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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 Secretariat.com’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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

2022 Kentucky Derby Handicapping Analysis

Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Here is one final look at the Derby, in what looks to be a very competitive and confusing race. There are so many factors involved you just have pick out a couple of horses and stick with them otherwise it’s going to get way too complicated. Here is my analysis of the race, and good luck to everyone. ~ Steve Haskin

2022 Kentucky Derby Handicapping Analysis

By Steve Haskin

 

STICKING WITH Z FAVORITE

I believe this year’s Kentucky Derby is top heavy, with a great deal of depth down to the top seven or eight. I can’t look past one or two longshots as win candidates, so this looks more like an exotics race. There may be too many horses to box in the trifectas unless you can narrow it down to five horses you’re high on, so it is best to find one or two you really like to win and key them in the trifectas with as many as you wish.

If you read my Derby Sleeper column from October 18 you will understand why I am too committed to Zandon to go off him now. In addition, he fits the Kentucky profile in all categories and no one has worked better than him. And you sure can’t knock post 10, which gives him a number of options to be placed wherever Flavien Prat wants him.

I don’t bet favorites in the Derby, so my wagers would only include him in all exotics. But Zandon, after the long journey from that maiden race back in October, is my pick, with another of my early favorites right there. I want to see Zandon no farther back than midpack, so he needs to break sharper than he did in his last two races. We know he has early speed from his first two races. He was able to sit right off the pace in the Remsen. Of course now that he’s had three two-turn races you just have to hope he hasn’t gotten into the habit of taking way back and can use that tactical speed we know he has. But it is reassuring to know that if he is farther back he has the ability to weave his way through traffic, as he demonstrated in the Blue Grass.

The other horse I alluded to whose reputation has suffered recently, going from the Derby favorite most of the year and my No. 1-ranked horse for 10 weeks to 20-1 on the morning line is Smile Happy. Although I admit on the surface he does not look as strong as he did going into the year or even after the Risen Star, I still think he is on an upward spiral and could be ready to peak on Derby Day. Some feel because he could not handle Zandon in the final furlong of the Blue Grass and being a son of Runhappy he is suspect at 1 ¼ miles. But he has one of the strongest and most classic female families I have ever seen. And Runhappy is not exactly bred to be a sprinter, being by a Kentucky Derby winner, out of a mare by a Belmont and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner.

There are several factors regarding his performance in the Blue Grass Stakes that must be addressed. First, you have to remember he was given a pretty easy race in the Risen Star, with Corey Lanerie never asking him to run until it was way too late. That is because of an issue he had last year and they didn’t want to do too much with him going 1 1/8 miles off a layoff. Then in the Blue Grass he drew post 10 and got hung five-wide on the first turn. Lanerie then moved him up early down the backstretch to stay close to the loose on the lead Emmanuel. He was able to put Emmanuel, a very talented horse, away and open a clear lead at the eighth pole. After all that, I can’t be down on him for getting passed by Zandon. Despite getting beat 2 ½ lengths he got the same Thoro-Graph number as Zandon. He came out of the race a bit tired, drinking a lot of water, which means he really needed this this race and should be much fitter now.

I have had Smile Happy and Zandon ranked 1,2 almost every week and I am still high on both horses, with Zandon obviously having made greater strides in the last month. The three who also look like strong win candidates are Epicenter, Mo Donegal, and Messier. White Abarrio could be a big overlay, with Simplification a forgotten horse. The two longshots who could win this race are Tiz the Bomb and Crown Pride, although the latter is getting big buzz with his stunning works and overall appearance. As for Taiba, I have no clue what to do with him. He is the fastest horse in the field, but I just cannot bet a horse with two lifetime starts and only one work in the past four weeks. If he is a freak, which is very possible, then he surely can win, which would turn the whole process of handicapping the Derby upside down, leaving no boundaries. I love the way he moves over the track and you can see the great extension he has to his stride. He is one horse you have to go by your gut feeling.

 

TRAINING:

Most everyone is looking good in the morning, but the ones who have stood out to me are Zandon, Crown Pride, and Charge It. I also love the way White Abarrio looks out there every morning but he hasn’t done any serious training at Churchill so it’s difficult to get a good line on him other than his works at Gulfstream have been terrific. At Churchill he’s done everything right and is really into the bit in his gallops and just makes a great overall appearance.

Zandon’s work was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, the way he glides over the track with long fluid strides and does everything smoothly and on his own. He is all class in everything he does.

Crown Pride’s training has caught everyone’s eye and his routine isn’t anything we’ve seen before. The bottom line with him is that he is loving the track and his works and gallops have been flawless. He final work on Wednesday – a half in :46 3/5 – was sensational the way he was striding out with a final quarter in a brilliant :22 and change. In his last two works you had to love the way he finished and how strong he was on the gallop-out. In short, this horse is for real, and the way the Japanese horses have dominated all over the world you have to take him very seriously.

Charge It has been a bit under the radar, but he is another who is loving this track. He is very light on his feet, has a big beautiful stride and does things effortlessly. I was taken with his mechanics in his maiden victory and was surprised to see him race so greenly in the Florida Derby. But it was only his third career start and he should only improve in the Derby. My only negative with him is having three career starts, so, like Taiba and Zozos, inexperience is a big factor as well having history against him.

The other horse who has impressed me is Tiz the Bomb, who has been extremely sharp, and for a grass/synthetic horse is really handling this track beautifully.

A brief mention must be made of Smile Happy getting a bit lathered around the neck on several mornings. That can be tricky, as it’s something you don’t like seeing, especially on cool mornings, but often it means little or nothing. It all depends on the horse. It’s been negligible and Kenny McPeek says it’s normal for him so I’m going to ignore it and assume it will not be an issue on Derby Day.

 

THORO-GRAPH NUMBERS:

As you well know I have been referring to Thoro-Graph all year, looking for the horses who are fast and more important on a good pattern.

The only horse to get a negative number (the lower the number the better) has been Taiba in the Santa Anita Derby, and to accomplish that in his second career start is mind-boggling. If he is the freak many believe him to be and he doesn’t bounce (regress) off that number then who knows what he is capable of on Saturday. We really haven’t seen anything like him before. We’re in uncharted territory trying to handicap him.

Taiba’s stablemate Messier is on a terrific pattern. After getting a career best “1 ½” in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes he was given two months off and then paired up that number in the Santa Anita Derby when he might not have been 100 percent coming off the layoff and having to chase a fast horse in Forbidden Kingdom for most of the race. Having established that strong number he is now likely to improve off it, and it won’t take much improvement to win the Derby.

I also love the pattern my two top horses – Zandon and Smile Happy – are on, as both have shown steady improvement with each race. Zandon’s numbers have been 6 ½..4 ½..2 ¼..and 1 ½, while Smile Happy’s have been been 7 ¼..2..2 ½..1 ½. So as mentioned earlier, Smile Happy ran as fast as Zandon in the Blue Grass Stakes.

The tricky horse is White Abarrio, who has never been considered a really fast horse. But despite the absurdly slow fractions of the Florida Derby (if they are correct) he still improved from a “3” in the Holy Bull Stake to a “1,” which is the second fastest number behind Taiba. I have to admit I don’t know how good this horse is.

I’ve been mentioning Crown Pride’s exceptional training, but it must be noted in his last two starts he has jumped from a “7” in the Hyacinth Stakes on a wet track in Japan to a “2 ½” in the UAE Derby. Who knows how far he can move forward off that?

Other horses who should move forward, but would need to improve at least two points are Epicenter, Mo Donegal, Charge It, and Cyberknife.

 

WET TRACK:

I am not going to predict which horses will thrive on a wet track, as there a too many variables. I will only say that one horse I believe will move up in the mud is Smile Happy, as his pedigree is loaded with wet track influences.

 

STRATEGY:

There are number of horses who want to be on or near the lead, which should assure an honest pace. Zozos will have to break sharply and come running from post 19 to get a good position near the lead and not get hung wide, as does Classic Causeway from post 17, but the horse to watch at the break is Epicenter from post 3. He has to two closers inside him, which means he basically is breaking from the rail. With fast horses Summer is Tomorrow in post 4 and Messier in post 6, he will also have to break sharply and either outrun the other two or tuck in right behind them. He just doesn’t want to get shut off having them cut right in front of him while he is full of run. So the key is for him to be able to settle behind them without getting too rank. There is going to be a herd of stalkers all looking to get good position, so we could have quite a cavalry charge going into the first turn.

 

BETTING:

There are so many horses who can win this race you can go crazy trying to cover your bases without leaving anyone out. So I’m just going to stick with my two horses, and my first inclination not seeing the odds is to key Zandon and Smile Happy in the trifectas with Epicenter, Mo Donegal, Messier, Taiba, Tiz the Bomb, Crown Pride, Charge It, White Abarrio, Simplification, and Cyberknife. You could even add a few more like Zozos, Pioneer of Medina, and Barber Road if you really want to stretch it out, as all three can pick up a piece of it with their top effort. But 10 is sufficient for me.

My key horses in exacta and trifecta boxes are Zandon, Smile Happy, Epicenter, Messier, and Mo Donegal. The last named is one horse I have to key on because of what is so obvious, which are his sensational closing fractions of :35 2/5 and final eighth in :11 4/5 in the Wood Memorial. Yes, the track was fast but he had to overcome a strong speed-biased track to run down a fast and classy horse in the final strides. Unfortunately boxing these horses will not pay much. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with Taiba. Is he a super horse or not? The price horses underneath are Tiz the Bomb, Crown Pride, Simplification, and White Abarrio.

It’s still early, but my sure bets as of Thursday morning, just trying for big exacta payoffs, are Zandon and Smile Happy on top of longshots Crown Pride, Tiz the Bomb, Simplification and potential overlay White Abarrio.

I will also place win bets on Tiz the Bomb, Simplification, and Crown Pride, as I believe all have the talent to pull it off on their best day. I am still high on Simplification, who was really on the muscle Thursday morning and wanting to do more, and he would be my main longshot right now. And finally, if Smile Happy is anywhere near his 20-1 morning line odds I will certainly be getting down on him. I’ll even take 8-1 or 9-1. Most are not giving him much of a chance anymore, but I cannot abandon him at this late date. He may not be the horse I became enamored with last year, but I have to give him one more chance.

Final 2022 Derby Rankings

Monday, May 2nd, 2022

This obviously is the final Derby Rankings and we’re reverting back to our old ways with a Derby Dozen to focus on our main win candidates. It’s been a fun ride with lots of twists and turns and interesting back stories. I hope everyone has enjoyed it and now it is time for the nitty gritty. I will analyze everything over the next few days, including post positions, and post my handicapping column on Thursday. ~ Steve Haskin

Final 2022 Derby Rankings

By Steve Haskin

1– Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

The buzz surrounding him keeps growing with every gallop and workout, and with all the rave reviews there is now a good chance he will go off as favorite, but it still should be close with Epicenter, who has been training at Churchill Downs now for several weeks. Zandon has been pure poetry out on the track whether galloping or working, or just his overall presence. Watching him work an effortless five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 with such long fluid strides you can understand all the praise he’s been receiving. In the work he came home his final quarter in :23 3/5 with the rider’s hands turned down loosely allowing him to do everything on his own. He then galloped out another eighth in :12 2/5 covering the six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 and pulling up seven furlongs in a strong 1:26 2/5. And he is one of few Derby horses who works by himself. If he gets a good trip there is no telling what he is capable of.

 

2– Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

He’s been working at Churchill Downs so long you can call him the house horse. His works have not been flashy, but he is just a professional, workmanlike colt who goes about his business, does what is asked of him, and basically never does anything wrong. We know now he can be on the lead or sit back off the pace. He is reminiscent of American Pharoah, who was a confirmed frontrunner until his final prep in the Arkansas Derby. Once he showed he could rate off the pace you knew the sky’s the limit. That is exactly what Epicenter showed in the Louisiana Derby, which now makes him doubly dangerous, especially with his high cruising speed and ability to come home fast. There was nothing to knock in his six-furlong work in 1:12 1/5, out in 1:26 1/5 in company. I’m sure many will still look at him as the deserving favorite, feeling he will put himself in perfect position just off the pace while Zandon will have to work out a trip from farther back.

 

3– Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

For a horse who was ranked No. 1 most of the year and was the favorite in the first four Future Wagers, he has become a bit of an enigma. I still think very highly of him and feel the Blue Grass Stakes was a race he desperately needed, and I liked when I heard he drank a lot of water after the race, indicating he wasn’t fit enough for the race and got tired and should now be ready to take a big step forward. But here is why he has been an enigma. He was out for a long time before returning in the mile and eighth Risen Star Stakes. Because of his issues over the winter, they took it easy with him, and Corey Lanerie just sat on him around the far turn and basically lost any chance of winning. By the time he asked him to run turning into the stretch Epicenter was long gone. He was a lot more tactical in the Blue Grass and moved early to chase the front-running Emmanuel after going five-wide on the first turn. He was able to put him away but had no answer for Zandon’s big closing punch. I don’t like seeing horses passed in the stretch in their final Derby prep, but he did the dirty work in a race that was meant to just get him fit and move forward. Then came his final work in company with Tiz the Bomb when the latter went off too fast and he fell way behind and never was asked to close the gap, as Lanerie decided to just let him work by himself and nailed the time anyway. I do know he is going to be a decent price in the Derby and if you still believe in him you’re going to get great odds on a horse who once was the clear-cut favorite.

4– Messier (Tim Yakteen, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

Like with Smile Happy he was passed in the stretch in his final Derby prep, and by a stablemate who had only one six-furlong maiden race under him. That alone will turn a lot of people off. But also like Smile Happy he chased a very fast horse in Forbidden Kingdom, was coming off a two-month layoff since his 15-length walk in the park in the Robert Lewis Stakes, and desperately needed the race. Working alone at Santa Anita he did everything smoothly and easily going six furlongs in a sharp 1:11 4/5 and I can’t help but feel he is ready to peak on Derby Day and is sitting on a monster race. I also love his Thoro-Graph pattern, which indicates he is ready for a good move forward following his pairing up fast numbers. So again like Smile Happy I am willing to overlook the fact that he was passed in the final eighth and will benefit a great deal from that race coming off a layoff. His namesake, hockey great Mark Messier, was one of the most clutch players in NHL history, and this colt might also be the type to save his best for the big moments.

 

5– Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

Yes he will have to work out a trip and get through the big field, which will require some luck, and closers have not won many Derbys in the last 10 years, but sometimes you can’t ignore what is right in front of you, and if you leave him out and he wins you will look back to his sensational :35 2/5 final three-eighths and :11 4/5 final eighth in the Wood Memorial, and his whopping 121 late pace figure on Brisnet and realize too late that he was touting you big-time and you ignored it. Although his half-mile final work in :48 3/5 in company with the speedy My Prankster was solid at best I did like the way he did it, with his rider way up in the saddle and doing virtually nothing with him. Unlike Pletcher’s other two Derby horses, Charge It and Pioneer of Medina, who ran five and six weeks prior to the Derby, Mo Donegal had that big effort four weeks out and didn’t need to do as much in his work. They did a lot more working in company and galloping out strongly. And Mo Donegal has had two hard-fought mile and an eighth races. He went into the Wood Memorial a fresh horse off a two-month layoff and now is fit and sharp and ready for a career-best effort.

 

6– Taiba (Tim Yakteen, Gun Runner – Needmore Flattery, by Flatter)

Everyone agrees he has looked like a freak in his two starts and clearly is the fastest horse in the field. As you well know by now I hate going into the Kentucky Derby off only two lifetime starts and rightly so since it’s been almost 140 years since a horse has won the Derby off so few starts. And on top of that he will have only one work in the four weeks between the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby, and that work was good, but nothing extraordinary. I know he had lots of works before his career debut and Bob Baffert had gotten him very fit, and nothing in racing surprises me anymore. You would think he’s done too much too soon and likely will regress going a mile and a quarter so soon, especially facing 19 opponents, and like with Justify, who had only three career starts, I will let him beat me rather than bank on him defying the history books. As I mentioned his speed figures have been through the roof and he could be a freakishly talented colt who can overcome all handicapping logic. But I will be a spectator and just enjoy the show.

7– White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

Whether it’s in his races or in his works he always seems to be in the right place, indicating a horse who will do exactly what you want him to do and be wherever you want him to be. In his three-furlong work in :34 2/5 at Gulfstream Park he showed off his athleticism by hugging the rail and cutting the corner beautifully turning for home and galloping out . In his most recent work, still at Gulfstream, which went late in the afternoon, he was a powerhouse in the stretch and galloping out, and was striding out beautifully. He is not a horse who is going to wow a lot people with his brilliance, but he has drawn off in the final eighth to win by open lengths in all four of his victories and somehow managed to get a sensational “1” on Thoro-Graph in the Florida Derby, the second fastest number run by a 3-year-old, topped only by Taiba’s Santa Anita Derby. Not many people are talking about him, partly because of the ridiculously slow closing fractions and mundane final time of the Florida Derby that still has not been corrected and doing all his racing and training at Gulfstream. And it looks as if those fractions are going to stay. I don’t know whether he’s good enough to win or has beaten horses of the caliber he will face in the Derby, but I do know it’s tough to leave him out of the exotics.

8– Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

He has pretty much fallen off everyone’s radar screen and his past performances and speed ratings are all over the place, but I have seen too many things I like about him to dismiss him. That is because I don’t know how he wants to run, how fast he really is, and most important how high his ceiling is. And for that reason I am going to strongly consider him in all exotic wagers and even as a win bet at a huge price. I know he’s fast (see the Mucho Macho Man Stakes) and can win on the lead, I know he can close from off the pace (see the Fountain of Youth Stakes), and I know he can win his races by daylight (see all three of his victories by 16, 4, and 3 ½ lengths). In the Florida Derby he reverted back to his old speedy ways due to strategy gone wrong and paid the price, getting caught in the middle of a three-horse speed duel, then a two-horse duel through a rapid Brisnet middle pace figure of 113 before tiring a bit in the stretch to finish third. I can’t help but feel that this colt is a far better than his overall record looks and he is capable of great things when allowed to run his race.

9– Cyberknife (Brad Cox, Gun Runner – Awesome Flower, by Flower Alley)

Although I’m still not sure he is ready take on the leading contenders, as I don’t believe he has beaten top quality fields in his last two starts I can’t ignore the way he’s been working and how he handles this track. He has been moving with great authority, especially in his six-furlong work in 1:12 1/5 in company, in which drew clear from his workmate and then galloped out another eighth in :12 2/5 to complete the seven furlongs in a sprightly 1:24 3/5. In his final work in company with Zozos, more of a maintenance drill, he matched strides with his stablemate, and although he did carry his head a bit high turning for home, he was moving very well in the final eighth to finish on even terms. There is no doubt this colt is coming into his own at the right time. I just don’t know if he’s quite there yet.

10– Charge It (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – I’ll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie)

If this colt only had one more start I would rank him higher based on all the positives I saw in his first two starts and the way he’s been training at Churchill Downs. Working inside stablemate Pioneer of Medina in his final Derby drill he was doing everything well within himself and was just gliding over the ground. It was his mechanics that drew me to him in those first two starts, and I was surprised how greenly he ran in the Florida Derby. But it was a big step up for him and he still was good enough to finish second to White Abarrio, beaten only 1 ¼ lengths, despite hitting the side of the gate at the break. I have no doubt this colt has a very bright future and will win his share of big stakes. But I am still dubious about horses with only three starts unless I am convinced they are a freak, as were the only two horses to pull it off – Big Brown and Justify. And they did not face strong fields in the Derby. So we’ll see what he can do under the circumstances and go from there.

 

11– Tiz the Bomb (Kenny McPeek, Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

I am saving my two huge longshots for last, although I’m not sure just how big a longshot Crown Pride is going to be. I said a few weeks ago following Tiz the Bomb’s impressive victory in the Jeff Ruby Steaks on a synthetic surface that I want to see how he trains at Churchill Downs. Well, he has shown absolutely no signs of disliking the dirt and in fact seems to relish it. In fact you can blame him for his work in company with Smile Happy going awry, as he was so keyed up early he basically sprinted clear of his workmate who was supposed to be right up there with him. Brian Hernandez was not about to strangle him and just let him roll while Corey Lanerie, finding himself some four or five lengths behind, just let his horse work on his own, paying no attention to Tiz the Bomb, who finished three lengths in front. But this was not a horse running off. It was more a horse with controlled energy who just was too fast for his stablemate in what was supposed to be a maintenance work. Both horses actually turned in the same time of :48 for the half; they just did it in different ways. McPeek has always been extremely high on this colt and if you can throw out his dismal effort in the Holy Bull Stakes I believe you’re looking at a horse firing on all cylinders now and capable of upsetting this race at a big price.

12– Crown Pride (Reach the Crown – Emmy’s Pride, by King Kamehameha)

And now we come to the most intriguing horse in the race and the one I feel you have to place a win bet on just so he doesn’t jump up and bite you in your wallet as so many of his compatriots have done in major races all over the world. The Japanese, with their unique training methods, have arrived and we better accept them. As for Crown Pride, I love what I’m seeing every morning, especially the way they have him accelerating on the turn after crossing the wire. He’s been doing his calisthenics on the chute every day and has been calm during parts of his gallops and aggressive during others. He wants to go and I love his energy level, which is high, but well in control. When they really let him open up in a work he went his half in an eye-catching :46 2/5, but was never being urged. He is coming off a very impressive victory in the UAE Derby going 1 3/16 miles and was relentless in the stretch going after the loose on the lead Summer is Tomorrow in what was a two-horse race down the stretch. I will be betting him to win, but wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a lot more money than you think. He has caught the eye of a lot of people.

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Yes, there is still a door on which to knock. But at this late date I’m not sure anyone will let you in. I love finding longshots to play in the Derby, but after the top 12 I cannot separate the rest, and while anyone can find their way into the exotics I’m just not seeing any of the others as win candidates.

Sure, ZOZOS is very talented horse who can carry his speed a long way, especially for a son of Munnings, but again we have a horse with only three starts, and I feel his best races are down the road. BARBER ROAD would be the most likely deep-closing longshot to hit the board, but he still needs to figure out where the winner’s circle is one of these days. He is persistent and keeps knocking on the door every race. One of these he’s going to squeeze his way in, but I would think it will be against lesser company in a smaller field. But for now I wouldn’t discourage anyone who wants to include him in their exotics. He is as honest as they come.

PIONEER OF MEDINA is another who is going to win his share of big races and he’s been running well against top company, mainly Zandon, Epicenter, Smile Happy, and Zozos. But at this stage of his career he looks to be more of a one-paced grinder who just keeps coming. He just needs to either try to wire his field or find a stronger closing punch. He will give them a run for their money and could hang around for piece of it.

 If we’re in a forgiving mood and wish to overlook CLASSIC CAUSEWAY’S implosion in the Florida Derby then you can say he belongs in the race. But how he’s going to win is another matter. He will be on or right off the pace, but how far he can cay his speed is the main question. He looked good at Tampa Bay Downs, but this is a different story, and we know trainer Brian Lynch was not keen on this path. But the owners deserve a shot so here he is.

