Updated on 09/16/2011 8:54AM

Never too soon for Derby fever

Vindication enters the new year as the early favorite for the May 3 Kentucky Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. - With four wins in four starts, and a probable Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old colt coming his way, Vindication heads into the new year as the early favorite for the 2003 Kentucky Derby, a race his trainer, Bob Baffert, has won three times. Vindication, however, will not race again until well into the Santa Anita meet, Baffert having decided to give him a break after his runaway victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

In the interim, a number of promising colts appear poised to make an impact. Such talented runners as Empire Maker, Ghostzapper, Kafwain, and Whywhywhy all are training in Southern California this winter, and should make the West Coast-based 3-year-olds of 2003 a group to watch closely in the months leading to the April 5 Santa Anita Derby and May 3 Kentucky Derby.

Thursday's opening-day card at Santa Anita offers a taste of what is in store this winter. There are four races for 2-year-olds males, including an allowance with first-out winners Ghostzapper and Scrimshaw; a California-bred stakes with the speedy northern California invader D's Bertrando and Hollywood Park maiden winner Excessivepleasure; and two maiden races with several well-bred and expensive first-time starters.

Baffert, like most years, is loaded with prospects as he heads down the road to the Derby.

"It looks better than it did this time last year," Baffert said. "Last year, when we started down the road, it was like going out with a car with the tire pressure low."

In addition to Vindication and Kafwain, the one-two finishers in the Breeders' Cup, Baffert has northern California stakes winner Spensive, the quick Truckle Feature, the improving Apalachian Thunder, and some late-developing runners who have yet to debut, such as the Pleasant Colony colt Maneuverable.

Vindication has "just started galloping again," Baffert said.

"I haven't set my sights on anything for his next race," Baffert said. "When he's ready, I'll put him in a race. He'll probably go long his first time out. I just want to gradually get him ready."

Vindication is by Seattle Slew, and his offspring have a tendency to get hot-blooded. That is why, Baffert said, he spaced Vindication's races liberally at age 2, and why he wants a light campaign for Vindication heading into the Triple Crown.

"I want to keep his mind level," Baffert said. "He's got a good mind. I don't want to mess with it. He's very quiet around the barn. You can do anything with him. That's what I like about him. He's got a lot of class. He keeps his stall clean; all the good ones do that. He knows how to win. He's shown us a lot so far. He's 4 for 4, he's shipped a couple of times. He's been pretty impressive."

That's about as far as Baffert will go. He knows how good Vindication is. He just doesn't want to be a human billboard for the colt.

"I don't want to jinx myself by bragging on him," Baffert said. "War Emblem, that was the most enjoyable Derby. No one thought we could win. We had a ball. I'd like to sneak back in again."

Bobby Frankel, who made an impact on the 3-year-old scene this past season with Medaglia d'Oro and Labamta Babe, counts Empire Maker, Ghostzapper, and Peace Rules as his leading prospects.

Empire Maker, the worst-kept secret in racing before his debut, won his first start at Belmont Park, then was third in the Remsen Stakes in only his second start when facing the likes of Toccet. Like Ghostzapper, he is still eligible for entry-level allowance conditions.

Another outstanding trainer with a deep pool of prospects is Patrick Biancone, whose leading Derby contender is Whywhywhy, the winner of the Belmont Futurity and Sanford Stakes. Biancone said Whywhywhy will make his first start at age 3 going two turns, in either the Jan. 18 Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita or the Feb. 15 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Biancone is also high on Prince in Command, a Gentlemen colt who was a maiden winner last summer at Saratoga. "He should run by the end of January," Biancone said.

Others to follow include Outta Here, who shipped to Louisiana and won Saturday night's Delta Jackpot; Siberland, who showed plenty of promise at Del Mar and won Saturday's Arizona Juvenile Stakes at Turf Paradise; Crackup, the winner of the Great State Juvenile; Listen Indy, who was third in the Norfolk Stakes; Man Among Men, a stakes winner on turf who has the pedigree to make a successful switch to the dirt; and the unraced colts American Liberty and Unbridled's Comet, both trained by Neil Drysdale.

The Santa Catalina, at 1 1/16 miles, is the next two-turn stakes race for Derby prospects on this circuit. Truckle Feature is among those headed to that race, along with the Bill Spawr-trained Our Bobby V. Other important races this meet are the one-mile San Rafael Stakes March 1, and the San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 16, the last major prep for the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby.

Those who need another sprint race or two before stretching out can utilize the six-furlong San Miguel Stakes on Jan. 12 and the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 1. Baffert's quick colt Rojo Toro, a winner of his both his starts, is among those pointing for the San Miguel.