Archive for the ‘Derby Rankings’ Category

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 9

Monday, March 20th, 2023

We are in the mid-March eye of the storm where we have a brief lull before the second and more powerful blast hits us. Until then we take a deep breath, get through the eerie stillness, and prepare for the second wave, which will hit first in New Orleans. In addition to analyzing the Louisiana Derby we made a few changes in the Rankings order due to timing and added one new horse. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: March 20, 2023 – Week 9

By Steve Haskin

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

All we’re waiting for now is the Florida Derby to see if he is still the solid favorite for the Kentucky Derby after the race. To be frank, I don’t see anyone in Florida who looks good enough to beat him; certainly not the horses he handled so easily in the Fountain of Youth or anyone from the Holy Bull. In this game you hate to be so bold as to say he looks to have a free pass, as some young horses do make rapid improvement this time of year, but this has been a slow bunch and no one has given any indication that they are going to make such a sudden leap forward they can beat this colt, although the lightly raced Mage should improve big-time off his fourth in the Fountain of Youth. Granted, Forte’s speed figures have not exactly been though the roof and he’s been running the same Thoro-Graph numbers he ran last fall. But all he has to do is maintain those numbers to beat these horses. Then we’ll see how they stack up with the others in the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps an out-of-town horse needing points and wanting to avoid a large contentious field will ship in trying to at least pick up second-place points. Forte had an easy half-mile breeze in :50 3/5 on Sunday.


2—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

He remains sharp with a half-mile breeze in :47 3/5 for the Santa Anita Derby. Earlier in the year it looked as if the Southern California contingent was the thinnest, with Bob Baffert horses, many of whom wouldn’t be heading to the Derby, dominating the group. But they have sorted themselves out with several improving colts bursting on the scene. As a result, Practical Move, the clear-cut leader of the pack, looks to be facing stiffer competition in his final prep than Forte. Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner should both improve off the San Felipe and National Treasure is back and working lights out. There is also the unknown factor, Mandarin Hero from Japan. And let’s not forget that Baffert is still around and dangerous with his non-Derby horse Cave Rock, who is training brilliantly. Yakteen has to decide the best way of getting Practical Move, his main priority, having developed the colt, to the Kentucky Derby while also doing what’s right for National Treasure and Reincarnate, who have been entrusted in his care. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s going to take good planning and some luck to not have any of these horses facing each other before the Derby. Practical Move has really found his niche and has developed into a sound, dependable, and professional racehorse who definitely should improve off the San Felipe.


3—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

The biggest action this week is still trying to figure out what we think of Tapit Trice after his polarizing victory in the Tampa Bay Derby. We’ve heard it all. He showed how special he is by coming from so far back and mowing down the field in the stretch…His slow start and lack of pushbutton acceleration are going to hurt him in a 20-horse field…Once he gets rolling he is a runaway bulldozer and you don’t want to get in his way…His Beyer regression to a mediocre 88 shows he is too slow to win the Derby…He finds a way to win, whether it’s a gut-wrenching stretch battle to the wire, an eight-length romp stalking the pace, or coming from dead-last to win going away…He still has a lot to learn and only one race to get his act together. All we can add this week is that his Thoro-Graph number, after improving two points in every race, only went from a 4 1/2 to a 4 1/4, and he would need a far bigger improvement than that in his next start. Fortunately, no one has run faster than a 2 this year, so he is not dealing with a particularly fast bunch of 3-year-olds up to this point. That could change after the final preps. Bottom line is I thought he was special when I ranked him No. 7 off a neck maiden win, which I never do, and my opinion of him hasn’t changed. He still has two months to smooth out any rough edges.


4—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

Brad Cox’s “hit show” will be at Fair Grounds this weekend when he fires some of his heavy ammo in the Louisiana Derby and then sets off another round the following week in the Arkansas Derby. But his real hit show may turn out to be in the Wood Memorial on April 9 when he will run either this colt to try to duplicate his powerful victory in the Withers Stakes, which would send him into the Kentucky Derby off back-to-back mile and an eighth races, or Gotham runner-up Slip Mahoney or both. The latter is there and looks certain to run. Hit Show is back working steadily at Fair Grounds, so who knows if he’ll ship back up north or go to the Blue Grass Stakes. Just as a reminder he will not turn 3 until three days after the Kentucky Derby so he has been a late bloomer who has improved with every work and every race since he was a baby. And his speed figures have also improved with every race to the point where his Thoro-Graph number in the Withers has not been topped by any 3-year-old. Because of his May 9 foaling date, for him to break his maiden in a romp in his career debut in October of his 2-year-old campaign is impressive as is winning a 1 1/8-mile stakes on February 11 at 3. What will help him in the Derby is that he has always been very laid back and just a smart, straight-forward colt. He still has to face better quality horses, but other than that he has shown he has all the qualities to be a top Derby contender.


5—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

He turned in a strong six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5 in company. As of now it looks like he will return to Oaklawn Park for the Arkansas Derby, with Yakteen having Practical Move as the top dog in Southern California. So, what do we know about this colt? We know he is a fighter and hard to get by in the stretch. We know he can battle through adversity and adapt to different situations, such as a breaking slowly and having to deviate from his normal running style and then overcoming a mugging in the stretch and still closing strongly to get third. It’s good to know you can be confident no matter where he is in the race and what problems he may face. We also know he is an imposing physical specimen with fluid action and he has as solid a foundation as any of them, having run six times, all at a mile or farther. He also has finished first or second on fast and sloppy tracks and on grass. So at this young stage of his life he boasts quite a resume. Now he just has to pick it up a notch and keep moving forward. If you look at his distinctive charcoal gray coat with the white splotches, there is a resemblance (with far fewer splotches) to the great Irish-bred stallion The Tetrarch, also known as “The Spotted Wonder,” to whom he traces back through grays Holy Bull, The Axe, and Mahmoud, who is a great-grandson of The Tetrarch.


6—Raise Cain (Ben Colebrook, Violence – Lemon Belle, by Lemon Drop Kid

Barry Eisaman, who broke him, said he was an ideal horse to be around who had no bad habits and took everything new in stride. No matter what he was introduced to he immediately handled it like a pro. As Eisaman put it he was like a college kid in high school. When looking at the early stages of a potential Derby horse this is what you want to see. Pedigree-wise, many have forgotten Lemon Drop Kid, who only won the Belmont, Travers, Whitney, Woodward, Suburban and Brooklyn. Raise Cain’s second dam is by Pacific Classic and Woodward winner and Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Bertando, who is by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Skywalker. His tail-female family traces to Man o’ War through his son, Triple Crown winner War Admiral. His huge Thoro-Graph leap from a 12 1/4 to a 2 in the Gotham would suggest a possible regression in his next start, whether the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass, but if he doesn’t, watch out. I think the 2 is for real, as he has a 7 3/4 and a 6 1/4 to fall back on and a 2 would be a natural progression from those figures. The 12 1/4 I believe was an outlier as a result of it being his first start on a synthetic surface, which he apparently did not care for. So if you eliminate that race he is on a better pattern than his figures might suggest.


7—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

With Angel of Fire, Confidence Game, and Red Route One all passing the Louisiana Derby, it does make his job a lot easier, as he is now by far the class of the race. In a 12-horse field devoid of speed he at least should have a ground-saving trip breaking from post 2. But with two months off he could be fresh enough to stay closer to the pace than usual. His big advantage now is that a number of his potential threats, such as Disarm, Kingsbarns, Shopper’s Revenge, and Cagliostro are all lightly raced horses with no stakes experience. And two of the proven stakes horses, Curly Jack and Jace’s Road, are coming off bad races. So, although he hasn’t run in a while, he should be able to handle these horses unless one of the lightly raced horses, especially Disarm and Kingsbarns, is a major star in the making, his stablemate Jace’s Road can steal the race as the only horse with speed, or he comes up short after the long layoff. He had his final work Saturday, breezing five furlongs in a solid 1:01. Instant Coffee really needs to run and get a 1 3/16-mile race under him because of the six-week gap to the Kentucky Derby. With the way this race came up, even if he beats these horses we still won’t know how good he really is. But he definitely has to be respected because he knows how to win and will have three graded stakes victories to his credit.


8—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

Some may feel he was hanging a bit through the stretch in the San Felipe, but he is still a work in progress and is just now figuring it all out. He runs like a horse who is going to keep improving as the distances stretch out, but from a pedigree standpoint he is still a bit of an enigma. Although Curlin and Malibu Moon are stamina influences hIs dam was a sprinter and a full-sister to a grade 2-winning sprinter and is second dam was a sprinter. So it’s hard to guess how far he wants to go. Right now we can only go by how he’s run in his two races this year and knowing he has a patient trainer who knows how to get into the mind of his horses and get the most out of them. And Shirreffs and the colt’s exercise rider have been working with him over the winter, and he sure looks like a different horse this year, as evidenced by his Brisnet figures climbing to a 96 and 98 and his Beyers from in the 60s and 70s to a 95 and 94. So whatever Shirreffs has done with him appears to be working.


9—National Treasure (Tim Yakteen, Quality Road – Treasure, by Medaglia d’Oro)

Although he’s lost his last three starts and hasn’t run since early January I am going to add him for his consistency in top-class company and for the way he returned to the work tab after not having worked for almost a month. Earlier this year he twice worked in company with Reincarnate and was put on the lead and refused to let Reincarnate get his head in front at the wire and in the gallop-out. He returned after being scratched in the San Felipe due to a foot bruise with a brilliant six-furlong work in 1:11 4/5, which is a heckuva first work back. He followed that up with a five-furlong drill in 1:00 flat so he should be ready for a big comeback effort. This colt has been second to Cave Rock in the grade 1 American Pharoah and third to Forte and Cave Rock in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He has run four times and has not gotten a Brisnet figure of under 90, with a 101 in the American Pharoah. And that 90 was in his career debut; he has not gotten under a 96 since. On Thoro-Graph his slowest number has been a 6 1/4 in his career debut and he got a 2 3/4 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. So there is a lot to recommend him and now that he is back with a series of strong works and is with Yakteen he has to be considered a legitimate contender. While the Santa Anita Derby looks to be the most convenient spot for his return, it would make more sense to keep them all separated. He is nominated to the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass looks like a great spot for him unless he starts tearing the barn down before then.


10—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

All systems are go for the Arkansas Derby. He worked five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 on March 13 and is scheduled to have one more work. You normally wouldn’t get overly excited about a horse who is one-for-seven, but I keep watching his races and I’m still impressed with what I see despite the record. In his seven starts, six of them have been at 1 1/16 miles and the other at one mile, so you can’t ask for a better foundation. He handles fast and sloppy tracks and grass and has run at five different racetracks. And in his last three races I still believe he would have won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes had he not been completely shut off in the stretch while making what looked like a winning move; then he came from far back to finish second to the brilliant Arabian Knight in the Southwest Stakes; and in his last start he closed from almost 20 lengths back in the Rebel Stakes to finish second, beaten a length despite finishing on his wrong lead. And before that he rallied late to snatch third behind Forte in the Breeders’ Futurity, nipping Instant Coffee on the wire. Of course he is totally pace dependent and can’t afford to be as far back as he was in the Rebel, but let’s see what he does returning to a fast track. 


11—Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

Even though he won the Risen Star it makes sense that Cox doesn’t want to pit his two most accomplished colts against each other at Fair Grounds, so he will wait for the following week’s Arkansas Derby. I really have no idea how good this colt is, and in many ways neither do is connections, who are excited to see him go 1 1/4 miles. Despite coming off a win and a second in stakes he still has not reached a 90 Beyer figure. But his Brisnet figures have shown a big jump every race ending with an excellent 97 in the Risen Star, while his Thoro-Graph numbers leaped from a 9 1/4 to a 2 1/2, so he can probably use the extra week. He has fallen through the cracks since he was a baby, partly because he is a Pennsylvania-bred and was by a freshman sire. His dam is by Honor and Serve, his second dam is by Carson City, his third dam is by Metfield, and his fourth dam is by Whitesburg, so there aren’t any real glamour names there. First he was a $32,000 RNA as a weanling at the Keeneland November mixed sale and then the following year the Albaugh family snatched him out of the depths of the Keeneland September yearling sale for a meager $70,000. According to the Albaughs’ racing manager Jason Loutsch, “He went through all our hoops.” Now that he has turned into a tiger he has one more hoop to go through before he takes his “no one wanted me” story to Churchill Downs.


12—Geaux Rocket Ride (Dick Mandella, Candy Ride – Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo)

I have to admit I have no idea where to rank this horse, so I will keep him down here until the Louisiana, Florida, and Arkansas Derby horses sort themselves out. The more I watch the San Felipe Stakes the more impressed I am, especially the professionalism he showed with only one sprint under him and how strongly he was striding out in the stretch, pulling clear of Hejazi and holding Skinner at bay after cutting to the inside turning for home. If he had one more start and didn’t have to go into the Kentucky Derby off only three lifetime starts and none at 2 I would have him ranked in the top six. He is such a beautiful mover and has such a strong pedigree I believe he has stardom written all over him. But I just can’t get past his lack of racing, as crazy as that may seem in this new era of lightly raced horses. He’ll have his work cut out for him in the Santa Anita Derby, but he has as much right to improve big-time as anyone. And if he should beat Practical Move and the others then I’m going to have to start thinking less about the three starts and more about how gifted he is. I learned that lesson the hard way with Justify. In the meantime, as far as being ranked No. 12, think of him being in a holding pattern until some of the smoke clears over the next two weeks.


13—Rocket Can (Bill Mott, Into Mischief – Tension, by Tapit)

Although he still has many question marks I can’t get him out of my mind because every time I think of him I start hearing Elton John and substituting his name. That nonsense aside there is really nothing to add about him other than he is improving, but it seems too slowly to be considered a major threat to Forte in the Florida Derby if that is where Mott winds up running him. While he could easily get second again he might seem more suited to a race like the Blue Grass even though that likely will have a larger and much deeper field. But by then he may have improved even more, and if so could even have a shot to win. If points were still an issue then going for second again in the Florida Derby might be the smart way to go, but it is not an issue so Mott will just have to decide the best way of getting to the Kentucky Derby and being competitive. This colt does have a bright future; I’m just not sure if it’s going to be on the first Saturday in May. If you are looking for a bright spot he did turn in a bullet half-mile work in :48 3/5, fastest of 19 works at the distance. That is a very quick work at Payson Park, so maybe he is sharper and closer to peaking than one might think.


14—Slip Mahoney (Brad Cox, Arrogate – Get Lucky, by A.P. Indy)

He breezed a half in :49 at Belmont. By him remaining in New York all winter he no doubt is headed for the Wood Memorial. Whether Hit Show returns and joins him is still up in the air. It’s just too bad no one got an opportunity to bet on him in the latest Kentucky Derby Future Wager despite a number of horses with far less credentials being put in the field of 39. I still believe this is a legitimate Derby contender, and like Geaux Rocket Ride, he has only been lowered until we get some clarity over the next three weeks. Last week I said this was my Derby sleeper and based on the lack of respect he received from Churchill Downs I still believe that. He is a proven fighter, made Tapit Trice run is guts out to beat him a neck, and, like Reincarnate, showed he can shrug off a slow start, adjust to having to come from far back for the first time, and still rally to finish in the money. In his case he had to go nine to 10-wide at the top of the stretch to do it. To say he has a strong pedigree would be a gross understatement. We’ll go into that in detail next week. Until he proves otherwise, I believe he is a serious horse.


15—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

He breezed a strong five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 for the Arkansas Derby, where I am looking for a huge move forward off his troubled fourth in the Rebel Stakes. He is one of many Derby prospects who have had their progress stopped or slowed down abruptly either by bad trips, track condition, or other reasons not reported by their connections, such as bleeding, lung infections or whatever. His progress was only slightly hampered because we all saw the traffic problems he had, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t get back on track with a clean trip in the Arkansas Derby. Let’s not forget this is a horse who was able to finish second in the Champagne Stakes off one six-furlong maiden race. He just has to show some consistency and prove that race was for real, even if it was on a sloppy track. We also have to remember that two races back he finished eight lengths ahead of Two Eagles River, who came back to win an allowance race by four lengths over Disarm.



Although we mentioned some of them already, several Louisiana Derby horses were out for their final works at Fair Grounds on Saturday, including INSTANT COFFEE (5f in 1:01), SUN THUNDER (1:01 1/5), and TAPIT’S CONQUEST (1:02 1/5), along with Arkansas Derby hopefuls VERIFYING (1:01 1/5) and CONFIDENCE GAIN (:50). We’re putting Confidence Game on hold for now until we see how he’s doing over the next week or so.

At Palm Beach Downs, KINGSBARNS, who is making quite a leap to 1 3/16 miles in the Louisiana Derby, breezed a half in :49 3/5. Todd Pletcher must think a lot of this colt to run him in this spot off only two lifetime races. But both were extremely impressive, and he got so much schooling in his troubled career debut that his lack of racing might be deceptive. I think he could be a very special horse. Spendthrift Farm surely thought a lot of him when they paid $800,000 for him at the Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale. They and Pletcher both feel it’s worth the shot to find out just what they have before the Kentucky Derby, especially considering what they have could be a lot.

DISARM, who will also be trying to pick up enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby in the Louisiana Derby, despite having only one mile allowance race in almost eight months, turned in a solid six-furlong work in 1:13. There is no question this colt has the talent and has always been highly thought of. It’s just a question of whether he is ready to take on 11 opponents, including several experienced stakes horses off that one second place allowance finish. But that was actually a stronger race than you might think with the front-running winner coming home so fast and him matching strides with him in the final furlong. He also was caught looking around at the start and broke a few steps slowly, but they have been working on that. Now he gets Joel Rosario. I happen to think he and Kingsbarns are very serious horses who should run big despite their inexperience.

While on the subject of lightly raced, but talented horses, SHOPPER’S REVENGE is another to keep an eye on after an impressive 5 1/4-length maiden win at Oaklawn and a strong second in an allowance race rallying on the far outside after having to go six-wide at the head of the stretch. He is one who definitely will appreciate the extra distance and I know Steve Asmussen is very high on him.

The big question with all these horses will be the pace, as there looks to be only one serious speed horse and that is the Gun Runner Stakes winner JACE’S ROAD, who has to bounce back off his dismal showing in the Southwest Stakes. But his only two poor races have come in the slop so it will be interesting to see how far he will take them on a fast track. If he gets loose on the lead watch out. This horse on his best day is more than capable of wiring this field. On a fast track he has a 6 1/4-length maiden win and a 5 1/2-length wire-to-wire score in the Gun Runner Stakes over eventual runaway Gotham winner Raise Cain. And his other race on a fast track was a close third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by Curly Jack, in the Iroquois Stakes coming off his maiden win.

The horse that beat Shopper’s Revenge, AIRTIME, who got through along the rail, had been claimed the race before for $50,000 by Robertino Diodoro while winning by 10 1/4 lengths, something we’ve been seeing a lot in the past few years. He worked five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 Saturday at Oaklawn and could run back in the Arkansas Derby, which is now shaping up as a very strong race.

Not too many are paying much attention to Saturday’s Jeff Ruby Steaks, despite its 100 points, but it is shaping up as an excellent race with several promising horses who will still have to make the transition to dirt. The main contenders are the Battaglia winner CONGRUENT and the Leonatus winner FUNTASTIC AGAIN, who has back-to-back runaway victories at Turfway Park. One horse to keep an eye on at a price is SCOOBIE QUANDO, who has a win and two seconds at Turfway, has a good turn of foot, and ran a big race rallying for second in the Battaglia. The son of Uncle Mo has the same connections as Gotham winner Raise Cain.

Because he was spread real thin, Doug O’Neill decided to send his recent maiden winner HENRY Q, a son of Blame, to Todd Fincher at Sunland Park to run in the Mine That Bird Derby and Sunland Derby, after which he would be returned to him. Although he didn’t beat much in the former, Henry Q suddenly found himself on the Derby trail by scoring a 14 3/4-length victory in a snappy 1:41 2/5 for the 1 1/16 miles and at this point looks to be the horse to beat in the Sunland Derby. Another O’Neill 3-year-old who found himself on the Derby trail out of nowhere was last weekend’s maiden winner I DON’T GET IT, whose three-quarter-length victory may have propelled him into the big Derby preps, with his next target possibly the Wood Memorial or Santa Anita Derby, according to O’Neill. He and the colt’s owner Paul Reddam are fearless when it comes to running horses in races that seem to be way over their head.  But they have won two Kentucky Derbys together, so they have earned free passes to do whatever they want.

Also in Sunday’s Sunland Derby, Bob Baffert has entered HARD TO FIGURE, who is coming off a second, beaten a neck, in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and has turned in two sensational works since, going six furlongs in 1:12 flat and then working five furlongs in a bullet :58 4/5, fastest of 69 works at the distance, in company with Arabian Lion.

With two horses in both the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbys, Kenny McPeek was able to send HAYES STRIKE to Laurel for this past Saturday’s Private Terms Stakes, and the son of Connect drew off to a 1 3/4-length victory at 8-1 over 8-5 favorite Coffeewithchris. Although he had only one victory, a second and a third in eight career starts, he was a fast-closing third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and was second to Two Phil’s in the Street Sense Stakes and fourth in the Iroquois Stakes, all at Churchill Downs. From a Kentucky historic standpoint he is owned and bred by Dixiana Farms, which has been around since 1877.

A sleeper to watch in the Arkansas Derby is TWO EAGLES RIVER, who really seems to be coming into his own for trainer Chris Hartman with an impressive front-running victory over Disarm in a one-mile allowance race and then turning in brilliant works of :47 flat for a half and :59 flat for five-furlongs. What I loved most about his allowance score was his action in the stretch and the way he was striding out, as well as his fast closing fractions. I’m not sure how far he wants to go, as there is a lot of speed in the bottom of his pedigree, but the way he won that allowance race it looks like he should be dangerous up to at least 1 1/8 miles and we’ll take it from there after that.

Looking ahead to the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Terunobu Fujita is excited about running MANDARIN HERO, who is coming off a fast-closing second in a 1 1/8-mile stakes on February 23. Fujita has always dreamed of running a horse in the Santa Anita Derby, having visited the track. He says the colt’s big weapon is his acceleration in the stretch and how he loves to “chase down other horses.” He is scheduled to arrive at LAX on March 29.

But if Baffert is planning on running CAVE ROCK for his first start of the year, the trainers with Derby horses better beware. Last year’s California sensation, who I believe has more natural talent than any of them, has been tearing up the track in the morning with a pair of :58 and change works and now an outstanding  seven-furlong drill in 1:25 1/5. Layoff or no layoff, if he runs in the Santa Anita Derby he could dash a lot of Derby hopes. And no matter who wins the Kentucky Derby I wouldn’t want to face him in the Preakness.

In the forgotten horse department, we have ARCTIC ARROGANCE, second in the Remsen, Jerome, and Withers, the last with blinkers added. This is one tough horse who has battled for the lead in his last five starts and already has two 1 1/8-mile races under his belt. Whether Linda Rice takes the blinkers off for the Wood Memorial we will see. Also forgotten is the horse who beat him in the Remsen, DUBYUHNELL, who ran terribly in the Sam F. Davis Stakes after steadying early. But he has been working at Palm Meadows, with a recent half-mile breeze in :48 2/5.

I haven’t been able to find out what happened to BLAZING SEVENS in the Fountain of Youth, but the good sign is that he returned to the work tab with a half-mile breeze in :49 1/5 at Payson Park. At Gulfstream Park, CYCLONE MISCHIEF, third in the Fountain of Youth, worked a half in :48 2/5 for a likely start in the Florida Derby.

I doubt that last Wednesday’s Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes at Kempton in England had any bearing on the Derby, as the winner, BRAVE EMPEROR, won by only a head, but it at least must be pointed out that the Irish-bred gelding by Scat Daddy’s son Sioux Nation has now won six straight and was coming off a listed victory in France.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 8

Monday, March 13th, 2023

In addition to our take on the Tampa Bay Derby we have a number of changes to the rankings order with a focus this week on the various speed ratings to get an idea of how fast…or slow these horses are. Next week we will have to somehow plow though the annual dead March weekend with no stakes before the main attractions begin with the Louisiana Derby, the first of the 100-point races. In the meantime enjoy “Big Red’s March to the Derby,” my column on Secretariat’s winter and early spring races of 1973, and my first of several columns to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Big Red’s Triple Crown campaign. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: March 13, 2023 – Week 8

By Steve Haskin


1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

Let’s start as always start with the Thoro-Graph figures, and Forte’s numbers may be very revealing in their lack of movement. In his final three races last year he got in order a 3 3/4, 2 3/4, and 2 1/2, which for a 2-year-old are consistently fast. Having only two starts before the Derby, there isn’t much time to get into the Derby-winning numbers you want to see. So Forte in the Fountain of Youth got another 2 1/2, which indicates he hasn’t shown any improvement numbers-wise from 2 to 3. While that may be true, let’s first take into account that we haven’t had any fast numbers from this crop and all Forte has to do is improve about a point in his final prep to put him in a good position to win the Derby, maybe not even that much. The same goes for his Beyer figs, which went from a 100 in the Breeders’ Cup to a 98, which doesn’t make him any faster than many of the others. However, his Brisnet figure for the Fountain of Youth improved from a 100 to a 103. He is the only 3-year-old to post three triple-digit Brisnet figures and his 103 is the fastest this year by a 3-year-old. If you are looking to beat him, the second and third-place finishers of the Fountain of Youth had slow Thoro-Graph numbers going into the race. All you want to see in his final prep is improve his speed figures just a bit and beat faster horses than he beat in the Fountain of Youth.


2—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

This colt’s big strength as a Derby horse is his mind. Barry Eisaman, who broke him and prepared him for the sale, said he never once made a mistake and was always a “quiet, sensible horse with a wonderful stride.” As for the chaos of the Derby, Eisaman said, “He couldn’t care less. You could drop him in the crowded paddock from a helicopter and he wouldn’t turn a hair.” So that’s one thing his connections won’t have to worry about. Like Forte, we have a top horse pairing up his career-high Thoro-Graph number in his first start at 3. Practical Move’s number was not as fast as Forte with a 3 3/4, which was his number in the Los Alamitos Futurity in his final start at 2. His improvement has been gradual with an 8 1/2 being the slowest he has ever run. He was far more advanced and battle-tested than the horses who finished second, third, and fourth in the San Felipe, so like Forte he should face tougher opponents in his final prep, likely the Santa Anita Derby. But are there tougher opponents in Southern California? He is the only 3-year-old with triple-digit numbers last out in both Beyer and Brisnet and also the only 3-year-old along with Forte with back-to-back triple-digit figures in his last two starts. In the San Felipe he was able to increase his Brisnet late pace figure from a career-high 94 to a lofty 107. So he does have a strong closing kick. 