TAWNY PORT is a horse on the rise, but not quite there yet, finding his way into the Derby at the last minute with a victory in the Lexington Stakes. Coming back in three weeks doesn’t bother me in the slightest.  Rebel Stakes winner UN OJO will have his following and he does have a good closing kick, but all his numbers say he is just too slow. SUMMER IS TOMORROW looked like a sure winner in the UAE Derby before Crown Pride corralled him in the final furlong and he should be a pace presence for quite a long way. Remember, all his previous starts had come in sprints so he should be stronger with that race under him.

Derby Rankings: Week 14

Monday, April 18th, 2022

The preps are officially over and there is nothing left but to watch the horses train and see who is thriving at Churchill Downs. There will be no Rankings next week, but we’ll have one final list the Monday before the Derby recapping what we’ve seen in the morning followed by a handicapping column on Thursday, May 5. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: April 18, 2022 – Week 14

By Steve Haskin

 

1– Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

The only question I have with him is what his best running style is. He is so versatile it is a bit confusing because we have seen him be effective from just off the pace and from dead last. It seems as if he’s been comfortable in his last two starts rallying from the back of the pack, and he has shown he can weave his way through traffic. But the Derby hasn’t been kind to closers in recent years so he may wind up closer to the pace. Flavien Prat seems to fit him perfectly and is a good judge of pace, so I’m sure he’ll have him in the right spot. That versatility should bode well for the Derby knowing he is dangerous no matter where he is running. As someone who relies on the Thoro-Graph numbers I love his progression of “6 ½” to “4 ½” to “2 ½” to “1 ½,” a pattern that indicates he is ready to peak on Derby Day with a career-best number, and one more similar jump forward and he is going to be very hard to beat.

 

2– Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

He turned in another sharp drill at Churchill Downs, going five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 working inside a stablemate. His Thoro-Graph pattern is very good, but there have been a half-dozen horses who have already run faster numbers and are also on a very good pattern. What he has going for him is the ability to go to the front or sit off the pace and come home fast. His closing fractions in the Louisiana Derby would be extremely fast for a closer, never mind a horse running just off the pace. According to assistant Scott Blasi the biggest change in him is how much he has matured physically since last fall; mainly how he has grown and filled out. He is a very straightforward colt and a pleasure to work with. He loves his carrots and a good nap. Blasi added that he has gotten more confident with winning. So there is no doubt this is a colt moving forward rapidly. He just needs to maintain everything he has built up in the six weeks between the Louisiana and Kentucky Derby. Normally that would be a long time, which can be attributed to the lack of success of horses coming off the Louisiana Derby. But the change to 1 3/16 miles should help a horse build more of a foundation, and we saw the success of Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie last year. With his high cruising speed and ability to come home fast he looks like the horse to beat.

 

3– Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

It is very rare to have the top three ranked horses all having run in the same race, but the Risen Star surely looks like the key race of the year, especially now with fifth-place finisher Tawny Port winning Saturday’s Lexington Stakes following a strong second in the Jeff Ruby Steaks. We know Smile Happy loves Churchill Downs after his dominating victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and although he has dropped on most Derby rankings after losing his only two starts this year by more than two lengths, he is on strong Thoro-Graph pattern, with his career-best “1 ½”iin the Blue Grass Stakes the same number as the victorious Zandon, despite the winner’s 2 ½-length margin due to his wide trip. He also made an early move to advance into third behind a dangerous speed horse and I don’t believe he wants to be quite that close to the lead. I think in a bigger field with a more contentious pace he can settle in a comfortable position closer to midpack and launch his bid from there. For a horse who was ranked No. 1 most of the year and was the favorite in all the earlier Future Wager pools he should be an enticing price in the Derby and I think the third time could be the charm.

 

4– Taiba (Tim Yakteen, Gun Runner – Needmore Flattery, by Flatter)

We finally had our first negative Thoro-Graph number with this freakish colt getting a negative-1/2 in the Santa Anita Derby following his exceptional “2” in his career debut. This makes him the fastest horse in the Derby, with the next fastest number being White Abarrio’s “1” in the Florida Derby, which frankly was much faster than expected considering the mediocre final time and pedestrian closing fractions. I really have no idea how to handicap this horse going into a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. He has taken the term “lightly raced” to a new level that could change the face of racing and the Derby if he should win. We are now in danger of having to handicap a field of strangers every year as the number of lifetime starts dwindle to the bare minimum. As I mentioned last week, no one puts a foundation into a young horse better than Baffert. The ones that can handle his training are fast, tough, and fit, which is why he has dominated the Run for the Roses in recent years. Yakteen merely has to keep this colt where he was when Baffert turned him over to him. Of course there is the bounce question, or simply put has he done too much too soon? The fact that he won the Santa Anita Derby so convincingly in such a professional manner, as if he were a hardened veteran, certainly boosts his chances of duplicating such a herculean performance. But as I’ve been saying it will take a freak to do it.

 

5– Messier (Tim Yakteen, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

With the defections of Forbidden Kingdom, Classic Causeway, Slow Down Andy, and Emmanuel, and the possible defection of Early Voting, the Derby might have lost a good deal of its speed, leaving Messier and Zozos as the two potential frontrunners, along with Summer is Tomorrow, who doesn’t possess that kind of speed. We also have two horses, Epicenter and Simplification, who have won stakes on the lead, but have become more versatile and professional and seem more likely to sit off the pace. For what it’s worth, Messier’s Thoro-Graph number of “1” in the Robert Lewis Stakes has been changed to a “1 ½,” giving him back to back races with that number. Although that number is a tad slower than originally listed, at least it now means he didn’t regress slightly in the Santa Anita Derby. Considering he was coming off a layoff, that “1 ½” was a solid enough number and put him in a good position to make a substantial leap forward in the Kentucky Derby. In short, without him having to do the dirty work chasing a speedball like Forbidden Kingdom, and with the Santa Anita Derby under his belt, I expect to see a stronger horse at Churchill Downs who is going to be a lot tougher to run down than he was at Santa Anita.

 

6– Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

I have brought up his relatively slow speed figures, going into the Wood Memorial off three consecutive races in the “6” to “6 ½” range, which is well below Derby standards, and his equally slow Brisnet and Beyer figures. Thoro-Graph gave him a far more respectable “2 ¾” in the Wood Memorial while Brisnet went a bit wild with a huge 111 figure. Does that mean his nine-week layoff and excellent works did wonders for him and gave him that razor-sharp edge he needed after a series of workmanlike two-turn races? No one is going into the Derby off a stronger final three-eighths and final eighth than he is with his brilliant :35 2/5 and :11 4/5 closing fractions in the Wood. And I have never used the word brilliant describing him before. Are we about to see a new more exciting Mo Donegal in the Derby? Yes, he had a perfect ground-saving trip in the Wood, but I believe he ran down a very talented horse in Early Voting, who had a two-length at the eighth pole and came home in :12 1/5. Most frontrunners are not going to get beat under those circumstances. And I loved the fact that just as Early Voting was starting to string out the field on the far turn, Mo exhibited a much quicker turn of foot than I’ve ever seen from him on the turn. Unfortunately he loses Joel Rosario, who was riding him for the first time and is committed to Epicenter. Why his regular rider Irad Ortiz stayed in Kentucky to ride a maiden in the Blue Grass is beyond me. I believe this colt is sharper now than he’s ever been and is sitting on a peak performance.

 

7– White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

Joseph obviously is focusing his attention on sharpness right now. The colt went into the Florida Derby off a three-furlong blowout in :34 4/5 and he zipped three furlongs in bullet :34 2/5 in his first work following the race, fastest of 41 works at the distance, then galloping out a strong five-eighths in 1:00 2/5. Joseph said this work has boosted his confidence in the colt because of the way he went so fast so easily. Jockey Junior Alvarado, who worked him, said it was like his feet weren’t touching the ground. The way the Kentucky Derby is shaping up he should be able to get a great position behind the leaders. One thing about him he is very tactical and always seems to put himself in the right spot. Following a Thoro-Graph jump from a “5” in the Holy Bull to a “1” in the Florida Derby, he should appreciate the five weeks between races. With all the big performances since the Florida Derby it wouldn’t surprise me if gets ignored a bit in the betting and goes off at pretty attractive price. He’s not as flashy as some of those mentioned above and his most recent efforts might get lost, especially with the five-week layoff.

 

8– Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

I know his Thoro-Graph numbers keep jumping up and down, from a “14” to a “2 ½” to a “5 ½” to a “2 ½” to a “3 ¼,” and he would have to make a fairly big move forward to get into the win range, but his performances have been all over the place and I never know what to expect from him, including where he’s going to be running – on the lead or back in seventh. That’s what makes him so intriguing. We have seen sparks of brilliance from him on the lead and we have seen his ability to close from farther back. His 103 Brisnet speed rating is one of the fastest among the Derby horses, but that was in a Florida-bred maiden race in his second career start last October. The closest he’s come to it was his 99 in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes in his 3-year-old debut. His 95 in the Fountain of Youth and 93 in the Florida Derby is heading in the wrong direction, but I still get the feeling there is a huge effort bubbling under the surface waiting to burst out with the right kind of trip. He has shown enough in spurts to indicate that he is capable of great things if he can put it all together. He’s been on the lead when he shouldn’t have been; he’s been far back when he shouldn’t have been; he’s failed to switch leads when he should have; and he’s been in the wrong spot in both his meetings with White Abarrio. One of these days we’re going to see the real Simplification with all the stars aligned perfectly and when we do you’re going to want to be holding some mutual tickets on him.

 

9– Cyberknife (Brad Cox, Gun Runner – Awesome Flower, by Flower Alley)

You certainly can’t knock his first work at Churchill Downs, a five-furlong drill in 1:00 flat. Cox at one point looked to have no serious Derby contenders and now he could have three in the starting gate. But as good as Zozos and Tawny Port have looked this guy remains the most Derby ready of the three, coming off back-to-back wins and a solid victory in the Arkansas Derby. My big question with him is how good he is. He’s definitely improving and was never in danger of getting beat at Oaklawn, but with Secret Oath faltering in the stretch following an explosive move on the far turn I’m just not sure what he beat or where he fits among the leading contenders. One thing he has going for him is his red-hot sire who came within a neck of having the Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial winners. He will be a pace presence sitting in the second tier right behind the leaders, but he’s going to have to outrun a number of very talented horses from there, and I’m just not sure if he’s quite ready to do that.

 

10– Charge It (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – I’ll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie)

Is it possible he could be one of the wise-guy horses that people will latch onto come Derby week? I still can’t get too excited over any horse with only three lifetime starts. Yes, I have Taiba ranked high with only two starts, but he at least has the potential to be a freak, and only freaks like Big Brown and Justify have won the Derby with three lifetime starts. Although Charge It wasn’t as smooth or polished in the Florida Derby as he was in his first two starts, he still was able to finish second despite racing greenly, so there is a lot to say about that and what he might accomplish coming off that race. I believe he has tremendous upside and a bright future, but I still can’t get past the three starts at least when it comes to winning. He certainly can hit the board with another step forward. After running a “5” and a “5 ¾” on Thoro-Graph in his first two starts he made a good jump to a “2 ¼” in the Florida Derby, so he’s never run a slow race. In fact, not even the possible Derby favorite Epicenter has run that fast. Now the question is can he make another jump forward in a 20-horse field with so little experience?

 

11– Tiz the Bomb (Kenny McPeek, Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

It is difficult making comparisons of horses on dirt and synthetic surfaces, but you still can’t overlook the fact that he was flattered by Tawny Port’s Lexington victory following his second-place finish in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, where he was no match for Tiz the Bomb. I mentioned last week about the legitimate time of 1:48 3/5 in the Jeff Ruby and the way Tiz the Bomb accelerated instantly on the far turn to quickly put himself in contention. You can’t be too sure how he’s going to handle the kickback in the Derby after his Holy Bull fiasco, but if he does and can demonstrate the same turn of foot he showed in the Jeff Ruby and the explosive stretch run he unleashed in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf then we’re talking about a serious longshot chance in the Derby. He is one horse I am really looking forward to watch train at Churchill Downs. He started off on the right foot with a solid half in :48 2/5. If he dazzles us with the way he handles the Churchill Downs surface then we’re talking about perhaps the most intriguing horse in the field when it comes to betting, as we know he has all tools. He just has to show the Holy Bull was a fluke and that his spectacular maiden victory at Ellis Park last year was a true indication of how he handles the dirt. He looks to be a sure-fire win bet at a big price, and you just hope he is able to use all the weapons we’ve seen from him on grass and synthetic.

 

12– Crown Pride (Reach the Crown – Emmy’s Pride, by King Kamehameha)

The more I watch the UAE Derby the more I say why not. He ran 1 3/16 miles over a deep slow track that saw a top-class field in the Dubai World Cup run the slowest time (on dirt) in the history of the race, and he raced four-wide into the first turn, was still wide on the second turn, and ran down a tough frontunner despite not changing leads the entire length of the stretch. So I’m not sure if any Derby horse got more out of his final prep than he did. And who is going to doubt the ability of the Japanese horses after last year’s Breeders’ Cup and this year’s Dubai World Cup card, which produced five winners from Japan. Not only is he inbred 3 x 4 to Sunday Silence, his third dam’s sire and dam are both by Arc de Triomphe winners. He had his first work at Churchill Downs, but don’t let the absurdly slow time of 1:18 3/5 for six furlongs fool you. Don’t try to figure out what the Japanese are doing in the morning. I’m sure this was more of an open gallop that the clockers timed. If you leave him out of your bets you’re going to have him hanging over your head.

 

13– Zozos (Brad Cox, Munnings – Papa’s Forest, by Forestry

He had his second work at Churchill Downs, going five-eighths in 1:00 3/5. That’s two strong works already over the track. As mentioned earlier, the speed horses are dwindling and he now is the possible pacesetter. But he will have an awful lot of brilliant horses right behind him just waiting to take him on. With only three lifetime starts, he likely will have his hands full holding off that many top-class horses. His pedigree is a bit of an enigma. He is by the speed influence Munnings, but he has already shown he can be a force at 1 3/16 miles going against the potential Derby favorite in Epicenter. This colt no doubt has a very bright future, but at this stage of his career it looks like the best he can do is hope to hold on for a piece of it. If for some reason he does get loose on the lead then that will make things a bit more interesting

 

14– Early Voting (Chad Brown, Gun Runner – Amour d’ete, By Tiznow)

I still haven’t been able to touch base with Brown regarding their plans. I have gotten the feeling all year he would prefer to point for the Preakness using the same path as Cloud Computing. As strong a race as he ran in the Wood Memorial, you don’t want to see a Derby horse blow a two-length lead at the eighth pole in his final prep and then go into the Derby with only three career starts, and he won’t be getting any easy leads this time. Also, Brown already is in a great position with Zandon, a horse he has been crazy about since last fall. So there is no use saying anything more on this guy for now until we know whether he’s headed to Churchill Downs. If he is, he likely will move up the Rankings. But until then I am treating him more as a Preakness horse.

 

15– Pioneer of Medina (Todd Pletcher, Pioneerof the Nile – Lights of Medina, by Eskendereya)

He is one of those horses who will be between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He is a tactical speed horse who doesn’t quit, but doesn’t have the fire power to outkick the top contenders. He has made great strides with every race and is going to win his share of races, but right now I don’t see a scenario where he can win. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t put a scare in these horses by hanging tough for a long time. After all, he was right there in the Risen Star, beaten only a half-length and a head for second by Smile Happy and Zandon, and was a solid third behind Epicenter and Zozos in the Louisiana Derby. So he has faced the best and hasn’t backed down. His Brisnet figures have increased in his last four starts, and after getting a “10 ½” Thoro-Graph number n his allowance win he leaped to a “3 ½” in the Risen Star and pretty much paired that up with a “3” in the Louisiana Derby. That certainly makes him legitimate.

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

A lot to ponder down here. You had to be impressed with TAWNY PORT’S victory in the Lexington Stakes, in which he raced wide all the way and still was able to come away with the victory in only his second dirt race. He has high action and holds his head high, and his future may very well be on the grass, but for now he is an interesting newcomer to the Derby picture if they decide to go in that direction. ETHEREAL ROAD and CALL ME MIDNIGHT failed to finish in the money for the second race in a row and IN DUE TIME ran well to finish third, but is better off not getting in the Derby, as he has yet to run farther than 1 1/16 miles and his best races are down the road. Credit must be given to MAJOR GENERAL who battled gamely in the stretch after setting the pace and put himself in good position for a try at the Preakness.

Rebel Stakes winner UN OJO, who had an excuse in the Arkansas Derby, cutting himself up coming out of the gate, returned to the work tab with an easy five-furlong drill in 1:03 at a training center in Louisiana before leaving for Churchill Downs on Tuesday. The one-eyed gelding surely will have his following, But he has a lot of improving to do even off his Rebel score. He does have a good late closing kick and you never know who is going to come on in the final furlong to pluck second or third in the Derby at a huge price. The other Oaklawn-based horse who will have a strong following is BARBER ROAD and he certainly fits that bill if the pace is hot enough. He is just one step behind right now and needs to make his move a little sooner and get a little more luck in the stretch. He definitely is good enough to be ranked and will be once again if Early Voting defects. No one will be that surprised if he winds up getting a piece of it in the Derby.

MORELLO, who lost all chance in the Wood Memorial at the break, is still listed among the point getters, but I am going to assume they will not run in the Derby. As much as I have loved this colt, I see no reason to pursue the Derby off a race that told you nothing about the horse and did nothing to set him up for a big comeback effort.

Although UAE Derby runner-up SUMMER IS TOMORROW set all the pace and held the lead until the final yards, remember he was coming off six straight sprints and had romped by 8 ¼ lengths going seven furlongs in his previous start at Meydan, so who knows if he can show that kind of speed again with that long a race under him.

Derby Rankings: Week 13

Monday, April 11th, 2022

Well, all the preps are over with the exception of the Lexington Stakes and we’re now in the homestretch. We lost two, possibly three top-class horses this past weekend, but all in all the form held up very well and we now have a solid base of contenders. I know a Top 17 is an odd count, but that’s all I have to rank. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: April 11, 2022 – Week 13

By Steve Haskin

 

1– Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

I just needed to see what this colt could do when he was able to run his race. I wrote last week, “Once he puts it all together and gets a good trip and a little luck, we could see something special.” And I believe we did. I also admit to a certain lack of objectivity with him, as I wrote a “Derby Sleepers” column on him way back on October 18 after his maiden victory, giving his entire back story, so I have felt close to him, following his every move since then, from Derby sleeper to now possible Derby favorite. When I texted Chad Brown and told him I thought he had a potential star he wrote back, “I have NEVER stretched a horse out that far before off just one race (from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles), but this horse is freaky good…he can win the Derby.” Those last words have stuck with me ever since because I was amazed how well he ran in the Remsen. Yes, I know Epicenter beat him geared down in the Risen Star, but he was going 1 1/8 miles off a two and a half-month layoff, got left at the gate and had to rally five-wide from last to finish third. I was expecting him to be just off the pace in the Blue Grass, as he was in his maiden win and in the Remsen Stakes. But he again dropped back to last. Each time he tried to move up he got shuffled back again. But he was always in striking range. Finally, he took off, weaved his way through the field, overcame some bumping in the upper stretch, and blew right on by Smile Happy, who looked like he had the race won. This was the horse I was waiting to see, and we know now that he is shifty enough to overcome traffic and find his own openings. His final fractions of :24 1/5 and :12 1/5 were strong and if ever a race can set you up for the Kentucky Derby this is it.

 

2– Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

He turned in a solid five-furlong breeze in 1:01 in company, out six furlongs in 1:14 3/5, pulling up seven panels in 1:29 2/5. He will have a good feel for Churchill Downs training over it for this long. You’re splitting hairs with the top three; I believe they are that close. It’s not common for a Derby winner to go into the race having never earned a Thoro-Graph number faster than a “2 ½,” but if you look at his pattern you can see him winning the race if he takes the next logical step. After running an “8 ½” last year he improved to a “5 ¾”in the Gun Runner stakes, then paired that number in the Lecomte Stakes. That set him up for another jump to a “2 ½” in the Risen Star, which he again paired up in the Louisiana Derby. When a horse pairs up a career best and shows a pattern of doing it you can expect a move forward in his next race, which he did in the Risen Star. If he makes the same kind of improvement in the Kentucky Derby it definitely would be put him in the zero to negative range, which would be good be enough to win. I don’t know what the Thoro-Grraph numbers will be from this past weekend, but no one has run faster than a “1,” which leaves the door open for a number of horses who in other years might have been considered too slow. It all depends on how he handles the six-week layoff. With the new 1 3/16-mile distance, the Louisiana Derby form held up very well last year.

 

3– Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

Despite two defeats this year by more than two lengths, I am remaining loyal to the horse I had ranked No. 1 for the first 10 weeks, seeing just what I was hoping to see in the Blue Grass Stakes, which was the spark he showed in his first two starts last year that was missing to some degree in the Risen Star Stakes when he was ridden way too conservatively and being asked to run way too late. He really needed to put in a strong run and get something out of the race. First off, he needed to be closer to the pace, but had to overcome the 10 post, and as feared was caught five-wide going into the first turn, which was the last thing you wanted to see. Corey Lanerie had to make an early move with him to get him in a decent position in third down the backstretch in order to stay close to a loose on the lead Emmanuel. He was also forced to go after Emmanuel a little early, collared him turning for home, and took a couple of solid bumps from him. Lanerie, after throwing several crosses on him, went to a right-hand whip and the colt resented it, throwing his tail up and ducking in. Just then, Zandon came storming up on his outside, and by then he was starting to get a little tired from his earlier efforts, switching back to his left lead at the sixteenth pole. Although he was no match for the winner he still finished almost four lengths ahead of Emmanuel in a race he desperately needed. This should move him toward a peak performance in the Derby and I strongly believe he can win it coming off this race.

 

4– Taiba (Tim Yakteen, Gun Runner – Needmore Flattery, by Flatter)

Is this the freak of all freaks? If he wins the Kentucky Derby off two lifetime starts then there is no use handicapping the Derby anymore based on logic even if he is a freak. I would never consider ranking a horse with two starts this high, but no matter what you think of Baffert, no one puts a foundation into a horse like he does and this colt has a tremendous foundation, turning in some sensational long works over  deep tiring racetracks. Also, he’s a powerfully built colt with a massive shoulder on him and big hind end, yet he runs low to the ground and is very light on his feet. I refused to rank Justify high because of the three starts and I would hate to make that mistake again. Even though Baffert no longer trains him he tried the same thing with Paynter, who finished a strong fourth in the Santa Anita Derby coming off only one 5 ½-furlong maiden victory. He then went on to be beaten a neck in the Belmont Stakes and easily win the Haskell. What I wouldn’t give to see Churchill Downs have to present the Derby trophy to Amr Zedan, the owner of Medina Spirit, who they recently disqualified from last year’s Derby, made an event out of taking down his Derby winner’s sign in the paddock, and made him give this horse to another trainer. And remember Zedan couldn’t stop raving about Baffert after winning last month’s Dubai World Cup. But getting down to the reality of it all, this horse not only has to be a freak to have won this race, it was the way he did it, looking like a seasoned veteran who didn’t seem to raise a sweat, blowing right by Messier and winning by 2 ¼ lengths in a solid 1:48 2/5 with a final furlong in :12 2/5. He ran an amazing “2” on Thoro-Graph in his career debut so we knew he was special. After this victory is he in danger of bouncing big-time in the Derby?  I have over 50 years of history telling me he can’t win off two career starts and coming off such a monstrous performance. Now someone has to tell him that.

