa or jumping on an airplane pointed west; they're preparing to step into the starting gate and eyeball a champ. And it's not because of a lack of respect for Shanghai Bobby that so many are so willing. As trainer Dale Romans said, explaining why he'll send out Dewey Square in the Holy Bull on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, "It's time."

Yes, for many, as Romans said, it's time to see how these horses compare and how they match up with "the best." And Shanghai Bobby, as that statuette on his mantel attests, is the best of his generation, a perfect five for five, with victories in the Hopeful, the Champagne and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. It's also time, perhaps, to take him on because he'll probably be more vulnerable Saturday than he will be March 30 in the Florida Derby. It's time, too, for many of these horses to start accumulating Kentucky Derby points. With the new point system that will determine the 20 starters in the Kentucky Derby, juvenile races count little. At this moment, nobody, not even the champ, has a reservation in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.

And so with the Holy Bull, it's also time for a list of the Top 100 potential Triple Crown noisemakers, starting with the top 20.

1. Violence
Record: 3-3-0-0
Earnings / Derby points: $543,000 / 10
Sire: Medaglia d'Oro
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

As a 2-year-old, he won three races, at three different racetracks, over three different distances, each a little farther than the other, and to accomplish all this he traveled the breadth of America, from New York to California. Rarely has such a young horse accomplished so much and answered so many questions so early. Yes, Violence has it all, including a name that reminds many of one of the most salient aspects of the culture. He has overcome trouble, he has used his speed to ensure for himself a good trip and he has finished strongly to win the Nashua Stakes and the CashCall Futurity. Violence even looks like a classic horse, and his pedigree stresses the point. He has a Dosage Index, which is the ratio of speed to stamina in the first four generations of his pedigree, of 2.08, which suggests no distance will likely be too far for him. Beginning to prepare for his return, possibly in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 23, he worked an easy half-mile (50.90 seconds) Sunday at Palm Meadows in Florida.

2. Normandy Invasion
Record: 3-1-1-0
Earnings / Derby points: $92,240 / 4
Sire: Tapit
Trainer: Chad Brown

Rallying from ninth and running the final three-eighths of a mile in 36.39 seconds over a somewhat dull surface, Normandy Invasion lost the Remsen in a head-bob at the wire. Ok, so he's not photogenic, but that day in New York, he gave what might have been the best performance of the year by a juvenile. No other horse came close to doing what he did that day; in fact, Aqueduct's other two-turn races run on the main track were won by horses that led throughout, from start to finish. Can Normandy Invasion duplicate that Remsen effort? Can he build on it, which, of course, he'll have to do if he's to enjoy Triple Crown success? So far this year, Normandy Invasion has had three workouts, all at Palm Meadows in Florida, the latest on Sunday, in preparation for his return Feb. 23 in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

3. Flashback
Record / Derby points: 1-1-0-0 / 0
Earnings / Derby points: $27,000 / 0
Sire: Tapit
Trainer: Bob Baffert

The handsome gray colt has charisma and style and talent, a sturdy tripod for supporting superstardom. His trainer, Bob Baffert, believes this is a very special horse -- and not just because he sees much of himself in the fey-gray. Flashback won his debut with style in a fast clocking for the day, 1:23.09 for seven furlongs. (An earlier race on the Dec. 8 card at Hollywood, an allowance-optional claimer for older horses, was run in 1:23.92.) And he looks as if he can only improve with more distance, for he's a full-brother to Zazu, a three-time stakes winner who ran third in the 2011 Kentucky Oaks. Flashback worked five-eighths of a mile in 58.60 Wednesday and is, his trainer said, "right on schedule" for his next start, on Feb. 2, in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.

4. Overanalyze
Record: 5-3-0-1
Earnings / Derby points: $344,381 / 10
Sire: Dixie Union
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

In the Remsen, he stalked a solid pace, took the advantage, momentarily lost it, and then fought back after switching strides, to his right lead, in mid-stretch. While resisting a charging challenger, Overanalyze won the Remsen in a very determined effort, completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.13. That same day at Aqueduct, in the other races at that distance, Unlimited Budget won the Demoiselle in 1:52.16, and Dance Card the Gazelle in 1:50.39. In other words, if the teletimer didn't lie, the Remsen was outstanding. Sunday, at Palm Meadows, Overanalyze had his second published workout (51.62 for a half-mile) of 2013. He could return to New York for the run-up to the Triple Crown.