3—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

There certainly will be mixed feelings about his two-length victory in the Tampa Bay Derby as the 1-2 favorite, with most everyone expecting a blowout score over what looked to be a pretty weak field. And his 88 Beyer figure will surely be frowned upon by many. What he showed is that he is extremely talented and a powerhouse of a horse who still hasn’t figured it all out. He has a powerful engine, but it needs more torque to accelerate quicker from the start. He kept looking back and forth in the gate and when they broke he really did nothing wrong, breaking cleanly, but he lacked that pushbutton acceleration and before he and Luis Saez knew it they were dead last in the 12-horse field and dropping far back. Down the backstretch he was still last and you had to wonder if he was handling the track, which some horses don’t. He started to make a move between horses but then actually lost a little ground and his backers had to be in panic mode. He finally was able to find his best stride on the turn and began closing the gap, but still had a lot of ground to make up. He swung eight or nine wide and with his engine now fully revved up you knew there was no stopping him now. He came charging down the middle of the track picking off horses one by one and quickly drew clear. He has now won three straight, all in completely different ways. I still believe he is special, but he is fortunate there weren’t any top horses in this race. He still has a lot to learn and has one more race to be Derby ready.


4—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

Nothing to do now but wait for the Wood Memorial on April 9 where he will try to win back-to-back 1 1/8-mile stakes. His Beyer and Brisnet speed figures are not going to blow you away with a career-high 91 Beyer and a solid career-high 96 Brisnet, but is Thoro-Graph pattern is arguably the strongest of any 3-year-old, going from a 12 3/4 to a 4 3/4 to a 2. Any expected “bounce” after such a gigantic jump not only didn’t happen he moved forward again with the 2, which is still the fastest number this year. While he is on a strong upward trajectory it does tell you something about this year’s crop of 3-year-olds when not a single colt has run faster than a 2 in the middle of March. With him, though, it is just where you want him, and he should appreciate the two-month layoff after running such a good number going a mile and an eighth. He has plenty of foundation and has proven he can run well at any distance and on any racetrack, having competed at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Oaklawn Park, and Aqueduct. As for his stamina, he sure gets that from his sire and broodmare sire; his second dam is by two-time Santa Anita Handicap winner Milwaukee Brew; and of his dam’s four third generation sires, three of them won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.


5—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

We have a tale of two horses with this colt or two tales of a horse, however you want to look at it. The first tale is about his speed figures, which may turn some people off, as they regressed all around in the Rebel Stakes. His Thoro-Graph number regressed from a 2 3/4 to a 4, his Beyer from a 95 to a 90, and his Brisnet from a 98 to a 92. The other tale is all about visuals and no horse has impressed me more visually than this colt. First let’s remember that he had no business finishing third in the Rebel considering to horrible trip he had and all he had to overcome. That he was able to shrug it all off and was running powerfully at the end says a lot about him. Remember that Verifying, the other horse who had trouble in the Rebel, also saw his speed figures regress. When Reincarnate had a good trip in the Sham his speed figures were as fast as any of them. Getting back to the visuals, this colt has such powerful strides, yet is so smooth he is a pleasure to watch. I loved his last work, a half in :47 4/5, and that Yakteen had him work by himself. The rider, not wanting to go too fast, kept looking down at his watch and was practically standing up in the saddle. He displayed that beautiful action in the final furlong and was really reaching out at the end. So forget the Rebel figures; this colt has all the tools.


6—Raise Cain (Ben Colebrook, Violence – Lemon Belle, by Lemon Drop Kid

I’ve gotten to really like this colt. He is an enigma considering how dominant he was in the Gotham Stakes at odds of 23-1 and having an up and down career before that race, but as we explained last week his races from a visual standpoint were much better than they looked in his past performances and his so-called downs were his career debut and two races on a synthetic track. To demonstrate those up and downs, on Thoro-Graph he jumped from a 21 to 7 3/4, then regressed badly to an 11 1/2, then jumped again to a 6 1/4, then regressed badly again to 12 1/4. So you would naturally expect another jump in the Gotham, despite the size of the field and facing much better horses. But his 7 1/2-length romp rallying from 11th far exceeded expectations with a monstrous jump to a 2, faster than Forte and Practical Joke and as fast as any 3-year-old this year. His Brisnet Late Pace figure also skyrocketed from an 86 to a 106. And he did that having a loose horse on his outside down the backstretch, having to check hard nearing the quarter pole, not changing leads until the sixteenth pole, and having the loose horse on his inside, running with him in the final furlong. His Beyer and Brisnet speed figures show the same extreme up and down pattern, and while his 90 in the Gotham on both figures is nowhere near as fast as his Thoro-Graph number he did jump 20 and 10 points, respectively, from his previous race.


7—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

Although he basically paired up his career-high Thoro-Graph number with a 4 1/2 in his maiden win and a 4 1/4 in the San Felipe, he had made an enormous leap from a 17 in his final start at 2, so pairing up such a huge jump was good. But with only one more start he would probably need about a two-point improvement to put himself in a position to have a legitimate shot at winning the Derby. Shirreffs said one of the major factors in the colt’s improvement was his new exercise rider’s ability to develop gears in the horse, which takes good hands; also to change his habit of grabbing the bit and pulling , which they are taught early, to not pulling and keeping his head down. His new rider also was able to keep his hands down on the colt and be able to hold him from running off. So it seems obvious that Skinner has passed Shirreffs 101 and has developed into a more tractable, professional horse over the winter, as we’ve seen in his two races this year.


8—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

I know all horses are individuals and each one has their strengths and weaknesses, but looking at the Fair Grounds-based horses, most of them residing in the barn of Brad Cox, and the races they have run, I have to admit I find it difficult telling them apart. It seems as if Instant Coffee, Angel of Empire, Sun Thunder, Confidence Game, Tapit’s Conquest, and several others have become interchangeable. I won’t go so far as to use the word boring, but I’m waiting for some of these horses to do something exciting. As far as Instant Coffee in concerned, to be honest I can’t remember that much about him, not having seen him for so long. I know he is a closer and has run some big races following a cavalry charge of horses down the stretch, but he certainly is not considered brilliant by any means. When I see him I kinda see Angel of Empire, although he is a bit more accomplished. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying this colt can’t win the Derby, even with his lack of racing in February and March; I just can’t get a feel for who he is and how good he is. It’s just been too long.  He did work a solid five furlongs in 1:01, so at least he is progressing nicely for the Louisiana Derby, where hopefully he will tell us more about himself.


9—Geaux Rocket Ride (Dick Mandella, Candy Ride – Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo)

As I have said many times I don’t like horses going into the Derby with only three lifetime starts, but in a year like this there is no reason not to move him up considering how strong he was in the San Felipe Stakes against the No. 2 ranked horse. That race wasn’t extremely fast on Thoro-Graph, but he at least improved from a 6 1/2 in his career debut to a 4 1/2, and he now has only one more race to take another step forward. However, his Beyer went from a 92 to a very respectable 96 and his Brisnet from a 97 to a 99, putting him right up there with the leaders. What I loved the most was that his Brisnet late pace figure went from a 93 to a 100 and his middle pace figures remained strong at 100 and 95, indicating he has a very high cruising speed and can maintain it throughout the race. Any horse can close fast running middle pace figures in the 70s, but when you’re putting in triple-digit closing figures off equally fast middle figs it means we’re talking about a serious horse who should keep improving as the distances stretch out. Mandella said he’s a very smart horse and that should help him overcome his lack of experience. You could see the maturity in the San Felipe when he ran like a seasoned pro in his first two-turn race.


10—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

He breezed an easy half in :51 for the Louisiana Derby, which should draw a large field of horses whose trainers believe they are geared toward stamina and will appreciate the 1 3/16-mile distance. This colt definitely is one of those with his strong pedigree and powerful late kick. Of course a horse like him who comes from way out of it will need a lot of luck. His Thoro-Graph numbers improved from a 6 1/2 to a 3 3/4 in the Rebel and he just looks like a horse who is now coming into his own. Being by Gun Runner you would think he’d have more early speed, but he just is more comfortable laying back and making that one big run. I like that his Brisnet speed figures have progressed from a 72 to 82 to 90 to 94, and now he needs another move forward. What is interesting is that his best late pace figure of 104 came in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, the race I have been saying he would have won had he not gotten stopped in the stretch making a big run. With it all he still only got beat 1 1/2 lengths. If he can get a decent trip in the Louisiana Derby not be almost 20 lengths back as he was in the Rebel, I believe he will be charging down that long stretch.


11—Slip Mahoney (Brad Cox, Arrogate – Get Lucky, by A.P. Indy)

So let’s get this straight, Churchill Downs puts the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 9th-place finishers of the Fountain of Youth and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-place finishers of the San Felipe in the Future Wager field, but leaves out the 2nd-place finisher of the Gotham, despite being a speed-type horse who broke slowly, dropped back to last of 13, a dozen lengths off the lead, and then rallied 10-wide to get second. What their reasoning was to leave him off a list that contains a number of highly questionable horses who have done nothing in stakes races is beyond me. What makes this all the more confusing is that not only did they leave him off they actually took him off after having him in the previous Future Wager despite having only a head maiden victory to his credit. Granted his Beyer speed figure was nothing to rave about in the Gotham, but because he was that far back and had to rally so far out in the middle of the track I wouldn’t take his slow Beyer figure too seriously. He did after all get a strong 3 on Thoro-Gaph when he broke his maiden in his previous start and made Tapit Trice run his guts out the race before, and his 5 Thoro-Graph number in the Gotham was actually pretty solid considering the horrible trip he had. It makes sense to expect a significant improvement in his next start with a decent trip and stretching out to two turns, which he should relish.


12—Confidence Game (Keith Desormeaux, Candy Ride – Eblouissante, by Bernardini)

I’m still waiting for him to work, as he hasn’t been seen since the Rebel Stakes. Like many of the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn 3-year-olds I simply can’t separate them because they haven’t stood out in any way and haven’t left much of an impression so far. He won the Rebel despite not changing leads, and what was the most impressive aspect of his race was that after five slow races on Thoro-Graph he improved to a 7 and then catapulted all the way to a 2. No 3-year-old has run faster this year, so maybe he is improving rapidly. Like with Instant Coffee he could be a very nice colt who is just coming into his own, but I need to see him again in one of the big preps and we’ll see if he can duplicate his Rebel victory on a fast track or even move forward off it. I actually was more impressed with the runner-up and third-place finisher, but I am keeping an open mind with him because he does have several things going for him. Right now I just want to see him work so we can at least tell how he came out of the Rebel.


13—Rocket Can (Bill Mott, Into Mischief – Tension, by Tapit)

One of the reasons I felt this colt was too slow to be considered a major Derby contender were his three straight Thoro-Graph numbers of 8, so not only wasn’t he improving he wasn’t improving off slow  numbers. But his 4 in the Fountain of Youth brought a ray of hope that perhaps he has turned the corner and finally is getting within striking distance of the top horses. This was backed up by his Beyer and Thoro-Graph figures improving as well. Now the question is can he take another step forward in his final Derby prep. Yes, he was second to Forte in the Fountain of Youth, but there were no heavy hitters behind him. In fact, the third-place finisher was coming off a dreadful performance and the fourth-place finisher was coming off only one seven-furlong maiden race. So while he is moving in the right direction we will see if he has made enough progress to make an impact on his next race against a field that likely will be much deeper in talent.


14Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

Yes, I know I probably have him way too low, but after the top five horses I admit I don’t have a clue where to rank these horses, so I keep shuffling them around depending on where my mindset is at the time and who has impressed me. I’m just looking for horses that excite me, and while you can’t knock his victory in the Risen Star Stakes, this was another five-horse cavalry charge to the wire, in which he emerged at the end to win by a length. I could have just as easily put the runner-up Sun Thunder on here. The Thoro-Graph numbers for that race were more impressive than the race looked visually. Anyway, all these horses will sort themselves out in the Louisiana Derby and we’ll know a lot more about them. He did have an easy half-mile breeze in :50 1/5.


15—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

This was a colt who looked to be on his way to big things until he was stopped, or at least slowed down, by a traffic jam in the upper stretch of the Rebel Stakes after tracking a very fast pace in the slop that killed off the speed and set it up for horses coming from the back of the pack. So while the first three finishers were storming home he was weaving inside and outside looking for an opening that came way too late. What was interesting was that despite his fourth-place finish as the 3-2 favorite, his 5 1/2 Thoro-Graph number was the same as he got winning a strong allowance race by 5 1/4 lengths the race before. He has now become a forgotten horse, even in his own barn, and you could have gotten him at an enticing 50-1 in the Future Wager. All we can do now is wait to see if he can get back on track in the Arkansas Derby.



It came as no surprise to hear ARABIAN KNIGHT is off the Derby trail. Things never felt right with him getting to the Derby with a big shot to win off only three spread out races. His campaign had too many holes in it and periods of inactivity when he should have been running or at least in serious training. As everyone knows by now he has been taken off the Derby trail by Tim Yakteen, who wasn’t happy with his last work. With some time off to regroup he hopefully will be back again and ready to resume what has been a very brief, but brilliant career.

The first of the 100-point stakes, the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby on March 25 is shaping up as the deepest, most wide-open race of the year with the likes of Instant Coffee, Angel of Empire, Litigate, Red Route One, Kingsbarns, Sun Thunder, Curly Jack, Shopper’s Revenge, Tapit’s Conquest, and Denington among others heading in that direction. Brad Cox has an amazing six possible starters, but two of them, Jace’s Road and Victory Formation, both looking to bounce back from poor efforts, could join stablemate Verifying in the Arkansas Derby. One thing is for sure, this race will eliminate a lot of pretenders. Right now we really can’t tell the pretenders from the contenders. Any one of the above horses could win and it wouldn’t be a surprise.

The same day, the UAE Derby could have two or three foreign entrants with designs on the Kentucky Derby. DERMA SOTOGAKE, who has defeated Perriere and was a fast-closing third in the Saudi Derby, and Hyacinth Stakes winner PERRIERE, both from Japan, are very dangerous considering how successful the Japanese horses have been worldwide. Another strong Japanese colt, MANDARIN HERO, winner of four of his five career starts is pointing to the Santa Anita Derby, where he could really upset the proverbial apple cart in California with a victory. I’m wondering how Churchill Downs will really embrace a Japanese horse coming here and possibly embarrassing the best 3-year-olds in America. It’s probably going to happen one year.

While on the subject of foreign horses, Aidan O’Brien could have a live one in CAIRO, a son of Quality Road, who won the one-mile Patton Stakes over the all-weather track at Dundalk by two lengths, following up his equally impressive victory in a group 3 race at Leopardstown on the grass. Stay tuned on Wednesday for the Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes at Kempton in England where the first five finishers will be awarded Derby points with 20 points to the winner.

Although CAVE ROCK is not Derby bound and is remaining with Baffert to point for the Preakness, he could be a major thorn in the side of the Derby horses he meets along the way, as indicated by the blistering works he’s been turning in, the latest being a bullet :58 2/5 drill, which followed a :58 4/5 work the week before. Hell hath no fury like a Baffert scorned.

TWO PHIL’S, second in the LeComte Stakes and third in the Risen Star Stakes, will bid farewell to New Orleans and head to the synthetic surface in the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park.

There is still a slim chance for a two-turn maiden winner to bounce back with a big effort in a major prep, and we had a parade of maiden races on Saturday. At Tampa Bay, the Shug McGaughey-trained PERFORM, a son of Good Magic, put in a powerful run to win going away by 2 1/2 lengths under a hand ride, covering the mile and 40 yards in a solid 1:40 1/5, with Todd Pletcher horses finishing second and third. At Gulfstream Park the 23-1 first-time starter EMPIRESTRIKESFAST, trained by Bill Mott, came again at the head of the stretch to upset the 1-5 favorite DREAMLIKE by three-quarters of a length in 1:44 flat for the 1 1/16 miles. Dreamlike, trained by Pletcher, finished 8 1/4 lengths ahead of the third horse.

At Oaklawn, in the first division going a mile, Wayne Lukas sent out MAJOR BLUE to a wire-to-wire victory leading every step of the way to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:39 as the 2-1 favorite. But if you were looking for something explosive I doubt you’ve seen a more explosive victory than the one turned in by 12-1 shot INTERLOCK EMPIRE, a gray son of Classic Empire who came from 10th, 13 lengths back, and unleashed a devastating turn of foot, blowing by horses on the turn to be right up with the leaders at the head of the stretch. He quickly drew off to five-length victory for Kenny McPeek without changing leads until midstretch. McPeek isn’t wasting any time with this colt and will run him next in the Arkansas Derby, where he will join stablemate MENDELSSOHN MARCH, one of the more fascinating prospects we’ve seen this year. In his debut at Fair Grounds over the grass he led most of the race and then dug deep when several horses came charging up to him in the stretch. He battled one of them to the wire, and although he fell a nose short, the winner came in on him sharply and he was put up on a disqualification. He then went to Oaklawn for a 1 1/16-mile allowance race in the slop. Trapped behind horses the whole way he finally got though along the rail in midstretch when the leader came in on him, causing him to either brush the rail or come close to it. That really set him off and he squeezed through, surging to the front, and then drew clear to win by 1 1/2-lengths while drifting as far away from the rail as he could get. This colt is bred to run all day and if he handles a fast track like he did the grass and slop who knows what he’s capable of.

Finally, at Santa Anita, Doug O’Neill sent out I DON’T GET IT to score a three-quarters of a length victory as the even-money favorite in a game performance. He has improved with every race and in his previous start he ran a decent fourth behind Skinner after stumbling very badly at the start. Give him credit for rebounding off that and breaking cleanly before going on to victory.

At Fair Grounds, SUN THUNDER, who we had ranked two weeks ago, turned in a five-furlong work in 1:01 1/5 for the Louisiana Derby. He is one horse I regret having dropped from the rankings, but I am still hopeful he will run a strong race and take another big step forward, as he did in the Risen Star. I just wish he could have sustained his run a little farther, but was just one-paced in the final furlong after a ground-saving trip. At 92-1 in the Future Wager I would take a shot and put a few bucks on him because I have no idea what is ceiling is, but I feel there is more improvement in him.

Also at Fair Grounds, the promising DISARM turned in a sharp five-furlong work in 1:01 in preparation for the Arkansas Derby, unless he gets re-routed to the Blue Grass Stakes. I still really like this colt and he should move way forward off his return race following a long layoff. It’s just a question of whether he has enough time to be a force in the Derby. If he had one more race he definitely would be a horse to watch on the first Saturday in May. We’ll just have to see how much progress he makes in his next start against more seasoned and quality horses. He did take some late money in the Future Wager, going from 99-1 to 79-1; still a potential overlay if he is the horse we always thought he was.

The steady NATIONAL TREASURE has returned to light training after missing the San Felipe with a foot bruise. He does have a good foundation under him and the hope is they can get a final prep in him before the Derby. Tim Yakteen said he won’t commit to any plans until the colt works.

Shug McGaughy said Swale Stakes winner GENERAL JIM will return to the track Monday after being scratched from the Fountain of Youth Stakes with a cough and will now be kept at one turn with the Pat Day Mile a possible target.

Remember the highly promising Godolphin colt BANISHING, who fired a dud at even money in a February 18 allowance race following a stunning 8 1/2-length maiden victory? Well, he has finally returned to the work tab, and in a big way, drilling a half in :47 4/5. The Derby obviously is out, so we’ll see where he winds up.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 7

Monday, March 6th, 2023

We finally got the kind of results we’ve been looking for as Forte and Practical Move established themselves as the two top horses, and we had several horses who were defeated that put their names in the mix with brighter things to come. Now it’s on to the Tampa Bay Derby. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: March 6, 2023 – Week 7

By Steve Haskin

No. 1 ranked Forte, photo courtesy of Coglianese Photos/Lauren King


1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

I will repeat what I have asked before, is there anything this colt can’t do? And I will add, does he have any weaknesses? So far, the only answer I can come up with on both questions is no. You never know how a horse is going to make the transition from 2 to 3, but Forte showed he is at worst the same horse he was last year. Coming off a four-month layoff, he always looked to be in command even being stuck down on the rail. We knew he was sharp coming off the layoff from the way he broke, but he settled nicely behind horses, patiently waiting for running room. All the while you knew once Irad Ortiz was able to pull the trigger the race was over. He finally was able to get him out in the clear four-wide and the race indeed was over. He quickly drew off with a :24 2/5 quarter and final sixteenth in :06 1/5, geared down in the final sixteenth, to win by 4 1/2 lengths. As I mentioned earlier, whether he’s inside or outside it doesn’t matter. Simply put, he knows how to get the job done. Finally, we have some clarity in the Derby picture, which for now revolves around Forte.


2—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

Could it be we now will have a fascinating East vs. West showdown to look forward to on the first Saturday in May? Practical Move’s victory in the San Felipe mirrored Forte’s score in the Fountain of Youth in a number of ways. Both were coming off layoffs, both were down on the inside for most of the running, patiently biding their time, and both ran like seasoned professionals who didn’t miss a beat despite the time off. Unlike Forte, who got to the outside, Practical Move waited for the rail to open up, and when the pacesetting Hijazi obliged, he shot through and methodically drew off a 2 1/2-length victory over the highly touted maiden winner Geaux Rocket Ride. Practical Move came home in almost identical closing fractions as Forte (:24 3/5 and :06 1/5) before galloping out some eight lengths clear of the others, looking like he wanted to around again. Yakteen and Practical Move have now beaten six Bob Baffert horses in their last two races, even if Yakteen was listed as the trainer of the three horses in the San Felipe. So we now have two emphatic leaders on both coasts who appear to be extremely talented and professional colts, who keep improving with every start. By the way, do you think he looks like a bargain now at 83-1 in the latest Future Wager? What in the world were people thinking? And he goes off as fourth choice in the San Felipe.


3—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

Yes, Pletcher does have another potential star who could make it a Big 3 if he wins Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby as impressively as he won an allowance race in his last start. This is another colt who appears to have all the tools and can beat you by a nose in a dogfight or leave you far behind. The horse he outdueled in his maiden score, Slip Mahoney, actually ran a good second in the Gotham Stakes after breaking poorly and dropping way out of it in last. Tapit Trice had his final work for his stakes debut, breezing a half in :49 1/5 in company with the promising Dreamlike. Breaking off a length behind his workmate he collared him on the turn, and as Pletcher horses always do, they finished up together with Tapit Trice edging a half-length in front at the wire and then galloping out extremely strongly, again getting the better of Dreamlike, who had the advantage of being on the inside. One horse who could test him is the Swale Stakes winner General Jim if he recovers from the cough that kept him out of the Fountain of Youth Stakes. This colt has unlimited potential and will be the highlight of Saturday’s races on the Derby trail, as we near that mid-March lull before the big 100 point races begin on March 25


4—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

All we need now is a big powerhouse from New York to give the Derby trail a true regional scope just like we used to have, and this would be the horse to accomplish that if he can land back-to-back mile and an eighth graded stakes wins at the Big A in the Wood Memorial, if Brad Cox decides to send him back there after his decisive victory in the Withers Stakes. But we still have a long wait for that race, so all we can do is hope he stays healthy and look back at how he has progressed with every start, having run four times at four different distances at four different tracks. He did break his maiden impressively at Keeneland in his career debut, so you can’t rule out the Blue Grass Stakes the same day as the Wood  if Cox decides to go that route. Either way he will have two months between races and he might just need it after going nine furlongs on that deep tiring Aqueduct surface. In the meantime he had a solid five-furlong work in 1:01 3/5 at Fair Grounds.


5—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

It seems after the first five or six spots there is a gap to the rest of the horses, not regarding pure talent as much as accomplishments, foundation, proven class, and being a sure thing to handle the mile and a quarter. We do have several talented horses who have questions concerning experience, but this guy is not one of them, with six career starts all at a mile or longer and on fast and sloppy tracks and grass. We all saw what he did in the Rebel Stakes with a new trainer, traveling cross-country for the first time, running in the slop for the first time, and overcoming a poor start that left him far back in the 11-horse field after being on or just off the lead in all his previous starts. And on top of that he had his run stopped in the upper stretch when two horses put the squeeze on him forcing him to steady, recover, and then put in a big run to finish third. What was most impressive was how he was striding out in the final furlong with great extension despite all he had gone through earlier. He is a tough, gutsy colt who generates a lot of power and should be a major force from now on.


6—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

It’s not that I still don’t have concerns about his lack of racing, skipping the Risen Star Stakes, and having only one race in 14 weeks going into the Kentucky Derby. It’s just that I can’t think of anyone else to put here who is as proven as he is and who has two graded stakes victories to his credit. As I mentioned before, he was once considered slow, but his huge Thoro-Graph leap in the LeComte may have necessitated a change of plans to give him more time rather than risk a “bounce.” He also beat Confidence Game by almost eight lengths in the LeComte and that colt came back to win the Rebel Stakes at odds of 18-1. He hasn’t shown that wow factor yet, but he has a strong sustained stretch kick and knows how to win. 


7—Rocket Can (Bill Mott, Into Mischief – Tension, by Tapit)

He is another I have not ranked high despite being a graded stakes winner because he has been too slow, beat a poor field in the Holy Bull Stakes, and hasn’t done anything to get you excited. But I have to admit he did show big improvement running second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes to Forte, and was beaten only a half-length by Confidence Game in an allowance race two starts back. So he definitely appears to be moving forward, and with Bill Mott you often have to have patience and expect his horses to keep improving. He is a complete outcross though five generations, his second dam Tough Tiz’s Sis, a daughter of Tiznow, was a multiple grade 1 winner, he has all three Triple Crown winners from the ‘70s – Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed — in his pedigree, in his dam’s second and third generations are the winners of four Breeders’ Cup Classics, and his fifth dam is inbred to Man o’ War. He is an attractive son of Into Mischief and you can expect another move forward in his speed figures.


8—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

At first glance you would have expected him to go on with his run in the stretch after making a big move instead of appearing to be hanging just a bit and content with finishing fourth. But there was more to take out of his performance, such as coming back in only 20 days since breaking his maiden where he ran career high speed figures and then not being able to train up to this race as he normally would have because of the bad weather and having his final work nine days before the race. The track was, as Shirreffs put it, very unforgiving, and he did put in a powerful five-wide move on the far turn, running a swift :23 1/5 quarter before evening out in the stretch, perhaps due to the missed training and coming back off a big effort in only three weeks. Give him credit for continuing to persevere in the final furlong to get up for third though a fast final sixteenth. With it all he was beaten 3 3/4 lengths by one of the most accomplished 3-year-olds in the country. He no doubt has made big improvement from 2 to 3 and has finally figured how to be a professional racehorse. If you’re looking for classic bloodlines, his sire sired a Belmont winner and his two grandsires sired a Kentucky Derby winner and a Preakness winner.