 

5– Messier (Tim Yakteen, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

It was agonizing trying to figure out which horse to rank higher. You can knock him for getting beat by his stablemate who had only one six-furlong maiden win, but let’s assume Taiba is a total freak and Messier needed this race coming off a two-month layoff and a stroll in the park victory against inferior competition. I know he officially is not trained by Baffert, but let’s not forget that Baffert has won three Kentucky Derbys with horses coming off a second in the Santa Anita Derby, and that doesn’t include Authentic because of the timing factor. He did miss the break on Saturday and had to be rushed a bit to split horses going into the first turn. John Velazquez no doubt was focusing all his attention on Forbidden Kingdom who he was chasing all the way. He got the lead from him easier than expected and before he knew it Taiba was all over him. I know there is very little depth to the 3-year-old division in California and I don’t know how much he is going to improve in the Derby, but he did do the dirty work and you have to think this race will move him forward. Because of the winner’s lack of experience and Forbidden Kingdom packing it in early it makes the Santa Anita Derby all the more confusing. This horse has shown some chinks in his armor, getting beat by Slow Down Andy, but he has also shown sparks of brilliance. I believe he will improve in the Derby, but how good he really is depends in some ways on how special Taiba is. I could reverse their rankings after watching them train at Churchill Downs and perhaps coming to my senses. But for now let’s give the slightest nod to the freak.

 

6– Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

Kudos to him for tossing his lackluster Thoro-Gaph numbers in the trash. Going into the Wood Memorial off a “6 ½,” a “6,” and a “6 ½” he looked like a horse who was going nowhere numbers-wise and showing no improvement, despite good efforts in the Remsen and Holy Bull. Also, his Brisnet numbers of 91, 93, and 92 were nothing to rave about, nor were his Beyers of 82, 90, and 90. Plus he missed the Fountain of Youth with a fever and was coming into the Wood off a nine-week layoff. So from a handicapping standpoint there had to be doubts about him going into this race. But he took advantage of a fairly solid pace set by Early Voting over a drying out track and was able to wear him down late with some brilliant closing fractions of :23 3/5 and :11 4/5, while covering the mile and eighth in 1:47 4/5, the fastest Wood since Bellamy Road’s freakish performance in 2005. How legit those are I have no idea. His Beyer figure of 96 obviously was an improvement, but he still needs to move forward off that. Breaking from post 1, he was able to hug the rail most of the way, found room on the inside turning for home, eased outside Early Voting late and ran him down by a neck, so we’ll have to wait to see how much his Thoro-Graph numbers improved. He doesn’t have that quick acceleration and it takes him a while to build momentum He was also helped by the favorite Morello breaking terribly, dropping back to last, and never firing. He still hasn’t shown a big turn of foot, but just keeps coming at you, and credit Pletcher for having him razor-sharp off the layoff.

 

7– White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

Although it looks as if the sloth-like closing fractions of the Florida Derby will remain as is, despite top-class horses rarely ever running that slow, there is the other side of the coin, and that is White Abarrio’s Thoro-Graph number of “1.” So we have dueling speed statistics and you will have to decide which one to go by. Can a horse run that fast a number while closing like it was at the end of a three-mile marathon? In this case do you like the tortoise or the hare? That Thoro-Graph number equals Messier’s Robert B. Lewis figure as the fastest run by a 3-year-old this year. Prior to this race, White Abarrio had been on a steady, but unspectacular, pattern, going from “10 ½” to an “8 ¼,” to a “7” to a “5.” Then when he crawls home and can’t break 1:50 for a mile and an eighth he leaps to a “1.” I surely can’t figure it out, but it does put the colt in a good position to win the Derby. His Brisnet numbers also are conflicting. His 96 speed figure in the Florida Derby was down a point from the Holy Bull, but still good enough to make him dangerous at Churchill, and his middle pace figure was a strong 110. But his late pace figure was a sluggish 77, which is reflective of the slow closing fractions. One thing about him, he does know how to put himself in perfect striking position every race and that certainly will help him at Churchill Downs. I am not enamored with him, but I definitely respect him.

 

8– Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

As I’m sure you have noticed I often use the Brisnet speed figures because they give you a number of variables, such as early, middle, and late pace figures and not just straight speed figures. They also have a main figure called Prime Power, which measures the quality of each horse’s recent starts by combining dozens of handicapping factors into one rating — speed, class, pace, form, weight, distance, and many other factors – to form a sophisticated computer generated algorithm. The reason I mention this is, despite finishing third in the Florida Derby and getting just an OK 93 speed rating, Simplification’s Prime Power number of 146.7 is the highest of all the 23 horses listed in the final Future Wager before Saturday, which indicates there is lot more going on with this colt than one might think. As I mentioned last week, I look at the Florida Derby in a positive light, considering Sano’s strategy to put him back on the pace blew up in his face. In his previous two starts when he rallied from off the pace his two middle pace figures were a solid 93 and 92. In the Florida Derby when he was caught in the middle of a three-horse speed duel his middle pace figure was 113, which is way too fast to expect a horse to close off that. So I am forgiving his ridiculously slow final factions and late pace figure, which I am not convinced are correct, considering Gulfstream’s poor record timing racing. When Simplification won the Mucho Macho Man on the lead he was able to show off his high cruising speed with an early pace figure of 95, middle pace figure of 101, and late pace figure of 95, resulting in a strong 99 speed figure. His maiden victory speed figure of 103 has since been topped by only Messier’s 104. This horse’s best race can win the Kentucky Derby.

 

9– Cyberknife (Brad Cox, Gun Runner – Awesome Flower, by Flower Alley)

He’s a good horse who obviously is improving and you can’t dismiss him, but he just doesn’t excite me. With Secret Oath coming out of the Arkansas Derby very tired after making a move that was by far the most exciting part of the race, I’m not really sure what he beat. The most hyped prospect in the race, We the People, didn’t run a lick and the Rebel winner cut himself open on the starting gate and was never a factor. His Thoro-Graph numbers are progressing nicely with a career best “2 ¼ in the Arkansas Derby,” but he had run a “5” twice early in his career, so he hasn’t moved that far forward since last year. As for his Brisnet figures he has run a 94 in last two starts, both career highs, and that is nowhere near the fastest horses, so he would have to make a pretty huge jump in the Derby. The same goes for his 92 Beyer figure. On the Brisnet Prime Power we mentioned earlier he ranks 11th. I don’t want to sound like he is a no hoper who has little chance to win the Derby. I’m just going by the stats and what I’ve seen and figuring he will be bet somewhat in the Derby off his victory at Oaklawn. He also has been tough to handle at times, as we saw when he dumped his rider in the post parade of the Arkansas Derby, and that is the last thing you want to see on Kentucky Derby day. He should get the distance with no problem and we’ll see if can dazzle us with his works at Churchill Downs.

 

10– Charge It (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – I’ll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie)

After pairing solid “5s” in his first two career starts on Thoro-Graph he made an impressive jump to a “2 ¼” in the Florida Derby, going from a maiden race to a Grade 1. So we know he is a talented colt with a very bright future. What we don’t know is whether he can improve once again in the Kentucky Derby, which he likely will have to do, and in only his fourth career start. As I have said, I am not a fan of horses with only three career starts going in the Derby. I realize that times are changing and we can drop the “race” from racehorses, with today’s equine stars making fewer and fewer appearances and are virtual strangers when they get to Churchill Downs. But I still need to see horses with three starts be successful in the Derby on a fairly regular basis rather than a freak occurrence that has happened only two times, with both winners being freaks themselves who came along in a weak crop. So while I acknowledge that Charge It is capable of running a strong race in the Derby, even with running greenly in the Florida Derby, and nothing shocks me anymore, I am still not ready to place my win bets on him. But if he is as good as he has looked and can take another step forward then he could pick up a piece of it and be used in the exotics.

 

11– Early Voting (Chad Brown, Gun Runner – Amour d’ete, By Tiznow)

I’m still not sure what the plans are for him, if they’re thinking Derby or Preakness. If they commit to the Derby he could move up a few spots. I thought he ran an excellent race coming off the nine-week layoff, as did Mo Donegal, but there should be a lot of pace pressure in the Derby and the question is how he will stand up to it with only three career starts and one start in 13 weeks. Considering he did get pressure in the Wood from A.P.’s Secret through fractions in :47 3/5 and 1:11 2/5 and came home in :24 and :12 1/5 that was a huge effort. By comparison, the fractions in the Gazelle two races later were :49 1/5 and 1:13 4/5. There is no doubt he will get the mile and a quarter without any problem, so it’s a tough decision. Unlike most of the Gun Runners, he’s a bigger, more muscular type, so he should be able to handle whatever is thrown at him. At this point it looks like he would be the speed of the Derby unless Slow Down Andy can’t be slowed down and would provide a good strong pace to run at. But don’t expect him to stop.

 

12– Tiz the Bomb (Kenny McPeek, Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

I have to admit this horse is really starting to intrigue me. I normally don’t put a lot of stock in races run on a synthetic track, but Turfway is now Tapeta and I feel that may translate better to dirt than Polytrack. I’m not sure how that track was playing, but no matter how it was, the final time of 1:48 3/5 is racehorse time and I loved how quickly he shifted into another gear and accelerated on the far turn. It wasn’t a long explosive move, like Secret Oath in the Arkansas Derby, but it was the instant acceleration when Brian Hernandez stepped on the gas. Dare I say like a European grass horse? I went back and watched his 14-length maiden victory on the dirt at Ellis Park and that was pretty spectacular, with his action extremely smooth, but powerful. And for sheer closing power, watch his stretch run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf after he finally found racing room, and how he was flying at the end to snatch second after appearing a sure thing to be out of the money. So we know he handles the dirt and can decimate his opponents, we know he has an explosive closing kick, and we know he has a sudden turn of foot. We just have to figure out what happened in the Holy Bull. Was it his first kickback and over a pretty sandy course? His Thoro-Graph numbers of “4 ¾” in his last two starts aren’t going to blow you away, but synthetic tracks seem to bring slower numbers. If for some reason he takes to the Churchill surface and can handle the kickback, you never know. It’s a total guess, but it could prove a lucrative one in the exotics.

 

13– Zozos (Brad Cox, Munnings – Papa’s Forest, by Forestry)

Now at Churchill Downs, he returned to the work tab with a solid half-mile drill in :48 flat, getting his last quarter in :23 and galloping out a strong five-eighths in 1:00 4/5. As I have said a number of times I don’t like having only three lifetime starts going into the Derby, and he is a speed horse by a speed sire, which will make it even more difficult for him, especially with what appears to be a good deal of speed in this year’s race. But he does have some things in his favor as well. He has run a “3 ½ “ and then a “3” on Thoro-Graph in his last two starts, so he is in position to improve several points off that. His Brisnet speed figures have jumped from a 78 to 94 to a 98, and in his stretch-out to 1 3/16 miles in the Louisiana Derby, a tall task for a horse in this third career start, his early, middle, and late pace figures of 90, 93, and 98 not only were pretty solid, he got stronger as the race went on and did it on the front end. In his previous start he was able to get away with easy early and middle pace figures of 75 and 75 and then flew home with a terrific 111 late pace figure. So he is a speed horse who can close fast off moderate fractions and also get stronger off faster fractions, and he should only improve in the Derby. Whether or not the three starts catch up to him, he’s not going to be easy to put away.

 

14– Pioneer of Medina (Todd Pletcher, Pioneerof the Nile – Lights of Medina, by Eskendereya)

He returned to the work tab with an easy half in :49 3/5 at Palm Beach Downs. He is another who will be in the first flight, just off the pace. He definitely is improving and remember, he was only a half-length and a head behind Smile Happy in the Risen Star. But until he can find a closing punch I don’t see him as potential Derby winner. He’ll be running hard, however, and should be in the mix down the stretch. As I said last week I like his steady progression moving up the class ladder, and after leaping from a “10 ½” Thoro-Graph number to a “3” in his fourth-place finish in the loaded Risen Star he paired up that “3” in the Louisiana Derby with a solid third-place finish. That puts him in position to take another big step forward, which he will have to do if he is to have any shot in the Kentucky Derby. The pedigree is there and he’s already been 1 1/8 miles and 1 3/16 miles against the No. 1, 2, and 3 ranked horses, so he certainly is no slouch. He just has to take another step forward and find a weapon he can use to win.

 

15– Barber Road (John Ortiz, Race Day – Encounter, by Southern Image)

When you lose five races in a row, with four seconds it’s not a coincidence. Simply put, he has to learn how to win. Yes, he’s won two races, but those were in a maiden claiming race and a starter allowance race. He keeps moving up in class and facing better horses and keeps running the same race. He can surely be one of those Derby longshots that closes for second, but he will have to show a lot more if he is to be thought of as a horse who can win it all. His Thoro-Graph numbers don’t tell you much more, fluctuating between “4s” and “7s.” All he can hope for is a fast pace, which he could very well get, and a bit of racing luck and see what he can do with it. He’s a great horse to have in the barn and always gives you 100 percent and a thrill in the stretch. But for the Derby he’ll have to step it up a notch or two if he’s going to pick up a piece of it.

 

16– Crown Pride (Reach the Crown – Emmy’s Pride, by King Kamehameha)

He’s at Churchill Downs and has been galloping. He’ll be in the quarantine barn until the race. There obviously is no way to know if he is a serious contender, but with the Japanese horses on a tear all over the world you certainly have to pay attention to him. He did put in a long sustained run in the UAE Derby to wear down a good horse in Summer is Tomorrow, who was stretching out from a seven-furlong romp at Meydan a month before. He is inbred to Sunday Silence to bring some familiarity to fans who are considering betting on him. He’s made three starts over a mile in his career and has won all of them, with his only defeat coming in the mud. I wouldn’t dare talk anyone out of betting him, because the respect for the Japanese keeps growing and we just don’t know good their horses are on an individual basis. All you can do is see how he handles Churchill and what kind of appearance he makes.

 

17– Slow Down Andy (Doug O’Neill, Nyquist – Edwina E, by Square Eddie)

As of Sunday he hasn’t returned to the work tab. If he gets to the Derby it looks like he could be the speed unless the Sunland Derby speedfest was a fluke with the addition of blinkers and O’Neill can get him to settle off the pace this time. He’s not pretty to watch and he still has his quirks, but he is a fighter, as he showed in the Sunland Derby and in last year’s Los Alamitos Futurity against Messier. If he does blast out of there again in the Derby he probably can outrun Early Voting, but what comes after that is a totally different story because no one has any idea. He is another you want to see train at Churchill and how he relaxes with all the activity. O’Neill is far from a conformist when it comes to training and no one has a clue how he’s going to train this horse. Be prepared for anything. But one thing is for sure of, he knows how to win the Derby, even though this colt is not in the class with I’ll Have Another and Nyquist, and likely not Hot Rod Charlie.

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Although the form held up well over the weekend we did lose MORELLOFORBIDDEN KINGDOM and EMMANUEL, who is headed to Winstar Farm for some light training with the possibility of pointing for grass races such as the Pennine Ridge and Belmont Derby. The toughest break, of course, was Morello’s terrible start in the Wood Memorial, in which he found himself in last coming out of the gate, and being a stalker he was taken way out of his comfort zone and never made an impact on the race. There has been no official word yet on Morello, but it is assumed he will not be pointed for the Derby. Forbidden Kingdom will have his epiglottis checked for any breathing issues.

Horses who have shown potential, such as IN DUE TIME, have only the Lexington Stakes left to sneak into the Derby, and with In Due Time it would mean going a mile and a quarter never having been farther than 1 1/16 miles.

Others pointing for the Lexington are MAJOR GENERAL (Todd Pletcher), MIDNIGHT CHROME (John Servis),  STRAVA (Dallas Stewart), CALL ME MIDNIGHT (Keith Desormeaux), DASH ATTACK (Kenny McPeek), and THE SKIPPER TOO (John Ortiz) with  BYE BYE BOBBY (Todd Fincher) and TAWNEY PORT (Brad Cox) possible.

Derby Rankings: Week 12

Monday, April 4th, 2022

With only one more weekend of preps left we’re stretching the Rankings out to 20 this week. Everything could look very different next week with the No. 2, 3, 4, and 5 horses running on Saturday. After that it’s up to everyone to make some sense of it all. We’re either going to have a strong Top 6 or 7 or the confusion will continue and it will be one big crap shoot. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: April 4, 2022 – Week 12

By Steve Haskin

 

1– Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

When Ron Winchell buys yearlings at the Keeneland September sale, he rarely has any interest in horses who sell in the final books and is usually long gone when the hip numbers reach into the thousands. His program is more about the elite yearlings who sell in the first few books. But in the 2020 sale he made an exception and waited for Hip #1956 to come into the ring. He was that far down mainly because he was by a relatively little-known second-crop sire named Not This Time. “That’s petty late in the sale for our purchases,” Winchell said. “However, he was an absolute standout from our perspective, especially for that late in the sale.” Even with him selling that late Winchell still had to pay $260,000 for him. Ron Anderson, agent for Joel Rosario, remembers when Steve Asmussen asked him to ride this colt after a poor debut, telling him he wasn’t ready for that race. “I know Steve and Scotty (assistant Scott Blasi) and I’m able to get their opinions independently. Both had been crazy about this horse for weeks. My main question was can you take a hold of this horse and have him follow a horse? Scotty said, ‘absolutely.’” It took five races, but Epicenter finally proved him right in the Louisiana Derby after four races on the lead and now all the boxes have been checked. He is now a bona fide Kentucky Derby horse and the current favorite for the Run for the Roses, especially with the results of this past weekend.

 

2– Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

The time of reckoning has come. After being ranked No. 1 for the first 10 weeks based on his two victories last year and one solid 3-year-old debut in which he was a non-threatening second It is finally time to find out just where he fits in the Derby picture and if he is a good as I and all those who made him the Future Wager favorite every month believe he is. His second meeting with Zandon in the Blue Grass Stakes should be very interesting because both horses have the same questions to answer and a victory by either one would put them right up there with Epicenter and perhaps replace him as No. 1. But it would have to be an impressive one. For Smile Happy it would be returning to where he’s been all year despite his lack of racing. The key to this colt is whether he shows that same powerful closing kick that he needs to start using on the far turn unlike the Risen Star when he was not asked to run at all on the turn and arrived to the party way too late and was lucky to get second. It’s been all speculation so far and it was not McPeek’s intention to give him so much time off, but he obviously needed it and was ridden conservatively in the Risen Star. But conservative is the last thing he needs now. He needs to be put to pressure and given an opportunity to show that spark from last year. In short he needs to be toughened to be ready for the Derby.

 

3– Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

The biggest challenge all year has been for me trying to say something about him and Smile Happy that is somewhat new, but that is what happens when you rank two horses this high with each having only one start in 4 ½ months. If they both get beat in the Blue Grass that will make them 0-for-2 this year and likely would drop them down in the Rankings unless one of them runs huge in defeat. As I’ve been saying, their high rankings have been based on their 2-year-old races and the promise they showed in the Risen Star Stakes. While Smile Happy will be trying to move forward on Thoro-Graph following a basic pairing (2 and 2 ½), after jumping from a 7 ¼, Zandon will be looking to do the same following a very steady progression (6 ½ to 4 ½ to 2 ¼), so both are coming off an almost identical number, but got there in an different manner. They will have to face another lightly raced colt in Emmanuel, who should improve big-time off his troubled tip in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Other than him, they should be able to handle the likes of Ethereal Road, Blackadder, and Volcanic if they are to be considered major Derby contenders. As I’ve been saying, this colt intrigues me the most because we still have no idea how high his ceiling is. Once he puts it all together and gets a good trip and a little luck, we could see something special.

 

4– Messier (Tim Yakteen, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

It could be that the best thing to happen to this year’s Derby is having this horse finally cleared to run in it. If he looks as good in the Santa Anita Derby as he did in the Robert Lewis Stakes, and Smile Happy, Zandon, and Morello, and possibly Emmanuel, do not live up to expectations on Saturday, then we can at least look forward to a showdown between Messier and Epicenter in the Kentucky Derby because that is where the brilliance will end in a crop that that so far has proven to be on the slow side and not that exciting. Messier still has the fastest Thoro-Graph number by a 3-year-old this year, running a “1” in the Lewis, and if you throw out his only two defeats at quirky Los Alamitos then he certainly looks to have star potential. And if you like juicy stories wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants if he were to win the Kentucky Derby in the aftermath of the Churchill – Baffert wars that had prevented this colt from earning any Derby points until he was turned over to a different general. Take nothing away from Tim Yakteen, but the overwhelming presence of Baffert will always be with this horse. All he has to do is take care of business against the speedball Forbidden Kingdom on Saturday and you have your Derby storyline and maybe the favorite. And after this past Saturday’s Florida and Arkansas Derbys, believe me, the Derby needs a horse with his brilliance.

 

5– Morello (Steve Asmussen, Classic Empire – Stop the Wedding, by Congrats)

As you can see I’m looking ahead rather than behind, hoping to find a solid nucleus of Derby contenders from the group still to race. I mentioned that Messier has the fastest Thoro-Graph so far; well this colt has the second fastest. Both are the only ones to run a number below “2.” Normally by now you’ll find some that have run a negative number or something close to a zero. So the Thoro-Graph numbers are holding up in judging how fast, or more appropriately how slow, these horses are as a whole. With Morello it is all about dealing with two turns for the first time in the Wood Memorial and handling horses like Mo Donegal and Early Voting, who both have won 1 1/8-mile stakes. Morello has the pedigree to handle longer distances and he has been extremely professional and machine-like in his races. He is one of the few horses this year in whom I have been unable to find a single flaw. If that holds up in the Wood and he can defeat horses of this caliber and do it impressively then you can add him to the list of serious Derby contenders who have checked off all the boxes. It would also give him a shot at the No. 1 spot being undefeated. He would also give Asmussen a powerful one-two punch, although a great deal of Morello’s success can be attributed to Asmussen’s longtime New York assistant Toby Sheets, who is pretty much allowed to train these horses on his own.

