It’s still 120 days until this year’s Kentucky Derby, assuming its run as scheduled May 1, but it’s never too early for us handicappers to look ahead at who might find the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.

We won’t unveil our first Kentucky Derby Super Six until later this month, but there are a trio of sophomore colts who warrant Derby watchers’ attention this week.

Here’s our early preferred list of Kentucky Derby contenders:

Essential Quality

The Tapit colt is number one on many lists after his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland on Nov. 6.

He has won all three of his starts, including the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity by 3 1/4 lengths on Oct. 3 at Keeneland.

He’s already shown his fondness for what can be a tricky Churchill main track, winning his debut by four lengths over the surface.

Essential Quality had been off since his Breeders’ Cup score until Dec. 20, when he breezed 3 furlongs in 36 1/5 at the Fair Grounds under the watchful eye of trainer Brad Cox.

“We’re very, very happy,” Jimmy Bell, president and racing manager for the colt’s owner, Godolphin, told bloodhorse.com. “He’s sort of just beginning the new season. He got his time off from the Breeders’ Cup until now, but Brad said his work was smooth and effortless.

“You have to start with a new beginning, and that’s all that work was.”

Bell said no schedule has been set to prepare Essential Quality for the Derby.

“I think a few more works down the road we will be more able to draw a map to what we’re thinking,” Bell said. “This time of year, we have a lot of options and a lot of places to go, so we will take our time and make sure he continues training.”

Life Is Good

Just how good is to be determined, beginning Saturday at Santa Anita when the son of Into Mischief makes his first start around two turns in the $100,000 Grade III Sham Stakes, named in honor of the 1973 Santa Anita Derby winner.

Life Is Good debuted Nov. 22 at Del Mar and won like something special, running away from the opposition by 9 1/2 lengths while stamping himself as an early colt to watch on the Road to the Derby.

Trainer Bob Baffert had also considered the Grade II San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 7 for Life Is Good, but he decided on the Sham – the same route he took with last year’s Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Authentic, a virtual cinch for 2020 Horse of the Year.

“I didn’t want to sit on him for another month, so we’re going to run him here going a mile,” Baffert told Ed Golden of Santa Anita publicity. “I always like to see what they’re going to do going two turns. We know he’s got a lot of speed, he’s shown brilliance, but until they go two turns … I think he should handle it, but I’ve got to see it myself.”

Life Is Good signaled he’s ready for the test Sunday, drilling 6 furlongs in a bullet (fastest at the distance) 1:10.60 at Santa Anita.

Jackie’s Warrior

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned about horse racing, it’s this – never eliminate a horse off one race.

The Maclean’s Music colt went postward at 4-5 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile off a 5 1/2-length victory in the Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park and a 2 1/4-length win in the Grade I Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga.

He looked like a monster.

But horses have bad days. Remember when 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah finished fifth in his 2-year-old debut at Del Mar?

Jackie’s Warrior could still give trainer Steve Asmussen his first Kentucky Derby victory. He deserves another shot after his fourth-place finish in the Juvenile, beaten by 3 1/4 lengths.

Follow Art Wilson on Twitter at @Sham73

This post first appeared on ocregister.com

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