9—Confidence Game (Keith Desormeaux, Candy Ride – Eblouissante, by Bernardini)

As you can see from previous comments he has been running big races against some pretty good horses and seems to be improving to where he has to be considered a legitimate Derby contender. And he’s been consistent, having finished in the money in six of his seven starts. He has the pedigree and the running style and Desormeaux knows what to do with a good horse. With a career-high Beyer figure of only 83 he jumped to a 94 in the Rebel Stakes and did it running on his wrong lead in the stretch. Also his Thoro-Graph number catapulted from a 7 to a 2, which puts him right up there among the fastest 3-year-olds. So either he freaked in the slop or he has emerged as a horse to watch from now on. As you are well aware by now he is going to have a huge fan base with his dam being a half-sister to Zenyatta,


10—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

He is another who ran a monster race in the Rebel Stakes coming from more than 19 lengths back to finish a strong second. Although he has won only one of his seven starts he has turned in strong stretch runs in six of them. He is the type of horse who is going to need racing luck, and I am still convinced he would have won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes had he not gotten stopped in the stretch. And you sure can’t fault him for his second to Arabian Knight in the Southwest Stakes and third to Forte in the Breeders’ Futurity. In the Rebel his Thoro-Graph number improved from a 6 1/2 to a 3 3/4, so he is moving up the proverbial ladder to where he should be competitive against anybody. Being by Gun Runner, out of a Tapit mare, is pedigree is made up of two of the hottest sires in the country. I don’t think we have seen him anywhere near his best.


11—Geaux Rocket Ride (Dick Mandella, Candy Ride – Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo) 

As you may know by now I don’t like horses going into the Kentucky Derby with only three career starts, but it is becoming more and more of a reality with horses jumping into graded starts off one maiden sprint and running big. We saw it with Arabian Knight in the Southwest Stakes, we saw it in the Fountain of Youth Stakes with Mage, who had a troubled trip, and we saw it with this guy, who ran like a seasoned pro to finish second to Practical Move in the San Felipe Stakes. Coming off a six-furlong maiden score in 1:09 2/5, he tracked the pace, was floated a bit wide by Hejazi turning for home, cut back to the inside, and finished strongly, striding out beautifully in the final furlong. He certainly has thee pedigree to keep stretching out, and the only reason I am putting him ahead of Arabian Knight is that he is on a better schedule with better spacing between races. I don’t know whether they will face each other in the Santa Anita Derby, but I would expect another big move forward from Geaux Rocket Ride. After that he has to contend with history.


12—Arabian Knight (Tim Yakteen, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

At least we finally saw him back on the work tab, as he turned in a strong five-furlong drill in :59 1/5. As I mentioned I am still concerned about his unexplained break and lack of works and now having to wait a long time to have his final prep before going into the Kentucky Derby with one race in 14 weeks. With Practical Move winning the San Felipe impressively and likely headed to the Santa Anita Derby I’m not sure if Yakteen wants to run both colts against each other when Arabian Knight has already won impressively at Oaklawn Park and could return there for the Arkansas Derby where he might have a better shot at picking up much needed Derby points. Yes, he no doubt is a very talented colt, but he has a long road ahead to get to the Kentucky Derby with a legitimate shot to win. What he needs now is more sharp works like the one he just had.


13—Raise Cain (Ben Colebrook, Violence – Lemon Belle, by Lemon Drop Kid

I know the Gotham Stakes was set up for him with the fast early pace and the first three finishers coming from 11th, 13th, and 12th, respectively, but looking back at this colt’s races trying to figure out how he could not only win this race at 23-1, but crush his field by 7 1/2 lengths despite having to check while making a big run nearing the top of the stretch, I came to the conclusion he is a better horse than his record might indicate. First, throw out his first and last starts, both on a synthetic surface. He was brilliant breaking his maiden by 5 1/4 lengths going seven furlongs at Keeneland. Dropping back to six furlongs in the Bowmans Mill Stakes at Keeneland, he pressed the pace, then for no apparent reason he quickly dropped back to last and appeared to be out of the race completely. But he regrouped and came on again to finish third. He then finally stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds, something he’d been crying out for with his stamina-laden pedigree. He showed good tactical speed, and despite racing a bit greenly in the stretch, shying from the whip, he still kept coming and was able to nose out a good horse in Determinedly for second behind the promising Jace’s Road, while boosting his Beyer figure from a 60 to an 81. Put back on a synthetic surface in the Leonatus Stakes, he was four to five wide on the first turn and was wide throughout before dropping back to fifth. Coming off the synthetic surface, he was a tiger in the Gotham, just as he was coming off the synthetic and romping in his maiden race.


14—Slip Mahoney (Brad Cox, Arrogate – Get Lucky, by A.P. Indy)

This is my big monster longshot Derby sleeper who I feel is going to be extremely tough in his next race. I have always been a big fan of this colt watching his back-to-back gutsy stretch battles, the first one a neck defeat to Tapit Trice. In both races he was battling for the lead throughout and would not back down. This was a fighter in the true sense of the word. But in the Gotham Stakes, his first race against winners, he was looking around at the break, getting off slowly, and quickly found himself dead-last in the 13-horse field, more than a dozen lengths off the lead and well behind the next to last horse. When he was asked for his run, he took off and was flying by horses out in the middle of the track. While the winner was able to save ground rallying along the inside, he was forced nine, possibly 10-wide turning for home. Never asked to do anything like this before, he still came charging down the middle of the track to get second, while the winner got through in the upper stretch and was long gone. I am still convinced this is a very good horse who will be heard from.


15Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

The quality of the Risen Star field is still in question, but he did win it and the runner-up Sun Thunder could turn out to be a nice horse who was ranked last week. Cox, despite some of is Derby horses running poorly, still has a boatload of them all over the place. This colt has won two one-mile races and a 1 1/8-mile race and was second in the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes, so he has a lot of mileage under him and is as dead-fit as any of them. He just needs to get faster according to his 89 career-high Beyer figure. But his 2 1/2 Thoro-Graph number in the Risen Star was pretty fast and a huge jump from his previous race, so maybe he’s not as slow as some of his other figures might indicate. He did turn in a sharp half-mile drill in :48 3/5 over the weekend. Like many of the Fair Grounds horses he still has a lot to prove in his next start, likely the Louisiana Derby, against better quality horses.



Because of all the activity this weekend had to put some former ranked horses like VERIFYING and SUN THUNDER on hold for now. But I don’t think any the less of them and expect both of them to be right back in the picture in their next start. The latter turned in a sharp half-mile work in :48 2/5.

With FUNTASTIC AGAIN skipping the John Battaglia Memorial, the race was won in explosive fashion by the 16-1 shot CONGRUENT, who came from dead-last in the 12-horse field to blow the race open in the stretch, winning by 3 1/2 lengths. The son of Tapit had done little in his previous four starts, the last three on the grass. That makes two impressive longshot stakes winners this past weekend who came off grass or synthetic. His biggest effort had been a 2 1/4-length victory in the off-the-grass Laurel Futurity run on a sloppy track.

Earlier in the week we had a monster performance from HENRY Q, who was coming off a three-quarters of a length maiden victory for Doug O’Neill and then was turned over to Todd Fincher, who saddled him to a 14 3/4-length romp in the Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park. We’ll see what they do next with the son of Blame.

Earlier I mentioned the fast early pace of the Gotham Stakes, in which they went in :22 2/5 and :45 2/5. That scorching pace took its toll on RECRUITER, CARMEL ROAD, and RADIO RED, who were battling up front before fading badly, beaten from 18 to 24 lengths, So what does that make the undefeated EYEING CLOVER, coming off two six-furlong races who was right in the thick of that battle and wound up finishing fourth? Yes, he was beaten nine lengths when the winner drew off to his big score, but Eyeing Clover was only a length back at the eighth pole and was beaten a nose for third by the late-running GENERAL BANKER and 1 1/2 lengths by Slip Mahoney for second. Yet another Brad Cox colt, keep an eye out for this son of Lookin At Lucky. He is another who is going to be extremely dangerous in his next start.

Earlier I mentioned MAGE, who was thrown into the Fountain of Youth Stakes against Forte and company off one seven-furlong maiden victory, which he won by almost four lengths in a sharp 1:22 2/5. The son of Good Magic ran a huge race on Saturday after a troubled trip to finish fourth and was right there with Forte turning for home. He never gave an inch and was battling to the end, beaten 2 1/4 lengths for second. We also have to acknowledge the big bounce-back performance by CYCLONE MISCHIEF following his dismal effort in the Holy Bull Stakes as the 6-5 favorite. The son of Into Mischief set all the pace and hung in there gamely to finish third at odds of 15-1.

The big disappointment over the weekend was the surprising no-show performance by BLAZING SEVENS, who never ran a lick.

It was good to see VICTORY FORMATION back on the work tab, going a half in :48 following his disappointing performance in the Risen Star Stakes. Also on the wok tab this week was the unbeaten KINGSBARNS, who went a half in :49 1/5 for the Louisiana Derby, where he will be joined by stablemate LITIGATE, winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Both colts are trained by Todd Pletcher, who sent out maiden winner CLASSIC CATCH to score a workmanlike victory in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 6

Monday, February 27th, 2023

With one uninspiring Derby prep after another it’s finally time to get some clarity regarding this year’s Derby trail as we await Saturday’s big tripleheader that features the long-awaited debuts of 2-year-old champ Forte in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, top California colt Practical Move in the San Felipe, and a wide-open contentious Gotham Stakes that could produce a new star. So sit back this week and wait for the first real fireworks of the year…we hope. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 27, 2023 – Week 6

By Steve Haskin

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

Finally makes his 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Normally, a good second or third would be encouraging enough, but he has a big class edge, with only a few stakes horses entered, and he should win. I cannot find any flaws in his record, running style, attitude, and pedigree. He’s got it all. What is most interesting about those opening comments is that they were written 10 years ago in Derby Dozen about Forte’s sire Violence, who also was ranked No 1 right from week one. if Forte even comes close to being the horse we saw last year he should be right there at the finish on Saturday. Although Pletcher has several promising 3-year-olds he has decided to go solo with Forte and point the others elsewhere. Usually with a come from behind horse who is much the best like Forte the most obvious way of beating him is to steal the race on the front end and hope he is still a little short coming off a layoff. But he is too versatile to let that happen, having been fairly close to :45 and change opening half-miles, so he does have tactical speed. In fact, he has never been farther back than five lengths at any point in his races whether it’s five furlongs or 1 1/16 miles. He had his final work, going five furlongs in 1:01 4/5.


2—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

Although Litigate would be the most logical Pletcher horse to run in the Tampa Bay Derby, having won the Sam F. Davis Stakes over the track, I believe Pletcher thinks too highly of Tapit Trice to run another horse against him, and this certainly looks like the best spot for him. No trainer has taken advantage of Tampa Bay’s 3-year-old program, including maiden and allowance races, more than Pletcher, so why ship this lightly raced colt out of town when the March 11 Tampa Derby gives him the best timing to fit two stakes in before the Kentucky Derby, with four weeks between races. We have seen Tapit Trice outgame a very gutsy horse in Slip Mahoney and we have seen him crush his promising stablemate Shesterkin, putting eight lengths between them in the final furlong. So, he is a fighter who can battle you to the wire and he has the explosive power to leave you far behind in a matter of seconds. As of now we haven’t seen a 3-year-old in Florida with his ability or physical prowess, certainly no one from the Sam Davis Stakes or Holy Bull Stakes. He had a nice useful half-mile breeze in :49 2/5.


3—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

The prolonged wet weather in Southern California has played havoc with not only racing, but training, as Santa Anita shut down the track completely. So the San Felipe horses could do nothing but wait for the track to open for training. Two weeks ago Yakteen had only one Derby horse, and with the exodus from the Baffert barn he now several more to occupy his time. But make no mistake, Practical Move is the horse he developed into a major Derby contender and he will remain number one in the barn. It seems every time I have watched the replay of one of Baffert’s stakes horses I keep running into this guy, and he was the only one to prevent them from going to the winner’s circle. I have mentioned his improvement on the Thoro-Graph numbers and it will be interesting to see if he can take another step forward and become the top California Derby contender. He does have other former Baffert horses, including Hejazi and the steady National Treasure, trying to beat Practical Move in the San Felipe, which has to put him and Practical Move’s owners in a weird position, but the big mystery horses in the field will be the recent impressive maiden winners Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner.


4—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

One aspect of his victory in the Withers Stakes that adds to his resume is that he was able to come off a big score with first-time Lasix and win even more impressively without Lasix. He has checked off a lot of boxes and this is just another one that may have gone unnoticed. Another stat that is worth repeating is that in four career starts he has won at four different distances at four different racetracks in three different states. What I also love about him is that in his three victories, by margins by 5 1/4 lengths, 3 1/2 lengths, and 5 1/2 lengths, he rallied from fifth and sixth, but had the lead at the eighth pole and then drew off to win with complete authority. Remember, the vast majority of Derby winners had the lead at the eighth pole. So you want to see a come from behind horse be right there with a furlong out and then pull away from the field. He also has run almost identical races at seven furlongs and 1 1/8 miles, making him the quintessential professional. Jorge Villagomez, who broke him, said he was always very laid back and smart and added, “He seemed to improve with every breeze here for me.” Just as he has improved with every start for Cox.


5—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

That’s all we needed on this year’s Derby Trail was another inconclusive race, with a bad track, bad trips and a longshot winner. The biggest take from the Rebel Stakes was the terrific race this colt ran. This is a horse who was racing for a new trainer, traveling cross-country for the first time, and running in the slop for the first time. Despite having been on or just off the lead in all his races, he broke a step slowly and then had Giant Mischief cross over right in his path forcing him to drop near the back of the 11-horse field. So here was a horse who had never been farther back than third at any point of his races and had set the pace in his last starts now racing back in ninth, 11 lengths off the lead after a quarter mile and still in ninth after a half. He was still in ninth and stuck down on the inside heading into the far turn and all the way to the quarter pole. He eased out turning for home and just as he found a seam, with seven horses still in front of him, Bourbon Bash drifted out right into him and Red Route One, rallying on his outside, came in on him, putting the squeeze on him, forcing him to turn his head out and steady out of there just as he was making his run. He quickly got back in stride and was moving powerfully in the finally sixteenth, reaching out with great extension to finish third, beaten 2 1/2 lengths and making up three lengths in the final furlong. This horse has now run big on fast and sloppy tracks and on grass. We know he has front-running speed, setting a :45 2/5 half in the Sham Stakes, and we know he’s a strong, tough colt who can rally from far back and overcome trouble. I wasn’t sure how good this horse is, but I am sure now.


6—Blazing Sevens (Chad Brown, Good Magic – Trophy Girl, by Warrior’s Reward)

Brown could have waited a week and run in the Tampa Bay Derby and avoid a confrontation with Forte, but to his credit he felt this is the best spot for the colt and has enough confidence in him to run him where he belongs, even having to face the champ. Although Forte is expected to win, all you want to see from Blazing Sevens is to be coming on strongly in the final furlong. He didn’t have the best of trips in the Breeders’ Cup and I just want to see what he can do with a clean trip and a clear run, and a solid pace wouldn’t hurt. He turned in a strong final work, going five furlongs in 1:01 3/5, which is a good work over the deeper Payson Park surface. So it looks as if Brown has him just where he wants him. He hasn’t been talked about much, but his 27-1 Future Wager odds are just about what they should, so the public is still giving him some respect. He really hasn’t done anything to give you the impression he is not a serious Derby contender.


7—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

He gets a pass for his fourth-place finish in the Rebel Stakes, as he’s already proven he’s a good horse who was never given a chance to run until it was way too late. Breaking from the rail he was able to get a good stalking position behind two longshots, who set a testing half in :46 flat. Unfortunately he was never able to get out, as his stablemate Giant Mischief kept him hemmed in all the way around the turn. Straightening into the stretch, he started to go inside Frosted Departure, but Florent Geroux quickly decided not to risk it and took him out looking for room. Just as he did, Bourbon Bash drifted out badly right in his path and he had to alter course back to the inside where he finally found room. But by then Confidence Game, who had a clean trip the whole way, had gotten the jump on him and was sailing for home with a clear lead, as Red Route One and Reincarnate were rolling out in the middle of track. He closed well enough, but with a final sixteenth in :06 2/5 he was unable to make up any ground and was beaten five lengths. You had to assume he would have been a lot closer if he had room to run at any point. I have no idea how to separate the Rebel horses or have a clue if this race enlightened us in any way considering the track condition and several bad trips.


8—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

I have liked this colt all along and realize he wants to come from behind with a big late run, but over 19 lengths back is overdoing it quite a bit. Yet he still made up 18 of those 19 lengths, even winding up on his wrong lead in the stretch and altering course in the final furlong. To show how fast a pace this was, he likes to run his opening halfs in :49 to :50 and he actually was right in the ballpark being almost 20 lengths back off that :46 half-mile fraction. But before we brand him with being a plodder who comes from the clouds he was only two lengths back at the half in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when they were crawling along in :50. You never want to see a horse as far back as he was in the Rebel, but give him a lot of credit for making up that much ground. He is another who has run big on dirt, slop, and grass. The only time he has finished off the board in seven career starts was when he had a rough trip in the Street Sense Stakes in the slop and wound up fifth. With his running style he would need a lot of luck in the Derby in much the same way Street Sense, Mine That Bird, and Rich Strike had dream trips coming from the back of the pack. He doesn’t have the ideal running style to win the Derby, but a number of horses have finished in the money from that far back, and occasionally you’ll get a winner.


9—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

I have mentioned my concerns about his path to the Derby, but he sure was flattered by the Rebel result, having beaten Confidence Game by almost eight lengths in the LeComte Stakes. He continues to work forwardly with an easy half in :50 2/5, but obviously is in no hurry with the Louisiana Derby still a long ways off. So there really isn’t much more to say about him, especially his lightly raced 3-year-old campaign, which will send him into the Kentucky Derby with only one race in 14 weeks. I like that Fair Grounds increased the distance of the Louisiana Derby a few years ago because of the six weeks to the Kentucky Derby and you would think that some trainers might want to have a fresher horse, having to go 1`3/16 miles. But the last two years we saw Mandaloun, trained by Cox, and Epicenter, trained by Steve Asmussen, run in all three of Fair Grounds’ Derby preps and run huge at Churchill Downs. This year Cox has elected to pass the Risen Star and give him two months between races and we’ll see how that works out. I do want to repeat that the reason may have been Instant Coffee’s big Thoro-Graph numbers jump from an 8 1/2 to a 2 1/2 in the LeComte. But that is pure speculation. Instant Coffee has the right running style and a good mixture of stamina and speed, and if you feel he is going to be battled tested enough going into the Derby then he looks like a solid contender. He isn’t flashy, but he is steady and always puts in a strong stretch run. Like with so many 3-year-olds this year I am having a hard time getting a strong feel for how good he really is.

10—Confidence Game (Keith Desormeaux, Candy Ride – Eblouissante, by Bernardini)

Yes, I have three horses he defeated ahead of him, but they are all proven stakes horses who didn’t have good trips and I can’t define these four horses based on one eventful race in the slop when he had the best trip of anyone. For now I am going to take a wait and see approach until I get a feel of just who this horse is and how much he has improved. Going into the Rebel Stakes, all we knew about him was that his six races were pretty much up and down. In some races he sat back in fifth, in another he scored a gutsy wire-to-wire victory. Both his wins came at Churchill Downs, he was beaten a total of 18 lengths in his two stakes appearances, he had never run on a sloppy track, and he could win going six furlongs or 1 1/16 miles. We also knew that his best Beyer speed figure was an 83 and his best Thoro-Graph number was a “7,” both mediocre at best. In short we knew very little about him. So, of course in a year like this he makes a big wide run in the Rebel, a horse comes out and brushes him just enough to prevent him from changing leads, and he draws off anyway to win by a length at 18-1. So did this race make him a legitimate Derby contender? I have no idea. His pedigree says he will get better the farther he goes. His dam Eblouissante is a half-sister to the great Zenyatta and in her first five generations there are 12 classic winners who won a total of 21 classics, including three Triple Crown winners, as well as a Handicap Triple Crown winner. What I did like was that he was holding everyone off at the finish and actually re-broke when Red Route One pulled up alongside him on the gallop-out, so perhaps this was his breakout race.


11—Arabian Knight (Tim Yakteen, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

Well, they waited long enough, but the L.A. Times finally reported on Sunday that he has been moved to Tim Yakteen’s barn through the Kentucky Derby and will point for the either the Santa Anita Derby or Arkansas Derby. I had taken him off the Rankings until we found out the plans and I’m putting him back this low for now until he returns to the work tab and we can all digest the fact that he will go into the Kentucky Derby with only three lifetime starts, will have two months between the Southwest Stakes and his next start, and only one race in 14 weeks going into the Derby. And remember, he’s has only three-furlong blowout in the past four weeks, so that is very little activity for a horse with only two lifetime starts. Yes, Justify won the Derby with only three career starts, but he was able to cram his three races into a much shorter time period. I won’t say he can’t do it because he is a very talented colt, but it’s a very perplexing situation trying to figure him out. Whether he can win with this crazy schedule and set of circumstances is another matter. Once he starts working regularly and gets some foundation under him he could move back up in the Rankings.


12—General Jim (Shug McGaughey, Into Mischief – Inspired by Grace, by Curlin)

I thought he might go for the one-turn mile in the Gotham, but McGaughey decided to keep him home and stretch him out to two turns against far better horses, which will tell him exactly what he has as far as a Derby caliber horse. Let’s remember he’s already been two turns, winning both his starts on the grass, and he does have a female family inundated with stamina. I’m not crazy about him drawing the rail coming off a sprint, but hopefully he can work out a trip sitting off horses and getting out in the clear at some point just so we can see if he is comfortable negotiating the two turns against some very classy horses, including the champ and the Champagne winner. I loved his race in the Swale and was impressed with everything I saw, so let’s see if he can take the next big step.


13—Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

As blasé as everyone, myself included, has been about the Risen Star Stakes, the race for some reason I can’t explain actually got pretty strong Thoro-Graph numbers, with Angel of Empire going from a 19 to 11 1/4 to 9 1/4 to a stunning 2 1/2, just as Instant Coffee made a huge leap in the LeComte. His came as a big surprise considering how mundane the race looked visually. Even those behind him made big jumps in their Thoro-Graph numbers. So I have no idea now what to make of the race. What else is new? I just cannot figure out this crop of 3-year-olds, mainly deciding who is good and who is not. Will he “bounce” or regress in the Louisiana Derby or maybe they will wait two more weeks to run in his final prep. All we can hope for right now is this weekend’s stakes adding some sanity to the Derby picture.


14—Sun Thunder (Kenny McPeek, Into Mischief – Greenfield d’Oro, by Medaglia d’Oro)

Like Angel of Fever, his Thoro-Graph number in the Risen Star took off, going from an 11 1/4 to a 10 1/2 to an 8 to a 3 1/2. So, two horses both made monster leaps? Wait a second, how about fourth-place finisher Tapit’s Conquest, who went from a 10 to a 7 to a 6 1/2 to a 3. As we said earlier, these big jumps defied what most everyone saw with their eyes and even the Beyer figures. Thoro-Graph doesn’t throw out numbers like that haphazardly, so is it possible that this race was far better than people think? Just what we need, more contradictions and questions on this year’s Derby trail. Although Sun Thunder took the inside route and was outrun by the winner he rallied from 12th to pull on even terms at the eighth pole, which I loved to see, and it was a big improvement from his fourth in the Southwest, which actually wasn’t that bad a race in the slop against the runaway winner Arabian Knight. What first caught my eye with this colt was the turn of foot he showed in his 6 1/2-length maiden score going a mile. Even though his Beyers haven’t broken a 90, I do like the progression (69, 77, 81, 89). He will run next in the Louisiana Derby, which will be his fifth different distance in five races, so we have progression there as well.


15—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

Taking a big shot with him, in good part because of his trainer, who gave me the longest and most detailed report on a horse I have ever been given. Skinner has competed in two Grade 1 stakes as a maiden, which is uncharacteristic of Shirreffs. He did manage a well-beaten third behind Cave Rock in the Del Mar Futurity, but showed little in the American Pharoah Stakes. He dropped back into a maiden race in his 3-year-old debut and was visually impressive, showing great extension to his stride and being perfectly in sync with his rider. When asked to make his run on the far turn he put in a powerful move around horses and drew off with complete authority to win by 3 1/4 lengths in 1:36 3/5 for the mile and coming home his final quarter in about :24 2/5. This is a colt who also gallops out strong in his races. So are we seeing a different horse this year? Said Shirreffs, “We have really worked on him finding his stride in the morning and building repartitions — standing, jogging, and galloping. He Is a strong colt with a great shoulder and hind end. His mind is now adapting to racing and he has matured physically into a solid athlete, knowing where to put his feet for a strong stride. Yesterday (Feb. 23) he really worked well (5f in 1:01) on a very torn up track showing just how strong he is. Hopefully with a little more time he will accept the unexpected.”  That was just a small part of his comments, so how can I not put him in the Rankings.



Holy Bull Stakes winner ROCKET CAN turned in a sharp five-furlong work in  1:01 3/5 at Payson Park for the Fountain of Youth Stakes. With him getting his third straight 8 on Thoro-Graph in the Holy Bull and only an 82 Beyer, which was his career high, he has a long way to go to prove he is a legitimate Derby horse. And this is the spot as he takes on much tougher horses. His half-length defeat to Rebel winner Confidence Game in an allowance race moves him up a bit, even though he couldn’t get by him the length of the stretch after pulling on even terms at the quarter pole. For what it’s worth he is improving and the horse who finished second to him in the Holy Bull, Shadow Dragon, looks like a very nice horse. So we’ll just have to see if he can continue improving on Saturday.

Baffert Part Two. Mike Pegram has been with Baffert since the beginning, so considering that CAVE ROCK has not gone to another trainer yet, one can only assume with the colt’s late start that he will stay put with perhaps the Preakness as the target. It makes no sense to rank him at this late date unless  something to the contrary is announced  and there is actually a plan to get two races in him before the Derby.

As we head into the serious Derby preps, here are several under the radar horses with a lot to prove, but who might be sleepers to keep an eye on. We gave all the positives to be taken from DISARM’S second place finish in his return and we see a big move forward in his next couple of races. He had a lot going against him in that race and was running on well at the end with no chance to catch a good horse who set an easy pace and came home his final two eighths in a rapid :24 1/5 and :24 flat. For him to match those closing fractions off such a long layoff was pretty impressive. His pedigree says he is going to improve as the distances stretch out, but he has to really improve off his “9” Thoro-Graph figure, which is several points slower than his maiden victory. His 84 Beyer figure also was slower than his maiden victory. But I know the stable is pretty high on him and I did like his last race from a visual standpoint and those fast late fractions. I still believe a big move forward is imminent. It’s just a question of whether it will be big enough and fast enough to make him a serious Derby contender with just one more start.