 

6– White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

You have to give this colt credit for being consistent and tractable and always in the right spot, and also for working his way up from a $7,500 yearling purchase and making a name for himself (see last week for his story). He certainly is one of the most appealing stories in this year’s Derby, and with his gray color will be popular with the fans. But looking at the Florida Derby from a logical and statistical standpoint it’s difficult to get past that final three-eighths in almost :40 seconds and final eighth in :14. Those are pedestrian fractions. But is this another timing screwup by Gulfstream? I never trust their times. I’ll have to wait and see if that was legit. Sounds way too slow to be true. This was not a deep field and apparently not a strong one, so I’m not sure what to make of it. One thing White Abarrio has going for him is that it is looking more and more like this could be average or below average crop, which is reflected by the somewhat slow Thoro-Graph numbers all year. But I don’t like judging crops too early and am mentioning all this just to try to make some sense of the Rankings. White Abarrio had a perfect stalking trip, with Charge It inside him and Simplification battling on the lead between horses and then having to put Pappacap away after they went at each other around the turn. But White Abarrio took advantage of it all and got the job done, and will go into the Kentucky Derby with an excellent record. How good he really is we’ll find out then.

 

7– Cyberknife (Brad Cox, Gun Runner – Awesome Flower, by Flower Alley)

I don’t know how many times I have pleaded ignorance in this week’s Rankings, but I have no clue what to make of this colt or how good he really is. He is a high energy horse who can be tough to handle, as witnessed when he dumped his rider in the Arkansas Derby post parade, which is not a quality you want on Kentucky Derby Day. Yes, he won the Arkansas Derby by 2 ¾ lengths, but that is all I know about him. Before this race he looked like just a horse who had room for improvement, and he beat the Derby trail’s favorite bridesmaid Barber Road, who now has four seconds and a third in his last five starts. The horse who beat Barber Road in the Rebel Stakes, Un Ojo, was 19-1 in the Arkansas Derby and finished eighth, beaten over 14 lengths, after cutting himself up badly on the starting gate. The one local horse everyone down there jumped all over was the undefeated (in only two starts) We the People, who was sent off at 2-1 and finished seventh. And then there was the favorite Sacred Oath who was farther back than she’s ever been, put in an explosive move on the turn, but was unable to sustain it, finishing third. So how good is the winner, who was in perfect position in fourth and in the clear down the backstretch before moving in and splitting horses, just barely getting through a rapidly closing hole? I hate to say it again, but I don’t know. With a final three-eighths in :39, he didn’t exactly come home fast, yet there was no one to catch him. He had one stakes appearance before this, finishing a well-beaten sixth in the Lecomte Stakes. Yes he is improving, but it’s starting to look as if you can lump most of these horses together.

 

8– Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

If you liked him before, double down now at a better price. I am going to overlook his defeat in the Florida Derby because he did all the dirty work due to strategy that backfired and was the only one I can forgive for coming home so slowly. To me, the winner and runner-up were able to take advantage of his gut-wrenching trip.  But the more this horse runs the less I know about him. Just when I thought he had transformed himself into a closer he winds up battling on the lead early with Classic Causeway, who eventually tired badly and finished last. But that was Sano’s strategy. Then he found himself in between horses in a three-way battle for the lead through a strong six furlongs in 1:10 4/5 and a strong third quarter in :23 2/5 when Pappacap came charging up on his outside. That’s the last place you want to be, caught in the middle of three-horse duel. Classic Causeway then called it a day and Simplification wound up in a head and head battle with Pappacap around the far turn before putting him away. He did change leads this time, which I was happy to see, but all his earlier efforts took their toll in the stretch and he couldn’t hold off White Abarrio and then lost second to Charge It, who had been in a drive from the thee-eighths pole. So is this a Derby contender or not? Is he a front runner or a closer? After the Florida Derby I still respect him and have to consider him a serious Derby horse because I don’t have a clue what to expect from him one race to the next as to where he’s going to be running. Remember, in his last six races he’s won every other race and is now due for a win. If he can find a comfortable position in the Derby, whether it’s close to the pace or farther back, then he might surprise a lot of people, and he is my overlay pick right now.

 

9– Emmanuel (Todd Pletcher, More Than Ready – Hard Cloth, by Hard Spun)

He tuned up for the Blue Grass Stakes with a five-furlong work in 1:01 3/5 and should be coming up to the race in near peak form. Although he improved his Thoro-Graph numbers from an “8 ¼” to a “4 ¼” in his troubled trip in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, he still has a good deal of improving still to do on that front. I still have no idea what to make of the 3-year-olds in Florida, as they don’t appear to be overly fast based on the Thoro-Graph numbers. But I can see him taking another big step forward at Keeneand and possibly putting himself in position to hit that peak at Churchill Downs. And I also want to see what he can do with a clean trip, something he failed to get in the Fountain of Youth, which I believe attributed to his getting tired in the stretch. When I saw him get sawed off after the start, drop back and go wide into the first turn I figured he was done, coming off two easy front-running scores. But when he kept moving up down the backstretch five or six-wide and actually pulled even with the leaders turning for home I was very impressed. The fact he was unable to sustain that long run didn’t bother me one bit. These races coming up this weekend are going to make or break a lot of horses and will determine who the true contenders are. Smile Happy and Zandon still have some questions to answer themselves, so hopefully those questions, as well as the questions about Emmanuel will be answered.

 

10– Charge It (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – I’ll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie)

Another lightly raced Pletcher colt on the upswing. A lot of people are going to jump on his bandwagon after finishing second in the Florida Derby coming off a maiden victory and only two lifetime starts. He obviously is a very talented horse and his maiden score was an eye-catcher, but once again I still don’t know what to make of him as a potential Kentucky Derby winner. The only two horses to win the Derby off three lifetime starts have been Big Brown and Justify, both of whom were freaky good who came along in subpar crops. So I am still reluctant to pick a horse to win the Derby off so few starts. As for his Florida Derby I really don’t know if he finished second because he’s that good or he just took advantage of the plodding closing fractions, and perhaps these horses are nothing special. It looked as if he got up for second because Simplification as mentioned earlier did all the dirty work. Charge It was under heavy pressure around the turn and wasn’t accelerating, but like many Pletcher horses do he just kept coming after swinging wide and put himself back in the race. However, he looked as if he was also tiring and was all over the track, lugging out a little and then lugging in badly on several occasions. It all depends on what he gets out of this race and if he can take a big step forward in only his fourth career start. He’s going to have to show a bit more turn of foot and not be so one-paced and race more professionally in the stretch.

 

11– Forbidden Kingdom (Dick Mandella, American Pharoah – Just Louise, by Five Star Day)

There is no way to tell if this horse can carry his exceptional speed nine furlongs, never mind 10 furlongs, but Mandella is sure giving him every chance to by harnessing that speed, working him long, and letting him work without company, which he did in his most recent drill, going seven furlongs in 1:26 3/5. I like that he broke off by himself with his ears pricked and did everything smoothly, with a strong gallop-out. The script for the Santa Anita Derby should be pretty simple. He is going to the lead and Messier will be right off his flank or at least no more than a length back. John Velazquez will know just where to have him. There shouldn’t be any danger from behind, so both horses can treat this like a match race, knowing if the other cracks first the race is over. To have a Bob Baffert-developed colt chasing a son of Amercan Pharoah just adds to the storyline. It’s not like Forbidden Kingdom is your typical speed horse with a ton of speed in his pedigree trying to stretch out in distance. This is a lightning-fast colt who had been running :21 and :43 fractions sprinting and who had a tendency to get very rank if you tried to hold him. But Mandella has at least gotten that out of him and his speed is much more controlled now, especially going two turns. If he wins the Santa Anita Derby it is really going to impact the pace scenario in the Kentucky Derby.

 

12– Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

Pletcher has him sharp for his return in the Wood Memorial after a nine-week layoff, working him five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 at Palm Beach Downs. He is a strange horse to figure out as he showed in the Holy Bull Stakes when he was under pressure and going nowhere on the turn but popped into the picture late closing fastest of all. In the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes it looked as if he should have put away Zandon, who had only one six-furlong race under him, but not only did he have to eke out a nose victory he should have been disqualified for coming in sharply on Zandon and squeezing him against the rail. But he is consistent and he will be in contention when they turn for home in the Wood. If he should run big and Emmanuel does the same in the Blue Grass, Pletcher will have four starters in the Kentucky Derby with Charge It and Pioneer of Medina already in the race. He also has Golden Code in the Wood. While Morello and Early Voting probably need a victory to be considered serious Derby horses, Mo Donegal only needs to be closing fast to set him up for a peak effort, but he really has to make huge improvement on his Thoro-Graph numbers, which have remained stagnant at “6,” and that won’t put him anywhere in the Derby picture.

 

13– Early Voting (Chad Brown, Gun Runner – Amour d’ete, By Tiznow)

Like Mo Donegal he will be retuning in the Wood Memorial off a nine-week layoff. Unlike Mo Donegal he did not have a setback that anyone is aware of. Like Mo Donegal he has already won a 1 1/8-mile stakes. Unlike Mo Donegal he has only two career starts. Where have we heard that before? The Withers seems like ages ago, but I was impressed with everything I saw, especially the way he easily separated himself from the field in a flash. This horse has a very high cruising speed and can turn it on. If he had one start between the Withers and the Wood I’m sure he would be ranked much higher. Brown was thinking of passing the Derby and going straight to the Preakness off the Wood as he did successfully with Cloud Computing, but the Derby won out, so now he will have to make do with the three career starts. One thing he has going for him is pedigree, with his sire and grandsire having three Breeders’ Cup Classic victories between them.

 

14– Tiz the Bomb (Kenny McPeek, Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

This horse has been in and out of the Derby picture so many times he needs to get his hand (or hoof) stamped. McPeek considered him a serious Derby horse early in the year even though his best races by far were on grass, but when he threw in a clunker in the Holy Bull Stakes, McPeek’s radar shifted to the English 2,000 Guineas with two preps on Turfway’s Polytack. But it doesn’t take much to get Derby fever, especially a relapse, and after Tiz the Bomb’s emphatic victory in the Jeff Ruby Steaks with its 100 points it was back on the Derby trail. Now we again ask the question can this horse handle the dirt and the kickback, which he has failed to do on two occasions, including once at Churchill Downs. And yet there is that one glimmering vision of him breaking his maiden in an off the turf maiden race by 14 lengths at Ellis Park. His sire was strictly a grass horse, but the big hope for this horse is having Tiznow as his broodmare sire. So here is another guess for you. Good luck.

 

15– Barber Road (John Ortiz, Race Day – Encounter, by Southern Image)

If this horse can ever learn how to time his stretch run better and take just one itsy bitsy step forward he might actually win a race. Although he has managed four seconds and a third in his last five starts, all stakes, and is always closing late, he just can’t seem to get there for one reason or another. His consistency, closing punch, and, yes, his inability to find the winner’s circle are going to make him a popular horse at Churchill Downs. There is something endearing about him and how hard he tries, and people are always going to figure the next race will be the one where he breaks through. Also, he has come up through the ranks, breaking maiden at Keeneland for a $30,000 claiming tag, and then easily winning a starter allowance race at Churchill Downs before heading into stakes company. Ironically in both his victories he won from on or just off the pace. His female family is a bit obscure, but there is enough stamina top and bottom to suggest a mile and a quarter will not pose a problem. His strong finish in the Arkansas Derby was enough to rank him in the Top 15. If you’re looking for that typical longshot closer who gets up for second in the Derby, here is your boy.

 

16– Zozos (Brad Cox, Munnings – Papa’s Forest, by Forestry

He looks to be a brilliant horse with a bright future after his explosive maiden victory and second in the Louisiana Derby, but he is another who will go into the Kentucky Derby with only three career starts, and I still believe that is too much to ask of a horse especially one whose pedigree is questionable going a mile and a quarter. I do believe, however, he has already outrun his pedigree to some degree by running so well going 1 3/16 miles. If anything he should be a good complement to his stablemate Cyberknife.  His first three generations certainly lean more toward shorter distances, but his third dam is by the distance-loving Big Spruce, a son of the great stamina influence Herbager, and his broodmare sire is out of a daughter of Pleasant Colony, so there is stamina several generations back. And remember, not only did he run well going 1 3/16 miles they flew home in that race. But again it is all about experience and seasoning and I don’t know how effective he will be going a mile and a quarter with his running style in a 20-horse field.

 

17– Pioneer of Medina (Todd Pletcher, Pioneerof the Nile – Lights of Medina, by Eskendereya)

I like his steady progression moving up the class ladder, and after leaping from a “10 ½” Thoro-Graph number to a “3” in his fourth-place finish in the loaded Risen Star Stakes he paired up that “3” in the Louisiana Derby with a solid third-place finish. Now that we know that “3” was legitimate it is time to take another big step forward if he is to have any shot in the Kentucky Derby. At least that number has put him in striking range. All he needs to do is figure out how to win. He has been a one-paced stalker who keeps going, but he needs a closing punch to finish it off. The pedigree is there and he’s already been 1 1/8 miles and 1 3/16 miles against the No. 1 ranked horse and was right there in the Risen Star against the No. 2 and 3-ranked horses, who were No. 1 and 2 at the time. So there is a lot to recommend him. But he has to show improvement one more time.

 

18– Slow Down Andy (Doug O’Neill, Nyquist – Edwina E, by Square Eddie)

Talk about an enigmatic horse, this is him. He does so many things wrong in a race and looks ugly doing it, but he knows how to win and has proven to be one tough nut to crack when headed in the stretch. He has twice now turned back challenges, once by Messier, while seemingly goofing around. The addition of blinkers in the Sunland Derby may have helped him and hurt him at the same time. It may have helped him because he won, but it may have hurt him because he went way too fast early and he is not going to win the Kentucky Derby running the way he did in that race; certainly not if Forbidden Kingdom is in there. He has looked good in the morning, working strongly, and O’Neill certainly knows how to win the Derby, once with this colt’s sire, so we’ll see what magic he can pull out of his hat this time. One thing we know, he will keep the race interesting.

 

19– Ethereal Road (Wayne Lukas, Quality Road – Sustained by War Front)

He’s not Secret Oath, but he certainly belongs in the Kentucky Derby. I thought he was the best horse in the Rebel Stakes, losing a lot of ground and getting the fastest Thoro-Graph number, which he has worked down from a “9” to a “4,” so it seems he is moving in the right direction and it will be interesting to see how he does in the Blue Grass Stakes. He was re-routed to Keeneland after it was decided to run his more illustrious female stablemate in the Arkansas Derby. If he can take another step forward and get a good trip he could make his presence felt against the likes of Smile Happy, Zandon, and Emmanuel. It would be great to get the 86-year-old Lukas back to the Derby. There is nothing like stopping at his barn at Churchill Downs at 5 a.m. in the weeks before the Derby and just chatting with the coach about whatever is on his mind that day. And believe me he always has something to say.

 

20– Crown Pride (Koishi Shintani, Reach the Crown – Emmy’s Pride by King Kamehameha)

Yes, it is time to welcome a Japanese horse to the Rankings. After last year’s Breeders’ Cup and this year’s Dubai World Cup card there is no avoiding these horses any longer, and you can’t knock his UAE Derby victory, in which he was able to sustain a long steady run and overtake a tough opponent in Summer is Tomorrow. Even though he never changed leads down that long stretch he was running strongly at the end to pull away late. He has looked great in all his starts except in the Hyacinth Stakes in the mud. If he makes it here you can bet he will get support at the windows and in wagering accounts and will draw a large enthusiastic crowd from Japan to cheer him on. Remember, this horse is inbred to Sunday Silence and I believe he may be the real deal. But we’ll know more as the Derby gets closer.

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

SECRET OATH gave us a thrill with her monster move on the turn in the Arkansas Derby, but she got tired and will now have five weeks to get ready for the Kentucky Oaks. Rebel winner UN OJO never showed a thing, but cut himself up pretty badly on the starting gate, requiring staples to close the wound. CLASSIC CAUSEWAY ran a real head-scratcher in the Florida Derby, tiring badly after setting the early pace and finishing dead last. You never know on the Derby trail. One minute he was heading to Blue Grass Stakes looking great with two big wins at Tampa and the next he winds up in the Florida Derby off only three weeks rest and it all falls apart.

Looking ahead to the weekend, VOLCANIC and stablemate GOLDEN GLIDER had easy half-mile breezes for the Blue Grass Stakes. I can see Volcanic in particular taking a big step forward and making his presence felt. I think this colt has a bright future. El Camino Real Derby winner BLACKADDER, who scratched from the Jeff Ruby Steaks after drawing the far outside post, will return to the dirt in the Blue Grass for Rudy Brissset after breezing five furlongs in 1:02 4/5 in company. Also pointing for the Blue Grass is Tampa Bay Derby runner-up GRANTHAM, who worked a half in :48 3/5, and FENWICK, who woke up with blinkers added last time out and romped by 5 ¼ lengths in a Tampa Bay maiden race.

Todd Pletcher could have a sleeper in the Wood Memorial in GOLDEN CODE, who  romped by over 10 lengths in a maiden race before running a strong third in the Gotham Stakes. The son of Honor Code should appreciate the stretch-out to two turns. Remember last year’s Wood when Pletcher had Dynamic One, but won the race with longshot Bourbonic owned by Calumet Farm and ridden by Kendrick Carmouche. Golden Code also is owned by Calumet Farm and will be ridden by Kendrick Carmouche. Saffie Joseph will be represented by A.P.’s SECRET, seventh in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and SKIPPYLONGSTOCKING, an impressive allowance winner going 1 1/8 miles last out, in the Wood, but don’t be surprised to see the undefeated New York-bred BARESE charging down the stretch at a big price following impressive stakes victories in the state-bred Rego Park and Gander Stakes. The son of Laoban packs a wallop and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him right in the thick of things.

Doug O’Neill will send HAPPY JACK, a well-beaten third in the San Felipe Stakes, and recent maiden winner WIN THE DAY, who worked six furlongs in 1:14, to the Santa Anita Derby.

IN DUE TIME had his second work back after three weeks of inactivity, breezing five furlongs in 1:01, but is not listed among the possibles or probables for any of this weekend stakes. The Lexington Stakes could get him in the Derby with a victory, but he would have to go to Churchill never having run farther than 1 1/16 miles and that is not desirable, so perhaps the Preakness is the goal.

Derby Rankings: Week 11

Monday, March 28th, 2022

After 10 weeks we finally have a new No. 1, but that could change in the next couple of weeks when the final preps will be run, with a number of top horses needing first or second-place points to even get in the Derby. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Mar. 28, 2022 – Week 11

By Steve Haskin

1– Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

Sometimes a horse will force you to do something, and Epicenter finally forced me to do something I have been reluctant to do since day one and that is to knock my No. 1 and 2 horses down a notch. I may have to put them back after the Blue Grass Stakes, but they are going to have to run exceptional races for me to do it. I have been saying for weeks the only thing I need to see from Epicenter is the ability to sit behind horses if he had to and use his tactical speed rather than his front-running speed. That would make him the complete Derby package. Not only did he demonstrate that adaptability, he was able to sit behind two very good horses while hemmed in along the rail, but acting like he had been doing that his entire career. When he finally came off the rail nearing the top of the stretch and fanned out, he went right by the pace-setting second choice Zozos and drew off to win by 2 ½ lengths, closing his final three-sixteenths in a sensational :18 1/5. Good luck finding any Preakness winners who came home faster than that. And he did it following a :24 1/5 quarter. He did everything Rosario asked him to and never was touched with the whip. Epicenter came to the wire flicking his ears back and forth, and when Zozos came alongside him on the gallop-out he re-broke, took off, and just kept going as if he were ready to go around again. If you are looking for the perfect Derby prep this was it. Now I cannot think of a thing this horse can’t do or a reason to keep him off the top spot.

 

2– Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

He did nothing to lose his No. 1 ranking except not run enough and not win a race since November. It has all been speculative with him, and I still think very highly of him, but he is going to have to run a huge race in the Blue Grass against a tough field and show that explosive kick we saw last year to erase the image of Epicenter toying with him in the Risen Star. So for now let’s just look ahead at the all-important final preps coming up and what he and the other horses have to accomplish and what is expected of them. Now that Messier is officially on the Derby trail, you can certainly make a case for him as No. 1 if he knocks off Forbidden Kingdom in the Santa Anita Derby. So Smile Happy has no room for error in the Blue Grass when he takes on Zandon and Emmanuel among others. He had his “we’ll give him that one” race in the Risen Star, and now he has to live up to his promise. If he is defeated again he better have a darn good excuse and show that he is ready to peak on the first Saturday in May and can win the Derby off two defeats this year. This is what happens when you have lightly raced horses that you don’t know much about. He did have a setback last year, which could be the reason why he was ridden so conservatively in the Risen Star. It took him time to get back and that could hurt him if he doesn’t get a lot out of the Blue Grass. He has been No. 1 all year based on what we saw in his two starts last year, but that was a long time ago, and, although he ran a good race in the Risen Star he did not show that same spark as last year. I just need to see that spark and for him to get something out of the race. In short, everything hinges on whether we see that same horse who was flawless in every aspect last year.

 

3– Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

A lot of what was said about Smile Happy can be said about him, except for the fact he has faced more adversity and has been at more of disadvantage in his races, and in many ways has shown more versatility. We may have seen the best of Smile Happy, but with him there seems to be more room for improvement and perhaps giving him a higher ceiling, because it is obvious we have not seen his best. I have no idea what he is capable of when things go his way and he is able to put it all together. In many ways he needs a victory more than Smile Happy because, with everything he’s shown so far, he still has lost two of his three races, although as I have stated several times he should have been placed first in the Remsen Stakes after clearly being mugged late by Mo Donegal. To do what he did going a mile and an eighth in a Grade 2 stakes coming off one six-furlong maiden race and pressing the pace the whole way was exceptional, as was his performance in the Risen Star when a bad start dropped him back to last and he had to rally wide like a seasoned closer. That is why we still have no idea how good this colt really is. After April 9, who knows what the Rankings are going to look like. But he intrigues me more than any of the others, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see a breakout performance at Keeneland…if things go his way for a change.

 

4– Messier (Tim Yakteen, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

If you like this colt don’t let the switch to Yakteen dissuade you. He’s been around, he’s a good horseman, and he’s very close to Baffert, having come with him to the Thoroughbreds from Quarter-Horse racing as an assistant. But although Messier is in good hands, this is still the Bob Baffert show regardless of who puts the saddle on him for the Santa Anita Derby. His foundation is Baffert and his works are Baffert, as we saw with his recent six-furlong drill in 1:11 2/5 with John Velazquez up. If Messier wins the Kentucky Derby what an interesting scene that will be on the winner’s podium, as Baffert’s presence no doubt will be felt, especially by the people who banned him. We’ll see how many times Yakteen mentions him and thanks him for the opportunity and how many times SF Racing thanks him for the great job he did developing the horse. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. This is a very talented colt, and if he is as impressive as he was in the Robert, B. Lewis Stakes and beats Forbidden Kingdom the way he did in the Bob Hope Stakes there is a good chance you’re looking at the Kentucky Derby favorite. We had him ranked pretty high for several weeks, and now that he’s officially on the Derby trail and eligible for points there will be no ignoring him any longer. He’s in good hands with Yakteen. He is bred to easily handle a mile and a quarter, and if you want an appropriately named sire to describe Baffert’s career and an appropriately named dam to describe Churchill Downs’ opinion of him here they are – Empire Maker and Checkered Past. Regardless of what the program says the empire ain’t dead yet.

5– Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

The Florida Derby will not only tell us how good he is, but who he is, as we have seen several different sides to him. We know he can beat you with pure speed and can come home fast being on a strong pace the whole way; we know he can rally from far off the pace due to a bad start; and we know he can win from off the pace when he is simply asked to do so. And of course we know he can draw off in the stretch and win by three or four lengths or by 17 lengths, as he did in his brilliant maiden victory in 1:09 4/5. He did get in a bad habit of not changing leads in his last two races, but he changed smoothly after several strides in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, so we know he can do it; he just has to make sure he fixes that in the Florida Derby. We have also learned he’s tough as nails, splitting his head open on the starting gate at the start of an allowance race that would require 20 staples to close the wound and he still ran though it to finish third. Between his brilliance, toughness, and adaptability and the story behind his trainer he surely would be one of the more popular horses at Churchill Downs. We just have to see how he handles White Abarrio and Classic Causeway and the others in the Florida Derby and find out for sure how he likes to run. And, yes, if he can get back to changing leads. He showed his sharpness with a five-furlong work in :59 4/5, so all systems are go.

 

6– Morello (Steve Asmussen, Classic Empire – Stop the Wedding, by Congrats)

He is another lightly raced colt with a world of potential who still has to prove himself, in his case going two turns and facing better quality competition. The Wood Memorial could draw a large field of horses looking to avoid a confrontation with Smile Happy, Zandon and Emmanuel in the Blue Grass Stakes. I believe he is another who needs to win to uphold his image as a potential star or at the very least run an outstanding second to an accomplished horse with two-turn experience. You can excuse a first career defeat in a first attempt at two turns if it looks like he is going to show big improvement in his second attempt. Also, he has to build a solid foundation in this race and put some bottom under him to prepare him to go a mile and a quarter in only his second two-turn race and fourth career start. I don’t see any problems in the talent department because I believe his talent is limitless. He has checked off every box so far, especially his mechanics and professionalism, and he gives the impression that there are a lot of important victories ahead for him. The Wood should tell us where he is now in relation to the other Derby contenders and if he is ready to take that next big step.

7– Secret Oath (D. Wayne Lukas, Arrogate – Absenthe Minded, by Quiet American)

One has to have mixed feelings about her winning the Arkansas Derby, as she is far from a certainty to go on to the Kentucky Derby. Yes, there will be pressure on her connections to run her, but as of now they still seem to be leaning toward the Oaks, which could very well leave the Arkansas Derby irrelevant in relation to the Kentucky Derby. But we’ll deal with that after we see how she does on April 2. She sure has all the tools to win the Arkansas and Kentucky Derbys, from her pedigree to her explosive turn of foot that has decimated her opponents this year. We have also seen her overcome trouble in a race. But although the Arkansas Derby doesn’t look like it has any world beaters coming out of the preps, there are exciting new faces like We the People, Chasing Time, Call Me Jamal, Cyberknife, and the Baffert/Yakteen invader Doppelganger. So, as sensational as Secret Oath has looked, she hasn’t faced horses of this caliber and she was well beaten in two of her three starts last year. But she has been an absolute beast this year and if she is as good as she has looked crushing her opponents in her three starts then it could get very interesting if she wins the Arkansas Derby.

 

8– White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

What makes the Florida Derby so appealing are the back stories of two of its headliners, White Abarrio and Simplification, a pair of hard-knocking lunch pail horses on the verge of stardom. White Abarrio actually was bred by Spendthrift Farm, but there was nothing about him that made it worthwhile to keep him. He was on the small side and not fashionably bred, so they put him in the Keeneland January mixed sale as a newly turned yearling. But in November they scratched him from the sale after selling majority interest in him as part of a package deal made up of weanlings with lesser bred pedigrees. The buyer was Raul Reyes of Kings Equine who has been breaking the Spendthrift yearlings for years and selling horses for them. The colt, in addition to being small, was not a standout physically. So instead of selling at the Keeneland January sale, he was put in the Ocala January mixed sale, where he sold to Jose Ordonez for a paltry $7,500. He was then pinhooked to the Ocala March 2-year-old sale and was purchased by owner/trainer Carlos Perez for $40,000. In his first start for Perez at Gulfstream on September 24 and racing under the name Clap Embroidery he went off at 12-1 and broke slowly from the rail before quickly moving up into fourth. Seemingly trapped behind horses, he charged up between the two leaders nearing the head of the stretch and burst clear at the eighth pole to win by 6 ½ lengths. Watching in the stands was Mark Cornett of C2 Racing, who was so impressed with what he saw he purchased the colt, turned him over to Saffie Joseph Jr., and now is only one race away from having one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. More on Joseph in Knocking on the Door.

 

9– Classic Causeway (Brian Lynch, Giant’s Causeway – Private World, by Thunder Gulch)

Lynch has decided to stay home and come back in three weeks for the Florida Derby rather than wait for the Blue Grass Stakes. His races from a visual standpoint tell me he has made great strides from 2 to 3. His speed figures as a whole tell me he has not, as his Thoro-Graph number of “5” in the Sam Davis and Tampa Bay Derby is the same number he got in his career debut. From a visual standpoint it’s hard to believe he hasn’t improved since then, but if you go by the numbers a “5” will not come close to winning the Kentucky Derby. So can he make a big jump on Saturday to put himself in position to win the Derby? That’s what we’re going to find out. He also has to show he can beat better horses than the ones he beat at Tampa. I believe he probably is a better horse than his speed figures indicate, but in order to analyze all aspects of the colt and what he has to do to move forward they must be mentioned. Lynch has done a super job training him, combining speed with stamina by giving him long stiff works. You don’t see many trainers work their horses like that anymore. He had an excellent final work for the Florida Derby, drilling a half in :47 2/5, second fastest of 93 works at the distance, so you can expect him to be right up with the pace again. He has the stamina and he has good early speed when needed. Now we just have to see if he can combine everything and take that next big step.

 

10– Forbidden Kingdom (Dick Mandella, American Pharoah – Just Louise, by Five Star Day)

I know I have him ranked much lower than most, but I need to see how he handles Messier going a mile and an eighth before I can consider him a horse who will stay the mile and a quarter in a 20-horse field. He has not faced more than six opponents in his career, and in the seven-furlong Bob Hope Stakes last year he was extremely rank early, blazing along in :21 2/5 and :43 1/5, and Messier blew right by him. He still set very fast fractions in his San Vicente victory this year against a trio of Baffert horses and Mandella has since had him break off well behind his workmates in the morning. He seemed more relaxed early in his two-turn debut in the San Felipe while opening a big lead, but that was not a strong field and he just outdistanced everyone. I did like his most recent work when he went six furlongs in 1:14 1/5 and continued strong past the wire. Mandella got him working five-eighths in 1:01 and galloping out in 1:13 and change. “This was the first work since the San Felipe Stakes.” Mandella said. “He went the first eighth in :13 and finished in :24 sittin’ easy, so it couldn’t be better.” Slow early and fast late is the key to this colt, and we will see if that’s the way the Santa Anita Derby plays out. It’s still going to be hard to keep him off the lead, which actually is where you want to be in what looks to be a virtual match race. It’s all about controlling his speed and saving something for the end, and coming out of the race looking like a Derby horse.

 

11– Emmanuel (Todd Pletcher, More Than Ready – Hard Cloth, by Hard Spun)

I still consider him a sleeper after his race in the Fountain of Youth, in which he had a terrible trip, losing a lot of ground, and even though he finished fourth, beaten 5 ¼ lengths, he still was able to improve his mundane Thoro-Graph numbers from back-to-back “8s” to a respectable “4 ¼.” And I did like the wide move he made to get into contention before tiring a bit, which was to be expected considering his bad start, loss of ground, and making only his third career start against much better competition. He previously had toyed with his opponents, loping along on an easy lead. This time he had to face adversity and proved to me he was a serious horse. The Blue Grass will be an even tougher field, but the main contenders are also lightly raced horses, so we will get a good idea how much he has improved and how he stacks up against the highly ranked horses. He will have to take another significant step forward in his Thoro-Graph numbers if he is to handle horses like Smile Happy and Zandon, but as I mentioned they also have had only three career starts, so we really don’t know how good any of these horses are.

 

12– Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

It’s been so long I barely remember this horse other than he is a consistent closer who would move way up with a big performance in the Wood Memorial. Despite his nine-week layoff after getting sick and having his schedule disrupted he does have a strong foundation with several excellent two-turn performances under his belt. He did show his sharpness Saturday with a five-furlong work in 1:00 4/5. Right now I would call him solid. He’s not going to dazzle you and as I have mentioned several times I felt he should have been disqualified in the Remsen Stakes. But the Derby picture is going to start changing dramatically in the next few weeks and a Wood victory or even a strong second would surely put him in contention. His Thoro-Graph numbers have been stuck around “6,” which he has run in his last three starts, so he is going to have to make a pretty big leap to put him in position to win or be competitive in the Kentucky Derby. One thing you can count on is he will be closing in the Wood, and I’m not sure how deep that field is going to be, with Morello and another seldom seen colt, Early Voting, his main threats. But you can bet others will migrate up to New York to escape the tougher prep races.

 

13– Doppelganger (Tim Yakteen, Into Mischief – Twice the Lady, by Quiet American)

I’ve been waiting to put him in the Rankings for a while, because like many others I believe he is a lightly raced horse on an upward trajectory and has not had an opportunity recently to show who he is. He showed it in his career debut when he rallied from seventh going six furlongs to win by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:09 1/5 at Los Alamitos. But in his two starts since he has had to chase a loose on the lead Forbidden Kingdom and did at least close the gap on him each time. In the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes he wanted no part in chasing a :44 2/5 half, trying to catch not only Forbidden Kingdom but another fast horse in stablemate Pinehurst, winner of the Del Mar Futurity. In the San Felipe Stakes, his first race around two turns, he never saw Forbidden Kingdom who was so far in front of him right from the start after he broke a bit slowly. But he wasn’t rushed and rated kindly some 10 lengths off the pace. He had no shot to win, but was the only one to at least go after Forbidden Kingdom, cutting his margin down to 5 ¾ lengths at the finish while finishing well clear of the others. Since that race he turned in a sensational six-furlong work in 1:10 4/5. Now he heads to Bob Baffert’s playground, Oaklawn Park, for the Arkansas Derby where he faces Wayne Lukas’ fabulous filly Secret Oath, a possible up-and-coming star in We the People, and for the most part a field of OK horses who have not set the world afire in the Oaklawn prep races. I can’t predict what he’s going to do, but I can say that a big performance will make him a serious Kentucky Derby horse.

 

14– Zozos (Brad Cox, Munnings – Papa’s Forest, by Forestry)

When I first looked at his pedigree I felt his first three generations leaned more heavily toward shorter distances, and obviously it still does, but when a horse can finish second to arguably the best 3-year-old in the country going 1 3/16 miles in his third career start, setting all the pace and hanging tough in the stretch, then you have to conclude he is just a darn good horse who is utilizing the stamina he does have farther back in his pedigree, such as his third dam being by the distance-loving Big Spruce, a son of the great stamina influence Herbager, and his broodmare sire being out of a daughter of Pleasant Colony, a son of His Majesty. As an added point of interest, Saturday’s Dubai World Cup winner Country Grammer is inbred to Pleasant Colony. Zozos also is inbred three times to Secretariat. It looked like a bold move trying to outrun Epicenter early, but he did it with little effort and had the improving Pioneer of Medina lapped on him most of the way. As fast as they came home he never showed any signs of tiring and was still striding out strongly at the wire. I don’t know how effective he will be going a mile and a quarter with his running style and his lack of experience, but there is no doubt he has a bright future.

 

15– Early Voting (Chad Brown, Gun Runner – Amour d’ete, By Tiznow)

The Wood Memorial is coming up a strange race. Yes, Morello is making his two-turn debut, but what makes this race so hard figure out is that you have two horses who have already won stakes at 1 1/8 miles and are coming into the Wood off nine-week layoffs, so we have no idea what to expect from him or Mo Donegal. They both are coming off sharp five-furlong works, with Early Voting going in 1:00 2/5 at Belmont Park. What I loved about Early Voting’s Withers victory was how quickly he separated himself from the rest of the field approaching the head of the stretch, and this was only the second start of his career. Of course, two horses who came out of that race, Un Ojo and Grantham, both went on to turn in huge efforts in the Rebel Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby, finishing first and second, respectively at big prices. We just have to see if Early Voting can follow suit. Like many 3-year-olds this year he just doesn’t have enough of a resume to get a good line on him. Whatever he does in the Wood will not surprise me.

16– Pioneer of Medina (Todd Pletcher, Pioneerof the Nile – Lights of Medina, by Eskendereya)

Although he has proven on two occasions he is no match for Epicenter, he also has proven he is a tough consistent colt who is going to give you 100 percent every race. He is improving, but is short on weapons. He apparently likes to track horses and keeps running hard to the wire, but he hasn’t shown enough punch to pass them or hold off horses coming from behind, so he is forced to settle for third or fourth. He only has 25 points, which normally would put him either way down the list or on the bubble, but this year there is a good chance it can get you in the Derby. The big question is whether he is good enough right now to make an impact on the race with his running style and lack of a big closing punch. But as I said, he is moving forward with each race, so you never know.

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Continuing with the story of WHITE ABARRIO, Saffie Joseph grew up on his father’s farm in Barbados and has been around horses since he was 3. His parents wanted him to go to college, but after one year at Florida International University he realized that horses were in his blood and he returned to Barbados and started training. But he had higher aspirations, so he returned to Florida to train even though he had no horses. He picked up a few claimers and then in 2019 he won a six-way shake and claimed a horse named Math Wizard, who would go on to win the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby. After the race an emotional Joseph said, “This is what I dream of. It’s all I ever wanted to do in life. I never doubted my ability. If I had the horses I felt I was as capable as anyone. Without the horses I’m nothing.“ Well he might have THE horse and now we’ll see if he can take him from his father’s farm in Barbados to racing’s ultimate glory.

I will say this for SLOW DOWN ANDY he sure knows how to win ugly. I had a spot all reserved for him in the Rankings once he took care of business in the Sunland Park Derby. But now, with this race being run on Sunday night, well after my column is usually sent in, I have to give it time to sink in. So he gets blinkers for the first time and runs the speedy Straight Up G off his feet after taking it to him right from the start and blazing along in :22 1/5, :45 1/5 and 1:09 2/5. After putting him away, Mine That Bird Derby runner-up BYE BYE BOBBY comes charging up alongside and looks like he going to blow by Slow Down Andy, who battles back, but starts his antics of cocking his head to the right again. Just like with Messier in the Los Alamitos Futurity, he appears beaten, but refuses to give up even though he looks like a mess, cocking his head and swishing his tail every time he gets hit. After those suicidal fractions, Andy went his next quarter in a pokey :27 2/5. But his final eighth in :13 1/5 was not bad all things considered. He certainly is an entertaining horse who does everything unconventionally, and he knows how to fight, but I need a little more time to determine whether he is a Derby horse, especially if he’s going to get keyed up with blinkers. It sure put speed in him, but now it is time to slow down Andy. I’ll probably rank him next week just so I can keep writing about him.

It looks as if there is interest in running UAE Derby winner CROWN PRIDE in the Kentucky Derby if his owner can be convinced. With Japanese horses starting to dominate international racing, having won five stakes on the Dubai World Cup card and two Breeders’ Cup victories last year, you certainly can’t dismiss this colt, who loved the stretch-out to 1 3/16 miles, wearing down a stubborn SUMMER IS TOMORROW before drawing clear to win by 2 ¾ lengths despite never changing leads in the stretch. He was in the clear all the way before rallying four-wide. Crown Pride, who is inbred 3 x 4 to Sunday Silence, won his first two starts convincingly, but faltered in the mud in the Hyacinth Stakes. The final time and closing fractions of the UAE Derby were pretty slow, but it’s tough to figure out how to interpret that. The runner-up, who was coming off an 8 1/4-length victory at Meydan, also is being considered for the Derby, but unlike Crown Pride, his pedigree is all U.S. breeding, having been bred in Kentucky by Brereton Jones’ Airdrie Stud, who is also the breeder of Zandon.

It apparently took IN DUE TIME a while to recover from his second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, which was his stakes debut, but he finally returned to the work tab with a five-furlong drill in a sharp 1:00 flat, so he apparently has fully recovered, as evidenced by Breen working him five furlongs first time back and letting him roll. Despite running second, his Thoro-Graph number regressed significantly, going from a “3” to a “6.” That “3” came off a huge leap from an “8 ¾,”so maybe a “bounce” should not have come as a surprise, but that was a big step backwards even though he looked good visually, closing fairly strong and striding out well at the finish. Whatever the effects were from that race, which kept him off the work tab for three weeks, we will have to see how he bounces back and what the plans are for him. Once we learn more I am sure he will be back in the Rankings

It doesn’t take a genius to see that RATTLE N ROLL is not the horse we saw last year. Whether he hasn’t recovered from the injury he suffered after the Breeders’ Futurity or has just lost that spark he showed when he blew his field away at Keeneland. For a brief second you could see him lower his head as if he were going to make that big move on the turn, but he went nowhere and at least was able to get fourth, beaten eight lengths, in a three-horse photo with two other disappointments, GALT and CALL ME MIDNIGHT.

After three strong five-furlong works, the exciting but lightly raced CHARGE IT blew out a half in :48 1/5 for the Florida Derby. The half-brother to Will Take Charge is taking a big step up from a maiden race, but that maiden race was so impressive it stamped him as a star in the making. Todd Pletcher could have run Emmanuel back in the Florida Derby or even Mo Donegal, but he elected to run an unproven maiden winner instead. I wrote extensively about him after that race and how impressive his performance was. Once again, he has run only twice and would be up against in the Kentucky Derby with only three lifetime starts, but these days you can never dismiss any horse with exceptional talent. If he can beat the likes of Simplification, White Abarrio, and Classic Causeway off that maiden race I wouldn’t even venture a guess what he’d be capable of at Churchill Downs.

Speaking of the Florida Derby, the real sneaky horse could be PAPPACAP, who turned in another sharp work, going a half in :47 1/5 at Mark Casse’s training center. If you can forgive his one baffling performance last time out you already know what he’s capable of and he has been working brilliantly. Picture a company which had been successful, but suffered one bad blow and its stock plummeted. Now that company is making strides to try to get back on its feet. If you believed in that company before, this is the time to buy up stock because you’re never going to see that price again. Many a killing has been made on Wall Street that way, buying up stock in a company when their market is down. I’m not saying Pappacap is going to win the Florida Derby, but if he can bounce back and look like the horse we saw in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and you have invested in him when his market was down, who knows what kind of killing you can make on the first Saturday in May.

Another horse pointing for the Florida Derby, O CAPTAIN, who is coming off a fast-closing third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at 87-1, had a leisurely five-furlong breeze in 1:03 at Gulfstream. At Tampa Bay, SHIPSATIONAL, who was second in the Sam F. Davis and third in the Tampa Derby, worked five furlongs in 1:02 for the Florida Derby.

At Oaklawn, three Arkansas Derby hopefuls had their final works Saturday, with Rebel winner UN OJO going an easy half in :48 4/5, out in 1:02; the undefeated WE THE PEOPLE working a sharp half in :47, out in 1:00 4/5 in company, with trainer Rudy Brisset aboard; and BEN DIESEL going five furlongs in a brisk :59 flat in company with the older stakes winner Last Samurai. On Sunday, BARBER ROAD, who has been knocking on the door all year, worked a half in :49 2/5, out in 1:01 4/5. Earlier in the week, CHASING TIME worked five furlongs in 1:00 flat, as he tries to rebound off his fifth-place finish in the Rebel. One Oaklawn horse heading to the Blue Grass Stakes is ETHEREAL ROAD, who worked five furlongs in 1:00 1/5 for Wayne Lukas. I feel he was the best horse in the Rebel Stakes and definitely is improving, as his Thoro-Graph numbers indicate.

Mark Casse’s other horses also continue to work well at his training center, with VOLCANIC going five furlongs in :59 2/5 and GOLDEN GLIDER a half in :48 2/5. Volcanic, who likely is heading for the Blue Grass Stakes, passed the Tampa Bay Derby after a solid third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, in which he was three-wide the whole way and got a “5 ½” Thoro-Graph number, only a half-point slower than the victorious Classic Causeway. Remember, this is a horse who outdueled Charge It in a virtual match race in his previous start.

At Keeneland, TIZ THE BOMB had another sharp drill, working a half in :47 1/5 for the Jeff Ruby Steaks.  If he passes that test it will be interesting to see if they take a shot and point him for the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket..

COMMANDPERFORMANCE is off the Derby trail after failing in a maiden race at Tampa Bay. We know the talent is there, having seen him finish a strong second in the Champagne Stakes as a maiden with only one start. But after battling through ankle problems he has to get his mind back into racing. If Pletcher can find that spark again we still could see him in the Belmont Stakes.

Derby Rankings: Week 10

Monday, March 21st, 2022

It’s the proverbial lull before the storm, as all camps sit back this week and get ready for the big 100-point races that should clear up the Derby picture once and for all and separate the contenders from the pretenders. During this lull we will focus our attention on pedigrees and see which horses will thrive going a mile and a quarter with a majority of those mentioned below carrying the bloodline of this website’s illustrious namesake. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Mar. 21, 2022 – Week 10

By Steve Haskin

 

1– Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

He turned in quite a work in company with Rattle N Roll, going five furlongs in a bullet :58 4/5, and was going the easier of the two. McPeek has left the door open for a possible switch to the Florida Derby. Looking at his pedigree, Runhappy’s sire Super Saver won the Kentucky Derby and Super Saver’s broodmare sire A.P. Indy won the Belmont and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Super Saver traces to Majestic Light, who is by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince, out of a Ribot mare. Smile Happy’s female family is as strong a classic pedigree as I have seen. His broodmare sire Pleasant Tap, a three-quarter brother to Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin, won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Suburban Handicap and was so versatile he placed in the Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Pleasant Tap is by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony, a major classic and stamina influence by Ribot’s son His Majesty, also a major classic and stamina influence. Pleasant Tap’s dam is by Belmont Stakes winner Stage Door Johnny, another major and classic stamina influence. Smile Happy’s second dam is by Relaunch, sire of Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Waquoit, and his third dam is by His Majesty’s full-brother, the top classic and stamina influence Graustark, sire of Belmont winner Avatar, giving Smile Happy the Rasmussen Factor (RF), being inbred to a top-class broodmare, in this case Flower Bowl, winner of the Delaware Handicap, who also produced Coaching Club American Oaks winner and Hall of Famer Bowl of Flowers. That also gives Smile Happy three doses of Ribot in his pedigree. And finally, Smile Happy’s fifth dam, the Darby Dan-bred Bravura, is also the fifth dam of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide and Belmont winner Empire Maker, both of whom combined to sweep the 2003 Triple Crown.

