Commentary

Derby winner could emerge anytime

Updated: March 21, 2013, 4:29 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

When contemplating the talent and potential of Verrazano, it might be useful to remember that for nearly two months in 1943 sliced bread was banned. Nothing, it seems, not even greatness, is exempt from skepticism. And it's skepticism that argues the next Kentucky Derby winner just might have escaped notice to this point, has remained hidden from popular view and has yet to show himself.

It's going to all come down to what horse continues to grow and mature and move forward. You need everything to go your way.

-- Mark Casse, trainer Uncaptured
This isn't to say Verrazano isn't going to be the Derby winner or isn't great. He could be the greatest thing since -- well, he could be special. As trainer Mark Casse said, if anybody in this season's crop of 3-year-olds stands out, if there's a superlatively special horse out there, if there's somebody in this group who's going to prove to be great, that somebody is Verrazano. But nobody is exempt from skepticism, and about him some questions remain.

What if Verrazano already has peaked, as so many before him did, lighting up the March sky like a starburst only to disappear two months later? What if his talent won't take him 1 1/4 miles, and what if he can't overcome adversity but, like a spoiled prodigy, only sparkles when everything goes his way? Such are skepticism's questions; they linger insistently. And they encourage the notion, not altogether whimsical, that the next Derby winner is a horse that's going to improve dramatically and emerge suddenly over the next few weeks or so.

"The next 45 days are crucial," said Casse, who'll saddle Uncaptured in Saturday's Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. "It's going to all come down to what horse continues to grow and mature and move forward. You need everything to go your way [if you're going to win the Derby]. One hiccup could be disastrous."

War Emblem did nothing in his first two races of 2002 to suggest he might win the Kentucky Derby, or any derby. He finished fifth in the Lecomte Stakes and then sixth in the Risen Star. But then, with a new free-running style, he romped in an allowance race, then he cruised in the Illinois Derby and then, of course, he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Animal Kingdom, Charismatic, Dust Commander, Proud Clarion and Chateaugay all emerged suddenly into view just before winning the Derby.

Some horses, perhaps most, don't define themselves early in their careers. Even the great Alysheba didn't flash his star potential until, after having throat surgery, he finished first in the Blue Grass. (He was disqualified, however, and placed third.) Until then, he looked like he was destined to play supporting roles, winning only one of his first 10 races while finishing second five times. But he won 10 of last 16, including the Derby, Preakness and Breeders' Cup Classic.

And from either inactivity or obscurity, somebody will emerge suddenly in the next few weeks, perhaps even this weekend. Sunday's Sunland Derby has at least two candidates for that role, two sons of Midnight Lute who are both trained by Bob Baffert: Shakin It Up and Govenor Charlie. Shakin It Up, whose progress was compromised early in the year by a minor foot problem, won the recent San Vicente. The Sunland Derby will be his first race around two turns. And Govenor Charlie, who's out of the Hall of Fame champion Silverbulletday, suggested considerable potential with a fast maiden win at Santa Anita.

But perhaps the more likely place to find a late-emerging challenger to the leaders on the road to the Triple Crown is the Spiral Stakes, which has attracted Balance The Books, My Name Is Michael and Capo Bastone, in addition to Uncaptured and a local stakes winner named Mac The Man. Balance The Books will be making his first start since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, where he was blocked and checked in traffic before altering course in mid-stretch and finishing with a rush. My Name Is Michael finished third in the recent Sam F Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay, where he made his first start on dirt. Going into the first turn, when he felt the kickback for the first time, he tossed his head into the air and dropped back, but then he finished fast, in fact fastest of all.

Both horses are intriguing Triple Crown possibilities.

I'm not sure that he has developed into a much better horse -- we won't know that until he races.

-- Mark Casse, trainer Uncaptured
And then there's Uncaptured, who, like Balance The Books, will be racing for the first time this year. And so he's emerging from inactivity -- certainly not obscurity, for he was arguably the second most accomplished juvenile in North America last year, and he could very well be named Canada's Horse of the Year for 2012. Uncaptured won five stakes last year, including two at Churchill Downs, the Iroquois and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

"He got banged up pretty good in his last race," Casse said, referring to the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where Uncaptured "grabbed a quarter" leaving the gate and then got bumped repeatedly down the stretch, possibly into the rail. Still, after momentarily losing the lead, he surged to win.

The victory, however, left him with some cuts and bruises. Then an abscess popped up. And so instead of three races this year leading up to the Derby, he'll have only two, the first on Saturday at Turfway.

He has fully recovered from his minor setbacks, Casse said, and has been training steadily and impressively. But the main question for Uncaptured, as it is for all these young horses, involves development. Has he moved forward physically from his juvenile campaign?

Some young horses succeed because they're more physically mature than their rivals, bigger and stronger. That wasn't the case with Uncaptured, however. Neither especially big nor powerful, he won with his quickness and his superior athleticism.

But as a 3-year-old, Uncaptured has grown up, standing a couple inches over 16 hands, Casse said. "He's grown a lot," the trainer added. "He's a big boy now.

"I'm not sure that he has developed into a much better horse -- we won't know that until he races. But he's training as well as I've ever seen him."

Uncaptured has strung together five bullet workouts at the Ocala Training Center, which, like Turfway, has a synthetic surface. Casse said he chose the Spiral, rather than the easier Rushaway Stakes, because of the Derby points that are available. After the Spiral, Uncaptured will be aimed at Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes.

Perhaps Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Agriculture, Claude Wickard, went too far on behalf of wartime frugality in banning sliced bread. But for nearly two months, folks were looking at other options, and that's often wise.