Coady Photography

Brody’s Cause – Coady Photography

Fellowship has a new trainer, Exaggerator a new identity, Danzing Candy a new set of vulnerabilities, and the Top 20 a new number 1. The Kentucky Derby picture is starting to get into focus. It’s a week or two away from clarity, but it’s getting there.

Twenty horses will run in the Derby — or at least 20 will be entered. That’s the new Kentucky Derby. In a post-Mine That Bird world, everybody, or nearly everybody, wants to take a shot. It’s the same in racing as in politics and, well, just about everything else: Self-delusion rules. It’s not just febrile extravagance. Horsemen have always succumbed to the Rose Fever, and for many years owners have sent their horses into the Derby in service to their own egos. That hasn’t changed, but this has. More than ever they think can win.

Actually, though, at this point only six horses are within reach of the kind of effort that typically wins a Kentucky Derby. Not 20. That isn’t saying only six horses can win it, for, as we all know, anything can happen. Rain can fall as if from some ruptured cerulean ocean; wind can swirl and reverse and do wheelies all over the racetrack; Martians can land in the infield at Churchill Downs, hypnotize everybody watching and convince them with overpowering subconscious suggestions that a 3-year-old gelding named Spaceman’sprospects won the Derby.

Nevertheless, with just a week of preparatory racing left, the Kentucky Derby winner will probably come from a cohort of six. Exaggerator has joined the group. In fact, to gain entrance he kicked the door down as if he were a member of a S.W.A.T. team. His victory in the Santa Anita Derby immediately became the best performance in a two-turn race this season by a 3-year-old. But was it all improvement, or did the track condition — a splashy afternoon at Water World — contribute to it? Probably. But he improved, too. And the performance was outstanding. He ran the second half-mile about four lengths faster than the first, and he charged through the fourth quarter-mile in 24.28 seconds.

Mor Spirit just seemed to go through the motions. He indeed ran like a horse that didn’t care for the surface. And Danzing Candy was downright frightening — and possibly frightened, too. He ran so fast early — it was also the fastest-paced Derby prep, by far — he had little late. And his restive behavior didn’t inspire confidence either. Danzing Candy has the talent to win the Kentucky Derby, but he might not have the mind for it.

As for the other preps, Brody’s Cause returned to Kentucky, and it’s probably no coincidence that he also returned to form in the Blue Grass Stakes. He ran the turn well — always a virtue for horses looking at the Derby — and he finished strongly. The race wasn’t especially fast, but this was only his second start of the year; Brody’s Cause could step forward again at Churchill. And at Aqueduct in New York, Outwork won the Wood Memorial in part because nobody else wanted to. He ran the final three furlongs through the mud and slop in 40.61 seconds and still won. Don’t misunderstand: It was an admirable effort for such an inexperienced horse in the worst conditions; he showed grit and courage and determination. But the race was sedate, its final furlongs dawdling — it was slower even than Lewis Bay’s winning time in the Gazelle Stakes — and so the Wood will have to remain, at least for the moment, something of an enigma. But if Martians can land in the Churchill infield, then a horse out of this Wood Memorial can win the Derby.

And so here’s the Top 20 on the road to the Kentucky Derby

  1. Nyquist

Trainer: Doug O’Neill

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 7—7-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 130

Comment: Nyquist does nothing but win. And in doing so, the champion has displayed courage, determination and versatility. But, frankly, it’s an ergonomic opinion, and perhaps a fleeting one, that puts him at the top of this list. Although it almost seems apostasy to question the likelihood of his winning the Kentucky Derby — the likelihood, not his talent — reasons exist for skepticism. First, there’s his pedigree. It doesn’t scream, or even mumble inarticulately, anything about classic potential. His sire, Uncle Mo, himself a precocious champion, never won beyond 1 1/16 miles and finished 10th in his only race at 1 1/4 miles, the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Nyquist’s dam, Seeking Gabrielle, won only once in her career, and that was in a maiden-claiming affair at three-quarters of a mile. And so Nyquist’s dosage index, which is roughly the ratio of speed to stamina in a pedigree, is 7.00, suggesting it’s laden with speed. And then there’s the recent Florida Derby. Nyquist cruised along without feeling a threatening challenge, Mohaymen capitulated without offering a sincere protest and the anticipated “clash of Titans” clanged. Trainers want and even look for easy races. But was the Florida Derby altogether too easy? It wasn’t a fast race; it wasn’t challenging or demanding. Nyquist did only what was necessary. But did he benefit from the Florida Derby in a way that will propel him forward? Just a day after his million-dollar victory, he traveled to Keeneland. An elevated white blood cell count, however, prevented him from returning to the track when expected. The problem didn’t seem serious; he lost only four days of training and reportedly went back to the track, Keeneland’s main one in this case, on Monday. But the skepticism remains, and only a superb performance in the Derby will dispel it.

