Last year at this time, California and Kentucky could not be any further apart. Southern California horses had won three straight Kentucky Derbies and four of the last five. But in 2017, arguably the best 3-year-old in the country, Mastery, had gone down with an injury in the San Felipe at Santa Anita. What was left in the West was a collection of maybes or could-have-beens.
But this year, the pendulum has rocketed back to the left side. In what is shaping up to be a very interesting road to the Kentucky Derby, story lines abound, rivalries are created and some say something might happen for the first time since 1882. And most of the principals are coming from here.
Over the next four weeks, everything we think we know about who is going to win the Kentucky Derby could be discarded. Or not.
"I think it's an exciting [prep season]," said Jay Privman, national correspondent for the Daily Racing Form, from New Orleans where he is reporting on Saturday's Louisiana Derby.
"There are several really good horses in this crop. There are a couple that didn't race at 2 and look like they might have the talent to win the Derby, which hasn't happened since 1882 [by Apollo]. And then you've got the rivalry of Bolt D'Oro and McKinzie."
Privman, who will be covering his 37th consecutive Derby in May, puts Bolt D'Oro and McKinzie, both based at Santa Anita, at the top of his list, with a sharp eye to lightly raced Justify and Magnum Moon, the pair that didn't race at 2 years old.
With that backdrop, let's preview the next four weeks.
Louisiana Derby (Saturday): My Boy Jack, from the barn of Keith Desormeaux, is the 5-2 favorite after winning the Southwest Stakes. Bravazo, winner of the Risen Star Stakes, will also get a lot of attention. The winner and second-place finishers of this race, and all the other remaining major preps, will qualify for the Derby by virtue of the 100 and 40 Derby points assigned, respectively, to the top two in the race. But in this case, they probably won't get much consideration.
"There is no one in this race who at the moment looks like they are as good as the top five or six 3-year-olds," Privman said. "To me, the interesting thing is if someone makes a big leap forward."
UAE Derby (March 31): Normally, this race is overlooked as a prep because the winner doesn't usually measure up or the connections don't want to ship to the U.S. from Dubai. But Mendelssohn is the exception. He won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar and trainer Aidan O'Brien is switching the horse to the dirt.
"If he wins, he's coming," Privman said. "He's got a dirt pedigree and Aidan O'Brien is arguably the best trainer in the world. They are intent on trying to make it. It makes must see TV."
Florida Derby (March 31): This is a very competitive race, with Audible the likely favorite. He won the Holy Bull by 5½ lengths for last year's Derby-winning trainer, Todd Pletcher, who did the Florida-Kentucky double with Always Dreaming. Promises Fulfilled, winner of the Fountain of Youth, and Strike Power, second in the Fountain of Youth, should get some backing.
"I've always liked Catholic Boy and was a little disappointed in his race [second] in Tampa," Privman said. "I'm interested to see if he moves forward from Tampa or he just hasn't progressed since being a 2-year-old."
Wood Memorial (April 7): Not much to see in this New York prep at Aqueduct. Trainer Bob Baffert said he was going to run Solomini, possibly his third-best 3-year-old, in the Santa Anita Derby, but don't be surprised if he ships the colt to this race and what could be some easy qualifying points.
BlueGrass Stakes (April 7): This race is all about last year's 2-year-old champion and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, Good Magic. He finished a dull third in his only race this year, the Fountain of Youth.
"This is a pivotal race for him," Privman said. "I didn't see much of an excuse for the way he ran in the Holy Bull. He has to do better than that to go forward from a 2-year-old."
Santa Anita Derby (April 7): This is clearly the main event with a rematch of Bolt D'Oro and McKinzie, who went stride-for-stride down the stretch in the San Felipe Stakes. McKinzie finished first by a head but was placed second for interfering with Bolt D'Oro. Both Baffert and trainer Mick Ruis were pleased with their horse's performance, although Baffert less so with the stewards' decision. This is the rematch everyone wanted and may be renewed in Louisville.
"The matchup between Bolt D'Oro and McKinzie is really compelling," Privman said. "They put on a great show last time. I think they are both suited for this distance [1 1/8 miles] and the Derby distance (1¼ miles)."
Arkansas Derby (April 14): In boxing, this would be called the co-main event, although it would go on first. Justify, undefeated and dominant in two starts, and Magnum Moon, undefeated and dominant in three starts, are looking to break that 135-year streak of an unraced 2-year-old winning the Kentucky Derby as a 3-year-old.
"They are short on experience but long on talent," Privman said. "It's interesting to see if they can move forward and end Apollo's streak."
The next four weeks will tell a lot.