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Derby Rankings: Week 6

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022

The Risen Star Stakes was supposed to clear up the muddled Derby picture, but no one has a clue if it did or not, as the No. 1 and 2 ranked horses stayed right where they were despite both getting beat by a tough loose on the lead horse and having less than ideal trips. And so we move on. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 22, 2022 – Week 6

By Steve Haskin

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

Can I say here and now there is no true No. 1, so why drop him off a second-place finish in his 3-year-old debut when he was never able to get in the clear and had no chance to catch a top-class speed horse who had zero pressure on him at any point in the race and was able to just lope around there on an easy lead and then came home fast? I want to try to stay loyal to the No. 1 ranked horse for now who I said last week didn’t have to win this race. And let’s not forget he did come home in :24 1/5 and :12 flat, which normally would be fast enough to win most races. I normally don’t question a ride unless it’s obvious, but even though Corey Lanerie said he wasn’t able to get in the clear I thought he was too passive on him around the far turn and could have gotten out and in the clear by following Slow Down Andy, but he just sat on him and never asked him to run, allowing Zandon to pass him on the outside. He fell way too far behind Epicenter and then was forced to try to find room in the stretch coming between horses down on the inside where Lanerie loves to be. It’s frustrating to see a jockey motionless on a come-from-behind horse on the far turn as the others get farther away from him. We know he has a good turn of foot on the far turn; we’ve seen it before. But he was never asked to use it. He cleaned up his feed Sunday morning and I would look for a much improved race next time and hopefully a more aggressive ride.

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

If I’m not going to drop Smile Happy I’m sure not going to drop him after being taken completely out of his game with a bad start and still able to run a huge race, just missing second. Once a horse whose best weapon is his early tactical speed hops in the air at the break and drops back to last in a 10-horse field his fate is pretty much sealed. For Zandon to drop so far back and then rally widest of all as if he were a true deep closer to finish third, it shows he is a very talented and versatile horse, who has been unlucky in his last two starts. He certainly showed enough to keep him ranked up there with the best 3-year-olds, whoever they may be. And, like Smile Happy, he came home in :24 1/5 and :12 flat and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a faster Thoro-Graph number than Smile Happy. Between the Remsen and the Risen Star he has had two great learning experiences, is battle-tested, has faced adversity, and I don’t believe we have seen anything even remotely close to this colt’s best. For a horse with only three career starts he’s been asked to overcome a great deal. I think a lot more of him now than I did before the race and I only hope those Remsen points that were taken away from him by the NYRA stewards’ horrible decision don’t stand in his way. This colt is a star. Next stop Bluegrass Stakes.

3—Rattle N Roll (Ken McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

He was originally scheduled to make his debut in the Tampa Bay Derby, and he will be nominated to the race, but McPeek says he has two more breezes left and is ready now, feeling “he needs to get a run under his belt,” so he likely will run instead a week earlier in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 5, which would allow him to come back in three weeks for the Louisiana Derby because of the 1 3/16-mile distance. That is what McPeek is looking at, so I guess he’s OK with coming back in three weeks. Most trainers would shudder at the thought. If that doesn’t work out there are plenty of other big races over the following two weeks. After some decent breezes coming off the layoff, he finally let it all out with five-furlong work in :59 3/5, third fastest of 42 works at the distance. So you can see why McPeek wants to move his debut up a week. As he said, he is ready now. There is absolutely no way you can fault him after his powerhouse victory in the Breeders’ Futurity. The Fountain of Youth is shaping up as a deep and competitive race that will no doubt launch someone right up near the top of the list. He is one horse who certainly does not have to win as long as he shows that same explosive kick he did at Keeneland. If he can run huge in the Fountain of Youth going 1 1/16 miles with that short stretch against several serious Derby horses he could even leap frog the two above him.

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

I have been saying all along this colt is bred more for stamina than speed, and it was that stamina that allowed him to just cruise along on an uncontested lead with strong and steady quarters of :23 3/5, :24 1/5, :24 2/5, and :24 1/5 and come home his last three-eighths in a swift :36 3/5. There are not many horses who are going to beat him running a race like that and then closing that fast. And he did it under wraps the final furlong with Joel Rosario looking back four times as the colt came home in a virtual gallop with his ears pricked.  He telegraphed this performance with that strong five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5, which gave him a little more bottom than the usual Asmussen half-mile works. He could have easily been elevated to No. 1, as his running style is what wins most Kentucky Derbys these days, but I do want to see him rate just off the pace to show he can adapt in case some fast horse is intent on getting the lead. I thought Bodocks would be that horse, but he just wasn’t good enough or fast enough to keep up with Epicenter, or simply didn’t try to. This colt is a powerful galloper as they would say in Europe and that is why all that European stamina makes him even tougher. I will go into his pedigree in more detail next week. The bottom line is that this colt surely is capable of leading every step of the way on the first Saturday in May, but I’m just looking for that one final edge that would give him the option to go to the front or stalk, which would make him even harder to beat at Churchill Downs.

 5—Messier (Bob Baffert, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

He is another horse you can definitely make a case for being No. 1, as he has shown he has all the tools. He has a big turn of foot and he has the speed to run you off your feet on the lead. And he has shown he can demolish his opponents. But two little things need to be resolved. As of Monday he hasn’t worked since the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on February 6, and what the heck are they going to do with him already? Everything is hush hush and I can understand waiting as long as possible, especially if they’re going to go straight to the Santa Anita Derby and give him two months between races and put all their point in one barrel. As much as I believe he is a worthy No. 1, I can’t go that far not knowing who will be training him if he goes in the Derby or if they are going to leave him with Baffert no matter what or if Churchill Downs lifts their ban for some reason. You can count on Baffert appealing the 90-day suspension by the Racing Commission regarding Medina Spirit’s disquaification. Starlight, SF, Madaket and Company have more Derby and Preakness-caliber horses this year than many trainers have horses, and they are all in limbo right now. And then we come to the matter of Slow Down Andy and what to make of him running so poorly in the Risen Starr after having beaten Messier fair and square. The California horses are extremely thin this year with the Baffert bunch dominating the 3-year-old races, basically having only themselves to beat, as they single-handedly fill all these races. So was Slow Down Andy’s performance a barometer as to the true merits of Messier or was the Los Al Futurity simply a fluke, with Messier unable to settle early and having a dislike for Los Alamitos, the scene of both his defeats? I have no idea, and so we wait.

6—Newgrange (Bob Baffert, Violence – Bella Chianti, by Empire Maker)

You knew Baffert was going to return to the friendly confines of Oaklawn Park for the $1 million Rebel and who better to send than Newgrange with the Southwest already under his belt. If you thought Newgrange was more of a workmanlike colt and not the brilliant type, he did his best to prove you wrong with a stunning bullet five-furlong work in :58 3/5 in company with Doppelganger, who no doubt helped carry him to such a fast time that was fastest of 17 works at the distance. Newgrange sat right off Doppelganger’s flank, collared him at the head of the stretch, but just couldn’t get his head in front. Still, this work really sharpened him, and don’t underestimate Doppelganger because he finished fourth of five in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, finishing behind two other Baffert horses. I believe he wants two turns with his powerful tail-female line going back to major stamina influence Herbager and Pretendre, the sire of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Canonero. So this was a real eye-opener for Newgrange. But he has already lost 20 points because of the ban and now we’re getting into the serious points, which he can’t afford to lose. Something’s gotta give.

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

He had a similar situation as Zandon at the start. For a horse who wasn’t allowed to run his race in the Holy Bull Stakes after breaking badly, he was itching to step on the gas once again, as indicated by his bullet five-furlong work in :58 3/5, fastest of 42 works at the distance. Hard to believe it was once thought by the owner to put him away for a while after the Mucho Macho Man. He has nothing but running on his mind now and got his “bounce” out of the way in the Holy Bull and can now return to that quick “2 ½” Thoro-Graph number, in which he leaped from a “14.” He has a strong pedigree, especially on the dam side, so there is no reason to think he won’t carry his speed long distances. In the Holy Bull he still was able to get second despite not changing leads in the stretch. I believe this colt has tremendous upside and I can’t wait to see what he does getting back to his normal running style in the Fountain of Youth.

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

He’s another one we’re still waiting to work, which he hasn’t done since the Holy Bull Stakes on February 5. And I’m still looking to make some sense of his pedigree even with his powerhouse grandsires Tapit and Into Mischief. The rest of it, especially in his tail-female family is a hodgepodge of names that don’t define him in any way. He does have the look and demeanor of a top-class horse, and even with his main opponents in the Holy Bull having a rough go of it, he still looked great visually and beat them all pretty handily. The bottom in is that he’s won three of his four career starts all by fairly large margins with his only defeat coming in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when he didn’t have the greatest trip. He definitely is a Cinderella story having sold for a paltry $7,500 after just turning one-year-old at an Ocala January mixed sale. His Thoro-Graph numbers need improving from the “5” he received in the Holy Bull, but he has made slow and steady improvement with each race. Now let’s just get him back on the work tab.

9—Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Calingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

He keeps running strong races, but he really doesn’t tell you as much about himself as you would like to know. He closes fast without overwhelming you, and although his final sixteenth of the Holy Bull Stakes was visually impressive, he got going way too late after failing to respond when asked nearing the head of the stretch. The bettors love him sending him of at only 14-1 in the latest Derby Future Wager and you can be sure he will get bet in all his future races because he is such a consistent closer. But he is another who has not made much progress on Thoro-Graph since his Remsen victory, improving only a quarter of a point from that race, with his Brisnet figures down a point from a 93 to a 92. So he does need to get faster. Pletcher has a barn full of inexperienced 3-year-olds with a lot of potential who are more brilliant than he is, but he is the most dependable with the most experience and looks to be the most likely to get to the Derby.

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

I’m kind of torn with him and somehow he got pushed down a few places at least for this week. Everything about the Sam F. Davis Stakes was impressive from the way he put away the speed horse hounding him most of the way through fast fractions and pulled away with a strong :05 4/5 final sixteenth. But as it turned out I’m not sure what he beat and his Thoro-Graph numbers have shown no improvement since his career debut. He got a “5” then, a “5” in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and a “5” in the Sam Davis, which actually was slower than the number given runner-up Shipsational, a New York-bred who had never run in open company. Like Epicenter he is not bred for speed and has plenty of stamina in his female family, with his fifth generation sire Gun Shot being a son of the great Hyperion. The Sam Davis was an excellent first start back, and we’ll see how much he can improve going against better company.

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

Having only those two walks in the park against maiden and mediocre allowance horses, I have to admit I was getting bored having to come up with new things to say about him. And with both his Thor-Graph numbers being a slow “8 ¼” and “8 ½” with no improvement I was starting to have my doubts if he was worthy of a top 10 or 12 high ranking. Then he went and worked five-furlongs in a bullet 1:00 1/5, fastest of 13 works at the distance, in company with the stakes-winning Major General, who is trying to bounce back after being sidelined since his victory in the Iroquois Stakes. Emmanuel is another Pletcher horse the bettors and the analysts have been high on since his maiden victory, but it obviously is based more on speculation, and from my end the visual aspects of his races. He now has to go out and prove he is that good when he takes on some pretty talented and proven stakes horses in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. This last workout should at least have him sharp enough to show what he’s got and whether he is worthy of all the accolades.

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

He is now up to five furlongs in his works, going in 1:01 3/5 as he gets closer to his 3-year-old debut, which will be in a maiden race. Imagine having a maiden ready to run and this guy shows up. You don’t see many Champagne runnersup entered in a maiden race heading into March. Pletcher has to sort out his 3-year-olds and now has another one in Pioneer of Medina, so it will be interesting to see where they all will show up next. I guess he just wants to a get a victory in this colt. If he loses, those roses could start to wilt very quickly. Let’s not forget that for Pletcher and the owners to run a maiden with one start in the Champagne they have to think very highly of him. And for a horse who suffered an injury in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile his fourth-place finish was not bad at all. There’s something about his career debut that was so impressive, even getting beat, that inspired me to start a new series on Derby sleepers, and he was the first I wrote about, so I am not going to stop believing in him until he shows me he is not the horse I thought he was from day one. You never know how they are going to return after an injury, even a minor one, or make the transition from 2 to 3, so perhaps Pletcher just wants to find that out before putting him on the Derby trail. He has the foundation; now all he needs is to win a race.

 13—Call me Midnight (Keith Desormeaux, Midnight Lute – Overseen, by First Defence)

The Lecomte Stakes has turned into a mixed bag. Of the two horses he nailed on the wire at 28-1, Epicenter came back and toyed with his opposition in the Risen Star Stakes, but Pappacap tired badly after stalking the leaders along the inside. Call Me Midnight has had his ups and downs. The Lecomte was set up for him to come from the clouds with the rapid pace set by Epicenter, but he still had to take advantage of it and run down a very fast and talented horse. He should get a lot of speed from broodmare sire First Defence, who is out of a terrific sprinter in Honest Lady, but his dam’s female family is loaded with stamina, mainly through third dam, English Oaks runner-up Slightly Dangerous, who is by English Derby winner Roberto.

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

I have no choice but to keep adding Pletcher horses if I feel they belong. Coming off maiden and allowance scores in workmanlike fashion he was 33-1 in the Risen Star and had the unenviable task of chasing Epicenter in second. But surprisingly, he never gave up the chase and was right there battling with Smile Happy and Zandon to the wire, finishing fourth, beaten only 3 ¼ lengths. So is he that good or did his big effort show how much the pace was a factor, as he and Epicenter just kept going. All I know is that he never backed off and gave Smile Happy and Zandon all they could handle for the place and show spot. He is bred to go farther and may just now be coming into his own.

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

He’s come a long way since selling as a weanling for $15,000 and breaking his maiden for a $30,000 claiming tag. But he has kept improving and has now run second in three consecutive stakes, including a big run from far back in the Southwest Stakes. But he still has a tendency to not finish his run, whether you want to call it hanging or not. He’s been having steady five-furlong works and had his fastest work on February 15, going in a sharp 1:00 2/5, so we’ll see how that plays out in the Rebel. If you’re not familiar with his sire, he won the Oaklawn and Razorback Handicaps and Fayette Stakes and is a son of Tapit, out of a More Than Ready mare. He is now in South Korea. Barber Road’s dam had the dubious distinction of selling as a broodmare at Keeneland in foal to Divine Park for $1,000. So there is a good story there.

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

Always a good worker, he turned in a sharp five-furlong drill in :59 3/5 and just seems to be improving rapidly at the right time as indicated by his huge Thoro-Graph leap from an “8 ¾” to a “3” and the way he manhandled two highly regarded Pletcher colts. He appears to have a high cruising speed and can close off it. I could have put any one of a number of horses in this spot, but this colt intrigues me because of the way he won his last race and with the speed figures showing he appears to be close to a peak performance. Again, it’s all speculation, but this is the time of year when 3-year-olds start figuring it all out and burst on the scene, and this colt looked like he was doing just that in his last start. He is  complete outcross through his first five generations, so that is something else that is different about him.

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

The reason I dropped Withers winner EARLY VOTING is because I believe he will try the Wood Memorial  and then go to the Preakness, which is what Chad Brown did with Preakness winner Cloud Computing. And Early Voting has only two lifetime Starts. SLOW DOWN ANDY, who was too headstrong early in the Risen Star, and PAPPACAP, whose effort was really surprising, were obvious demotions.

Kenny McPeek still has high hopes for TIZ THE BOMB, who ran poorly in the Holy Bull Stakes, failing to handle the kickback. He is being pointed for Turfway Park’s John Battaglia and/or the Jeff Ruby Steaks on Polytrack, with the option of still giving the Derby a shot. He did put in a tease work on Saturday, drilling a half in :47 flat, second fastest of 102 works at th distance, as if asking for one more shot on dirt. But McPeek also is nominating him for the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas and Derby. Remember, his sire Hit it A Bomb is out of an Irish-bred mare and was a listed stakes winner in Ireland for Aidan O’Brien before coming here and winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. As for his other disappointment DASH ATTACK, who was never a factor in the Southwest Stakes after winning the Smarty Jones Stakes impressively, McPeek admitted he didn’t do a good job preparing him for the race, having missed some training with him due to the frozen tracks and sent out a short horse. He was thrilled with his first work back on February 12, drilling five furlongs in :59 4/5 followed by a 1:00 1/5 drill, galloping out in 1:13 1/5. The colt certainly is sharp and fit now and will try for redemption in the Rebel Stakes, but will have to overcome the 11 post.

SPRINT ALERT: The last two weeks I have been raving about MORELLO, who has been absolutely flawless in his two sprints, including his impressive score in the seven-furlong Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, in which he got a sensational “1 ¾” Thoro-Graph number. He has never once been touched with the whip. As of now I fully expect him to continue his unbeaten streak in the Gotham Stakes; that’s how good I believe he is. And then it would be on to the Wood Memorial. Now we have another so far sprinter to watch. His name is BELGRADE and he was brilliant winning first time out by six lengths at Fair Grounds in December, getting the six furlongs in 1:10 3/5. How impressive was that race? The son of Hard Spun had sold as yearling for $45,000. A month after his maiden race he sold at this year’s Keeneland January mixed sale for $700,000 and turned over to Graham Motion, who ran him back this past weekend in a seven-furlong allowance race at Tampa Bay. Sent off at 2-5, he only won by a head, but stumbled badly breaking from the rail, moved up and then got squeezed back to last. He rallied four-wide and was game down the stretch to out-battle a nice colt in Morgan Point, who is by Rachel Alexandra’s son Jess’s Dream and who was coming off an allowance victory and was far more seasoned and experienced. Motion now is considering moving him up to the big-time in the Tampa Bay Derby. There is no reason why both these colts shouldn’t appreciate going two turns.

HIGH OAK, who was so impressive winning last year’s Saratoga Special over eventual Hopeful winner  Gunite, is progressing in his works, breezing back-to-back half-miles in :49 3/5 at Payson Park following two five-furlong works, the last of which trainer Bill Mott called “a thing of beauty.” After missing the Swale Stakes with a slight fever the son of Gormley is now likely scheduled to make his return in the Fountain of Youth, with  the Gotham a very outside possibility. His disappointing effort in the Hopeful was attributed to the beginning of a small fracture in his hind ankle. But the time off has done wonders for him and Mott feels he is ready to fire big in his two-turn debut.

