Updated on 09/17/2011 8:47PM

First steps to the Derby

Declan's Moon cools off Wednesday after a work at Hollywood. He'll make his 2005 debut in March.

The Kentucky Derby is not until May 7, but as far as trainer Ron Ellis is concerned, it cannot come quickly enough. "I wish the Derby was the first Saturday in March," he said Wednesday.

Ellis's enthusiasm is understandable. He got a taste of the Derby experience two years ago with Atswhatimtalknbout, who was a fast-finishing fourth. His wife, Amy, is a native of Louisville, Ky., who has Derby Fever 365/24/7. And this year, Ellis heads into the spring Derby preps with the acknowledged Derby favorite, Declan's Moon, who is coming off an unbeaten 2-year-old campaign that earned him an Eclipse Award.

Declan's Moon heads Daily Racing Form's inaugural top 25 list for 2005. He is the 6-1 favorite on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, DRF's national handicapper. All indications are that Declan's Moon has continued to thrive this winter. He is not scheduled to race until the first Saturday in March, in Santa Anita's Grade 2, $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes. But he has turned in a series of eye-catching workouts at Hollywood Park in recent weeks with exercise rider Carlos Arias, including a six-furlong drill in 1:12.60 on Wednesday morning that was the best of 18 at the distance. It earned a "breezing" notation from the track's clockers.

"I'm just going to let the clockers do the talking for me," Ellis said. "He was breezing. I think the time off did just what it was supposed to do. He seems even stronger than before. He's working even better than he was before the Hollywood Futurity. He's ready to run right now."

But his debut will not come for three more weeks. In fact, a number of this year's leading contenders - including Afleet Alex, Rockport Harbor, and Wilko - are not scheduled to make their 3-year-old debuts until March, and, like Declan's Moon, will have just two preps for the Derby.

In the meantime, several well-regarded prospects from last year are set to make their 3-year-old debuts this weekend, including Galloping Grocer in Saturday's $75,000 Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct, and Consolidator and Roman Ruler in Sunday's Grade 2, $150,000 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. The most compelling race of the weekend might be Saturday's Grade 3, $150,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, which is expected to include four members of the Derby Watch's top 25 - Buzzards Bay, Harlington, Rush Bay, and Storm Surge. Texcess is scheduled to head the field in the $100,000 San Mateo Mile at Bay Meadows on Saturday, and 3-year-olds also will be in action Saturday in the $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby.

Most of those races will be evaluated by bettors who are playing Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which closes at 6 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday. However, as of Wednesday, Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle said it was not known if the San Vicente would be run before the pool closes.

There is one filly who made this year's top 25, Sweet Catomine. Last year's champion 2-year-old filly, she is scheduled to make her next start in the Grade 1, $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks on March 13, but co-owner Marty Wygod is eager to take on males after that if Sweet Catomine continues to dominate fillies.

"She's running in the Oaks. Then we will play everything by ear," said Julio Canani, who trains Sweet Catomine.

This year's top Derby candidates are scattered all over the country. California, Florida, and Louisiana have their usual complement of prospects, but this spring particular attention will be focused again on Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, from where Smarty Jones sprang to win last year's Derby.

John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones, has returned to Oaklawn with Rockport Harbor, who, like Declan's Moon, won all four of his starts last year. Late last month at a luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif., Servis said he never before had understood the hold that the Derby had on such trainers as Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, and Nick Zito. But after the experience of Smarty Jones, Servis said, "I understand. I can't wait to do it again."

"When you've got one horse," Servis said, referring to a lone Derby candidate, "you hope you don't have any setbacks. I've got the horse. I just need everything to go right."

Servis said Rockport Harbor is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 3, $250,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 19. That is also where Afleet Alex is scheduled to race next, according to trainer Tim Ritchey, who downplayed the fact that Afleet Alex has yet to have a workout this year.

"I wanted to give him plenty of time and have him at his absolute peak for the Derby, not his first race here," Ritchey said from Oaklawn. "He'll work in the next week to 10 days."

Also based at Oaklawn is Greater Good, the winner of last fall's Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. His trainer, Bob Holthus, said Greater Good will make his 3-year-old debut in the $100,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 19.

Wilko, who upset Afleet Alex in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and then was third to Declan's Moon in the Hollywood Futurity, is pointing for a rematch with Declan's Moon in the Santa Catalina, according to trainer Craig Dollase. Also looking at the Santa Catalina are Going Wild, who won last Saturday's Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, and Spanish Chestnut, the winner of last month's San Rafael Stakes.

Going Wild, however, will need a new rider, since Victor Espinoza is committed to ride Declan's Moon.

Another possibility for the Santa Catalina is Giacomo, who was third in the Sham and was second in the Hollywood Futurity. But he might wait until the Grade 2, $250,000 San Felipe Stakes on March 19. Giacomo lost his right front shoe in the Sham.

The winners of last Saturday's stakes at Gulfstream are sorting through their options.

Closing Argument, who won the Holy Bull Stakes, could return in the Grade 2, $300,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream on March 5, but he may skip that race to await something later, according to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Also struggling with Gulfstream's stakes schedule - which has three Derby preps at 1 1/8 miles, and has the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby positioned in no-man's land April 2, five weeks before the Kentucky Derby - is Bill White, trainer of High Fly, the beaten favorite in the Holy Bull.

"We don't want to run him in all four of Gulfstream's 3-year-old races," said White, who was including last month's Aventura Stakes in the mix. "We're trying to get to the Florida Derby, but that's a 60-day span."

Proud Accolade, who won the Hutcheson Stakes, could come back in the Fountain of Youth, or go to Fair Grounds for the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby on March 12. The Louisiana Derby is more attractive to trainer Todd Pletcher because it is 1 1/16 miles, while the Fountain of Youth is 1 1/8 miles.

Pletcher also is considering Bandini, an impressive allowance winner last Saturday at Gulfstream, for both the Fountain of Youth and Louisiana Derby.

Gulfstream's Grade 2, $150,000 Swale Stakes at seven furlongs on March 5 looks like the next spot for the speedy Lost in the Fog, who is the only member of Derby Watch yet to be nominated to the Triple Crown. The Swale also could mark the comeback for Straight Line, and is among the options for High Limit and Sun King.

WHO'S HOT: Todd Pletcher, last year's Eclipse Award-winning trainer, has three horses among the top 25 of Derby Watch. His mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, has two. They are the only trainers with more than one runner in the top 25. The wealth is spread this year, with 22 trainers represented on the list.

WHO'S NOT: The most prominent early-season casualty is Fusaichi Samurai, the $4.5 million 2-year-old purchase who is off the Derby trail after being injured in a workout last month.

ON THE BUBBLE: Eight horses among the top 25 are scheduled to run this weekend, so there could be plenty of adjustment to the list depending on those results. Among those who could move on the list with big performances this weekend are Don't Get Mad, the cleverly named son of Stephen Got Even who is running in Santa Anita's San Vicente Stakes on Sunday; Scrappy T, the Count Fleet winner who takes on Galloping Grocer in Saturday's Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct; and Scipion and Silent Bid, who are venturing from California to Louisiana for Saturday's Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

- additional reporting by Brad Free