  1. Exaggerator

Trainer: Keith Desormeaux

Sire: Curlin

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 9—4-2-1

Kentucky Derby points: 126

Comment: Exaggerator gave what was arguably the best performance of the season when he won Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. His charge from next-to-last to first in about a quarter-mile was scintillating. As Santa Anita announcer Michael Wrona said, Exaggerator swept by the leaders “like they were tied to the rail.” And in doing so, he improved about four lengths beyond his San Felipe effort and joined the rather small group of horses that are within reach of the sort of performance that will win the Kentucky Derby. But was that genuine improvement, or was it a consequence of circumstances? Probably some of both. The Santa Anita surface was a watery gruel. It was just the sort of track that Curlin, Exaggerator’s sire, ran over when winning the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic and, the next year, the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Did Exaggerator inherit his sire’s affinity for sloppy conditions? It would seem so. His jockey, Kent Desormeaux, explained afterwards that the late-charging colt “enjoyed the mud.” If rain falls on the Derby, Exaggerator would become a probable winner. But it wasn’t all about the mud. The Desormeaux brothers also agreed that Exaggerator exuded confidence going into the race, and the way he ran around the second turn added to the impression that he took a step forward. (He ran the fourth quarter-mile in 24.28 seconds and the second half-mile in 47.76.) Most Kentucky Derbies are won with a powerful move around the second turn, and that’s where this colt excels. Exaggerator has lost to Nyquist three times, but the distance of the Derby — or perhaps a muddy track — could tilt the advantage the other way.

  1. Mor Spirit

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Sire: Eskendereya

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 7—3-4-0

Kentucky Derby points: 84

Comment: Gary Stevens, Mor Spirit’s Hall of Fame jockey, said the long-striding colt got “hit with the first wave of mud going into the first turn” of the Santa Anita Derby, and from that moment on he just “slipped” around there. Mor Spirit had trained superbly, even sensationally, going into the race, and so his performance would have been shocking if not for the conditions. As it was, the sloppy surface probably explains the lackluster effort. Strange, isn’t it, to describe a runner-up effort in a million-dollar race as “lackluster.” But it was. He ran without purpose or determination. Will the unique confluence of circumstances — the frenetic run to the first turn through a tunnel of noise, the large field and the classic distance —  change all that and bring out the best in Mor Spirit? Will he step forward in Kentucky? In his three races this year, he has run well, hinting at but failing to deliver a leap to the next level of performance. From here, he looks like a colt that’s poised to take that leap in his next outing.

  1. Destin

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Giant’s Causeway

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—3-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 51

