Under the new system, it’s almost impossible for trainers to duck meaningful competition. The Fountain of Youth Stakes, headed by Todd Pletcher’s undefeated Violence, drew 11 entrants and the Risen Star will have 14 starters, with half of the field coming from tracks outside the state.
The new framework for the prep races comes in a season that has the potential to produce some bona fide 3-year-old stars. Of course, it is premature to make such any definite judgments; most of the Derby prospects are lightly raced and largely untested. But speed figures suggest that this may be an above-average crop. When I’ll Have Another won last year’s Derby, he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 101. Already this winter four colts have recorded a figure of 101 or higher.
Some of the colts regarded as top Derby contenders have done so little that it is hard to take them seriously yet. Violence is No. 3 in the Daily Racing Form’s rankings after winning a stakes on a synthetic surface with an easy trip and a low speed figure. Flashback is No. 2 after dominating a four-horse field in California. But there are a few colts who already look like credible Derby contenders. My top four:
1. Normandy Invasion
3. Super Ninety Nine
The last horse on this short list has generated the most buzz. The Pletcher-trained Verrazano has won his two starts at Gulfstream this winter by a combined total of 24 lengths. He appears to have limitless potential, but until a youngster faces stakes competition and encounters some adversity, it’s prudent to withhold judgment.
Super Ninety Nine won a fast allowance race at Hollywood Park, followed by an 11-length romp in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Monday. He not only has talent, he has Bob Baffert as his trainer, and nobody in the profession is better at getting horses revved up for the first Saturday in May.
Itsmyluckyday is no prodigy like Verrazano; he had raced seven times before anybody thought of him as a Derby horse. But he delivered two authoritative victories in stakes at Gulfstream, including a decisive win over Eclipse Award winner Shanghai Bobby. He looks like a solid distance runner, and he’ll have more seasoning than any major Derby contender.
Normandy Invasion delivered what may have been the most eye-catching performance by any member of his generation when he lost the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in November. Coming from the rear of the field, he made a powerhouse move on the final turn before losing a head-bobbing photo finish with Overanalyze. It was the kind of move that frequently carries a horse to glory on the first Saturday in May. Normandy Invasion makes his 3-year-old debut in the Risen Star, and fans trying to spot the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner should be watching him closely.
For previous columns by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.