Everything was awkward. It was an awkward place on the calendar, too close and too far away, all at the same time, outside the Goldilocks Zone but surrounding it on all sides. Lani left the gate awkwardly, stumbling and shambling. The long-striding, gray colt still won the UAE Derby, but his victory, although rich in cash and points, seemed rather like some of these presidential campaigns, awkwardly lacking in substance. And at the Fair Grounds racetrack, Mo Tom’s charge down the long stretch ended abruptly and awkwardly, as if he disappeared into one of those potholes on Esplanade Avenue. As he watched, Mo Tom’s trainer, Tom Amoss, must have felt as if he were engulfed by some awkward miasma or voodoo vapor. First there was the trouble in the Risen Star and now this. A New Orleans native and one of the Fair Grounds’ all-time leaders, he saw his best chance of winning this race he had been following since boyhood swirl in an awkward wad down into oblivion. And Corey Lanerie, Mo Tom’s jockey, must have felt bludgeoned by all the awkwardness. Just as he sent the Louisiana Derby favorite inside of the awkwardly stopping early leader, a hole opened to the outside and Candy My Boy shunted his awkwardness to the inside and — well, it was all so awkward that Lanerie and Amoss and Mo Tom lost all chance. The door slammed, as you might expect, awkwardly. And resoundingly.

With all the awkwardness in the air, Gun Runner might deserve extra credit, cherry-topped kudos, for his performance in New Orleans that day. Eager at the start, he quickly settled for Florent Geroux. They followed Candy My Boy, who set moderate fractions (48.24 for the opening half-mile) down the backstretch and into the second turn, where they eased off the rail and into the clear. The race over, the outcome inevitable. Gun Runner ran the fourth quarter-mile over the somewhat dull surface in 25.08 seconds to move clear by more than two lengths. He won by 4 1/2 over Tom’s Ready, with Dazzling Gem third and Mo Tom somehow getting up for fourth.

The race wasn’t fast. Gun Runner completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.06. In winning the New Orleans Handicap three races earlier, S’maverlous ran a full second faster. And although Gun Runner might have been a little green down the lane, he didn’t have to overcome any trouble. His trip was smooth, like a street car’s journey down St. Charles Avenue. As a result, there will be a temptation to devalue the victory. At the very least, it’s difficult, even impossible, to say how good Gun Runner might be.

At this point, he hasn’t shown himself to be as fast or as talented as some on the road to Kentucky. But he’s an athlete, he’s still learning and improving, and he can take big step forward over the next few weeks.

And so the road to Kentucky leaves the land of awkwardness and, its eternally circuitous and baffling way, veers in a southeasterly direction to the land of sunshine and showdown. Nyquist and Mohaymen are to meet Saturday, of course, in the Florida Derby. The winner will become the clear favorite in many minds for the Kentucky Derby.

Also this weekend, Turfway Park anticipates having a large field for the Spiral Stakes. Among those expected are Airoforce, Kasseopia, Azar, Ralis, Strike Up The Band and That Makes Sense.

The top 20 on the road to the Kentucky Derby

  1. Danzing Candy

Trainer: Clifford Sise

Sire: Twirling Candy

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—3-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 50

Comment: Danzing Candy has the ability to distill the sport down to its most elemental question: Who’s fastest? And he seems eager to present himself as the embodied answer. In leading from the start to win the San Felipe, he gave the best two-turn performance of the year by a 3-year-old. And as he prepared for the upcoming Santa Anita Derby (April 9), he put his speed on display again last Saturday in a workout. Starting several lengths behind Far Out Kailee (1:00.20), his designated workmate, Danzing Candy zipped five-eighths of a mile in a bullet 58.60 seconds. His partner for the move was his Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith. Speed, as people are fond of pointing out, is always dangerous. Double that for unchallenged speed. The modern points criterion for determining the 20 starters in the Kentucky Derby virtually excludes pure sprinters from the first of the Triple Crown races, and so it’s reasonable to start wondering who has the speed, not to mention the willingness, to challenge Danzing Candy early at Churchill Downs.