Comment: Here’s something you’re likely to hear over and over Derby week: Needles was the last Kentucky Derby winner that didn’t have a prep race in April, and that was 60 years ago. He won the Florida Derby on March 24, 1956, and in his next start, on May 5, rallied from 16th in a field of 17 to win the Derby as the 8-5 favorite. And then, with a little inductive-deductive action, many pseudo-polemicists will eagerly jump to a specious conclusion, their implied syllogism going something like this: Modern racehorses can’t win the Kentucky Derby without a prep race in April; Destin didn’t race in April; therefore, Destin can’t win the Kentucky Derby. That sounds nice, but, well, the suggestion here is that you regard this latest argument to be just another reminder that flapdoodle isn’t confined to the campaigns of presidential candidates or to the muck buckets in stable areas. Recent years have blown apart many of the old a priori assumptions about the Kentucky Derby, and Destin could atomize this one. He’ll enter the Derby after a break of eight weeks. But before you dismiss him as a Derby contender, you might want to consider two facts. First, 13 horses have won the Derby in their seasonal debut, including the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton. In other words, in the larger historical context, recent activity isn’t essential for Derby success. Second, and of most importance, this is Todd Pletcher’s game. This is his strikeout pitch. This approach requires the meticulous, calculated strategy that Pletcher prefers. And it’s an approach with which he excels. Since 2010, Pletcher has won 706 races with horses returning in one-to-three months, according to Equibase. That’s 706 winners from 2,887 starters, or more than 24 percent. He’s even better with horses who return after longer layoffs of three months or more — 172 winners, or more than 27 percent. Bottom line: Don’t worry about the layoff; don’t bother counting the weeks. Destin just might run — he probably will run — the race of his life in the Derby. The essential questions should whether that will be enough and whether he’ll get the kind of trip he needs to succeed. Maybe it will, and maybe he will. Destin has improved quickly and dramatically, proclaiming himself to be a serious Triple Crown candidate with his victory in the Tampa Bay Derby. Yes, 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. By any measure, it ranks among the best performances this year by a 3-year-old. Last Friday he worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:01.04 seconds at Palm Beach Downs.

  1. Cupid

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Sire: Tapit

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—2-1-0

Kentucky Derby Points: 50

Comment: Cupid could easily sit atop this list. He appears to be one of the most talented 3-year-olds in the country, and he probably raises fewer questions and has fewer weaknesses than most horses on the road to Kentucky. But he also has fewer accomplishments, with only one trophy on his mantel. And so at this point, to put him atop the list might be to project too much based on too little. But he could sit there next week if he performs up to expectations in the Arkansas Derby. From California, he’s to arrive Wednesday at Oaklawn Park, where four weeks ago, in only the fourth outing of his career, he recovered from a slow start and a frisson of rail-diving erraticism to win the Rebel Stakes. 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. And Cupid, who’s a late foal (May 19), appears to be improving and maturing at just the right time. Last week, back home at Santa Anita, he turned in a jaw-dropping seven-furlong move. He began the workout several lengths behind Toews On Ice, a multiple stakes winner of $245,700. Gradually, Cupid advanced, eating away at his stablemate’s lead, racing in about the four path around the turn and getting to within a couple lengths at the top of the stretch. Without a great deal of encouragement, just outside the sixteenth pole, Cupid caught his workmate and drew clear, completing the seven-eighths of a mile in 1:24.60. Toews On Ice was credited with 1:26. That same morning, Santa Anita Handicap winner Melatonin prepared for the upcoming Oaklawn Handicap by working the same distance in 1:27.60. And Tuesday, a day before he was to travel to Oaklawn, Cupid worked an easy half-mile in 48.20 seconds. His Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, said he liked what he saw. A field of 12 is expected for the Arkansas Derby.

  1. Danzing Candy

Trainer: Clifford Sise

Sire: Twirling Candy

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—3-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 60

Comment: Antsy in the gate prior to the start of the Santa Anita Derby, Danzing Candy left there like a popped champagne cork. And then he ran the opening half-mile in 45.24 seconds. After that, he virtually had no chance of winning. He had tossed down some quick opening fractions (46.11) on his way to winning the San Felipe, but he moved with controlled rhythm; this was headlong, breakneck speed of a different sort. When adjusted for the track and the run to the first turn, Danzing Candy’s opening half-mile Saturday was 4.25 lengths faster than his opening half-mile in the San Felipe. At three-quarters of a mile (1:10.12), the difference was six lengths. And so at the top of the Santa Anita stretch, spent from his high-speed efforts, Danzing Candy shortened stride noticeably; he didn’t switch from his left to this right lead until mid-stretch; and then at the wire he checked in a badly beaten fourth. Danzing Candy has talent in abundance. But his love affair with the early lead and with speed raises many questions, as does his performance Saturday. If he was restive at Santa Anita on a day when showers drove much of the crowd inside, what will he be like at Churchill Downs when a band plays and a crowd of 150,000 crackles with anticipation? If he was antsy in the gate with a field of eight, what will he be like in a field of 20, especially if he has to wait for any extended period? And what will he do when he sees a straightaway-drag strip of five-sixteenths of a mile between himself and Churchill’s first turn? His trainer, Clifford Sise, hasn’t committed the colt to the Derby. He’s weighing a tough decision, with weighty arguments on both sides.