Brad Cox said his recent runaway allowance winner ZOZOS will get some time off and likely will take one shot to try to get into the Kentucky Derby. That could be in the Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass Stakes. Cox also has a promising colt in CYBERKNIFE, who won a good allowance race at Fair Grounds Saturday.

After the 16.3-hand, 1,300-pound bulldozer ETHEREAL ROAD, who came from another area code to win his last race, worked five furlongs from the gate in 1:01 4/5, trainer Wayne Lukas said he is heading to the Rebel Stakes, for which he was entered, drawing post 10. The son of Quality Road ran a slow “9” Thoro-Graph number in that race, but it sure did get everyone’s attention. Another horse waiting for the Rebel is the impressive last-out winner CHASING TIME, who breezed a half in :49 3/5 at Oaklawn Park. It will be interesting to see how good this colt really is. He could be the controlling speed, and it might be up to BEN DIESEL, third in the Southwest Stakes, to keep a close eye on him if he returns to his earlier races when he showed speed, unlike the Southwest when he rallied from off the pace. If Chasing Time is as good as he looked in his last out allowance romp we could have a repeat of the Risen Star.

For those looking for more positives from SHIPSATIONAL’S second-place finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, his “4 ¼” Thoro-Graph number, which was big jump from his “8 ¾” in his previous start, was three-quarters of a point faster than the victorious Classic Causeway. Another horse who made big Thoro-Graph leap was the runaway Oaklawn allowance winner ZOZOS, who went from an “8 ½” to a “3 ½.”

Care to guess who got the fastest Thoro-Graph number last weekend and who is improving in leaps and bounds? What’s that? You say CHARGE IT in his sensational maiden victory? Not even close, as he got a “5 ¾”, which was slower than his previous start. The answer is the New York-bred BARESE, winner of the one-mile Gander Stakes, who has gone from an “11 ¼” to a “7” to a “2,” which makes him one of the fastest 3-Year-olds in the country. Time to move up to open company and show everyone he is a legitimate Derby contender. He is now undefeated in three starts for trainer Mike Maker with two state-bred stakes scores. The only question is how far he wants to go, with a number of top-class sprinters and milers in his pedigree.

After displacing in the Holy Bull Stakes, in which he suddenly dropped back, it was good to see GIANT GAME back on the work tab with a half-mile drill in :48 3/5, his breathing problem obviously corrected. So he surely deserves another chance.

The brilliant Cal-bred STRAIGHT UP G’s status as a Derby horse is in question following his recent defeat, in which he looked more like a sprinter/miler type, but he sure does work fast, with his last move a :59 2/5 drill for five furlongs.

Derby Rankings: Week 5

Monday, February 14th, 2022

Until we get past Saturday’s tantalizing Risen Star Stakes, confusion still reigns over the Derby trail. It is saying a lot about the early state of this year’s trail that the most informative race happened last year. But sit tight for another week. That’s when the fireworks begin. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 14, 2022 – Week 5

By Steve Haskin

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

“Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk.” To those not familiar with the musical South Pacific, I snatched those lyrics because that is exactly what I’ve been trying to do for the past five weeks with Smile Happy, and will for one more week when the landscape of the Derby picture and the Rankings could change dramatically in the Risen Star Stakes. While he is away he has been depending on the horses he defeated handily in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. With Call Me Midnight (seventh) winning the Lecomte Stakes, White Abarrio (third) easily winning the Holy Bull Stakes, and now Classic Causeway (second) scoring an impressive victory over a deep competitive field in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, Smile Happy’s vanquished foes continue to build up his reputation. That is the downside of waiting until the first of the 50-point races with an inexperienced and basically unproven colt with only two starts. You have to hope everything goes perfectly and then have to debut against top-quality stakes horses who are more seasoned and are also looking to cash in on those 50 points. . As for Smile Happy himself, he tuned up for Saturday’s stacked Risen Star with a five-furlong work in 1:01 3/5. He does not have to win, but if he doesn’t he better run a darn good race, especially with all the money bet on him in the Future Wager, in which he again closed as the favorite. His Kentucky Jockey Club opponents say he will.

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

So, Mo Donegal, who beat him by a nose in the Remsen and who most people believe should have been disqualified, was the 8-1 Future Wager favorite on Saturday morning before moving up to a still low 14-1 following Classic Causeway’s boost of Smile Happy, while Zandon was 44-1 before getting hammered down to 21-1 as bettors looked to cash in on a ridiculously huge overlay. Remember, Zandon, despite the nose defeat, got faster a Thoro-Graph figure than Mo Donegal. Even though he has run big at 1 1/8 miles in only his second career start, he is still short on bottom with only one six-furlong race prior to that and may need this race. Like with Smile Happy, it’s OK if he gets beat, excluding the points factor, as long as he right there with these horses and gets a lot out of the race, because he is going to have to run lights out in his final prep to get back those points. Like with Smile Happy, those are the consequences of having only two career starts at this point and only two late races at 3. I have always felt he is special, and he will have to be. He drew post 7 in the Risen Star, directly outside two speed horses, Epicenter and Pioneer of Medina, which is a great spot, but he has to watch out for Brad Cox’s sprinter Bodock charging up from the outside. He definitely should be sharp enough coming off a half-mile drill in a bullet :48 2/5, fastest of 41 works over the deeper Payson Park surface.

3—Rattle N Roll (Ken McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

All the talk has been about how Classic Causeway’s brilliant victory in the Sam F. Davis boosted Smile Happy, but let’s not forget he did the same for Rattle N Roll, whose inactivity since early October has made him out of sight, out of mind, as reflected in his 19-1 Future Wager odds, down from 30-1 on Saturday. Have people forgotten his explosive move in the Breeder’s Futurity and the way he blew by his opponents, including Classic Causeway, to win by 4 ¼ lengths in a 13-horse field, earning a strong “3 ½” Thoro-Graph number? Yes, he is coming along slower than the others following an injury, but he is up to a half-mile in his breezes and still has plenty of time before the Tampa Bay Derby and then the Blue Grass Stakes. Like with the two ranked above him, I believe he is a huge talent. One or both of the others have a lot at stake next Saturday, while I can still sit on him for a while and remember how great he looked at Keeneland coming off a maiden victory.

4—Messier (Bob Baffert, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

Have you seen the Lin-Manuel Miranda movie Tick…Tick…Boom? Well, that’s pretty much all there is to say about Messier. Like with stablemate Newgrange, we’re going through the Tick…Tick stage right now just waiting for the owners to lower the Boom. We know how talented he is, and we now know his sensational “1” Thoro-Graph number in the Robert. B Lewis Stakes makes him the fastest 3-year-old in the country. We also know he has zero Derby points for his efforts. What we don’t know is what’s going to happen with him. We have a pretty good idea, but it’s the who’s and the where’s that are the big questions. At this point in time his owners can keep him with Baffert and point to the Preakness, possibly with Newgrange, which is not likely to happen, or they can find him another home. Or will Churchill Downs decide to give Baffert back the key to the track? But the longer the owners, who could fill half the Derby starting gate, wait the more difficult it might be to break him and Newgrange in with a new trainer. Remember, many of the top trainers already have Derby horses who they have developed from the beginning. And Baffert still would have a good half-dozen 3-year-olds for the same owners who look like potential Preakness contenders, including Saturday’s El Camino Real Derby winner Blackadder, whose stock definitely is on the rise. So this is a very delicate situation that is nearing a conclusion. Stay tuned. As Al Jolson used to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

5—Newgrange (Bob Baffert, Violence – Bella Chianti, by Empire Maker)

The only thing different I can say about him that hasn’t been said about Messier is that he had his first work back since his Southwest Stakes victory, breezing three-eighths in :37 1/5. Unlike Messier, who can deliver that big knockout punch, he is more the brawler who is content to batter you for 12 rounds. If Peb was still doing his Equine Comedy cartoons in the DRF, he might have Messier and Newgrange in adjacent stalls talking to each other like little kids and wondering if they were they were going to be taken from their home and sent to live with foster parents. If they do find new homes watch all the commotion as they bust down the door to all the Derby rankings and future wagers and raise havoc, maybe with even one or two other stablemates who the owners feel are Derby contenders. What makes these SF, Starlight, Madaket and Company 3-year-olds so intriguing is that they all are bred to easily handle the mile and a quarter.

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

If you want to know how impressive he was winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes, ask those who bet him down to 13-1 in the Future Wager from 51-1 last month. Talk about a horse running to his works. Lynch, with a pair of old school distance works  — six furlongs in 1:12 2/5 and seven furlongs in 1:26 flat – had him sharp and fit for his debut and he needed to be both with the way the race unfolded. You could tell he was sharp the way he burst out of the gate and quickly went to the front. Unfortunately he hooked up with a fast six-furlong sprinter who got in off the also-eligible list through testing fractions of :22 3/5 and :46 3/5. You could tell he was dead-fit when, after being hounded by that colt all the way to the top of the stretch, he shrugged him off and drew away under three right-handed whips from Irad Ortiz, who then looked back and hand-rode him the rest of the way. Even under a hand ride he came home his final sixteenth in a quick :05 4/5. As competitive as this race looked and with the large field, no one came even close to threatening him in the stretch. Yes, he still has several lengths to make up on Smile Happy and Rattle N Roll, but you can be sure this is a vastly improved horse from last year. And he has plenty of stamina top and bottom.

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

To be honest, I have no idea how good this horse is. I don’t know if he looked that good in the Holy Bull because the race fell apart with none of the leading contenders running remotely close to their best for a variety of reasons. If you go by his Brisnet figures, his 97 speed rating is impressive enough, as are his pace figures of 98-96-95, indicating a horse that can run fast and maintain that same speed the entire race. But his “5” Thoro-Graph number is nothing to get excited about, being only two points faster than the “7” he ran in his well-beaten third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. I have to say from a visual standpoint he does everything like a good horse and came home fast in the Holy Bull. He is a great story, having sold for a paltry $7,500 as a yearling and being by a sire who stood at Spendthrift Farm before being shipped off to South Korea last year despite being a multiple Grade 2-winning son of Tapit. So, is he fast, is he slow, can he get a mile and a quarter, was his Holy Bull victory legitimate? That is something we’re just going to have to wait to find out.

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

He is another horse you just can’t get a good grasp of. Is he the horse we saw get beat in a Cal-bred race or the horse who looked Messier in the eye and turned him away despite doing everything wrong. Is he going to cock his head in the stretch and lug in or has he matured and will look more like the powerful moving horse we’ve seen in his last several works who seems a lot more focused, with that smooth low action? Yes, it’s been said a number of times before but we’ll know a lot more about him after Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes. He did draw the far outside post in the field of 10 and with his stalking running style he will have to get a good break to avoid losing ground on the first turn. Look for him to follow the sprinter Bodock breaking just inside him and try to tuck in somewhere. He is another whose stamina might be in question, so it is important he handles the mile and an eighth with no problem and looks like a horse who will continue to stretch out.

9—Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Calingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

For a horse who was beaten 4 ½ lengths in the Holy Bull Stakes, he was the 8-1 favorite in the Future Wager on Saturday morning, displacing the vacationing Smile Happy, as the bettors jumped all over his visually impressive final sixteenth, in which he just missed second by a diminishing head, although no threat to the victorious White Abarrio. He drifted back to a more logical 12- before closing at 14-1, but he is still one of the favorites. Because he saved ground most of the way in the Holy Bull, his Thoro-Graph figure was a “5 ¾,” compared to his “6” in the Remsen Stakes. His Brisnet figure followed suit with a 92, down from a 93 in the Remsen. So, going by his speed figures he still needs to improve. In his defense, 1/1 16 miles at Gulfstream is far from ideal, and we’ll see what he does when he returns to 1 1/8 miles and whether Pletcher will keep him in Florida or ship to a different track. Pletcher has had good luck in the Florida Derby, but mainly with faster horses who want to be on or near the lead. His low odds have to be based of the visual aspect of the final sixteenth of the Holy Bull and one foreseeing big improvement in his next race.

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

I am really in a dilemma with this horse, who could be the real goods based on the visual aspect of his two victories or another of those Pletcher whiz kids who look like champions in Florida maiden and allowance races. The bettors have always loved him and he just does everything like a top-class colt, as I mentioned in detail last week. But as one who relies on Thoro-Graph numbers to provide a good gauge on these horses’ patterns and how fast they are, it is difficult to ignore his less than mediocre figures of “8 ¼” and “8 ½,” neither of which puts him in the same ballpark as the stakes horses. In addition, he still has to make his stakes debut and he still has to learn how to win from off the pace, even in a stalking role. He hasn’t beaten anyone of note, but he has never raised a sweat in his two races and his Brisnet speed figure jumped from an 88 to a 96. Even more impressive was his 110 late pace figure, which is the fastest this year, and he did it on the lead the whole way. With Pletcher’s massive army of 3-year-olds he is going to have to find a place to run him, most likely teamed with another member of his troops. So, once again we sit and wait for the fog to clear and we actually can see a clear image of the real Derby contenders.

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

What, another Pletcher horse? This one at least I’ve been high on since day one even though he still hasn’t won a race. Like Rattle N Roll he is up to a half-mile in his works with a :50 3/5 breeze followed by a :49 3/5 breeze. We won’t know until he runs if the slight bone bruising he had last year will have any effect on him, but I am confident he will return in top shape. No matter what you might think of him it takes an exceptional horse to run a strong second to the brilliant Jack Christopher in the Champagne Stakes while still a maiden and in only his second career start. He is not going to dazzle you with his speed or his explosive closing punch, but he will keep coming at you. His Brisnet middle pace figures have been very strong, but he just needs to build on that and come home a little faster. He has shown consistent improvement on Brisnet with figures of 92, 94, and 96. So it’s back to the waiting room and twiddle our thumbs until we actually see some action.

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

As expected, he regressed from his monster Thoro-Graph leap from a “14” to a “2 ½” in the Mucho Macho Man with a “5 ½” in the Holy Bull. But that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. A “bounce” could be expected under normal circumstances, but his terrible start and having to alter his running style coming from the back of the pack made this a throwout race, and he got his bounce out of the way. What is important is that he has that “2 ½” to fall back on, and we should see a return to that in his next start. Oddly enough, his owner had mentioned waiting for the Florida Derby, which seemed like too long to wait, and instead he wound up running in the Holy Bull, which didn’t seem long enough. The more logical move would have been going right in between and running him in the Fountain of Youth. But that is behind us, and I am expecting to see another big performance in his next start when hopefully he’ll be able to sit right of the pace. This is still a very dangerous horse.

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

I look at his pedigree and I don’t see a speed horse, but it is obvious he has plenty of speed, so now it is time for him to fall back on all that foreign stamina and show he can harness his speed without taking it away from him. I realize he might have to use it again in the Risen Star, but perhaps he won’t have to go as fast as he did in the Lecomte stretching out to a mile and an eighth. I do like that Asmussen, who uses a lot of half-mile works, gave him a five-furlong work and he went in a strong 1:00 2/5. He has no speed inside him in the Risen Star, so he most likely will have to break on top and go to the front, but maybe this time the sprinter Bodock, breaking from post 9, will rush up and give him something to run at. The Risen Star is all about how good the lightly raced invaders are and if he is ready to take the next step forward, having a seasoning and experience edge on them and a race over the track. A victory by him or Pappacap, or perhaps some big longshot, would certainly throw the Derby picture in total disarray.

14—Early Voting (Chad Brown, Gun Runner – Amour d’Ete, by Tiznow)

With the absurdly slow time and closing fractions of the Withers Stakes and the absurdly low Beyer speed figure of 78, it was the visual aspect of the race and his performance vs. the clock. I, of course, went with the visuals because that is all I could contribute without relying on numbers. That left only the Thoro-Graph figures to breathe some life into the race and provide a speed rating I could clutch on to. Well, as expected, it was nothing to get you overly excited, but with a solid career debut of “6” and a “5 ¾” in the Withers, it certainly was at least something to clutch on to. By comparison, it was much faster than the highly backed Emmanuel’s “8 ¼” in his second start and equaled Epicenter’s number in his nose defeat in the Lecomte Stakes. And White Abarrio got a “5” the Holy Bull Stake. So I as I did originally, I am going to basically ignore the times and Beyer figure, which could easily improve dramatically in his next start. But with him having already run a mile and an eighth in his second career start, there are only three possible options – run next in the Wood Memorial and go into the Derby off only three career starts, ship out of town and drop back to 1 1/16 miles in the Fountain of Youth or Tampa Derby and get two more starts before the Derby, or go to the Wood and wait for the Preakness, which proved successful for Brown with Cloud Computing. Perhaps it will depend on the success or failure of Zandon.

15—Pappacap (Mark Casse, Gun Runner – Pappascat, by Scat Daddy)

He drew the post 1 in the Risen Star, which could be to his advantage if he can work out the same trip he did in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, when he eased off the rail in the stretch and closed well to be second behind Corniche. That would be preferable to hugging the rail the whole way and coming up the inside as he did in the Lecomte. Fair Grounds for the most part has favored horses running farther out, as being on the inside has a tendency to get them in trouble. He is on a four-race losing streak and just seems to keep finding ways to get beat. But we know he is a talented, hard-knocking horse. He just needs to work out a perfect trip and then perhaps we’ll find just where he fits on the Derby trail. He had a strong half-mile final work  in :48 2/5 so all systems are go to get back on the winning track.

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

Taking a closer look at this horse from a statistical point of view I couldn’t leave him off; he fits the bill in every way, and the previous No. 16, Call Me Midnight, won’t be in action for a long time. First off, at a time when you’re looking for a young horse to start figuring it out and making dramatic improvement, his Thoro-Graph numbers jumped from a pair of “8 ¾s” to a “3.” His Brisnet figures show steady improvement (84-90-94) and his pace figures are very telling. In his three starts, at 5 ½ furlongs, six furlongs, and one mile, his early, middle, and late pace figures have been 90-90-88, then 93-92-92, then 91-93-95. While none of these are monster figures, they are all fast, and more important, consistent, which shows that he can maintain the same high speed throughout the entire race and that he possesses a high cruising speed no matter what the distance and on fast and muddy tracks. Not many inexperienced and unproven horses can take on two highly regarded Pletcher horses and just blow them away, winning off by 5 ¼ lengths. And he did it coming off only one six-furlong race in 5 ½ months. His pedigree shows a good mixture of speed and stamina, which explains his ability to run fast the entire race and not get tired. So let’s sneak him on here, even if it’s just for a week.