 

2– Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

He turned in another strong half-mile work in :48 4/5 over the deep Payson Park track. He doesn’t have your typical pedigree being inbred to little known French miler Siberian Express, winner of the French 2,000 Guineas, and being by up-and-coming sire, stakes-winning Upstart, who placed in the Florida Derby, Whitney, Met Mile, and Haskell Invitational. Zandon’s two paternal great-grandsires, Touch Gold and A.P. Indy, both won the Belmont Stakes. Upstart’s sire Flatter, sired Flat Out, two-time winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Suburban Handicap, and Upstart is inbred top and bottom to the great classic stamina influence Buckpasser. Zandon’s first two dams were bred by Brereton Jones’ Airdrie Stud and this family traces to the great foundation mare Boudoir, making this the family of Majestic Prince, Graustark, His Majesty, Bowl of Flowers, and Your Host, sire of Kelso. Zandon’s broodmare sire Creative Cause, a son of Giant’s Causeway, won the San Felipe and placed in the Preakness and Santa Anita Derby. Zandon’s pedigree also has the three ubiquitous daughters of Secretariat, Weekend Surprise, Terlingua, and Secrettame, who together have dominated the American bloodlines. So there certainly is enough here to suggest Zandon will not have any problems getting a mile and a quarter.

 

3– Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

If there is an Always Dreaming, Justify, Maximum Security, Authentic, or Medina Spirit in this year’s Derby it looks like him, as he is the one horse you don’t want to see loose on the lead, which he could very well be again in the Louisiana Derby. He gets most of his speed from his sire side through top-class sprinters Trippi, Great Above, and Ta Wee, but his sire is one of the hottest young stallions in the country and his paternal grandsire Giant’s Causeway was one of the best 1 ¼-mile horses in the world and whose maternal great-grandsire is English Derby winner Roberto. On the female side, Epicenter’s broodmare sire Candy Ride set a new track record winning the 1 ¼-mile Pacific Classic, and Candy Ride’s grandsire Cryptoclearance was a multiple stakes winner at 1 ¼ miles and was second in the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. In the bottom half of his pedigree you have English 2,000 Guineas winner King of Kings to give him that good mile speed along with being inbred to the brilliant French 2,000 Guineas winner Blushing Groom. For stamina, there is the great Sadler’s Wells; Ela-Mana-Mou, winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Eclipse Stakes and third in the Arc de Triomphe; and Busted, also winner of the King George and Eclipse Stakes, who sired St. Leger and Coronation Cup winner Bustino. It is those European classic-distance horses that enable him to carry his speed and come home in fast fractions. That makes it tough on his opponents, who can only hope there will be someone fast enough to not only run with him early, but stay with him long enough to slow him down in the stretch.

 

4– Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

Last week we talked about how tough, durable, and adaptable this colt is. He can dazzle you with his speed on the front end or he can sweep past horses coming from well off the pace. He just needs to get back to switching leads in the stretch. Like Epicenter, he is by the red-hot sire Not This Time, out of a Candy Ride mare, making this a potent combination. And he also is inbred to Blushing Groom (three times) so their pedigrees are extremely similar and he gets those same speed influences on top. One of the great stamina influences of the past quarter century is Herbager, and Simplification’s dam is inbred 4×4 to the great French-bred stallion, once through his daughter Ballade, the dam of champions Glorious Song and Devil’s Bag and Simplification’s great-grandsire Saint Ballado. Simplification’s second dam, Ballado’s Halo, is a full-sister to two-time Eclipse champion and Hall of Famer Ashado, as well as Sunriver, who won the Hollywood Turf Cup and Jim Dandy Stakes and placed in the Belmont Stakes, Florida Derby, and Man o’ War Stakes. Simplification also traces to Ribot three times. So don’t expect to see him backing up in the stretch. Like the horses of the past, he will scrape, claw, and battle for every inch and will never stop fighting. He is the kind of horse you really want to see in the Derby. 

 

5– Morello (Steve Asmussen, Classic Empire – Stop the Wedding, by Congrats)

Unlike the other contenders he will be making his two-turn debut in the Wood Memorial, so there is a lot at stake. His mechanics, running style, and professionalism suggest that will not be a problem. His sire, who is a grandson of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Cat Thief, won three Grade 1 stakes around two turns, including the Arkansas Derby, and he was second in the Preakness and fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Classic Empire’s sire is Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile, second in the Kentucky Derby and sire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Pioneerof the Nile is by Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, who is by Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled. Morello’s broodmare sire Congrats won a pair of two-turn stakes and placed in the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup. Looking at Morello’s four great-grandsires, they have combined to win two Belmont Stakes, two Breeders’ Cup Classics, and a Travers. And his fourth dam is by champion grass horse Assagai, winner of the mile and a half Man o’ War Stakes. If he can beat seasoned classy horses stretching out to 1 1/8 miles in his two-turn debut, the sky’s the limit. So far there is nothing about this horse I don’t love.

 

6– Secret Oath (D. Wayne Lukas, Arrogate – Absenthe Minded, by Quiet American)

With her commitment to the Arkansas Derby it is naturally assumed that a huge performance will put her in the Kentucky Derby. All I can say is assume nothing and don’t get too hyped up if she wins the Arkansas Derby. Let’s wait and address that after April 2 when the pressure to run her will begin. We’ll keep her in the Rankings until we’re officially told otherwise. But the Oaks is still very much in the picture. As for her pedigree, her blend of brilliant speed and stamina no doubt contributes to the explosive turn of foot that has buried her rivals in the blink of an eye. She can sit in traffic and bide her time, and when that hole opens she is gone. Earlier, we mentioned the Rasmussen Factor, having inbreeding to top quality mares. Secret Oath is inbred to Tartan Farm’s great producer Aspidistra through her son and daughter, Hall of Famers Dr. Fager and Ta Wee. In fact, she has Dr. Fager twice in her pedigree. She also is inbred to the Tartan stallion Rough’n Tumble, sire of Dr. Fager and the stakes-winning Minnesota Mac, and to Fappiano through his sons Unbridled and Quiet American. Her sire won the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, and Travers Stakes in track-record time. Her dam won or placed in seven two-turn stakes, her broodmare sire sired a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, and her third dam is by Hatchet Man, who defeated Forego in the mile and a quarter Amory Haskell Handicap and is the broodmare sire of Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold. Secret Oath’s dam, Absenthe Minded, traces to the Australian-bred Sky High, sire of champion older horse Autobiography, winner of the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup by 15 lengths defeating champions Key to the Mint and Riva Ridge. Oh, yes, she worked a bullet five furlongs in :59 2/5, out in 1:12 2/5.

 

7– Classic Causeway (Brian Lynch, Giant’s Causeway – Private World, by Thunder Gulch)

Is Classic Causeway fast or does he just give the illusion of being fast? With his pedigree, which is not geared toward speed, it was a surprise to see him win his career debut by 6 ½ lengths going seven furlongs at Saratoga in a swift 1:22 3/5, which is why he was 13-1. Stretching out to two turns, he was on the lead in three of his next four starts and was a close fourth in the other. This year he has set the pace in both his starts at Tampa Bay Downs and was in total control from the first step out of the gate in the Tampa Derby. He sure looked fast, but his 84 Beyer speed figure makes him one of the slowest, if not the slowest, 3-year-olds on the Derby trail. In five career starts he hasn’t been able to run faster than a mediocre “5” Thoro-Graph number, which he has run four times without showing any improvement. So how did he get a 99 Brisnet figure in the Sam F. Davis Stakes? The truth is he’s an anomaly. His sire has been a ubiquitous presence among the Derby pedigrees, but is not known for siring speed horses. His broodmare sire won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, but he is by a champion sprinter and two-time Met-Mile winner. His dam won a couple of small sprint stakes in California and his next four dams either were unraced or ran at small Midwestern tracks in Ohio and Michigan. His second dam is by an Arkansas-bred sire named Dmitri, who ran only once, but his third dam is by Temperence Hill, winner of the Belmont, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Suburban Handicap. So is he really as fast as he looks visually or is he as slow as most of his speed figures indicate? Hopefully we’ll know more in the Blue Grass Stakes.

 

8– White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

I loved everything about his five-furlong work in :59 2/5, and he followed that up with an easier breeze in 1:00 2/5 in company with the focus more on coming home fast and a strong gallop out. Joseph got his final quarter :23. If those works are an indication of what we’re going to see in the Florida Derby he’s ready for a big effort. Here is another horse whose pedigree is a bit of an enigma even though his two grandsires, Tapit and Into Mischief, are arguably the two most influential stallions in the country. His sire Race Day was a pretty solid racehorse, winning the Oaklawn Handicap, Fayette Stakes, and Razorback Handicap. Although he hasn’t done much as a stallion he is the sire of another Derby contender in Barber Road. Race Day’s female family boasts top names such as More Than Ready, In Reality, Key to the Mint, and Graustark. White Abarrio’s dam did nothing on the racetrack and is a half-sister to the pure sprinter Cool Cowboy. There isn’t a lot to say about the rest of his female family, so to me he is still a bit of an unknown when it comes to how far he wants to go. It wouldn’t surprise me either way. With him it is about whether he is as good as he looked in the Holy Bull Stakes and if he can repeat that performance jumping into the Grade 1 Florida Derby off a two-month layoff.

 

9– Forbidden Kingdom (Dick Mandella, American Pharoah – Just Louise, by Five Star Day)

Hopefully the slight fever that forced him to miss a workout will not affect his Santa Anita Derby status. Last week I discussed the speed and stamina in his pedigree. I will go over it again, but keep in mind that as of now it is the speed that has been dominant, and I’m talking about serious sprint speed. Two races back in the Bob Hope Stakes he was way too headstrong early, fighting the rider while setting blazing fractions of :21 2/5 an :43 1/5 and looking nothing at all like a Derby horse. In his two-turn debut in a very weak San Felipe Stakes field, he just shot to the lead and buried his overmatched opponents with fractions of :22 3/5 and :45 4/5. People in general have fallen in love with him as a Derby horse, but we’ll know more after he takes on Messier in the Santa Anita Derby. So once again here is a look at both sides of his pedigree. His raw speed combined with a pedigree that has pure sprinters Five Star Day, Carson City, and Mt. Livermore in his first three generations on the dam side and his dam being very fast in her own right was enough to convince me he was a one-dimensional speedball with sprinters dominating his female family. Upon further study of his pedigree, I will say that there is a bit of a chance he can stretch his speed out. First off, his broodmare sire Five Star Day’s dam is by Vanlandingham, who won the 1 ½-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, as well as the Suburban Handicap and Washington D.C. International. Forbidden Kingdom’s third dam Til Forbid placed in the Alabama and Kentucky Oaks and is by Temperence Hill, who won the Belmont Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Travers, and Suburban. And you can’t forget the fact that Forbidden Kingdom’s sire is a Triple Crown winner. Mandella said one of the colt’s main attributes is his intelligence, so we’ll see if he is able to harness some of that raw speed without taking away his main weapon.

 

10– Emmanuel (Todd Pletcher, More Than Ready – Hard Cloth, by Hard Spun)

When you look at More Than Ready and Hard Spun you naturally might think speed and rightly so. But even though More Than Ready is known more for siring horses running short on the grass, he did recently sire Travers and Belmont Derby winner Catholic Boy. And as for Hard Spun, yes he was fast and his only Grade 1 score came at seven furlongs, but he did finish second in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic and his dam is by the distance-loving Turkoman, out of a half-sister to Preakness and Belmont winner Little Current. Emmanuel’s dam is a half sister to Free Drop Billy, winner of the Breeders’ Futurity and placed in the Blue Grass, Gotham, and Holy Bull Stakes, and to Hawkbill, winner of the Eclipse Stakes, Dubai Sheema Classic, and Princess of Wales’s Stakes. His second dam, Trensa is by Giant’s Causeway and is a half sister to Grade 1 Ballerina winner Serape, a daughter of Fappiano, out of the multiple Grade 1-placed Mochila, a half-sister to champion grass horse Cozzene owned and bred by John Nerud. So there is a good mixture of mile speed and solid mile and a quarter stamina on both grass and dirt. As of now that seems to be right in Emmanuel’s range. Coming off his terrible trip in the Fountain of Youth, you can bet he has grown up quite a bit and is ready to take a big step forward, and it’s been decided that will be in the Blue Grass Stakes.

 

11– Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

Finally back on the work tab, going a half in :49 2/5 in company with Emmanuel. He is such a forgotten horse following his scratch in the Fountain of Youth Stakes if he should return with a victory in the Wood Memorial his stock could very well rise more than any other horse, as he has always been regarded as a leading Derby contender. He is already proven at 1 1/8 miles with his narrow victory over Zandon in the Remsen Stakes and there is nothing in his pedigree to indicate he won’t get another eighth of a mile, especially with his consistent closing punch. Uncle Mo has sired horses who can do pretty much anything at any distance, and in addition to being the leading stallion of graded stakes winners in 2020, he sired 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist. Mo Donegal’s second dam, Island Sand, won the Acorn and Delaware Handicap and placed in the Kentucky Oaks, Mother Goose, and Fantasy Stakes. In 2007, she sold at Keeneland for $4.2 million in foal to A. P. Indy. Island Sand’s sire Tabasco Cat won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and her dam is by Forty Niner, winner of the Travers and Haskell Invitational. All Mo Donegal has to worry about now is bouncing back off a nine-week layoff and improving on his speed figures, especially his last three Thor-Graph numbers of “6,” “6 ½” and “6,” which are pretty pedestrian for this late date.

 

12– Early Voting (Chad Brown, Gun Runner – Amour d’ete, By Tiznow)

His pathetic 74 Beyer speed figure in the Withers Stakes has been lifted 14 points to an 88 because of the big efforts of two beaten horses, Un Ojo and Grantham, since that race, which was almost two months ago. So if you got turned off by that sloth-like Withers number and didn’t bet him in the Future Wager because of that, tough luck. He suddenly has become much faster. You can’t blame Beyer. Who they beat is an integral part of the system. But as you can see, it is far from flawless, so remember that the next time you swear by the numbers. What is true today may not be true tomorrow, although I can’t remember a figure changing this dramatically. For two months his figure was totally out of whack. As I mentioned, when he was a youngster at the farm, he was considered more muscular and compact than the typical Gun Runners, who are more long and lean and look like stayers. A few minor vet issues at 2 caused him to sell for a lower price than expected. But pedigree-wise he is all stamina, with his sire and broodmare sire accounting for three Breeders’ Cup Classic victories, and any horse who can win his career debut going head and head at a flat mile and then draw off and follow that up with a dominating victory going 1 1/8 miles over a deep tiring muddy track has to have a solid foundation despite having only two starts. His female family is very strong, with broodmare sire Tiznow. His third dam is by Chieftain, a half-brother to major stamina influence Tom Rolfe and his fourth dam is by Buckpasser. To show how diverse his pedigree is, his dam is a full-sister to the ill-fated Irap, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, Ohio Derby, and Indiana Derby and third in the Travers, and a half-sister to champion sprinter Speightstown.

 

13– Rattle N Roll (Kenny McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

Worked five furlongs in a bullet :58 4/5 in company with Smile Happy, who maintained a slight advantage to the wire and on the gallop-out. After his lackluster performance in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, which was a questionable spot for his 3-year-old debut, he now finds himself in a much more suitable spot in the Louisiana Derby going 1 3/16 miles down one of the longest stretches in the country, which should suit his strong closing kick. A second-place finish would be good enough to put him back on track, but he has to get a lot out of the race to make up for that stroll in the Fountain of Youth. As for his pedigree, he will run all day. His sire, Connect, a son of Curlin out of a Holy Bull mare, won the Cigar Mile and Pennsylvania Derby. He has a great combination of stamina and speed top and bottom. His second dam is by Jockey Club Gold Cup and Suburban Handicap winner Pleasant Tap, who is by major stamina influence, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony, a son of the Ribot stallion His Majesty. Pleasant Tap’s broodmare sire is another major stamina influence, Belmont winner Stage Door Johnny. Rattle N Roll’s third dam Dance Review produced two Grade 1 winners and is out of Dumfries, a half-sister to the top-class racehorse and champion sire Lyphard and the Vaguely Noble filly Nobiliary, who has the unique distinction of finishing second in the English Derby and then coming to America where she won the Washington D.C. International against a star-studded field. She is the only filly since 1916 to place in the Derby. All Rattle N Roll needs now is to just get in that starting gate on the first Saturday in May and let him take it from there.

 

14– Slow Down Andy (Doug O’Neill, Nyquist – Edwina, by Square Eddie)

He worked a sharp six furlongs in 1:12 2/5 in company from the gate for Sunday’s Sunland Park Derby. He looks like he’s matured quite a bit, keeping his head perfectly straight, and drew well clear of his stablemate despite being under a loose rein and not being asked in the slightest. He continued strong after the wire pulling some 10 lengths clear of his stablemate. He’ll be wearing blinkers for the first time and looks like he’s sitting on a huge race. The Sunland Derby is a good spot for him to get his head straight and show he has matured. He doesn’t need to face Messier and Forbidden Kingdom right now. He just needs to run a professional race, beat this bunch and earn enough points to get in the Derby field, because it could set him up for a peak performance on the first Saturday in May. This race won’t prove whether he’s good enough, but once he’s in that gate you never know. He is by Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and his pedigree has a good mixture of speed and stamina. From a personal standpoint, after I became obsessed with horse racing, the first four colts I fell in love with were Damascus, Dr. Fager, Arts and Letters, and His Majesty, and all four are in his pedigree, so I do admit to having a soft spot for his bloodlines.

 

15– Pioneer of Medina (Todd Pletcher. Pioneerof the Nile — Lights of Medina, by Eskendereya)

He will try to find a place for himself in the Derby picture when he takes on Epicenter in the Louisiana Derby. Pioneer of Medina’s pedigree is loaded with stamina and there should be no problem getting the 1 3/16 miles and then the 1 ¼ miles. He is yet another with Giant’s Causeway in his pedigree. But he showed good speed in the Risen Star Stakes chasing Epicenter, and because of the slow pace he had a lot left in the stretch and battled Smile Happy and Zandon to the wire. His dam won a 1 1/16-mile stakes at Laurel and was second in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, and his third dam was a Grade 1 winner in Chile. He would have been an interesting horse for the Wood Memorial, as both his grandsires, Empire Maker and Eskendereya, won that race. With a huge Thoro-Graph leap from a “10 ½” to a “3,” there is no telling if he will regress off such a big jump or he is improving that quickly.

 

16– Call Me Midnight (Keith Desormeaux, Midnight Lute – Overseen, by First Defence)

He has a tricky pedigree that has speed and stamina throughout. It’s still hard to categorize his sire Midnight Lute, who was only a sprinter because of a breathing problem. Call Me Midnight sure ran like distance should not be an issue when he closed fast to nail Epicenter in the final strides in the Lecomte Stakes at 28-1. The race was set up for him, with Epicenter going too fast early, and we’ll see if he can duplicate that late run with a different pace and coming off a nine-week layoff. His broodmare sire First Defence was a Grade 1 winning sprinter, as was First Defence’s dam Honest Lady, who was narrowly beaten in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. But Call Me Midnight’s tail-female family has plenty of stamina through his third dam, English Oaks runner-up Slightly Dangerous and her sire English Derby winner Roberto. Slightly Dangerous also is the dam of Commander in Chief, winner of the English and Irish Derbys, and Call Me Midnight’s second dam Jibe, is a stakes winner at 1 ¼ miles in England. Call Me Midnight’s fifth dam, Noblesse, a daughter of champion sire Mossborough, was 2-year-old filly champion in England. So this is a good mix of American speed and European stamina.

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

I hated dropping IN DUE TIME off the Rankings, but I will leave him knocking on the door until he shows up on the work tab, as it’s been over two weeks since the Fountain of Youth and I have been unable to find out his current status or what race he’s pointing for. Once we know more he will return to the rankings. If he works in the next couple of days, here is his comment: The third of the Not This Time trio of Derby contenders, In Due Time has some influential names in his pedigree, such as broodmare sire Curlin, but with names like Sultry Song, Inverness Drive, Crozier, End Sweep, Trippi, Great Above, and Aloha Mood it should not come as a big surprise that he is a complete outcross through five generations. There seems to be enough there to get him the mile and a quarter, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to have the talent to help push him along. His big concern is reversing that significant drop from a “3” to a “6” on his Thoro-Graph numbers and improving his 91 Brisnet figure.

Whatever is happening with MESSIER and all the Bob Baffert horses, we still have to acknowledge them until we know something official. But time is running out. We know Messier, who worked a half in :48 3/5, is going to take a lot of beating  in the Santa Anita Derby. But don’t overlook his stablemate, San Felipe runner-up DOPPELGANGER, who turned in a sensational six-furlong work Sunday in 1:10 4/5 and is definitely on the improve. Don’t be surprised to see him show up in the Arkansas Derby and that $1.25 million purse. Whatever PINEHURST does in Saturday’s UAE Derby don’t expect it to put him on the Derby trail. But one colt who could hit the Derby trail with a big effort in Dubai is GILDED AGE, who, like Un Ojo and Grantham, is coming out of the live Withers Stakes, where he finished a fast-closing third. The son of Medaglia d’Oro has put in two explosive runs since trainer Bill Mott added blinkers.

Brad Cox is looking for big improvement from CYBERKNIFE, who worked five furlongs in 1:00 flat, in the Arkansas Derby. “He’s a tough horse to deal with, he always has been,” Cox said. “He’s gotten faster and appears to be improving. I thought his last race was a step forward. He got a really good figure in the last race. I think it’s going to stack up and probably be one of the better ones in the Arkansas Derby, and if he runs that race I think he’s a player.” Cox could have been alluding to the colt’s huge Thoro-Graph jump from an “8 ¾” to “3 ¼.” Also pointing for the Arkansas Derby are three locals coming out of the Rebel Stakes, UN OJO, BARBER ROAD, and CHASING TIME, as well as recent impressive allowance winner CALL ME JAMAL, who worked five furlongs in 1:01, out in 1:14. Barber Road worked a half in :48 1/5 in company, out in 1:01 and pulling up six furlongs in 1:14 4/5.

It will be interesting to see how GALT does in the Louisiana Derby after throwing his rider trying to avoid the fallen High Oak in the Fountain of Youth. In that race, Galt was moving up from last, but in his previous race he set the early pace, so who knows where he’ll be running on Saturday. The same can be said for the Cox-trained ZOZOS, who has shown early speed, but trying to run with Epicenter is another story, especially for a horse with only two career starts.

Speaking of HIGH OAK, he has a slight filling and if he’s not 100 percent for the Wood Memorial he could very well go in the Pat Day Mile and then the Preakness. But the Travers is the main goal, so they are not going to rush him now.

