02/02/2012 5:27PM

Early guide to Kentucky Derby prospects flying under the radar

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Barbara D. Livingston
Take Charge Indy looks like a legitimate Kentucky Derby prospect, despite still being eligible for a first-level allowance.

In a little more than a minute and a half this past Sunday, the Kentucky Derby picture changed.

Hansen, the 2-year-old champion, was beaten for the first time in the Grade 3 Holy Bull, and the horse who did the beating – Algorithms – went from being promising recent allowance horse to suddenly one of the favorites for the Derby.

It wasn’t without reason. Algorithms did everything right, rating kindly behind a blistering pace set by Hansen and cruising to an easy victory in fast time over off going.

But bear this in mind, the Kentucky Derby may seem right around the corner to racing fans, being just three months away, but to a developing 3-year-old horse, it might as well be three years away.

These horses are going through a period of physical and mental maturation in the spring of their 3-year-old year, which is why a lot can and regularly does happen to shake things up in the lead-up to the Derby.

With that said, I dug through some past performances this week to try to identify some hidden talent – something I did a month or two back, as well – trying to look for underrated horses that might jump up and become major players on the Derby trail in the weeks to come.

Here they are, broken down by their current base.

Florida

Neck ‘n Neck: Second to the promising Todd Pletcher trainee Discreet Dancer at Gulfstream on Jan. 7 going a mile, this colt should benefit when back in a two-turn route. He has made steady improvement in each of his five starts, and appears set to continue to forward progression this spring.

Trainer Ian Wilkes brings his horses along slowly, teaches them to relax, and this one has very solid fast-track form.

He is the choice to win Saturday’s Grade 3 Sam. F. Davis Stakes at Tampa.

Take Charge Indy: He looks similar to Neck ‘n Neck in that he was second to dominant Pletcher runner last time out in an allowance, losing to El Padrino, but this one ran a new Beyer top in defeat, a 96, while finishing well clear of the pack.

Throw in good looks, a great sire in A.P. Indy, and foundation gained as a 2-year-old, and this one appears a legitimate Derby prospect despite still being eligible for a first-level allowance.

California

Holy Candy: Don’t let the fact that this one is a maiden fool you. Although he has yet to win in two starts, he is a horse with ability, having run second in a sprint at Hollywood in November before again settling for second in a maiden dirt route at Santa Anita on Jan. 21.

In the latter race, he was disadvantaged by the winner coasting to an easy lead, while Holy Candy was kept in the three- to four-path for much of the race. It was too much to overcome, and yet he still ran an 85 Beyer Speed Figure.

Look for him to break out with a maiden victory in the next month, and then he will have to pick up needed graded earnings in stakes races shortly thereafter.

Nehro followed that path last year. He was still a maiden at this juncture in 2011, and he would go to win his first race in February before a trio of runner-up finishes in the Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kentucky Derbies.

Louisiana

Mr. Bowling: Granted, he’s a name horse – having won the Grade 3 Lecomte last month – but there isn’t a buzz to him, likely because he earned just a 79 Beer in winning the Lecomte.

Number aside, he was brave in victory and galloped out well, and as I have noted on past occasions, Larry Jones-trained horses tend to show improvement in their 3-year-old seasons.

Maybe he’s not fast enough, but he hasn’t peaked too early, either – or knocked himself out by running some freakish figure.

Shared Property: This is a horse whose past performances largely mirror those of Take Charge Indy. Accomplished at 2, winning the Arlington-Washington Futurity, he returned with a nice comeback in the Lecomte by finishing a wide third after starting from post 13.

A better draw puts him in the thick of things next time out in the Risen Star, particularly if he moves forward second time off a layoff.

His distance Tomlinson rating for 1 1/4 miles is a below average 236, but there’s little doubt that he can handle at least middle distance dirt races.

Being by Scat Daddy, who has shown promise as a turf sire, his future might not be limited to merely the dirt.

He should seemingly enjoy a shift to grass racing down the road when the lucrative turf stakes for 3-year-olds are contested.