The Derby has seen its share of maidens with far more in the way of high-flown hopes than credentials behind them, but only two have actually jumped from maidens to Classic winners in one step. The first was Sir Barton, who was entered as a pacemaker for his stablemate Billy Kelly. The entry ran one-two, only not in the order expected, and it is one of the ironies of racing history that as the season progressed, Billy Kelly ended up serving as a work horse for his vastly improved stablemate, now retroactively recognized as the first American Triple Crown winner. (An extremely talented horse as well as a hickory-tough one, Billy Kelly won seven stakes races in 1919 in addition to helping keep Sir Barton in shape, a task that burned out several of their stablemates.)
The other Derby winner to have entered the starting gate as a maiden was Brokers Tip, the last of Colonel Edward Riley Bradley's four Derby winners. A beautifully bred horse, he was also a thoroughly unsound one, and the Derby was his only flash of what might have been had he been gifted with better-constructed legs. He broke down in his next start, made an unsuccessful comeback attempt at 5 and retired with the Derby as his only victory in 14 starts.
Like both Sir Barton (second in the Futurity Stakes at 2) and Brokers Tip (third in the Cincinnati Trophy as a juvenile), Sonneteer has flashed some ability, running a respectable second behind Malagacy in the Rebel Stakes (USA-G2), and his fourth in the Arkansas Derby (USA-G1) was not a bad race either. Nonetheless, on the form he has shown thus far, he is a fair cut below the best of his age.
His pedigree also raises questions, not because of its quality but because of possible distance limitations. While two-time Breeders' Cup Sprint (USA-G1) winner Midnight Lute was trained for sprints primarily because of an acquired breathing problem, he seems to be more a sire of intermediate distance horses than classic types. The dam, Ours, is by the speedy Unbridled's Song horse Half Ours, whose biggest win was at 7 furlongs, and is a half sister to Dublin, who won the Hopeful Stakes (USA-G1) at 2 but did not train on as well as could have been hoped at 3 in spite of being sired by Afleet Alex. The next dam, Classy Mirage, also had distance limitations, having taken her biggest win in the 7-furlong Ballerina Handicap (USA-G1). The family is an excellent one that has included some first-rate horses that could stay classic distances, notably Dark Mirage, Java Gold and Indian Skimmer, but it has generally required crossing to sires that could contribute stamina to get horses capable of going 10 furlongs or more in top company.
The Derby has seen some very strange things happen, and Sonneteer could become the third maiden to take the historic race. If he does, he will conclude a topsy-turvy spring season on perhaps a fitting note, if not an expected one.