While the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby is still a little more than four months in the future (May 3), nine horses who officially turned 3 years old on New Year's Day will face the starter on Wednesday in the $100,000 Gulfstream Park Derby in Florida.
And by Saturday, things get really serious as Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Down all host potentially significant 3-year-old tests.
Gulfstream and Aqueduct also have weekend races that will be watched for clues to the May 2 Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.
While Wednesday's Gulfstream Park Derby is not an official Kentucky Derby prep (Churchill Downs, in its sole wisdom, decides which races count and which don't), it does have some interest for owners and trainers with ambitions for the first Saturday in May.
The morning-line favorite is the Florida-bred colt Best Plan Yet, who won two of the three races in the 2013 Florida Stallion Series at Calder Race Course. The Stanley Gold trainee was increasingly impressive as the distances got longer in the FSS, winning the 1 1/16-mile In Reality Division by 5 3/4 lengths on Oct. 12. He has not raced since but has been breezing steadily at Calder.
Todd Pletcher will saddle Aarons Orient, an Orientate colt who won at Saratoga and Remington Park this summer, then was wiped out by traffic problems in his last 2-year-old start in Maryland. Wildcat Red has two wins and a second in three starts at Gulfstream and would be perfect except for a disqualification after finishing first last time out.
The Mike Maker-trained General a Rod is in the ballpark with this crowd after winning at first asking on the Keeneland all-weather track, then posting a good second at Churchill Downs going 1 mile. Pablo Del Monte looked like a peach in winning his first two starts, both at Keeneland, but then was the pits in California, finishing fifth in the Grade III Generous Stakes when trainer Wesley Ward shipped the Giant's Causeway colt to Hollywood Park.
Fans of trainer Nick Zito likely will get a price on Grand Arrival, a Harlan's Holiday colt who broke his maiden at Saratoga, then finished eighth in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park and seventh in the Grade II Nashua at Belmont Park. He has been working at Payson Park in Florida.
Saturday's marquee events in the division are the $200,000, Grade III Jerome at Aqueduct, the $100,000 Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream and the $100,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
The Jerome is a Churchill Downs "Road to the Kentucky Derby" qualifying race. The winner gets 10 points toward deciding the starting field for the Run for the Roses. Second gets four points, third gets two and fourth gets a single point. The system comes into play if more than the maximum 20 starters are entered for the Kentucky Derby and wasn't needed for the 2013 edition.
The Jerome, at 1 mile and 70 yards, is the first in the New York series of Derby preps that culminates in the Wood Memorial April 5. The Spectacular Bid is run at 6 furlongs and is more likely to produce quality sprinters than candidates for the 1 1/4-miles Kentucky Derby but still bears watching. The Pasco is a 7-furlong test than can lead to the Tampa Bay Derby March 8.
Looking forward on the Road to the Roses, there are eight more "10 point" races stretching through the middle of February. Things shift into high gear Feb. 22 when the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star at Fair Grounds in New Orleans each offer a points spread of 50-20-10-5. Six more races follow with similar rewards.
The "Big Seven" Derby preps are with 100, 40, 20 and 10 points to the first four finishers. Those are the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby and UAE Derby in Dubai, all March 29; the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial April 5, and the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass at Keeneland April 12.
The Lexington April 19 at Keeneland reverts back to the 10-4-2-1 point structure, giving one last chance for a horse needing to "top off" its credentials.
Fillies can still aspire to run against males in the Kentucky Derby but must earn points in the designated Derby prep races. Those points also would be counted for entry into the Kentucky Oaks.
For those who can't wait for Derby weekend to get down a bet, Churchill Downs offers four "futures pools" for crystal ball gazers. The first pool was open during Thanksgiving weekend -- really! -- and the favorite among 24 choices was the mutuel field or, "none of the other 23."
Next-favorite at 10-1 was Honor Code, an A.P. Indy colt who finished second in the Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont and won the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct in November. Third choice was Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner New Year's Day at 15-1. He subsequently was injured and retired. Sorry, those tickets already are losers. The official rules state: "Career-ending injuries, death and failure to start are not subject to refunds."
Pool 2 is open Feb. 6-8; Pool 3, Feb. 27-March 1; and Pool 3, March 27-29. There also is a futures pool for the Kentucky Oaks on Feb. 27-March 1.