  1. Outwork

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—3-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 120

Comment: The Wood Memorial was a tale of two halves. Outwork, who raced three-wide through the slop and around the first turn, battled with Matt King Coal through the first half-mile in 46.93 seconds. They took their confrontation around the second turn and into the stretch. And there everything fell apart. Matt King Coal surrendered, Flexibility retreated, Shagaf had nothing. And even though Outwork ran the second half-mile in 51.59 seconds and then the final furlong in 14.02 seconds, he and John Velazquez somehow won the Wood Memorial: by a head over an 81-1 long shot named Trojan Nation, a maiden who saved ground for the entire journey and rallied from last when everybody else was looking for a Barcalounger. But what should you make of Outwork’s victory? It’s also a tale of two perspectives. On the one hand, he battled with a very nice colt for nearly a mile and never relented although wide around both turns; then he had enough left to withstand a late challenge and win in a photo. And this he did on a wet and miserable day in only his fourth start after traveling to New York from Florida. When looked at like that, Outwork’s Wood Memorial performance was remarkable. Then again, he trundled through the fourth quarter-mile in 26.59 seconds and completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:52.92. It was the slowest Wood ever. And if that isn’t sufficient context, try this: Two races earlier at Aqueduct, on an equally sloppy surface, Lewis Bay won the Gazelle Stakes in 1:52.60. She ran faster than Outwork, and in three weeks, Lewis Bay won’t even be among the favorites in the Kentucky Oaks. Outwork has accomplished a great deal in a short time, stretching out from three-quarters of a mile to 1 1/16 miles and then to 1 1/8 miles. And in winning the Wood, he accomplished something his more celebrated sire, Uncle Mo, failed to do. It’s probably best to remember that Outwork ran his rivals off their feet in the Wood, but if you’re looking ahead to Kentucky you can’t forget that he slowly crept home.

  1. Gun Runner

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Sire: Candy Ride

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—4-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 151

Comment: He’s at home at Churchill Downs, having taken up residence in the familiar barn of his trainer, Steve Asmussen. And Monday, Gun Runner put in his second workout there in as many weeks, an easy five-eighths of a mile in 1:01, with a final quarter-mile in 24.60 seconds, according to Churchill clockers; then he galloped out three-quarters of a mile in 1:14.20. With two or three more workouts at Churchill before the Derby, he could have something of a home field advantage. And so once again, he’s in the right place and quite possibly at the right time. Is that the secret to his success? You know people like this, guys whose blind luck and good fortune always put them in a perfect position to succeed. Or is it talent that puts them there, subtle and unassuming talent? No sparkle, just wins. With Florent Geroux riding, Gun Runner had another nearly perfect trip when he won the Louisiana Derby. It was much like the Risen Star. Right place, right time, right result. He saved ground before angling off the rail to charge down the lane, and then he ran the fourth quarter-mile in 25.08 seconds to win 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 relatively 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 has sufficient speed and athleticism to put himself in position to succeed. It’s not luck; it’s talent. He always ensures a good trip for himself, he has moved steadily forward, he’s in familiar surroundings and training over a familiar racetrack and so he should be approaching a peak effort. But is he as fast and talented as the horses that top the Top 20 list? The answer will come on May 7.

  1. Mo Tom

Trainer: Tom Amoss

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 7—3-0-3

Kentucky Derby points: 32

Comment: Having traveled from New Orleans to Louisville, Mo Tom will have his first workout at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, and he should appreciate the new surroundings. His luck had gone sour in New Orleans — his racing luck, that is. He had become something of a Tom Sawyer, seemingly always in trouble. 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 also had a troubled trip when third in the Risen Star Stakes. To some degree, Mo Tom brings the bad luck and the trouble on himself. His charge-from-the-back style always leaves him vulnerable to traffic congestion and wide trips, dependent, too, on pace. He needs a fast pace to be effective and then a clean trip and  some racing luck. But he deserves a spot in the Derby starting gate and a chance to see if his luck turns. He’ll be an intriguing Derby long shot.