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Although there were a number of disappointing efforts in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, especially Make it Big and God of Love, you had to be impressed with the performance of the New York-bred stakes winner SHIPSATIONAL, who made a strong rally from eighth, going five-wide on the far turn, and caught VOLCANIC for second in his first start in open company. The son of Midshipman will remain in Florida and point for the Tampa Bay Derby.

As if the Baffert Brigade isn’t loaded enough and the SF Racing, Starlight, Madaket conglomerate doesn’t have enough decisions to make, add BLACKADDER to the party following his victory in the El Camino Real Derby, in which he rallied in the stretch, split horses and just got up to nail the favored MACKINNON. By Quality Road, out of a Pulpit mare, Blackadder not only is bred for dirt, he was coming off a one-mile maiden victory on dirt. The fact he can win on dirt and synthetic makes him a valuable commodity, giving his connections several paths to take with him. It looks at this time he could be pointed for the Preakness. One interesting pedigree note, his third dam is by Sham, and you don’t see him in many pedigrees.

It was a good weekend for New York-breds. In addition to Shipsational, BARESE captured the one-mile Gander Staks at Aqueduct despite bobbling at the start and losing a shoe. Appearing hopelessly beaten when the 4-5 favorite Bold Journey pulled away from him and opened a big lead in the stretch, Barese kept coming, and when Bold Journey began slowing down, Barese made up a ton of ground quickly in the final sixteenth to win by 1 ¼ lengths. That performance encouraged his connections to point for the Wood Memorial.

Before this year, late-developing horses like ZOZOS who have two lifetime starts at this time could always depend going the Rebel – Arkansas Derby route. But now that the Oaklawn 3-year-old stakes have been moved up they don’t have that extra week after the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes to wait for the Arkansas Derby, which will now make it a bit tighter. But assuming he can squeeze in two more races then you have to keep an eye on this Brad Cox-trained son of Munnings, who demolished a decent allowance field at Oaklawn by 10 ½ lengths in his two-turn debut. Yes, Munnings denotes speed, but there is stamina in his female family, especially the tail-end with the third dam being by the stamina-laden Big Spruce, a son of the major stamina influence Herbager.

Things returned to normal for Todd Pletcher in Florida maiden and allowance races, especially when he has two horses in the same race. We saw Shinnecock Hills and Macallan finish noses apart in a Tampa maiden race on January 14. It was pretty much a gimme when he sent out the powerful pair of American Icon and Iron works in a Gulfstream allowance race, but they were shockingly toyed with by 10-1 In Due Time. On Saturday he sent out another strong duo of MACALLAN and AFJAN, and as expected they finished one-two, with Macallan rallying in the stretch after finally changing leads late inside the eighth pole to win comfortably over Afjan, who set it up for his stablemate with a contentious battle on the lead. By Quality Road, Macallan, who has twice displayed a strong closing punch, is from a very strong Claiborne Farm family and should have a bright future.

But Mcaallan and Afjan were just the opening act for what to follow in a one-mile Gulfstream maiden race, in which Pletcher’s Tapit colt CHARGE IT put on quite a show leading every step of the way with Luis Saez never asking him to run and at point in the race. Running straight as the proverbial arrow down the stretch, he coasted to an 8 ½-length victory in a brisk 1:35 2/5. Following an opening quarter in :24 1/5, he simply ran the others off their feet with quarters in :23 1/5 and :23 4/5 and then coming home his final two eighths in :11 4/5 and :12 1/5 all on his own.  In his only other start, he was narrowly beaten in a virtual match race with Volcanic, who came back to run a strong third at 8-1 in Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes. As so the Pletcher gluttony of runaway victories in maiden and allowance races continues. This is a trainer who has 42 horses nominated to the Triple Crown. This colt was so impressive, and with his star-studded pedigree, he could have been ranked off that performance, but he beat a very questionable field and has a lot of catching up to do, so we’ll see what he does against better competition. But there is no doubt in my mind this is a serious racehorse whose dam is a half-sister to $3.9 million earner Will Take Charge and $1.1 million earner Take Charge Indy, out of $2.4 million earner Take Charge Lady. Like several others he could have gone the Rebel – Arkansas Derby route, but that is no longer possible with Oaklawn’s change of dates and the Rebel only two weeks away.

The Pletcher runaway winners were even seen in New York-bred races, as Calumet’s GOLDEN CODE led all the way to break his maiden by 10 ¾ lengths at Aqueduct and now could be pointed for the Gotham Stakes.

A Russian owned and trained horse in the Derby? The way AZURE COAST closed from the clouds to win the UAE 2,000 Guineas, and with his pedigree, you never know. Purchased for $65,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale by Vladamir Kazakov, the son of Street Sense came from last with an electrifying run, and although he seemed hopelessly out of it turning for home, he shifted to another gear in the stretch and came charging late to win going away by two lengths to remain undefeated. As for his pedigree, his sire won the Kentucky Derby, his broodmare sire Empire Maker won the Belmont Stakes, and his two maternal great-grandsires, Unbridled and A. P. Indy, won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, respectively. It will be interesting to see what happens if he wins the UAE Derby, as he should only keep improving as the distances get longer.

The Johnny Come Latelys keep popping up, and even though it’s likely too late for the Derby, we saw an impressive career debut by WE THE PEOPLE, who won going a mile at Oaklawn by 5 ¾ lengths for Rudy Brisset.

Last week I raved about the performance of MORELLO in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. This week I will rave about him again. Other than Messier, who is the only 3-year-old to run a Thoro-Graph number under “2?” How did you guess? After running a “7” in his career debut, he leaped to a “1 ¾” in the seven-furlong Jimmy Winkfield, making him a serious contender for the one-mile Gotham Stakes and then the Wood Memorial. By comparison, the one “sprinter” in the Future Wager field, San Vicente Stakes winner Forbidden Kingdom, who was listed at 10-1 on the morning line, and was third choice at 13-1 Saturday morning before drifting up to 16-1, got a “6” Thoro-Graph figure in the San Vicente, not even in the same stratosphere as Morello, who is not even bred to be a sprinter, with stamina sires throughout his pedigree. So I am still keeping a close eye on him and can’t wait to see him stretch out, especially to two turns.

Bob Baffert’s second team, who he seems more likely to hang on to right now, were out for spirited works on February 7. The speedy Del Mar Futurity winner PINEHURST drilled a half in :46 2/5, then worked a bullet five furlongs in :59 1/5; the Nashua Stakes winner ROCKEFELLER went his half in :47 4/5, and the highly regarded DOPPELGANGER went five furlongs in a bullet 1:00 2/5 and then came back only five days later and worked a strong six furlongs in a bullet. 1:12 1/5. That is some second team. And there are several others all for the same owners, including the aforementioned Blackadder.

Looking ahead to the Risen Star Stakes, one horse who might be interesting as an upset possibility or at least used to fill out the exotics is TRAFALGAR, whose fourth-place finish in the Lecomte was better than it looked on paper, as he was moving into contention when he got bottled up in traffic nearing the half-mile pole, was forced to drop back a bit, and then was stuck in traffic again turning for home. He finally got clear but was no match for the top three. He certainly could improve off that effort with a better trip.

Also looking ahead to the Rebel Stakes, Bob Baffert still hasn’t named a starter, but he definitely will have something in the race he has owned the last decade. Southwest Stakes runner-up BARBER ROAD will return in the Rebel and be reunited with jockey Reylu Gutierrez. Others pointing the race are CHASING TIME, BEN DIESEL, and DASH ATTACK.

Derby Rankings: Week 4

Monday, February 7th, 2022

The Saturday stakes brought new faces into the mix and disappointment to a few others. In any other year the Bob Baffert horses might have been No. 1 and 2, but this is not any other year, and with the 50-point races getting closer we should be hearing something soon. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 6, 2022 – Week 4

By Steve Haskin

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

With stakes victories this year, Call Me Midnight and White Abarrio have boosted the form of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, which is all we have to go by with him, as he’s only had two starts in his life and is not making his 3-year-old debut until February 19. This is today’s horseracing – having a horse ranked No. 1 even though you hardly know anything about him and are depending on others to raise your confidence in him. So, what we’ve come down to is pure speculation rather than a body of work. And that is why he’ll remain at the top until he gets beat or someone comes along who does something sensational and has a fairly extensive resume to go by. But if he is as talented as he looked in his first two starts it will take an awfully good horse to beat him. He not only returned to the work tab on Saturday he showed how eager he was to get back to serious training by working a brilliant five furlongs in :59  2/5, second-fastest work at the distance. Taking a reverse approach, rather than having him prove to me he is worthy of the No. 1 spot he has to prove to me he’s not. That’s how freaky good he’s looked so far. As a side note, if Mattress Mac cashes that $4.5 million bet he made on the Bengals in Sunday’s Super Bowl, imagine how much he’s going to bet on the son of his beloved Runhappy in the Derby. He’s already started in the Future Wager.

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

Brown, who did call Zandon freaky good back on December 4, said his five-furlong work in 1:01 1/5 on Saturday was “outstanding.” The Risen Star is going to be one of the most intriguing matchups we’ve seen on the Derby trail in a long time. Not only do you have two lightly raced colts with only two career starts, Smile Happy will be coming off a 10-week layoff and Zandon a nine-week layoff; both horses ran exceptional races going two turns in their last start; and despite their lack of experience and having to go into the Kentucky Derby off only four career starts, the winner likely will be the Kentucky Derby favorite. Smile Happy does have a bit more foundation, with two 1 1/16-mile races under his belt, while Zandon made a huge stretch-out from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, but that gutsy Remsen performance, which he should have won on a disqualification, was over a typically deep and slow Aqueduct late fall surface, so that gave him a lot of bottom. But wait a minute, what if Los Alamitos Futurity winner Slow Down Andy beats both of them. After all, he’s only raced three times and two of them were in Cal-bred races. Do we have a clue how good he is? And don’t forget the Lecomte first three finishers, especially the always dangerous Epicenter.

3—Rattle N Roll (Ken McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

I was considering moving him up to the No. 2 spot because he’s now had three works, his last a solid half in :48 3/5, he’s more accomplished than Zandon, and there is so little separating the top three. But with Rattle N Roll not scheduled to run until March 12 in the Tampa Bay Derby that is a long time to wait, so let’s see what happens in the Risen Star. Also, he is coming off an injury and only began breezing on January 22. He’s had more racing than the Top 2, but he will not have run for over five months going into the Tampa Derby. While I don’t like that long a layoff between 2 and 3 I can take consolation in knowing that American Pharoah made his 3-year-old debut on the same weekend and had actually been out of action 12 days longer than Rattle N Roll. Of course that was American Pharoah. And who knows where this colt will be ranked by Mach 12. A lot of people have forgotten how impressive he was in the Breeders’ Futurity, as evidenced by his 20-1 Future Wager odds compared to 8-1 on Smile Happy. He certainly was just as impressive as his stablemate, beating Classic Causeway by a bigger margin than Smile Happy did. As others move up while he remains idle, this might be the time to take a shot with him in the futures.

4—Messier (Bob Baffert, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

Baffert has been raving about this colt for a long time and, boy, did he look spectacular demolishing his field by 15 lengths in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Breaking from the rail he went for the lead going into the first turn, but you could tell right away he was much more relaxed with the blinkers off, as John Velazquez always seemed to have a ton of horse under him. By the time they passed the three-eighths pole you were just waiting for Velazquez to light the fuse, knowing there would be quite an explosion. In the blink of an eye Messier was gone and then long gone, running a perfectly straight course while hugging the rail and just gliding over the ground. You also have attribute maturity from 2 to 3, and remember, his only two losses have come at Los Alamitos. I’m sure everyone at once asked the same question: now what? Look, it’s pretty obvious by now that unless something changes with the Churchill Downs ban Messier and Newgrange will soon be headed to another barn or barns. And Baffert realizes that. Under normal circumstances this performance likely would have moved Messier up to No. 1 or close to it. But he really didn’t beat much – a bunch of maiden winners and a grass horse — and until we find out where he’s going we’ll just let him sit behind the Top 3 and wait for him to settle in with his new trainer. But, boy did he look good doing it. This was flawless in every respect. The only thing you need to know about his pedigree right now is that the mile and a quarter should be no problem at all.

5—Newgrange (Bob Baffert, Violence – Bella Chianti, by Empire Maker)

Baffert said he definitely will have something in the Rebel Stakes, a race he’s won eight times. The logical horse would be Newgrange, but the keyword here is ‘something.’ He realizes if things stay the way they are he likely won’t be training Newgrange. So what would be more gratifying than going to his bench and finding a horse that isn’t being pointed for the Kentucky Derby and knocking off those who are? The SF Racing, Starlight, Madaket conglomerate could be in a strong Derby position with at least Newgrange and Messier, but will still have quite a talented second team with Pinehurst, Rockefeller, Wharton, Doppelganger, McLaren Vale and several others they could save for the Preakness who will remain with Baffert. Of course, this is pure conjecture, but what else can one do with the Baffert horses at this point? As for Newgrange, I do like the way his Thoro-Graph numbers have improved from a “9” to a “7” to a “3 ½.” This no doubt is a colt who is improving and you have to love the way he traveled to Oaklawn and beat their best 3-year-olds in workmanlike fashion over what was described as a cuppy and tiring track.

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

I mentioned in Knocking on the Door that he wasn’t ranked because he didn’t work in almost three weeks, and as it turns out he had gotten sick and missed two works. Then he got back on the work tab last weekend and went a half in a sharp :47 2/5 with Tyler Gaffalione up. To come back one week later with only one half-mile work in the last four weeks and win the way he did was pretty impressive. Not bad for a $7,500 yearling purchase who was then pinhooked for $40,000 and eventually sold privately. Granted he got a huge break when the speedy Simplification broke terribly and wound up at the back of the pack and Giant Game and Tiz the Bomb were never a factor. He was able to track 19-1 Galt though fairly soft fractions, put him away easily and had clear sailing the rest of the way, coming home in a sharp :24 2/5 and :06 1/5 and crossing the wire 4 ½ lengths in front. As mentioned earlier, one thing the race does is boost the form of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, his only defeat, and flatter Smile Happy. He is by a grade 2 winning son of Tapit, but his female family is geared more toward speed up to a mile or possibly a little longer. I don’t know how much that means these days, but let’s just wait and see how he does in the Florida Derby going 1 1/8 miles with a more competitive pace. But he obviously is a very good horse and I’m not sure even with good trips, Simplification and Mo Donegal would have beaten him

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

He breezed five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 in company and was much improved as far as the head cocking goes. He did give one itty bitty little peak for a fraction of a second, but basically did everything perfect other than switching back to left lead late. He has a powerful stride and good low action and just seems like a work in progress. But it shouldn’t be long before we see a polished finished product. O’Neill is never afraid to take on anyone and he’ll travel if he has to, so it’s obvious by waiting for this race he has no concerns taking on two potential stars and a solid local contingent. This is still a perplexing colt in that we have no idea how good he is and how reliable the Los Alamitos Futurity was. The way Messier won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes it would be understandable if you feel that race was an aberration and simply a bad day for Messier. O’Neill is always dangerous and this Cal-bred has to be respected.

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

Taking a shot here. I am jumping the gun with him because I feel he is going to run a big race (in his stakes debut) and establish himself as a major player. He seems to just glide over the ground with smooth effortless strides and has the look of a classy horse who is extremely responsive to what the rider asks of him. You want him to relax and go along on cruise control and he’ll just prick his ears and lope along. You want him to get down to business and run and he’ll pin his ears and step on the gas. He has a commanding presence about him and despite still being under wraps around the far turn and well into the stretch in his allowance win, he still was able to run (his last two quarters in :23 4/5 and :24 flat). When (Morales) finally started pushing on him he quickly put it in another gear. Yes, a horse going that slow early is supposed to come home fast, but most horses can’t go that fast while in a common gallop. What makes the above comment so interesting is that with the exception of the three parentheses for currency sake, those are my word for word comments on Always Dreaming the first time I ranked him on Derby Dozen following his allowance win. I repeated these words because I could just as easily have been describing Emmanuel. As for Emmanuel’s pedestrian Thoro-Graph numbers of “8 ½” and “8 ¼,” I wrote this about Always Dreaming: “Sometimes a special horse can transcend speed figures early in their career, and this colt took a sledgehammer and shattered his paltry speed figs with the kind of performance we’ve been waiting for all winter.” Will history repeat itself?

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

It may sound strange, but I consider him more of a Derby horse now than I did before the Holy Bull. Going two turns for the first time, had he won the same way he won the Mucho Macho Man, leading all the way in fast fractions, it would have been impressive but I would have needed to see more to consider him a major Derby contender, mainly the ability to close from off the pace and not be one dimensional. When he broke badly and dropped so far back, it looked hopeless he would even pick up a piece of it. Racing wide the whole way, he put in a long sustained run, but had no chance to catch the winner. He drifted even wider turning for home and still closed well to finish second narrowly holding off Mo Donegal, despite never changing leads. I have no idea what was going on with his owner saying she wanted to wait until the Florida Derby and then he shows up in the Holy Bull. But in spite of being a huge “bounce” candidate making a giant leap from a “14” to a “2” Thoro-Graph number in the Mucho Macho Man he ran a big race, showing he was far from a one-dimensional horse.

10—Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Calingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

Just like White Abarrio boosted the form of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, he boosted the form of the Remsen Stakes even with his third-place finish. He had a lot going against him, dropping back from 1 1/8 miles on a slow surface to 1 1/16 miles over a speed favoring track with a short stretch. Breaking from the inside, he saved ground around the turn and down the backstretch. Irad Ortiz tried to ease him out and he had a clear path, but Simplification was on the move on the far outside and kept him hemmed in. Ortiz finally was able to get him to the outside, but there wasn’t much response so he had to go to the whip around the three-eighths pole and then kept riding him hard. Pletcher come-from-behind horses as a whole do not show that quick turn of foot around the far turn, but they always keep coming, building up momentum finding that extra gear in the stretch, and that’s what happened with Mo Donegal; he just kept coming under several left-handed and then right-handed whips. He finally found that extra gear in midstretch and just missed second. I’m not sure if Pletcher will subject him to another 1 1/16-mile race in the Fountain of Youth, but I feel he probably could use another shorter race to set him up for a big effort in the Florida Derby, while picking up points, rather than wait eight weeks and then another five weeks to the Kentucky Derby. But Pletcher likes time between races so we’ll see. He definitely has plenty of bottom already.

