We are less than seven weeks away from the first Saturday in May and the picture is still fuzzy as to who will run for the roses in Louisville. After a careful Post Time review of the contenders we've separated them into the flavors we Buffalonians all have come to love: hot, medium and mild.
The Kentucky Derby field has been limited to 20 starters since 1975, and graded stakes earnings accumulated on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" have been the deciding factor since 1986. Last year's final horse in the field with a record $218,750, Make Music for Me, finished fourth in the Derby. Over the last five years, the final horse in earned an average of $130,000.
So let's take a look at Post Time's hot, medium and mild horses as we continue down the Derby trail:
*Hot. Uncle Mo is by far the most hyped horse in the field. He won last weekend's $100,000 Timely Writer, a one-turn mile at Gulfstream Park, against four other maidens with ease, blazing the final quarter in 22.87 seconds. Owned by Mike Repole, the co-founder of the company that makes Vitaminwater, Uncle Mo is the one to beat in Louisville. His next start should be at Aqueduct in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial. With over $1.2 million in graded earnings, only his post position will keep him from being odds-on favorite come Derby day. Mo ended up as the 3-1 favorite in recently concluded Derby Futures Pool 2.
The next hot horse is Soldat, winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and probable favorite of the Florida Derby next weekend at Gulfstream. Currently ranked fourth on the graded earnings list with $510,000 of earnings, his dominant performance in the Fountain of Youth solidified a starting gate in May. Sired by champion sprinter War Front, the distance question is the only potential negative.
Moving up the graded stakes list is Premier Pegasus, who was last seen breaking away from the field at Santa Anita in the San Felipe on March 12 for a four-length victory. Sired by the 2000 Kentucky Derby and Wood Memorial winner Fusaichi Pegasus, he was availed a perfect trip and capitalized with a defining victory.
*Medium. Our medium horses are quietly moving up the ladder with decent, but not glorified, performances in the Derby prep races to date. No. 2 on the graded earnings list is the well-traveled Gourmet Dinner, who has raced at four different tracks since last October. The only question will be does he have enough gas left in the tank when Derby day arrives?
The next medium horse is Santiva, a horse that Post Time has been publicly high on. He is a colt out of Giant's Causeway, a long-distance runner, who finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He was second in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds, where he finished strong behind Mucho Macho Man. He's run well on every surface he's attempted and has every right to improve as we approach the big day. He sits at No. 13 on the graded list with $240,254.
*Mild. The Post Time horses fitting the mild category are those that will probably qualify for a spot, but are rather bland at the moment, requiring additional seasoning. We'll start with Dialed In, who a month ago was the buzz horse in the racing blogosphere, but after finishing second in an allowance race at Gulfstream, the shine seems to be off. He needs the right pace to run into with his late closing style as he showed in his Holy Bull win. Don't count out trainer Nick Zito, though, especially if someone hooks Uncle Mo into an early speed duel.
The final mild entry is Stay Thirsty, a horse with a name you'd think you'd require with some hot wings. The winner of the Gotham Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher holds the No. 10 spot on the graded list. His next race will serve further clues whether he is in top company with his stable mate Uncle Mo, or whether he is just another mild wing in the dozen.
*Suicide. What wing comparison wouldn't have a suicide sauce candidate? No doubt, Bob Baffert's California-based The Factor is this year's suicide horse -- a wickedly fast horse that was difficult to contain in the 7-furlong San Vicente Stakes. Like Soldat, he is out of War Front, and seems to be more suited to sprint distances. Trainer Bob Baffert hinted he'll return to Oaklawn for the $1 million Arkansas Derby.
"Right now I'd say we would probably come back," Baffert said after winning this past weekend's Rebel Stakes. "He clearly could have gone a mile and an eighth today."
He flew up the graded stakes charts from No. 23 all the way to No. 9. Named in honor of Fox News and television host Bill O'Reilly, he'll be the horse receiving the most national exposure leading up to the Derby.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He posts every Friday at the Sports, Ink blog at www.buffalonews.com and can be found on Twitter (@EquiSpace).