At the point where winter grudgingly gives way to spring there is often a tendency to dismiss the season's new 3-year-olds who have to some degree shown sufficient promise to merit consideration as Kentucky Derby prospects.
Disparagement is a handicapper's most useful tool since it is generally rewarded in a game that crushes seven of 10 favorites.
The current practice coddling 2-year-olds results in progressively less being revealed by even the best juveniles. Since the inception of the Breeders' Cup, the longer season that in some years extends into November has made, for reasons not fully understood, a rarity of the champion 2-year-old capable of sustaining its position through the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown. It may be that the emphasis on speed required of success in major races for 2-year-olds fails to translate into success at longer distances required of 3-year-old classic hopefuls. The American thoroughbred is undoubtedly bred differently than it was only a few decades ago and with a premium attached to precocity has become more specialized at the expense of stamina.
Nevertheless, the time is at hand to begin the frustrating attempt to find a semblance of order in chaos.
The numbers are usually daunting. Well over 300 are currently eligible to the Derby, the field for which will be determined by a point system based upon the results of graded stakes. Most are tied at zero but not all chaos is created equal.
At some stage we will encounter a blanket disparaging of the current class of Derby hopefuls. Disparagement is a handicapper's most useful tool since it is generally rewarded in a game that crushes seven of 10 favorites.
Dismissal of an entire generation of 3-year-olds -- last year's, for instance -- can sometimes be the result of astute observation. Not every spring sees the blooming of a truly special horse yet in the blush of youth. Fewer years see great promise in the plural. A year ago, the best of an ordinary lot crumbled before our eyes. Those prominent in the Triple Crown were retired or sidelined before opening day at Saratoga.
This, however, appears to be an unusual year that promises what has the potential to develop into a memorable five weeks beginning on the first Saturday of May and extending through the season beyond.
The frustration that accompanies the attempt to separate the leading figures in this generation of 3-year-olds comes not from mediocrity but rather a widely distributed wealth of ability; a group deep in talent and the leading figures even at this early stage appear amply armed to compete at 10 furlongs.
Not surprisingly, several of the leading Derby-bound 3-year-olds -- and perhaps the most interesting -- were not prominent among the juveniles of 2012.
Orb made a huge favorable impression when he rallied to victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park last month, a victory that vaulted him to the top of many polls. He is a big, rangy colt blessed with a long stride and substantial raw ability brought along steadily after he was beaten in his first three races last year and revealed as the distance of his races suited to a late-running style that will serve him well as he matures. He is in the hands of trainer Shug McGaughey and owned in partnership by Stuart Janney and the Phipps family, bulwarks of racing in the East, who bred this colt to compete, not sell. Orb's connections are immune from the scourge of Derby fever and his participation is probably entirely dependent upon his next effort as he progresses to 9 furlongs in the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial.
Though he trained in anonymity last year while stablemate Shanghai Bobby earned an Eclipse Award, Verrazano's hat is now squarely in the frame after his victory last weekend in the Tampa Bay Derby. He is a physically imposing animal with great efficiency of stride who did not appear until Jan. 1 at Gulfstream Park and is now 3-for-3. Some will consider his lack of experience at age two to be a detriment, but his performance at three is flawless, suggests that there is more to reveal and impossible to overlook.
"He definitely showed us that he can overcome an early stumble and deal with a little dirt in his face," trainer Todd Pletcher said of Verrazano after his first stakes win at Tampa. "We found out that he could travel well and handle two turns. All the things we were worried about, he overcame them pretty well."
Vyjack is perhaps the most intriguing of the now-prominent 3-year-olds who were absent from major competition last year, rocketing into contention in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct with a jaw-dropping rally that carried him to a clear victory despite a speed-favoring surface in New York. What impressed most was the unexpected display of versatility from a colt who began his career with a pair of frontrunning wins. Most impressively, his was the only closing victory on the Aqueduct card that day.
"He doesn't know what he's doing yet," trainer Rudy Rodriguez said. "I think he's still got more."
This spring will be fun. Stay tuned.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.