Unknowns could be smelling roses

The trend suggests he could have made his debut only recently and will probably begin his 3-year-old campaign with a single victory on his resume, or maybe two. He might not be a stakes winner yet. In other words, at this point, the next Kentucky Derby winner could be largely unknown, inconspicuous as a sniper.

Yes, of course, the next Derby winner could turn out to be one of this season's more celebrated youngsters, such as New Year's Day, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, or Honor Code, the forceful Remsen winner, or Shared Belief, the powerful paddler and CashCall winner. They're all talented, brimful of potential. Dreams cling to them like scent.

The last three horses to win the Kentucky Derby -- Orb, I'll Have Another and Animal Kingdom -- were maiden winners at 2, but nothing more.

New Year's Day missed 10 days of training between his maiden win and his Breeders' Cup triumph, more than two months later; a stretch runner, Honor Code lost his focus and seemed uncertain what to do when he made the lead in the Remsen; and Shared Belief looked like Joe Frazier, swinging that left foreleg as if it were a left hook, when he powered away from rivals in the CashCall. Will he be as effective on dirt, or is that left hook a sign of vulnerability? Will Honor Code, green in all three of his outings, figure out this game? And if he stays on course, could New Year's Day leap forward? Nostradamus couldn't begin to say what the next four months hold for racing.

But while these celebrated youngsters attract attention, accumulate accolades and top proliferating lists of candidates, recent years suggest the next Derby winner could just as easily and just as probably be one of the promising juveniles that only recently uncloaked their potential, such as Tapiture, Indianapolis, Louies Flower, Samraat, Vicar's In Trouble, Matterhorn, The Admiral, Midnight Hawk, or Unknown Road.

The last three horses to win the Kentucky Derby -- Orb, I'll Have Another and Animal Kingdom -- were maiden winners at 2, but nothing more. In fact, over the last 20 years, seven horses that had only one victory to their credit when the season began went on to win the Derby, and two, Monarchos and Fusaichi Pegasus, began their roseate campaigns as maidens. Only half the Derby winners since 1994 won a stakes race as a juvenile.

Whether it's because they're more fragile or their trainers more cautious, horses race less frequently than they once did, especially early in their careers, and so the modern Derby winner is more likely than ever before to keep his talents hidden until late in his juvenile campaign. And although it hasn't happened since 1882, when a member of the mutuel field named Apollo stunned the hardboots, very soon a horse that didn't even race as a juvenile will win the Kentucky Derby.

The last 20 Kentucky Derby winners started a total of 74 times at 2, for an average of 3.7 races. The previous 20, going back to 1974, raced 133 times at 2, for an average of 6.65 races. That's why the summer stakes for 2-year-olds have declined in importance -- the last Hopeful winner who also won the Kentucky Derby was Affirmed; the last Saratoga Special winner Swale; and the last Del Mar Futurity winner Silver Charm -- and also why in the coming years the late-season stakes, such as the CashCall Futurity, the Kentucky Jockey Club, the Remsen and even the Springboard Mile, will assume greater predictive significance.

For years, Saratoga and Del Mar have been the places to look for future stars. They remain so, of course, but the search, if it's to be productive, now must widen and extend. And so who are this year's Johnnies who arrived lately, the youngsters who, though still somewhat inconspicuous, have flashed enough potential to suggest they could be players down the road to the Triple Crown? Well, here are 10.

1. Unknown Road: Rallying strongly to be second to Coup de Grace in his debut, Unknown Road returned recently at Fair Grounds to win by nearly 12 lengths, completing the three-quarters of a mile in 1:10.91 and running the last quarter-mile in 24.42 seconds. The effort was especially impressive since his pedigree suggests he'll improve with distance: He's by Bernardini and a half-brother to the champion Banshee Breeze.

"We're excited about him," said his trainer, Al Stall, Jr. "He's obviously talented; he has a good demeanor and temperament." Not one to rush things, Stall said Unknown Road will probably stretch out in allowance company for his next start.

2. Samraat: He won the recent Damon Runyon Stakes by nearly 17 lengths, and it couldn't have been any easier, looking as it did like a stroll, but since that was against New York-breds he's probably still somewhat inconspicuous. Unbeaten in three races, he deserves an opportunity to take on the best of his generation.

3. Coup de Grace: A speedy son of Tapit, he won his debut in November and recently added another victory at Gulfstream while not appearing to be fully extended. He could make his stakes debut in the Holly Bull.

4. The Admiral: The son of Giant's Causeway who's trained by Bob Baffert rallied strongly to finish third in his debut behind a speedy stablemate and then galloped out strongly beyond the winner. A half-brother to the major stakes winner Madcap Escapade, The Admiral will stretch out next week at Santa Anita, along with another stablemate, Icy Road, who also looks like he'll enjoy more distance.

5. Matterhorn: He won his debut in mid-November at Aqueduct and will probably return to competition in January at Gulfstream Park, according to his trainer, Todd Pletcher. The son of Tapit who was a $625,000 purchase looks like the sort who will improve significantly as the distances stretch out.

6. Vicar's In Trouble: After finishing third on Keeneland's synthethic surface, he won by 13 lengths at Fair Grounds while well in hand. Trained by Mike Maker, the son of Into Mischief could make his stakes debut next month.

7. Noble Cornerstone: Making only his second start, he rallied four-wide in the second turn and finished second, a neck behind Louies Flower, in the recent Springboard Mile at Remington Park. By the way, Will Take Charge finished second in the same race a year ago.

8. Midnight Hawk: Another from the Baffert barn, he won his recent debut impressively, breaking slowly, rushing up between horses to grab the lead, losing the lead while relaxing into a rhythm and then finishing powerfully to draw clear by more than six lengths. His ownership group includes Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and former Bears and Vikings coach Mike Tice.

9. Indianapolis: Finishing full of run, he rallied from seventh, with a final quarter-mile in 24.60 seconds, to win his debut. And then Indianapolis, who's by Medaglia d'Oro, galloped out strongly.

10. Giancarlo: He stalked a rapid pace and then drew clear for his recent maiden victory at Calder, completing the three-quarters of a mile in 1:10.82 over a dull surface.

And that's only the horses that have run recently. Some other potential players are still unraced, waiting in the shadows, preparing to leap out in the next few weeks. Until recently, this year's juveniles looked like a mediocre bunch, with modest collective talent and all the depth of a spoon. But an updated reassessment indicates otherwise: It even promises there's a lively and exciting Triple Crown season ahead.