  1. Mohaymen

Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin

Sire: Tapit

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—5-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 80

Comment: Mohaymen’s reputation had another bad week. Zulu, who ran second to Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth, finished 12th as the favorite in the Blue Grass. And Flexibility, who ran second to Mohaymen in both the Nashua and the Remsen, finished seventh of eight in the Wood Memorial. And so the horses that finished behind Mohaymen in his four stakes victories continue to perform below expectations, which, of course, has to make you wonder — or at least should — just how strong those victories were. After he finished fourth as the favorite in the Florida Derby, Mohaymen’s bandwagon began to vacate, and although it’s not yet empty, many seats are suddenly available. Actually, though, while his disappointing performance probably punctured an ill-conceived belief or two, his effort was actually better than it might first seem. From the moment Takeittotheedge stumbled at the start, leaving Nyquist to grab an early advantage, Mohaymen’s chances of winning the Florida Derby began a descent, and from there they gathered momentum in a relentless roll downhill, all the way to fourth. A little wide in the first turn and a little wide in the second, he got floated even wider at the top of the lane. But he didn’t have the punch or the talent to outrun the trouble, and he never looked as if he might threaten. Yes, with his wide trip, he spotted Nyquist about six lengths, but Mohaymen finished more than eight lengths back. He simply wasn’t good enough, not on this day over that surface. But he’ll be a better racehorse for the experience and could even rebound with a good effort in the Derby.

  1. Brody’s Cause

Trainer: Dale Romans

Sire: Giant’s Causeway

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—3-0-1

Kentucky Derby points: 114

Comment: Brody’s Cause has won three races in his career, and two of them he won at Keeneland, including, of course, Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes. Brody’s Cause, of course, concluded his juvenile campaign at Keeneland by finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup, and so expectations were high for him when the year began. In his seasonal debut, however, in the Tampa Bay Derby, he finished seventh. But that version on display in the Blue Grass — that was the Brody’s Cause everyone expected to see this year. The winner of last year’s Breeders’ Futurity, he obviously loves Keeneland. And Saturday, with his return to Keeneland, he returned to form. With Luis Saez riding, Brody’s Cause rallied behind a lively pace and advanced steadily around the second turn and into the stretch. He ran the fourth quarter-mile in 24.62 seconds and the final furlong in 12.94, drawing clear to win by almost two lengths. Although he raced a little wide in the second turn, he enjoyed a trouble-free trip for the most part and probably benefited from a surface that seemed to favor late-running types. And, oh yes, that other victory of his — it was at Churchill Downs.

  1. Suddenbreakingnews

Trainer: Donnie Von Hemel

Sire: Mineshaft

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 7—3-3-0

Kentucky Derby points: 10

Comment: Suddenbreakingnews finished fifth as the 5-2 favorite in the Rebel Stakes, but he could be Cupid’s most serious threat Saturday in the Arkansas Derby. When he won the Southwest Stakes, Suddenbreakingnews took advantage of a good trip, rallying strongly behind a lively pace. But the long-legged gelding had a dramatically different experience in the Rebel. When he attempted to rally in the second turn, he found himself blocked in 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. Last Saturday at Oaklawn, Suddenbreakingnews worked a half-mile in 48.40 seconds.

  1. Whitmore

Trainer: Ron Moquett

Sire: Pleasantly Perfect

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—2-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 24

Comment: Also preparing for the Arkansas Derby, while with a maiden named Regulatory, Whitmore turned in what his trainer, Ron Moquett, described as a “cliche” workout last Saturday. It was “exactly what we wanted,” he said about the move in 48.80 seconds. And it no doubt was. Whitmore is a very nice, hard-trying youngster who deserves a stakes victory. But he just might be a rung or two below the top horses of his generation; even more, he might not be at his best distance Saturday in the Arkansas Derby. In the Rebel, at the top of the stretch, he momentarily looked like he would get that elusive stakes win. With Irad Ortiz, Jr., keeping him clear, Whitmore had moved strongly into contention; he had aim on Cupid. In mid-stretch, with plenty of momentum, Whitmore even drew up alongside the leader. But then Cupid refocused and drew clear. As it turned out, Whitmore gave a terrific effort behind one of the most talented 3-year-olds in the country. He’ll probably give another solid effort Saturday, and that could suffice to get him into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, but probably not into the winner’s circle.