Two former Baffert horses turned over to Tim Yakteen and nominated to Saturday’s Gotham Stakes are HEJAZI and CARMEL ROAD, although Hejazi is entered in the San Felipe. Carmel Road was awesome breaking his maiden at a mile by almost nine lengths eased up the length of the stretch after setting fractions of :21 4/5 and :45 4/5 . In the Breeders’ Futurity he broke from the disastrous post 14, was hung five-wide into the first turn and just stopped abruptly on the far turn, dropping to the back of the pack. That race was too bad to be true and he rebounded off that dismal showing to finish a good second to Practical Move in the Los Alamitos Futurity, finishing well clear of the others. He has been working as impressively as anyone, with five-furlong woks in :58 4/5, :59 1/5, and :59 flat and a six-furlong drill in 1:11 4/5. I love the way he was moving in all of them, in company and by himself, and if he runs to those works he  could jump into the Derby picture on Saturday.

Hejazi began his career with a pair of seconds going 5 1/2 furlongs, actually getting a 100 Beyer figure in his second start. Those were big efforts considering he is bred for stamina. In an audacious move, Baffert, despite having Cave Rock and National Treasure in the field, threw him into the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes as a maiden and off two short sprints and he ran a solid third behind his two stablemates, while finishing 3 1/4 lengths ahead of the fourth-place finisher. Dropping back into a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race and given Lasix for the first time, he wired his field under a hand ride, getting a 99 Beyer. The runner-up in Hejazi’s maiden score, WORCESTER, is another Baffert horse who can run and is going to be heard from down the road.

One of the new tools in handicapping on the Derby trail is Lasix, which is not allowed in stakes anymore. Let’s take five horses who were considered Derby hopefuls. Corona Bolt, a 6 3/4-length winner with first-time Lasix, came off Lasix in his next start and was beaten 15 1/4 lengths. Cyclone Mischief, a 5 3/4-length winner with first-time Lasix, came off Lasix in his next start and was beaten 11 3/4 lengths. Sun Thunder, a 6 1/2-length winner with first time Lasix, came off Lasix in his next start and was beaten 9 1/4 lengths. Harlocap, a 4 1/2-length winner with second-time Lasix, came off Lasix in his next start and was beaten 9 1/2 lengths. Although Determinedly won an allowance race by only a neck with first-time Lasix, he beat a very strong field, but taken off Lasix in his next start, the Risen Star Stakes, he was beaten 42 lengths. Of course there have been several horses who have run well coming off a victory with Lasix, but it is just something to keep an eye on when handicapping the Derby preps. For instance, three horses I am very high on, Tapit Trice, Disarm, and Kingsbarns, will be coming off Lasix in their next start, as they make their stakes debuts.

Jerome winner LUGAN KNIGHT turned in a sharp five furlong work in :59 4/5 at the Churchill Downs training center followed by an easy five furlongs in 1:02 for Saturday’s Gotham Stakes. With CARMEL ROAD, ARCTIC ARROGANCE, SLIP MAHONEY, and the unbeaten RECRUITER and EYEING CLOVER all possible starters, this could be one of the more interesting races of the year. The hard-knocking Arctic Arrogance should give us a line on Hit Show. Following two narrow defeats in the Remsen and Jerome, in which he was out-battled to the wire, he went into the Withers with blinkers added. He ran his race setting all the pace, but Hit Show ran right by him at the eighth pole to win by 5 1/2 lengths. Eyeing Clover ships in for Brad Cox off two impressive six-furlong races at Oaklawn and Fair Grounds. Slip Mahoney is another Cox-trained colt who is based at Belmont and showed his gameness, dropping a hard-fought battle with Tapit Trice and then winning after another gut-wrenching stretch duel, this time with the Pletcher-trained Crupi. If you watch his last two races you will be coming away with great admiration for this son of Arrogate. We also have the unbeaten Recruiter shipping in from Fair Hill following four straight victories at Monmouth, Laurel, and Parx, the last two in stakes races.

The San Felipe will be headed by proven stakes horses Practical Move, National Treasure, and Chase the Chaos, but one potential breakout star to watch is maiden winner GEAUX ROCKET RIDE. He has had only one six furlong race, and trained by the ultra conservative Dick Mandella, he wouldn’t seem to be a Derby horse. But this is an uncharacteristic leap in class for Mandella. The son of Candy Ride, out of an Uncle Mo mare, was nothing short of brilliant in his first start, winning on the front end by 5 3/4 lengths in a sharp 1:09 2/5. He is coming into the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe off a strong six-furlong work in 1:12 4/5, so we’ll see if he can make the stretch-out against top-class horses with only one sprint under his belt.

Something very similar is happening in Florida for the Fountain of Youth Stakes. If you want to know what confidence in your horse is, just take a look at trainer Gustavo Delgado putting his Good Magic colt MAGE in against the champ Forte as well as the Champagne winner Blazing Sevens off one seven-furlong maiden victory. Granted Mage was brilliant, rushing to the lead and running his opponents into the ground, winning by almost four lengths in a swift 1:22 2/5. If you want to know whether he can stretch out, in just his first two generations are stallions who won three classics (a Kentucky Derby and two Preaknesses) and placed in three classics (two Kentucky Derbys and a Belmont).

Sam F. Davis winner LITIGATE, who should only keep improving the farther he goes, breezed a half in :50 2/5. Pletcher likely will wait for the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby with him, along with his undefeated KINGSBARNS, who has looked great in his two career starts. But going into the Kentucky Derby with only three career starts has not been a formula for success. Litigate’s speed figures in his three starts have been pedestrian without any improvement shown, but that could change once he goes 1 3/16 miles and farther, as his pedigree in inundated with stamina, which doesn’t translate to speed at these shorter distances. But he really needs to improve in his final Derby prep.

If you’re in a forgiving mood, you might want to consider CYCLONE MISCHIEF as a bounce back candidate in the Fountain of Youth following a disappointing performance in the Holy Bull. I like the way he’s been working and he’s shown he has ability. I am going to assume that coming off Lasix in the Holy Bull after a big win in allowance company was not a factor in his subpar effort, and he should be a big price on Saturday to possibly sneak into the exotics.

The late-running DENINGTON, a son of Gun Runner who closed fast to win a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Fair Grounds last week in his eighth career start, getting a 91 Beyer speed figure, will join his stablemate Sun Thunder in the Louisiana Derby. All eight of his starts have been at a mile or longer. He is inbred three times to Fappiano though his sons Unbridled, Quiet American, and Cryptoclearance.

If there was any Kentucky Derby horse to come out of the Saudi Derby it was the Japanese horse DERMA SOTOGAKE, who finished a fast-closing third and had already earned 20 Derby points. Although he is by the good U.S. sprinter Mind Your Biscuits, who actually has plenty of stamina in his pedigree, his female family is loaded with stamina. His broodmare sire is a son of Sunday Silence and his second dam is by Arc de Triomphe winner Tony Bin. He also is inbred top and bottom to major class and stamina influence Hail to Reason through his sons Stop the Music and Halo. Finally, his third dam is by Wood Memorial winner Dike, who was a close third in the Kentucky Derby and whose sire Herbager is one of the great stamina influences. We’ll see if he comes back in the longer UAE Derby, where he could face Hyacinth Stakes winner PERRIERE, who he defeated with a big late run in the Zennippon Nisai Yushun. Both colts are nominated to the Derby.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 5

Monday, February 20th, 2023

Because of a brain meltdown trying to plod through this crop of 3-year-olds, we’re back to a Top 15. This year so far, the weeks come and go with not too much to get excited about. And then there is the confusion of where the Bob Baffert horses are going and which ones will be leaving. I can’t recall ranking this many graded stakes winners so low or not at all. At least we are down to two weeks before the heavy hitters return on March 4 and hopefully clear up this muddled picture. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 20, 2023 – Week 5

By Steve Haskin

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

Pletcher loves the way he’s been progressing, especially his most recent five-furlong work in 1:01 2/5. Before we forget just what this colt accomplished as a 2-year-old, he was able to romp by almost eight lengths going five furlongs in his career debut; win the seven-furlong Hopeful Stakes in the slop by three lengths in a swift 1:22 2/5 beating eventual Champagne winner Blazing Sevens by 12 lengths; stretch out to two turns and win the 1 1/16-mile Breeders’ Futurity in a gut-wrenching stretch battle with the talented Loggins; and finally blow by the undefeated California sensation Cave Rock in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths. So until he makes his long-awaited debut on March 4 you have to ask yourself, is there anything this horse can’t do? He knows how to win big, he knows how to gut it out in a close finish, he knows how to win in the slop, he knows how to run fast times, and he knows how to run on the inside and the outside. And he is bred to run all day. That’s the kind of horse you want to face the many challenges of the Kentucky Derby.


2—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

Pletcher said his next race is “still to be determined.” Last week I said I was going to discuss Tapit Trice’s broodmare sire Dunkirk. A son of Unbridled’s Song who sold as a yearling for a whopping $3.7 million, he did not race at 2 and then easily won his first two career starts at 3. He was thrown into the Florida Derby and rallied from eight lengths back to be beaten by 1 3/4 lengths by Quality Road in a swift 1:47 3/5. With only three career starts he ran in the Kentucky Derby and had a horrible trip in the slop, stumbling badly at the start and then having to steady, finishing in midpack. He then ran in the Belmont Stakes and set a strong pace, then battled back gamely when challenged in the stretch by Mine That Bird. He never saw the winner, Summer Bird, who rallied out in the middle of the track, and had to settle for second. His performance looked all the more remarkable when he was found to have suffered a condylar fracture to his left hind cannon bone during the race. He never raced again and was retired to Ashford Stud. Tapit Trice is inbred 3 x 4 top and bottom to Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled and 3 x 4 top and bottom to Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner A.P. Indy. His tail-female line traces to Drone, the broodmare sire of two Kentucky Derby winners and an Arc de Triomphe winner who we wrote about last week. Tapit Trice, a gray like Dunkirk, Drone and Unbridled’s Song, reminds me a great deal of all three off these imposing brilliant colts.


3—Arabian Knight (Bob Baffert, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

Baffert is not known for working his top Derby horses three furlongs, but he worked Arabian Knight in :35 3/5 and he’s had only that one short blowout in the past three weeks. Here we are heading to the end of February and we either have no idea where a number of the top-ranked horses are running next or we still have to wait several weeks until their 3-year-old debut. So it is just questions and speculation each week. So where does that leave this colt? I have no idea who will be training him after February 28, but either way I am guessing he will stay in California and point for the San Felipe on March 4 rather than travel cross-county again. But you would think he needs to start putting some serious works. Hopefully in the next couple of days. Right now all we can do is try to figure out if he is as good as he’s looked in his first two starts. Remember, his Thoro-Graph number in the Southwest was a bit slower than his maiden victory, which is not really a bad thing considering what a big number he got in that first race. He is the only brilliant 3-year-old we’ve seen so far so we’ll just stay on the bandwagon…for now.


4—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

I still can’t believe this colt closed at 83-1 in the most recent Future Wager. He is the only horse in California you could have bet on and he was totally ignored by everyone. Check out his last three works, all at five furlongs — :59, :59 1/5, and :59 1/5. Also, check out his last three Thoro-Graph numbers – 8 1/4, 5 1/4, and 3 3/4. So not only is he training up a storm he is improving at a steady pace. And he is the only horse in California to derail the Baffert Express. He as the speed figures, the running style, the foundation, and the pedigree to be a major player on the Derby trail. Did I mention 83-1? There is no doubt he is sitting on a huge effort in the March 4 San Felipe Stakes. Yakteen, according to the Gotham nominations list, has already received several of Baffert’s horses, but the big names are still in their barn, so he should get a good test, which he will need having only two starts.


5—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

One thing I like about him is not only has his Beyer figures gotten faster with each race they have increased 11 points, 11 points, and nine points. These obviously are consistently big jumps and he has still left himself room to make another significant move forward in his next race. In his allowance victory prior to the Withers his Thoro-Graph numbers jumped from a 10 1/2 and 12 3/4 to a 4 3/4. You might expect a regression off such a big jump or at best to stay around that same number, but he actually took another step forward to a 2, which is the fastest number by a 3-year-old this year. So this colt is ascending rapidly. He likely will have only one more start with a 1 1/16-mile race, a one-mile race, and a 1 1/8-mile race already under his belt, and that should come in a return trip to New York for the Wood Memorial, giving him a two-month layoff between nine-furlong races. Having already run so fast on Thoro-Graph and being on such an upward progression I would imagine one more race should be all he needs to put him in position to peak on Derby Day. And as I mentioned last week he won’t even turn 3 until May 9. So this colt has a lot going for him right now.


6—Blazing Sevens (Chad Brown, Good Magic – Trophy Girl, by Warrior’s Reward)

He stretched out to five furlongs in his works, going an easy 1:02 1/5 at Payson Park. He remains on target for the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes where he will have to take on last year’s champion Forte. Even a fast-closing second or third would be a good first step, but he would have to come back with a huge effort in his final prep. Despite his Champagne Stakes victory in his third career start I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near the best of him, and his fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile may be the best race he’s run considering the trouble he had. All signs point to him improving with every start and I am looking forward to seeing what kind of transition he’s made from 2 to 3. He should also have a good foundation working over the deeper Payson Park surface.


7—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delitee, by Repent)

His new ranking is mainly in preparation n for a big effort in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes, where he squares off with stablemate Giant Mischief, and if either of these two should win and win impressively then they have to emerge as major Derby contenders. Both colts tuned up for the Rebel with sharp five-furlong works in :59 4/5, and both horses are coming off identical 5 1/2 Thoro-Graph numbers. I like that Verifying came off a six-furlong career debut to finish second in the Champagne Stakes and bounced back from a troubled start in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to win a one-mile allowance race by 5 1/2 lengths with first-time Lasix, easily handling runner-up Gun Pilot and Two Eagles River, who both came back to score impressive allowance victories. It is the form from that race that gives Verifying a slight edge in the Rankings over Giant Mischief. Verifying’s Beyer figures are climbing with every race and he looks like a colt with good tactical speed who can carry it.


8—Giant Mischief (Brad Cox, Into Mischief – Vertical Oak, by Giant Oak)

As mentioned, Cox has two heavy hitters going in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes, with this colt making his 3-year-old debut and Verifying coming off an impressive allowance victory. This will be by far the best field Giant Mischief has faced in is three career starts. He should have won the Springboard Mile, but lost all chance when he broke far behind the field. We know he can gut it out in a stretch battle, even though the horse he beat, Arabian Lion, has turned out to be a big disappointment. But he sure looked like a promising colt going into that race. All I’m looking for from Giant Mischief is to get a clean trip and show that same quick turn of foot he displayed in his previous races, and of course be closing at the end. As I’ve been saying, I’m still not sure how far he wants to go or how he will fare against better quality horses, but this race will show us if he belongs and which direction he is heading. I actually like him slightly better than Verifying as a potential Derby horse because of his style of running, his versatility, and the aforementioned turn of foot. But for now Verifying looks to be the more brilliant of the two and is coming off that formful allowance victory.


9—Cave Rock (Bob Baffert, Arrogate – Georgie’s Angel, by Bellamy Road)

He returns to the Rankings after finally having is first work of the year. Not only did her return after a much-needed three-month freshening for whatever reason, he came back running with a sharp half-mile drill in :47 4/5. I’m not sure if he was intended to go that fast, as he hooked up with another worker at the top of the stretch. But he did everything easily with the rider up in the saddle and never moving his hands. He had his usual smooth low action and was striding out beautifully.  I can pretty much repeat what I wrote about Arabian Knight and where he might wind up and with whom. With him, however, the key word is “when.” We will have to see how many works it is going to take him to get race ready, but we do know he is going to need two starts, and once that big March 4 weekend passes it is going to get petty dicey trying to accomplish that. Let’s not forget how talented and brilliantly fast this colt is and how he dominated all his opponents in Southern California, as Baffert-heavy as they were. I’m giving him a pass in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile because I am convinced he wasn’t right in that race, especially the way he lost his action in the stretch after setting a contentious pace, lugging in and jumping back to his left lead. So we not only need to see the old Cave Rock, we need to see Cave Rock, period. Until then it is more waiting and seeing what develops over the next couple of weeks.


10—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

He finally returned to the work tab after a month and now is likely to make his next start in the Louisiana Derby. Even though he seems to be back on track after taking a mini vacation, despite having only four career starts, he will have only one race in 14 weeks going into the Kentucky Derby. I don’t know if Cox is a speed sheets follower, but Instant Coffee’s Thoro-Graph numbers did jump from an 8 1/2 to a 2 1/2 in the LeComte, so is it possible that is what contributed to him skipping the Risen Star, to prevent a “bounce” or regression and give him more time to recover from such a big leap forward? The LeComte runner-up Two Phil’s did come back in the Risen Star and finished a rather lackluster third, tiring in the final furlong in a race that got only an 87 Beyer speed figure. Or was this Cox’s plan along? Let’s face it, we know most horses now hardly race, with the days of two and three weeks between races long gone, but we will just have to see if such a light campaign and so little racing leading up to the Derby proves successful, whether it was originally intended or not. His record shows he belongs among the top-ranked horses, even though the two horses who finished second to him in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and LeComte have not exactly set the world on fire since. But give him credit at least for winning two stakes in a row and three of four lifetime and always giving 100 percent.


11—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

He was entered in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes under trainer Tim Yakteen’s name as the exodus continues. He worked six furlongs in company with National Treasure with both going in 1:11 4/5. Reincarnate sat off his stablemate’s flank, pulled on even terms nearing the quarter pole but couldn’t get his head in front down the stretch and on the gallop-out. When the roles were reversed in the Sham Stakes it was National Teeasure who couldn’t get past Reincarnate. We should know more about him after the Rebel Stakes, as he makes is first start back east and under a new trainer and faces his toughest field so far. We know this colt is strong and tough and has learned how to win his races after starting his career on the grass. And he should have the stamina to carry his speed. So far, Yakteen has been able to keep his new Baffert horses away from his own star, Practical Move.


12—General Jim (Shug McGaughey, Into Mischief – Inspired by Grace, by Curlin)

Because of his victory at seven furlongs not many are looking at him as a major Derby contender or even a Derby contender period. Churchill Downs has declared sprints persona non grata when it comes to the Derby. But he doesn’t run or look like a sprinter, McGaughey has already trained a Derby winner, Into Mischief has already sired a Derby winner, Curlin is a Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, he has already won at 1 1/16 miles twice, and his female family is inundated with stamina influences. To me his 51-1 odds in the Future Wager look pretty appealing for those who decided he could be a Derby horse. McGaughey as usual thought of the horse first and felt the sprint was the best place for him, points or no points. We should know a lot more after his next start in the Gotham Stakes, which could lead to the Wood Memorial.


13—Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

Well, he did win the Risen Star Stakes, the first 50-pointer, and he did turn the tables on his Smarty Jones Stakes conqueror Victory Formation. But other than that the quality of the Risen Star remains open to question. After five starts he hit his high Beyer figure, but it was only an 87, which leaves him a lot to do before being considered one of the top Derby contenders. His first three starts were run at Horseshoe Indianapolis (formerly Indiana Grand) twice and Kentucky Downs so he is pretty much just beginning his climb up class ladder, and he hasn’t done badly at all with a stakes placing at Oaklawn Park and a stakes victory at Fair Grounds. In any event, the Cox deluge continues and we have no choice but to stuff the Rankings with them until the big-name horses show up.


14—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

He breezed an easy half in :50 4/5 at Oaklawn Park in preparation for Saturday’s Rebel Stakes. I can see this colt moving up in the Rankings after this race despite the high level of competition expected. In short I expect him to be closing at the end no matter how the race shapes up and who wins. He is a lot better than his record might indicate and he surly has the foundation and the experience with six lifetime starts, all at a mile or longer. And as I have mentioned he is bred to run all day. I am still convinced he would have won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes if he didn’t have such a horrible trip. He could turn out to be quite an overlay in the Future Wager at 58-1.


15—Sun Thunder (Kenny McPeek, Into Mischief – Greenfield d’Oro, by Medaglia d’Oro)

Even though he was outrun and beaten fair and square by Angel of Empire in the Risen Star Stakes, I liked the way he rebounded off his fourth-place finish in the Southwest Stakes in the slop and the way he was striding out in the stretch of the Risen Star after closing from 10th to be beaten a length. Yes, he needs to improve his speed ratings but at least they have been getting better with each race. He just needs to start picking it up and repeat that explosive move his showed in his maiden victory.



I can’t remember so many horses looking like potential Derby contenders one day and looking like non contenders the next. But horses keep plummeting off the Rankings, with VICTORY FORMATION and BANISHING being the latest to disappoint, along with the established CURLY JACK and to a lesser degree TWO PHIL’S and TAPIT’S CONQUEST, who didn’t run badly in the Risen Star, but didn’t run that well either. And the first two finishers, Angel of Empire and Sun Thunder, showed they still have a ways to go before being considered serious Derby contenders. That is how it has gone this year, which is why we are reaching into allowance races. But as Banishing and several others have shown, even that hasn’t worked out very often.

Speaking of allowance races, all that TWO EAGLES RIVER needed apparently was an easy uncontested lead from the rail to put it all together, as he ran off with a one-mile allowance race at Oaklawn Sunday, winning by four lengths and coming home is last two eighths each in a quick :12 1/5 while striding out beautifully in the stretch. This was a big improvement off his well-beaten third to Verifying in a strong allowance race. This could be a breakout race for the son of Cloud Computing, who already has a strong victory and second at Churchill Downs. Do not dismiss the runner-up DISARM, who will move way up off his second-place finish. The son of Gun Runner hadn’t run since early August, was making only his third career start, was stretching out to two turns for the first time, and had to run hard all the way and then try to catch the loose on the lead winner off those fast last fractions. He still was able to distance himself from the rest of field and was finding his best stride in the final furlong. This colt was ranked early on because of his potential and that potential is still there.

Are we seeing a new weird trend on the Derby trail that we have never seen before? First we had Maximum Security running in a $16,000 claiming race and winning by almost 10 lengths, then finishing first in the Kentucky Derby. Then we had Rich Strike running in a $20,000 claiming race and winning by 17 1/4 lengths, then winning the Kentucky Derby at 80-1. Now we have AIRTIME running in a $50,000 claiming race and winning by 10 1/4 lengths, then coming right back and beating the 3-2 favorite SHOPPER’S REVENGE in an allowance race, which put him on the Derby trail. In the last two races we mentioned, both horses were claimed out of that race. Is this a case of trainers and owners misjudging the talent of their horses, or horses just making huge improvement, or simply that there isn’t that much difference between the so-called good horses and bad horses? From a history standpoint, when Charismatic, who ran in a $62,500 claiming race, won the Kentucky Derby he became the first former claimer to win the Derby since Dust Commander nearly 30 years earlier.

Going back to the spacing of Instant Coffee’s races leading up to the Derby, I am going to interject a memory/history lesson. In 1969 most everyone feared that the Derby favorite Top Knight was not right because his trainer Ray Metcalf said he was not going to run the colt in the five weeks between the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. That was pretty much unheard of back then. As it turned out Top Knight was not right and was never the same horse. There was no other reason to wait five whole weeks. Now we have Oaklawn Park changing the date of the Arkansas Derby from three weeks out, where it had good success, to five weeks out. The Blue Grass Stakes had great success when it was run nine days before the Derby. Now it is four weeks out and the last Blue Grass winner to win the Derby was Strike the Gold over 30 years ago. Is anyone aware that Triple Crown winners Citation and Whirlaway and most of the Calumet Farm Kentucky Derby winners ran in the Derby Trial four days before the Derby… and they all had a workout in between? Do you think the training game, and perhaps the Thoroughbred, has changed?

One horse whose two-turn debut should be very revealing is the Baffert-trained FAUSTIN, who blazed five furlongs in :58 4/5. We could see him in the San Felipe, as well as the recent impressive maiden winner SKINNER, trained by John Shirreffs.

Others to watch in the Rebel Stakes are the aforementioned allowance winner GUN PILOT and the Southwest third-place finisher FROSTED DEPARTURE.

Getting back to the Gotham Stakes nominations, three of the colts nominated, HEJAZI, CARMEL ROAD, and ARABIAN LION, all formerly trained by Baffert, are now listed under the name Tim Yakteen. Hejazi, the $3.55 million 2-year-old purchase, and Carmel Road, second in the Los Alamitos Futurity to Practical Move, both worked five furlongs in :59 1/5 and would seem to fit very well in the Gotham. Another former Baffert colt, FORT WARREN, a well-beaten third in the San Vicente Stakes, is on the Gotham nominations list with trainer Brittany Russell.

In other works of note, Holy Bull Stakes winner ROCKET CAN breezed a half in :49 4/5 at Payson Park, and at Turfway Park, Leonatus Stakes winner FUNTASTIC AGAIN worked a strong five furlongs in 1:01.

As if Brad Cox doesn’t have enough 3-year-olds to keep track of, watch out for the undefeated EYEING CLOVER in the Gotham Stakes, which is looking like a very live race. The son of Lookin At Lucky has won a pair of six-furlong sprints, the last a 9 3/4-length romp at Oaklawn. He is bred to go long, so if he runs a big race in the Gotham he likely will return to Oaklawn and point for the Arkansas Derby.

Another Baffert horse, WORCESTER, a son of Empire Maker who finished third in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes as a maiden, is headed for the UAE Derby.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 4

Monday, February 13th, 2023

With such a mish mash at the bottom of the Top 15 and basically groping in the dark, and with the 50-point races hopefully about to sort things out, this is a good week to go back to a “Derby Dozen,” and let those at the bottom of the list, those knocking on the door, and those who still have not started this year sort themselves out until we have a clearer picture of what exactly we’re dealing with and who the real Derby contenders are. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 13, 2023 – Week 4

By Steve Haskin


1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

What do you write about every week about a 2-year-old champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner who is still ranked No. 1 on most everyone’s Derby rankings and is not going to run until March 4? That is still three weeks away, which seems like an eternity. What you do is wait for new exciting faces to emerge who you feel are special enough to replace him. Well, we’re six weeks into 2023 and we haven’t found any such horses, unless you feel Arabian Knight, with two lifetime starts and one stakes victory against questionable competition, is one. The fact is, not a single 3-year-old this year has run a faster Thoro-graph number than Forte did in the Juvenile. So, with a dearth of fast horses and exciting performances up to this point we just have to keep finding new things to say about him and keep him on top. Pletcher certainly isn’t rushing him, working him a leisurely five furlongs in 1:03 2/5. I imagine he will start cranking down on him next week, as he will have to be sharp for the Fountain of Youth Stakes with only two starts before the Kentucky Derby. But after watching the Mucho Macho Man and Holy Bull Stakes I have major questions about the talent level of the stakes horses we’ve seen so far in Florida.


