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Who’s hot and who’s not on the Kentucky Derby trail? Honestly, it’s a bit too early to say, but Saturday should go a long way in cluing us in as to who might arrive in Louisville this spring as major players in the Run for the Roses. Three key preps are scheduled in California, Florida, and New York, and each offers important answers for a host of current Derby hopefuls. Let’s start with the biggest race of the day, the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.

It’s the biggest prep of the day because of the presence of the top two. Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie have stayed on the top of most Kentucky Derby rankings this year, and in fact, are likely the top two early favorites heading into the running of the San Felipe. Still, both have plenty to prove on Saturday.

Bolt d’Oro, who I believe was robbed of his rightful claim as two-year-old champion, has not run since his poor trip when third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He was sensational at two, but that does not always carry over to the sophomore season. This is especially true when you are talking about four months away from the races. Keep in mind, this is a layoff made longer by a minor physical setback. Will we see the best from Bolt d’Oro on Saturday, and will that propel him to peak form in eight weeks?

His main rival tomorrow is expected to be McKinzie. Much hyped since before his first race, the Bob Baffert charge needs to prove he has developed to the point of beating the best of this crop. As good as he has looked in his short career, he was beaten to the wire by the best horse he has  so far faced in Solomini. He’ll have every opportunity to prove his class in the San Felipe. For McKinzie, the question becomes, is he as good as all the hype?

There are three other horses in the San Felipe who come in off a career best. Still, the Robert B. Lewis and the San Vicente were races set up well for the winners, and lacking any truly big names. The San Felipe will give Kanthaka, Lombo, and Ayacara all the opportunity to prove that they can compete against Grade 1 competition.

The next prep which I suspect will have the most implications for the first Saturday in May is the Tampa Bay Derby. I believe Vino Rosso will be the choice among bettors, but Flameaway, Untamed Domain, World of Trouble, and Tiz Mischief should all be not far behind. Much like the San Felipe, each has big questions to answer in the biggest race of the year at Tampa Bay Downs …

Can Untamed Domain take his excellent grass form to the main track, and instantly become a huge threat going ten furlongs at Churchill Downs just like his sire, Animal Kingdom?

Will Vino Rosso make good on all that potential flashed in his first three races, or was the final 50 yards of the Sam F. Davis more of a tease from a horse not quite at the top of this crop?

Also, the Tampa Bay Derby should tell us whether World of Trouble is only a flashy sprinter, or can he carry his speed around two turns?  Will Flameaway prove that the Sam F. Davis was not a case of his main competition being less than fully cranked or mature, and that he is in fact a major player in this division? Can Tiz Mischief rebound from a disappointing seasonal debut in the Holy Bull, and throw his name back in the ring as a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender?

Finally, the Gotham, run at one-turn at Aqueduct, should serve as moving day for several interesting three-year-olds. While the one-turn might not tell us anything about who can get the ten furlongs of the Derby, it will help us estimate class, and also tell who is moving in the right direction.

For Free Drop Billy, my top pick needs to show that he can move forward off a decent second-place run in the Holy Bull for trainer Dale Romans. Meanwhile, Beautiful Shot was a nice two-year-old, who could suddenly be a horse everyone is talking about if he wins this in his first race since last year. And Firenze Fire can once again prove that he is truly a top notch miler, while Enticed hopes to demonstrate that the Holy Bull was just an uncharacteristic performance from a very good horse.

All these questions, and more, should be answered in a little over a day. At the conclusion of Saturday’s Gotham, Tampa Bay Derby, and San Felipe, we should know plenty more about the top contenders for the 2018 Kentucky Derby. At least, we can hope.

Photo of Bolt d’Oro courtesy of Del Mar Turf Club