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These horses emerged as Kentucky Derby favorites after an epic duel in California

Justify, with Mike Smith aboard, coasts to victory March 11 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, CA. With only two starts, the lightly raced colt is the current Kentucky Derby Future Book favorite.
Justify, with Mike Smith aboard, coasts to victory March 11 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, CA. With only two starts, the lightly raced colt is the current Kentucky Derby Future Book favorite. Benoit Photo

After a stormy week, the 2018 Kentucky Derby picture remains clear as mud.

A heart-pounding slugfest between two top contenders may have signaled that this year's Derby class has quality if not a clear standout.

As steady rain pelted down, Bolt D'Oro and McKinzie dueled like champions in the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes on March 10 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. Drifting out near the wire, McKinzie finished a head in front. But after a 15-minute inquiry, Bolt D'Oro was declared the winner.

Steve Haskin, the longtime Derby expert for Bloodhorse.com, thought the race put both horses way ahead of the pack.

"There was no winner and loser," he said. "It was a perfect prep for both horses, who ran equally courageous races."

Bolt D'Oro, who had been sidelined by a pulled muscle, was making his first start since finishing third behind Good Magic and Solomini in the 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Although exhausted after Saturday's battle, the bay colt rebounded quickly, according to owner-trainer Mick Ruis, who has never had a Derby starter.

“Bolt is doing fantastic,” Ruis said Thursday. “He’s eating everything up, he’s 100 percent sound and he’s as healthy as he was going in (to the San Felipe), which was 100 percent.

“Hopefully, he’ll move up off that race because he really needed it," Ruis added. “We’ve got high hopes that he’s going to run a huge race in the Santa Anita Derby (April 7), and then hopefully he’ll come back good and we’ll peak on May 5 (in the Kentucky Derby).”

McKinzie, meanwhile, lost no luster in the first defeat of his four-race career. Ironically, he won December's Los Alamitos Futurity via disqualification.

"You win some that way and I guess you lose some that way," said Mike Smith, McKinzie's jockey.

Trained by Bob Baffert, McKinzie is co-owned by former Sacramentan Mike Pegram and partners Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. The colt is named for longtime Los Alamitos Race Course executive Brad McKinzie, one of Baffert's best friends, who died of cancer in August.

With multiple Derby contenders, Baffert has yet to decide if McKinzie will have an immediate rematch with Bolt D'Oro in the Santa Anita Derby. Instead, McKinzie may go east to the Arkansas Derby on April 14.

Winner of four Kentucky Derbies, Baffert likely still will have a Santa Anita Derby starter. Lightly raced Justify coasted to victory March 11 in a Santa Anita allowance, his second win in as many starts. The buzz horse of this Derby season, Justify has drawn comparisons to 2008 Derby winner Big Brown and 1989 Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer. The son of Scat Daddy is the current Derby Future Book favorite at 6-1, but he'll have to finish first or second in the Santa Anita Derby or other major prep to make it into the Kentucky Derby field.

"Just a big ol' red horse with a big, powerful stride," said Smith, who also rode Justify. "For a young horse, he has a great mind. ... Just very, very impressed.”

While Justify's fortunes appear on the rise, Baffert lost a Derby prospect March 12 when Mourinho broke a sesamoid bone in a workout at Santa Anita and was euthanized.

With the Derby only seven weeks away, chances for horses to earn points in major preps – and a place in the Churchill Downs starting gate – are quickly dwindling. Saturday, two more stakes offer a potential berth.

Baffert's Solomini, who has the same connections as 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, will be favored in the $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Baffert used this same race as a prep for Pharoah before the spring classics.

Mugaritz, second in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields for trainer Jonathan Wong, will be part of a wide-open 12-horse field in Saturday's $200,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (formerly the Spiral Stakes, renamed for a Midwest steakhouse) at Turfway Park in Kentucky.

Will the 2018 Derby field feature a filly? Paved may squeak in. Last month, she became the first filly in the stakes' 37-year history to win Golden Gate Fields' El Camino Real Derby, Northern California's top Triple Crown prep. A filly hasn't competed in the Kentucky Derby since 2010.