churchill downsIt sounds like an April Fool’s joke, but the Kentucky Derby is in 31 days.

The birds are back in town and a long winter of prep races is reaching its peak. Three Grade 1 preps take place Saturday: the Blue Grass Stakes, the Santa Anita Derby and the Wood Memorial.

Three others were contested last Saturday. The last two major preps, the Arkansas Derby and Lexington Stakes, will be held April 11.

Last weekend featured powerful performances by three horses. Materiality and Upstart turned the Florida Derby into a two-horse race, dashing 12 ½ lengths clear of their nearest rival. Mubtaahij posted a similar blowout in Dubai, dusting archrival Maftool by eight lengths in the UAE Derby.

Materiality would be a serious Derby contender if it weren’t for the fact that he didn’t race as a 2-year-old. The last such horse to win the Derby was Apollo in 1882. Everyone keeps saying, “It will happen someday!” but for 133 years, that day has not arrived. Since 1973, 55 horses have tried and failed. Woe betide those who flout the Curse of Apollo.

But you never know. If the curse is ever broken, it will be by a horse with a résumé like Materiality’s:

  • Son of 2005 Preakness-Belmont winner Afleet Alex
  • Undefeated in three starts
  • Owns two of the top eight Beyer Speed Figures earned by a 3-year-old this year. (His 110 Beyer from the Florida Derby ranks at the top of the crop.)

Materiality is a supremely talented speedster. But so was Verrazano at this stage. Verrazano didn’t race at 2 either; the winter of 2013 was spent playing catch-up. On Derby Day, he was just plain spent, finishing 15 lengths in arrears of Orb. Both horses are trained by Todd Pletcher, whose pricey ponies tend to fire their best shots in prep races instead of the Big Race. Pletcher is 1 for 40 in the Kentucky Derby.

The colt Materiality defeated, Upstart, is a good bet to get revenge on May 2. He started four times as a 2-year-old, giving him a strong foundation of conditioning that horsemen call “bottom.” Upstart has finished no worse than third in seven career starts, five of which were graded stakes. He is a classy warrior.

A grandson of A.P. Indy, Upstart owns the second- and third-best Beyers posted by 3-year-olds, a 105 for his win in the Grade 2 Holy Bull and a sparkling 108 for his 1 ½-length loss in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. The exertions required to earn such fine figs lead some to believe that Upstart is on a downturn. Pay close attention to reports on his pre-Derby training. If he seems to be thriving, Upstart might be the fittest horse in the race.

If he isn’t, Mubtaahij will be. (It’s pronounced MOOB-tah-heezh.) The Irish-bred grandson of the great Dubai Millennium has won consecutive races at the Preakness distance of 1 and 3/16 miles. The latest was his easy score in the Grade 2 UAE Derby.

Mubtaahij, the Arabic word for cheerful, probably didn’t beat much last Saturday, but he won like a boss, with an explosive burst of acceleration that shot him free of the pack in a few strides. The Kentucky Derby is often won with a similar surge.

Alas, Andrew Beyer himself estimated the speed figure at 95, a figure some nine lengths slower than those of Materiality and Upstart. Mubtaahij has work to do. To the credit of his owner, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, Mubtaahij will do his work at Churchill Downs. He’s expected to arrive toward the end of next week.

Sheik Mohammed has won virtually every important horse race in the world — except the Kentucky Derby. It vexes him like Kirk vexed Khan. He’s been trying to win the roses since 1999. Repeated failure has prompted him to change his preparations, by shipping to Kentucky early, and his trainer. The man handling Mubtaahij is one of the world’s best, South African wizard Mike de Kock.

To win the Derby, Mubtaahij must defeat, among others, the real International Star, who completed his sweep of the major 3-year-old stakes offered at Fair Grounds Race Course by winning the Louisiana Derby.

Sired by 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, International Star’s glittering won-loss record belies some underwhelming speed figures. The 98 Beyer he was awarded last Saturday is a career high and suggests that he’s simply not fast enough to wear roses.

However, the projected Derby field boasts a bunch of speedy front-runners that could cut a blazing pace tailor-made for International Star’s closing kick. Keep him in mind when populating the bottom of your trifecta and superfecta tickets.

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