2—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

Although he has not run in a stakes yet I have no doubt he would have won the Holy Bull Stakes handily. And his Future Book odds plummeted after his stunning allowance victory on the undercard, so you know how highly he is regarded by the Vegas oddsmakers, and he got pounded down to 15-1 third choice in the Future Wager. I have been raving about this colt for several weeks and that was first based on his neck maiden score. He is the most visually impressive colt I’ve seen this year and there is nothing left now but to look at his speed figures, which all show the kind of progression you want to see. Not only has his Brisnet speed figures gone from an 85 to a 96 to a 99, his late pace figures have gone from a pair of 99s to a 107. So although he started off his career running fastest at the end with strong numbers, he still upped that quite a bit in his last start. His Beyer speed figures have jumped from a 73 to an 87 to a 92, which mirrors his Thoro-Graph numbers. While he still needs to get a bit faster he has shown a steady progression on Thoro-Graph going from an 8 3/4 to a 6 1/2 to a 4 1/2. If he keeps up that pattern of improving two points a race he will be ready for a Derby-winning performance after his next two starts. This progression is far better than if he had made a gigantic leap forward and then have to worry about a “bounce.” Quickly, you might not be familiar with Dunkirk, but he was an exceptionally talented colt trained by Pletcher who we will go into in more detail next week.


3—Arabian Knight (Bob Baffert, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

Well, we have two weeks for a ruling to be made whether or not we’re going to see some kind of mass exodus from the Baffert barn. Will we see a repeat of last year when Baffert’s two big Derby horses were sent to Tim Yakteen, who has his own big Derby horse this year, or will we see them spread around, or maybe we won’t see them going anywhere and Churchill Downs will have to bite the bullet and accept Baffert and whoever he decides to run in the Derby. As of now Arabian Knight’s next race is undecided. Having already been to Oaklawn, would Baffert want to ship east again with him, not once but possibly twice and then again to Kentucky? That is a lot of shipping for such a lightly raced horse. The other alternative is to keep him home for the more traditional route, the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. But the biggest question is still, how good is this horse? He has dominated both his races, but has he beaten any quality horses? So, there are many questions surrounding this colt. The first answer we need is who will be training him.


4—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

He continues to train brilliantly for his next Baffert battle in the San Felipe, working five furlongs in a bullet :59 1/5, fastest of 44 works at the distance. Do you think he might be an overlay at 83-1 in the Future Wager? Like with Forte and several other top 2-year-olds we just sit back and wait for March 4 when we likely will clear up this muddled Derby picture and tell us who the leading contenders really are and not have to go searching into maiden and allowance races to find them. But for a race still three weeks away this colt looks awfully sharp right now. Let’s remember that he already has plenty of bottom with five starts, two of them at a mile and 1 1/16 miles, and in his most recent race, a resounding victory over three Baffert horses, he earned a lofty 105 Brisnet speed figure, by far the best of his career, as well as a career-high 3 3/4 Thoro-Graph number. However, if you follow the Beyer figures he still needs to get faster, so we’ll know more after the San Felipe. Right now he looks solid and that’s enough based on what we’ve seen so far this year.


5—Blazing Sevens (Chad Brown, Good Magic – Trophy Girl, by Warrior’s Reward)

He continues to work well for his debut, likely in the Fountain of Youth Stakes or Tampa Bay Derby, breezing a half in :49 4/5 at Payson Park. I found it interesting that his Brisnet and Beyer figures in his fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile were faster than his victory in the Champagne Stakes the race before. That keeps him on an upward trajectory. And as I mentioned last week, it looks as if the only reason that didn’t hold true on Thoro-Graph is because he lost ground in the Champagne and saved ground in the Juvenile. I also like the fact that he was able to blow his field away by 6 1/4 lengths in his career debut at Aqueduct, overcoming a rough start and racing a bit greenly in the upper stretch, and then being eased in the final 100 yards. And I like the way his Brisnet late pace figures have gone from an 82 to an 84 to a 98 to a 100 while racing at four different distances at three different racetracks. He has no flaws in his stride and just looks like a dependable horse who is always going to run his race no matter what the distance is.


6—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

People are going to look at Withers Stakes victory and see the agonizingly slow final time of 1:54 3/5 and closing fractions and toss the race. But we have seen enough of Aqueduct in the late fall and winter to know that time means little here. We saw Early Voting win last year’s Withers in 1:55 4/5 and go on to win the Preakness, running faster at 1 3/16 miles than he did at 1 1/8 miles. We saw Mo Donegal win the Remsen in a hard-fought photo in 1:53 3/5 and then go on to win the Belmont Stakes. So, two of the three Triple Crown race winners last year had run similar slow times at Aqueduct in the fall and winter. There were a lot of positives to take out of his victory. He drew off from a tough stakes horse in Arctic Arrogance to win by 5 1/2 lengths with his ears pricked the final sixteenth. He was trapped down on the inside for a good portion of the race and just roared by Arctic Arrogance, who had already run big going 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. His Beyer figures have climbed steadily from 60 to 71 to 82 to 91 and his Thoro-Graph numbers have already made a huge leap from “12 1/4″ to a “4 3/4.” He won despite racing greenly in the stretch, drifting in about five paths after clearing the runner-up, who finished 6 1/4 lengths ahead of the third horse. He had won his previous race impressively with first time Lasix and now won even more impressively without Lasix. This race on this surface got him dead-fit and he can now wait for the Wood Memorial with a ton of bottom under him. He has now run four times at four different tracks at four different distances in three different states. He has done a lot for a May 9 foal who won’t even be 3 on Derby Day, which is why he is still a bit green and why they gave him time to develop. With his stamina-oriented pedigree, his closing kick, his ability to break sharply and then sit anywhere from two to nine lengths off the pace, and his ability to travel and handle any track, how can you not look at him as a legitimate Derby contender.


7—Giant Mischief (Brad Cox, Into Mischief – Vertical Oak, by Giant Oak)

After working five furlongs in :59 4/5 in company with Verifying, second fastest of 62 works at the distance, he no doubt is sharp and ready for a big effort in the Risen Star Stakes. You’re not going to find any big names in the bottom of his female family and none other than Giant’s Causeway in his entire female family, so we have no idea how far it can carry Into Mischief on top. All we can go by for now is what we’ve seen on the track, and we have seen a horse with a big turn of foot who also is a fighter and has won at 5 1/2 furlongs and a mile. Although Cox does start some of his young horses at Horseshoe Indianapolis, the Indiana track is not exactly known as a launch pad for Derby horses. But he just keeps getting better and should have won the Springboard Mile had it not been for a horrendous start. He has yet to face a legitimate Derby contender so we’ll just have to see what he does against classier opposition. He Brisnet Prime Power rating is ranked second of the 39 horses in the Future Wager. Don’t ask for an explanation on what that means, but if you follow Brisnet it obviously is an important rating and worth mentioning.


8—Reincarnate (Bob Baffert, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

Once again, we are faced with a dilemma trying to figure out what this colt’s immediate future is. Baffert has already lost one promising 3-year-old with Harlocap going to Steve Asmussen to point for the Risen Star Stakes. So we just wait and see if he too will wind up with another trainer. It is so hard to gauge the Southern California 3-year-olds when all the good ones who have run this year are from the same barn. With Cave Rock following Corniche last year as Baffert’s latest big 2-year-old to fail to make it back for the Derby and the loss of Newgate to a minor injury, Reincarnate, a 16-1 winner of the Sham Stakes, has climbed up the Baffert ladder right behind Arabian Knight. But Reincarnate looks to be the real deal as his speed figures continue to get dramatically faster and he has already shown he is a fighter who doesn’t like to get passed in the stretch. And he has the pedigree to run all day. He’s been training brilliantly, with his latest work a six-furlong drill in 1:11 3/5 in company with National Treasure, and we’ll just have to see what the future brings for him and where e shows up next.


9—Banishing (Brendan Walsh, Ghostzapper – Dowager, by A. P. Indy

Walsh fortunately was able to find another allowance race for him at Fair Grounds on Saturday, but this one looks to be a lot tougher than the one he scratched out of, which in a way is a good thing. But I think he fits very well with the Risen Star field, which surely has no world beaters. By missing his last race, Walsh will either have to then squeeze in two stakes races in a short span of time or just put it all on the line in one of the 100-pointers and hope he can get enough points to make it into the Derby. He showed he is back on track with a pair of strong five-furlong works, the most recent being a 1:01 1/5 drill. He still hasn’t faced winners so that is a test he will have to pass on Saturday. Needless to say everything will have to go perfectly from now on, but on the bright side his two races have been at a mile and 1 1/16 miles, so he does have some bottom, and he was brilliant breaking is maiden last out by 8 1/2 lengths, looking a lot more mature and much smoother than he did in his career debut.  Numbers-wise his Brisnet figure jumped from a 78 to a 96 and his Beyer number from a 65 to a 90. Also his Brisnet late pace figure went from a 75 to a 101 and his Thoro-Graph number improved from a “12” to a “7.” So you can see the tremendous improvement he showed all around.


10—General Jim (Shug McGaughey, Into Mischief – Inspired by Grace, by Culin)

The more I watch his races the better I like him. He just runs hard on all kinds of surfaces and I simply like everything I see, whether it’s on dirt or grass, one turn or two turns, and if you like consistency he always manages to be in the same position in the first two calls in all his races. Despite running in the Swale Stakes he doesn’t look like a sprinter, doesn’t run like a sprinter, and isn’t bed to be a sprinter. And to get back on my pulpit, which I have not been on in a number of years, let me ask, what does General Jim have in common with Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Buckpasser, Citation, Whirlaway, Swaps, Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, Sword Dancer, Northern Dancer, Riva Ridge, and Foollsh Pleasure, just to name a few, who started off the Derby trail in a sprint, something that’s not done anymore, mainly because Churchill Downs has refused to give points in sprint races and trainers today just don’t do that anymore, except for an old school trainer like McGaughey. Yes, General Jim did race on January 1 in a one-mile race, but that was a drop back to one turn, just as the Swale was a drop back in distance. John Nerud once told me trainers did that to give their horses much-needed sharpness before stretching them out in distance. Obviously no one is comparing General Jim to those horses, but it is good to see a Derby-caliber horse use a race like the Swale to hopefully start him off on the Derby trail, with his next stop likely the Gotham. By the way, how many truly great horses have won the Derby in this century or even back through the ‘90s?

11—Victory Formation (Brad Cox, Tapwrit – Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike)

All I can do is ask the question, how is he going to fare breaking from post 13 in Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes? Fortunately, he does have good early speed and none of the immediate seven horses inside him look like they have the speed to outrun him. So he could wind up in a decent position outside Harlocap and Determinedly, but he is going to have to break sharply and have things set up for him going into the first turn. Flavien Prat sticks with him after their victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes and that certainly will help. Cox also has Angel of Empire and Tapit’s Conquest in the race as he tries to sort out all his 3-year-olds, so another question to ponder is whether Cox runs him or waits for Rebel Stakes the following week where he has already won a stakes. Victory Formation and Tapit’s Conquest worked five furlongs in a sharp 1:00 2/5 in company over the weekend. Let’s also remember that Victory Formation is undefeated and that’s pretty rare with this cop of 3-year-olds, and he knows how to beat you by open lengths or in a tight finish.


12—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

I easily could have chosen between 10 to 12 horses to fill this final spot. While he doesn’t fit the profile of a Derby winner, he does fit the profile of the late-closing longshot that rallies for second or third. And we know he will stay the mile and a quarter. He is one of those you like to bet on because you’re really never out of it knowing at some point he will come running. Between Asmussen, Cox, Pletcher, and Baffert it is going to take some divine act for the little guy to sneak in this year. But with racing you never know. If he didn’t have such bad luck in the Kentucky Jockey Club he very well could have been a Top 5 horse type of horse. But as it turned out he has to be considered an intriguing Future Wager bet at 58-1.



You know it’s not your typical Derby trail when there are nine horses on the Future Wager list who have started either once or twice. And with a number of last year’s big 2-year-olds making late starts you really have to dig deep to find the true contenders.

We lost two Derby hopefuls this week when NEWGATE and SIGNATOR suffered minor injuries that knocked them off the trail. If you’re wondering why INSTANT COFFEE is no longer ranked, we can only go  by instinct while trying to put the pieces of the puzzle surrounding him together at the risk of being totally off base. First off he has not worked since the LeComte Stakes on January 21. I have found one thing when contacting trainers. If a trainer is good about answering your texts quickly and you ask him why his horse hasn’t worked and if he is OK and you don’t hear back from him you have no choice but to be on alert that something could be amiss. It’s not always the case, but when that trainer then enters three horses in a stakes, and the one horse you expect to see in there as the favorite is not among them then I feel it is best to drop that horse until more is known about what is going on with him. For what it’s worth, Instant Coffee is still taking a lot of money in the Future Wager and was only 18-1 on Sunday afternoon, which would lead one to believe he is still on course for the Derby. What that course is I have no idea. But I feel it is best to put him on the other side of the door this week and if we find out he is doing fine he obviously will jump right back into the fray. Better to be here for now than take up a spot high on the list if there are questions.

The toughest decision this week was whether to put Sam F. Davis winner LITIGATE in the Top 12. The final decision was to wait one more race. The main reason were the dismal performances by DUBYUHNELL and PRAIRIE HAWK, who were never in the race due in good part to terrible trips early on. Litigate overcame a bad post by breaking like a bullet and getting to the inside and then easing to the outside for a clear run. He was hard ridden a long way out and to the wire, closing his last two fractions in a sluggish :26 2/5 and :07. I do like him from a visual standpoint, as he has a nice fluid stride and good low extension. And his pedigree is fantastic, with the best of the Phipps bloodlines on top and bottom, as well as Claiborne and Darby Dan at the very top. This colt needs to get much faster and against better horses, but he definitely is a work in progress. It’s easy to say he looks more like a Belmont horse, but I still want to see how much improvement he can show between now and his next race. All the pieces seem to be there, it’s just a question of how long they will take to come together.

It’s nice to see Eoin Harty with a promising colt for Godolphin again. Harty, who had good success for Godolphin years ago, finished second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes with the 21-1 shot GROVELAND, who closed well along the rail to be beaten 1 1/4 lengths. Trapped for most the race, he attempted a bold move to come inside the pacesetter at the half-mile pole, but had to steady and drop back a bit. He tried to get going again on the turn, but the victorious Litigate had gotten the jump on him. When the leader finally did come off the rail in the stretch, Groveland gave it another shot and was able to get though and close strongly. The son of Street Sense has not finished out of the money in five career starts and has tons of stamina throughout his pedigree, with a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner, the filly Desert Stormer, thrown in there. Watch out for this guy when the distances stretch out.

Harty sent out another classically bred 3-year-old for Godolphin, SUERTE, who scored an impressive wire-to-wire maiden victory at Tampa Bay Downs. The son of Frosted had to be gelded and started off his career running for a $50,000 claiming tag. He showed some promise, finishing second to Prairie Hawk in his third start, but couldn’t break his maiden until his fifth start when Harty removed his blinkers. He did show his greenness when he ducked out sharply from a left-handed whip from Tyler Gaffalione, but was fine after Gaffalione put the whip away and just showed it to him the rest of the way as he drew off to a three-length score. It’s a shame they had to geld him as he is inbred to an American (Seattle Slew) and English (Nijinsky) Triple Crown winner and has class and stamina all though his pedigree. He also is inbred to Unbridled.

I didn’t like taking VERIFYING off the Rankings, but he most likely will be back next week in preparation for the Rebel Stakes. Although DISARM has been put on a wait and see status I am still high on him, but with such a traffic jam after the Top 12 I have to remind myself he has had only two sprints and hasn’t run in 6 1/2 months. And at this juncture he doesn’t have much time to gain experience, face winners, and get Derby points. So for now we’ll just keep an eye on him.

Looking at the Thoro-Graph numbers for the Holy Bull Stakes, ROCKET CAN ran his third consecutive “8,” so not only does he have to get faster, he has to start showing some improvement numbers-wise. But he did have to go five-wide into the first turn and was wide throughout, so he surely deserves another chance to move forward

Runner-up SHADOW DRAGON, our spotlight horse of the week who like Rocket Can is trained by Bill Mott, went from a “14” in his first two races to a “10 1/4,” so he definitely needs to get a lot faster as well. But I did like what I saw coming off two New York-bred races and a three-month layoff, having to rally from far back through a very slow three-quarters in 1:13 3/5, circling four-wide on the far turn, and not changing leads until the sixteenth pole. He does have two races with triple-digit late pace figures on Brisnet. His sire was a sprinter whose career was cut short after winning the Grade 1 Carter Handicap in only his third career start, and his dam is by Medaglia d’Oro out of Jostle, who was Rick Porter and John Servis’ first big horse, winning the Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama, Black-Eyed Susan, Cotillion, and Demoiselle Stakes.

Shadow Dragon has the much-coveted Rasmussen Factor, being inbred to Cap and Bells through her daughter Lady Capulet, the dam of El Prado, sire of Medaglia d’Oro, and also through her son Drone, a massive powerhouse of a horse who had superstar written all over him after winning his first four starts by margins of four to nine lengths. Drone, a Claiborne Farm owned and bred son of Sir Gaylord, came along in the same crop as Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince, and his trainer Lucien Laurin called him the best horse he ever trained. Laurin was so distraught after losing Drone to a calcium deposit in his knee while on the Derby trail he said, “This has to be the most heartbreaking game in the world. What an unlucky sonofagun I am.” Shortly after, Laurin retired only to return to train a half-brother to Sir Gaylord named Secretariat. After that the game wasn’t quite as heartbreaking for Laurin, who no longer could complain about being unlucky. As for Drone, you don’t usually see him this close up in a young horse’s pedigree anymore, but if you’re not familiar with him he is the broodmare sire of Kentucky Derby winners Grindstone and Charismatic, as well as the great Dancing Brave, winner of the English Derby, 2,000 Guineas, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Eclipse Stakes, and Hall of Famer Princess Rooney, the first Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner. I’m looking to see big improvement from Shadow Dragon. The fact that Bill Mott put him in the Holy Bull when he had Rocket Can says a lot.

Mott sent out another runner this past weekend in ARTHUR’S RIDE, a stunning gray son of Tapit with a big bounding stride. Battling through fast fractions in the one-mile maiden race, he opened up in the stretch and had no problem holding off the Todd Pletcher first timer DREAMLIKE to win by 1 1/2 lengths in a solid 1:36 1/5.

In Week 1 I mentioned a horse who really caught my eye in his career debut was the Pletcher-trained KINGSBARNS, who won despite a horrible trip. Well, he came back Sunday with a perfect trip in a mile and 40-yard allowance race at Tampa Bay and was extremely impressive storming by the leader from the inside near the half-mile pole, opening a clear lead on the turn while still on cruise control and drawing off to a 7 3/4-length victory. He was hit with three right-handed whips in the stretch, but only to keep him from drifting out. He is a classy-looking colt with a beautiful bounding stride and it’s only a question now if he has enough time to get two stakes in and pick up Derby points. He definitely is one to watch.

The comeback performance of the week was turned in by the John Shirrreffs-trainer SKINNER, who made his first start since getting beat 28 lengths in the American Pharoah Stakes and stormed to an impressive 3 1/4-length victory in a one-mile maiden race at Santa Anita Sunday with first time Lasix.

One horse who could very well dominate the remaining Turfway Stakes is Leonatus Stakes winner FUNTASTIC AGAIN, who was always thought of very highly by owner Three Chimneys Farm and trainer Wesley Ward. Three Chimneys stands Funtastic and will often look at his sales horses. They liked what they saw with Funtastic Again, feeling he was an attractive, athletic colt and were able to get him for $60,000 at the Keeneland November mixed sale. They liked him so much they even bought his dam in foal to Not This Time. Funtastic recently breezed five furlongs in 1:02 at Turfway.

Even losing a few Derby hopefuls, Brad Cox still has quite an arsenal. TAPIT’S CONQUEST looks like one of his sleepers who just needs a little more experience to put it all together and he definitely will get in the Risen Star. The ability is there and his numbers are improving, and he showed he’s ready for the next step after working five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 in company with the stakes-winning Victory Formation. Two Cox horses looking for redemption following disappointing efforts in the sloppy Southwest Stakes, JACE’S ROAD and CORONA BOLT, who we had ranked in Week 1, returned to the work tab going a half in :49 1/5 and :48 1/5, respectively.

Speaking of redemption, SUN THUNDER, another colt who impressed us visually, but didn’t show too much in the Southwest Stakes coming off Lasix, finishing a well-beaten fourth, turned in a strong five-furlong work in 1:00 1/5 for the Risen Star Stakes. I haven’t given up on this colt, who I believe is much better than he showed last time. He could be an Interesting longshot.

Another horse who caught my eye early on was the Bob Baffert-trained HARLOCAP, who as mentioned earlier has been turned over to Steve Asmussen and is entered in the Risen Star Stakes where he will come off Lasix after an impressive victory.

On the Risen Star card facing Banishing in the 1 1/16-mile allowance are some names you should be hearing from, including the still green TAPIT SHOES, impressive first out winners FIRST DEFENDER and WILLAKENZIE, and recent allowance winner CAGLIOSTRO.

The hard-knocking DREW’S GOLD had no trouble winning the six-furlong Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct, but trainer James Chapman said he would prefer going for the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes next rather than stretch him out in the Gotham. One horse who is headed for the Gotham is the gutsy SLIP MAHONEY, a son of Arrogate who battled Tapit Trice to the wire, losing by a neck, and then fought back to hold off the late charge of the Pletcher-trained CRUPI, winning by a head. His Brisnet figures have improved from an 84 to a 96 to a 98, as has his late pace figures, from an 85 to a 96 to a 99. So he not only can close, he can close off strong middle pace figures. Like many up-and-comers this year he will have to come off Lasix in the Gotham, but he did run big without it against Tapit Trice. With the main body of the Brad Cox army down south he could hold down the fort up in New York. If you’re not familiar with the name, Slip Mahoney was the leader of the Bowery Boys, who were popular on TV in the 1950s.

Last Saturday’s El Camino Real Derby on the synthetic track at Golden Gate was won in workmanlike fashion by CHASE THE CHAOS, who has won two straight and has finished in the money in all six of his starts, including his first two on the grass at Canterbury Downs.

Finally, not only do we have our first filly in the Future Wager, but the undefeated HOOSIER PHILLY, a run-away winner of the Golden Rod and Rags to Riches Stakes, closed as the second choice at 11-1.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 3

Monday, February 6th, 2023

It was a strange weekend with the allowance winners taking the spotlight over the stakes winners. As a result we have yet another shakeup to the Rankings and even more confusion in this muddled Derby picture. Hopefully, things will start to clear up when some of top 2-year-olds make their long-awaited debuts. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 6, 2023 – Week 3

By Steve Haskin

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

The New “Yawk” partnership of Vinnie Viola and Mike Repole normally spend big bucks for the majority of their sales horses, especially at the Keeneland September yearling sale, but sometimes they are willing to wait it out and look for an occasional bargain during the later, far less glitzy, part of the sale when thousands of yearlings have already been sold and most of the big buyers are long gone. So it was in 2021 when they waited until Hip#2035 on the last day they bought horses before finding the 2-year-old champion and early Kentucky Derby favorite for a measly $110,000, the fifth cheapest of the 43 yearlings they purchased at the sale. That is quite a difference from the $1.05 million they paid for a son of City of Light earlier in the sale. Now we just wait for the Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4, which seems so far off when looking for new things to say about a horse.


2—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

My only mistake with this colt was originally having him at No. 5 and moving him to No. 7 at the last minute, feeling I may have gone overboard putting a maiden winner by a neck that high. I’m not making that mistake again. Yes, this was an allowance race, but I haven’t seen a stakes winner so far this year that has impressed me or looked more like a Derby horse than this colt, even Arabian Knight, who still has to show he’s not a one-dimensional speed horse. And raise your hand if you don’t think he would have crushed the field in the Holy Bull Stakes, in which the three-quarters was run in 1:13 3/5 and the mile in 1:38 2/5, while the allowance race was run in 1:11 4/5 and 1:36 2/5. Not only did Tapit Trice win by eight lengths, he opened up the eight lengths in the final furlong and kept going past the wire, galloping out strongly. Credit Luis Saez for getting him off the rail after a slow break and angling him to the far outside where he could use that big stride of his. It takes him a while to build up power so he has to be pushed along early, but once he gets in high gear he is a thing of beauty to watch. As I mentioned last week, he is a visually stunning colt who reaches out with great extension, yet his stride is so fluid it seems effortless for him. Pletcher said it was between the allowance and the Holy Bull, and I was hoping he would go in the Holy Bull. But no way I’m doubting Pletcher. Yes, he has to step up in class and face stakes competition, but from what I’ve seen so far that should not be a problem. When a horse can gut out one race and then win by eight lengths the next race you know he can pretty much do it all.


3—Arabian Knight (Bob Baffert, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

Another reason I put Tapit Trice ahead of him is stability, as we still have to find out if this colt will have to be turned over to another trainer on February 28. The word out of the Baffert camp is that he is the “real deal,” but most people already feel that way. There is no use predicting where he will run next because Baffert, if he remains his trainer, is the master of calling audibles at the last minute depending on a how a horse is doing at the time. Most likely it will be a return to Oaklawn for the Rebel Stakes or staying home for the San Felipe. Baffert often will send different horses to Oaklawn for their preps and the fact that he sent Arabian Knight there for an early prep off one maiden sprint he might not want to ship back there, possibly twice. I have mentioned his paddling action and although that shouldn’t affect his performance I have found that it can take its toll at longer distances later on. There aren’t many 3-year-olds that have dazzled us in stakes so far, so when you get one who has you have to take him very seriously. Looking at the other end, we also have to remember that his two main foes in the Southwest Stakes never ran a lick in the slop and the second and third-place finishers had won four of their 14 starts with one six-furlong listed stakes win. Also, his Thoro-Graph numbers regressed from a 2 1/4 to a 3 1/2 in the Southwest. If he stays in California we might not know how good he really is until the Kentucky Derby.


4—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

He continued his string of sharp works with five-furlong drills in 1:00 1/5 and 1:01 1/5 as he prepares to resume his assault on Baffert and then the Run for the Roses. Is anyone aware that this colt was bred by Chad Brown and Sol Kumin’s Head of Plains Partners? The last time Kumin saw him he was soundly beating two horses who are co-owned by Kumin — Carmel Road and Fort Bragg. So Kumin sold Practical Move for $230,000 and then watched him beat two horses he and his partners paid a total of $1.35 million for. This colt is a true stalker who is always in the hunt, whether they run the half in :44 1/5 or :46 4/5 or if the distance is 6 1/2 furlongs, seven furlongs, one mile, or 1 1/16 miles or if it’s at Santa Anita, Del Mar or Los Alamitos. At the half-mile call he’s been second, third, fourth, and fifth, and other than his career debut when he was four lengths back, he’s never been farther back than 2 1/2 lengths. So all this adds up to a very dangerous battle-tested horse who has excellent tactical speed and can rate off any kind of pace. You would expect nothing less from a horse who is by a Grade 1 winner at seven furlongs and a mile, out of a mare by a Preakness and Belmont winner who came within one length of sweeping the Triple Crown, and probably would have if he didn’t come out of the Kentucky Derby with a minor lung infection.


