HALLANDALE BEACH, January 19, 2010—Many fans might not have noticed but the countdown to the Kentucky Derby is on. Already there have been two races of interest is this part of the country that could have an effect on the rest of the 2012 classics season.

The road began routinely enough with the running of the Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct January 7. While the event itself was nothing to jump over the moon about, it was significant in that the well regarded Alpha did it the right way.

Two months fresh since a failed try in the Juvenile, the Bernardini-Munnaya colt rated kindly enough before finishing strongly. Alpha was breaking watches in the mornings and did not break the hearts of favorite players in the afternoon, winning as the 4-5 choice.

Eclipse Award winning Ramon Dominguez was suitably impressed by the colt’s development and is anxious to ride him back, most likely in the Whirlaway Stakes, next stop on the New York trail to the Triple Crown.

Alpha won ridden out under brisk handling and galloped out strongly, reaching the finish post as if he were just getting started. It took him a crisp 1:42.83 to travel the mile and 70 yards.

On the West Coast, Out Of Bounds took advantage of Garrett Gomez's patience and strength to run down Secret Circle in the shadow of the wire in the Sham Stakes. A long striding individual, the Darley runner looks like one to watch.

Meanwhile, Monday’s Smarty Jones on Oaklawn Park’s holiday program was infinitely more interesting as all three top finishers ran competitively and well, especially On Fire Baby, a girl against the boys.

It’s no longer that unusual for a filly to tackle males, especially given a run of three consecutive female Horses of the Year who earned the honor by competing in open competition. But a three year old filly at this early stage of the season?

The filly was a game third after chasing the pace for the entire two-turn mile and was the only runner of 12 to try making an impact on the turn with a brush-by attempt that got her to within a head of the leader before tiring, understandably.

But her trainer, Gary Hartlage, must be a very strict marker. “She ran, OK…” he said, “the effort was really good, but she didn’t run as well as I thought she would.”

On Fire Baby is a multiple graded stakes winner, taking Churchill’s G2 Pocahontas and Golden Rod in 2011 and her effort was very commendable for a season’s debut.

“She definitely competed…they knew she was in there,” said jockey Joe Johnson, before adding “a mile is just too short; watch her when she stretches out.” Hartlage later underscored that opinion: “I don’t think you’ve seen her best race yet.”

Apparently neither does Steve Hobby, trainer of the winner, Junebugred. “He’s shown us a lot from when we first got him. I had to call Alex [owner Alex Lieblong] all the time and tell him this little red horse just outworked them all again. He outworks everybody.”

And he outran 11 rivals despite a lack of experience, a ground-saving but hemmed-in trip, finding himself in close quarters as he attempted to tip out at the three-sixteenths pole before Joe Bravo deftly angled the colt back inside for needed running room.

Young, inexperienced, light-framed late foals don’t routinely do that unless they own courage and class. “He’s a horse that seems to be progressing in the right direction,” said Bravo. “I definitely hope they bring me back to ride him in his next race.”

A rematch with runnerup Restless Jerry is worth anticipating. Breaking sharply from a wide post with a short run to the first turn, jockey Shane Laviolette was committed to race 5-wide every step of the mile. He described it more succinctly: “When you’re in the 12 hole like that, it’s easy to get stuck.”

“We got outrun by a great horse,” said trainer Kenny Smith. “It was good seeing him keep on running and [added distance] isn’t going to hurt him.” Laviolette must agree: “I look forward to the next ride.”

The trail moves south and east Saturday as the Fair Grounds gets its Louisiana Derby series started with the Grade 3 mile and 70-yard LeComte Stakes, a chance for one of the 13 who were entered overnight, including two entries, to get first dibs on required graded earnings.

To describe the LeComte as inscrutable would be to seriously understate the case. Consider that one of the entrants has run 10 times; five have had three starts or fewer; and five broke maiden last time out. Diversity has its cost.

Not surprisingly, Todd Pletcher has a barn full of promising sophomore runners including Dan And Sheila, a winner of his only start going a flat mile at Gulfstream. He was well meant that afternoon, the interesting notion being that he is sprint meant by pedigree but entered going long by the prolific Pletcher.

Johnny Velazquez ships in, too, also taking a call from Pletcher on Alma D’oro in the Louisiana Handicap later on the stakes-laden card. Velazquez will partner Inspired in the Pan Zareta for Allen Iwinski as well. The two turn LeComte figures to be a good test and learning experience for Pletcher’s inexperienced Derby hopeful.