  1. Mor Spirit

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Sire: Eskendereya

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—3-3-0

Kentucky Derby points: 44

Comment: Mor Spirit learned more in his San Felipe loss than in all his previous races put together, according to his Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens. Mor Spirit, of course, finished second in the San Felipe, but he had to race in traffic and check coming out of the first turn, and then he altered course down the lane. He finished two lengths back, but he actually traveled about two lengths farther than the winner. Joining Danzing Candy on the gallop-out, Mor Spirit appears to be the sort that could improve at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. In preparation for the Santa Anita Derby, he worked a half-mile last Thursday in 47.80 seconds.

  1. Nyquist

Trainer: Doug O’Neill

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—6-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 30

Comment: In preparation for Saturday’s Florida Derby showdown, Nyquist worked an easy five-eighths (1:03) last Friday at Santa Anita. He was to travel to Gulfstream Park on Monday. The flight, though, had to be moved to Tuesday. Still, he has a million reasons to travel across the country: With a victory in the Florida Derby, he’ll lay claim to a million-dollar bonus. So this is something more, much more, than a Derby prep for him and his connections. Although it’s not a well-traveled road — Kentucky via Florida from California — it’s not unprecedented. Correlation, Candy Spots, Croeso, Snow Chief and Empire Maker all traveled from California to win the Florida Derby. And Nyquist has both the credentials and talent to add his name to that list. He possesses considerable natural speed and, depending somewhat on the draw, could control the pace on Saturday. So from here, the champion juvenile of 2015 looks like the most likely winner of the Florida Derby. But, to look beyond Saturday, Nyquist’s ability to excel at a classic distance remains a sizable question. In fact, it’s even larger for him than for most of the horses on this list since his dam’s only victories were sprinting. Mario Guiterrez is the colt’s regular rider, and so this is the same team that won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another.

  1. Mohaymen

Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin

Sire: Tapit

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—5-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 70

Comment: Based in Florida, Mohaymen will have something of a home-field advantage in Saturday’s meeting of unbeaten colts. Last Thursday, in his third workout since he won the Fountain of Youth, Mohaymen prepared for the Florida Derby by cruising through a half-mile at Palm Meadows in 48.95 seconds. He’s a beautiful colt who’s both talented and tractable. The early bettors love him; he’s the 7-2 favorite in the Kentucky Derby Futures at the Wynn Race Book in Las Vegas. And as a $2.2 million yearling purchase, he’ll have the full-throated Derby support of every breeder in Kentucky who doesn’t have a horse in the race. From here, though, he doesn’t appear to have the natural speed of Danzing Candy or the gears of Mor Spirit. And there’s another concern, although, granted, it might possibly be a trivial one, an aphid on a rose petal: Since at least World War II, all the Derby winners but one had some experience racing in large fields of 10 or more horses before their roseate success in Kentucky. In 71 years, American Pharoah has been the only exception. Mohaymen will try to become the second. He defeated only five horses while winning the Holy Bull, five again while winning the Fountain of Youth. The Florida Derby, it seems, also will have a relatively small field of maybe seven or eight. How significant is this? Well, that’s hard, if not impossible, to say. It wasn’t much of a factor last year for a great horse with superlative talent. On the other hand, did their inexperience in dealing with large fields contribute to the Derby defeats of Curlin, Indian Charlie, Louis Quatorze, Strodes Creek, Soul of the Matter and many others? Maybe. And could the same inexperience compromise Mohaymen’s chances in Kentucky? Again, maybe. Junior Alvarado has ridden Mohaymen in all five of his races.

  1. Destin

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Giant’s Causeway

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—3-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 51

Comment: Like Cupid, Destin has improved significantly in a short time. He, of course, proclaimed himself to be a serious Triple Crown candidate in the Tampa Bay Derby, where he rose not just to a new level of performance but also to a new level of professionalism. With Javier Castellano riding, Destin enjoyed a perfect stalking trip, but the colt set a track record, running the fourth quarter-mile in a very solid 24.54 seconds and completing the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.82. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, explained that Destin will put in a workout Friday, as will Outwork and Zulu. After that, Pletcher said, explaining that he will keep them apart, he’ll decide where their next starts will be. Of course, with 51 points, Destin already has a reserved spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs for the Derby. And Pletcher has a history of success with fresh horses in stakes races.

