Updated on 09/17/2011 9:54AM

Experience needed? Not any more

Indy Dancer, training at Palm Meadows last week under Rudy Ignacio, is typical of this year's Derby contenders: He's inexperienced and will have had only a handful of races before the big one.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It's not a road to the Kentucky Derby, it's a labyrinth. The twists and turns en route to Louisville for the 3-year-old crop of 2003 begin in earnest this weekend, with such key preps as Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and Sunday's Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

The trend in the past two decades toward lighter campaigns for horses - either in the belief that horses do better fresh, or because the breed is not physically capable of anything more demanding - has made pre-season Kentucky Derby evaluations more challenging than ever. It is particularly so for bettors looking to weigh in on this weekend's Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which closes Sunday.

Of the 25 horses on the first 2003 edition of Daily Racing Form's , none has raced 10 times. Early favorite Kafwain has raced nine times. But Kafwain is a workhorse compared to most of his brethren, who just 11 weeks before the Kentucky Derby have raced, on average, about four times.

That is what makes this weekend's races, and those in subsequent weeks, so vitally important. Each performance is magnified, because there are fewer opportunities to race and gain experience, or to correct bad habits.

The eight runners expected to be entered here in the Fountain of Youth are, on the whole, a fairly experienced bunch for this crop. Ozzie Cat, Spite the Devil, and Trust N Luck all have raced eight times, and Midway Cat has run seven times. But the field also includes Ten Cents a Shine, a legitimate contender, and a lightly raced one at that, with just three starts.

The Risen Star field should be larger, but it is the lightly raced runners who figure to garner most of the attention. Badge of Silver, Indy Dancer, and Seattle Hoofer all have raced just two times, making Saintly Look, the Lecomte Stakes winner, look like a grizzled veteran with his five starts.

Eleven of the top 25 runners on Derby Watch are scheduled to run this weekend. Offlee Wild, Midway Cat, Ten Cents a Shine, Trust N Luck, and Whywhywhy are in the Fountain of Youth, the first Grade 1 race of the year open to all 3-year-olds. Badge of Silver, Indy Dancer, Saintly Look, and Seattle Hoofer are in the Risen Star, which, like the Fountain of Youth, is at 1 1/16 miles. In addition, Lion Tamer and Scrimshaw are scheduled to run in Saturday's seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes on the Fountain of Youth undercard.

Several highly regarded members of this crop will have abbreviated campaigns heading into the Derby. The unbeaten Sky Mesa, who is training at nearby Palm Beach Downs, will have just two preps, beginning next month. Toccet, who drew admirers for his aggressive 2-year-old campaign, also will have no more than two preps, but a late start because of a minor injury means he can afford no setbacks from this point. He has yet to even have a workout this year, so pinpointing a possible comeback race is futile at this point.

The trend toward light campaigns is weighing on the plans of Funny Cide and Man Among Men.

Funny Cide missed the Fountain of Youth because of a respiratory infection, but his trainer, Barclay Tagg, was not alarmed.

"I just want to run him two more times before the Kentucky Derby, so we can skip this race, get healthy, and run in the Florida Derby," Tagg said. "Even if he'd have run this weekend, I'd have only wanted to run him one more time before the Derby."

Gary Mandella, the trainer of Sham Stakes winner Man Among Men, thinks his colt runs best with plenty of time between starts. So, Mandella on Thursday said he might bypass Santa Anita's San Felipe Stakes on March 16 in order to await the Santa Anita Derby on April 5.

"If he runs in the San Felipe, it's only 20 days back to the next race," Mandella said. "He might need three races before the Derby. But I think if he runs in two races at a mile and an eighth, that's two pretty stiff races and might make up for missing one.

"We especially might consider waiting for the Santa Anita Derby if it rains all this month," Mandella said as he drove through a heavy rainstorm in Southern California on Wednesday.

Several nationally prominent trainers have major contenders for this year's Derby.

Bob Baffert, a three-time winner of the Derby, may have suffered a setback when Vindication was injured, but he has had ideal campaigns so far for both Kafwain and Domestic Dispute. They both had strong foundations at age 2, were victorious in their 2003 debuts, and are scheduled for two more prep races before the Derby. At this point, both are scheduled to run in the San Felipe.

Baffert this week said he also thinks the filly Composure could rank no worse than his third-best prospect, this following her courageous victory in Sunday's Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita. Composure is one of just five fillies who were nominated to this year's Triple Crown.

Just minutes after Composure's victory, Baffert sent a text message to the cell phone of Ron Anderson, the agent for jockey Jerry Bailey, who was watching the race on his computer at home in south Florida.

"Might be my Derby horse," Baffert's message read.

Bobby Frankel, whose Hall of Fame training career has yet to include a victory in a Triple Crown race, has two top prospects in Empire Maker and Peace Rules.

Empire Maker is heading to the Florida Derby following his second-place finish in the Sham. He will add blinkers for the Florida Derby, Frankel said. Peace Rules, a stakes winner on turf, will move back to the main track for Santa Anita's San Rafael Stakes on March 1.

Neil Drysdale, who won the Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, has the rapidly improving Ministers Wild Cat, who won last week's Golden State Mile. Drysdale said this week he was not sure where Ministers Wild Cat would run next. He said the wet weather that hit Southern California this week might compromise training time.