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

Many are going to look at the ridiculously slow three-quarter and mile fractions and the sloth-like 1:55 4/5 final time and paltry 78 Beyer speed figure and dismiss this colt and the race as being a farce. But if you know horses and look a bit deeper you will realize that this was a much better performance than the stats indicate and what an exceptional colt he has the potential to be, even though it is early to pass any judgment. Let’s look at the time first. Yes, it was slow, but this horse, who was making only his second career start and first around two turns, rocketed out of the gate like he was in a sprint and he ran his opening quarter over the drying out muddy track in :23 2/5. To show how fast that was for a 1 1/8-mile race, in the six-furlong Toboggan Handicap, the brilliant 1-5 favorite Happy Medium ran his opening quarter in the same :23 2/5 and tired badly, getting beat 10 lengths. What makes Early Voting so special, as he has shown in both his starts, is his ability to distance himself from the field on the far turn without being asked. One minute he was two lengths in front with several others closing in and in a flash he was six in front nearing the top of the stretch and eight in front turning for home. Yes, he might have gotten a bit tired, but he actually picked it up again nearing the wire, winning by 4 ½ lengths and came back bouncing along with his head up like the race took nothing out of him. This is a classy-looking colt who is bright and alert and very professional and is bred to run all day. Of course, I won’t be as high on him if he goes straight to the Wood Memorial and tries the Derby off only three career starts. Having a lightly raced horse run in a 1 1/8-mile race this early in the year can play havoc on your schedule, so he may have to out of town to get two more races in, even if it means shortening up a bit.

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

He finally got that first work out of the way, breezing three panels in :37 1/5 and now we can move forward with him. Pure speculation, but assuming he needs four more works the most logical path would seem to be the Tampa Bay Derby March 12, then the Blue Grass Stakes April 9. There is no longer the luxury of waiting another week for the Arkansas Derby because Oaklawn has moved their schedule up and the Arkansas Derby is now run two weeks earlier than in the past. Perish the thought of horses running in the Kentucky Derby off only three weeks. This horse has shown too much in his first three starts to dwell on the fact that’s he’s maiden. With only having two preps before the Derby, I still would consider him a contender even he was still a maiden going into the Derby. Of course you want him to get that first victory, but we see all kind of horses win the Derby these days. He’ not quite fast enough yet with back-to-back “5” Thoro-Graph numbers, and I’m not saying right now he’s got a big shot to win the Derby. I know what I’ve seen so far and I just want him to get back in action after being out with slight bone bruising so we have an idea what we’re dealing with. But I still believe he is an exceptional colt and will be moving up.

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

OK, Smile Happy still is ranked No. 1 and White Abarrio just ran off with the Holy Bull Stakes. Now it’s up to him to maintain the form of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, in which he split those two. All he has to do for now is avoid stablemates Smile Happy and Rattle N Roll, who handled him pretty easily last fall, and he is ready to beat anyone. He’s already shown his brilliance in his career debut at Saratoga, winning wire to wire by 6 ½ lengths in a snappy 1:22 3/5 for the seven furlongs, and judging from his last two old school works, six furlongs in 1:12 2/5 and seven furlongs in 1:26 flat, he is sitting on a monster performance in his 3-year-old debut, likely the Sam F. Davis Stakes on Saturday. The homebred son of Giant’s Causeway is bred to run all day and would vault right up there among the leading Derby contenders with an impressive victory. He ran well enough to win the Breeders’ Futurity and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, but the McPeek pair were just too tough to handle. I expect to see a better colt at 3.

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

Back on the work tab with an easy :51 half-mile drill. With all the stamina in his female family, it would be a waste if he couldn’t learn to harness his speed and sit back off the pace rather than bust out of there every race and battle for the lead through fast fractions. That is what cost him a victory in the Lecomte Stakes. He simply went too fast early and still was able to gamely hold off the challenge of Pappacap on his inside, but was nipped right at the wire by longshot Call Me Midnight. Maybe this :51 breeze was a step in the right direction. He has two more races to figure it out, and I have confidence that between Asmussen and the longer distances of the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, all that European stamina, combined with his own natural talent, will come out and make him a formidable foe against all the big-name invaders in the Risen Star.

15—Pappacap (Mark Casse, Gun Runner – Pappascat, by Scat Daddy)

He returned to the work tab with a solid half-mile drill in :48 3/5. Other than his third-place finish in the Lecomte Stakes, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile field has made absolutely no impact on the Derby trail. He has a chance to change that if he can somehow win the Risen Star Stakes against what promises to be the toughest field of the year with several top horses shipping in. The problem is he always runs well, but can’t seem to find a way to win, and although he ran a good race in the Lecomte, battling to the wire, he has to take a big step forward and reverse that finish and then find a way to beat shippers Smile Happy, Zandon, and Slow Down Andy. He looks to be a one-paced grinding type who always runs his race and he did look good coming off the rail and getting second behind wire-to-wire winner Corniche in the Juvenile. Now it’s time to show he can finish the job.

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

The question with him is can he duplicate his narrow Lecomte victory and start showing a little consistency. Yes, the race was set up for him with the fast early pace set by Epicenter, but he did come from more than a dozen lengths back and had some good form prior to the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. As mentioned, he is the only horse from the Lecomte who is showing a good progression in his Thoro-Graph numbers, going from a “12 ¾” to an “11” to a “7 ¾” to a “5,” and if he can keep that up then he has a chance to be a legitimate Derby contender.

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Forget the fact that MORELLO has had only two career starts and hasn’t been farther than seven furlongs. He has crushed his opponents in both starts, including Sunday’s Jimmy Winkfield Stakes by five widening lengths without being touched with the whip, and he’s not even bred to be a sprinter. The way he rated off the pace and was striding out in the final sixteenth with great extension shows that he should only keep getting better as the distances stretch out. Looking at the sires in his first three generations from a classic standpoint, his sire was second in the Preakness, his paternal grandsire was second in the Kentucky Derby and sired a Triple Crown winner, and his four great-grandsires have combined to win the Belmont twice, the Breeders’ Cup Classic twice, and the Travers. He still has the Gotham and Wood Memorial to make a name for himself on the Derby trail. And judging from what I’ve seen so far he could be special enough to become a major factor by the first Saturday in May. In short, I am very high on this horse.

We saw another sensational performance over the weekend. Normally, when a trainer sees two imposing Todd Pletcher horses entered in a race, both coming impressive maiden wins, one an 8 ½-length romp, and are going off at 4-5 and 2-1, he has to figure he has little shot of winning and will just hope to finish third. Pletcher’s powerful Florida forces every year are always intimidating. But Kelly Breen needed to know if his colt IN DUE TIME was Derby material and how he would do stretching out from 5 1/2 and six furlongs to a flat mile. And he no doubt had a lot of confidence in his colt taking on the Pletcher machine and was not about to back down even from one of Pletcher’s WinStar wonders. In Due Time had run two hard races, either setting or pressing a fast pace, but they were six months apart, and he had disappointed in his first start back. So when the big Pletcher favorite AMERICAN ICON went to lead as expected as the 4-5 favorite, most thought the race was over. But In Due Time showed a whole new dimension and came storming up on the outside like a fresh horse and surprisingly blew right by American Icon as if he were the 4-5 shot and quickly drew off to win by almost six lengths in 1:35 4/5 with his ears pricked. Bred by Gary and Mary West, In Due Time had to have been toughened mentally, going through the sales ring three times, selling for bargain basement prices — $9,500 as a weanling, $35,000 as a yearling, and $95,000 as a 2-year-old where he had to have shown something, bringing 10 times more than he sold for as weanling and more than double what he sold for as a yearling. By a red-hot sire out of a Curlin mare, he is a rare outcross through five generations and has very few big names in is tail-female family, but they were all hard-knocking stakes horses. Breen said he will consider the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby route, adding that he has several options. The bottom line is watch out for this guy.

In Saturday’s Swale Stakes, the Pletcher-trained MY PRANKSTER was game holding off Dean Delivers after making a nice run from fifth, but for now it looks like sprinting will be his game

Despite a mediocre record on grass and dirt, and breaking his maiden for a $50,000 claiming tab, GET BACK GOLDIE, a son of Goldencents trained by Doug O’Neill, was able to eke out a half-length victory in a Dubai sprint race. Could the UAE Derby be his target? Let’s just say he didn’t make the long trip to run in a little six-furlong race and soak in the desert air.

One horse who is improving with every start, especially with the addition of blinkers, is the Bill Mott-trained GILDED AGE, who put in strong run from far back to finish third in the Withers Stakes. With his classic pedigree, his explosive closing kick, and all the bottom he has under him, with three 1 1/16-mile races and a 1 1/8-mile race , watch out for him in the Wood Memorial. And he was awfully impressive breaking his maiden at Churchill Downs. If you liked Gilded Age’s race then you have to pay attention to Withers runner-up UN OJO, who closed from 17 lengths back and passed Gilded Age on the inside to get second. He had previously raced at Delta Downs before being turned over to the astute Tony Dutrow. In his first start with Dutrow the New York-bred son of Laoban closed fast in the seven-furlong New York Stallion Series Stakes but fell a neck short. The Withers was a big step up, but he showed he belonged in top-class company. Another to watch in the Wood Memorial.

I had to drop GIANT GAME and TIZ THE BOMB for obvious reasons, as both were very disappointing. Tiz the Bomb was washed out going in the gate and Giant Game was in perfect position down the backstretch, but quickly dropped out of it as if he had a breathing or bleeding issue, but that is pure conjecture. I wouldn’t dismiss GALT quite yet. He has proven to be a much better horse without blinkers and wasn’t beaten far for second. He just wasn’t quite ready for these horses, but should improve off this race.

It was good to see CHASING TIME back on the work tab, as he breezed five furlongs in 1:01 2/5. It’s still a long way off to his stakes debut in the Rebel Stakes, so until then we’ll just wait and see how he trains up to the race.

Dallas Stewart is expecting BEN DIESEL, third in the Southwest Stakes, to take another step forward in the Rebel Stakes. The homebred son of Will Take Charge was impressive breaking his maiden first time out going 1 1/16 miles at Churchill, coming from just off the pace. Going directly to the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, he pressed the pace from post 10 and finished a respectable fourth at 15-1. In the Smarty Jones Stakes run in the slop, he was forced to go to the front breaking from post 13, battled for the lead through a fast half in :46 2/5 and tired to finish seventh, but was only beaten 5 ½ lengths. In the Southwest, he broke from the rail and was taken back to fifth, almost seven lengths off the pace. He saved ground all the way, made a good run along the inside, but couldn’t match strides with Newgrange and was passed late by Barber Road. Even with the speed he has shown, he is bred more for stamina, and I like his inbreeding three times to Fappiano through his sons Unbridled, Quiet American, and Rubiano. This demonstrates the versatility of Fappiano, and Ben Diesel, as those three stallions, respectively, won the Kentucky Derby, sired a Kentucky Derby winner, and was champion sprinter.

Despite his fifth-place finish in the Southwest Stakes, DASH ATTACK could still come back for the Rebel Stakes, according to Kenny McPeek, who said the track was a little deep and cuppy and he feels he left the colt short by not doing enough with him in the morning and he got tired in the race. One horse who definitely will return in the Rebel is Southwest runner-up BARBER ROAD, who closed well to finish a strong second for trainer John Ortiz. He is as consistent as they come but needs to learn how to win.

Another big Pletcher 2-year-old finally back on the work tab is Sanford Stakes winner WIT, who breezed thee furlongs in :37 1/5 at the Stonestreet training center after having gone through a tie-back procedure or an entrapped epiglottis, which most likely curtailed his breathing in the Hopeful and Champagne. But how far he wants to go is still in question. Pletcher’s Iroquois Stakes winner MAJOR GENERAL continues to progress, working five furlongs in a sharp 1:00 3/5.

The Thoro-Graph numbers finally are in on FORBIDDEN KINGDOM’S San Vicente victories. He ran a “6” in his career debut, and in his last two starts, he ran a “6” each time, so from a Thoro-Graph standpoint he has not improved off his maiden score. We’ll see what happen when he stretches out in the San Felipe Stakes.

If you want arguably the oddest bred horse ever on the Derby trail, EAGLE IN LOVE, a gelded son of Dialed In who won his career debut February 3 by 4 1/2 lengths going a mile at Aqueduct, might fit that bill. His first three dams were bred in Panama. His broodmare sire is Jed Forest, a U.S-bred son of Gold Alert who won four individual championships in Panama, including Horse of the Year. His second dam is by the U.S,-bred Jacque Noir, who never ran. His third dam is by the Argentinian-bred Ponthieu. And his fourth dam is by, get this, Kentucky Derby winner Needles, who hasn’t been seen in a pedigree in who knows how long. Got to follow this horse.

Derby Rankings: Week 3

Monday, January 31st, 2022

A bit of a shakeup this week with some polarizing additions, as we wait for the first big weekend coming up when more changes are likely and the Derby Rankings hopefully will seem clearer. But at this point it looks like the top of the Rankings won’t come into focus until the Risen Star Stakes on February 19. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Jan. 31, 2022 – Week 3

By Steve Haskin

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

It’s still early, but if you go by what their trainers say, there is a good chance the No. 1 and 2 ranked horses will square off in the Risen Star Stakes on February 19, along with the No. 6  ranked horse. It’s apparent that points have now become the major focus when planning a horse’s schedule, and if you wait two weeks you can run for 50 points at Fair Grounds instead of running for 10 points at Gulfstream in the Holy Bull Stakes. So many trainers now are content to run their horse only two times before the Derby and you might as well go for the bigger points. Even the No. 3 horse looks like he’ll wait for the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby with the alternative being to debut a week earlier in the Fountain of Fountain of Youth. So we won’t be seeing our current top-ranked horses for quite a while. As for Smile Happy, he didn’t have his usual work this weekend and McPeek said he’s probably going to work him only two more times before the Risen Star, saying he’s “plenty fit” and that he could probably get away with only one more work if he wanted to. He still has the fastest Thoro-Graph number, having run a “2” in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in only his second career start, which is already approaching Derby-type numbers. And both of his races have been two turns, so he does have bottom under him.

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

He’s had good steady works, his latest being a :49 4/5 half-mile breeze at Payson Park, and Brown said he’s doing great. With only two lifetime starts, having already run a mile and eighth, and Gulfstream not being the kind of track on which you want to shorten up in distance, he will also wait for the Risen Star Stakes to get another mile and an eighth race in him, with the 50 points to the winner being an additional incentive to wait. Like with Smile Happy, It’s hard to fully assess the true quality of a horse after only two starts, especially to rank him this high, but he has done things in those two starts to suggest he is an extraordinary colt, who has already checked off all the boxes, at least the important ones. And to be honest, other than the McPeek horses, no one has come even close to demonstrating the special qualities you want to see in a highly ranked horse. So we are all taking a wait and see approach before feeling totally confident in a horse’s ranking. And until we start seeing horses display those qualities we’re just going to go by what we’ve seen so far, statistically and visually. And so far this guy has left a big impression.

3—Rattle N Roll (Ken McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

He had another three-furlong breeze, this time going in a sharp :35 3/5. He has shown he can overcome trouble at the start and being trapped in tight quarters, he has an electrifying turn of foot that can put him in contention in a flash, is maneuverable enough to be taken outside, inside or between horses, and can burst clear of horses under a hand ride. And he runs straight and true in the stretch and holds his legs under him perfectly. In short, he is a true professional with no flaws. McPeek remembers him very well at the sale, right down to which barn he was in and what path he walked on. “He had a great presence and walk, huge shoulders and a great hip” he said. “He brought a little more than we expected, but obviously he was worth it.” It would have been interesting to see how he handled Corniche in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but, as much of a cliché as it is, it might have been a blessing in disguise if he can improve even a little from his 2-year-old form and come back a fresh horse. Because of his huge Thoro-Graph leap from a “10 ½” to a “3 ½” and the foundation he has built, the time off could be very beneficial.

4—Giant Game (Dale Romans, Giant’s Causeway – Game For More, by More Than Ready)

Last week I concentrated on his strong series of works and on his pedigree. From a numbers standpoint, he is on a great Thoro-Graph pattern, going from a “13 ½” to a “10 ½” to a solid “4 ¾” in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I also like that his Brisnet figures jumped from an 84 to a 99. His Beyer figures show a more steady improvement, going from a 69 to 79 to 86, indicating he’s still has a lot more improving to do. It all depends on which numbers you believe are more accurate. The Beyers as a whole have not treated the top horses kindly. Of the 23 Future Wager horses, the only horses to get higher than a 90 are Jack Christopher and Commandperformance, and Jack is gone. Following four rapid works at Gulfstream he was given more of a maintenance work, breezing a half in :49 2/5 and then came back Sunday with a :48 3/5 half. It has been decided to enter him in Saturday’s Holy Bull Stakes and we’ll see what kind of transition he’s made from 2 to 3 and how he stacks up with a hard-knocking graded stakes winner like Mo Donegal and the unknown Tiz the Bomb. Judging by his three fast five-furlong works in January and his two subsequent half-mile breezes he looks ready for a big effort.