  1. Unbridled Outlaw

Trainer: Dale Romans

Sire: Unbridled’s Song

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—1-1-2

Kentucky Derby points: 2

Comment: The Arkansas Derby represents his only chance to get the points necessary to qualify in Kentucky. And his trainer, Dale Romans, will no doubt have Unbridled Outlaw ready for a big effort Saturday. He’ll be an intriguing long shot possibility. So far, Unbridled Outlaw’s career has been about as adventurous and hazardous as a trek along the Oregon Trail. But make no mistake, this is a very talented colt. Injured coming out of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he returned to competition at Oaklawn Park on the day of the Rebel Stakes, in an earlier race on the card, against older horses. Fresh from the long layoff, with Corey Lanerie riding, Unbridled Outlaw jumped out to an early lead, still ran his fourth quarter-mile in 24.82 seconds and then tired in the final sixteenth, finishing second. It was the first time he ever had a good trip; it was also an encouraging performance in a relatively fast race. Unbridled Outlaw just might possess enough talent to become a significant player in the division this year, and in the Arkansas Derby he’ll get his first chance to make some noise. Last Saturday at Gulfstream Park, he worked an easy five-eighths of a mile in 1:01.14. He’s to arrive at Oaklawn Park on Tuesday.

  1. My Man Sam

Trainer: Chad Brown

Sire: Trappe Shot

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—1-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 40

Comment: In only his fourth career start, with Julien Leparoux riding him for the first time, My Man Sam rallied from last, raced wide in the second turn, even wider into the stretch and got up to finish second in the Blue Grass Stakes. And despite giving up some real estate, he finished less than two lengths behind the winner. My Man Sam at this point is more exciting than successful, which is to say he does most of his serious running in the stretch. He actually ran the final three-eighths of a mile of the Blue Grass a little faster than Brody’s Cause. While that style seldom wins the Kentucky Derby, it often produces a consolation prize.

  1. Lani

Trainer: Mikio Matsunaga

Sire: Tapit

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—3-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 100

Comment: Lani arrived at Churchill Downs last week to begin preparing for the Derby. No matter how talented he might be, this represents a huge challenge, traveling halfway around the world into a completely unfamiliar environment and into a foreign setting to compete at the highest level. His connections deserve kudos for their sporting spirit. And the handsome gray colt from Japan — who’s out of a Sunday Silence mare (Heavenly Romance), by the way — will probably have quite a following at Churchill. But can Lani be a contender? With Yutaka Take riding him in the $2 million UAE Derby, Lani stumbled to his knees at the start, 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. In other words, Lani overcame considerable trouble to win. But the race was slow. Because some known quantities raced that day in Dubai, analyzing the UAE Derby isn’t quite as problematic as it might first seem. Relying on California Chrome and Hoppertunity as a metric, or standard, can provide a general impression of how fast and how good Lani might be. Well, the impression isn’t altogether positive, but nor is it conclusive. He needed 1:58.41 to complete the 1900 meters, which means he performed at a level that was roughly two-to-three lengths slower than Unbridled Outlaw’s in his seasonal debut, but, again, Lani overcame trouble. But even if his talent were a match for the best horses on this list, 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. Only eight horses that had been competing exclusively outside of North America have even raced in the Kentucky Derby: Dr. Devious finished seventh in 1992; Thyer 13th in 1992; Citadeed ninth in 1995; Ski Captain 14th in 1995; China Visit sixth in 2000; Curule seventh in 2000; Castle Gandolfo 12th in 2002; and Mubtaahij eighth last year. Like Lani, Ski Captain was based in Japan. (Venezuela’s Canonero II and Puerto Rico’s Bold Forbes both raced in America as juveniles and, of course, both won the Kentucky Derby. When the English colt Bold Arrangement traveled here in 1986, he first raced in the Blue Grass before finishing second in the Derby.)

