The Kentucky Derby trail can be exciting and very challenging. Earning a spot in the starting gates for the world’s most recognized race for Thoroughbreds is certainly no easy task. There are many different paths that lead to this highway to immortality. No matter which is chosen, hopes are it winds toward the winner’s circle.

To most, the holy grail of horse racing is the Kentucky Derby. That is the case for California based conditioner Carla Gaines as well. Fresh off her first trip to Louisville on the first Saturday in May in 2015, the University of Alabama graduate is on the trail again in 2016 with a brilliant colt named Smokey Image. Unbeaten and very impressive in a dominant California Cup Derby win on January 30, this son of Southern Image is giving Gaines a real case of Derby fever.

“I think right now he is a really, really good horse,” says Gaines. “In the Cal Cup he handled the two turns and the distance (mile and a sixteenth) much better than I thought he would. It was an extraordinary performance and I think he has the versatility to win no matter what the pace or his positioning in the race.”

In the Cal Cup, which was run at Santa Anita, Smokey Image broke to the lead and then just flat ran away from the competition. Putting on a show from beginning to end, his lengthening stride down the stretch left jaws agape. Making his first start for Gaines, Smokey left her too thinking about a dominant Image.

“You know, it’s silly to say this now, but I thought he needed another work to be ready for the mile and a sixteenth distance,” says the youthful Gaines. “He’s just such a great competitor. He’s really an exciting horse.”

The journey for Gaines to Churchill Downs can be a bit different in 2016. Last year it was Bolo that she artfully guided to the starting gates in the Run for the Roses. Third place finishes in both the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby gave this son of Temple City enough points to qualify so away they went.

“When you think about the number of horses foaled every year and then you get a chance to be one of twenty running in the Kentucky Derby, I think you have to take it,” says Gaines. “Bolo is a good grass horse that we took because I owed it to my owners. They deserved that opportunity and if the track had not played quite as deep that day it may have been different.”

Bolo finished 12th behind eventual Triple Crown champ American Pharoah last year. Since the Kentucky Derby, Bolo has won two of three starts on grass while still under Carla’s care.

Smokey Image has made all six of his career starts on dirt. With legends like Free House on his mother’s side and Northern Dancer in his father’s lineage, he seems to be more of a classic distance dirt horse for sure.

“We have a real dirt horse this time,” observes the conditioner of 2009 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint champ Dancing in Silks. “I think last year can certainly help us this year because the more you do something the better you should get. Like my momma always told me, practice makes perfect.”

The path to the Kentucky Derby for Gaines and Smokey Image will become increasingly crowded in the coming weeks. As they run for qualifying points in the March 12 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, Smokey will face open company for the first time.

“The San Felipe will be a measuring stick for sure,” says Gaines. “The water is going to get deep in a hurry for us. The competition will be tougher, but I think he has a chance to be special.”