  1. Cupid

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Sire: Tapit

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—2-1-0

Kentucky Derby Points: 50

Comment: Anybody who saw his recent victory in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park had to fall in love with Cupid. In only the fourth outing of his career, he recovered from a slow start, shot to the lead between horses, set a lively pace, and then, after veering in at the top of the stretch and losing his momentum, he refocused to draw clear in the final yards. At every point, the Rebel was the fastest two-turn race that day at Oaklawn. Cupid’s final time for the 1 1/16 miles, for example, was 1:43.84 compared to 1:44.12 for the older and more accomplished Upstart in the Razorback Handicap. Although he’s still green and inexperienced, Cupid insisted with his Oaklawn effort that he could develop into one of the division’s major talents. But will that development coincide with the Derby? He’s a very late foal (May 19), which suggests two possibilities: first, that he has plenty of potential to improve; and, second, that the next step forward might be a little farther down the road for him than for a few others. In racing’s modern era, only two Kentucky Derby winners, Thunder Gulch (May 23) and Northern Dancer (May 27), have had a later foaling date than Cupid’s. Already 18-1 in the Wynn Derby Futures, Cupid will return to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby, which will be run on April 16. It looks like Martin Garcia, who rode Dortmund to a third-place finish last year and was exemplary in his duties as a frequent exercise rider for American Pharoah, could have another very live Derby mount and another busy Triple Crown.

  1. Exaggerator

Trainer: Keith Desormeaux

Sire: Curlin

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 8—3-2-1

Kentucky Derby points: 26

Comment: Last after a half-mile in the San Felipe, Exaggerator ran the next quarter-mile in 23.54 seconds to reach contention. The folks at Santa Anita probably hadn’t seen anything that premature since their prom. And, of course, he couldn’t sustain the move; he checked in third. But he finished less than a length behind Mor Spirit and only 2 3/4 lengths behind Danzing Candy. In other words, with some development, some improved timing and the perfect circumstances, Exaggerator could compete with the leaders of the division and perhaps upset them. Still, he’s starting to look like the sort who, when facing the best, is always close, but seldom in the winner’s circle; he finished third in the San Felipe, second in the San Vicente and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup. On the other hand, his sire, Curlin, continued to improve throughout his 3-year-old campaign until he became Horse of the Year with a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory. Will Exaggerator continue to improve, too, for the Desormeaux brothers?

  1. Outwork

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—2-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 20

Comment: With the recent maiden winner Decorated Soldier, he worked a half-mile last Saturday in 48.25 seconds at Palm Beach Downs; and like Zulu and Destin, Outwork will have a workout Friday in Florida to determine his immediate future. Will he travel to Keeneland for the Blue Grass? He won his debut there a year ago. Or will he journey to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial? After all, he’s owned by a New Yorker. Outwork might not need any more points; 20 could suffice to get into the Derby. But he needs additional two-turn experience. All things considered, Outwork’s performance in the Tampa Bay Derby was nothing less than outstanding. Stretching out from three-quarters of a mile to 1 1/16 miles in only his third start, Outwork finished second behind a genuine Derby contender who was busy setting a track record. With John Velazquez riding, this son of Uncle Mo dug in gamely after setting the pace, but he just couldn’t stay with Destin in the final sixteenth of a mile and finished a length back. It was another seven lengths back to third. Outwork possesses considerable talent and could develop into a major player in the division, but for the moment he lacks experience. And then there’s the distance question. He’s a half-brother to the speedy Nonna’s Boy, and his dam, Nonna Mia, was at her best sprinting. Outwork’s pedigree is heavy with speed. In fact, his dosage index, which is roughly the ratio of speed to stamina influences in the first four generations, soars at 11.00.

  1. Gun Runner

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Sire: Candy Ride

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—4-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 151

Comment: With Florent Geroux riding, Gun Runner had another nearly perfect trip in the Louisiana Derby, saving ground before angling off the rail to charge down the lane, running the fourth quarter-mile in 25.08 seconds and winning by more than four lengths. He switched strides late, back to his left lead, and drifted in, probably more bored than tired; but then he galloped out strongly. The race, however, was slow (1:51.06 for the 1 1/8 miles), a full second slower than the New Orleans Handicap that was run a little earlier on the card. Could Gun Runner have gone much faster if pressured? Possibly, but if so, slightly. And so evaluating Gun Runner’s merit and Derby potential remains problematic. He’s the sort that has sufficient speed and athleticism to ensure a good trip for himself, and he has moved steadily forward. But is he as fast and talented as the horses that top this list? The answer will come in Kentucky.

