By Kevin Martin, CBS Local

NEW YORK (CBS) – Over the course of the next three weekends, six races will be run for Kentucky Derby hopefuls in Florida, California, Louisiana, Arkansas, New York, and Kentucky. The six races comprise the last significant races of the Derby prep season and carry a combined purse of $5.5 million.

However, the trainers and owners running their colts in these six races have a much bigger prize in mind. They hope that their 3-year-old runner will give them the greatest thrill in American racing — a win in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 5th, the crown jewel of Thoroughbred racing in the United States.

The Derby prep season, as it is known, begins in January and ends in April. During this time, horses prepare for the Kentucky Derby in races at various locations throughout the country.

While potential Derby runners might compete in a variety of races during this period, it is in the graded stakes races at the major circuit tracks where the best colts build the earnings needed to qualify for the Derby.

The top 20 horses on the graded stakes earnings list — which includes graded money earned during the previous year as a 2-year-old — are guaranteed one of the twenty spots in the Kentucky Derby field.

By this time of the year, a handful of favorites to win the roses in May have solidified a qualifying position on the graded earnings list. Many still have something to prove and a few need to win additional graded stakes dollars to earn a trip to Churchill Downs.

As the racing world prepares for the last stretch of racing before its biggest day on the first Saturday in May, here is a rundown of colts to watch over the next three weekends.

The Big Three

There are three colts among this year’s 3-year-olds that most agree are front-runners to win the 2012 Kentucky Derby. Union Rags, Hansen, and Creative Cause all have the career resume, breeding, and human connections to bring home the roses come Derby Day.

Union Rags has only one loss in his five race career and made an impressive 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in February. With the exception of a tough trip loss in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, his career wins (three in graded stakes) have all come with relative ease.

He will be making his next start in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 31st. His trainer Michael Matz also trained the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.

Union Rags one career loss came to Hansen, who beat Union Rags by a head in last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. Hansen lost his 3-year-old debut on a muddy track but won his last start impressively in the Gotham Stakes in New York.

His final race before the Derby will come in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14th. The last Kentucky Derby winner to start in the Bluegrass was Street Sense, who finished second in the race in 2007.

The last of the big three is the California-based Creative Cause, who finished third in the Breeders Cup Juvenile behind Union Rags and Hansen. He is the most experienced of the top three with four wins from seven career starts including three graded stakes wins.

He won his last race, the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park, and will be the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7th.

Contenders with Something to Prove

El Padrino is high on many Derby top ten lists based on his win in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fairgrounds in Louisiana in April.

He has the earnings to reserve a spot in the Kentucky Derby but many have questioned the quality of the competition he has faced to this point in his five-race career. He will get a chance to prove himself in his next start where he is expected to take on Union Rags in the Florida Derby on March 31st.

Dullahan has done all his best running on turf and synthetic surfaces, but his best start on dirt came in last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs where he overcame a bad start to finish fourth. Dullahan’s dam, Mining My Own, was also the dam of Mine That Bird who won the Kentucky Derby in 2009.

No dam has produced two Kentucky Derby winners but Dullahan could be the one to buck that long-standing trend. He will make his next start in the Bluegrass Stakes on April 14th at Keeneland where he will run against one of the “big three” in Hansen.

Contenders on the Bubble

At this point of the season, the front runners to win the Kentucky Derby have the necessary earnings to qualify for the big race. However, there are a few intriguing candidates that will need a strong performance in their last race to qualify. In the last six years, the final horse to qualify for the Derby had graded stakes earnings that averaged $128,000. The two most interesting of the bubble horses have earnings of less than $100,000.

Perhaps the best of the colts in need of graded earnings is Bodemeister. He might be one of the fastest of this year’s 3-year-old crop but he has only three career starts. If he fails to cash a check in his next start, he will not have the graded earnings to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

Trainer Bob Baffert said via Twitter that Bodemeister will make his final start in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7th or the Arkansas Derby on April 14th.

In his stakes debut, Mark Valeski battled the much heralded El Padrino in February’s Risen Star Stakes before losing by a nose. He will be the favorite in the Louisiana Derby on April 1st where a first or second place finish should guarantee him a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

He is trained by Larry Jones, who has never won the Kentucky Derby, but has had a few strong contenders in recent years including second place finishers Hard Spun (2007) and Eight Belles (2008).

If you would like to receive weekly email updates with all the information you need to follow the races leading up to the Kentucky Derby, sign up for Derby Prep Alerts at Hello Race Fans. Also, at Hello Race Fans is an article from legendary race writer Steve Haskin called “How to Find a Derby Winner.”

Five of the six final Derby prep races will be broadcast on TV, here is the schedule:

March 31st: Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park
April 1st: Louisiana Derby at Fairgrounds Race Course
April 7th: Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park
April 7th: Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Race Track
April 14th: Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Park
April 14th: Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park

Kevin Martin is the founder of the racing history site Colin’s Ghost and a contributing editor at Hello Race Fans.

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