  1. Fellowship

Trainer: Mark Casse

Sire: Awesome of Course

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 11—2-3-3

Kentucky Derby points: 32

Comment: “He’s on the van right now, headed to Kentucky,” Mark Casse said Tuesday morning, “along with Awesome Banner.” Fellowship joined Casse’s stable this week, and the colt’s new trainer is hopeful that they can make an impact in Kentucky. Fellowship finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes, third in the Fountain of Youth and third again in the Florida Derby, where he raced wide in the second turn and finished just 4 1/4 lengths behind Nyquist. “He has been running well on a surface that didn’t necessarily favor his running style,” Casse said, referring to Gulfstream Park. “And we think Churchill Downs could be more favorable for him. Crazier things have happened.” Indeed they have. Fellowship is consistent and hard-trying, and even if “crazier things” don’t happen on May 7, he could be just the sort of horse that closes late to get one of minor prizes or, from a bettor’s perspective, completes the superfecta.

  1. Cherry Wine

Trainer: Dale Romans

Sire: Paddy O’Prado

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 8—2-1-2

Kentucky Derby points: 25

Comment: With 25 points, can Cherry Wine get in the Derby? Maybe. It helps his chances that Uncle Lino won’t run in Kentucky. His trainer, Gary Sherlock, made that announcement — and from here, it looks like a wise decision — Sunday, a day after Uncle Lino ran courageously to finish third in the Santa Anita Derby. Uncle Lino is a capable and talented racehorse who might have a lucrative rewarding campaign if he stays away from the leaders of the division. So bypassing the Derby, from this perspective, is wise. Some others might be smart to follow his example. But, to look at this from the other side, why would the colt’s connections want to run a horse such as Cherry Wine in the Derby, a horse that, yes, rallied to finish third in the Blue Grass but, still, will probably be close to 50-1 in the Derby? He’s clearly talented, but just as clearly not as talented as the leaders of the division. And, yes, crazy things sometimes happen, but Cherry Wine probably isn’t going to slip surreptitiously beneath that famous blanket of roses. So why run in the Derby, a race that’s so demanding and so stressful that many horses need additional time just to recover from it? Some horses never seem to get over it. Why run if there’s no real and genuine chance of winning? Well, it’s the Derby. This is the mountain everybody in the sport aspires to climb; this is the Grail that transforms every owner, trainer, jockey and fan into a Percival; this is the moment that delivers the sport into the cultural mainstream. Moreover, the Derby challenges competitors of all sorts to reach for new heights, and as a result many horses run the best races of their lives there. And some, even those that don’t necessarily have the talent to challenge for the roseate blanket, can be challenged to reach a new level of performance, a place they might only go to once in their lives, but one that allows them to grab a minor award. It’s the Derby, and there’s no other race like it or even close. That’s why.

  1. Majesto

Trainer: Gustavo Delgado

Sire: Tiznow

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—1-2-2

Kentucky Derby points: 40

Comment: While Nyquist was drifting out, Majesto and jockey Javier Castellano cut the corner and got up for second in the Florida Derby. He’s another who’s basically playing for a consolation prize, but the long-striding colt seems to be improving. Even more, the son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow looks like he could continue improving with more distance.

  1. Shagaf

Trainer: Chad Brown

Sire: Bernardini

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—3-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 50

Comment: Except for a little bump at the top of the stretch, Shagaf had a perfect trip in the Wood Memorial. He didn’t get involved in the hot pace, he saved ground and he found running room in the lane. He had every opportunity to win; all he had to do was run the final three-eighths of a mile in about 39 seconds and he would have won by daylight. But he had little to offer when clear, and so he finished fifth, four lengths behind the winner. Yes, perhaps he didn’t like the sloppy-saturated Aqueduct surface. But at some point even the most steadfast credulity must yield to the evidence. And at this point, although Shagaf has sufficient points to reserve a spot for himself in the Derby starting gate, he doesn’t appear capable of competing with the best of his generation.