01/20/2012 5:24PM

Hovdey: Derby thoughts always in forefront

Benoit & Associates
Got Even, Garrett Gomez up, wins the California Breeders Champion Stakes.

Kids start getting excited about Christmas before Thanksgiving. Little girls shop for Easter bonnets as the winter snows begin to melt, and there are enterprising young men who stock up on Fourth of July fireworks even as the excitement of Valentine’s Day fades.

There’s no sense in waiting until the last minute, is the point.

Which is why it is perfectly understandable that the drums for the Kentucky Derby start building to a deafening beat about this time each year for fear the first Saturday in May – May 5 this year – might sneak up out of nowhere and take a nation unprepared.

As a result, it is never too soon to pack those bags full of punditry. Before long there will be detailed lists of Top 10, Top 20, Top 50 Kentucky Derby candidates popping up on every sort of website, the names winnowed with great care from the North American crop of 31,299 registered Thoroughbred foals.

(The number includes 2,264 from Canada and 420 from Puerto Rico, which was a little surprising since I thought Canada’s real name was North America, and Puerto Rico was still part of Florida.)

Between now and the last Saturday in April there are 30 graded races of all shapes and colors for 3-year-olds. How they perform in those races will be immediately analyzed through a Derby prism, their form and figures overlaid on what is required to get a mile and a quarter without any water beneath those towering twin spires of Churchill Downs.

(Busted myth alert: While horses are discouraged from drinking water during the race itself, fans swim in a sea of bourbon and beer. And with the building of the new Churchill Downs grandstand you can actually look down upon the twin spires, which tends to lessen their majesty.)

This reporter is going to commence his personal version of Daily Racing Form ’s Derby Watch (named for our own Mike Watchmaker) on Sunday with the running of the $75,000 San Pedro Stakes at Santa Anita Park. This is a 6 1/2-furlong main track affair, non-graded and named for the sweet character in “Napoleon Dynamite” who ran for class president. Props to Santa Anita for the obscure film reference.

Non-graded? Six and a half furlongs you say? How can such a spot be taken seriously by anyone with a 3-year-old of quality? I defy that guy sitting next to me at the bar to name a recent Kentucky Derby winner who commenced his 3-year-old campaign in a sprint. Smarty Jones? Nope. War Emblem? Sorry. Big Brown, negativo? You need to go back to 1997 and Silver Charm, who got things going that winter with a win in the seven-furlong San Vicente at Santa Anita.

Still, Silver Charm was hardly a oddball. There was considerable precedent. Among other Derby winners to use a sprint to ease into a Derby campaign were Swale, Spend a Buck, Sunday Silence, Canonero, Bold Forbes, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Chateaugay, Carry Back, Tim Tam, Northern Dancer and Swaps. Did I forget Secretariat? Yeah, him too.

At this point it’s a stretch to look upon any of the six entered in the San Pedro as Derby candidates. Drill, the likely favorite, already has waved the white flag when it comes to two-turn events, while Midnight Transfer, the most promising maiden winner of the meet, drew the rail and might be shopped to another spot.

This time last year, Peter Miller was trying to get the accomplished gelding Comma to the Top to the Derby by way of two-turn West Coast preps. He got him to Kentucky, but it wasn’t pretty, and the horse ended up needing surgery to repair an ankle injury sustained in the nation’s most famous race.

Miller will be running Got Even in the San Pedro, fresh from a smasher in the male division of the California Breeders Champion Stakes on opening day at Santa Anita. A gelded son of Stephen Got Even, Got Even has won 3 of 8 starts and cost all of $14,000 as a yearling at Barretts, which makes his bankroll of more than $100,000 look like somebody did something right.

“I’d rather let the horse tell us where he wants to go rather than the other way around,” Miller said. “Although you’d think being by Stephen Got Even a mile wouldn’t be out of his range.”

At this time each year it is forever this way, horses dragged either unwilling or unable into the Kentucky Derby simply because they happen to be three. Miller had all but talked himself and his owners out of running Comma to the Top in the 2011 Derby when, at somewhere between the 10th and 11th hour, it was decided that the pace scenario unfolding on paper suited Comma to the Top’s free-wheeling style.

The game little gelding made it to the quarter pole in steady pursuit of pacesetting Shackleford and then retreated to last. After recovering from his subsequent surgery, Comma to the Top won his second race back in December.

“He’s doing fine now, although things didn’t work out in the Sir Beaufort,” Miller said, referring to Comma to the Top’s going too fast too early in a mile stakes on the grass opening day. “We did get that good allowance win in him before that, so we know he’s still the kind of horse who wants to win races.

“I think they can lose their confidence if you keep putting them in over their heads, or where they don’t belong,” Miller added. “I give him the opportunity to ‘win’ some of his workouts, and now I’d like to find him an allowance race he could win and go from there.”

As for Got Even and the rest of the San Pedro runners, let’s enjoy the show – and let them tell their people what should come next.