5—Blazing Sevens (Chad Brown, Good Magic – Trophy Girl, by Warrior’s Reward)

Now that he’s had three works over the deeper Payson Park surface he seems to be coming around as well as Brown could hope for and shouldn’t need a lot of works with his foundation. Looking at his races more closely there is a lot to like about him and I feel he should be moved up in the rankings. I like that he was able to win first time out going six furlongs at Saratoga and doing it eased up. I like that in his first two starts sprinting his Brisnet figures were faster early and slower late, but after stretching out to a mile and 1 1/16 miles they were slower early and faster late, with his last two late pace figures a 98 and 100. I like that his Brisnet and Beyer figures both were faster in his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile fourth-place finish than in his 3 1/4-length victory in the Champagne Stakes the race before. The only reason his Thoro-Graph number went from a 3 to a 5 1/4 in the Juvenile was because of his ground-saving trip. Actually, if Flavien Prat had stayed where he was, a hole opened up right in his path you could have driven a Sherman tank through. Instead he swung about six or seven-wide and was running strongly at the end down the shortened stretch. Also, Verifying, the Champagne runner-up he defeated decisively, looked extremely impressive winning an allowance race in January following a troubled start in the BC Juvenile when he bumped soundly from both sides. So, in summary, Blazing Sevens has the experience in Grade 1 company, has never been off the board, has won on fast and sloppy tracks, and has a pedigree geared toward stamina. Brown has finished a good second (with Blazing Sevens’ sire) and third in the Kentucky Derby, so this could be his year.


6—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

Although he has done nothing to dazzle you, there is something to be said for professionalism and knowing how to win. He continues to improve with every start, and in his only defeat in the Breeders’ Futurity he was way too far back in a 14-horse field and closed well enough to miss third by a head. He won a strong maiden race in his career debut at Saratoga, running the seven furlongs in 1:22 3/5, so we know he does have brilliance in him, and his Thoro-Graph numbers took a big jump forward in the LeComte Stakes. If you want to feel old, in his tail-female family he has Holy Bull in his fifth generation. The other two fifth generation ancestors in his tail-female family were foals of 1967 and 1969. As I mentioned, he is a complete outcross and could be a throwback to those tough, sound, and consistent horses of the past. He should meet better horses in the Risen Star Stakes, but you always have to feel confident he is going to be right there battling to the end.


7—Giant Mischief (Brad Cox, Into Mischief – Vertical Oak, by Giant Oak)

Even though beating Arabian Lion in that Keeneland allowance doesn’t look as impressive now as it then I still like everything I’ve seen of this colt. Arabian Lion has since come apart at the seams for whatever reason, but he sure looked good going into that allowance race coming off a maiden score in 1:09 3/5. And Giant Mischief ran him down and out-fought him to the wire in 1:22 1/5 for the seven furlongs, getting a 95 Beyer figure and 99 Brisnet figure. I keep mentioning his impressive turn of foot, which will help him get out of traffic problems, so all we can do for now is wait for the Rebel Stakes and see what kind of transition he’s made from 2 to 3. With two of his three starts in Indiana and Oklahoma he has to show what he can do on the big stage when the major points come into play and everyone is on their “A” game. He also has to give some kind of indication that classic distances will not be a problem, as he does have quite a bit of speed on both sides. But all in all, he looks like a quality horse with a bright future.


8—Reincarnate (Bob Baffert, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

After a closer study of all the Baffert horses I really couldn’t find anything not to like about this colt. Baffert needed to get a race in him in September and had no choice but to start him off on the grass. In his first start going a mile he went to the lead and turned back three separate challenges, then re-rallied when looked in the eye tuning for home, and just got nailed at the wire. He then was entered in the Zuma Beach Stakes on grass, but was scratched after drawing in the also-eligibles in post 13. He drew poorly again in a maiden race, breaking from post 10 and got fanned four-wide into the first turn. He stalked the leader but they came home fast and he couldn’t catch him, falling 1 1/2 lengths short. He was finally put on the dirt at 1 1/16 miles and after going three-wide on the first turn he tracked his stablemate, the 1-5 Fort Bragg, who had already finished first in his previous start before being disqualified. He closed well in the stretch and was getting to Fort Bragg, but was beaten three-quarters of a length. He finally broke his maiden going wire-to-wire at Del Mar and then was 16-1 in the Sham Stakes against his two more highly regarded stablemates Newgate and National Treasure, who had already run well in four grade 1 stakes between them, with the latter placing in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He went to the lead, battled head and head, and gamely dug in to hold off both of them, with his Beyer figure jumping from an 84 to a 95 and Thoro-Graph number from a 9 3/4 to a 2 3/4, one of the fastest numbers of the year. He is a strong, tough colt with a 1 1/16-mile race and four mile races under him already. He is a tough, improving colt and turned in a sharp five-furlong work in :59 2/5.


9—Signator (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Pension, by Seeking the Gold)

Although there is no work listed for him at Payson Park since January 25, I was sent a video of him working in company in the fog on February 1. He was on the inside and he and his workmate finished on even terms and galloped out strongly together. According to his exercise rider he is “getting better every day.” When asked if he had any races in mind for the colt, McGaughey simply said, “Not yet.” So, like with many others on the Derby trail this year, we just wait and see how he progresses and where he shows up for his 3-year-old debut. He has not raced since October 14 and with only two starts and not having faced winners, the sooner the better, as he needs to improve his speed figures quite a bit. But we know that is not McGaughey’s style. As it looks now he will have to move way up in class from a maiden race while coming off approximately a four-month layoff. That is asking a lot. As you know I really like everything about this colt, but I can’t get too excited until he runs and faces stakes-caliber competition and gets faster.  At this point it looks as if he will have only two starts, so everything is going to have work perfectly for him.


10—Victory Formation (Brad Cox, Tapwrit – Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike)

He turned is a sharp five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5 for his likely debut in the Risen Star or Rebel Stakes. He has won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn, but is stabled at Fair Grounds, so we’ll see what Cox decides to do. He has a classic pedigree, has won by 4 3/4 and three lengths and also in a dogfight by a neck, and has won two races on the front end and one stalking the leader, so he’s pretty much done all that’s been asked of him. He’s been though the sales ring three times as a weanling, yearling, and 2-year-old, so he no doubt is tough mentally. Like so many 3-year-olds this year he has to take another step forward and also pick up his Thoro-Graph numbers. He has improved with each race, but in small increments, from a 9 1/2 to 8 1/4 to 7 1/4, so he still has to make that one good leap to compete with the top horses.


11—Dubyuhnell (Danny Gargan, Good Magic – Wild Gams, by Forest Wildcat)

He breezed a half in :51 1/5 at Palm Beach Downs. What makes one wonder about this work is that his previous works have been at Palm Meadows. So did Danny Gargan pack up and move? He seemed to be ready for a big effort in a weak Holy Bull Stakes, but looks to have opted  for Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay, which also looks to be a good spot for him. This could very well be his coming out party with another strong effort.. The big key to him is how he does on a fast track, with both his victories coming on a sloppy track. There is no telling how good this colt is, and let’s remember that he got a rare triple-digit Brisnet figure in the Remsen Stakes and a “1 1/4” Thoro-Graph number, the fastest of any member of this crop. Now let’s see if he is just as fast on a dry track. If he is he should skyrocket up the standings.


12—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

There’s not much more to say about that wasn’t said last week following his big effort in the Southwest Stakes. He has the experience, he has the closing kick, and he has the pedigree to run all day. I’m not sure he’s the type who can win the Derby, but he looks like the type who often is closing late to pick up a piece of it at a big price. But one of these days these types will fool you and take it all with the right setup. He has been running against top competition and become very dependable, knowing he is going to give his all and will be closing at the end. He has stamina top and bottom, and one name you never see in a pedigree is his dam’s broodmare sire Prized, who had the distinction of beating Sunday Silence in the Swaps Stakes and later that year winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf in his first race on grass.


13—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

He has been right on the cusp of being ranked, and he made it this week following the allowance victory by Gun Pilot, who he handled easily in an allowance race in January, winning 5 1/4 lengths. That was enough to show that he defeated a good horse and did it impressively. Normally I would be skeptical with him winning that race with first time Lasix and coming off a poor race in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he got creamed from both sides coming out of the gate and then squeezed back in the Juvenile, so he gets a pass on that one. In addition he did break his maiden and finish second in the Champagne Stakes without Lasix, so I’m not going to pay attention to him running a big race on it for the first time. He simply looks like a good horse who is improving, jumping to a 97 Beyer last out and a 95 Brisnet figure. He has shown he can win on the lead or just off it. He is another Cox-trained colt who is stabled at Fair Grounds, where he just worked five furlongs in 1:01 1/5, but shipped to Oaklawn to run, so once again we’ll have to see how Cox divides his forces with big preps coming up.


14—Gun Pilot (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner — Bush Pilot, by Smart Strike)

As you can see I am still looking at the allowance winners and projecting they will turn out to be stakes-caliber horses until the stakes horses show me more. Although the pace and final time of Saturday’s  allowance victory at Oaklawn were slow I believe it made him look more impressive being trapped down on the rail behind horses for most of the race through an agonizingly slow three-quarters in 1:13 2/5. But he bided his time until he was able to ease out for a clear run nearing the top of the stretch. He ran down a pretty good horse in Bourbon Bash, who was coming off five straight stakes races, and powered his way to a two-length victory under a hand ride, coming home his final eighth in :12 2/5 and then galloping out strongly. This was a big step forward being taken back off the pace for the first time and covered up instead of being on the lead where I don’t believe he wanted to be. He is yet another talented colt sired by the still red-hot Gun Runner, and being a grandson of Candy Ride and inbred to Quiet American it means he is inbred three times to Fappiano and has Dr. Fager in his pedigree five times. He has always been highly regarded by owner and breeder Three Chimneys Farm and has required patient handling by Asmussen.


15—Disarm (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Easy Tap, by Tapit)

Not having run since August and not having run farther than seven furlongs, I can’t remember why I even ranked him. So I watched is maiden win again and again was impressed with what I saw, including beating eventual Holy Bull Stakes winner Rocket Can by 9 1/2 lengths. I guess I also went by his pedigree. With stakes almost every weekend he’s not going to be on the Rankings much longer without running, and there aren’t many options open to him at this late date except the Risen Star and possibly the Rebel, and I’m not sure he’s ready for either one of those races. His last work was a solid five-furlong breeze in 1:01 3/5. It’s time to start looking for him in the entries.



I think ROCKET CAN and SHADOW DRAGON, the one-two finishers in the Holy Bull Stakes both are colts to watch down the road, but as Derby horses they still have a ways to go, and both have to get noticeably faster in a hurry. Shadow Dragon made a big leap forward with his strong late run and not having run since finishing up the track in the Sleepy Hollow Stakes for New York-breds in October. And Rocket Can also moved forward from his game second in a Churchill Downs allowance race in November. But this was a pretty weak field for the Holy Bull, compounded by the dismal performance by the big favorite CYCLONE MISCHIEF, one of several promising horses who have fallen from the Rankings in the past two weeks, showing how easy it is to go from a good race to a bad race when you are dealing young unproven horses. We’ll just wait and see how he came out of his race. Rocket Can and Shadow Dagon have put Bill Mott on the Derby trail in a hurry and that’s always a good thing. Now let’s see where both horses go from here and if they can take another step forward.

It is very rare to have two graded stakes at major tracks with no one making the Rankings. We know NEWGATE is a good horse who, like his stablemate National Treasure, has been knocking on the door. But the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, despite its lofty Beyer figure, bore no resemblance to a stakes race, with all four starters from the same barn. Not only did Arabian Lion run last for the second straight race despite coming off a bullet :58 4/5 work, Newgate, the even-money favorite, had to struggle to beat the 12-1 HARD TO FIGURE by a neck. The last time Hard to Figure ran, in the Bob Hope Stakes in November, he finished 12 lengths behind Newgate. So did Hard to Figure improve that much? Let’s wait to find out if Newgate and some of the others are staying with Baffert or heading to new trainers before we take up another spot in the Rankings. There has been no competition for the Baffert brigade and there won’t be until Practical Move shows up in the San Felipe. By then, Practical Move’s trainer Tim Yakteen might be training several of these Baffert horses.

To give you an idea what kind of warped Derby trail it has been in Southern California, the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, won in the past by the likes of I’ll Have Another, Medina Spirit, Pioneerof the Nile, and Dortmund, drew only four horses, all of them trained by Bob Baffert. Those four horses have lost a total of 12 races in California, and in those 12 races they have finished behind 17 stablemates.

You can sort of understand if some of the good horses not trained by Baffert were nominated for the Lewis and then something came up to prevent them from running. But of the 16 horses nominated, 14 of them are trained by Baffert, which is insane. You can’t blame Baffert for having a lot of good 3-year-olds, but it is apparent that something is wrong out there.

Everything I’ve heard so far indicates it is going to be very difficult getting CAVE ROCK to the Derby. Watching him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, it is possible something happened to him the way he ducked in sharply after turning for home for no apparent reason and being on his wrong lead. That is pure speculation, but the fact is there has been no word on him. At this point it is not worth taking up a spot with him. It is a lot easier to put him back if he should start training up a storm.

One Baffert colt I really like is FAUSTIN, but I am reluctant to rank him because Baffert decided to sprint him again in the San Vicente against his fastest 3-year-old, Havenameltdown, rather than stretch him out two turns in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes against three stablemates who appear to be inferior to him. So I am thinking that perhaps he is looking at Faustin more as a one-turn horse. Why else would he not stretch him out in what looked to be an ideal spot?

Saturday’s seven-furlong Swale Stakes was won by the consistent and hard-knocking GENERAL JIM, who was dropping back to a sprint after four straight distance races at a mile and 1 1/16 miles, just like the old days when all good horses hit the Derby trail sprinting. What was impressive about his victory was the way he chased down the 4-5 favorite Super Chow, winner of five of his six starts and last four. Super Chow had opened a four-length lead and looked home free around the turn, but General Jim, wearing blinkers for the first time, kept coming and was relentless in the stretch, winning by a length, with an 11-length gap to the third horse. General Jim’s two victories had come on the grass, but he most likely would have won the Mucho Macho Man Stakes last out if not for an absolutely disastrous trip. By Into Mischief, out of a Curlin mare, his tail-female line is inundated with stamina through Relaunch and Temperence Hill all the way to Nashua and Nasrullah. I can’t wait to see him stretch out again, possibly in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.

BANISHING not banished after all. I had originally wrote “with no works yet from BANISHING since being scratched from an important allowance race after suffering cuts in his stall we have no idea of the severity of his wounds and again can only wait to see if he shows up on the work tab and in the entries in the near future. He is another who will return to the rankings with anything positive to report.” But I just saw this morning he worked five furlongs in 1:01 and it’s too late to put him back, so he will likely be ranked again next week. I was happy to see him come back with a sharp five-furlongs, so all looks good.

Speaking of Banishing, to demonstrate the importance of several promising horses’ next start, Banishing, SHOPPER’S REVENGE, and Hit Show are just some of the horses who won big last out with the addition of Lasix for the first time and will now have to race without it when they step into stakes competition. Hit Show did break his maiden without Lasix, but finished out of the money two starts back without it when facing winners for the first time. So we’ll give these horses one more race. If they run big next time without Lasix then they become legitimate Derby contenders.

With the sub-zero temperatures forcing the cancelation of the Withers Stakes we have to wait a week to see the hard-knocking Remsen and Jerome runner-up ARCTIC ARROGANCE defend his home turf against the aforementioned Oaklawn invader HIT SHOW, who indicated he was razor-sharp for last Saturday with a bullet five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5. Brad Cox said he will re-enter the colt and stick to his original plan. He has plenty of ammunition at Oaklawn heading for the Rebel and Hit Show should relish the mile and an eighth of the Withers. With the race canceled, Arctic Arrogance worked on Friday, breezing an easy five furlongs in 1:03 1/5. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does with blinkers on for the first time. He has shown he’s a warrior, but just needs something to reverse those photo finishes. A good race by either of these two will catapult them onto the Rankings, as they both appear to have bright futures.

One horse flying way under the radar is the Saffie Joseph-trained PRAIRIE HAWK, who will be trying for his third staight victory at Tampa Bay Downs in Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes. He showed how sharp he is right now with a sizzling half-mile work in :46 2/5 at Gulfstream. Another horse I’ll be watching in the Sam Davis,  if not for now then later, is the lightly raced LITIGATE, trained by Todd Pletcher. The son of Blame has a pedigree inundated with stamina and tons of class, and he is only going to keep improving as the distances stretch out. Watch out for this guy down the road. How far down the road we’ll see on Saturday.

Continuing on the Brad Cox front, Smarty Jones Stakes runner-up ANGEL OF EMPIRE worked five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 at Oaklawn Park. The son of Classic Empire has won both his starts with Lasix and lost both his starts without Lasix, so his next race will be important. Another Cox horse, TAPIT’S CONQUEST, who is improving and maturing with every start, breezed a half in :48 4/5 at Fair Grounds. There are only so many races for all these Cox horses to race and they most likely are going to have to weed themselves out.

Another horse who is sharp right now is Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up CURLY JACK, who drilled five furlongs in a bullet :59 4/5 at Fair Grounds, as he prepares for his 3-year-old debut in the Risen Star Stakes. He is another who easily could have been ranked, but after six starts his speed figures are still pretty slow, so he is another who will remain on the watch list for now.

One New York defector, LUGAN KNIGHT, gutsy winner of the Jerome, breezed a half-mile in :50 4/5 at of all places the Churchill Downs training center.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 2

Monday, January 30th, 2023

We had a minor shakeup in Week 2, due in good part to a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park, resulting in some disappointing performances, and of course we had the emergence of yet another Bob Baffert bullet, as we lead into what promises to be an action packed weekend on both coasts. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Jan. 30, 2023 – Week 2

By Steve Haskin

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

He had his second work back, breezing an easy half in :51 2/5. We know he can beat you in many ways, winning by open lengths with strong stretch runs and fighting it out to the wire. He seems to have no weaknesses and can handle any kind of surface. All that is left right now is making the transition from 2 to 3, which we won’t know until he runs, and how far he wants to go. So let’s go to his pedigree. His sire Violence, a son of Medaglia d’Oro, was on his way to stardom, winning graded stakes at 2 on both coasts, but suffered a fractured sesamoid in his second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, his only defeat in four career starts. Violence is a magnificent-looking horse who has already had success at stud. Forte’s dam, who won five minor stakes in Maryland and Indiana, is by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame, who is making a name for himself as a broodmare sire. Third dam Kew Garden is by Seattle Slew, out of multiple graded stakes winner Jeano, a daughter of Fappiano, out of Delaware Handicap winner Basie. This female line traces though three generations of top-class Phipps/Wheatley breeding to the Colonel Bradley mare Baby League, dam of Horse of the Year Busher, and finally to Baby League’s dam, the iconic La Troienne. Forte also has Secretariat in his pedigree three times, Dr. Fager twice, and Damascus once, as well as three English Derby winners. In short, Forte will run as far as they card races.


2—Arabian Knight (Bob Baffert, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

What to do about these (temporary?) Baffert horses? One thing about watching them win, you know they’re going to very early in the race. It didn’t take long to realize that Arabian Knight had the Southwest Stakes field at his mercy. Not only did he, like the vast majority of Baffert horses, skip to an uncontested lead at 2-5, he had John Velazquez riding high in the saddle and doing everything effortlessly. He turned back a brief challenge from 46-1 shot Frosted Departure and then opened up in the slop, winning by 5 1/2 lengths over a fast-closing Red Route One in typical Baffert fashion. I still don’t like this colt’s action the way he paddles his left leg, but it certainly doesn’t affect his performance. He’s just plain faster than anyone else. We won’t know if his main threats simply didn’t handle the sloppy track or they’re just not in his league. What we do know is that Arabian Knight and others will have to leave Baffert’s barn by February 28 to be able to earn Derby points if Baffert doesn’t win his hearing this Thursday to get an injunction that would allow his horses to run in the Derby and get points. As for his pedigree, he is a complete outcross through his first five generations. His fifth dam is by Accipiter, a son of Damascus, and he has Dr. Fager in his female family three times. So we have yet another lightly raced Derby horse who likely will have only four career starts before the Run for the Roses. We know he handles the slop and can set solid fractions and come home his final sixteenth in :06 1/5. We just don’t know what he beat on Saturday with the sloppy track.


3—Cave Rock (Bob Baffert for now, Arrogate – Georgie’s Angel, by Bellamy Road)

Now that we’re heading into February and the major action is about to pick up he needs to show up on the work tab in order to assure us he is well and on schedule. We’ll keep him hanging around the Top 5 for one more week, but it is looking more and more like he will run out of time. Like with stablemate Arabian Knight It’s too early to tell if he is a need the lead type of horse and how far he can carry his speed. We know he also is incredibly fast, having demolished his opposition in his first three starts and running seven furlongs in 1:20 4/5 in the Del Mar Futurity. So what can we expect to see this year? Looking at his pedigree, it is interesting to note that his sire and broodmare both turned in two of the freakiest performances anyone has ever seen when it comes to carrying speed a distance. We’re talking about Arrogate in the Travers and Bellamy Road in the Wood Memorial, both of whom had speed figures busting through the roof while winning by the length of the stretch. Arrogate’s sire Unbridled’s Song was another brilliantly fast horse who could carry his speed (seven furlongs in 1:21 2/5) a distance (1 1/8 miles in 1:47 4/5). Also note that one of the most dominant Kentucky Derby winners was Barbaro, whose sire Dynaformer is the maternal great-grandsire of Cave Rock. Dynaformer is by English Derby winner Roberto, who crushed the previously undefeated Brigadier Gerard in the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup in course record time. Finally, Cave Rock’s fifth dam, Town Ad, is by a son of Triple Crown winner War Admiral, out of a dam by Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Middleground. So this is a family filled with brilliant horses who can carry their speed, with plenty of connections to classic winners.


4—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

We really won’t have a good idea who he is until he gets on a plane and breaks loose from the Baffert Brigade that he has been battling in droves every race. He has held his own, getting placed first on a disqualification in a maiden race and soundly beating a trio of Baffert horses in the Los Alamitos Futurity. Just think, if he hadn’t been put up on a DQ he might still be trying to break his maiden, although Yakteen might have said the heck with it, let’s put him in the Los Al Futurity as a maiden. His pedigree is not that revealing, but he has enough balance top and bottom to combine good miler’s speed with classic-winning stamina. He is by the fast and classy Practical Joke, who was strong going seven furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/8 miles in top company, out of a miler-type mare by Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex. His second dam is by General Meeting, a graded stakes winner by Seattle Slew, out of an Alydar mare. His fourth dam is by Dr. Fager’s son Dr. Blum, who won or placed in 11 stakes in New York. So, while this is a solid pedigree that suggests distance will not be a problem it doesn’t tell us that much more about him that we don’t already know.


5—Cyclone Mischief (Dale Romans, Into Mischief – Areyoucominghere, by Bernardini)

Here is a great example of what you’re looking for with Into Mischief on top. Cyclone Mischief’s dam is by the top-class Bernardini, winner of the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Travers, out of a half-sister to 2-year-filly champion Composure and West Virginia Derby winner Ready Set, by Belmont and Preakness winner Afleet Alex. Third dam Party Cited is by two-time Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Alleged. And talk about a blast from the ’70’s, racing golden age, Cyclone Mischief has all three Triple Crown winners, Secretariat. Seattle Slew, and Affirmed in his pedigree, as well as Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid. Now that’s what you call four aces. No trainer wants to win the Kentucky Derby more than Dale Romans, who grew up a few blocks from Churchill Downs and is still in the same barn as his father, for whom he worked for when he was just a kid over 40 years ago. Cyclone Mischief tuned up for the Holy Bull Stakes with a five-furlong drill in 1:01 2/5.


6—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

I had been hung up on his speed figures, but watching his races again he looks like a tough honest horse who likes to win. He had been running mediocre 7 1/2 and 8 1/2 Thoro-Graph numbers but made a big jump to a 2 1/2 in the Lecomte Stakes, so it looks as if he is moving forward the right way. Bolt d’Oro has become one of the hot young sires, on the track and at the sales. Of course being by the ageless Medaglia d’Oro, whose offspring are still selling for big numbers, out of an A.P. Indy mare doesn’t hurt. He should not have any problems with distance, as his broodmare sire Uncle Mo is a Derby-winning sire, and Uncle Mo’s sire Indian Charlie is the broodmare sire of Flightline. Now we do have to add that Instant Coffee’s dam and second dam were mediocre sprinters, and his third dam was three-for-19, but did manage to finish third against the boys in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes and produced the classy million-dollar earner Lady Apple. His fourth and fifth dams were unraced, but his fifth dam is out of a full-sister to Affirmed. And returning to his second dam, she is by Belmont winner Empire Maker, who is by Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled. Finally, breeders should latch on to Instant Coffee because he is a rare outcross though five generations.


7—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

This colt made a quantum leap into the rankings this week in anticipation of his next race, which will be in an allowance race on Saturday, as Pletcher decided not to rush him into stakes just yet. He really caught my eye watching his first two races based on his overall appearance and demeanor, as well as his fluid action and the extension of his stride. This is a bold move putting him up this high, but he just has a look of class about him. His Brisnet speed figures are impressive, jumping from an 85 to a 96, with 99 late pace figures in both starts, which indicates a strong and consistent closer. His Beyers also showed big improvement, going from a 73 to an 87.  In his first start going a flat mile, he broke to the outside, dropping far off the pace. He was still sixth at the quarter pole and then closed through a narrow opening, which I liked to see. He was too far back to catch the leaders, but was running strongly to the wire and continued to gallop out strong in an excellent debut. In his next start, also at a mile, he broke last and trailed the field before moving up steadily and settling in seventh. This time, however, he showed a good turn of foot, unleashing a big move while circling the field five-wide before hooking up with Slip Mahoney turning for home. The two battled the length of the stretch with Slip Mahoney bumping Tapit Trice, who outgamed him to the wire to win by a neck. And we saw how courageous Slip Mahoney is when he came back to win last week, refusing to be passed by the Pletcher-trained Crupi. It’s still early and he has a lot to prove, but he has two strong flat miles under him and one can see why he sold as a yearling for $1.3 million.


8—Giant Mischief (Brad Cox, Into Mischief – Vertical Oak, by Giant Oak)

This horse has looked so good visually, displaying a powerful turn of foot and the willingness to fight in the stretch and come out on top, that I have overlooked the speed that inundates his male and female families. I no longer believe for obvious reasons that Into Mischiefs are a question mark going classic distances. But I still prefer to see stamina in the female family. Giant Mischief’s dam Vertical Oak won or placed in 11 stakes at six furlongs and her only other stakes placing was at 6 1/2 furlongs. Vertical Oak’s dam also won or placed in 11 stakes, all of them sprints. But there is a little stamina to fall back on. Broodmare sire Giant Oak was a top-class horse mainly at 1 1/8 miles, but did finish second in the 1 1/4-mile Hawthorne Gold Cup and third in the 1 3/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Marathon. Giant Oak’s sire Giant’s Causeway was best at 1 1/4 miles in Europe and was beaten a neck by Tiznow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Giant Mischief also has the stamina-laden His Majesty, a son of Ribot, in his male and female family. So you can make of that what you wish. It’s not an ideal classic pedigree, but horses today seem to go farther than their pedigree might suggest if they have the mind, and this colt seems to have that attribute.


