LOUISVILLE, KY. — In a typical year, the run-up to the Kentucky Derby feels like a war of attrition, with would-be contenders falling away week after punishing week.
Injuries claim some and others simply can't keep pace with the competition when the toughest prep fields line up in late March and early April.
But as the attention of the thoroughbred racing world turns toward Churchill Downs for the 141st running of the Derby on Saturday, the usual grumbling about shallow crops of 3-year-olds is nowhere to be heard.
As owners and trainers wait to learn their fates in Wednesday evening's post-position draw, analysts are talking up this year's Derby field of 20 as the deepest and most gifted in decades.
"This is my 35th Derby, and I've been going through past performances trying to find a field with comparable talent and depth," said NBC's Randy Moss. "There are a few but not many."
Rather than exposing pretenders and breaking down fragile bodies, this year's prep season seemed to produce another intriguing star every week.
The early favorites — trainer Bob Baffert's duo of American Pharoah and Dortmund and rival Todd Pletcher's graceful colt Carpe Diem — fortified their reputations with terrific performances.
"I'm extremely impressed with Baffert's two horses, the ease with which they've won and their works in the time since," said Maryland trainer Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom.
Motion cautioned that the picture often looks different in hindsight. "Only time will tell," he said in assessing this year's 3-year-olds. "It certainly looks like a good group. But we've heard that before."
With his almost casual ability to run away from competitors, American Pharoah stirs romantic sentiments in the most hardened of racetrack observers. After he turned in a scintillating Sunday workout at Churchill Downs, longtime clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young compared American Pharoah to Michael Jordan.
"I have been doing this for 35 years, and he might be the best horse I've ever seen," Young said. "He stays in the air longer than any horse, and you get the feeling that there's not one gear left, but he may have two, three or four gears."
And yet it's not hard to find those who favor hulking stablemate Dortmund. Baffert's other star has ground out tougher wins against better competition, and his advocates suggest he might be better equipped to fight through the inevitable traffic created by a 20-horse field.
Or maybe you prefer Carpe Diem, a beautiful natural runner and possibly the best horse Pletcher — often the trainer with the most Derby contenders — has ever brought to Churchill Downs.
The talent at the very top is uncommon and doesn't fall off much from there.
Materiality, also trained by Pletcher, didn't run at all as a 2-year-old and didn't face a top field until the March 28 Florida Derby. But he looked so good in outdueling fellow Derby contender Upstart and in subsequent workouts that he joined the list of elite hopefuls.
The same day as Materiality's big win in Florida, Mubtaahij sent a postcard from Dubai with his eight-length win in the UAE Derby. Some might question his past competition and his ability to run on the dirt at Churchill Downs, but no one doubts the acumen of his trainer, South African Mike de Kock. De Kock's horses have performed exceptionally in their rare U.S. appearances, and he added another layer of intrigue to the Derby picture when he announced Mubtaahij would race in Kentucky.
A week later in New York, Frosted surged from well off the lead to win the Wood Memorial and add his name to the top batch of Derby contenders. After Frosted lost steam in the Feb. 21 Fountain of Youth Stakes, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin tried everything from a jockey switch to different training rituals to minor throat surgery. His tinkering seemingly paid off.
Really, you have to dig halfway into the field before you find an entrant analysts aren't excited about.
Even a horse such as the Simon Callaghan-trained Firing Line didn't forfeit much esteem by losing stakes races in late December and early February. Why? Because he lost those two races to Dortmund by a few feet combined and looked like he might easily best Baffert's star on another day.
Firing Line subsequently won the Sunland Derby by 14 lengths, and few would be surprised if he outran the favorites at Churchill under Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens.
The story is similar for Upstart, trained by Rick Violette Jr. He hasn't won since the Holy Bull in late January, but he ran such a spirited race in losing the Florida Derby to Materiality that he cannot be ignored come Derby day.
Poor International Star struggles to generate any hype in this company, and all he did was go undefeated in his Louisiana prep slate and rack up the most Derby qualifying points of any horse in the field. Handicappers wonder if the Mike Maker-trained colt is simply too small and too slow, but his accomplishments would make him more than an afterthought most years.
With a potential superstar in American Pharoah and half a field's worth of intriguing contenders, analysts sound positively delighted trying to figure how this Derby will play out.
"I can't wait to see it," Moss said. "I've been to the Derby so many times that it's fair to say it's no longer on my bucket list. But this is a year when I'm really excited."