5—Newgrange (Bob Baffert, Violence – Bella Chianti, by Empire Maker)

OK, I’m giving in. but only because I’ve got to liven things up on here and because all the top ranked horses will be gathering dust for quite awhile and I’m running out of things to say about them. I need some fresh faces. Newgrange has already lost 20 points, having won two graded stakes this year. But that actually bodes well for the horse because it shows that the owners have enough faith in him that they are willing to pass up these points and wait for the 50 and 100 point races before making any decision, and I’ve been saying all along, if a good horse can’t get enough points in those last two races he doesn’t belong in the Derby. For Baffert, all that was on his mind was taking home the $750,000 purse of the Southwest Stakes. He had to be thrilled to see Newgrange change tactics and win from off the pace for the first time, stamping himself as a leading Derby contender. What happens next is out of his control and I’m sure he has come to terms with that, knowing the time will come for the owners to start thinking seriously about the Derby. They have stood by him and supported him and are in no rush to do anything now. In the Southwest, Newgrange broke sharply from the 10 post, but was outrun into the first turn and was content to track the leaders in third. He didn’t look that comfortable on the far turn as three horses came up on his inside, with two of them getting a slight lead on him. But he quickly shifted gears and began closing in on the leaders. He found his best stride after switching leads in the upper stretch and was relentless down the stretch, drawing off to a 1 ½-length victory. The fractions and final time were pretty slow, but he still ran two-fifths faster than Secret Oath, who had scored a spectacular victory in the Martha Washington Stakes earlier on the card. Anyway, here he is, like it or not. With victories in the Sham and Southwest and the distinct possibility he will be moved when the time comes, he’s done a heckuva lot more than anyone else this year and I can’t pretend any longer he doesn’t exist.

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

O’Neill decided to bypass the 1 1/16-mile Southwest Stakes and, like McPeek and Brown, will wait for the more enticing 50 points of the Risen Star Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. Watching last week’s work he still hasn’t gotten rid of his habit of cocking his head to the outside. Somehow he was able to upset the heavily favored Messier in the Los Alamitos Futurity while not only cocking his head, but lugging in as well. Right now, his resume is based on that one race. Is he that good or did Messier have an off day?  Andy gave him every chance to come back and beat him by goofing around and he couldn’t get it done. What I found most fascinating about Andy is that he was pretty mediocre in his two Cal-bred races, but jumped from an “8 ¼” Thoro-Graph number in his defeat at even-money in the state-bred Golden State Juvenile Stakes to a “5” in the Los Al Futurity. In addition, he went from an 89 Brisnet figure to a sensational 101 and from a 71 Beyer to an 85. Getting back to this colt’s unsightly little habit, he is still immature and showing no signs of correcting it. I have no idea how long he can get away with it and no idea how good he really is. He still has several boxes to check off. He did turn in a sharp work over the weekend going five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 and his head movement wasn’t quite as bad, as he crushed his workmate by some six lengths and was striding out beautifully. It won’t be until he carries his head straight on a regular basis and in a race that we will be convinced he is over that. Hopefully this was a step in the right direction.

7—Tiz the Bomb (Ken McPeek, Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

The time of judgment has come. He finally gets reunited with a dirt track to see if can handle horses like Giant Game and Mo Donegal and others. His works suggest he can, and McPeek’s high praise for him suggests he can. And yes his dirt heavy female family suggests he can. Can McPeek wind up with three of the top four ranked horses after Saturday? Can Tiz the Bomb actually turn out to be the best one? That certainly adds some intrigue to the Holy Bull, where he’ll have to run big against the Remsen winner and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third-place finisher. So stay tuned. He had his final work Saturday, breezing five furlongs in 1:01 3/5. I haven’t bothered going into speed ratings because his last three races have been on grass, but if he can close from far back the way he did in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf or from closer to the pace as he did in the Bourbon Stakes that’s all you can ask for right now. He just needs to show that same explosive kick on dirt so he can move on to the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby.

8—Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Calingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

It will be interesting to see how sharp he is when he makes his 3-year-old debut in Saturday’s Holy Bull Stakes. Right now he looks to be a determined stretch runner without a huge turn of foot, but who keeps coming and wears you down. How that style will play out over a normally speed conducive Gulfstream track and short stretch we’ll just have see, especially dropping back in distance from 1 1/8 miles. A lot will depend on how the pace scenario shapes up. He tuned up for the race with a :49 3/5 half-mile breeze. At this point I usually state that I’m not a big fan of running 2-year-olds a mile and an eighth over dead track in the Remsen, feeling it can dull a horse. But I won’t say it this year because I have the runner-up in that race ranked No. 2. The reason is that he was coming off one six-furlong race and was up with the pace in an extraordinary performance, while Mo Donegal was coming off a 1 1/16-mile maiden victory, so I want to see how sharp he’s going to be coming off that race, in which they crawled up front in :51 2/5 and 1:16 1/5. But that is more about the track than the horses. He’s not going to ‘wow’ you with his fancy footwork, but he’s 100-percent dependable and will always give you a run for your money.

9—Messier (Bob Baffert, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

If I’m going to start ranking a select number of Baffert horses who I’m fully expecting to be in the Derby, whoever the trainer may be, and competing in the 50 and 100 point races then I have to include this colt, who has a ton of ability and will run next weekend in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. He has the same ownership as Newgrange and could very well be a more serious Derby threat, but Newgrange has two stakes victories this year and Messier still has to rebound off a shocking defeat in the Los Alamitos Futurity. I’m expecting him to do just that in the Lewis. In his first start at five furlongs he was all over the track, racing greenly down the stretch, and still finished second, beaten a length. In his next start going six furlongs he demonstrated a quick turn of foot and blew by the leader while still under wraps and quickly opened a three-length lead, then kept increasing it with every stride with Flavien Prat looking back and easing him up the final eighth, winning by 6 ¼ lengths. In the seven-furlong Bob Hope Stakes, he sat back in fourth behind a very rank Forbidden Kingdom, made his move three-wide, and drew clear to win by 3 ½ lengths in a sharp 1:22 3/5. And we saw what Forbidden Kingdom did to three talented Baffert horses in Saturday’s San Vicente Stakes. Sent off at 1-2 in the Los Al Futurity, his first start around two turns, he was on the muscle early and didn’t relax like he did in his previous races. He ran well and finished far ahead of the third-place finisher, but Slow Down Andy just had his number. It must be noted that both of Messier’s defeats came at Los Alamitos, so let’s see what he does at Santa Anita, where he ran his most impressive race.

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

Pletcher said he’s scheduled to have first work this week. He is just one of the many ranked horses who is still a question mark. Being a maiden, what path will he take and can he duplicate his form in the Champagne Stakes? I’m sticking with him because I was on him after his career debut, even though he got beat, and had him as the subject of my first Derby Sleepers column. So I admit I might be a little biased, but I still can’t get his Champagne performance out of my head, running a strong second to Jack Christopher, arguably the most brilliant 2-year-old in the country before being sidelined. That is why his 41-1 odds in the latest Derby Future Wager could turn out to be a huge overlay. Remember, his sire won the Belmont Stakes and his broodmare sire has sired four Belmont winners. His third dam is by Fit to Fight, the fourth and last horse to sweep New York’s prestigious Handicap Triple Crown (Met Mile, Suburban, and Brooklyn). He also is inbred to Nijinsky, the last horse to sweep the English Triple Crown more than 50 years ago, and he is inbred to Seattle Slew, the first undefeated horse to sweep the U.S. Triple Crown. In other words, the farther this horse goes the better he should get. Although he doesn’t seem to have a big turn of foot, he just gets stronger as the race goes on and keeps coming at you. Considering his injury, his wide trip, and running closer to the pace than usual, his fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was not that bad.

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

I realize his competition has been questionable, but I also remember Pletcher sending Always Dreaming to Tampa Bay for an easy allowance win against inferior competition and he used that race as a springboard to impressive victories in a Gulfstream allowance, the Florida Derby, and Kentucky Derby. This colt might have gone a similar route had he not scratched out of an earlier Tampa allowance race with a fever. His speed figures have not been dazzling, and he is behind because of that scratch, but visually he has been spectacular and his mechanics are flawless. There were some promising colts in Sunday’s allowance race and he just toyed with them, loping along on the lead after disposing of a rank Cloud Play. The Mark Casse-trained Glider, an impressive maiden winner on grass, moved up along the inside turning for home and cut the corner, actually pulling on even terms in the upper stretch, but jockey Pablo Morales still hadn’t moved his hands and paid no attention to him. Then, passing the eighth pole he finally set him down, throwing two crosses on him, and he was gone, showing push-button acceleration. He drew off under a hand ride to win by 4 ½ lengths, again just gliding over the ground and running perfectly straight the entire stretch. Following a slow opening half, he went his next two quarters in :23 4/5 and :24 flat without breaking a sweat. Yes, I am taking a shot, going against several of my rules, and I acknowledge he is untested and has a lot of catching up to do and still will be lightly raced, but sometimes it’s fun to take at least one shot based on the feeling that you’re seeing a colt who could be exceptional.

12—Pappacap (Mark Casse, Gun Runner – Pappascat, by Scat Daddy)

He was on a good Tho-Graph pattern, going from back-to-back “10s” to a “6 ½” to a “4 ¼” in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, “but regressed back to a “6 ¾” in the Lecomte, and you don’t want to see a horse regress in his 3-year-old debut, especially when it was his fourth straight loss. The only reason he is still ranked is because he’s run well in top-class company and just might be waiting for the distances to stretch out to take that big step forward. At this point I will give him the benefit of the doubt because he always runs hard, but need to see some electricity and not just those even races picking up a piece of it. Although he’ll be facing much tougher competition in the Risen Star, Casse is not intimidated. When told who is planning on coming, he said. “At least they are coming to our house.” We’ll give him one more shot to defend his house and send the invaders packing.

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

He turned in another strong six-furlong work, this time in 1:13 flat. The more I see him turning in these powerful long works the more confused I am what the plans are for him. Regardless what owner Tami Bobo said last week I cannot see him waiting three months from the Mucho Macho Man to the Florida Derby, regardless of the huge leap in his Thoro-Graph figures. Even the two months to the Fountain of Youth is a long time, but makes much more sense and gives him two more starts. I have been trying to straighten this out, but have not had any luck. As I’ve been saying, this is a very talented horse who could easily become a major Derby contender, and a repeat of the Mucho Macho Man would move him way up. But where that repeat will take place is puzzling at this time. Watch out for any late developments.

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

He is the only horse from the Lecomte who is showing a good progression in his Thoro-Graph numbers, going from a “12 ¾” to an “11” to a “7 ¾” to a “5.” I know he had the right pace setup with Epicenter going too fast early, but he passed some very good horses in the stretch and perhaps he is as good as he looked. I’m not sure what to make of his pedigree because he has both strong speed and stamina influences throughout. He has some strong European stamina in his tail-female family and I believe that overshadows the speed influences, but who can really know for sure how far he wants to go. I’m not counting Midnight Lute as a speed influence because he only sprinted due to a breathing problem and he has sired horses who could run long. This colt’s running style certainly will help him.

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

If his six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5 at Palm Meadows is any indicator, he should be ready to fire his best shot in his 3-year-old debut, whether it’s the Holy Bull or Sam F. Davis a week later. It’s difficult to know what to make of him, having run well in the Breeders’ Futurity and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, but was no match for Rattle N Roll and Smile Happy, who beat him pretty soundly, even though he was the 7-5 and 9-5 favorite. But he did show brilliance winning his debut at Saratoga by 6 1/2 lengths, covering the seven furlongs in a sprightly 1:22 3/5, earning a strong 90 Beyer figure. But he hasn’t improved on that going two turns in graded stakes company. However, it’s no disgrace finishing third and second to two of the leading Derby contenders. He’s already had a five-furlong bullet work at Palm Meadows and the recent six-furlong work was very strong, so he could be a handful.

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

He paired up “5 ¾” Thoro-Graph numbers in the Lecomte, which is OK as long as he shows improvement next time. On one hand you can forgive his nose defeat in the Lecomte if you attributed it to simply going too fast early, but we’re talking Kentucky Derby and that isn’t a habit you want to get into going a mile and a quarter. Unlike the past, speed horses have fared well in the Run for the Roses, but you still want to see a horse who can relax and not use up too much energy, whether it’s on the lead or just off it. We know he’s game, as he showed in the Lecomte and we know he can run off from you as he did in the Gun Runner Stakes. There is still a lot to like about him, but remember, the first three finishers of the Lecomte are going to face some heavy hitters shipping in for the Risen Star, so we should get a good idea how the local group of 3-year-olds shape up.

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

With three new additions and a logjam at the bottom, I had to drop a few horses off the rankings, at least for now. I reluctantly dropped CHASING TIME because he hasn’t worked in over two weeks, and once he does he likely will return to the Rankings. With everyone lumped so close together there is always going to be movement, and while not working for two weeks is not a big deal yet, you have to pick on any little thing you can find. Hopefully, he’ll be back on the work tab soon and back in the Rankings. I also dropped GOD OF LOVE because Mark Casse said he may not run him in Saturday’s Withers Stakes as originally intended with the weather being so bad in New York. But the snowstorm has come and gone and there is no telling what the weather will be next weekend. So if he doesn’t run we’ll just have to wait for him to show up somewhere else to see how he handles the dirt. Two potential Derby horses from Casse’s barn, GOLDEN GLIDER and VOLCANIC, both turned in sharp works at Casse’s training center, with the former going five furlongs in 1:00 1/5 and Volcanic going a half in :47 3/5. We could see both next at Tampa Bay Downs.

The aforementioned FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is an absolute rocket of a horse who did the unthinkable – defeat three Bob Baffert horses in a five-horse field. This colt rattles off :21 and change and :43 and change fractions like nothing and he ran the Baffert horses off their feet, and that included his highly regarded DOPPELGANGER and the Del Mar Futurity winner PINEHURST. Although he most likely is a sprinter or miler with all that early speed, trainer Dick Mandella said they will at least try him two turns in the San Felipe Stakes. He did “slow down” to a :44 2/5 half in the San Vicente. He is by American Pharoah, and though there is a lot of speed in his female family in the second and third generations, there is stamina in his fourth generation. These days you never know how far a horse will run.

OK, what are we going to make out of ETHEREAL ROAD’S Silky Sullivan-like performance in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Oaklawn Saturday? Making his fourth career start, he is either climbing the ladder five rungs at a time or this race was some sort of aberration brought about by weak competition. I have no idea, but I will say that performance opened my eyes a lot wider than any other 3-year-old race this year. There is no way he should have won that race, never mind win it by four lengths. In his first three starts he went from seventh to fifth to third, beaten 6 ¼ lengths. But that last race gave us just a slight glimpse of what was to come. In this race he was sent off at 19-1 and hesitated at the beak and then stumbled, dropping back not only to last, but completely out of the picture. Down the backstretch he was some six lengths behind the next to last horse and 15 to 20 lengths off the lead. Then, as if someone had turned on the switch, he took off, split horses and began picking the others off one by one passing horses with every stride. Track announcer Vic Stauffer said, “He’s up to midpack and could actually get a piece of this purse. If he does it’ll be a giant effort.” Seconds later he changed his tune: “Here comes Ethereal Road and he’s gonna get a heckuva lot more than a piece of the purse; he’s gonna get it all. Look at this run — Wow!” That pretty much describes the race, in which he went from hopelessly out of it to a runaway winner. I don’t know if that was for real, but it sure was breathtaking to watch. And guess what? He is trained by D. Wayne Lukas, so that would make it doubly exciting if he were the real deal. Lukas doesn’t know the meaning of the word conservative, so watch for him to go right into stakes competition.

At Gulfstream Park, HAPPY BOY ROCKET, another son of Runhappy, appreciated the stretch-out from seven furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, sitting some three lengths of the pace in fifth after going four-wide on the first turn, charging to the lead from the outside at the five-sixteenths pole and then drawing off under a hand ride to a 2 ¾-length victory for Bill Mott. His first start was a throwout, as he broke horribly, was wide on the far turn, then was stuck on his left lead for most of the stretch run, but still just missed second before galloping out very strongly. He is a powerful long-striding horse who carries his head high and is still a work in progress. But he has tremendous upside. And do not overlook Pletcher stablemates COMPLETE AGENDA and BEYOND BEST, who both had their share of trouble and finished well to be third and fourth, respectively. Complete Agenda got caught five-wide on the first turn, moved up quickly on the far outside while still five-wide, and in a flash was second, right off the flank of the leader. At that point I thought he had no shot, having done way too much too early, but he kept coming after the winner went by him and was striding out well at the wire. Closing fast on his outside was Beyond Best, who bobbled coming out of the gate from the inside post, got squeezed along the rail approaching the first turn and dropped well back in ninth, but he accelerated on the turn and moved up four-wide turning for home. He also was striding out well, and both colts look ready to win next time out with a decent trip. And also keep an eye on runner-up MONTAUK POINT, who was down on the inside most of the race, fanned wide nearing the top of the stretch and clearly outran both Pletcher horses to the wire in his stretch-out race from 5 ½ and six furlongs. He is another with big potential. This has the making of being a very live maiden race.

A mention must be made of the second-place finish by BARBER ROAD in the Southwest. Normally closer to the pace he dropped well out of it, was wide into the turn, and then made a long sustained run. He came on strong in the stretch, but like in his other races, he found one horse who closed stronger than he did. He is a horse who always tries hard and is always coming in the stretch, but he needs to find a little more to finish the job.

In a seven-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream, the Pletcher-Winstar pair of first-timers SWING SHIFT and CONGRESSMAN put on a show battling head and head for the lead to the head of the stretch until Swing Shift asserted himself, but did drift out into his stablemate, which caused a chain reaction that surely did not help eventual third-place finisher POSITIVE REVIEW. Swing Shift ran a gutsy race to hold everyone off and then survived a foul claim and stewards’ inquiry. All these horses are way behind to be considered Derby horses.

Catching up on Pasco Stakes winner MARKHAMIAN, he is a head away from being undefeated and was impressive breaking his maiden and then capturing the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes, in which he pressed a fast pace and then fought off all challenges in the stretch before drawing off to a 2 ½-length victory in 1:23 1/5. Turning for home it looked as if his early battle and the testing fractions had taken their toll, especially when two horses moved up to challenge who seemed to be going much stronger. But Markhamian kept fighting back and finally pulled away in the final furlong. He does have the pedigree to suggest he will stretch out in distance with no problem, so we’ll see if they come back in the Sam F. Davis. But it must be noted he has not worked since the Pasco.

Assuming that 10-length maiden winner SIR LONDON is heading for the Robert Lewis Stakes, he should be plenty sharp and fit with two bullet five-furlong works and a half-mile drill in :47 2/5 on Sunday. We won’t know how good he is until he faces winners, but he has the look of a very talented colt. Doug O’Neill is planning on running his first-out six-furlong maiden winner HAPPY JACK in the Lewis. Another horse Baffert is high on in the impressive maiden winner WHARTON, who worked a sharp five furlongs in 1:00 3/5.

