And you thought we were just going to flutter into February, with barely a breeze being stirred. It just goes to prove once again that the only sure thing about life on the Derby trail is its unpredictability.Instead of simply gliding along until the Fountain of Youth in two weeks, the 3-year-old picture hurtled into the new month on falcons' wings, thanks to several awesome performances.Put the names of Macho Uno, Point Given, and A P Valentine off to the side for now, and make way for some exciting newcomers. Two new potential stars, in particular, to make giant strides on Saturday were Monarchos, who toyed with a talented bunch of allowance horses at Gulfstream in his first start around two turns, and Startac, who turned in a monster move from last to first in his dirt debut in the Turf Paradise Derby.Neither a non-winners of one allowance race, nor the Turf Paradise Derby would seem like vehicles to catapult a horse into the lead pack of Kentucky Derby contenders, but both these colts seem to have all the tools – mainly running style and pedigree – to be taken seriously.Monarchos tracked the fast, and more experienced Distilled throughout, then was pinched back slightly on the far turn and appeared to be destined for second. Even the Gulfstream race caller seemingly gave him up for dead. But as soon as Jorge Chavez swung him out after turning for home, he found another gear and roared by Distilled to win by more than 4 lengths, coming home his last two fractions in :24 1/5, then a sharp :06 1/5 for the final sixteenth.Trainer John Ward said the son of Maria's Mon is the type of colt who learns from experience, and what impressed him was that Chavez was teaching him every step of the way, letting him settle and learning how to wait, and nudging him along when he needed to. Finally, when he needed that burst of speed, the colt delivered big-time, easily defeating promising horses trained by Todd Pletcher, Joe Orseno, and Elliott Walden.As we have stated, we love this colt's pedigree, especially his bottom line, which is loaded with top-of-the-line Darby Dan blood that is geared for the classics.To show how strong Ward is right now, Monarchos is his number three Derby contender, behind Holiday Thunder and his big horse Hero's Tribute, all owned by John Oxley. "The one dimension Hero's Tribute has over the other two," Ward said, "is that he's bigger and stronger."Because he has some catching up to do with the son of Sea Hero, who suffered a quarter crack late last year, Ward will take "two steps at one time," and work him Wednesday with Jerry Bailey aboard. The plans as of now have Holiday Thunder running in the Fountain of Youth, with Hero's tribute going in a 7-furlong allowance race on the same card. If Holiday Thunder runs big, he'll join Monarchos in the Florida Derby, while Hero's Tribute will head for either the Spiral Stakes at Turfway or the Tampa Bay Derby.Star of the DesertGetting back to Startac, it must be noted that while the Turf Paradise Derby might normally be considered a pushover for a proven stakes winner, even if it was on the grass, Startac not only defeated some talented horses, he blew them away. Dead-last in the 11-horse field, a dozen lengths back, after a half , he blazed his next quarter in :22 and change. After charging by the entire field with one sweeping move, he opened up a 2 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole, then continued to draw away, winning by 4 3/4 lengths. He came home his final sixteenth in :06 flat to complete the 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 3/5. Not bad for his first ever try on dirt."Unbelievable!" said trainer Simon Bray. "He went 5-wide and inhaled the field. He could have won by 10."Finishing third in the race was the Vladimir Cerin-trained Learing at Kathy, an impressive allowance winner at Santa Anita last time out, while the Dick Mandella-trained Another Gear was fourth.Bray had been hopeful Startac would handle the dirt after the son of Theatrical worked 5 furlongs in :59 3/5 and a half in :47 1/5. What's important about his pedigree is that his female family has classic dirt influences throughout it, with names like Seattle Slew, Mr. Prospector, Bold Bidder, and Nashua. And his granddam, Royal Strait Flush, is a full sister to the great 2-year-old filly champ Landaluce.In case anyone is not familiar with Bray, he was an assistant to Bill Mott for years, and is one of the brightest young trainers in the sport. He said the next likely spot for Startac, who is owned by the family of the late Allen Paulson, is the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate on March 10.There were several other outstanding performances over the weekend by horses not nominated to the Triple Crown, but who could make the late nominee list if they continue to progress. At Aqueduct, Tasty Caberneigh, a son of Go for Gin trained by Juan Serey, destroyed an allowance field going a mile, winning wire-to-wire by 7 lengths in 1:37 3/5. This colt not only is by a Kentucky Derby winner, his granddam, Bel Real, is a half-sister to Derby winner Alysheba. He has a strong dosage profile of 8-2-14-3-3 and a dosage index of 1.31.At Oaklawn Park's opening weekend, Pete Vestal sent out an impressive-looking colt in Crafty Shaw, who won a mile allowance race wire-to-wire by more than 9 lengths. Crafty Shaw is by Crafty Prospector, out of Her She Shawklit, a daughter of the solid producer Shawklit. Bobby Barnett, another leading Oaklawn trainer, saddled Acrtic Boy, a son of Maria's Mon, to break his maiden going 1 1/16 miles by 5 lengths.Can Early Flyer Fly Late?Ron McAnally returned to the Derby trail, winning Saturday's 7-furlong San Vicente Stakes with Early Flyer, who wore down the undefeated Lasersport to win by a neck in a sharp 1:21 3/5. Now comes the question of distance. Both colts are by Gilded Time, who looks to be a sire of sprinters and milers. While Early Flyer has some distance blood in his female line, there's a question whether there's enough there to get him 1 1/4 miles. Most of the names are pretty obscure. Dosage says no, with a 5.40 DI. He should have no problem stretching out to a mile in the San Rafael Stakes, but after that is the big question. McAnally likely will take it one step at a time and let the colt show him how far he wants to go.
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