  1. Zulu

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Bernardini

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—2-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 20

Comment: He put it an easy half-mile (49.43) work last Saturday. But he’s another from the Pletcher barn whose plans and schedule could hinge on Friday’s upcoming workout. Zulu is much like Outwork in terms of talent and experience. He has plenty of one, but needs plenty more of the other. Also like Outwork, in only his third start Zulu gave an admirable performance in a major stakes. Zulu, of course, finished second to Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth. He’ll skip the Florida Derby and instead focus on the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass or the Arkansas Derby for his final Derby prep. John Velazquez has ridden the colt in all his races.

  1. Mo Tom

Trainer: Tom Amoss

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 7—3-0-3

Kentucky Derby points: 32

Comment: If not for a troubled trip, he would have finished no worse than second in the Louisiana Derby. As it turned out, jockey Corey Lanerie had to stomp on the brakes for a sixteenth of a mile, and Mo Tom finished fourth as the 2-1 favorite. He, of course, also had a troubled trip when third in the Risen Star Stakes. His charge-from-the-back style will always leave him vulnerable, of course, but he has had more than his share of bad racing luck this year. His trainer, Tom Amoss, was, quite understandably, upset and disappointed that the colt didn’t have a chance to show his talent in the Fair Grounds’ showcase event. But Mo Tom will proceed to Kentucky, where a strung out field could allow him to find a running lane. Lanerie has ridden Mo Tom in six of his seven races, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the colt has a new partner in Kentucky.

  1. Flexibility

Trainer: Chad Brown

Sire: Bluegrass Cat

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—2-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 15

Comment: Flexibility continues to train steadily — and, it would appear, impressively — for his upcoming return to stakes competition. Saturday at Belmont Park, he worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:02.08. The runner-up in both the Nashua and the Remsen, Flexibility won the Jerome with a powerful effort, but then, four weeks later, he disappointed as the odds-on favorite in the Withers, where a slow pace could have compromised his chances. After running hard in four major stakes in three months, he got a break; his trainer, Chad Brown, indicated that indeed had always been the plan. So a rested and ready Flexibility is aimed at either the Wood Memorial or the Blue Grass, both run on April 9. He could be very tough in either race. Irad Ortiz, Jr., has ridden the colt in his last three races.

  1. Matt King Coal

Trainer: Linda Rice

Sire: Cool Coal Man

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—2-1-1

Kentucky Derby points: 0

Comment: On the Sunday following the Gotham, in his first start of the year, while returning from a four-month layoff, Matt King Coal gave an auspicious performance at Aqueduct. His victory, in fact, argued that he could be tough to beat in the Wood Memorial. Yes, he appeared to get a little weary in the final furlong, but he held on well and actually galloped out much more strongly than the charging runner-up, My Man Sam. A big strong colt who’s naturally fast and seems to possess a high cruising rhythm, Matt King Coal could be a player, but he’ll have only one chance to earn some Kentucky Derby points. J. L. Ortiz has ridden Matt King Coal in all his races.

  1. Suddenbreakingnews

Trainer: Donnie Von Hemel

Sire: Mineshaft

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 7—3-3-0

Kentucky Derby points: 10

Comment: Although he disappointed as the 5-2 favorite in the Rebel, finishing fifth, Suddenbreakingnews could be Cupid’s most serious threat in the Arkansas Derby. When he won the Southwest Stakes, Suddenbreakingnews enjoyed a perfect trip, rallying strongly behind a lively pace. But the long-legged gelding had a dramatically different experience in the Rebel. When he tried to rally in the second turn, he found himself blocked behind traffic and then virtually stopped. Checked sharply behind a rapidly retreating American Dubai, Suddenbreakingnews dropped back to 13th in the 14-horse field. He lost all chance at that point. Still, he rallied with energy and was beaten less than five lengths. Where would he have finished without the trouble? Hard to say, but he’ll be one to watch closely in the Arkansas Derby, where he’ll need to earn some points to punch his ticket to Kentucky. Luis Quinonez has ridden the gelding throughout his career.

  1. Whitmore

Trainer: Ron Moquett

Sire: Pleasantly Perfect

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—2-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 24

Comment: Whitmore looked like the Rebel winner when he turned into the stretch at Oaklawn Park. With Irad Ortiz, Jr., keeping him clear, Whitmore moved strongly into contention and had aim on Cupid. In mid-stretch, with plenty of momentum, Whitmore drew up alongside the leader. But then Cupid refocused and drew clear. Or did Whitmore come up empty in the final sixteenth of a mile? Either way, it offers little reason to believe Whitmore can turn the tables in the longer Arkansas Derby or threaten in Kentucky. He ran the best race of his career in the Rebel and continues to move forward, but some others are moving faster.