5. Shanghai Bobby
Record: 5-5-0-0
Earnings / Derby points: $1,687,000 / 20
Sire: Harlan's Holiday
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

The unbeaten champion returns Saturday in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, and so the Triple Crown season formally and officially begins. Of course, no young horse has yet given a performance or run a race that would suffice to win at Churchill Downs in May. The road to Kentucky is all about development, but some will have farther to travel and more need for development than others. And so it's probably useful to recall that Shanghai Bobby was quite an extraordinary 2-year-old, winning at a variety of distances, with a variety of styles and at four different racetracks. Conspicuously one of the most talented of youngsters, he also proved to be one of the most intelligent and tractable as well. He appeared beaten in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, surrounded at the top of the stretch by rivals that seemed to have snatched the momentum from him, but then he fought back gamely and won in a memorable photo finish. His jockey, Rosie Napravnik – who brings some excitement of her own to the partnership – said the handsome colt momentarily lost his focus and was looking around, surveying the crowd, but when challenged, she explained, Shanghai Bobby recalled there was a job to be done and, as always, he responded with determination. Yes, he was an extraordinary 2-year-old. But what kind of 3-year-old will he be? He begins to answer that question Saturday. But his trainer, Todd Pletcher, said the champ has "grown up."

6. Verrazano
Record: 1-1-0-0
Earnings / Derby points: $25,200 / 0
Sire: More Than Ready
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse that didn't race as a 2-year-old won the Kentucky Derby. That's 131 years of history lining up against Verrazano, who made his debut on New Year's Day. But recent years have swept aside many of the old assumptions about what's necessary to win the Derby. This assumption that a horse must have raced as a juvenile could be the last to go. A half-brother to El Padrino, who won the 2012 Risen Star Stakes, Verrazano romped in his debut, winning by nearly eight lengths without feeling the whip. But can one race reveal what lies within? How good is he? Well, like people, horses can be judged by the company they keep. And Sunday Verrazano worked in company with Shanghai Bobby. To put it another way, Verrazano is a powerful, graceful mover who looks as if he could develop into one of the best horses of his generation. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has indicated he'll bring the big colt along patiently, which probably means a stakes debut in March.

7. Uncaptured
Record: 7-6-0-0
Earnings / Derby points: $510,837 / 10
Sire: Lion Heart
Trainer: Mark Casse

The Canadians are scaling the rigging with cutlasses in their teeth. And Uncaptured, who's a candidate for a Sovereign Award as Canada's Horse of the Year, is leading the way. His trainer, Mark Casse, described the nearly black colt succinctly enough by saying he's "classy." He's indeed that. Athletic and poised, Uncaptured has an air about him of confident superiority that in a person would be insufferable, but in a racehorse seems bold. He won five stakes last year, including the Iroquois at Churchill, where he spurted clear of a field that included Overanalyze, and then he won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, overcoming considerable trouble along the way. He was bumped around leaving the gate and bumped repeatedly down the stretch. Afterwards, Casse said, the colt was found to have bruises and cuts on his hind legs. That's why Uncaptured will have only two starts prior to the Kentucky Derby, the last one being the Blue Grass Stakes.

8. Palace Malice
Record: 3-1-2-0
Earnings / Derby points: $71,135 / 0
Sire: Curlin
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

His 2012 campaign was cut short when, after an impressive maiden victory and just before the Hopeful Stakes, he developed sore shins. Saturday, he returned at Gulfstream Park, finishing second in a good effort on a sloppy track. So far, he has done nothing but sprint, and he has done so with a success that can only imply his potential because this horse was born to run long (Dosage Index: 2.64). Like his sire, Palace Malice should improve significantly as he matures and as the distances stretch out.

9. Belvin
Record: 2-1-1-0
Earnings / Derby points: $42,600 / 0
Sire: Empire Maker
Trainer: Bob Baffert

Belvin chased a lightning bolt named Distinctiv Passion in his debut, but then won his next start impressively, pushing a rapid pace before drawing clear at 6 1/2 furlongs. And like Palace Malice, Belvin won sprinting despite being born, or so it would seem, for other purposes. His sire, of course, won the Belmont Stakes, and Belvin has a pedigree that's rife with stamina influence. He could improve dramatically when he stretches out, but he'll stay around one turn for his next outing, the San Vicente on Feb. 17. Wednesday at Santa Anita, he worked in company with Flashback.

10. Delhomme
Record: 3-1-1-1
Earnings / Derby points: 84,800 / 2
Sire: Dixie Union
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

He improved steadily last year, completing his juvenile campaign by finishing third in the Remsen after setting what was for the day a fairly strong pace. And, just to emphasize how strong the Remsen was, nearly 17 lengths separated Delhomme from the fourth horse. Sunday, in Florida, he put in his first published workout of the year.

11. Goldencents
Record: 4-3-1-0
Earnings / Derby points: $782,000 / 24
Sire: Into Mischief
Trainer: Doug O'Neill

He has lost but once in his career, to Shanghai Bobby in the Champagne, and based on the new qualifying point system, he represents the vanguard on the road to Kentucky. With his speed, Goldencents always ensures himself a good trip, which he used to advantage in winning the Delta Jackpot and the Sham Stakes. The question, of course, is how much farther will that speed carry him. But he has a Dosage Index (the ratio of speed to stamina in the first four generations of his pedigree) of 1.67; so don't expect him to pull over to the side of the highway for a breather anytime soon.