The Withers Stakes lost God of Love, but we’ll have first and fourth-place finishers of Jerome, COURVOISIER and UNBRIDLED BOMBER attempt to stretch-out to a mile and eighth. If Courvoisier can repeat his Jerome victory going a flat mile he will have to be considered a serious contender for the Wood Memorial down the road.

Saratoga Special winner HIGH OAK has now turned in back-to-back five-furlong works at Payson Park and should be nearing his 3-year-old debut. This is a very talented horse and I can’t wait to see how he bounces back off his layoff. Chad Brown said Champagne winner JACK CHRISTOPHER is just starting back and is too far behind.

Derby Rankings: Week 2

Monday, January 24th, 2022

The changes you see this week are the result of one thing – confusion. There are no standouts as we know them from past Derby Rankings and we’re all just trying to project who might develop and step up as clear contenders. We all thought we had Saturday’s LeComte Stakes figured out and we almost did, but on the Derby trail always expect 28-1 shots like Call Me Midnight to come along and throw things in disarray. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Jan. 24, 2022 – Week 2

By Steve Haskin

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

It’s safe to say McPeek will never have a better shot at winning the Derby than this year, with four major contenders and the No. 1 ranked horse. He has decided to bypass the lesser point stakes with Smile Happy and probably shoot for 50 points in the Risen Star at the preferred distance of 1 1/8 miles. Then he would return either in the Louisiana or Arkansas Derby. Once again, this colt has all the tools, no flaws, a sensational last-out Thoro-Graph number, and a dynamite female family. His speed figures all reflect a colt moving in the right direction, with his Thoro-Graph figs catapulting from a “7 ½” to a “2,” his Brisnets climbing from an 87 to a 98, and his Beyers from an 82 to a 90. In addition, his Brisnet pace breakdown of 80 (early), 90 (middle), and 102 (late) in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes show a horse who can run fast throughout while getting faster the farther he goes. We still don’t know how far the Run Happys want to go, but if a female family is going to carry a horse classic distances, this is the one. And we have seen sprinters Boundary, Elusive Quality, Lucky Pulpit, and Into Mischief all sire Kentucky Derby winners. Last week, he worked in company with Tiz the Bomb and the two were really cooking down the stretch, going a half in :46 3/5. McPeek did not want a repeat of that, so he worked them separately in company this past weekend, with Smile Happy going a solid five furlongs in 1:01 2/5.

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

It’s time to look at his pedigree, even though his powerful performance in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes, which saw him come home with a super Brisnet late pace figure of 116 after stalking a slow pace, suggests another eighth of a mile will be no problem. And this was only his second career start, and he was stretching out from six furlongs, with his Beyer figs jumping from an 80 to a 90 and his Brisnets from an 88 to a 93. Also his Thoro-Graph numbers went from a “6 ½” to a “4 ½,” which was 1 ½ points faster than the nose winner Mo Donegal. As for his pedigree, while there is nothing that is going to pop out at you, his sire Upstart won or placed in six Grade 1 stakes from a mile to 1 1/8 miles, and Upstart’s two paternal grandsires, A. P. Indy and Touch Gold, both won the Belmont Stakes. On his female side, his dam traces to the great producer Boudoir, from whom came such classic horses as Majestic Prince, Kelso, Graustark, His Majesty, and Bowl of Flowers. Zandon also has Secretariat three times in his pedigree and is inbred on the dam side to the top-class European miler Siberian Express. He had a nice maintenance half-mile breeze in :49 2/5 this past Sunday.

3—Rattle N Roll (Ken McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

McPeek had him run down the lane last week with the intention of having him go in :24 or :25, but the exercise rider was too conservative and he was timed three-eighths in :40 1/5. So McPeek brought him back Saturday and worked him three furlongs in company and he went in a strong :36 flat, actually going a quarter and out an eighth. Right now the target is the Tampa Bay Derby, with the alternative being to wait for the Fountain of Youth, but McPeek would prefer keeping him separated from Tiz the Bomb, who is going the Gulfstream route. Although the Breeders’ Futurity was back in early October, let’s not forget the way he demolished 12 classy opponents with one of the most explosive moves on the turn we saw all year, with his Thoro-Graph figures jumping from a “10 ½” to  “3 ½” and his Brisnets from an 82 to a 95. With his early, middle, and late pace figures all in the 90s, it shows a horse who has a high cruising speed from start to finish. Pedigree-wise, his sire, Connect, is a son of Curlin out of a Holy Bull mare who 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.

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

With the Bob Baffert horses hovering somewhere in the Twilight Zone, we really have no way of truly assessing the merits of the other California horses. Will the big dogs who are officially on the Derby trail at this time be barking just as loudly if the Baffert horses remain with their trainer for whatever unforeseeable reason or if they are turned over to one or more of the other top local trainers and can finally embark on the Derby trail? Or more likely, what if they are sent to one or more of the powerhouse stable back east? None of that will matter to Doug O’Neill, whose only thought right now is to make sure Slow Down Andy shows no signs of slowing down and that his upset victory over the heavily favored Baffert colt Messier in the Los Al Futurity was no fluke. Can O’Neill win his third Kentucky Derby for owner Paul Reddam, this time with a Cal-bred by Reddam’s 2016 Derby winner Nyquist? As we’ve mentioned, this colt has won despite being green, lugging in and gawking at the grandstand. Blinkers seem to have helped in the morning, and despite never having run in open company, he did get an excellent 101 Brisnet speed figure in the Los Al Futurity and a decent “5” Thoro-Gaph number. So all signs point to him being legit. How good legit is will be determined in his next start, which O’Neill now says could be the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn next weekend. First he has to talk it over with Reddam.

5—Giant Game (Dale Romans, Giant’s Causeway – Game For More, by More Than Ready)

If you’re looking for a razor-sharp horse who is sitting on a big race, his last four works have been a half in :47 3/5, followed by three five-furlong works in :58 4/5, :59 4/5, and :59 3/5 as he prepares for his 3-year-old debut in either the Holy Bull Stakes February 5 or the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay the week after. His speed figures have improved dramatically and he should only get better the farther he goes. I love that he has one of the great classic stallions, Hail to Reason, three times in his pedigree, twice through his son Halo and once through his son Roberto, both major classic influences. Halo, of course, sired Kentucky Derby winners Sunday Silence and Sunny’s Halo. Hail to Reason sired six champions as well as Kentucky Derby winner Proud Clarion, Preakness winner Personality, Belmont winner Hail to All, English Derby winner Roberto, and Travers winner Bold Reason, the broodmare sire of the great stallion Sadler’s Wells, who was the champion sire in the United Kingdom 14 times, including 13 in a row, and sired an amazing 323 stakes winners. As if that isn’t enough of a pedigree, Giant Game’s second dam is by Sea Hero, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Travers, and his fourth dam is by Honest Pleasure, who set a new track record in the Travers.

6—Tiz the Bomb (Ken McPeek, Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

McPeek is extremely high on him, saying he is “so talented,” and is confident that he will handle the dirt just as well as the grass and firmly believes he will run on anything. He sure has been working lights out on the dirt at Gulfstream just as he did last fall in Kentucky. McPeek added that the colt just landed on the turf because the schedule fit and he wanted to keep him separated from his other top 2-year-olds. He definitely will be McPeek’s big horse at Gulfstream, aiming for the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, and Florida Derby, assuming all goes well. I’m not sure Gulfstream will suit his running style, but we still have to see what his running style is on dirt. As we stated last week, he has a ton of dirt horses in his pedigree, and he sure has an explosive stretch run, so just maybe he could be the McPeek horse to get down on now. But go to Vegas because he’s getting bet like crazy in the Future Wager. Let’s not forget he did break his maiden in an off-the-turf race by 14 ¼ lengths at Ellis Park, in which he led every step of the way, so there is still a lot to learn about him. Last week when he worked a swift :46 3/5 half in company with Smile Happy, he might have been going a little better of the two coming to the wire. This week McPeek had them work separately in company and he went his five furlongs in 1:01 1/5, a tick faster than Smile Happy. I cannot imagine this colt not excelling on dirt. He sure loves it in the morning and romped over it at Ellis Park last year. The Future Wager bettors apparently feel the same way, making him second choice at 9-1 behind Smile Happy.

7—Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Calingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

His Brisnet late pace figure of 117 in the Remsen Stakes is the fastest of any 3-year-old, but it must be added that his early and middle pace figures of 59 and 66 were very slow, so that race set up for a strong closing figure. He is the type of horse I would love see come back in a sprint just as a sharpener, but that’s not going to happen, so he will continue with his gradual progression, with a Brisnet figures of 82 to 91 to 93 and Beyers of 72 to 82 to 90. So we’re not talking real fast, but steady. Pletcher has given him three straight five-furlong works, with each one getting slower. Remember, his Thoro-Graph number in his Remsen victory was 1 ½ points slower than runner-up Zandon, who many felt should have been put up on a disqualification. So, while we really don’t know how good this colt is and how much faster he can get, he is steady and he runs hard in the stretch. His sire Uncle Mo, grandsire Indian Charlie, and great-grandsire In Excess were all horses who had good natural speed and could carry it a distance. His dam showed good sprinting speed in her brief career and his second dam Island Sand won major stakes from a mile to 1 ¼ miles. He is a horse with plenty of bottom, is a determined stretch runner, and we’ll just have to see what kind of transition he’s made from 2 to 3.

8—Pappacap (Mark Casse, Gun Runner – Pappascat, by Scat Daddy)

We’re still waiting for that one breakout performance that establishes him as a serious Derby contender, but as well as he ran in the LeComte Stakes in his 3-year-old debut, he keeps running the same race and keeps coming up short. You can’t say he doesn’t try hard, but since his victory in the Best Pal Stakes, he’s been beaten in four straight stakes, running fourth in the Del Mar Futurity, second in the American Pharoah Stakes, second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and now third in the LeComte, and each time he lacked the stretch kick to catch the leader. In the LeComte, he saved ground all the way in fifth and moved up along the inside turning for home to challenge the front-running Epicenter, who had set too fast a pace, based on the other 1 1/16-mile races on the card. But he still couldn’t get by him, with both getting nailed in the final stride by 28-1 shot Call Me Midnight who took advantage of the fast early fractions and slow closing fractions. Although the first four finishers ran well and no doubt are good horses, we still don’t know what to make of any of them. Pappacap does have plenty of stamina, especially at the very top and bottom of his pedigree, so he could still prove to be a major Derby contender when the distances get longer, but he just needs to land a knockout punch in the stretch and break this losing streak.

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

He returned to Pletcher’s barn this past week, so it’s just a matter of time before we see him on the work tab. On one hand he has plenty of bottom, is tested in Grade 1 company, and has shown he can run with the best of them. On the other hand he is still a maiden, so Pletcher will have to decide whether to take a huge step backwards and try to break his maiden or just keep him in top company looking for Derby points. While it’s good to give a horse confidence by actually winning a race, why take a chance he could run into a tiger and you’re back where you started and with a wasted race with no points. If you aim for the Fountain of Youth Stakes or a stakes at Tampa Bay and he shows he’s still the same horse who ran a strong second to the brilliant Jack Christopher in the Champagne Stakes off a second in a maiden race, then it’s time to forget he’s a maiden. His connections certainly forgot it when they decided to run him in the Champagne. And even being a maiden, of the 23 horses listed in the Derby Future Wager he has the highest Prime Power rating by Brisnet. Prime Power combines many factors into one potent figure. BRIS Speed, Class, Pace, form, weight, distance and more are all combined by a sophisticated computer algorithm into the Prime Power rating. Using dozens of qualitative handicapping factors, Prime Power basically measures the quality of each horse’s most recent starts and consolidates them into a single rating. I know I lost you, but I’m just throwing it out there for you because it’s in the PPs. Also, he has the steadiest Brisnet progression, running a 92, then 94, then 96, which is a stark contrast to the Beyer figures, which had him plummet from a 96 in the Champagne to an 82 in the BC Juvenile. The Thoro-Graph figures for those two races basically stayed the same at a “5,”so choose your weapon.

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

We’re going to have to start taking this colt seriously after his stunning victory in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, which he won by four lengths in a swift 1:35 flat for the mile. What was most impressive was his huge improvement from a “14” Thoro-Graph figure to a “2 ½,” and his powerful Brisnet pace figures of 95 (early), 101 (middle), and 95 (late) and final speed rating of 99. To show that was no fluke, when he broke his maiden, winning by almost 17 lengths in 1:09 4/5, his pace figures were 93, 101, and 95, with a 103 final speed rating. These are spectacular numbers for a young horse, who runs fast from start to finish. In his last work, he went six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 under Javier Castellano, with DRF’s Mike Welsch getting his last quarter in :23 4/5 and a one-mile gallop-out in 1:38 4/5. He keeps his head low and has great extension and a fluid stride. If you’re puzzled by his third-place finish in a six-furlong allowance race, beaten 5 ¼ lengths at 1-5 two starts back, he reared in the gate at the break and split his head open, requiring well over 20 staples to close the wound. He still ran through it. This colt has always been tough as nails, very competitive, and loaded with talent. A month after getting him, Sano, who trained the top-class Gunnevera several years ago, told owner Tami Bobo, “You finally sent me my Derby horse. Do not sell this colt; trust me, this is a Derby horse.” Bobo said she is considering giving him two months off and waiting for the Florida Derby, which would not be your typical plan of attack, especially with a horse who hasn’t been two turns, but perhaps that monster Thoro-Graph leap spelled major bounce and peaking way too early and it was best for the horse to give him time to recover off that effort.

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

He was no match for McPeek’s pair in the Breeders’ Futurity and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and he is another without a preferred weapon to knock off the top horses. Does he want to be on the lead, as he was in the Breeders’ Futurity or sit back in fourth, two lengths off the pace, as he did in the Kentucky Jockey Club? It didn’t matter because Rattle N Roll and Smile Happy ran right by him in the stretch and pulled away. He ranks fifth in Brisnet’s Prime Power rating, so he is still a horse with a lot of upside, and with only three career starts he still has time to figure out who he is. He’s had some solid five-furlong works at Palm Meadows and should come out running. It doesn’t look as if he’ll have any problem stretching out in distance, but like so many others on the Derby trail so far he hasn’t done anything to “wow” you. But if you’re looking for a horse to put in your exotics, you can at least depend on him to be fighting to the wire. It all depends on who he’s fighting with. Right now he looks to be a notch or two below the best.

12— Chasing Time (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Race Hunter, by Dixie Union)

It was estimated that 55 of the 3,220 My Racehorse shareholders crammed into Oaklawn Park’s winner’s circle after his impressive 7 ¾-length romp in a one-mile allowance race. Even Joel Rosario, coming back from an injury, was impressed. “I was excited after the race and then to see so many people in there cheering – it was very emotional for me and very good to see that,” he said. “It was unbelievable.” If Chasing Time continues his winning ways, to quote the great Al Jolson, “You ain’t see nuthin’ yet.” After remaining stagnant in his Thoro-Graph numbers with a mediocre “8 ½,” “7 ½,” and “8,” showing no improvement, he jumped to a “4” in his last start and is now in position to be competitive with good stakes horses. His Beyer progression has been more gradual, going from a 72 to a 74 to a 77 to an 81, meaning he needs to keep getting faster to handle quality stakes horses. It all depends which figures you like to use. None of that matters to his My Racehorse mass following, who no doubt helped bet him down to 16-1 in the Future Wager. The way he ran last time he may be worth it.

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

If you want to give him an excuse in the LeComte Stakes, it was simply that he went too fast early. In the Louisiana Stakes, with Midnight Bourbon setting the pace, they went the half in :48 1/5, and in the Silverbulletday Stakes, they went the half in :48 3/5. In the three other 3-year-old races on the card at 1 1/16 miles they went in :48, :48 1/5, aand :48 2/5. Although Epicenter was alone on the lead he still went his half in :47 flat and slowed down quite a bit in the stretch. The positive take is that he gamely dug in and fought off the challenge of Pappacap, only to get nosed right on the wire by the late-closing Call Me Midnight. The negative take is that he has been on the lead or fighting for the lead in all four of his races, at seven furlongs, a mile, and 1 1/16 miles, and that is not what you want to see in a Derby horse unless you’re convinced he can shut it off if he has to. If he can show he is able to sit off the pace and come home strongly, then you have to consider him a horse to take seriously by the time we get to the first Saturday in May. So he is another horse on whom we have to take a wait and see approach. There is no doubt the talent is there and distance should not be a problem. It’s all up to him to harness some of that speed.

14—God of Love (Mark Casse, Cupid – No Wonder, by Three Wonders)

We will know a lot more about him when he makes his U.S. debut in the 1 1/8 miles Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, February 5. Casse is always the optimistic type, but I sense he really likes this colt and is looking forward to running him on dirt for the first time and showing off that same powerful closing kick he showed on Tapeta and grass in Canada, where he looks to be a sure thing to be voted champion 2-year-old. Casse also loves pointing out his “4 ½” Thoro-Graph figure in his last start, the Grey Stakes, as you normally don’t see figures that fast on synthetic surfaces. We don’t know too much yet about his sire Cupid, who did win the 10-furlong Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita, as well as three Grade 2 stakes at 3. But his dam was a nondescript sprinter who won four of 31 starts and is by an unheralded son of Storm Cat named Thee Wonders, who won four of 30 starts, including the Kent Stakes at Delaware Park. The bottom half of his female family is pretty underwhelming, so he is going to have to rely mainly on his talent and liking the dirt to become a leading Derby contender. He sure doesn’t run like a horse with distance limitations, but a lot of questions will be answered on February 5.

