In February, some 397 three-year-olds were nominated to the 2012 U.S. Triple Crown, (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes) including seven horses trained by Woodbine’s leading trainer Mark Casse.
The 2012 Kentucky Derby, which will be held on May 5 at Churchill Downs, is limited to 20 starters.  Should more than 20 horses enter, the entries will be determined by the amount of graded stakes earnings accumulated by each horse.
Ian Black’s Excaper ($240,736), who currently sits in ninth position in the graded earnings list topped by Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champ Hansen ($1,160,000), will not be among the starters expected to break from the gate on the first Saturday in May.
“We had to stop on him for a little while and it’s (the Derby) not in our plans,” confirms Black, from Payson Park in Florida. “We gave him a break after the last time he ran and hopefully by the time the turf starts (at Woodbine), we’ll be ready to go.”
Casse, whose seven Triple Crown nominees are led by Grade 3 Grey Stakes winner Prospective ($155,452, 15th in graded earnings), may have another top contender should Stealcase step forward with a top effort when he takes on Hansen in Saturday’s Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
Stealcase, a chestnut Lawyer Ron-Steal The Show colt owned by John C. Oxley, recently breezed four furlongs in :47.60 preparing for the Gotham, a mile and a sixteenth race, set for main track.
“He’s been training exceptionally well,” says Casse. “I think Hansen will be awful tough to beat going a mile and a sixteenth. That’s okay. We’re not concentrating necessarily on going a mile and a sixteenth, were concentrating on trying to run a mile and a quarter. We hope to run well and need to pick up some graded earnings.”
The Gotham will be Stealcase’s first graded effort after breaking his maiden in his third lifetime start, a length and a half score over well-regarded Todd Pletcher trainee Windsurfer, when routing at Gulfstream.
Stealcase will be steered by top Woodbine jockey Luis Contreras who also picks up the mount on Casse’s Delightful Mary who is entered in Saturday’s Grade 2 Top Play Stakes.
“Delightful Mary, knock on wood, is training the best she’s ever trained in her life,” admits Casse.
Casse will also send out Oxley’s Hard Spun-Favorite Feather colt Dynamical, in Saturday’s John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park, which is a prep for the $500,000 Grade 3 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes, set for March 24.
Casse has high expectations for Dynamical, who earned an 83 Beyer Speed Figure while losing a photo finish in a nine-furlong maiden special weight last out at Gulfstream Park.
“We think he could be a Derby horse,” claims Casse. “He’s only ran twice and got the nose his last start at Gulfstream where he’s been running well.”
The conditioner believes that Prospective, who was a rallying second in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes last out and is now gearing up for the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby (March 10, Tampa Bay Downs), is actually his third-best Derby hopeful at this stage.
“I’d be fine if Prospective proves me wrong,” laughs Casse.
Casse is delighted that Prospective was able to pick up some of his graded earnings racing at home in Woodbine’s Grade 3 Grey Stakes.
“They’ve become good races (Woodbine’s juvenile graded races) and they deserve to be graded,” says Casse. “Prospective won that race and he’s come out to show that he can run with graded horses really well.”
Casse’s other Triple Crown nominees (Conserve, Moon Traveler, Bluedacious and Patrioticandproud) have some work to do if they are to make the Run For The Roses.
With Derby day rapidly approaching, contenders are running out of time to gather graded earnings.
The remaining key prep races ahead include the Gotham, Tampa Bay Derby, Grade 2 San Felipe (March 10, Santa Anita), Grade 2 Rebel (March 17, Oaklawn Park), Grade 3 Vinery Spiral (March 24, Turfway), Grade 3 Sunland Derby (March 25, Sunland), Grade 1 Florida Derby (March 31, Gulfstream), Grade 2 UAE Derby (March 31, Meydan), Grade 2 Louisiana Derby (April 1, Fair Grounds), Grade 1 Wood Memorial (April 7, Aqueduct), Grade 3 Illinois Derby (April 7, Hawthorne), Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby (April 7, Santa Anita), Grade 1 Blue Grass (April 14, Keeneland) and the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby (April 14, Oaklawn Park).
Another potential local Derby contender is Coronation Futurity and Display Stakes winner, Maritimer. The dark bay Stormy Atlantic-Highland Mood colt, expected to be named Canada’s Outstanding Two-Year-Old at the Sovereign Awards in April, has no graded earnings as of yet, but is expected to make his first start of 2012 in the Grade 2 UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on March 31.
Although Maritimer was not listed among the initial 397 nominees who paid $600 to meet the January 21 first closing nomination deadline, his connections could ante up $6000 to meet the second closing deadline of March 24.
In addition to Hansen, who will make his next start in the Gotham, the current favourites for the Kentucky Derby include recent Fountain of Youth winner Union Rags, who is trained by Michael Matz who previously prepared Barbaro for a famous Kentucky Derby score; Todd Pletcher’s Grade 2 Risen Star victor El Padrino; and Bob Baffert’s Grade 3 Southwest Stakes champion Secret Circle.