Mark Casse still has several on the Derby trail. PAPPACAP, who is coming off two strong works after his Fountain of Youth debacle, including a :59 flat drill Saturday, will try to bounce back in the Florida Derby. The improving VOLCANIC and GOLDEN GLIDER will point for the Bluegrass Stakes, with the Wood Memorial another option for either one. And synthetic specialist GOD OF LOVE will run in the Jeff Ruby Steaks.

Trainer Ed Barker said he will wheel SHIPSATIONAL back in the Florida Derby following his third-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby. “We got hung out really wide on both turns and you absolutely cannot win being wide on both turns,” he said. “I’m pleased with how he ran. He tried, and if we had an inside post it would have been a lot different. We’ll take our shot there and if we get enough points that’s fine. If not, Plan B.” Coming back in three weeks I don’t have to train him hard. If we’re fortunate enough to get enough points it’s five weeks to the Kentucky Derby which is perfect.”

TIZ THE BOMB had another strong work for the Jeff Ruby Steaks, drilling a half in :47 flat at Keeneland. O CAPTAIN, a fast-closing third in the Fountain of Youth at 87-1, worked five furlongs in 1:01 for the Florida Derby. The speedy STRAIGHT UP G remains sharp for the Sunland Derby, working five furlongs in :59 1/5. TRAFALGAR, who showed nothing in the Risen Star Stakes, returned to the work tab with an easy half in :50 1/5.

Derby Rankings: Week 9

Monday, March 14th, 2022

Some new developments this week, highlighted by the big decision regarding the filly Secret Oath. And we have returned to a Sweet Sixteen…sort of, as we try to clear up this still muddled picture. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Mar. 14, 2022 – Week 9

By Steve Haskin

1—Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

I have run out of comments and background on him, so you know all there is to know about him, right? He’s run three times, lost his 3–year-old debut and is heading for a rematch with No. 2 Zandon in the Blue Grass Stakes. I will add that his 95 Brisnet figure in the Risen Star Stakes is the same figure Simplification got in his convincing victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. As much as I have liked this colt after his two races last year, his record is not typical of a No. 1-ranked horse. I have to admit being enamored with his female family, so maybe I am looking at that through rose-colored glasses. But in nine weeks I haven’t seen anything that would compel me to rank a horse ahead of him. It is rare at this late date not to have a horse run a negative Thoro-Graph number or close to it. So I’m still hoping the horse I saw last year will emerge, and I have to believe his 3-year-old debut under the circumstances was good enough to keep him where he is. He at least basically paired up his “2” Thoro-Graph number from the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in defeat, suggesting a big improvement next time out. But he cannot afford a single slip-up because there are a half dozen horses breathing down his neck. Both he and stablemate Rattle N Roll lacked the explosiveness we saw last fall, and that is what I’m looking for in their next start. With only two preps there is very little room for error or forgiving. It’s dangerous having to go into your final prep against top-class horses needing to finish second. Three-horse photos before have happened before in the final prep.

 

2—Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

In many ways he may the biggest mystery horse of them all. I can’t recall ranking a horse No. 2 with only three career starts and losing two of them. But each one of his races has been better than the one before and it’s been Baptism under fire for him, so he is more battle-tested than most horses with three starts. We have learned more about him each time and can only imagine what he is capable of with a perfect trip. The Blue Grass will be his third straight mile and an eighth race, which also is rare and can dull most horses. But with his brilliance and jumping from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles in his second career start I believe it will help build a solid foundation going into the Derby. We know he has speed; we know he’s a fighter; and we know he can adapt and change his running style after a bad start and having to rally from last. And if you believe the Risen Star Stakes was the best prep this year, he did get a faster Thoro-Graph number than the first two finishers because of his wide trip. Now he gets Flavien Prat, who should fit him perfectly. He’s been sharp in the morning, working a half in :48 2/5 over the deep Payson Park track, second fastest of 43 works at the distance. Back on December 4 following the Remsen, Chad Brown said, “As you know, I have NEVER stretched a horse out that far off just one six-furlong race, but this horse is freaky good and can win the Derby.” That was, and still is, good enough for me.

 

 3—Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

He gave further warning that he is going to be tough to handle in the Louisiana Derby with a sharp five-furlong work in a bullet :59 3/5, fastest of 21 works at the distance and following that up with another bullet :59 4/5 drill. He can easily wire his field again, but this would be a perfect and final opportunity to show he can rate behind a horse and still be as effective as he has been controlling the pace. On the other hand, he just looks like a tractable horse who will sit off horses if he has to. And he likely will have to if Forbidden Kingdom makes the Derby He’s already been beaten when he went too fast early and I don’t see that happening again. His Brisnet speed figures have steadily improved (90-93-98) as has his Thoro-Graph numbers. I have known assistant trainer Scott Blasi for many years and I can’t remember him as high on a Derby horse as he is on this colt. “He has tremendous upside,” he said. “He’s fit, he’s seasoned, and he has good tactical speed. I’m as excited about him as much as any horse we’ve had on the Derby trail.” This is a classy horse with plenty of European stamina in his female family who can carry his speed a long way. He has already sent Smile Happy and Zandon off to the Blue Grass Stakes, and the way he beat them geared down the final furlong I’m not sure who will want to face him in the Louisiana Derby.

 

4Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

Sometimes it’s the intangibles that put a horse in the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May. And it is the intangibles that could separate this colt from the others. What you don’t see in the stats, speed figures, and pedigree is toughness, adaptability, and being able deal with adversity. He in many ways is the personification of his trainer, a third generation horseman who dominated the sport in Venezuela before he was kidnapped, held for four hours and then released. Then he was kidnapped again, which proved to be a traumatic experience, as he was held captive for 36 days until his family and friends were able to gather up the approximately $70,000 ransom money. Sano then said goodbye to his 165 horses and wound up settling in Florida where he had to start from scratch. He picked out Gunnevera as a yearling for $16,000 and wound up winning over $5.5 million with him. Now here he is with another tough blue-collar horse in Simplification, who was sold privately despite suffering from sesamoiditis. When Sano was a youngster his father tried to encourage him by telling him that someday maybe he’ll win the Kentucky Derby (like fellow Venezuelan Juan Arias with Canonero). When Sano first got Simplification he had him for 30 days before telling owner Tami Bobo, “You finally sent me my Derby horse; don’t ever sell this horse.” He told Bobo he was “tough as nails,” After breaking his maiden by almost 17 lengths in 1:09 4/5, Simplification was 1-5 in an allowance race, but he split his head open on the starting gate at the break. He was totally discombobulated early and jockey Miguel Vasquez could tell something was wrong. He still ran hard all the day and finished third. Afterwards it took 20 staples to close up the wound. He shrugged it off and destroyed his opponents in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes. He is about to do something extremely rare – compete in all four Gulfstream Derby preps. We have seen how tough this colt is, how he can overcome adversity, and how adaptable he is by completely changing his running style. If he wins the Derby you just read why. All he has to do now is run somewhere other than Gulfstream.

 

5—Morello (Steve Asmussen, Classic Empire – Stop the Wedding, by Congrats)

As an aftermath of last weekend’s stakes, we’re going to focus on the speed figures. As you have read, Morello made a pretty big jump from a “7” to a “1 ¾” in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. It would have been great to see him pair up that number stretching out to a mile in the Gotham Stakes against better competition, but his slight regression to a “2 ¾” was understandable off that big a jump and certainly nothing to be concerned about. Remember, that “1 ¾” is the fastest number by any horse in the Derby Future Wager field. His Gotham number still was excellent compared to the others and what is important is peaking on the first Saturday in May. He still has another major prep going a mile and an eighth in his first two-turn race, so you don’t want him peaking in the Gotham. He did get a pretty strong 96 Beyer figure and his Brisnet figures have climbed every race, from an 87 to 94 to 99. His Brisnet Prime Power Rating (don’t ask) is first of the 23 Future Wager horses and in his two stakes appearances he has not run under a 90 in any of his early, middle, and late pace figures, so while he doesn’t blow you away in any one part of the race he is steadily quick and never runs slow in any part of the race. In short, he has a high cruising speed that he can maintain throughout the race. I know you’re totally confused, so let’s just say he is a horse with no weaknesses from a speed standpoint, and I can’t find any weaknesses anywhere else. He just needs to pass his two-turn test against quality horses.

 

6—Secret Oath (D. Wayne Lukas, Arrogate – Absenthe Minded, by Quiet American)

Her owner said of the Kentucky Derby last week, “We are still considering all options at the moment. We have made no final decisions yet.” Well, one decision that has been made since then is that she is heading for the Arkansas Derby, as reported in Daily Racing Form. So that is a good first step. Now we have to see if it’s on to the Kentucky Derby, assuming she runs huge, or she goes for the Oaks if she doesn’t, or she waits for the Preakness. Going to the owner once again, her reply on all counts was “undecided.” Looking at the Thoro-Graph numbers in last week’s three major preps, Forbidden Kingdom got a “2 ¼” in the San Felipe, Morello a “2 ¾” in the Gotham, and Simplification a “2 ½” in the Fountain of Youth. Compare that to Secret Oath’s “1 ½” in her last two races, the fastest number by any of the Derby Future Wager horses, and you can understand the enticement of seriously considering the Kentucky Derby, which would be difficult to pass up if she beats up on the boys in the Arkansas Derby. Also, on Brisnet, she is the only 3-year-old to be coming off back-to-back triple-digit late pace figures and that’s with winning both races in hand. Her Thoro-Graph number in the Honeybee Stakes made the Rebel Stakes horses look like plodders, and none of the colts seen so far can match her explosive turn of foot. And in case you forgot, her sire won the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, and Travers Stakes in track-record time. Her dam won or placed in seven two-turn stakes, her broodmare sire sired a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, and her third dam is by Hatchet Man, who defeated Forego in the mile and a quarter Amory Haskell Handicap. What a legacy this would be for Arrogate.

 

 7—Classic Causeway (Brian Lynch, Giant’s Causeway – Private World, by Thunder Gulch)

I know he hasn’t defeated any world beaters in the Sam F. Davis Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby, but I don’t know if any horse has made more improvement from 2 to 3 than he has, thanks in part to the old school training of Lynch, who has been working him long and fast and has him on a three-prep schedule. Now he’ll be looking to get revenge on Smile Happy in the Blue Grass Stakes, which is shaping up as the toughest prep of the year. He just looks like a different horse this year. He’s sharper, more in command, and he runs low and hard and with more authority. He breaks like a shot, takes charge immediately, and is on cruise control on the far turn while the others are being pushed hard and unable to gain on him. But before you get too excited over him, the Tampa Bay Derby runner-up was 37-1 coming off a distant fourth in the Withers Stakes, and the third, fourth, and fifth-place finishers were all horses he defeated handily in the Sam Davis. The Blue Grass will be a far tougher test and he does have to make up those 3 ¼ lengths on Smile Happy. In the Tampa Derby he was able to control the pace with a 1:13 three-quarters over a deepish drying out track. His closing fractions of :25 1/5 and :06 2/5 after fanning wide turning for home were good enough on that track. I am curious to see his Thoro-Graph number. In his four previous starts he’s run a “5” in three of them, including the Sam Davis, so he needs to finally show some improvement and get significantly faster. His raw speed figures are all over the place. He got an excellent 99 figure on Brisnet in the Sam Davis, but an 88 Beyer, and that dropped to a meager 84 in the Tampa Derby. So he’s a horse you can like or dislike without getting much of an argument either way.

 

8—White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

Handicapping these horses is so confusing this year because of the relatively slow overall speed figures. From a visual standpoint, his Holy Bull victory was very impressive, but like the Fountain of Youth, the race pretty much fell apart. And while his Thoro-Graph numbers have gradually gotten faster with each race, his “5” in the Holy Bull still leaves him with a lot of improving to do. But his Brisnet jump from a pair of 91s to a 97 in the Holy Bull contradicts that. And he did run a 96 in his career debut. So do we really have any clue how fast this horse is? Two works after a three-week absence from the work tab he went a swift half in :47 flat followed by five furlongs in :59 2/5, out in 1:12, so he sure bounced back OK and is razor-sharp. It is obvious he will be facing his best field by far in the Florida Derby and will be coming into the race off a two-month layoff, adding to the confusion, as does his pedigree, which overall lacks stamina, and because of the lack of big-name stallions he is an outcross through four generations. It is a common statement to make this year, but I have no idea what to make of him at this point. There is no doubt he is a very good horse, but is he a Derby horse?

 

9—Forbidden Kingdom (Dick Mandella, American Pharoah – Just Louise, by Five Star Day)

The morning line Derby favorite at 5-1? Boy have I lost touch with this sport. But I am giving him more respect this week. I ranked him low last week because, unlike recent front-running Derby winners, he has sprinter’s speed, and I mean :21 and :43 speed that not even the fastest sprinters in the country can match. Yes, he won his two-turn debut in the San Felipe, but in that field he couldn’t help but win. When asked what this colt has that would help him get a mile and a quarter, Mandella said, “He’s very intelligent.”All he had to do in the San Felipe was pour it on early and keep going with no worries of anyone catching him and he crawled home in :26 and :07. His raw speed combined with a pedigree that has pure sprinters Five Star Day, Carson City, and Mt. Livermore in his first three generations on the dam side and his dam being very fast in her own right was enough to convince me he was a one-dimensional speedball with sprinters dominating his female family. So why am I moving him up? Upon further study of his pedigree, I will say that there is a bit of chance he can stretch his speed out. First off, to go along with his intelligence, his broodmare sire Five Star Day’s dam is by Vanlandingham, who won the 1 ½-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, as well as the Suburban Handicap and Washington D.C. International. Forbidden Kingdom’s third dam Til Forbid placed in the Alabama and Kentucky Oaks and is by Temperence Hill, who won the Belmont Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Travers, and Suburban. And you can’t forget the fact that Forbidden Kingdom’s sire is a Triple Crown winner. As for his speed, his 98 Beyer in the San Vicente was surely fast enough in this group and his 102 on Brisnet is the only last out three-digit figure. On Thoro-Graph, he improved from a “6” in his previous two starts to a solid “2 ¼” in the San Felipe. While he hardly looks like a typical Derby horse at this point, he has onIy one horse to beat in the Santa Anita Derby so I am keeping an open mind.

 

10—Emmanuel (Todd Pletcher, More Than Ready – Hard Cloth, by Hard Spun)

The main concern I had with him, especially being so hyped all year, were his two slow Thoro-Graph numbers of “8 ¼” and “8 ½.” They just didn’t fit the visuals, as I could find no flaws in him in either of those races. He just did everything right. Even though he then finished fourth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes I figured those numbers had to improve considering the terrible trip he had. It was a performance that actually moved him up in my eyes as a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender, as he no longer looked like just another exciting young Pletcher colt who was beating up on inferior competition and having everything his own way on the lead. He now looked more like a tough professional colt who was battle-tested and could shrug off obstacles thrown in his path. As it turned out, he not only jumped to a “4 ¼” Thoro-Graph number, he was two points faster than the second- and third-place finishers. On the other side of the coin his Brisnet speed figure plummeted from a 96 to an 89 and his late pace figure from a 110 to an 83, but like Beyer that does not take into account the trip he had. He still needs to take another significant step forward on Thoro-Graph, but I am now confident that with a decent trip he is going show tremendous improvement on all his speed figures in  his final Derby prep, where he is going to have to run a big race to get enough points to make the Derby. If he does I believe he can make his presence felt on the first Saturday in May.

 

11—Early Voting (Chad Brown, Gun Runner – Amour d’ete, By Tiznow)

This colt has me totally confused. Brown was always considering the Derby, but he also felt pointing for the Preakness made a lot of sense. Well, it looks as if the Derby is where he’s headed, especially after Un Ojo came off a second in the Withers to win the Rebel Stakes at 75-1 and Grantham came off a fourth in the Withers to finish second in the Tampa Bay Derby at 37-1. And he pretty much blew them away in the Withers with an eye-catching burst of speed at the five-sixteenths pole. So here is another who will go into the Derby with only three career starts, but with him it had nothing to do with timing, as Brown decided to give him nine weeks between the Withers and Wood Memorial, and he’s had only four half-mile works since. Although his Withers victory was stunning, his 74 Brisnet late pace figure was pedestrian, as was his 91 speed rating and his palty 74 Beyer figure. When he was a youngster at the farm, he was considered more muscular and compact than the typical Gun Runners, who are more long and lean and look like stayers. A few minor vet issues at 2 caused him to sell for a lower price than expected. But pedigree-wise he is all stamina, with his sire and broodmare sire accounting for three Breeders’ Cup Classic victories, and any horse who can win his career debut going and head at a flat mile and then draw off and follow that up with a dominating victory going 1 1/8 miles over a deep tiring muddy track has to have a solid foundation despite having only two starts. His Thoro-Graph numbers of “6” and “5 ¾” are far more promising than his raw speed figures. I don’t like the three starts and the nine-week layoff, but I do like what I’ve seen visually, hence my confusion.

 

12—Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

There is nothing to do with him but play the waiting game, as he prepares to face another confusing horse in Early Voting and the brilliant Morello in the Wood Memorial. So we wait for the Wood Memorial and wait for him to return to the work tab. He is just fortunate he’s built enough of a foundation with three two-turn races, two of them graded stakes, and a hard-fought victory in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes. But although he didn’t need the Fountain of Youth Stakes for seasoning, he did need it to get faster, as he is coming off three consecutive “6 ½” Thoro-Graph figures, which will not be fast enough to compete with the top 3-year-olds and he has yet to improve on them. The same goes for Brisnet, where he has yet to surpass a 93 speed rating. So when it comes to speed he has a lot of improving to do in the Wood Memorial, and he has to do it coming off a nine-week layoff, just like Early Voting. Because of his setback with a slight fever his Future Wager odds have gone from 14-1 in Pool 3 to 23-1 (on Sunday) in Pool 4. Between him and Early Voting, who knows what to expect in the Wood.

 

13—In Due Time (Kelly Breen, Not This Time – Sweet Sweet Annie, by Curlin)

Watching this colt progress from race to race you have to feel he is heading in the right direction, and his second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes was a big step forward in his first test against top-class stakes horses. Each person has his or her speed ratings that they follow. The expensive ones like Thoro-Graph and Ragozin, which are used by trainers, owners, jockey agents, and serious bettors and often are used in the purchase of horses, are far more advanced and provide far more information than the pure speed figures that don’t take things like loss of ground and other factors into consideration. The reason I mention this is despite In Due Time’s visually strong performance, his “6” Thoro-Graph number was a substantial regression from his “3” in his allowance victory, which was a big jump forward from the “8 ¾” he got in his first two starts. So did he “bounce” off his big move forward or was the “3” a one shot effort and he just returned to where he was? His jump from an 8 ¾ to a 3 was not big enough to justify such a regression, and he got the same number as the third-place finisher, who was 87-1 and coming off two sprint races in his career. I know I have been visually impressed with his last two races, but he did also regress from a 94 to 91 on Brisnet and only ran a 90 Beyer. I like his long fluid stride, but I need to see what he does next time out before deciding how good and how fast he really is. This one is perplexing.

 

14—Rattle N Roll (Kenny McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

He wasn’t getting any respect in the Future Wager when he was coming off his impressive victory in the Breeders’ Futurity, and now if you are willing to overlook his disappointing comeback race in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, which I felt was a terrible spot for him, then you might be intrigued by his 31-1 odds in this week’s Future Wager Pool 4, as he now will seek redemption in the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby over a far more appealing distance and racetrack. A fast-closing second to Epicenter at Fair Grounds would put him in the Kentucky Derby, and then the question would be did get enough out of his first race to have him peaking on the first Saturday in May off a six-week layoff.  Although I was apprehensive about the Fountain of Youth I expected him to show a lot more than he did. I just wanted to see him closing in the stretch, but he never got into the race. McPeek said he is a big galloping type of horse, which is not what you want at Gulfstream, and was not concerned at all about the way he ran. I am still a fan of this horse, but I am concerned and will be until I see a much improved effort under far more favorable circumstances.

 

15 and 16 — Pioneer of Medina (Todd Pletcher) and Call Me Midnight (Keith Desormeaux)

I am quickly filling in the final two spots for the Sweet Sixteen with Pioneer of Medina because he was right there with Smile Happy and Zandon in the best prep of the year, leaped from a “10 ½” Thoro-Graph number to a “3,” and worked a sharp five-furlongs in 1:00 flat this past weekend, and with Call Me Midnight because he did beat No. 3 Epicenter and is up to six furlongs in his works. Both likely will show up at Fair Grounds again for the Louisiana Derby.

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Could it be the two most talented colts on the Derby trail have only two career starts at this late date and have not run in a stakes? It is a bit early to rank them, as I normally don’t like horses going into the Kentucky Derby with only three career starts, especially not yet having proven themselves in stakes company. But this year might be the exception. Read on.

I still haven’t figured out the reason behind Oaklawn Park pushing their 3-year-old stakes up two weeks, thus making it difficult for late-developing horses to use the Arkansas Derby as a final prep for the Kentucky Derby. But for some, like the connections of Secret Oath, they love having more time to the Kentucky Derby, and that might be what puts their filly in the big race. We saw a very exciting late developer in WE THE PEOPLE destroy an allowance field at Oaklawn for his second runaway victory in as many starts. But unlike past years when he would be a sure thing for the Arkansas Derby, he will now have to come back in three weeks if they want to stay home and prep for the Derby there. Fortunately for him the Oaklawn-based 3-year-old males do not look that strong, but Secret Oath is now heading for the Arkansas Derby. In this past weekend’s race We the People had Florent Geroux way up in the saddle and his feet in the dashboard trying to keep him off the front-running Ruggs. With this being only his second career start, Geroux pushed him along in the stretch to get something out of the race as he drew off to win by 5 ½ lengths. We the People wanted a lot more and had no desire to pull up after the wire and continued to gallop out strong. He makes an impressive appearance on the track and has beautiful action, but what was most impressive was how he got faster with each quarter, going his last three quarters in :24 4/5, :24 3/5, and :24 1/5, then coming home his final sixteenth in a swift :06 flat. We’ll see if Winstar Farm and trainer Rudy Brisset are willing to stay home and bring him him back in three weeks.

It seems we are having more and more exciting latecomers to the Derby trail for whatever reason, which makes the race all the more difficult to handicap. For those looking for exceptional talents to get in the gate on the first Saturday in May it is very frustrating.  Nowadays trainers are not afraid to run their horse at Churchill with only three career starts, which used to be an automatic toss until Big Brown and Justify came along. But they were no ordinary horses. In this day and age inexperience doesn’t mean what it used to. Todd Pletcher has run several horses in the Derby off three career starts and is planning to run CHARGE IT in the Florida Derby off a stunning maiden romp going a mile, in which he led all the way and still came home his final quarter in :24 flat while drawing off to an 8 ½-length victory in a quick 1:35 2/5, earning a huge 98 Brisnet figure and a whopping 117 late pace figure. This regally-bred half-brother to Travers winner Will Take Charge, by Tapit was beaten a neck by Volcanic in his career debut in a virtual match race, but it’s tough making your first career start at a flat mile and not only did he finish 12 lengths ahead of the third horse, Volcanic had two races under his belt and went on to finish a good third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes in his next start. This colt’s mechanics are flawless, his lead changes are so smooth you barely can see him do it, and I can’t remember seeing a horse run a straighter course down the stretch. What put me over the edge was watching him outwork Commandperformance in a quick 1:00 4/5 for five furlongs and then draw at least six lengths clear on the gallop out, despite being on the outside. I wish he had one more start, but I’ve learned my lesson.

