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Kentucky Derby Hopefuls Gear Up For The Big Day In May

By: Kevin Martin

This past weekend brought the first of six major races for Kentucky Derby hopefuls. The Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby are in the books with the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial to come on April 7th and the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes to follow on April 14th. The first two preps brought upsets with Take Charge Indy beating the heavily favored Union Rags in The Florida Derby. In the Louisiana Derby, Hero of Order shocked the racing world with a win at odds of 109 to 1.

The six races that comprise the last significant races of the Derby prep season carry a combined purse of 5.5 million dollars. However, the trainers and owners running their colts in these six races have a much bigger prize in mind. They hope that their 3-year-old runner will give them the greatest thrill in American racing -- a win in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 5th, the crown jewel of Thoroughbred racing in the United States.

The Derby prep season, as it is known, begins in January and ends in April. During this time, horses prepare for the Kentucky Derby in races at various locations throughout the country. While potential Derby runners might compete in a variety of races during this period, it is in the graded stakes races at the major circuit tracks where the best colts build the earnings needed to qualify for the Derby. The top twenty horses on the graded stakes earnings list -- which includes graded money earned during the previous year as a 2-year-old -- are guaranteed one of the twenty spots in the Kentucky Derby field.

By this time of the year, a handful of favorites to win the roses in May have solidified a qualifying position on the graded earnings list. Many still have something to prove and a few need to win additional graded stakes dollars to earn a trip to Churchill Downs. As the racing world prepares for the last stretch of racing before its biggest day on the first Saturday in May, here is a rundown of the colts to watch.

The Big Three

There are three colts among this year's 3-year-olds that most agree are front-runners to win the 2012 Kentucky Derby. Union Rags, Hansen, and Creative Cause all have the career resume, breeding, and human connections to bring home the roses come Derby Day.

Union Rags has been among the top colts of his generation since winning two graded stakes last year and his narrow loss in the Breeders Cup Juvenile. His won his 3-year-old debut but finished a disappointing third in the Florida Derby last weekend, the final prep before racing in the Kentucky Derby. Even with the loss, he remains among the top three for the way he conducted himself in the Florida Derby. In spite of a tough trip, where he was stuck behind horses, he finished strongly and showed the type of determination in the stretch that is necessary to win the Kentucky Derby.

Union Rags first career loss came to Hansen, who beat Union Rags by a head in last year's Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. Hansen lost his 3-year-old debut on a muddy track but won his last start impressively in the Gotham Stakes in New York. His final race before the Derby will come in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14th. The last Kentucky Derby winner to start in the Bluegrass was Street Sense, who finished second in the race in 2007.

The last of the big three is the California-based Creative Cause, who finished third in the Breeders Cup Juvenile behind Union Rags and Hansen. He is the most experienced of the top three with four wins from seven career starts including three graded stakes wins. He won his last race, the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park, and will be the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7th.

Contenders with Question Marks

Dullahan has done all his best running on turf and synthetic surfaces but his best start on dirt came in last year's Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs where he overcame a bad start to finish fourth. Dullahan's dam, Mining My Own, was also the dam of Mine That Bird who won the Kentucky Derby in 2009. No dam has produced two Kentucky Derby winners but Dullahan could be the one to buck that long-standing trend. He will make his next start in the Bluegrass Stakes on April 14th at Keeneland where he will run against Hansen, one of the "big three."

Take Charge Indy won the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 31st but many still rank him a cut below the top three. He is a regally bred son of A.P. Indy out the mare Take Charge Indy, both were multiple Grade 1 winners. He had everything his way in the Florida Derby benefiting from a speed favoring track and a terrible trip for the heavy favorite Union Rags. His win in the Florida Derby guaranteed him a place in the gate for the big race at Churchill Down where will retain the services of three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel. While he has a Grade 1 win, the breeding, and a winning jockey, he still will have something to prove on Derby day.

Contenders on the Bubble

At this point of the season, the front runners to win the Kentucky Derby have the necessary earnings to qualify for the big race. However, there are a few intriguing candidates that will need a strong performance in their last race to qualify. In the last six years, the final horse to qualify for the Derby had graded stakes earnings that averaged $128,000. The two most interesting of the bubble horses have earnings of less than $110,000.

Perhaps the best of the colts in need of graded earnings is Bodemeister. He might be one of the fastest of this year's 3-year-old crop but he has only three career starts. If he fails to cash a check in his next start, he will not have the graded earnings to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert said via Twitter that Bodemeister will make his final start in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7th or the Arkansas Derby on April 14th.

Gemologist has one important win in his undefeated four race career. He won the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs in November. It's the same race won by 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, who had the same trainer and owner as Gemologist (Todd Pletcher and WinStar Farms). The Kentucky Jockey Club is Gemologist's only graded stakes experience, but more importantly, it's the only graded earnings he has banked during his short career. He will need a top two finish in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7th to guarantee a place in this year's Kentucky Derby.

If you would like to receive weekly email updates with all the information you need to follow the races leading up to the Kentucky Derby, sign up for Derby Prep Alerts at Hello Race Fans. Also, at Hello Race Fans is an article from legendary race writer Steve Haskin called "How to Find a Derby Winner."

The final four Derby prep races will be broadcast on TV, here is the remaining schedule of races:

April 7th: Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park
April 7th: Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Race Track
April 14th: Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Park
April 14th: Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park

Kevin Martin is the founder of the racing history site Colin's Ghost and a contributing editor at Hello Race Fans.

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