12. Bern Identity
Record: 6-3-2-1
Earnings / Derby points: $616,000 / 4
Sire: Bernstein
Trainer: Kelly Breen

Bern Identity first announced his quality when he scored by nearly 14 lengths at Belmont Park and then confirmed it in his next outing when he won the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga. He might have been compromised by traffic in the Delta Jackpot, where he was blocked behind horses until he swung to the far outside, where he finished strongly to be second to Goldencents. Bern Identity could be a major player in the Triple Crown drama, and he appears to be training sharply for his return to competition in the Holy Bull. His trainer, Kelly Breen, said in fact that Bern Identity is training as well as he ever has.

13. Dewey Square
Record: 3-2-0-1
Earnings / Derby points: $71,498 / 2
Sire: Bernardini
Trainer: Dale Romans

After winning his first two races by a total of nearly 16 lengths, he finished third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes despite racing wide around both turns. It was, frankly, a slow race; nevertheless, Dewey Square not only overcame his trip but he also galloped out powerfully beyond the winner. His trainer, Dale Romans, said the colt is training sharply for his return in the Holy Bull.

14. Itsmyluckyday
Record: 8-4-1-1
Earnings / Derby points: $185,600 / 0
Sire: Lawyer Ron
Trainer: Edward Plesa, Jr.

He overwhelmed a decent group of horses when he romped by nearly seven lengths in the Gulfstream Park Derby. Was that a fluke? Can he possibly duplicate that effort? His trainer, Eddie Plesa Jr., said the Lawyer Ron colt has progressed faster than expected. But can he continue that progress? He'll provide some answers Saturday in the Holy Bull Stakes.

15. Frac Daddy
Record: 3-1-2-0
Earnings / Derby points: $80,116 / 4
Sire: Scat Daddy
Trainer: Kenny McPeek

After a fast maiden victory by nearly 10 lengths, he finished second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, bumping with Uncaptured through the stretch. Having raced only three times, Frac Daddy has plenty of room to develop and mature, starting perhaps Saturday, when he, too, is set to return to competition in the Holy Bull Stakes.

16. Dynamic Sky
Record: 5-2-1-1
Earnings / Derby points: $248,115 / 4
Sire: Sky Mesa
Trainer: Mark Casse

After a nightmarish trip, he finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, about five lengths behind the champion, and so, as his trainer said, if you believe in Shanghai Bobby you have to believe in this horse, too. And Dynamic Sky justified that belief in the recent Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay, where he waited behind horses, swung to the outside and then surged to victory. He still "doesn't have a clue," Casse said, but the long-striding, good-looking colt, could return to the classroom in the Fountain of Youth.

17. Fury Kapcori
Record: 5-2-2-0
Earnings / Derby points: $221,000 / 4
Sire: Tiznow
Trainer: Jerry Hollendorfer

He set a lively pace in the CashCall Futurity and held on gamely, losing by about a length to Violence, and it was another 2 1/2 lengths back to third. Fury Kapcori appears to be training sharply for his return, possibly in the Robert B. Lewis.

18. Oxbow
Record: 6-2-0-1
Earnings / Derby points: $217,500 / 11
Sire: Awesome Again
Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas

From the family of Tiznow and Paynter, with a Hall of Fame trainer, Oxbow has the potential to be one of the stars of the division, and he began to fulfill that potential last Saturday in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, where he won by more than 11 lengths, completing the mile and 70 yards in 1:43.30, which was about 8 1/2 lengths faster than the fillies' race, the Silverbulletday Stakes. (Touch Magic won in 1:45.) For his next start, Oxbow could return to Fair Grounds for the Risen Star or remain at Oaklawn Park for the Rebel Stakes.

19. Balance The Books
Record: 4-2-1-1
Earnings / Derby points: $326,000 / 0
Sire: Lemon Drop Kid
Trainer: Chad Brown

He gave one the best performances of any American 2-year-old in the Breeders' Cup, finishing third in the Juvenile Turf despite lacking room down the stretch. Although he never has raced on dirt, he's by a sire who earned $3,245,370 while competing exclusively on the main track. And so Balance The Books' pedigree suggests at least the possibility of a move to the dirt.

20. Revolutionary
Record: 4-1-1-2
Earnings / Derby points: $68,500 / 0
Sire: War Pass
Trainer: Todd Pletcher

He's obviously no scholar -- he did everything wrong in his first three races -- but he could develop into a racehorse. When he finally got the hang of this game, he won by more than eight lengths in a fast clocking. But did he really get the hang of it, or was his performance just one of those stunning and surprising outcroppings that sometimes show up on Aqueduct's inner track? Hard to say. Revolutionary worked a half-mile Sunday at Belmont.