With the Kentucky Derby less than eight weeks away, not one of the 293 nominees has shown signs of greatness and none is likely to do so.
Yet the 106th running of America's greatest race is far from inscrutable. So many horses have already eliminated themselves that the number of legitimate contenders is rather small. In fact, I think I have already doped out the exacta.
The most important facts about Derby handicapping is that Derby horses do not come out of the woodwork. They almost always follow certain orthodox routes to Churchill Downs, spending the winter in Florida, California or New York.
New York's group of 3-year-olds has already been discredited. The best horse there this winter came to Florida and was trounced. The second-best horse went to California and was trounced. So much for the rest of them.
The California colts are harder to assess, especially for easterners who are not familiar with the form there. But there are reasons for skepticism about West Coast horses.
Although the California contingent deserves consideration, I would still give the edge to the Florida horses. Having seen them run this winter, I know who the best ones are. Accordingly, I present my early Kentucky Derby line:
PLUGGED NICKLE -- (7 to 2) won two stakes at the end of his 2-year-old campaign, but he was never so impressive as when he captured the Hutcheson Stakes here Monday. He glided through heavy traffic and cruised away from a highly regarded rival by seven lengths in excellent time.
Plugged Nickle has an important edge over many of his Derby foes: trainer Thomas J. Kelly. The Derby is usually won by trainers who have ample experience handling good horses and preparing them for major stakes -- veterans like Laz Barrera, Leroy Jolley, Lucien Laurein. Kelly made his first foray into the Triple Crown series with Globemaster in 1961, and he will know what to do with Plugged Nickle.
GOLD STAGE -- (5 to 1) also ran some excellent races late last fall, and then beat a not-yet-fit Plugged Nickle in his first start at Hialeah. A fever set back his training a few days and forced him to miss the Hutcheson but he and Plugged Nickle appear evenly matched for the Florida Derby on March 29.
While Plugged Nickle is being managed by a veteran, Gold Stage is trained by a young man, Bill Curtis, who has never had a top-class horse before. Curtis has made no mistakes yet, but his relative inexperience may be a handicap.
SUPERBITY -- (8 to 1) has an admirable record, with five victories in six starts, but the way he won the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah did not inspire confidence in his ability to go a mile and one-quarter. He practically staggered the last eighth of a mile in 14 and one-fifth seconds. Superbity's trainer, Sunshine Calvert, is one of the best in the business but he dislikes all the Kentucky Derby hoopla and he would probably seize any plausible excuse to bypass it.
THE CARPENTER -- (8 to 1) was the best 2-year-old on the West Coast last year, but even the California chauvinists were not singing his praises loudly. The colt suffered a few setbacks in his training this winter and he lost his first start of the season. But trainer Willard Proctor has him ready for Saturday's San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita. That race should clarify the confused California form, but right now The Carpenter still ranks as the leader of the group.
JAKLIN KLUGMAN -- (10 to 1) an ill-bred colt co-owned by actor Jack Klugman, beat The Carpenter last month but was still regarded as a mere sprinter after the victory. He disproved that notion last Saturday when he ventured north to Golden Gate Fields and won the California Derby in a photo finish. His time was decent and he may be a legitimate Kentucky Derby horse.
ROCKHILL NATIVE -- (12 to 1) is the defending champion of his generation, but his performances in Florida this winter have been mediocre. Trainer Herb Stevens has blamed his losses here on the deep, tiring Hialeah track, but the fact is that Rockhill Native just is not a good enough racehorse.
KOLUCTOO BAY -- (20 to 1) has as much ability as any member of his generation, as he demonstrated when he beat Gold Stage in a major stakes race last fall. But he is beset by so many physical problems that he cannot withstand enough training to get ready for optimal performance. Horses do not win the Kentucky Derby without plenty of preparation.