If I’m going strictly by sheer talent and what I’ve seen in two non stakes I could rank both horses very high. But I’m obviously not going to do that and ranking them anywhere from No. 12 to 16 tells you nothing because you have no clue where they fit. So for now I feel it is better served to highlight both colts in Knocking of the Door until they show what they can do in stakes company. Remember, We the People has already beaten winners so he has a slight advantage, but Charge lt already looks like he can be special.

Well, it is apparent COMMANDPERFORMANCE is not the same horse we saw last year, whether it is the injury he suffered in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile or the wet tiring track or simply not making the transition from 2 or 3 and being asked to do too much too quickly early in his career. Considering he was thought highly enough to throw him into the Grade 1 Champagne against Jack Christopher coming off a second in his career debut, perhaps there is a reason why Pletcher went conservative and put him in a maiden race rather than the Tampa Derby. He was getting blinkers for the first time, and we mentioned last week that stablemate Charge It outworked him and left him far behind on the gallop-out, so who knows?. At 1-10, even with a wide trip and on a tiring track, he should have been more competitive against a weak field of maidens. I still think he’s a very good horse and will win stakes, but he is off course right now as a Derby horse and we’ll see if they give him another chance. Maybe he only runs well in Grade 1 company.

After discussing plans with owner Paul Reddam, Doug O’Neill said SLOW DOWN ANDY will make his next start in the Sunland Derby, which makes the Santa Anita Derby look even more like a match race between MESSIER and Forbidden Kingdom. I wonder who Churchill Downs is rooting for. How much longer are we going to have a normally top 3 ranked horse like Messier hanging over the Derby trail like some mysterious shroud? In typical O’Neill fashion, he then worked Slow Down Andy seven furlongs in 1:27 2/5, as he looks to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby. As for Messier, he continues to impress, working five furlongs in a bullet :59 2/5, fastest of 45 works at the distance. If he doesn’t have a new trainer by the Santa Anita Derby or if one or both Baffert bans are still in effect he will be running for the purse and Grade 1 status only and any Derby aspirations will be gone.

There is another fast horse in California, but it would seem like suicide to run the Cal-bred STRAIGHT UP G against Forbidden Kingdom even after a sharp half-mile work in :47 3/5, second fastest of 48 works at the distance. He definitely looks like he wants shorter distances.

Rebel Stakes runner-up ETHEREAL ROAD, who now will likely head to the Blue Grass Stakes with stablemate Secret Oath confirmed for the Arkansas Derby, returned to the work tab with a five-furlong drill in 1:01 2/5. Rebel winner UN OJO and third-place finisher BARBER ROAD have still not had a listed work since the race.

There has been some buzz around the Brad Cox-trained Gun Runner colt CYBERKNIFE, who scored a three-length victory last out in a Fair Grounds allowance race. He is an improving colt, whose Thoro-Graph number jumped from an “8 ¾” to a “3 ¼,” but he still needs to prove his poor effort in the Lecomte Stakes was a fluke and he can match up with far better competition. Another Cox-trained colt, the undefeated ZOZOS, a 10 1/2-length winner last out, worked a sharp five furlongs in :59 3/5. Cyberknife goes next in the Arkansas Derby and Zozos will take on Epicenter in the Louisiana Derby.

Remember the once highly regarded PAPPACAP, who ran an inexplicably poor race last time out? He worked a sharp five furlongs in a bullet :59 1/5 at the Casse Training Center.

TIZ THE BOMB, following his victory in the John Battaglia Stakes on Polytrack, could return to the dirt in the Florida Derby or possibly wait for the Arkansas Derby.

Derby Rankings: Week 8

Monday, March 7th, 2022

We’ve cut the Rankings down to a bonus baker’s dozen this week for reasons you will read in Knocking of the Door, and it was extremely difficult to separate the top five horses, making this one of the biggest crap shoots we’ve seen in years with still more questions than answers. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Mar. 7, 2022 – Week 8

By Steve Haskin

 

1—Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

I could have easily replaced him with Simplification, but it’s difficult dropping a horse after seven weeks as No. 1 and I’m just not quite ready to do that. He is still coming out of the best prep of the year and it’s not easy making your first start of the year at 1 1/8 miles and with so little foundation. He is still on course, so before becoming a prisoner of the moment I am going to stand pat and let this past weekend’s races sink in a little more. There isn’t a lot more to say about him that we haven’t said already, so let’s provide a little back story and see if he gave any signs of what was to come when he was a baby. His breeder Xavier Moreau said he was born just a few stalls down from the stall where Barbaro was born. Maybe that will prove to be a lucky barn. He could see a few days after he was born how balanced and correct he was and how smart he was with a beautiful eye and head. He had a great mind and just did everything they asked of him. He had so much appeal a group of Irish pinhookers offered to buy him two weeks before the sale, but Moreau turned down their offer. When he did sell, Moreau said he was like an old show horse and he was “so proud of him,” how well he stood and walked. Adrian Regan of Hunter Valley Farm, who then pinhooked him as a yearling, said he was a beautiful colt, who was extremely smart and did everything perfectly, and he remembers how much he loved his work and was always aggressive on the track. Well, it seems not much has changed. He still seems very intelligent and professional and loves to run and compete. So that is a little background so you can get to know him. His first race this year will serve as a good learning experience, hopefully for his jockey as well, and he will be ready for a big effort in the Bluegrass Stakes.

 

2—Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

The same goes for this colt. I’m keeping him here for now because I don’t think any less of him. Being we’re devoting space this week to backgrounds I will add Zandon, who also is being pointed for the Bluegrass Stakes. It was veteran bloodstock agent Mike Ryan who picked him out at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $170,000 for owner Jeff Drown. Ryan had looked at him on the farm a few weeks before the sale and loved what he saw, which was “a big, strong colt and very impressive looking with a great head and eye (sound familiar?). He also felt he was a “quality colt who had a lot of presence and was a good mover.” After seeing again at the sale and still loving everything about him he called Jeff Drown and told him how much he liked the colt and wanted to buy him. Although he had already spent a lot of money for Drown it was decided to go ahead and buy him. He has been impressed with what he’s seen so far. “He ate a lot of dirt in his first start and had his head turned sideways,” he said. “There was no wasted action and he had excellent knee action and was a very efficient mover. I thought he looked magnificent and he seems to have a bright future.” Airdrie Stud’s Brereton Jones bred his dam and second dam and stands his sire and broodmare sire. “Zandon was a beautiful colt as a yearling,” said Brereton Jones’ son Bret who plays a major role in the operation and bred last year’s top-class sprinter Bell’s the One. “We lost (his second dam) Incarnate Memories this year, but fortunately we kept (Zandon’s dam). He first caught our attention when he worked in company with a son of Curlin and ran off and left him” I know how much Brown loved this colt from day one and I will trust his judgment.

 

3—Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

I have liked this colt since the Mucho Macho Man and said I considered him more of a Derby horse after his Holy Bull defeat than I did before because it showed he was able to use adversity to expose a new dimension to him. Well, as it turned out, rather than go back to his old normal style of running he changed his m.o. completely and used that new dimension to easily win the Fountain of Youth Stakes. When was the last time you saw horse win on the lead in :45 4/5 and 1:09 4/5 and then rally from seventh to win off fractions of :48 1/5 and 1:12. He certainly is worthy of the No. 1 spot and may wind up there soon, but the only reason he isn’t there just yet is that with the scratch of top contenders Mo Donegal and Giant Game, High Oak and Galt falling at the top of the stretch, Rattle N Roll never being a factor, Emmanuel having a terrible trip, and an 87-1 sprinter with two career starts finishing third, there is the question of what he beat. He had won a listed stakes and was a troubled second in a graded stakes, while the second, third, and fourth-place finishers had never even run in a stakes. This is not to take away from his performance, which definitely stamps him as a serious Derby horse. But like Smile Happy and Zandon he still has to turn the tables on the horse (White Abarrio) who beat him easily in his last start. And as he did in the Holy Bull he failed to change leads again and will have to work on that. But the bottom line is that you rarely see a horse with his early speed not only turn into a closer but one who looked like he’s been doing it all his life. And you had to be impressed with the way he swung six-wide turning for home and just swept by everyone and quickly opened up on the field. As I said, any one of the top 5 could be No. 1. But for now I will let it all soak in.

 

4—Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

I have to admit I could be making a mistake not having him No. 1 because of his natural speed and closing power and how easily he won the Risen Star, and I fully expect him to win the Louisiana Derby the same way. But with a rocket ship like Forbidden Kingdom now firmly on the Derby trail with the ability to run any horse in the country off his feet early, it is time for Epicenter to show he can come from the off the pace and not be one-dimensional. If Forbidden Kingdom makes it to the Derby there is no one who is going to outrun him. So if Epicenter can sit behind a horse in the Louisiana Derby and win the same way he did in the Risen Star, coming home that fast, then he would be a legitimate Derby favorite because I already I know he can get a mile and a quarter, as I explained in last week’s comments. So in short, I just want to see him display some versatility as Simplification has done. He checks off all the other boxes. Now, if Forbidden Kingdom does not make it to Churchill Downs then it’s a different story because if any horse can wire the Derby field it is him. But it’s always good to have another weapon just in case he needs it, and with Forbidden Kingdom now in the picture he will need it.

 

5—Morello (Steve Asmussen, Classic Empire – Stop the Wedding, by Congrats)

I put him below Epicenter only because Epicenter runs two weeks earlier, which will give me a clearer picture. It’s pretty much a dead-heat right now for No. 4 and close to a five-horse dead-heat for No. 1. He still has a big test to pass going two turns for the first time in the Wood Memorial against far more seasoned and talented horses, but I have been raving about this colt every week since the Jimmy Winkfield and to be honest, while all the top horses look like potential stars he is the one horse I have seen who has exhibited all the signs of a superstar. I thought he could be special after the Winkfield and now after the Gotham I am convinced of it. He is so professional and brilliant and so machine-like you can’t tell one of his races from the other. In three starts he has drawn off from his opponents with a remarkable surge of power and he has yet to feel the whip. When a horse does what he does all on his own without being asked that is a rare quality. He also is a horse who exudes a great deal of class before, during, and after a race. He just needs to face better quality horses going two turns. His pedigree says distance not only will be no problem, he should get better the farther he goes. Toby Sheets, who has had him from the beginning felt he was special last summer, but a minor setback prevented from starting until late November. I mentioned that his Thoro-Graph numbers leaped from a “7” to a “1 ¾” in the Winkfield, making him already one of the fastest 3-year-olds in the country. I can’t wait to see what he gets in the Gotham. To pair up that number would be perfect.

 

6—White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

Even though Simplification lost all chance at the start of the Holy Bull, his emphatic victory in the Fountain of Youth has to flatter this colt, who beat Simplification with the same authority the Fountain of Youth winner beat his opponents on Saturday. Ironically, both races sort of fell apart due to scratches, bad trips, or top horses not firing. So who knows if we got a true gauge of the competition? All we can go by is what we saw and both colts certainly passed the eye test. The main question with him is how far he wants to go. That’s not to say he can’t go a mile and a quarter, but his pedigree doesn’t shout distance. We know he has speed in the morning with his :47 flat and :59 2/5 works before the Holy Bull. Because he was skipping the Fountain of Youth to go directly to the Florida Derby, he returned to the work tab a couple of weeks after the Holy Bull with an easy three-furlong breeze and now we’ll see how he picks up the pace getting ready to go a mile and an eighth.

 

7—Secret Oath (D. Wayne Lukas, Arrogate – Absenthe Minded, by Quiet American)

It was obvious she would get a much better Thoro-Graph number than the Rebel winner, but I had no idea the difference would be this huge. The Rebel looked to be a slow race and it certainly was for the ground-saving winner Un Ojo, who a got a “7.” Secret Oath not only far surpassed the Rebel she now has the most impressive pattern of any 3-year-old, male or female. When she jumped from a “9 ¼” and a “9 ½” to a “3 ¾”in an allowance romp on December 31 it was important to see if she could move forward off that. When she jumped to a sensational “1 ½” in her runaway Martha Washington score on January 29 she was in danger of peaking too early in the year. She was already in Kentucky Derby range, so it would be understandable if she regressed a little off that. But when she paired up that number with another “1 ½” in the Honeybee it confirmed that she is indeed that fast and now ready to improve off that. It was the second-fastest Thoro-Graph number by any 3-year-old behind the “1” run by Messier in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, but she has paired up her number while Messier needed more time to recover from his effort and skipped the San Felipe. So what all that means is that she is the only 3-year-old in the country numbers-wise who is Derby ready. Just a slight improvement would win many Derbys.

 

8—Emmanuel (Todd Pletcher, More Than Ready – Hard Cloth, by Hard Spun)

Don’t blame him for being overhyped all year and overbet in the Fountain of Youth Stakes off a maiden and allowance win against far less talented horses. And certainly don’t blame him for his fourth-place finish, in which he actually showed, at least to me, he was a serious Derby horse. Drawing post 8 didn’t do him any good, neither did get getting hammered at the start by A.P.’s Secret who broke out into him, causing him to drop back and not be able to use his early speed. Then he got stuck in traffic and was four-wide going into the first turn, while the winner saved ground with a perfect rail trip, as did the runner-up In Due Time. He came out of the turn back in eighth six-wide and remained way out in the middle of the track down the backstretch. Passing the half-mile pole he unleashed a big five-wide sweeping move to reach contention and continued five-wide around the turn when Simplification, who had moved to the outside, stormed up outside him. Emmanuel was starting to tire a bit and Simplification had all the momentum as he charged by him turning for home. He then had to alter course outside Simplification when the winner came in and took his path away. He then got shoved around by Dean Delivers, who he was battling with for second inside the sixteenth pole, and finally was passed by the ground-saving In Due Time and then nailed on the wire for third by the surprising O Captain. This was certainly an excellent learning experience and should really toughen him up for his all-important final prep. He showed a whole new dimension and proved he wasn’t just a horse who can win on an easy uncontested lead. Yes, he got a little tired, as to be expected considering all his travails, but let’s just say the boy turned into a man.

 

9—In Due Time (Kelly Breen, Not This Time – Sweet Sweet Annie, by Curlin)

This was a big step up from his impressive allowance victory and he showed that performance was legitimate by coming on strong to get second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. I didn’t rank him higher than Emmanuel because he had a far better trip and I expect Emmanuel to get a faster Thoro-Graph number. But that still doesn’t diminish his performance in his first two-turn race and facing top-class stakes horses for the fist time. And he is one horse you know is going to keep improving the farther he goes. You can be sure he is going to be tough to beat next time out going a mile and an eighth. After jumping from an “8 ¾” to a “3” Thoro-Graph number in his last start it will be interesting to see if or how much he improved off that. Although he did save ground it was good to see him go between horses and come home strong. He has a big easy stride that covers a lot of ground with seemingly little effort and that also will work in his favor.

 

10—Classic Causeway (Brian Lynch, Giant’s Causeway – Private World, by Thunder Gulch)

I love the way Lynch gave him strong long works for the Sam F. Davis Stakes and now has him sharp for Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby with a :59 4/5 final work. With a series of “5” Thoro-Graph numbers this is his big opportunity to finally take a jump forward and put down a number that is at least competitive with the top horses. I like the fact that he was able to battle through quick fractions an and come home strong, but like some of the others we really don’t know what he beat in the Sam Davis and he no doubt will face some tougher horses on Saturday. It is important for a horse to show that he made the transition from 2 to 3, which he did. Unlike most of the others, he is on a three-prep schedule, which is getting to be a forgotten plan to get to the Derby. Lynch has been old school all the way – not afraid to work them long and not afraid to run. Now let’s just see him improve on those Thoro-Graph numbers.

 

11—Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

Whether it was a low-grade fever or drawing the 12 post, scratching out of the Fountain of Youth wasn’t a catastrophe, but it’s not what you want to see. He still is on a decent schedule for the Kentucky Derby, but the fact is he now is on a two-prep schedule instead of a three-prep schedule, which Pletcher was planning on. So in that respect he has had to resort to plan B. There is very little I can say about him until he runs in the Wood Memorial. All we can go by is the fact that he is battle-tested, consistent, and is always closing in the stretch. For now we just have to wait for him to get back on the work tab and see how he progresses there. The Wood is still a long way off and he will have to go into the race off a nine-week layoff, which obviously is not ideal.

 

12—Rattle N Roll (Kenny McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

You didn’t expect me to dump him off one race, as dull as it looked, did you? I said all along I didn’t like this spot for him, especially on this track with the short stretch. This is a big galloping type of horse who needs to get fit by racing and his style does not fit Gulfstream at all. McPeek wasn’t crazy about this spot either and could have run him a week later at Tampa, but he liked the timing of this race better to set him up for the real test in the Louisiana Derby at 1 3/16 miles with that long stretch. He doesn’t even need to win that, only to run a strong second to Epicenter, because he will move forward again at Churchill Downs. The bottom line is he was down on the inside with that big stride of his and never got out and was beaten 7 ¼ lengths, which is hardly insurmountable. This colt is reminiscent in many ways of another McPeek horse, Tejano Run, who also won the Breeders’ Futurity and started off his 3-year-old campaign with a dull fifth-place finish, beaten over 10 lengths, in the Risen Star at 1-2. But he also needed racing, and after then finishing second in the Jim Beam Stakes and third in the Blue Grass Stakes he was a fast-closing second in the Kentucky Derby. McPeek said Rattle N Roll ate up great Sunday morning and he is not discouraged in the slightest. He expects a big turnaround at Fair Grounds, so I will let everything play out before giving up on him.

 

13—Forbidden Kingdom (Dick Mandella, American Pharoah – Just Louise, by Five Star Day)

I guess this looks to be a low ranking off his “workout” in the San Felipe Stakes, but I still don’t see him as a Derby type horse. He was 10 times faster than anyone else is this small overmatched field, which had accomplished nothing. So, sure he was able to blow them away from the start and simply outsprint them, running them into the ground with fractions of :45 4/5 an 1:10 2/5, while opening a seven or eight-length lead, and then crawling home under no pressure in :26 2/5 and :07, winning by 5 ¾ lengths in what was the easiest Grade 2 win we’ve seen in quite a while. He can win the Derby like that if he’s Spend A Buck, but that seems unlikely. Don’t get me wrong, this is a brilliant talented colt that any trainer would love to have, but it’s a long stretch to a mile and a quarter with his style of running and we first have to see what he does against Messier in the Santa Anita Derby. I have no idea who else is out there to run against them. Perhaps he will turn it into a match race and again just blast out of gate and play catch me if you can. Doppelganger gave him a bit of a run in the stretch to slightly narrow his margin of victory, but I would think that performance could set him up well for the Arkansas Derby. If any trainer can stretch this colt out it is Mandella, but the Kentucky Derby is another matter.

 

14—Commandperformance (Todd Pletcher, Union Rags – Smitten, by Tapit)

It doesn’t happen often heading into mid-March, but I am actually looking forward to a maiden race more than the Tampa Bay Derby on the same card. I loved his five-furlong work Saturday in 1:00 4/5, indicating he is sharp and ready for the most important maiden race of the year. If he can’t beat Tampa maidens then how is he going to do against serious Derby contenders in their final prep? But Pletcher certainly doesn’t want him going into the Derby as a maiden. Not only is he supposed to win Saturday’s race he is supposed to win it pretty impressively. Now we just have to see who and how many they get to run against him. He was my first Derby sleeper after his career debut, so he caught my eye from day one. If it wasn’t for the slight bone bruising that has sidelined him since his fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile I firmly believe he would have been no worse than second in that race. All we can do now is see how he bounces back off the layoff.

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Derby Rankings typically features four more horses than the original Derby Dozen of past years. And we extended it to 20 last week, which I felt was too many and diluted the Rankings, so a bonus baker’s dozen seems appropriate this week rather than try to rank an ever-extending group of horses who all look pretty much alike. Proven Breeders’ Cup horses GIANT GAME and PAPPACAP are looking to rebound off disappointing efforts, even if Giant Game did have a legitimate excuse, displacing his palate and losing his air. We’ll likely see him in the Tampa Bay Derby after scratching out of the Fountain of Youth. And I can barely remember CALL ME MIDNIGHT’S nose victory in the Lecomte Stakes it was so long ago. And the rest to me are inseparable, needing to move forward off good, but not great performances. In that group are PIONEER OF MEDINA, UN OJO, ETHEREAL ROAD, BARBER ROAD, the surprising O CAPTAIN, and DEAN’S LIST, who looks like a one-turn horse. And what to you do about the unfortunate Bill Mott pair of HIGH OAK and GALT, who thankfully escaped injury in the Fountain of Youth. Despite coming off a six-month layoff, High Oak was loaded throughout the race and despite racing wide was right up there with a cluster of horses vying for the lead at the head of the stretch when A.P.s Secret tried to squeeze his way through and came out in front of him, causing him to clip heels and go down hard. Stablemate GALT, rallying from last, had to avoid the fallen horse and threw his rider Joel Rosario. Fortunately he and Junior Alvarado seemed to escape serious injury. If both horses are able to bounce back from this they will be dangerous, especially High Oak, who was running a huge race at the time.

So how do you take just those 11 horses and place them is some kind of order? And who do you leave out of the top 20? I did rank Ethereal Road ahead of Un Ojo and Barber Road last week because of his wide trip in the Rebel, while they both saved ground all the way. As it turned out, Un Ojo and Barber Road got mediocre at best Thoro-Graph numbers of “7” and “7 ¼”, respectively, while Ethereal Road got a respectable “4,” which was a big  improvement from his “9” the race before, That is a huge difference between horses who virtually finished on the line together. So you can consider Ethereal Road in the top 16.

TIZ THE BOMB returned on the Turfway Polytrack and scored a solid victory in the John Battaglia, despite racing wide the whole way. If he can repeat in the Jeff Ruby Steaks we’ll see what Kenny McPeek decides to do with him.

Out of sheer desperation and a deep respect for the talents of MESSIER I contacted one of his owners who I know and asked him for a simple yes or a no off the record if I should put the colt in my Rankings. As expected I got no response, so it is just wait and see from now on.

Last year’s Iroquois winner MAJOR GENERAL had his final tune-up for the Tampa Bay Derby, breezing five furlongs in 1:02 1/5. SLOW DOWN ANDY returned to the work tab Sunday with a solid :48 3/5 half-mile drill. I would think Doug O’Neill will give him another shot in the Santa Anita Derby, as he certainly didn’t run his race in the Risen Star when he was pulling hard early.