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Derby Watch: Front-running 'Factor' could steal race

As much as every horseman wants to be part of the Kentucky Derby each season, it's a whole lot more enjoyable if they're actually leading over a 3-year-old who has a legit chance of ending up in front after the 11/4-mile journey.

When the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park concluded Saturday, The Factor had proven he not only deserves a spot in the Derby starting gate, he now has to be mentioned in serious discussions of who might win the darn thing.

The Factor has had hype behind him ever since his 81/4-length maiden victory last Dec. 26 and his win in the Grade II San Vicente. But it was still easy to hold off jumping onto the bandwagon until the son of War Front proved his all-or-nothing speed could hold up over two turns.

There is still ample reason to question The Factor's ability to get 11/4-miles, but it was impossible not to be wowed by the Bob Baffert trainee in the aftermath of his 61/4-length romp in the 11⁄16-mile Rebel.

The Factor's game plan is no secret: He's going to go to the front, run as fast as he can and dare you to catch him. With the exception of a fourth-place finish in his first career start, no one has been able to achieve the latter with much effectiveness.

Among the many impressive aspects of The Factor's Rebel Stakes win was the fact he wasn't walking on the lead. His fractions of :23.33 and :46.77 were stout, yet this horse with a miler's pedigree was opening up daylight in the stretch in his first try beyond 7 furlongs.

He still has distance limitations in his bloodlines, but The Factor's front-running style makes him both vulnerable and dangerous should he make it to the Kentucky Derby.

If he gets too rank early or if someone decides to go with him, The Factor could be backing up by the time they hit the mile pole. But if everyone sits back waiting for someone else to challenge him, there could be a lot of headlines the next day declaring him War Emblem 2.0 — another one-dimensional Baffert-trained speedster who ran right into the Derby winner's circle in 2002.

One who unfortunately will not be in this year's Kentucky Derby field is Catesby Clay's graded stakes winner Rogue Romance. The son of Smarty Jones came back from a 3-furlong breeze Saturday with a fracture in his left front foot.

The fracture is not career-threatening but will require two to three months of stall rest. Rogue Romance had most recently finished third in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 19.

Derby Dozen

1. Uncle Mo: Trainer Todd Pletcher is still leaving the door open to send the juvenile champion to the Florida Derby rather than the Wood Memorial, but only if "he was absolutely screaming for a race on April 3 instead of April 9." Because the Wood should be the easier spot, the main question for Uncle Mo going into the Kentucky Derby may be whether he'll get enough out of his preps to have him at his peak.

2. Soldat: Worked a bullet 5 furlongs in 1:00.60 at Palm Meadows Sunday. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin deliberately put him behind two horses to see how the son of War Front would handle the kickback of dirt in his face. "He handled it great, finished up strong and galloped out well," McLaughlin said Sunday. "The most important thing is he took the dirt for three-eighths of a mile and angled out well. I didn't think it would be a problem." Although each of Soldat's three wins have come on or near the front, McLaughlin has maintained the colt would have no issue rating. "We're confident if he does have to sit behind horses (in the Florida Derby)," McLaughlin said.

3. Dialed In: Is scheduled to work 5 furlongs sometime this week in advance of his expected start in the Florida Derby.

4. Mucho Macho Man: The son of Macho Uno was deemed the 9-to-5 morning-line pick for Saturday's $1 million Louisiana Derby. A field of 13 horses were entered for the Grade II race. The Kathy Ritvo-trained colt breezed 5 furlongs in 1:02.60 at Gulfstream Park on Saturday and will ship to Fair Grounds Wednesday. "It was more of a maintenance move than anything," Ritvo said of the work. "He's ready to run."

5. Premier Pegasus: Runaway winner of the San Felipe has a good deal of pedigree on his side. In addition to being by 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, Premier Pegasus is a half brother of Grade I winner Street Hero, who ran third in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

6. The Factor: Have to give him his due as it takes a special horse to go that fast early and find another gear in the lane. Baffert said all options were open for his next start, including the Santa Anita Derby on April 9 or the Arkansas Derby on April 16. "Right now, I would say he's going back to the Arkansas Derby," Baffert said Sunday. "I could leave him at Santa Anita, but I don't know. I'll let him tell me where he wants to go."

7. Stay Thirsty: Breezed 4 furlongs in :50.40 at Palm Meadows on Sunday in preparation for his likely start in the Florida Derby.

8. To Honor and Serve: Continues to work toward the Florida Derby with a 5-furlong breeze in 1:01.20 at Payson Park last Sunday, fastest of 19 moves at the distance. The son of Bernardini might be the kind who thrives on more work; he made his first four career starts within a three-month span.

9. Santiva: Trainer Eddie Kenneally could not be happier with the way this gritty son of Giant's Causeway is progressing toward the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes on April 16, sending the colt out for a 4-furlong breeze in :50.90 at Palm Meadows on Saturday. "He's doing unbelievably well, he's doing fantastic," Kenneally said Sunday. "We're just in a holding pattern with him right now." Although many top contenders have shied away from the Blue Grass Stakes to avoid having their final Derby prep on a synthetic surface, Santiva did finish second over that track in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity last fall and returned to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill last November. "It certainly was one of the reasons, the fact he has had experience over the surface," Kenneally said of the decision to point for the Blue Grass. "But it's also a very prestigious race in its own right."

10. Jaycito: Has had to come from dead last in three of his last four races, all defeats. If the son of Victory Gallop can put himself into better position earlier, as he did during his win in the Grade I Norfolk, we might get a truer read on his ability.

11. Anthony's Cross: Quietly going about his business in preparation for the Santa Anita Derby, drilling 4 furlongs in a bullet :46.80 at Hollywood Park on Sunday.

12. Brethren: The Grade II Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on April 16 will likely be his next start as he attempts to prove his third-place effort in the Tampa Bay Derby was a mulligan.

The next dozen: Wilkinson, Silver Medallion, Caleb's Posse, Elite Alex, Flashpoint, Riveting Reason, Astrology, Machen, Comma to the Top, Archarcharch, Watch Me Go, Gourmet Dinner.

Alicia Wincze Hughes

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