  1. Shagaf

Trainer: Chad Brown

Sire: Bernardini

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—3-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 50

Comment: With stablemate My Man Sam, who’s also possible for the Wood, Shagaf worked a bullet five-eighths of a mile last Saturday at Belmont Park in 1:00.10. Like a few horses on this list, Shagaf is light on experience. And because he won the Gotham on a biased surface in a modest clocking, his talent remains something of a mystery. How good is he? Or isn’t he? The Wood will probably provide the answers. Clearly he’s talented and tractable, but from here he looks like a colt that has a great deal to prove. Irad Ortiz, Jr., who could soon have to make some choices, has ridden Shagaf in all of the colt’s races.

  1. Unbridled Outlaw

Trainer: Dale Romans

Sire: Unbridled’s Song

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—1-1-2

Kentucky Derby points: 2

Comment: Injured coming out of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he returned to competition on Rebel day at Oaklawn Park. In an earlier race on the card, against older horses, he finished second, beaten nearly two lengths by Fourth Of July. Fresh from a long layoff, with Corey Lanerie riding, Unbridled Outlaw jumped out to an early lead, ran his fourth quarter-mile in 24.82 seconds and then tired in the final sixteenth of a mile. But it was another six lengths back to the third horse. The stakes winner Wolf Man Rocket finished fourth, 7 1/2 lengths behind the 3-year-old. A very talented colt, Unbridled Outlaw had nothing but bad luck and nightmarish trips as a juvenile. He could become a player in the division. He also could be a threat to upset in the Arkansas Derby.

  1. Airoforce

Trainer: Mark Casse

Sire: Colonel John

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—3-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 10

Comment: Having won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, Airoforce began the year as one of the most highly regarded Derby possibilities. And then, in his seasonal debut, at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, he finished 10th in the Risen Star Stakes. His performance was one of those too-awful-to-believe things, like chicken-fried lobster or the movie “Batman v. Superman.” And so his trainer, Mark Casse, sent Airoforce to Florida to recover from the experience and whatever else was bothering him. He recovered quickly. On March 17, at the Ocala Training Center, Airoforce worked five-eighths of a mile in 58.80 seconds. And last Saturday, also in Ocala, he worked a half-mile in 48.00 seconds. “His last two works were very good,” Casse said. They were so good, in fact, that they indicated the colt could get back on the road. He’ll return to competition Saturday, in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway.

  1. Adventist

Trainer: Leah Gyarmati

Sire: Any Given Saturday

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—1-0-2

Kentucky Derby points: 12

Comment: He worked a half-mile in 48.87 seconds last week at Belmont Park in preparation for the Wood Memorial. This colt is talented, but he hasn’t flipped the light switch yet. Or at least he still appeared to be in the dark when he ran in the Gotham, where he again ducked in from a right-handed whip. But he didn’t look quite as lost as he had in the stretch of the Withers. So he’s making progress. He might be a slow learner, but he’s learning. Significant improvement remains possible. But he needs to take that next step forward if he’s to threaten in the Wood. Kendrick Carmouche has been riding him.

  1. Lani

Trainer: Mikio Matsunaga

Sire: Tapit

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—3-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 100

Comment: He stumbled to his knees at the start of the UAE Derby, moved boldly on the backstretch, raced three-to-four wide in the second turn and then got up in the final yards, defeating the formerly unbeaten filly Polar River. Because of such known quantities as California Chrome and Hoppertunity in the World Cup later on the card, analyzing the UAE Derby isn’t quite as problematic as it might first seem. Basically, we know how fast and how good California Chrome and Hoppertunity are, and relying on them as a metric, or standard, can provide a general impression of how fast and how good Lani might be. Well, the impression isn’t positive, nor is it conclusive. He overcame trouble to win, but the performance — he ran the 1900 meters slowly, in 1:58.41 — didn’t suggest he’ll be a contender in Kentucky. Even more, history lines up solidly against him. No horse out of the UAE Derby has come close to winning in Kentucky, the best finish being Master of Hounds’ fifth in 2011.