9—Signator (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Pension, by Seeking the Gold)

If you feel bloodlines was even partly responsible for Flightline’s greatness then you’re going to love this guy. If you rely heavily on speed ratings to influence you you’re not going to like him, at least not now. If you go by the visual aspect of a horse’s performances then you’re going to like him. I gave you the visuals last week, and now I can add that his Beyer, Brisnet, and Thoro-Graph numbers have been slow, although the Thoro-Graph numbers are not that bad for January and an improvement of just three or four points will put him right there where he belongs. As for his pedigree we must start with Flightline, who is by Tapit and whose fifth dam is the Phipps-bred Blitey though her daughter, Grade 1 winner Fantastic Find. Signator also is by Tapit and his third dam is Blitey through her daughter, grade 1 winner Furlough. So both Signator and Flightline share the same sire and trace to the same mare through their grade 1-winning half sisters. They also are both inbred three times to Mr. Prospector. Blitey is by Riva Ridge, champion and winner of two legs of the Triple Crown, out of Lady Pitt, champion and winner of two legs of the Filly Triple Crown. Lady Pitt is by Horse of the Year and Belmont winner Sword Dancer. Lady Pitt won the CCA Oaks, so she, along with Sword Dancer and Riva Ridge all won the third and most demanding leg of their respective Triple Crowns. Speaking of the Belmont, Signator has an amazing eight Belmont winners in his first five generations, not to mention Tapit, who has sired four Belmont winners. So I’m not going by speed figures at this early stage, because I feel this colt, with his pedigree and strong mechanics, is only going to keep improving.


10—Banishing (Brendan Walsh, Ghostzapper – Dowager, by A.P. Indy)

He has to be considered a bit of a question mark until he gets over the cuts he suffered before last week’s allowance race that forced him to miss an important prep race, in which he would have been a big favorite. We’ll see if he’s recovered enough to show up on Saturday. As I mentioned last week he seems to have all the physical tools and does have good bottom for such a lightly raced horse. And he covers a lot of ground. From a pedigree standpoint he has three Breeders’ Cup Classic winners in his first two generations – Ghostzapper, Awesome Again, and A.P, Indy. His second, third, and fourth dams are all stakes winners and his fifth dam is by Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Vaguely Noble, one of the great stamina influences. His female family also includes top stamina influences Buckpasser, Round Table, and Hail to Reason twice, so he is another with enough stamina top and bottom to get classic distances with no problem. All he has to do now is get back on track and find a good spot for his return…and fairly quickly.


11—Dubyuhnell (Danny Gargan, Good Magic – Wild Gams, by Forest Wildcat)

My big question with him is how he will do on a fast track, as his only two victories have come in the slop, including an off-the-turf maiden race. His career debut was an OK race finishing a non-threatening fourth behind Instant Coffee. I believe the proverbial light bulb went on in midstretch of his second race when he switched to his right lead and quickly shifted to another gear, blowing by the leaders and drawing off impressively with his ears pricked. I loved the way he was striding out at the end. It was bold move then putting him in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes, and you had to love the way he hooked a tough competitor in Arctic Arrogance and out-fought him the length of the stretch. His 1 3/4 Thoro-graph number was the fastest of any horse from this crop, including Forte and Cave Rock. He is nominated to Saturday’s Holy Bull Stakes and we’ll see if he runs and if he can step up in competition and duplicate his form on a fast track. His name even showed up in the early Saudi Derby entries. From a pedigree standpoint, he’ll get plenty of stamina from his male side. His dam was a top-class sprinter who won seven stakes all at six furlongs, but his tail-female family traces to the Greentree-bed Cohoes, who could sprint in top company or run long, winning the Brooklyn Handicap and Whitney Stakes. Cohoes is best known for siring the Belmont and Travers winner Quadrangle.


12—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

He ran a bang-up race to finish a fast closing second in the Southwest Stakes at 15-1, and I believe if he didn’t have a horrendous trip in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes he would have won or at worst been a close second. Intent on bypassing sprints with him they ran him twice on grass to start off his career. In his first race at Saratoga going 1 1/16 miles he got caught behind and agonizingly slow pace and was beaten 4 1/2 lengths, coming home in a swift :23 and :06. He then showed up in a mile race at Kentucky Downs and that gave him a ton of bottom over a very deep, undulating course and long stretch, as he drew off to win by 3 3/4 lengths. Thrown into the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity for his dirt debut he rallied along the inside after changing leads late to finish third, just edging out Instant Coffee for the show spot. He then finished a well-beaten fifth in the Street Sense Stakes in the slop, but was bounced around like a three-cushion billiard shot going into the first turn. In the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes he was trapped the entire race and was unable to get out when Instant Coffee went by him with a clear outside run. Turning for home he was “crying out for room,” as the track announcer said. He tried to ease out twice but was bumped each time, knocking him back behind a wall of horses. He tried to make another run, but there was no room inside or outside. He finally found a small opening inside the sixteenth pole and shot through. He rallied strongly to be fourth, beaten in a four-horse photo for second and 1 1/2 lengths for all the money. In the Southwest, he dropped some eight lengths behind the next to last horse before unleashing a big late run five-wide. He jumped back to his left lead in midstretch and still flew home on his wrong lead to finish a clear-cut second. Dirt, grass, slop, traffic, bumping, he has seen it all.


13—Disarm (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Easy Tap, by Tapit)

He continues to progress in his training, breezing a half in :49 3/5 at Fair Grounds. Again, I’m taking a real shot with him considering he’s had only two starts and hasn’t been farther that seven furlongs. But he did make a good impression in his last race, with his Beyer speed figure jumping 20 points from a 68 to an 88, his Brisnet figure from a 76 to a 91, and his Thoro-Graph number from a 15 3/4 to a 6 1/4. Those are all dramatic leaps forward and I’m banking on seeing another jump when he goes two turns. By Gun Runner, out of a Tapit mare, he has royal blood up close and I love that his only inbreeding is in the fifth generation and it is to Fappiano three times. The Fappiano sire line is arguably the most potent in the country, and Disarm traces to him through his sons Unbridled, Quiet American, and Cryptoclearance, the last going through Cryptoclearance’s grandson Candy Ride, the sire of Gun Runner. What I found interesting about his tail-female family is that his fourth generation sire is by the seldom seen Crimson Satan and his fourth generation dam is by the seldom seen Jaipur. And Jaipur and Crimson Satan finished first and third, respectively, in the 1962 Belmont Stakes and first and second in the Jersey Derby, separated by a nose.


14—Victory Formation (Brad Cox, Tapwrit – Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike)

He turned in his second work since his victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes, breezing a solid half in :48 3/5 at Fair Grounds. There are so many horses you can round out the rankings with, but there is something to be said for being undefeated, especially at three different distances and winning by open lengths twice and gutting out a photo after a hard-fought battle. His sire is a Belmont winner and his paternal grandsire Tapit sired four Belmont winners. Broodmare sire Smart Strike sired 12 champions, four Breeders’ Cup winners, and two classic winners. Victory Formation also is inbred three times to Seattle Slew. Once again we have his fifth generation sire and dam being by Jaipur and Crimson Satan, the one-three finishers of the Belmont Stakes. So there are plenty of classic influences in his pedigree.


15—Blazing Sevens (Chad Brown, Good Magic – Trophy Girl, by Warrior’s Reward)

He had his second three-furlong blowout at Payson Park. There is no rush with him, as he has enough bottom and experience at 2, and Payson Park’s surface should get him fit fairly quickly. Although his pedigree is solid enough and distance should not be a problem, there is nothing too exciting about it, as he is inbred four times to Mr. Prospector. Good Magic has been a presence so far on the Derby trail with two sons in the Top 15 and others knocking at the door. Broodmare sire Warrior’s Reward’s only stakes victory came in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap, but he did place in the Jim Dandy and Dwyer and he is by Medaglia d’Oro, out of a Seeking the Gold mare, and his third dam is by Graustark, out of a Princequillo mare. Blazing Seven’s fourth dam Hortensia was a top-class filly in France who won the Prix de l’Opera. We will just have to sit on him for a while until his works pick up and Brown maps out a schedule for him.



JACES’S ROAD and CORONA BOLT were big disappointments in the Southwest Stakes, but we really don’t know if they are not as good as they looked in their previous start or simply couldn’t handle the sloppy track. Did Brad Cox lose two of his big Derby hopefuls already? There is nothing to do now but see where they show up next and if they can improve off their dismal efforts. It was a shock to see the only horse posing a threat to Arabian Knight at the top of the stretch being FROSTED DEPARTURE, a mediocre sprinter who had already run nine times. He actually hung on well to finish third, which does raise the question about how legitimate this race was under the conditions. Frosted Departure’s stablemate, SUN THUNDER, who finished fourth in the Southwest, was considered a far better Derby prospect.

Remember when Bob Baffert used to win all those big races with what he called “ham sandwiches?” Well, this year he’s dining on a 10-course feast from Baluga caviar to filet mignon. The menu reads as follows: Hejazi ($3.55 million), Arabian Knight ($2.3 million), Newgate ($850,000), Faustin ($800,000), Fort Bragg ($700,000), Carmel Road ($650,000), Arabian Lion ($600,000), Cave Rock ($550,000), National Treasure ($500,000), and Harlocap ($400,000).

My vote for trainer of the week goes to Ryan Hanson, that’s right, Ryan Hanson, who prevented Baffert from becoming the only trainer in memory to have every starter in a stakes race, or likely any race for that matter. With Baffert having four of the five horses entered in Sunday’s seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes and running three, it didn’t scare off Hanson, who entered Man Child even though the last time they went up against three Baffert horses in the American Pharoah Stakes Man Child was beaten 24 lengths at 72-1. The other cupboards in Southern California must be awfully bare of 3-year-olds to allow Baffert to run amok in every stakes, but at least this trainer’s got chutzpah. Oh, wait, Santa Anita lists four horses for Saturday’s Robert Lewis Stakes and all four are trained by Baffert. Ryan Hanson, where are you?

As for the race itself, it went pretty much according to script with the far more accomplished and experienced HAVNAMELTDOWN going wire to wire and holding off the impressive maiden winner FAUSTIN by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:22 1/5. Both horses went off at even-money and basically ran around there in a paid workout. While the winner looks like a superior sprinter, Faustin, who is by Curlin, should be better suited to two turns.

Catching up from last week, the Leonatus Stakes at Turfway Park, which Rich Strike put on the map last year, was won this year by FUNTASTIC AGAIN, who now has back-to-back impressive wins over Turfway’s synthetic surface. Trained by Wesley Ward, the son of Funtastic did beak his maiden in an off-the-turf dirt race by 6 3/4 lengths, but was well beaten in the Breeder’s Futurity at 40-1, a race that was way over his head. He no doubt will remain on Turfway’s road to the Derby.

Add another name to Bob Baffert’s legion of 3-year-olds. HARLOCAP, a son of Justify, out of a Bodemeister mare, broke his maiden on January 22 going 1 1/16 miles following two second-place finishes. As the even-money favorite he went wire to wire, winning by 4 1/2 lengths and getting an 85 Beyer speed figure. He is an efficient mover and I like the way he kept opening up without being asked when challenged. In his previous start he had to take up sharply in tight quarters going into the first turn, dropping back to fourth, and then rushing up to challenge for the lead. He opened up a two-length advantage at eighth pole, but his early problems caught up to him and he was nailed near the wire. With his maiden victory out of the way he could prove to be a sleeper in the Baffert barn.

Also last weekend at Fair Grounds, the Upstart colt CAGLIOSTRO gave trainer Cherie DeVaux a nice winner when he broke his maiden by 3 1/2 lengths, breaking awkwardly and dropping back to last and then circling the field four wide.

The hard-knocking ARCTIC ARROGANCE tuned up for Saturday’s 1 1/8-mile Withers Stakes, breezing five furlongs in 1:02 3/5. He likely will face the Brad Cox-trained HIT SHOW, who was scratched from the Southwest Stakes. As a point of interest, they are calling for temperatures of well below zero for Saturday and much warmer for Sunday, so we’ll see if NYRA reschedules the Withers for Sunday.

Another Brad Cox-trained colt, VERIFYING, runner-up in the Champagne, had his first work at Fair Grounds since his impressive 5 1/4-length score in an allowance race, breezing a half in :49 1/5. The son of Justify is right on the edge of being ranked in the Top 15.

With the Kentucky Jockey Club form now looking as if it might be better than originally thought, we have to throw the runner-up CURLY JACK into the mix. Another son of Good Magic, he boasts enough credentials in six starts, at distances from 5 1/2 to 1 1/16 miles, to be considered a legitimate Derby contender. After a brief freshening he has returned to the work tab at Fair Grounds with a pair of easy breezes for trainer Tom Amoss.

The highly touted EXTRA ANEJO could be back training in the not too distant future, but making the Derby looks like a huge longshot for the son of Into Mischief, who won his only start last October at Keeneland by 9 1/2 lengths under wraps for Steve Asmussen before suffering a setback.

There is a good 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Gulfstream Monday afternoon, featuring a pair of Todd Pletcher horses. We will update later in the afternoon if warranted.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 1

Monday, January 23rd, 2023

Don’t panic at the length of the first Derby Rankings. There are so many horses to sort through and so few that have really stood out, especially at the stakes level. As is often the case, the ‘wow’ performances have been mostly in maiden races and we all know that horses often leave those races far behind when they move up in class and face winners. But as you will see, some of these impressive maiden winners have the foundation, running style, and pedigree to suggest they will keep improving. This is a long one, but we tried to cover as many as possible. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Jan. 23, 2023 – Week 1

By Steve Haskin

1— Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

He had his first work this past weekend, breezing three-eighths in :38 1/5. It is way too early to get a decent line on this crop of 3-year-olds, but as of now I feel Forte stands far above the others based on proven class, accomplishments, and pedigree. The only horse who has come close to beating him in his last three starts, Loggins, is sidelined with no sign of an imminent return. Of course we all know things can change quickly on the Derby trail, but I can’t find any flaws in this colt. He has a strong stretch kick, can win going away, as he did despite the short stretch of the Breeders’ Cup, or fighting to the wire. He has triple-digit Brisnet middle and late pace figures, so he has been at his strongest in different parts of the race, and has two triple-digit Brisnet final speed figures. Also, he is on a strong upward pattern on his Thoro-Graph numbers, He’s won from five furlongs to 1 1/16 miles on fast and sloppy tracks and has won on the rail and going very wide. Until he shows he has any weakness or some freakishly talented horse emerges he has to be a clear-cut No. 1.

2—Cave Rock (Bob Baffert for now, Arrogate – Georgie’s Angel, by Bellamy Road)

He’s still a couple of weeks from his first breeze, but there’s no rush with him. He has plenty of bottom and Baffert will get him fit pretty quickly. As we know, he will have to be turned over to another trainer before the Derby. He is an immensely talented colt with a ton of speed and is bred to go long. This colt’s first three races were brilliant and dominating, much like his sire Arrogate, and I love the way he reaches out with that low action. I am giving him a pass for the Breeders’ Cup. He seemed to be in control of the race at the three-eighths pole, but turning for home he appeared to lose his action, as he tried to lug in, turning his head out, and failed to change leads. After he finally did change leads at the sixteenth pole he got back in stride and was running strongly to the wire, but Forte already had the race won. Despite suffering his first defeat Cave Rock actually ran his fastest Thoro-Graph number, getting a “2 1/4″ following three consecutive “3’s.” If he does come back in top shape and keeps progressing and gets sent to Tim Yakteen before the Derby like last year’s Baffert horses, don’t go by last year’s poor efforts by Taiba and Messier at Churchill Downs. Taiba wasn’t ready for the Derby with only two lifetime starts and Messier didn’t run again for six months, and when he came back he ran horribly twice for Baffert. Cave Rock would be a great legacy for Arrogate, who we lost way too soon.

3—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

Can a horse who once looked like another Bob Baffert patsy turn out to be his kryptonite? In Practical Move’s first four races he was beaten by four different Baffert horses. In his third start, however, going two turns for the first time, he overcame a poor start, going five-wide into the first turn and racing wide throughout, to challenge the heavy favorite Fort Bragg, who drifted very wide into his path turning for home, causing him to take up briefly. He cut sharply to the inside and looked like a winner in midstretch until Fort Bragg ducked in under a right-hand whip and bumped him soundly. He still regained the lead, but Fort Bragg came back and beat him, only to be disqualified, giving Practical Move his first official victory over Baffert. But then he dropped back to a sprint in the Bob Hope Stakes and ran into one of Baffert’s speediest bullets, Havnameltdown, and could only finish third. Then came the Los Alamitos Futurity at 1 1/16 miles, and of his four opponents, three were trained by Baffert, including the notorious Fort Bragg. But this time he needed no help from the stewards and crushed them all, drawing off to a 3 3/4-length score, earning a whopping 105 Brisnet speed figure and improving to a “3 3/4″ Thoro-Graph number. This colt has a lot of bottom, having run at four different distances from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1  1/16 miles and is at his best going two turns. He returned to the work tab Saturday with a strong half in :47 4/5. Who knows which Baffert horses Yakteen will get for the Derby this year, but he may very well have the best one already. And this one is all his.


4—Giant Mischief (Brad Cox, Into Mischief – Vertical Oak, by Giant Oak)

There is a lot to like about this colt. He did debut going 5 1/2 furlongs at Horseshoe Indianapolis, which is not your typical launch pad for Kentucky Derby hopefuls. However, Cox does use that track to look for a softer spot. That said, it appeared he had little shot to finish in the money at the quarter pole and no shot to win at the eighth pole, but he suddenly took off at the sixteenth pole and blew right by the leader. Off that race he wound up next in a seven-furlong allowance race on the Breeders’ Cup card facing Bob Baffert’s 3-5 shipper Arabian Lion, an impressive debut winner in 1:09 3/5. Sent off at 6-1 and breaking from the rail he showed good speed moving quickly into third just inside Arabian Lion. Nearing the top of the stretch, Arabian Lion moved outside the leader, while Giant Mischief took the inside route. They hooked up in a stretch battle and to most everyone’s surprise it was Giant Mischief who began to inch away, winning by three-quarters of a length in 1:22 1/5 with Arabian Lion 17 lengths ahead of the third horse. Giant Mischief’s Brisnet speed figure catapulted from a 70 to a 99. He closed out the year in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park and got left cold at the break, dropping far back of the nine-horse field. He remained in last all the way down the backstretch and then used his quick turn of foot to inhale the field in one swoop, and in a flash was lapped on the two leaders. It looked like he had given all he had as he lost touch with them and appeared content to finish third, as the eventual winner opened up in midstretch. But again he found that other gear out of nowhere and took off. His big move fell 1 1/4 lengths short, but he was gaining with every stride. He had his first breeze back as he points for the Rebel Stakes.


5—Jace’s Road (Brad Cox, Quality Road – Out Post, by Silver Deputy)

This colt was impressive winning first time out at Ellis Park going six furlongs and pretty much toying with his field, drawing off under a hand ride to win by 4 1/2 lengths in a sharp 1:09 4/5, doing everything smoothly and professionally. He was then stretched out to 1 1/16 miles and thrown right into graded stakes company in the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs. Although he finished third, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths, I loved what I saw. He was sitting in good position tracking the leader, but when the 3-5 favorite Echo Again moved up on his outside to take over second he suddenly dropped back and found himself three lengths back and going nowhere. Then three other horses pulled alongside him, but he kept coming. In the stretch, he swung out, brushing with another horse and then rallied inside the eventual winner Curly Jack, but just couldn’t sustain his run. I just liked the way he bounced back and made a race out of it after looking hopelessly beaten. I can’t explain his dud in the Street Sense Stakes run in the slop when he dropped right out of it and was virtually eased in the stretch. But to his credit he rebounded in the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds when he went right to the front pressed by the 4-5 favorite Determinedly, who was coming off a stunning 7 1/4-length romp in a maiden race. Nearing the head of the stretch Determinedly was being hard ridden while Jace’s Road was still coasting along. In the stretch, Jace’s Road shook free and dew off at will, winning under a hand ride by 5 1/4 lengths, earning a 96 Brisnet speed figure and running a “4 1/2″ Thoro-Graph number, which was a jump of four points from his first two races. This colt’s tail-female line combines the best of Phipps and Paul Mellon blood and you can’t get classier than that.


6—Cyclone Mischief (Dale Romans, Into Mischief – Areyoucominghere, by Bernardini)

He looks to be one of the biggest overlays of the Future Wager at 41-1. As good as he looked at 2, he may be the most improved colt of all of them. In his career debut at a taxing flat mile at Churchill Downs he went to the lead pressed by two horses. He put them away and opened up in the stretch, but was nailed by two closers right at the wire. In his next start he again broke sharply and went to the front, gave it up briefly, then quickly opened a clear lead nearing the top of the stretch and drew off under a hand ride to win by 5 1/4 lengths, jumping over to his left lead nearing the wire. Despite running a slow time and dropping to a paltry 77 Brisnet figure, he was put in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. With eight horses in contention at the eighth pole, he was passed late, finishing seventh, but beaten only 2 3/4 lengths by Instant Coffee. Sent to Gulfstream, he made his 3-year-old debut in a one-mile allowance race and was fourth choice behind a pair of promising Todd Pletcher colts and one trained by Saffie Joseph and seemed like a different horse. This time he rated beautifully in third two lengths back. On the turn, one of the Pletcher horses, Litigate, passed him on the outside, putting him in a box, but he was able to ease out between horses, with four across the track. He put Litigate away turning for home and drew off to win with his ears up by 5 3/4 lengths. Not only did his Brisnet figure jump from an 81 to a 99, after running three slow Thoro-Graph numbers of “11,” he catapulted all the way to a “4 1/2.” He is a fairly late foal, born April 30, so it looks like he is just now figuring it all out.


7—Banishing (Brendan Walsh, Ghostzapper – Dowager, by A.P. Indy)

He was scratched from an important allowance race with some superficial cuts, which is not what you want in your first race against winners. But if you liked anyone from that race, as well as the LeComte Stakes, this colt in only two starts has proven to be significantly faster than anyone in both those races. As for missing this race, it does set him back a bit, but he has already gone a mile and 1 1/16 miles, so he at least has some good bottom. Owned by Godolphin, he is a big long-striding horse with high knee action, but I like the turn of foot he showed in his career debut. After breaking awkwardly from post 12, hitting the side of the gate, he raced way out in the middle of the track and moved up gradually, but then seemed to be backing up a bit. Just then he put it in another gear and starting passing horses quickly on his own, going from seventh to being lapped on the leaders at the head of the stretch. He was unable to sustain his run, finishing fourth, beaten 2 3/4 lengths. Going a flat mile at Churchill Downs in your career debut is tough and he got a lot out of it. Sent to Fair Grounds and stretching out to 1 1/16 miles and two turns, he broke on top and set the pace with two horses lapped on him and putting constant pressure on him. He opened up briefly on the turn, then was challenged again nearing the top of the stretch. In a flash, he was gone, opening up with every stride and drawing off under a hand ride to win by 8 1/2 lengths, galloping out way ahead of the others. I loved the maturity and athleticism he showed compared to his first race, and coming home his last sixteenth in :06 1/5. He has three Breeders’ Cup Classic winners in his first three generations and just looks like a horse with a promising future.


8—Signator (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Pension, by Seeking the Gold)

Once again I’m taking a shot and going against my rules about ranking horses coming off maiden wins. But the truth is, I haven’t seen many stakes winners this year that have made a big impression on me and fields that have been deep with talent. To me they all still have a lot to prove. I am putting Signator this high mainly from a visual standpoint. He is a beautiful moving horse with great extension to his stride and has excellent mechanics. He also has a “fantastic disposition,” according to Eddie Woods, who trained him up to the 2-year-old sale. He obviously is a physical standout and could run early considering they paid $1.7 million for him. In his career debut going six furlongs, which I believe was too short for him, he was still a bit green and didn’t change leads until Joel Rosario made him nearing the eighth pole. Once he did he took off and was flying at the end to be second. Stretching out to a flat mile at Aqueduct on a muddy track, he had a rough start, but after sitting right behind four horses was able to come through on the rail and draw off to win by 4 1/2 widening lengths, getting stronger the farther he went, as jockey Javier Castellano never touched him with the whip and took a look back inside the sixteenth pole. Despite doing it all on his own he still came home the final quarter in :24 flat. You never know about a horse until they beat winners, but I will give this colt a high ranking based on the eye test and a tremendous pedigree that I will get into next week. He worked a half at Payson Park in :48 3/5 last week, and that is pretty quick over that deep track.


9—Instant Coffee, Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

The Brad Cox cavalcade of stars continues, and although I wasn’t exactly blown away with the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes or the LeComte Stakes he did win both of them in a very professional manner, and with two graded stakes victories and a sharp seven-furlong maiden score in :1:22 3/5 you have to take him seriously. But the truth is, no one went into the LeComte with good speed figures and they ran basically the same time as the allowance race earlier on the card with three horses on the wire together and the winner appearing to tire late. The LeComte also saw the pace-setting Echo Again pulling up in the stretch with a stifle issue. Instant Coffee has a very efficient stride, runs straight, and as mentioned earlier has been very professional in all his races. He had been running Thoro-Graph numbers  of “7 1/2” twice and then an “8” and Beyer and Brisnet figures in the 80s, so he needs to get faster, as do many of this year’s top stakes performers. We’ll see what happens when these other horses start getting faster and improving, but as of now he has to be included in the Top 10. The question whether he can start getting faster and improving with them.


10—Arabian Knight (Bob Baffert, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

A $2.3 million yearling, he looked like it in his only start, a 7 1/4-length romp in a rapid 1:21 4/5 at Keeneland. He was never really asked to run down the stretch and still came home his final eighth in :12 flat. With a “2 1/4” Thoro-Graph number, you just have to wonder if it was too fast too quickly. The runner-up, Determinedly, came back and won by 7 1/4 lengths next time out before finishing third in the Gun Runner Stakes and barely winning an allowance race Saturday. Instead of waiting for the Robert Lewis Stakes at home, Arabian Knight will head to Oaklawn for Saturday’s Southwest Stakes and will be coming off a series of terrific works, including a powerful 1:12 1/5 move for six furlongs and five furlongs in :59 1/5. Baffert puts a lot of foundation into his horses and he should be dead-fit despite having only the one start. He does stick his left leg out a bit, which makes his stride look a bit awkward, but he’s only had the one start to judge him by and he is a very powerful mover. He reminds me in some ways of his sire, who was one of the best 2-year-olds we’ve seen in a while. Again, it is extremely rare for me to rank a horse with only one sprint start, but this is the year to do it and this colt looks very advanced and I know what I’m getting from Baffert. Pedigree-wise, he is a complete outcross through five generations and his dam is inbred to Secretariat and Dr. Fager and her tail-female line traces to Damascus.

