Can this be the year the Dubai Dude finally gets it right at the Kentucky Derby?
Can three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert come up with a fourth?
Will the racing gods finally smile on Larry Jones, the cowboy-hatted horseman who has finished second the last two years with the ill-fated Eight Belles (2008) and Hard Spun (2007)?
These are some questions thoroughbred racing fans are asking as the calendar clicks to the final 12 weeks until the First Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
A total of 401 3-year-olds have been nominated for the 135th Run for the Roses on May 2 and most of the major prep races have yet to be run. These are the top 12 horses on this reporter's Derby Dozen list (with starts, wins, seconds, thirds, earnings, trainer and probable jockey).
1. Pioneerof the Nile (6-3-0-1, $664,200, Baffert, Garrett Gomez): Baffert lost out when Midshipman, the champion 2-year-old male of 2008, was sold to the Dubai-based stable of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. But then owner Amhed Zayat transferred this nice colt to Baffert from Billy Mott. In his first start for Baffert, Pioneerof the Nile won the $750,000 CashCall Futurity (formerly Hollywood Futurity) by a nose Dec. 20. ... In his 3-year-old debut, he won the 1 1/6 -mile Robert L. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. ... His next target is the March 14 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
2. Midshipman (4-3-1-0, $1,380,200, Saeed bin Suroor, TBA): His 1 1/4 -length victory in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita for Baffert earned this grandson of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled the Eclipse Award as 2-year-old male champion. ... Robert McNair, owner of the NFL's Houston Texans, last year sold this horse along with his entire racing operation to Sheikh Mohammed, who moved the colt to Dubai last fall. ... He is expected to make his 3-year-old debut March 5 in the Al Bastakiya Stakes in Dubai.
3. Old Fashioned (3-3-0-0, $173,280, Jones, Ramon Dominguez): Posted an easy front-running win in the 1 1/8 -mile Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. ... ESPN columnist Bill Finley, in late December had him listed as the No. 1 Derby contender and called him "unquestionably the best, the fastest and most talented 2-year-old in the country." Runs in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park today.
4. The Pamplemousse (4-2-0-1, $89,280, Julio Canani, Alex Solis): "The Grapefruit (in French)" wired a five-horse field that included Square Eddie, a one-time top contender, now injured, in the one-mile San Rafael Stakes on Jan. 17 at Santa Anita. Next up is the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 28.
5. Vineyard Haven (5-3-0-1, $431,335, Saeed bin Suroor, Ted Duncan): Rolled to a 5 3/4 -length victory in the $400,000 Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park in October before he was sold for a reported $12 million to Sheikh Mohammed, who has finished no better than sixth in five previous Derby attempts. ... Finished fourth in his 3-year-old debut in the United Arab Emirates 2,000 Guineas last Thursday.
6. Capt. Candyman Can (5-3-0-1, $211,645, Ian Wilkes, Julian Leparoux): Gelding scored an impressive three-length victory in the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 1. ... Leparoux did pilot him through a speedy mile in 1:35.16 and the son of Candy Ride was drawing off at the end, getting the last quarter-mile in 24.99 seconds. ... Trainer Wilkes is a former assistant to Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger. ... On Nov. 29, he had the lead going into the turn but faded to third against Beethoven in the 1 1/1 6-mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. ... Won his 3-year-old debut, the 7-furlong Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park. ... Look for him in the Florida Derby.
7. Chocolate Candy (8-4-1-1, $382,500, Jerry Hollendorfer, Russell Baze): Grandson of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew won the $100,000 Real Quiet in stakes-record time at Hollywood Park. ... Finished third to Pioneerof the Nile by 1 1/2 lengths in the $750,000 CashCall Futurity. ... On Jan. 17, he won the $100,000 California Derby and last Saturday took the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate. Next target is the Santa Anita Derby.
8. Hello Broadway (4-1-2-0, $101,060, Barclay Tagg, Eibar Coa): Closed well in the final quarter to finish second in the Nashua Stakes. ... Was runner-up to Capt. Candyman Can in the Hutcheson. ... Next target probably is the Feb. 28 Fountain of Youth.
9. Friesan Fire (6-3-1-1, $243,265, Jones, Gabriel Saez): Son of A.P. Indy is on the trail to the $600,000 Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on March 14 after winning two Grade 3 stakes -- the LeComte and the Risen Star -- at the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
10. Beethoven (6-3-0-1, $157,413, John T. Ward, Jr., Calvin Borel): Ran down Capt. Candyman Can to win the 1 1/1 6-mile Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 29. ... Pedigree suggests the $300,000 yearling purchase may be a sprinter. But Ward told Blood-Horse magazine "He handles Churchill Downs and the Derby is always on my mind and Mr. [owner John] Oxley's mind." The two won the 2001 Derby with Monarchos. ... Finished a dull fourth in Jan. 31 Holy Bull Stakes but Ward said he'll probably try the Fountain of Youth.
11. Donativum (6-3-1-0, $1,581,895, John Gosden, Frankie Dettori): Winner of the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf is owned by Sheikh Mohammed's wife, Princess Haya, and could train for the Derby in England instead of Dubai. ... Winners of the last two Derbies -- Barbaro and Big Brown -- began their careers as successful grass runners before excelling when they were moved to the dirt. ... "He can definitely go further [than the Breeders' Cup's one mile]," Gosden said.
12. Mr. Fantasy (2-2-0-0, $51,000, Kiaran McLaughlin, Richard Migliore): Grandson of 1979 Derby-Preakness winner Spectacular Bid is 2 for 2 at Aqueduct and could be on track to win the Wood Memorial.