The list of stakes races for 3-year-olds run before the Kentucky Derby has grown to an arm's length in recent years and several are important, but only the three run over 9 furlongs during April are pivotal.
The first of these was run this past Saturday and Larry The Legend's victory over Afternoon Deelites, Jumron and Timber Country in the Santa Anita Derby leaves the connections of the first four with well-grounded reasons for optimism. The Wood Memorial and Blue Grass will be run this coming Saturday.
So, what to make of Larry The Legend? He is a smallish colt foaled in Illinois and acquired by his trainer for $2,500 from bankruptcy court. He is by Local Talent, one of Northern Dancer's least-known sons from an obscurely-bred mare named Ticked to Sail. But he has won three stakes, the last a Grade I, beaten the best field of 3-year-olds assembled this season and earned $548,525.
Petionville beat Larry The Legend in a maiden race on New Year's Eve, but no horse has finished in front of the Santa Anita Derby winner since.
This, obviously, is the people's choice 3-year-old of the year. He will have every Larry in the nation rooting on Derby Day, along with every dreamer who ever bought a $2,500 horse in hopes that it would turn into a big winner.
He affirms that there is an enduring glimmer of hope for people who don't rule an Arab emirate, aren't Japanese industrialists, aviation tycoons, diet divas or heirs to Industrial Revolution fortunes. He is street-fighter tough. Go, Larry.
But a good deal was going on behind Larry The Legend at Santa Anita. Jumron, making his debut at center stage after having raced on the Northern California fair circuit as a 2-year-old and this season at Bay Meadows, was making a wild late run in the center of the course and Timber County, last season's champion 2-year-old, was moving strongly on the inside.
Previously undefeated Afternoon Deelites, meanwhile, was beaten from behind on the wire while failing to stay 9 furlongs. For all the Cinderellaesque storylines whirling around the winner and the Hollywood connections of the runner-up, the lingering impression in the wake of the Santa Anita Derby was that Timber Country and Jumron would have decided the issue in a longer race. As it was, they were gaining on two horses who labored the last furlong in a shade over 13 seconds.
The connections of two disappointing Santa Anita Derby starters were left to rethink their Derby plans. Petionville and In Character, first and second respectively in the Louisiana Derby last month, were crushed on Saturday.
The rest of the table will be set for the Derby with the runnings of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Talkin Man, the Canadian champion 2-year-old last year and impressive winner of the Gotham Stakes in his first start of the season, has trained steadily at Keeneland during the three-week interim and will return for the Wood. Pyramid Peak, once-defeated winner of the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah in his last and best effort, is expected at Aqueduct while his stablemate, Jambalaya Jazz, runs in the Blue Grass. Talkin Man and Pyramid Peak are expected to produce a very small exacta.
The reunion of Thunder Gulch and Suave Prospect, winner and contentious runner-up respectively in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby, is the principal Blue Grass story line.