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

If you cross off his 10th-place finish in a maiden sprint in his second career start when he went to the front and got cooked in a speed duel by a suicidal pace, which we now know is not his style of running, and if you cross out his seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at 48-1 when he bobbled a bit coming out of the 11-post, was very wide the entire race, and did make a nice run on the turn to get to within four lengths of the leaders, then you could have made a longshot case for him in the LeComte. This time he took advantage of a fast pace and a battle up front between the two favorites, and slow closing fractions, and was able to come flying late to stick his nose in font right on the wire.  I’m not so sure he will ever beat Epicenter and Pappacap again, but this was his day and he took advantage of it. And horses do improve this time of year. His Thoro-Graph figures were pretty pedestrian going into the LeComte, but he at least came off three slow figures and improved them, going from an “11” to a “7 ¾” in the Kentucky Jockey Cub Stakes. His 88 Beyer speed figure in the LeComte was not in the same stratosphere as Mandaloun’s 106 in the Louisiana Stakes, but it was solid enough to build on.

16—Major General (Todd Pletcher, Constitution – No Mo Lemons, by Uncle Mo)

I have to put someone here, so why not a horse who is undefeated in two starts and won the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes? He has been out since then, but is back on the work tab, with a three-furlong and four-breeze and has to be considered a potential Derby horse until someone beats him. I have no idea how good this colt is, but he does have the pedigree, he looks to be a battler, and down this far in the rankings I can say the same about the others. Who knows how good they are? He is by a Florida Derby winner who has sired the top-class Tiz the Law, and his second dam is by the good stamina influence Lemon Drop Kid, winner of the Belmont Stakes and Travers. He’s probably several weeks from a race and likely will be off the Rankings by then, but for now we have to at least keep an eye on him.

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

BAFFERT BULLETIN – So, will Bob Baffert’s refugees at some point be given their green card so they can live and work as productive citizens on the Derby trail? Will they be taken away from their ostracized guardian and teacher and be sent to another home to prepare for the arduous journey to Kentucky while finally being allowed to earn enough wages to pay their way? That’s what we’re all waiting to find out. In the meantime, as Baffert fights the system, he must continue to mentor his pupils as he would any other year. At some point, if Baffert is not granted a pardon, The “Wolf” Pack and its “Kumin” Resources will have to make a decision, and make it quickly, or forfeit points that could prove valuable in the months to come. Ironically, despite several late developers, this could tur out to be one of Baffert’s deepest and most talented group of 3-year-olds, even with Corniche on the missing horses list.

With that said, here is what the Baffert Brigade has been up to. The most impressive one we’ve seen so far is DOPPELGANGER, whose one and only start was eye catching, as he got slammed into from the inside post, dropped back to fifth, then found a seam and merely cruised home the rest of the way to win by 3 ½ lengths in a swift 1:09 1/5 for the six furlongs without even the slightest bit of urging. His stride is smooth as silk and he could not have run any straighter down the stretch. He’s been working brilliantly since, but that race was back on December 11 and he has an awful lot of catching up to do if he’s going to be able to get three more starts in; and a lot of that catching up might very well have to be done in a new barn and with a new trainer. The only races for him in California are the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on February 5, and more likely the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes next weekend, and we’ll have to see what his status is then. If he is as good as he looks he should have no trouble getting in the Derby, with a 50-point race and a 100-race to follow. There isn’t much more to say about him until we know what’s going on.

The same goes for impressive first-out winner WHARTON, who romped by 5 ¼ lengths, and the more proven MESSIER, both of whom who we’ll go into in more detail next week. But I can see a huge bounce back race from Messier, who should settle a little better with that Los Al Futurity under his belt. He is extremely gifted. Another talented colt, the undefeated Sham Stakes winner NEWGRANGE, looks to have a lot of ability and a bright future, and ARMEGNAC, who was soundly defeated by Wharton first time out, came back and won this past Friday going two turns, but they came home in slow time, so I’m not sure what to make of him. As for Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner CORNICHE, owned by Speedway Stables, he has not worked since that race, so until he does there are doubts about him that so far have not been dispelled. There are other Baffert horses who have shown ability that we’ll discuss in the coming weeks. This just goes to show the depth of talent in the barn. Right now that doesn’t mean a thing in terms of the Derby. If and when that will change we should find out soon enough.

Two horses who were left off the rankings – OVIATT CLASS and WHITE ABARRIO – were done so only because, as of Sunday, they have not worked in a while, and missed works are always a red flag until we know the reason why or they show up again on the work tab. Once they do they certainly will be ranked, having proven themselves against the best in major stakes.

I have been very high on the Pletcher-trained EMMANUEL, who would be ranked had he run in that Tampa Bay allowance race, which he likely would have won with no problem. However, he had to scratch because of a fever, but following his bullet half-mile work in :47 4/5 this past weekend, it shouldn’t be long before we see him back in the entries. He still has to prove he wants to go classic distances, but his maiden victory was as impressive as it gets.

As for last Saturday’s two-turn races at Fair Grounds, all the winners – GUNFIGHTER (Brad Cox), PIONEER OF MEDINA (Todd Pletcher), and PEACEFUL WATERS (Al Stall) — all looked good, with the last two winning wire-to-wire, but none of them stood out and made you take notice. And FEROCIOUSLY ran well first time out in a six-furlong maiden race. However, I will be watching three of the runners-up. I’ve been a fan of KEVIN’S FOLLY since his maiden victory first time out at Saratoga. He hadn’t lived up to expectations, running mostly dull races, but with blinkers added he showed new life, making a strong run on the turn and bearing down on the leader, but couldn’t catch him, while still striding out well at the wire, suggesting there may b better things to come. The horse who has me excited and is a huge longshot to make the Derby, still being a maiden, is PIONEERING SPIRIT, who has never had a trouble-free race.  If this colt can ever get a decent trip there’s no telling how good he can be. It’s just too bad he couldn’t get this maiden victory out of the way and move on to better things. I thought he had a shot in the stretch even with a very wide trip until a horse way on the inside came out four or five paths and nearly made contact with him, causing him to jump back to his left lead, losing some momentum. Once he switched back to right lead after about six strides he kicked into another gear and made up about 4 lengths in the final furlong cutting the winner’s margin from five lengths at the eighth pole to 1 ½ lengths at the wire. I don’t know if he has time to get back on track to make a run at the Derby, but I think he’s eventually going to turn out to be a good horse. The third horse to watch is the $1.5 million yearling VINCO, who had a horrible break from the rail, dropped back to last, a dozen lengths off the pace, and was hopelessly out of it at the top of the stretch. But he came flying down the stretch, going between horses and having to cut across the track to get to the inside, and then charged home to get second. He is way behind as far as the Derby goes, but watch him down the road.

With two works at three furlongs, one at a half-mile, and now one at five furlongs, look for HIGH OAK to make an appearance on the Rankings very soon. His Brisnet pace figures of 94, 101, and 92, and a speed rating of 97 in his Saratoga Special romp stamped him as an exceptional colt before an injury in the Hopeful sent him to the sidelines. But he is back and looks almost ready to get back in action. By the way, if you want to know who picked him out at the sale and bought him for Lee Einsidler, it was Kenny McPeek, who is all over the Derby trail this year.

The tales of JOE continued at Laurel on Sunday when Maryland’s new favorite horse extended his winning streak to three with a workmanlike performance in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race, in which he had to do a little broken field running, going outside, inside, and between horses before drawing off to a 2 1/2-length victory at odds of 2-5. Jockey Victor Carrasco tried to get him to change leads in the stretch, but the son of Declaration of War was stuck on his left lead and showed no inclination to switch. I doubt the Derby is in his plans, but you never know, as trainer Mike Trombetta likes to take shots once in a while.

Derby Rankings: Week 1

Monday, January 17th, 2022

Welcome to the 2022 Derby Rankings. There is a lot to calculate, with a new twist thrown in regarding the Bob Baffert-trained horses, as you will read. There also are some new guidelines, which you’ll also read about in Knocking on the Door. We’ve started off with a Sweet Sixteen, and that will fluctuate between 12 and 15 from now on depending on the week’s activities and how many horses step up and earn a ranking. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Jan. 17, 2022 – Week 1

By Steve Haskin

 

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

There is very little separating him from stablemate Rattle N Roll. He gets the top spot because he’s about four works ahead of him and he has been flawless, checking off every box. Yes, I know he’s by Run Happy, a pure sprinter who has not sired any classic type horses so far, but Run Happy actually is bred for distance and Smile Happy’s female family is one of the strongest classic and distance families I have ever seen. With names like Pleasant Tap, Pleasant Colony, full-brothers His Majesty and Graustark, inbreeding to Ribot and the great producer Flower Bowl, Stage Door Johnny, Relaunch, In Reality, and Bravura, the fifth dam of Empire Maker and Funny Cide, you’re not going to find more classic breeding in any female family. But what puts Smile Happy on top is purely visual. He settles beautifully, can take the rail route or get caught four-wide on the far turn. He displayed the most explosive turn of foot in his 1 1/16-mile maiden win I saw all year, as he slingshot himself between horses in what track announcer Kurt Becker called “a breathtaking move.” He changes leads perfectly, he carries his legs under him perfectly and is extremely light on his feet and runs perfectly straight down the stretch. This is the consummate pro. Finally, he ran a strong “7 ¼” Thoro-Graph number in his debut and then catapulted to a “2” in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, which was 2 ½ points faster than the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He’s been working with stablemate Tiz the Bomb and the pair went a half in :46 1/5 on Saturday, faster than McPeek wanted. He is pointing both to the Holy Bull Stakes February 5.

 

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

Chad Brown rarely will stretch a horse out from a single six-furlong maiden race to a Grade 2 stakes at 1 1/8 miles. But when Zandon missed the Nashua Stakes he was forced to give it a shot and Zandon ran an amazing race in defeat, stamping himself as something special. Many, myself included, felt he should have been put up after being bumped several times and crowded into the rail by the nose winner Mo Donegal, who was more experienced, having run twice and won going 1 1/16 miles. But it was the way he fought back after being passed, despite the long stretch out, and the near 10-length gap to the third horse that is important in terms of the Derby. His “4 ½” Thoro-Graph figure was 1 ½ points faster than the winner. He was the subject of one of my Derby sleeper columns based on his maiden victory, in which he demonstrated push-button acceleration, a flawless stride, and showed the professionalism of a veteran, dealing with kickback and traffic. Brown called him “freaky good” and I’m certainly not going to downplay that comment after seeing what he has accomplished in only two races.

 

3—Rattle N Roll (Ken McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

He has had to overcome being scratched after a horse in McPeek’s Saratoga barn, trained by Jose Abreu, came down with equine herpesvirus, which prevented all horses in that barn from racing for 21 days and training with the other horses. When he finally was able to run he bolted on the turn after moving like a winner. But when he finally put all that behind him he quickly became a serious horse with a ton of ability. In his next start, he ducked out slightly at the start and got creamed by the horse on his outside who came in on him. He then was trapped the entire run down the backstretch and around the turn with no place to go, while being caught behind a very slow pace. After straightening into the stretch there was an opening on the inside he quickly shot through and in a flash was gone. Running straight as the proverbial arrow this time and striding out beautifully with great extension, he drew off to a three-length victory without being touched with the whip and then just kept pouring it on with a monster gallop-out, leaving the others far behind. Jumping into Grade 1 company in the Breeders’ Futurity, he demolished 12 opponents with one of the most explosive moves on the turn seen all year. Once again he surged past everyone in a flash and drew off to win by 4 ¼ lengths. To demonstrate how strong his race was and how much improvement he had shown, his Thoro-Graph figures jumped from a slow “16” to a mediocre “10 ½” to a “3 ½,” which was faster than Jack Christopher, considered the fastest 2-year-old in the country, ran in the Champagne Stakes. He is a bit behind after having to miss the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but is scheduled to work any day now and will tentatively target the Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass Stakes.

 

4—Pappacap (Mark Casse, Gun Runner – Pappascat, by Scat Daddy)

He was my Breeders’ Cup Juvenile selection and ran a powerful second to front-running winner Corniche at odds of 15-1. He started his career with impressive victories in a Gulfstream maiden race and the six-furlong Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar. You don’t normally see a 2-year-old win his first two starts on both coasts. You can excuse his fourth in the Del Mar Futurity, breaking from the rail, and he was up against it in his back-to-back seconds having to chase a loose on the lead Corniche in the American Pharoah Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His pedigree is geared mainly for longer distances and he should show a new dimension when the pace is more contentious. He is a steady grinder who keeps coming at you and his Thoro-Graph numbers have gotten steadily faster with a solid “4 ¼” in the Juvenile, which was slightly faster than the winner. He also also got a faster number than Corniche in the American Pharoah. He’s been turning in some strong works at Fair Grounds, including a bullet flat for five furlongs in preparation for the January 22 LeComte Stakes.

 

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

His upset victory over the heavily favored Messier in the Los Alamitos Futurity was a surprise, especially considering how green he was in the stretch, lugging in and cocking his head out badly, something he’d done before. But when Messier appeared to come back at him he turned him away with no problem, even though he was doing everything wrong. That shows how much talent this horse has. O’Neill worked him five furlongs in blinkers on January 9 and put him with a pretty quick 5-year-old gelding, Strongconstitution, who won a small stakes and placed in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes in 2019. Andy broke several lengths back, collared his workmate in the final furlong and drew clear late, keeping his head perfectly straight and looking much more professional. His time of :59 3/5 was the second fastest of 62 works at the distance. It looks like he will point for the February 19 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds. I have to admit to a personal affection for his pedigree. In my first four years as a racing fan my favorite horses were Damascus, Dr. Fager, Arts and Letters, and His Majesty (and still are), and they are all in his pedigree.

 

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

Although I felt he should have been disqualified in the Remsen, there is no denying he ran a terrific race, rallying wide turning for home and battling gamely in the stretch. And in his previous start, a 1 1/16-mile maiden race, he was relentless in the stretch wearing down the leader in the final sixteenth. But he was so sluggish on the far turn Irad Ortiz wound up hitting him eight times before they turned for home. He was much more responsive in the Remsen as he cruised up behind horses, swung to the outside and put in his strong run in the stretch. Ortiz brought him in to look Zandon in the eye, but in doing so he was too reckless and put Zandon in a precarious and potentially dangerous situation. But the bottom line is that Mo Donegal has improved with every start, has a 1 1/8-mile victory under his belt, and with that much bottom, Pletcher doesn’t have to do much more with him except improve his speed figures. I did like his five-furlong work in a sharp 1:00 2/5 at Palm Beach Downs January 8, so Pletcher does seem to be putting some speed into him.

 

7—Giant Game (Dale Romans, Giant’s Causeway – Game For More, by More Than Ready)

Romans has a tendency to hype, and sometimes overhype, his horses, but he sure had this colt pegged right when he sent him to California for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile off an impressive 1 1/16-mile maiden victory at Keeneland and he ran huge, finishing a strong third at odds of 21-1. I like when a horse’s pure speed figures and Thoro-Graph figures parallel each other, and his Brisnet figures jumped from the mid-80s to a 99 in the Juvenile, while his Thoro-Graph figures jumped from a 13 ½ and a 10 ½ to a “4 ¾” in the Juvenile. In his maiden victory, he tracked the leader in second, withstood several challenges from behind and drew off with fluid strides. What I liked the most was how powerfully he was striding out at the wire. In the Breeders’ Cup, he settled nicely in sixth, responded with good acceleration on the turn to challenge Corniche from the outside turning for him. He couldn’t match strides with the winner, who had controlled the pace the whole way, and lost second when Pappacap came off the rail and outran him for the place. But like in his maiden score he was running strongly at the wire. You never know how a horse will make the transition from 2 to 3, but his five-furlong work :58 4/5 at Gulfstream and follow-up :59 4/5 suggests we’re going to see a better colt than we saw last year. His future book odds in Vegas range from 60-1 to 70-1, which seem awfully enticing to me.

 

8—Tiz the Bomb (Ken McPeek, Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

Yes, he’s by a turf horse and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner and he has won two stakes on the turf and closed like rocket to get second in the BC Juvenile Turf, almost emulating his sire, but McPeek had him in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and was forced to scratch him due to a minor leg infection. Let’s not forget that he broke his maiden in an off-the-turf race at Ellis Park by 14 lengths and turned in two bullet half-mile works (:46 4/5 and :47 1/5) on the dirt at Keeneland last fall, as well as  sharp five-furlong works in 1:00 flat and 1:00 1/5. He’s been working with Smile Happy and the pair went a half Saturday in a swift :46 1/5. His dam is by Tiznow, his second dam is by A.P. Indy, and his third dam is by Gone West. And his dam is inbred 3 x 4 to Seattle Slew. That is more than enough to suggest he will handle the dirt just fine. He’s been a powerful closer on the turf, but broke his maiden wire to wire and if McPeek, who already has two hot Derby contenders, feels this colt belongs on the Derby trail as well, that’s good enough for me. He’s quoted at 100-1 in the future book, and if McPeek is right about him, and he runs to his works, that could be the steal of the year. We’ll find out when he faces Smile Happy in the Holy Bull Stakes.

 

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

I’m taking a chance ranking this colt, not because he’s still a maiden and was a non-threatening fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but because of his uncertainty at this time. He was the subject of my first Derby sleeper column despite having only run second in a maiden race. But I saw enough in that race to convince me this was a future stakes horse. Pletcher, or the owners, obviously felt the same way when they entered him the Grade 1 Champagne even though he had only one start and hadn’t won a race. He ran a huge race putting in a long sustained run to finish second to Jack Christopher. Much was expected in the BC Juvenile and he was sent off at odds of 3-1. He was caught four-wide on the first turn and never put in a run, but still finished a respectable fourth. As it turned out he came out of the race with some minor bone bruising all around. He’s had some R&R and is doing excellent and should be back galloping in the next week or so. What he’s done so far as a maiden has been pretty impressive and the feeling here is if he gets back to top form and stays sound he will be a major factor on the Derby trail. But he better get back galloping soon. If no works show up in the next couple of weeks there will be no recourse but to drop him from the Rankings until he shows up on the work tab.

