In spring, handicappers' thoughts turn to bashing Kentucky Derby contenders. But not this year, when many alleged experts are marveling about the talent and depth of this 3-year-old class, led by top-rated American Pharoah, his undefeated stablemate, Dortmund, and Carpe Diem.
Some are calling it the best group in 20 years. Longtime race caller Mike Battaglia said American Pharoah and Dortmund give trainer Bob Baffert the best 1-2 punch in a Derby since Ben Jones ran first and second with Triple Crown winner Citation and Coaltown in 1948.
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Include Hall of Famer Steve Cauthen among the optimists. The last rider to sweep the classics, on Affirmed in 1978, was impressed with romps by American Pharoah (8 lengths, Arkansas Derby), Dortmund (4 1/4, Santa Anita Derby), Carpe Diem (3, Blue Grass) and Mubtaahij (8, U.A.E. Derby in Dubai). Throw in improving Wood Memorial winner Frosted and it's an imposing top five.
"It looks like a really good year," Cauthen said. "At this point, you could certainly say this is a very good bunch. It depends on how far back you want to go to compare, because [in 1989] we had Easy Goer and Sunday Silence, but I'd say this is one of the best bunches we've had in a very long time."
In most other years, the buzz would be about Todd Pletcher, who could saddle a record-tying five horses in search of his second Derby. Besides Carpe Diem, the seven-time Eclipse Award recipient has Florida Derby winner Materiality, Stanford, Madefromlucky and Itsaknockout. Pletcher's cavalry hasn't gotten much attention since Dortmund and American Pharoah dazzled in their final preps. "The West Coast group is very strong," Pletcher said. "Dortmund is undefeated, and American Pharoah looks like a super horse."
Baffert has three Derby wins but is 0-for-12 since 2002 (War Emblem). Like Pletcher, every year Baffert points expensive, well-bred runners for the Run for the Roses. As a longtime major player at the elite level, he rarely lets himself get carried away. With American Pharoah, he can't resist.
"I've had a lot of nice horses," Baffert said. "I think he's the most exceptional 3-year-old. He's an amazing horse."
That's saying a lot, considering he trained Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Point Given (2001) and War Emblem, all of whom won two-thirds of the Triple Crown.
Since American Pharoah ran fifth in his debut, he's 4-for-4, all in graded stakes, by a combined 22 1/4 lengths. The 2014 2-year-old champ showed he didn't need the lead by stalking in second before blowing open the Arkansas Derby. If Victor Espinoza hadn't eased him late, the margin would have been 10 or 11 lengths.
"The way this horse runs is unbelievable," said Espinoza, who rode War Emblem and last year's 3-year-old sensation, California Chrome. "I don't feel like he's running that fast and then I look back and he's so far ahead. It's the first time I've gone into the Derby in back-to-back years with horses like this. I'm very excited."
So is Baffert. "I don't want to get ahead of myself, but Dortmund is another one who we don't yet know how good he is," he said. "I can't believe I have two horses like that in the same year. They're both outstanding, and I just feel so fortunate."