Trying to figure out who's going to win the Kentucky Derby at about the time all 2-year-olds become 3-year-olds is like trying to predict how next season's Lakers will do in the post-Kobe era.
But that doesn't keep some of the guesswork from starting. So, checking with a few of the Derby hopefuls that will be stabled — and likely run — at Santa Anita seems totally appropriate.
The early favorite, and likely Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old, is Nyquist. His connections are familiar, as trainer Doug O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam entered 2012 with the same Derby aspirations with I'll Have Another. The colt won the Derby and Preakness Stakes but was scratched the day before the Belmont Stakes with a tendon injury.
I'll Have Another didn't really turn any heads until winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in early February after dealing with shin issues as a 2-year-old. Nyquist has already put a strain on the neck by going undefeated in five starts, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Reddam, though, sees several similarities.
"When [I'll Have Another] came back [as a 3-year-old] he didn't lose," Reddam said. "When you look at I'll Have Another when he was healthy, and Nyquist, they are actually the same. They are going to look you in the eye and then you won't beat them .… They certainly are very similar in having the will to win."
Fans will likely get a chance to see Nyquist on Feb. 15 in the San Vicente Stakes, a 7-furlong Grade 2 stakes race. After that, he may be headed to Gulfstream Park for the Florida Derby. Reddam normally likes to keep his horses close to home but he has added incentive to run in Florida.
Horse auction firm Fasig-Tipton is offering a $1-million bonus to any horse that was bought at last year's 2-year-old sale that also wins the April 2 race. O'Neill also favors the move to Florida, especially if the projected El Niño disrupts training at Santa Anita.
"[Despite the bonus] our main concern is to think about May 7 and the best way to get there and to give his maximum performance," Reddam said. "If the Florida Derby coincides with that, we'll be there. But our main focus is getting to the Kentucky Derby."
The San Vincente is also likely to have another horse with high expectations. Trainer Keith Desormeaux has Exaggerator set to make his return on that Monday. The colt has three wins in six starts, including the $1-million Delta Downs Jackpot.
"We think he's a Derby candidate," Desormeaux said. "He's a good horse and developing nicely. The San Vincente seems like the right race."
If all goes well, Exaggerator will probably follow that with the San Felipe Stakes on March 12 and the Santa Anita Derby on April 9.
Desormeaux also has another strong Derby prospect in Swipe, who finished second to Nyquist all four times they have faced each other. Swipe recently had arthroscopic surgery to remove a small chip in his left ankle. He's scheduled to return to training around the start of February.
"It is very tight on training," Desormeaux said. [Excessive rain] affects Swipe more than Exaggerator. Swipe won't be able to miss a day of training. It will put some pressure on him warranting a trip to the Derby."
Desormeaux sees the two horses as having different attributes.
"Exaggerator is more talented," he said. "But Swipe has a heart of gold, which is almost equally as important. He overcomes his slight lack of talent."
Of course, no 3-year-old campaign could unfold without the presence of Bob Baffert, who trained Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Baffert's best shot, for now, is Mor Spirit, who breezed to a confident win in the Los Alamitos Futurity about two weeks ago. He has two wins and two seconds in four races. In the Los Alamitos, Gary Stevens kept him wide and the horse confidently gained ground in the stretch and beat stablemate Toews On Ice.
Baffert hasn't named Mor Spirit's next race and has admitted concern about Toews distance and it's unclear if he will stay on the Derby trail.
Be on the lookout
California Chrome will do a special workout on the main track at Santa Anita on Saturday at about noon. The winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness will go 6 furlongs under regular rider Victor Espinoza. Chrome is scheduled to face Dortmund on Jan. 9 in the San Pasqual Stakes. Chrome has not raced since March 28 of last year.
You can't ignore Baffert in Saturday's Santa Ynez Stakes, a 6 1/2-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies. He sends three to post in the eight-horse field. Pretty N Cool is probably strongest, with a graded stakes win at Del Mar. She has won three of six races, all at 6 furlongs or less. Baffert's other two entries are Treasuring and One Last Shot.
The other $200,000 stakes on Saturday is the San Gabriel for older horses over the 1 1/8-mile turf course. The Irish-bred Obviously has four wins in 10 trips over the Santa Anita course. The 8-year-old gelding's last race was a ninth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup mile. Also worth watching in the 11-horse field is Chiropractor, winner of the Hollywood Derby (at Del Mar), who you won't see much of until the top of the stretch.
Other stakes at Santa Anita this weekend are the Midnight Lute for 3-year-olds and up over 6 1/2 furlongs on Saturday and the Monrovia for fillies and mares, run down the hill on the turf, on Sunday.