Qualifying stakes begin in September and 2-year-olds receive plenty of attention each fall, but January 1 holds more significance for Kentucky Derby hopefuls: that’s when races really start to matter. For whatever reason, outstanding juvenile form rarely translates to success on the first Saturday in May.

Last year was an exception as American Pharoah became the first 2-year-old champion since Street Sense in 2007 to win the Kentucky Derby. And Street Sense, the only Breeders’ Cup Juvenile/Kentucky Derby winner in the Breeders’ Cup 32-year history, was the first juvenile champ since Spectacular Bid in 1979. Outside of American Pharoah and Street Sense, no Kentucky Derby winner has captured a Grade 1 race at age 2 this century.

While juvenile black-type (win or place in a stakes race) has little importance, with recent Derby winners such as Animal Kingdom (2012) and Big Brown (2009) being relatively unknown until their stakes debut in March, experience does. That’s the one statistic that holds its weight in gold: no unraced juvenile has captured the Kentucky Derby since Apollo in 1882.

It’s easy to get carried away with talented 2-year-old performers – they remain top contenders in early January – but there’s still much to prove and the landscape can shift quickly.

I’ll review each weekend’s prep races over the next four months, adding my personal observations, and let’s kick off the 2016 Kentucky Derby Report.

Aqueduct offered the first points’ race of the New Year last Saturday, the one-mile and 70-yard Jerome (G3) over the inner track, and Flexibility ran to his 1-2 favoritism, scoring easily by a 4 ¼-length margin. The Bluegrass Cat colt didn’t beat much but flattered Mohaymen nonetheless after recording a pair of non-threatening seconds behind his rival in the Remsen (G2) and Nashua (G2).

Flexibility registered a 100 BRIS Speed rating in the Remsen and posted a 92 in the Jerome.

The Jerome served as a nice starting point for the lightly-raced sophomore, who defeated New York-bred maiden special weight foes when making his career debut at Belmont Park on October 11, and Flexibility is bred to handle longer distances. By the 2006 Kentucky Derby runner-up, he hails from a mare by the Seattle Slew stallion Vindication, with his dam being a half-sister to the classy Golden Missile, who captured the 2000 Pimlico Special (G1) at 1 3/16 miles and finished third in the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).

After plenty of turf success in recent years, Chad Brown recorded his first Breeders’ Cup dirt win last fall (Wavell Avenue) and the leading New York trainer will try to develop the promising Flexibility into a serious Kentucky Derby contender.

Rankings

Everybody loves rankings. I’ll start with a pair of top 10s before merging into one list.

3-year-olds with a stakes win or placing:

1) Mohaymen – Loved his finishing kick & earned excellent BRIS Speed numbers winning Remsen & Nashua; Tapit colt is out a mare by Dixie Union, sire of a Belmont Stakes winner

2) Mor Spirit – Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) winner is a top classic prospect for four-time Derby winner Bob Baffert

3) Brody’s Cause – Late runner seems a natural for 1 ¼-mile distance and concluded 2015 on a strong note, winning Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and finishing third in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile

4) Greenpointcrusader – Grade 1-winning late runner possesses a nice mix of speed & stamina in his pedigree; potentially big upside

5) Exaggerator – Curlin colt showed fine class winning a couple of graded events & no surprise if he continues to show more at age 3

6) Flexibility – Finished full of run in Jerome & looking forward to next start versus better competition

7) Airoforce – Lots of speed in his pedigree & Ky Jockey Club (G2) winner must still prove himself on a fast track, but liked the finishing kick he displayed last season

8) Nyquist – Bred for sprint/middle distances, presumptive 2yo champion taking strange path with 7f San Vicente & a single 2-turn prep race; how does that benefit him?

9) Swipe – Birdstone colt was a very honest 2yo, placing in five graded stakes

10) Sail Ahoy – Look for more at age 3 from Shug McGaughey-trained colt

3-year-olds without a stakes win or placing:

1) Conquest Big E – Never fired from rail post in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but Tapit colt rebounded with nice allowance score in juvenile finale; talented prospect for Mark Casse

2) Shagaf – Sharp debut winner at Aqueduct in mid-November for Brown & hails from a strong female family

3) Drefong – Easy to appreciate his spectacular maiden score; Baffert trains Gio Ponti colt

4) Zulu – Looked good making debut for Todd Pletcher in early December & plenty of breeding on dam side for longer distances

5) Hand of Power – Not a fan of Ian Wilkes for Derby hopefuls but loved this colt’s maiden win at Churchill Downs; well-bred sort should relish more ground

6) Z Royal – Improved second time out with Churchill maiden win & could have nice future for D. Wayne Lukas

7) Gun Runner – Easily captured first two starts & fourth when trying stakes foes in sloppy Ky Jockey Club; could make plenty of noise for Steve Asmussen

8) Rally Cry – Recent maiden winner eligible to make an impact in preps for Pletcher

9) Stradivari – Medaglia d’Oro colt exits runaway maiden tally for Pletcher

10) Seymourdini – Posted impressive maiden win at Aqueduct for Linda Rice

Upcoming

Santa Anita will host the Sham (G3) on Saturday and a field of nine has been assembled for the one-mile test.

Cecil DeMille (G3) winner Dressed in Hermes will try to carry his turf form to the main track along with Collected and Rare Candy, who finished second and fourth in the DeMille. I’malreadythere, a well-beaten third in the Los Alamitos Futurity, would flatter Mor Spirit with a strong showing and Found Money recorded a non-threatening fourth to Exaggerator in the Delta Jackpot (G3) two back. Found Money exits a victory in the December 12 King Glorious for Cal-breds, the same race eventual Kentucky Derby hero California Chrome captured two years ago.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Baffert-trained Let’s Meet in Rio fares in his stakes debut. Owned by Juddmonte Farms, the Flatter colt opened his career with a pair of unplaced efforts in sprints before turning things around with a gusto in his two-turn bow, rallying boldly to score by 1 ½ lengths over Laoban, who also returns in the Sham for trainer Eric Guillot.