As fans begin streaming to Churchill Downs at the start of Kentucky Derby week, we take a look at the top contenders in the Run for the Roses. These are the names you'll want to know when you tune in to NBC on Saturday.
1. Dialed In: The rallying winner of arguably the most competitive prep this season, the Florida Derby (G1), fired a warning shot to his rivals with a terrific half-mile work at Palm Meadows last Thursday. By blazing his final furlong in :11 3/5 and finishing well clear of his workmate, the Nick Zito trainee signaled that he'll enter the Kentucky Derby (G1) in razor-sharp form.
Some might question Zito's light work schedule for the colt, but the Hall of Famer, and two-time Derby winner, knows how to tailor his training regimen to suit a particular horse's needs. And so far, Zito's decision-making has proven spot-on for Dialed In. The colt already has two 1 1/8-mile races under his belt, and plenty of lengthy gallops to build up his stamina.
Dialed In shipped to Churchill Downs on Saturday, and on Sunday, confirmed his well-being with an on-the-muscle jog over the track.
2. Uncle Mo: The champion juvenile colt of 2010 has put himself right back in the game with encouraging works at Churchill in the past week for trainer Todd Pletcher. Apparently over the gastro-intestinal malady that contributed to his shocking loss in the Wood Memorial (G1), Mo is recovering his "big mo" as the Derby approaches. Aside from his smooth five-furlong drills in company, he has been galloping energetically, like a horse who wants to do more.
If Uncle Mo can recapture his scintillating two-year-old form in time, he'll be difficult to beat. The ultra-talented colt was simply in a league of his own last year, and capped his perfect season in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) right here at Churchill. Naturally fast but also tractable, Uncle Mo stalked the pace that day before accelerating brilliantly leaving the far turn, in what might have been a sneak preview of Derby 137.
3. Archarcharch: The Arkansas Derby (G1) winner confirmed his status as a top threat with a smashing work at Churchill Friday, blitzing five furlongs in a bullet :59 2/5 while leaving his workmate struggling in his wake. Despite having a distance-oriented pedigree, Archarcharch has displayed high speed in his prior races as well as during training hours -- a tell-tale sign of a serious runner.
Indeed, Archarcharch broke his maiden in a six-furlong stakes, and was agile enough to engineer a winning trip in a roughly run Southwest Stakes (G3). He's also been fairly consistent, with legitimate excuses for the couple of times he hasn't run up to par. Better when allowed to settle off the pace than chase early, he figures to bide his time no worse than midpack, and unleash a strong bid into contention on the turn, just at the point where most Derbies are won.
4. Soldat: The Fountain of Youth (G2) romper has been training forwardly since disappointing in fifth in the Florida Derby. That's the only time in his eight-race career that he's finished out of the top two, an effort that was too poor to be true and worth completely dismissing.
The reason for his subpar showing was probably the tactics. Previously this winter, the Kiaran McLaughlin pupil had dominated in front-running fashion, but when held up off the pace in the Florida Derby, he never got involved. Soldat figures to make more use of his tactical speed at Churchill Downs to garner good early position, just as he had in his excellent performances on the grass as a juvenile. If so, he'll get first run on the closers and could be dangerous, especially on a sloppy track.
5. Mucho Macho Man: An unlucky third as the favorite in the Louisiana Derby (G2), this game and genuine colt always tries his best, and such a willing attitude can take him a long way. Indeed, Mucho Macho Man's actual third birthday isn't until June 15, so the tall colt has been an overachiever to accomplish so much at this point.
Runner-up to the now-sidelined To Honor and Serve in the Nashua S. (G2) and Remsen S. (G2) last fall, Mucho Macho Man broke through with a good-looking win in the Risen Star S. (G2) in February. His chances in the Louisiana Derby were hampered right out of the gate, when he lost a shoe and tore out a chunk of his hoof. Ever since then, he has been turning in stiff drills like clockwork for Kathy Ritvo, who aims to become the first woman to train a Kentucky Derby winner.
6. Nehro: Rapidly-improving colt was a hard-charging runner-up in both the Arkansas Derby (G1) and Louisiana Derby (G2), falling a neck shy of the prize in each. The Steve Asmussen trainee was outmoved by Archarcharch on the turn in Arkansas, and can't afford to let that happen again.
By Mineshaft, the same sire as Dialed In, Nehro tends to have a similar late-running style. One notable difference, however, is that Dialed In broke his maiden first time out at two. Nehro just broke his maiden in February, in his third try, and has been on a steeper learning curve.
7. Animal Kingdom: Motion's second candidate has yet to race on dirt, but moves up in the rankings this week after an impressive work on the Churchill surface on Saturday. Powering through six furlongs in a brisk 1:13, the stoutly-bred chestnut drew right away from his workmate and kept up his relentless gallop-out through seven furlongs in 1:26 2/5.
Animal Kingdom has performed at a high level on turf and synthetic tracks. A troubled runner-up in his only two losses, he is a little unfortunate not to be unbeaten. Animal Kingdom earned his way into the Derby field with an emphatic score in the Spiral (G3) on Polytrack, and his stock rose when Spiral third Twinspired returned to miss by a whisker in the Blue Grass (G1).
8. Stay Thirsty: Uncle Mo's stablemate cracks the Top 10 this week after three strong works at Churchill, crowned by Sunday's move in which he matched strides with the champion virtually all the way. Pletcher hailed Stay Thirsty's drill as his best-ever, and it's not difficult to see him as the stealthy contender who's getting good at the right time.
Nor is Stay Thirsty a new kid on the block. He's been on the Derby radar screen since last summer, when he finished a better-than-appears second in the Hopeful S. (G1) at an unsuitably short distance for a horse with his classic pedigree. Attempting the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) off a two-month layoff, he couldn't hold a candle to Mo and tired to fifth. Stay Thirsty showed his true colors in his 2011 debut in the Gotham S. (G3), dusting next-out Wood Memorial winner Toby's Corner. Like Soldat, his flop in the Florida Derby can be forgiven; in his case, he didn't acclimate well when returning from wintry New York to the tropical heat of Florida. As his sharp work pattern indicates, Stay Thirsty is happy to be in Louisville.
9. Master of Hounds: Irish shipper retains his toehold in the rankings, pending how he comports himself upon his arrival at Churchill. On paper, the Aidan O'Brien trainee warrants considerable respect, but he'll have the toughest kind of introduction to dirt racing.
The royally-bred colt, who held his own against strong company as a juvenile in Ireland, is already a seasoned world traveler. He's been to Churchill before, checking in sixth after a poor trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G2), and he reappeared in Dubai, running a monster race in the U.A.E. Derby (G2) and looking like the surefire winner until the wire. That was an exceptional performance in his first start back for O'Brien, whose runners can be expected to improve a fair amount second time out. If he ships well, and makes a good appearance on the track, this wild card can't be discounted.