11—Corona Bolt (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Stormbeforethecalm, by Quiet American)

There are 11 Brad Cox-trained horses in the latest Future Wager, and although this colt hasn’t been farther than six furlongs I am going to assume that he will only get better the farther he goes. He’ll stretch out to 1 1/16 miles in Saturday’s Southwest Stakes and a big effort will move him way up in the rankings. He already has shown a lot in his two races. In his debut going 6 1/2 furlongs at Churchill Downs he got bumped pretty hard coming out of the gate, tracked the two leaders in third, and then showed a good turn of foot inhaling those two without any urging whatsoever though a stiff half in :45 3/5. He opened up in the stretch and was given a strong hand ride to win by a length. In his next start, the six-furlong Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds, he broke sharply and charged to the lead in :22 1/5 and :45 4/5. He opened up in the stretch and won comfortably by 6 3/4 lengths in 1:09 4/5, closing his final quarter in :24 flat. He does hold his head a bit high in the stretch, but he carries his legs under him beautifully, and in his two races you cannot ask a horse to run straighter down the lane. Not once did he deviate even a little off his path, even when Florent Geroux gave him a little one-tap wake-up call in the Sugar Bowl before letting him come home all on his own.


12—Disarm (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Easy Tap, by Tapit)

I’m really caught up with maiden winners this year, mainly because they just seem more exciting than most of the proven stakes horses. So I’ll continue to take shots with a few of them even though it’s something I normally never do, as I have seen too many exciting maiden winners regress when they face winners. Another who has caught my eye is Disarm, who has the right style, looks very classy, and has a strong pedigree. In his debut going 5 1/2 furlongs at Churchill Downs he had to steady in traffic, dropping back several lengths. He moved up along the inside, then swung six-wide at the top of the stretch. Still about seventh in mid-stretch he took off and was flying at the end, finishing third, beaten two lengths. His next start was Whitney day at Saratoga going seven furlongs. He drew the disadvantageous rail and broke a step slow, dropping back. He again moved up along the rail, swung four-wide and quickly drew clear, winning by 6 1/4 lengths under a hand ride. The runner-up who he left in his wake, Arthur’s Ride, came back to finish second, beaten three-quarters of a length, by Instant Coffee, who went on to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and LeComte. Some may not be thrilled with the final time of 1:24 2/5 and final eighth in :13 2/5, but the Grade 1 Test Stakes that day was run in 1:23 4/5 with a final eighth in :13 2/5 and the Whitney won by Life is Good was run in 1:48 4/5 with a final eighth in :13 1/5. I love the way this colt reaches out with his low action.  He hasn’t shown a quick turn of foot but he keeps getting stronger, building up momentum, and should appreciate stretching out in distance. He hasn’t run since August, but has a pair of easy half-mile works at Fair Grounds.


13—Victory Formation (Brad Cox, Tapwrit – Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike)

He probably should be higher, but I have to break up this Brad Cox juggernaut somehow. I could have gone with a number of Cox’s horses, but many of them look fairly similar. I went with this guy because he is undefeated in three starts and has a good form line through third-place finisher Lugan Knight, who he defeated in an allowance race at Churchill Downs and who came back to win the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct. Victory Formation has won all three of his starts on the front end, including the Smarty Jones Stakes and it is time to see if he can rate sitting off the pace. There are too many horses faster than him, so you don’t want the kind of horse who is dependent on the lead. What I admired most about him in that allowance score is the way he turned what looked like certain defeat into victory, coming again after being passed by the impressive maiden winner Two Eagles River.


14—Blazing Sevens (Chad Brown, Good Magic – Trophy Girl, by Warrior’s Reward)

Another of the many solid stakes horses who have not done anything to get excited about, but right now is good enough to be a contender, especially having finished on the board in such prestigious races as the Hopeful, Champagne, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. And although his career debut going six furlongs at Saratoga was run in slow time he did look good drawing off to a 6 1/4-length score while being eased in the final 100 yards. He didn’t seem to handle the sloppy track in the Hopeful in only his second career start, finishing a well-beaten third. But in the Champagne he was a different horse, and although facing an off track again, he blew by the leaders to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Although he finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile he showed that the Champagne was no fluke, as he broke slowly and was briefly last before moving up into seventh along the inside. Despite the field being spread out across the track nearing the top of the stretch, creating several wide openings, he was taken out and wound up getting fanned some seven-wide. He closed well enough down the shortened stretch and was beaten a little over five lengths behind the two best 2-year-olds in the country. He’s just getting back to serious training and has done enough to be considered a legitimate Derby contender.


15—Dubyuhnell (Danny Gargan, Good Magic – Wild Gams, by Forest Wildcat)

The gutsy Remsen Stakes winner has the fastest Thoro-Graph number with a “1 1/4,” and is the only horse other than Forte in the Future Wager field to run a triple-digit Brisnet figure. He seems to be coming around nicely for Gargan at Palm Meadows, breezing a half in :49 3/5. The son of Good Magic has two victories and a fourth, with both wins coming in the slop, one of them an off-the-turf race. The Remsen got excellent speed figures all around, but with a fourth in his only dirt race, in which he was beaten almost eight lengths by Instant Coffee, I just want to see how he handles a fast track before ranking him any higher. I was also impressed with the Remsen runner-up, Arctic Arrogance, who is as tough and game as they come, but with him it’s just about finishing off his races and coming out on top of his stretch battles. That Dubyuhnell was able to out-game him going 1 1/8 miles and coming off only two starts and an off-the-turf maiden victory was pretty impressive. If he can show he’s just as good on a fast track he no doubt will move up in the rankings.


Late news: Three horses in the Top 15 — Arabian Knight, Jace’s Road, and Corona Bolt — and two horses mentioned in detail in Knocking on the Door — Sun Thunder and Hit Show — were entered Monday in Saturday’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, Hold on to your hats. Three of those are trained by Brad Cox.

Saturday’s allowance race at Fair Grounds took a big hit with the scratch off Banishing. The wire-to-wire winner DETERMINEDLY was making his eighth career start and did seem to get a bit tired late, just holding off two lightly raced horses, TAPIT’S CONQUEST and SILVER HEIST, coming off maiden wins, with another maiden winner, TAPIT SHOES, racing very greenly down the stretch. If you like Instant Coffee, they did run basically the same time.

One Brad Cox-trained horse who has been high on everyone’s radar screen is the gutsy Breeders’ Futurity runner-up LOGGINS. Churchill Downs continues to include him in the Future Wager field, where he is taking a ton of money, but he has been sidelined with various issues and is not expected back in training in the near future. Another Cox horse to keep an eye on is HIT SHOW, winner of two of his three  starts, with his last being an impressive 3 1/2-length score going a mile at Oaklawn. The son of Candy Ride has been very sharp with three straight works in 1:00 and change and could join stablemate Corona Bolt in Saturday’s Southwest Stakes.

Another horse I am looking forward to seeing run in the Southwest Stakes is the maiden winner SUN THUNDER, who unleashed a powerful turn of foot to win by 6 1/2 lengths after finishing a strong-closing third to Determinedly in his career debut. His Thoro-Graph numbers have been slow and it didn’t look as if he beat much last time out. But his last was visually impressive and I loved his most recent work, going a half in company in a bullet :47 3/5, fastest of 92 works at the distance.

On the Baffert front, HAVNAMELTDOWN, winner of the Best Pal and Bob Hope Stakes, the latter run in 1:21 3/5, returned to the work tab on January 13, working five furlongs in s sizzling :58 2/5, then followed that up with another five-furlong work in :59. Baffert’s $3.55 million 2-year-old purchase HEJAZI finally broke his maiden going 6 1/2 furlongs following three defeats. In his two previous races he was beaten by stablemates Cave Rock and Speed Boat Beach. By Bernardini, out of a Medaglia d’Oro mare, you would think he’d be better going a distance, but he obviously is very fast as indicated by his swift final time of 1:14 2/5 last out and 97 Beyer figure. Another fast maiden winner, FAUSTIN, worked five furlongs in :59 1/5. REINCARNATE, NEWGATE, and NATIONAL TREASURE haven’t worked since their 1-2-3 finish in the Sham Stakes.

Catching up from the previous week, we saw an impressive allowance victory from the Justify colt VERIFYING. The Champagne Stakes runner-up rebounded from a dull effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to win impressively by 5 1/4 lengths going a mile at Oaklawn Park for who else but Brad Cox. With a “5 1/2″ Thoro-Graph figure he returned to the same number he got in the Champagne.

The horse who really caught my eye, but is not quite ready to be ranked in the Top 12, was the Todd Pletcher-trained KINGSBARNS, who debuted at a mile at Gulfstream and got so much out of the race it gave him a lot more experience than other horses with only one start. First off, he was trapped in a box for the first six furlongs of the race, which is a tough initiation for a first-time starter going a mile. A young horse has to have a good mind to just sit back and wait and not get rank or frustrated. When he came to the head of the stretch he was able to ease off the rail, but there were three horses in front of him and he was hemmed by another horse moving outside him. After a slight bump he was angled sharply back inside and finally found and opening. Without hesitation, he slipped right through and found himself in front. Two horses came charging at him late, but he had no problem holding them off, winning by 1 3/4-lengths. He has a nice big bounding stride, but with only the one start he has a lot of catching up to do.

I don’t know how far he wants to go, but if you’re looking for a behind-the-scenes horse you might want to keep an eye on RECRUITER, who is undefeated in four starts at Monmouth, Laurel, and Parx with back-to back stakes victories, which have been more workmanlike than brilliant. But he has excellent tactical speed and knows how to win. He has won at three different racetracks at four different distances, and on three different surfaces – fast, good, and sloppy. His last two Brisnet speed figures have been a 99 and a 98 and his Thoro-Graph numbers jumped from a “6 1/4” to a “3 3/4,” so like his sire Army Mule he does have speed. He hasn’t been two turns yet, but he does have five Belmont Stakes winners in his pedigree and two horses who were narrowly beaten in the Belmont. He currently is training at Fair Hill for Cal Lynch.

Another classy horse coming out of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes is CURLY JACK, who has two wins and a second in his three starts at Churchill Downs. Although the KJC has me baffled considering how slow it was and that there were so many horses together on the wire, but also how many horses have run well coming out of the race. Trained by Tom Amoss, Curly Jack has run six times, the last three at 1 1/16 miles, so he has plenty of bottom and experience. He has started back working at Fair Grounds,

WILDATLANTICSTORM, winner of the Springboard Mile, is training at Sam Houston Race Park. The son of Stormy Atlantic has won four of his six starts with two seconds, but they have all been at Remington, Lone Star, and Prairie Meadows, so it’s time to move to the major tracks to see how he fares against stronger fields. The aforementioned ARCTIC ARROGANCE had a nice six-furlong stamina builder in 1:15 on the Belmont training track.

The Brad Cox 3-year-olds keep piling up. If you want to see what guts is watch the final race at Aqueduct Saturday and see how the Cox-trained Arrogate colt SLIP MAHONEY dug in and refused to let the Todd Pletcher-trained CRUPI get his head in front after a torrid duel the entire length of the stretch.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

A Triple Dose of “Curl” Power in Breeders’ Cup Distaff

Monday, October 17th, 2022

Although everyone will be anxiously awaiting the reappearance of Flightline in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and his showdown with Life is Good and the nation’s top 3-year-olds, the truly historic moment could come in the Distaff where the three likely favorites will be daughters of Curlin, whose fascinating back story will also be discussed in this week’s column. ~ Steve Haskin

A Triple Dose of “Curl” Power in Breeders’ Cup Distaff

By Steve Haskin

Left to right: Malathaat, Nest, and Clairiere


Is there anyone who can knock off Todd Pletcher’s dynamic daughters of Curlin, Malathaat and Nest, in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff? How about, uh, a daughter of Curlin? With Clairiere appearing the main threat to the Pletcher pair it is safe to say no sire has ever been more dominant in a single race, especially one of this magnitude, than Curlin will be if Malathaat, Nest, and Clairiere all make it to the race.

Curlin, who resides at Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa Farm near Paris, Kentucky, is having an amazing year, both on the track and in the sales ring. Not only does Curlin have a stranglehold on the Distaff, another Hill ‘n’ Dale stallion, Violence, will be represented by Hopeful and Breeders’ Futurity winner Forte in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Although the undefeated and untested Cave Rock looks to be the solid favorite in the Juvenile it is worth noting that Forte received a faster Thoro-Graph number (2 3/4) at Keeneland than Cave Rock (3) did in the American Pharoah Stakes.

But getting back to Curlin, not only is he holding a strong hand in the Breeders’ Cup, at this year’s Keeneland September yearling sale, in the first two sessions alone he had yearlings sell for $1.7 million, $1.2 million, and $1.1 million. At the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale, he topped all sires in average price with eight yearlings selling for an average $1,071,875, including a $2 million filly and a $1.75 million colt.

Now, here he is going into the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with three fillies who have earned a total of $6,559,467, ranging from Malathaat’s $2,750,825 to Nest’s $1,873,050. They have won a total of 10 Grade 1 stakes and placed in eight others.

Going into the Spinster Stakes, the 4-year-old Malathaat and the 3-year-old Nest were polar opposites of each other. Malathaat was a battler who loved a good fight. With the exception of her easy score in the Tempted Stakes early in her career, all 11 of her starts (seven wins, three seconds and a third) were decided by less than two lengths and eight of those were decided by less than one length. In two of her defeats, in which she was beaten a head and a half-length, she was forced to come from 13 lengths back and 9 1/2 lengths back, despite being a stalker who liked to sit just off the pace. And in another defeat, she wound up battling on the lead with Clairiere in a paceless four-horse field, only to be beaten a head by outsider Maracuja, while finishing almost six lengths ahead of Clairiere.

Nest on the other hand, with the exception of her hard-fought victory in the Demoiselle Stakes last year, has won her six races by an average margin of over seven lengths, with her narrowest margin of victory being 4 ½ lengths and her largest being 12 ¾ lengths, 9 ¾ lengths, and 8 ¾ lengths, so she likes to annihilate her opponents and assert her superiority. But she will also be remembered for her gallant performance in the Belmont Stakes, in which she finished second to stablemate Mo Donegal despite having a rough trip, stumbling and getting bumped after the break and losing valuable position.

Returning to Malathaat and the Spinster, something happened to her in that race that bears watching when handicapping the BC Distaff. She stalked the pace as usual, two lengths behind the pacesetting Letruska. But this time when John Velazquez asked her on the far turn she quickly accelerated and blew right on by Letruska, drawing off to a 5 ¼-length victory. That was something we have not seen from her. So was this a case of Malathaat getting so sharp at this stage of her career that she has learned how to put her opponents away or catching a noticeably declining Letruska who now appears to be over the top at age 6? It’s just another interesting aspect of the Distaff to consider. What can be more intriguing than Malathaat and Nest eyeballing each other in the stretch and seeing which one has the true killer instinct.

But let’s not forget Clairiere, who finished behind Malathaat in all four of their meetings last year as three-year-olds. However, since her victory in the Grade 1 Cotillion and her fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, in which she closed from 11th, 15 lengths back, to be beaten three-quarters of a length and a head behind Malathaat, she has been a different filly, knocking off her nemesis in back-to-back races this year, the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont and the Grade 2 Shuvee Stakes at Saratoga. In her last start, the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes, she was sent off as the 8-5 favorite over Malathaat, but surprisingly just ran around the track the entire race, finishing fifth in the five-horse field, well behind Malathaat. But at the start she hit the front of the gate twice, cutting her tongue, and just wasn’t herself after that. She’s been training steadily since, including a sharp five-furlong breeze over the deep Saratoga training track in 1:00 4/5, and has already had several solid breezes at Keeneland.

So now it is time to see which of the whirlin’ Curlins proves to be the best filly in the country in a race that will determine the winners of the Eclipse Awards for 3-year-old filly and older filly and mare.

Many of you remember Curlin’s career as a racehorse and all his victories and awards and eventual induction into the Hall of Fame, but his early days before he became a two-time Horse of the Year were quite eventful and affected a number of lives and are a major part of his story.

So, using past material from 10 to 15 years ago and new material, here is Curlin’s back story.

No one can really predict Hall of Fame greatness after one start, but there have been a number of fortunate trainers who have had the thrill of foreseeing potential greatness in a young horse. Most of those visions, however, fade away after their sure-fire star descends into mediocrity.

For trainer Helen Pitts and her assistant and exercise rider Hanne Jorgensen, the potential greatness they foresaw in their 3-year-old colt Curlin following his career debut did indeed become reality, but sadly they would never share in it.

On Feb. 3, 2007, Pitts, longtime assistant trainer for Kenny McPeek, and Jorgensen both saw those visions of greatness as they watched their colt demolish a maiden field at Gulfstream by nearly 13 lengths, running the seven furlongs in a snappy 1:22 1/5, earning a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. Unfortunately for Pitts, others with deep pockets were watching as well.

Prior to his career debut Pitts had taken over most of the horses trained by her old boss after McPeek announced he was giving up his stable, at least for a while, to pursue other avenues in racing, mainly bloodstock work. It was McPeek who had picked out Curlin as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale for a modest $57,000. The son of Smart Strike had an OCD lesion removed from his left ankle as a weanling, and it wasn’t a pretty sight at the sale. Although it turned off most buyers, McPeek felt it would be a non-issue. But when his buyers, Shirley Cunningham and Bill Gallion, became angry with McPeek about having to spend $57,000 on a horse with physical issues that no one wanted and having received reports from the farm how bad the ankle looked, McPeek offered to take the colt back and find another client. He felt the colt was a steal at that price and believed he would have gone for $300,000 if his ankle didn’t look so unappealing. Cunningham and Gallion began having second thoughts and decided to keep him.

Pitts had already shown a good deal of success with the McPeek horses, especially with the top grass horse Einstein, and appeared to be a new force in training. Jorgensen had exercised and taken care of Sarava every day at Belmont Park prior to his shocking victory in the 2002 Belmont Stakes at odds of 70-1 until McPeek arrived several days before the race. When Pitts took over many of the McPeek horses and went out on her own, Jorgensen, who had become a good friend, went with her.

After spending several years focusing on bloodstock work, McPeek decided he wanted to get back to training and politicked to get Curlin, but Cunningham and Gallion had already promised him to Pitts and didn’t want to renege on their word.

Curlin was sent to Gail Garrison, manager of Cunningham’s Hillcrest Farm near Lexington, and he immediately began working on the colt’s physical problems. Curlin was at the farm for 60 days, where he was turned out in a paddock and allowed to eat grass each day. Garrison could see he was still a “big, playful kid who was full of vinegar.” He just needed time to grow up and settle into that big effortless stride of his. As McPeek had said all along, the OCD lesion was a non-issue and was never discussed again.

Finally, the colt was sent to Pitts, and it didn’t take long for her and Jorgensen to start seeing those visions of greatness. When Jorgensen worked him, she came back and told Pitts, “I’ve never sat on a horse like this before.”

On July 29, 2006, the Southern Legislative Conference convened at Churchill Downs, where the legislators were treated to a night at the races, which included three exhibition races. When Churchill Downs’ senior vice president of racing, Donnie Richardson, asked Pitts to help out and put a couple of her 2-year-olds in the races, she chose Curlin, who wound up finishing third behind the Bernie Flint-trained Speedway, who had already broken his maiden by three lengths, but was still green and needed more experience.

Riding Curlin that night was Hanne Jorgensen’s husband, Mick Jenner. They had been going together for several years when they faced each other as competitors in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Jenner was the regular exercise rider for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem. But it was Jorgensen who got the better of that battle, winning the Belmont with the little-regarded Sarava.

Jenner recalled his ride aboard Curlin that night at Churchill Downs. “Curlin had worked a couple of half-miles, but he was just a big ol’ 2-year-old who had never been asked to do anything at that point,” he said. “Everything he’d done was on the bit. The race was only a quarter of a mile and he was bucking and rearing, and I was hanging on for dear life. So I not only got Curlin beat, I got him well beat.” But it at least gave him a taste of competition under race conditions.

As Curlin matured he began to convince Pitts and Jorgensen that he could be something special. They were expecting big things first time out, as, apparently, was everyone else, with Curlin being sent off as the 2-1 favorite. For a new trainer like Pitts, it’s a very fine line between joy and dread when a young 3-year-old runs off the screen in his debut. The crashing sound you usually hear afterwards is that of the rich folks breaking open their piggy banks. You know the million-dollar offers are going to start pouring in for that brilliant ready-made Derby horse, and that a sale is most likely going to result in the horse being given to the buyer’s trainer, especially if he’s Pletcher or Asmussen or Mott or Baffert.

So, when Curlin rocked the Derby trail in his debut, Pitts knew there was a good chance she could lose the horse. Ironically, at the time of Curlin’s victory, Steve Asmussen just happened to be stabled in her barn, preparing Leprechaun Racing’s Gunfight for the 6 1/2-furlong Swale Stakes, his only starter at the meet. Asmussen had recently lost his big Derby horse, Tiz Wonderful, owned by Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, to injury and had no idea how he was going to replace a horse of that caliber, one who was undefeated and had already won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Because Asmussen was stabled in Pitts’ barn, he had gotten to see Curlin close up on a daily basis and was impressed with everything he saw. When Curlin romped in his debut, it set the wheels in motion. Watching the race on simulcast at the Ocala Breeders 2-year-old sale was John Moynihan, who was Jess Jackson’s bloodstock manager. Watching from his home in San Francisco was owner George Bolton. Both had the same reaction – “Wow!” Asmussen after seeing the race, watched the colt cool out and said to himself, “We’ve got to get that horse.”

Bolton contacted someone at the Ragozin Sheets and found out Curlin had run a “5 3/4,” an extraordinary number for a first-time starter. The pieces were beginning to come together.

Moynihan knew that the offers would start to pour in for the colt, so he drove down to Gulfstream to see the horse and then contacted Cunningham and Gallion. As he figured, an offer had already come in, this one from Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, who offered $1.75 million, but, as Irwin put it, his bid was “blown out of the water” by subsequent bids. As it turned out, there were 15 bids on the horse, each with different stipulations.

Cunningham and Gallion wanted to stay in for a minority interest, and the day after the race, Super Bowl Sunday, Moynihan began negotiations, representing Jackson, Bolton, and another interested party, Satish Sanan. By 2 a.m. Monday morning, the deal was completed.

Although Cunningham and Gallion had received larger offers for the whole horse, the Moynihan group’s selling point was allowing them to stay in as minority partner.

The only thing left to be done was for Moynihan to look at Curlin on the racetrack to see how he had come out of the race and to make sure he was sound. So, Pitts brought him to the track that morning and when Curlin began bucking and squealing the deal was finalized for a reported $3.5 million. That would be the last time Pitts would lead him to the track.

Asmussen was delighted, having found his Derby horse. He felt everything was meant to be, because if Tiz Wonderful hadn’t gotten hurt, Jackson would not have been looking for a Derby horse to replace him, and, as he put it, he’d be trying to figure out how to beat Curlin instead of training him.

Pitts and Jorgensen were devastated, especially having to watch their dream horse depart after devoting so much time and effort getting him through some physical issues and becoming so close to him.

“I cried my eyes out when they sold him,” Jorgensen said shortly after the sale. “We babied him for such a long time. He bucked his shins twice and we tried to get him through it and worked hard with him. And then, one big race and he’s gone. We felt he was something special before he even started, we really did. I understand it’s hard to turn down that kind of money, and they did keep a piece of him, so it wasn’t hard for them. But it’s hard for us, because you get so attached to them.”

Curlin, of course, set off on his meteoric rise to stardom, winning the Rebel Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths and the Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 lengths before finishing an excellent third in the Kentucky Derby after encountering traffic problems at a key point in the race which was a terrific effort considering it was only the fourth start of his life, and the last horse to win the Derby with only three starts was Regret in 1915.

Pitts and Jorgensen, meanwhile, had to move on, and they did have Einstein still in the barn. And it was Einstein, also owned by Cunningham and Gallion’s Midnight Cry Stable, who brought Pitts to Pimlico on Preakness Day to saddle the horse in the Dixie Stakes on the grass. As if it weren’t tough enough being stabled near Curlin and watching all the media flock to him and the Derby winner Street Sense, she had to then endure a horrific trip by Einstein.

When he moved up to challenge down the backstretch in the Dixie, a horse went down in front of him, causing Einstein to stumble so badly he unseated jockey Robby Albarado, who was also Curlin’s rider. So, here was Pitts having to watch Einstein run loose the rest of the race, returning with a grabbed quarter.

But her emotionally draining day was far from over. She then retreated to the hospitality tent at the end of the stakes barn and watched Curlin, who appeared to be beaten at the top of stretch, stage a sensational late rally to win the Preakness by a head over Street Sense. Although she wanted only the best for Curlin, having to suffer the anguish of Einstein’s misfortune and then see her dream horse win a classic for someone else had to tug hard at her emotions.

“I have mixed feelings,” Pitts said following the Preakness. She was trying hard to say the right things, but it was obvious she was struggling to deal with her feelings, especially the trauma of the Dixie and Einstein’s injury.

“Horses like this are hard to come by” she added,  “and I feel honored to have been a part of him at some point. But what can you do? It’s hard.”

Curlin went on to have a famed career winning the Breeder’s Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Woodward Stakes and several other races, retiring in 2008 with record earnings of $10,501,800.

Now 15 years after losing one of the greatest horses of this century, Hanne Jorgensen, who has moved back to her native Norway, living outside Oslo, can only look back and be grateful for the part she and Pitts played in the emergence of Curlin as a superstar.

“It goes without saying that Curlin still ranks as number 1 in my heart,” she said. “I’m so happy that his career at stud has been so successful. Malathaat is just so impressive and I loved her Kentucky Oaks win in particular. Now I can’t wait to see how Nest will do. And of course Clairiere. It was hard to miss out on the great racing career he had, but it was special just to have been a small part of his beginning. I went to visit him early in his stud career and it was terrific to see how well he looked. I wish I could be at Keeneland and see his three daughters run.”

On a personal note, at the end of the month I will be visiting Curlin, as well as Violence and two of my favorites, Vox Populi Award winner Mucho Macho Man and champion Ghostzapper at Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa. Please note on October 22 there will be tours of the historic farm as part of’s Paris-Day Fest – one to visit the stallion barn and the rest of the farm and one just to visit the stallion barn. I for one am looking forward to seeing Curlin, knowing that in November he could very well be making history.

Photos courtesy of New York Racing Association/Coglianese, Hill ‘n” Dale Farm


Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.