Updated on 09/17/2011 1:22PM

Will a real Derby horse please stand up?


WASHINGTON, D.C. - No horse can win the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

That's the only conclusion to draw from the 3-year-old stakes races run so far this year. Not a single colt has compiled even a minimal set of the credentials necessary for success on the first Saturday in May. Almost every youngster who has shown a flash of talent has proceeded to injure himself or to discredit himself with a dismal performance.

For this reason, tomorrow's final round of prep races - the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Blue Grass at Keeneland, and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park - is critically important. The nation's leading 3-year-old is likely to emerge from one of these stakes.

Two months ago, this equine generation appeared to be filled with potential stars. When Read the Footnotes edged Second of June in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, both ran so fast that they looked like can't-miss Derby prospects. Birdstone and Eurosilver, impressive winners of stakes as 2-year-olds, appeared formidable, too; trainer Nick Zito was nursing them along with a single-minded focus on the Derby.

Read the Footnotes was soundly beaten in the Florida Derby. Birdstone gave a miserable showing in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park, and was withdrawn from the Blue Grass because of a high white blood count. Second of June was injured. Eurosilver got sick. And the 3-year-old crop was left without a leader.

But this is the time of year when youngsters can blossom suddenly into stars. Funny Cide was unacclaimed before he ran second in last year's Wood Memorial, signaling his imminent emergence as the star of his age group. In 2002, the unknown War Emblem won the Illinois Derby in April with a big speed figure and went on to glory in May.

So handicappers will not only be trying to pick the winners of Saturday's stakes, which are linked in a special pick three wager offered at tracks across the country. They will be watching the races closely and trying to spot the horse most likely to succeed at Churchill Downs three weeks hence. Here's a small primer of what's on tap:

Wood Memorial

Of the 11 horses entered at Aqueduct, at least eight have a plausible chance to win, but the ones with the most intriguing Derby potential are Tapit and Master David. Tapit looked like a budding star when he won the Laurel Futurity last fall, but a minor physical problem set back his training this winter and probably accounted for his poor showing in the Florida Derby. Master David's campaign was set back by an illness this spring, and trainer Bobby Frankel is now trying to get him back on track for the Triple Crown.

But because neither of these colts is certain to deliver a peak effort Saturday, I am taking a shot with Swingforthefences, who impressed me with a powerful rally to win an allowance race at Gulfstream this winter. He subsequently lost the Tampa Bay Derby when he pressed the early pace, but he will revert to his preferred stretch-running style in the Wood. His speed figures are as good as his main rivals, and he is 10-1in the morning line.

Blue Grass

The Keeneland race gives last year's 2-year-old champion a chance to restore his reputation. Action This Day won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old, but he has finished out of the money in two California stakes this season.

Even if Action This Day does regain his best form, Lion Heart figures to win the Blue Grass. Undefeated at 2, the speedster lost his only start at 3, the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita, but he was impressive in defeat. He got involved in a suicidal duel for the early lead, running a half-mile in 45.71 seconds, and held on tenaciously before being caught in the final strides. He won't have to cope with much other speed in the Blue Grass, and the Keeneland track is one that traditionally gives an edge to front-runners.

Even if Lion Heart wins impressively, though, handicappers may question whether he has the stamina and the style for the Derby. Conceivably, a horse could lose to Lion Heart tomorrow but run well enough to stamp himself as a more viable Derby contender.

Arkansas Derby

Smarty Jones is favored to win, and, if he does, he'll be the cynosure at Churchill Downs - an undefeated colt with a humble background and a chance to earn a $5 million bonus for sweeping the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby. His win in the Rebel last month was a good one, with a solid Beyer Speed Figure of 106, but he benefited from a slow early pace, and he will get more pressure tomorrow.

Bettors playing the pick three might reasonably use the California invaders Borrego and Harvard Avenue on their tickets along with the favorite. Still, Smarty Jones is the one to beat in this weak field. But considering that he is bred to be a sprinter, and that he has never faced significant opposition, he'll have to win very, very impressively to establish himself as a top Kentucky Derby contender.

(c) The Washington Post