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Who will be the final puzzle piece?

Churchill DownsThe jigsaw puzzle is nearly complete. From sunny California and Florida, to chilly New York and Kentucky, the 2010 crop of 3-year-olds has knocked heads, trumped one another, and finally, weeded out the competition to build a list of 20 horses who will meet in Kentucky to run the biggest race of their lives come the first Saturday of May. We are down to the final act now: only two weeks remain until the hallmark of American Thoroughbred racing, the Kentucky Derby.

As it stands, the list of top the 20 graded earners is almost finalized. Only a few horses, like Noble’s Promise, #2 in the earnings, are undecided about whether or not they will run. Some horses, it could be argued, don’t belong in the field at all; what business has a grass horse in a field of 20 for America’s most prestigious dirt race? Still, each and every one of them is chasing the dream, and a little thing like experience or pedigree doesn’t stand much of a chance of swaying decisions at this point. Everyone remembers Mine That Bird’s underdog victory last year, and it’s that kind of improbable dream-come-true that makes this race, and this game, so great.

There are also those who are on the outside, looking in. Jackson Bend, runner-up to the early Derby favorite, Eskendereya, in his last two races, is sitting at #21 on the list of graded earnings, and would only be able to get into the gates with the deflection of someone in the top 20. But as there are technically two last preps on the road to the roses, with one being run this Saturday (The Derby Trial being next Saturday), there is a chance a horse like Jackson Bend could be completely shut out even if there was a deflection.

The Grade II Lexington Stakes will be run this Saturday over Keeneland’s Polytrack surface. Last Saturday, we watched as the longest shot on the board, Stately Victor, came out of the clouds to take the $500,000 Blue Grass Stakes, and in one sweeping move, punch his ticket to the Derby and shut out the last hopes of 9 other rivals. Stately Victor’s upset over Odysseus, Interactif, and Pleasant Prince was the biggest payoff in Blue Grass history, paying back $82.80 for a bet of $2 to win. We saw the last-place finish of Odysseus in his only start over a synthetic surface, and with that, his dreams of roses scatter with the wind as he trailed the field. As it turns out, Odysseus won’t even be able to try for another Triple Crown race: he sustained a knee injury in the Blue Grass and will be sidelined for at least several months. Coupled with the knowledge that Keeneland hasn’t been producing much in the way of winners for Kentucky Derby since its installation of Polytrack in the main track (outside of Street Sense, who ran 2nd in the 2007 edition of the Blue Grass), it’s hard to put much credence into the horses vying for last-minute earnings in the Lexington; nevermind the fact they’d have to run back in two weeks’ time for the big race. 

So while horses like Lookin at Lucky, Conveyance, and Jackson Bend are working under the twin spires in Louisville, a field of 12 will vie for graded earnings in this ninth hour of dreams in Lexington. Realistically, only one or two of them will be able to get into the Kentucky Derby with a win in the $300,000 Lexington: Connemara and Uptowncharlybrown. Connemara (#30 in graded earnings), trained by the red-hot Todd Pletcher, has won 3 of 5 lifetime starts, including the Grade III El Camino Real Derby. Last time out, Connemara finished third in the Grade II Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway Park behind Dean’s Kitten and Northern Giant. He has a good form over synthetics, and with the added bonus of being in the care of Pletcher, should have a very good chance to win the Lexington. Uptowncharlybrown (#59 in graded earnings) will be a sentimental favorite in the Lexington; this week, his trainer Alan Seewald, died unexpectedly in his home of a heart attack. His family will be running Uptowncharlybrown in the Lexington and not the Kentucky Derby, as this was one of the last decisions Seewald made for the colt before he passed. Uptowncharlybrown won the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in January his second career start and finished third in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes; last time out, he ran fifth in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby after a rough trip. If Uptowncharlybrown wins the Lexington, his connections say he will likely use his earnings to run in the Belmont Stakes in June.

With the field for the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby now almost in focus, the real handicapping can now commence. Though the field isn’t nearly as consistent across the board like last year’s contenders, there are a few horses who could emerge as superstars come May. 2010’s crop can be likened to 2008’s, when Big Brown attempted to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Is there a Triple Crown winner in this bunch? Next week, I will break down the two horses that may just have that potential.

The Grade II Lexington Stakes will stream live on and on TVG. Post time is slated for approximately 5:15pm ET.

The 136th running of the Grade I Kentucky Derby will air live on NBC May 1st.

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