 

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

All we need from him are two big efforts in a row. He looked like a monster breaking maiden going six furlongs at Gulfsteam, in which he went to the lead from the rail and just blew his field away, winning by almost 17 lengths in 1:09 4/5 despite never changing leads. He came back in a six-furlong allowance optional claimer and was sent off at odds of 6-5 and proceeded to run a disappointing race, battling on the lead and coming up empty in the stretch to finish a tiring third and again not changing leads. Despite that effort, Sano put him in the one-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes and switched from Mario Vasquez to Javier Castellano. Simplification took the lead on his own and despite several horses closing in on him nearing the top of the stretch, Castellano never moved his hands through swift fractions of :45 4/5 and 1:09 4/5. The colt briefly looked like he was content again to stay on his left lead, but Castellano was able to finally get him to switch to his right lead while throwing a cross on him and he quickly opened up on the field, winning by four lengths as Castellano just showed him the whip. He came home his final eighth in :12 2/5 to complete the mile in a sharp 1:35 flat, with his Thor-Graph figure leaping from a “14” to a “2 ½.” Distance won’t be a question as he has plenty of stamina, with his dam being inbred 4 x 4 to the major stamina influence Herbager. They just need to be on bounce alert and take it slow with him.

 

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

He looked like he could be any kind after his career debut at Saratoga when he trounced his field by 6 ½ lengths in a sharp 1:22 3/5 for the seven furlongs. But even though he ran well in his next two stakes appearances he kept running into a McPeek freak. First it was Rattle N Roll in the Breeders’ Futurity, in which he set a lively pace, but tired in the stretch to finish third, beaten 3 ¾ lengths in a 13-horse field. His next start was the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. This time he rated nicely in fourth and cruised up the leaders on the far turn, but Smile Happy was breathing down his neck from the outside. They turned for home on even terms 3-wide and 4-wide, but he was no match for Smile Happy who drew off in the stretch. Classic Causeway never quit and was well clear of the others, but he just didn’t have the closing kick to stay with the winner. By running “5” Thoro-Graph number in his debut and a “5” in the Kentucky Jockey Club he still has plenty of room for improvement. Distance is not a question and he is versatile enough; he just has to show he can match strides with top-class horses in the stretch.

 

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

He sure didn’t look like your typical Derby horse in his career debut, but the transformation between that race, when he went to the lead and tired to finish an uninspiring sixth, and his next two races was pretty remarkable. Stretching out from seven furlongs to a mile, he again went to the lead, then lost the lead, then got the lead back through testing fractions of :45 4/5 and 1:10 2/5, and Brian Hernandez was not really asking him. He opened up in the stretch and was hand-ridden in the final furlong, winning by 3 ½ lengths in 1:36 1/5. He shipped to Fair Grounds and on December 26 he demolished his opponents in the 1 1/16 Gun Runner Stakes. Again, he kept alternating for the lead without being urged on at all. He established a clear lead after turning for home and when Tejano Twist tried to make a run at him, he shifted into another and in a flash he was five lengths in front and then pretty much coasted home to win by 6 ½ lengths, and then turned in a monster gallop-out while still hugging the rail. I loved how once he drifted just slightly to get close to the rail, he stayed right on his path and didn’t move off it even galloping out. His steady Thoro-Graph progression of “14 ½” to “8 ½” to “5 ½” is just what you want to see, with no fear of a bounce. I’d like to see him take back a bit off the pace and I think we’ll see that next time.

 

13—God of Love (Mark Casse, Cupid – No Wonder, by Three Wonders)

He’s never run on dirt, never run in the United States, and his pedigree certainly is nothing to get excited about. So why is he ranked? Because he has shown a monster closing kick on the Tapeta surface and grass at Woodbine, winning the Grey Stakes and Cup and Saucer Stakes and likely will be the Canadian 2-year-old champion. His fast-closing fifth in the Cup and Saucer Stakes was much more impressive than it looked on paper, as he had to check four times. The last and worst at the five-sixteenths pole stopped him dead in his tacks, but he still came flying in the stretch, closing from 11th and the eighth pole to finish fifth. He is an appealing looking son of Cupid with two white stockings in front and a funky blaze, and if he can close on dirt the way he does on synthetic and grass then he should be an exciting addition to the Derby trail. In the Grey Stakes he got  huge “4 ½” Thoro-Graph figure, faster than stablemate Pappacap got in the BC Juvenile, and he did work five furlongs on dirt at Palm Meadows in 1:00 2/5, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Gulfstream is not conducive to his style of running, so he will ship to Aqueduct for the 1 1/8-mile Withers Stakes on February 5. We won’t know for sure how he’ll take to the dirt until he does it, but this just looks like a really good colt, and I believe he will be equally as effective on dirt as he was on synthetic and grass.

 

14—Chasing Time (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Race Hunter, by Dixie Union)

I love when a young horse never deviates off his path, carries his legs under him perfectly, is never touched or pushed in the stretch, is light on his feet, and wins in hand with the rider looking back while drawing well clear of the field. Chasing Time didn’t beat much in his 7 ¾-length romp in a one-mile allowance races at Oaklawn, but he did everything right visually, mentally, and mechanically. And he did it in a short stretch coming home his last quarter in a solid :24 4/5. In his previous start, in which he was second by six lengths, he was dropping back from seven furlongs to six furlongs and simply ran into a very fast horse in In Dreams and couldn’t keep up with him through fractions of :21 4/5 and :45 2/5 and a final time of 1:09 3/5.  Before that he broke his maiden going seven furlongs and did it by having to bull his way out of a precarious situation, hanging a right to avoid running up on a horse’s heels in the upper stretch and then literally shoving another horse out of his way. He is a classy-looking, near-black colt who has plenty of stamina and looks ready to step up against better company.

 

15—Oviatt Class (Keith Desormeaux, Bernardini – Occasionally, by Tiznow)

One of these days, this colt is going to get a good pace setup and we’ll see just how good he is. The talent is there, the breeding certainly is there, and he has a strong closing kick that will win him a number of big races during the year. But in his three stakes appearance he’s been beaten by a Baffert horse each time, and he looks to be pace dependent, needing larger fields and a more contentious pace. He will run all day, but I just would like to see more versatility and for him to be right there at the finish when running closer to the pace, as he did in the recent Sham Stakes. But he really had no choice in a five-horse field, and was up against it with a :48 4/5 half, and Baffert horses don’t get beat setting a :48 4/5 half. He actually ran well to be third, beaten 2 ¾ by the Baffert pair. As the Derby trail progresses and he can find a race scenario that fits his late running style I believe he will start working his way up the Rankings. All I know is that with the right setup there isn’t a 3-year-old in California who can outclose him.

 

16—Trafalgar (Al Stall, Jr., Lord Nelson – Southern Drifter, by Dixie Union)

What intrigues me about this colt is the diversity of his running style. In his first start going seven furlongs at Saratoga, he broke slowly from the disadvantageous rail, was hustled up to fifth and turned in a steady rally to finish second to a very good horse in Classic Causeway in a sharp 1:22 3/5. Stretching out to a mile at Churchill Downs and switching from John Velazquez to Joe Rosario, he fell way back to ninth, 10 lengths behind sizzling fractions of :44 4/5 and 1:09 flat. Although he looked hopefully beaten swinging five-wide turning for home, he turned in a powerful stretch run to win going away by 2 ¼ lengths in 1:35 3/5. He was sent to Fair Grounds for a 1 1/16-mile allowance race for his two-turn debut. This time under Colby Hernandez, he sat right off the leader’s flank and stalked him through moderate fractions of :24 4/5 and :49 3/5. He wrested command after turning for home and began to draw clear. Hernandez may have thought he had it won after taking a peek at the horse he had just passed and seemed to let up just a little. Just then he looked to his outside and saw Naval Aviator charging up alongside him, actually sticking his head in front. Hernandez went to a left-handed whip to bring Trafalgar out to look him in the eye. Once he did, Trafalgar dug in and gamely battled back, winning by a head with a gap of five lengths back to the third horse. This horse is versatile ad can beat you in different ways.

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

BAFFERT BULLETIN – In an unprecedented move, Churchill Downs has banned Bob Baffert for two years and refused to offer points to any of his horses, while excluding all his horses from the Derby Future Wager. Therefore, not knowing the status of his horses and who will be training them, and many of those horses already losing out on Derby points, I am excluding his horses from the Rankings until some decision is made regarding Baffert’s Derby caliber horses and they officially can be considered on the Derby trail and earning points. Baffert is suing Churchill Downs over their ban, but that looks to be a longshot. We will be following his 3-year-olds each week in Knocking on the Door and keeping up with their training and racing and offering our observations and pedigree notes. Once a decision has been made as to the future of these horses and we know they officially are on the Derby trail and accumulating points, and who is training them, there is a good chance several will leap onto the Rankings. Although CORNICHE is the big horse, the more likely Derby horses appear to be DOPPELGANGER, MESSIER, and WHARTON, with an eye on NEWGRANGE, ROCKEFELLER, PINEHURST and WINNING MAP, along with several others.  So he is loaded again. We’ll catch up on all these horses next week, as there is a lot to sift through in Week 1.

With the exception of Commandperformance and Rattle N Roll, who should be just about ready to start training, I am also going to exclude horses who have not been working since last fall and their status is up in the air. Unfortunately for New York racing that applies to last year’s impressive Hopeful and Champagne winners GUNITE and JACK CHRISTOPHER, both of whom appear to be longshots to make the Derby. But another New York horse HIGH OAK, winner of the Saratoga Special, who hasn’t raced since that race, is back working at Payson Park, where he is up to a half-mile, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on this talented colt, as I will the runaway Sanford Stakes winner WIT, who looked like one of the most promising 2-year-olds in the country before finishing a well-beaten second in the Hopeful and a well-beaten third in the Champagne. Following the Champagne he had a tie-back procedure to correct an entrapped epiglottis, which no doubt affected his previous two performances. He’s back in training and reportedly doing great, so we’ll see if he can return to the form that saw him win his first two starts by a total of 14 lengths.

And finally, I am going to remove the temptation at this late date to rank horses who have only broken their maidens, as we have seen too many who look like world beaters knocking off fellow maidens, but often they don’t duplicate that form once they face winners. That leaves me with having to exclude EMMANUEL, who was one of the most impressive winners I saw last year. It looked like he was going to take the next step by crushing an allowance field at Tampa Bay last weekend, but he had to be scratched because of a fever. So leaving him off does not reflect what I think of him. I can see him vaulting way up the list when he does return. He’s that good. Remember, the Derby winner can just as easily be found in Knocking on the Door this early in the year, and this is a live horse who was visually impressive first time out.

Another horse who I see making the list shortly is the impressive maiden winner SIR LONDON, who has been tearing up the track at Santa Anita in the morning with back-to-back bullet works. His Thoro-Graph numbers have been slow, but he looks to have a bright future. He’s just about ready to show it.

We did have a couple of recent stakes worth mentioning. As if Kenny McPeek isn’t loaded enough with top 3-year-olds, he sent out the undefeated DASH ATTACK to score an impressive come from behind victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park. A few minor issues at 2 delayed his debut, and he also was immature and had to be sent to the farm a few times. But he established a good solid work pattern and is now on the Derby trail. By Munnings, there is a question how far he wants to go, although his dam did break her maiden going 1 1/8 miles on the turf for McPeek. At Aqueduct, COURVOISIER ran a solid race in the slop to take the one-mile Jerome Stakes. By Tapit, out of Take Charge Brandi, you certainly can’t question his pedigree. These were both good efforts, but obviously we need to see more before considering them major players.

Last weekend was a good one for Mark Casse, who already has Pappacap heading to the LeComte next weekend and God of Love pointing fo the Withers. With Emmanuel scratching out of the Tampa Bay allowance race, he took advantage of his absence by winning the race with the Ghostzapper colt GOLDEN GLIDER, who had to come from far back with a powerful late run to break his maiden in his career debut on Woodbine’s synthetic surface. He was strong in the stretch again in his dirt debut going a mile and 40 yards, winning comfortably by 1 ¾ lengths. The following day at Gulfstream, Casse defeated the promising Pletcher-trained colt CHARGE IT with VOLCANIC, a son of Violence who hadn’t run since a dismal effort in the Hopeful Stakes. But with the addition of blinkers and Lasix he was able to outduel Charge It after a stretch-long battle in 1:36 flat for the mile. Both Golden Glider and Volcanic will head to the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay. Casse also has GLIDER, who made an explosive move to easily win a maiden race at Gulfstream over the synthetic surface, and with his breeding, being by Quality Road, out a Lemon Drop Kid mare, the next logical step will be to try him on dirt.

Pletcher did send out an impressive first-time starter in the Distorted Humor colt IRON WORKS, who scored a four-length victory in 1:09 3/5 at Gulfstream. At Tampa Bay the same day, his Union Rags colt IN THE UNION rallied from seventh to win a mile and 40-yard maiden race by a length. Pletcher also sent out a pair of good-looking Quality Road colts, SHINNECOCK HILLS and MACALLAN, to finish noses apart in a seven-furlong maiden race at Tampa Bay. Both colts put in strong stretch runs and look to have a bright future. And he has several others waiting in the wings, including MAJOR GENERAL, who had his first work back this past Friday, DOUBLE THUNDER, and VARATTI. But year after year, Pletcher is a terror in Florida.

Right now it’s too early to separate MAKE IT BIG and OSBOURNE, the one-two finishers of the Springboard Mile at Remington Park. Both ran good solid races, with Osbourne losing a lot of ground on the first turn. I’m not sure what to make of the race in general, but they both ran well enough to keep an eye on. Osbourne has been working at Oaklawn Park and Make it Big is training at Gulfstream. Saffie Joseph, trainer of Make it Big, also has a promising colt in WHITE ABARRIO, who won his first two starts at Gulfstream by 6 ¾ and four lengths before finishing third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, beaten six length after being bottled up in traffic in the stretch and closing well once he got clear. Just not quite sure how much farther he’ll stretch out.

Saturday’s Cal Cup Derby was an exciting race with FAST DRAW MUNNINGS outdueling the 3-5 favorite STRAIGHT UP G, but right now neither looks like they want to go classic distances. But we’ll keep an open mind until they go against open company. Third-place finisher FINNEUS, who was closer to the pace than usual, looks more like a Derby horse, having already finished second Pappacap in the Best Pal Stakes and second to Pinehurst in the Del Mar Futurity. And he defeated Slow Down Andy in the Golden State Juvenile Stakes.

Let’s go briefly to Maryland where JOE has emerged as a potential Derby horse with two solid victories in a row, including an impressive score in the seven-furlong Maryland Juvenile Championship at Laurel, overcoming a very wide trip to win going away. He hasn’t been over a mile, but he’s bred to run all day, being by Declaration of War, out of an Arch mare. He has nice low action, a classy look about him, and he should only get better as he stretches out in distance.

One horse to keep an eye on who has been turning in some strong works at Palm Meadows is the Rusty Arnold-trained SPIN WHEEL, who broke his maiden going 1 1/8 miles at Churchill Downs, breaking from post 11, hesitating at the start, going four-wide on the first turn, dropping back to 10th, then 11th, then 12th and looking like he had no shot to finish on the board. But he cut the corner, came around one horse, dropped back to the rail, squeezed his way through a narrow opening and just got up to win by a nose before opening up 10 lengths on the gallop-out. He looks like an intriguing colt who needs to get faster and not drop so far out of it.

In the “You Don’t See This Very Often” department, FROMANOTHAMUTHA, an impressive 4 1/4-length maiden winner at Aqueduct going seven furlongs, has two Kentucky Derby runnersup in his pedigree that you rarely, if ever, see. His broodmare sire is Aptitude, second to Fusaichi Pegasus in the 2000 Derby, and his third dam is by Sham, second to Secretariat in the 1973 Derby. He will now be pointed for the Gotham Stakes.

Derby 2021 Handicapping Analysis

Wednesday, April 28th, 2021

This column likely will confuse you even more than you already are, but I will try to break down the race in as many ways as I can and throw some possible wagers at you. But things change quickly and there are some bets on which I am noncommittal at this point, so I likely will be posting updates in the comments section through Saturday. My Rankings tell you who I believe are the best overall horses based on talent, pedigree, eye test, and rate of improvement. This column will focus more on wagering and finding value. Of course, in many instances they are one and the same. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Dilemma is Here, 2021 Handicapping Analysis

By Steve Haskin

 

Let’s get one wager out of the way that I have to seriously consider. With this Derby being so confusing in so many ways, how can I not box the four horses from the Week 1 Rankings who made it to the Derby – Essential Quality, Known Agenda, Medina Spirit, and Keepmeinmind. It could be a trifecta or exacta box, but an exacta will pay nothing if it’s Essential Quality and Known Agenda. These are four solid horses with a lot of back class and a strong foundation and two will be good prices, so why not? It would have been a five-horse box had Caddo River not dropped out at the last minute, but now I can save money with one less horse. More on this later.

OK, now that we got that out of the way, let’s try to unravel this puzzle. First off, how can you truly handicap this Derby when you have three horses who have made only one start this year and four horses who have made only three lifetime starts, including one horse who is going to be no worse than second choice. And you have four horses coming off 6- and 8-week layoffs. So do we really know who many of these horses are? You also have half the field trained by four trainers, three of them Hall of Famers and one potential future Hall of Famer. Add Hall of Famer Bob Baffert and future Hall of Famers Chad Brown and Doug O’Neill and you have 13 of the 20 horses trained by Hall of Fame trainers. So, good luck to Greg Foley, Robertino Diodoro, Danny Velazquez, and Vickie Oliver.

What we’re going to do is break down the race into categories. The first will be speed figures. You have seen many references to Thoro-Graph figures and some of you are still bit confused by them. So I will sort them out and list the horses I feel are on the best pattern, which is more important in many ways than how fast their numbers are. The pattern is what gives you a clue who is going to peak on Derby Day.

Another category will be works, gallops, and overall appearance. Most of these horses look great and are training great, but I will point out the ones I feel are standouts and thriving at Churchill Downs.

And finally we come to handicapping and betting, focusing on potential overlays and longshots that can possibly pull off an upset or be part of the exotics.

 

SPEED FIGURES

There are three standouts for me on Thoro-Graph. Yes, Essential Quality has the two fastest figures, but there is a question, as slight as it may be, whether he has reached his peak. His numbers last year were strong and he began this year improving to a “negative-1/2,” which is still the only negative number run this year. Remember, the lower the number the better. In the Blue Grass he ran the second fastest number, a “0,” which was a slight regression. So, can he maintain those fast numbers or was the ½-point regression a sign that he peaked early and has already reached his level? Either number is fast enough to win the Derby, so we will just have to see if he regresses slightly again, stays around those numbers, or if another horse or horses who are on an improving pattern and projected to run a career-high number can match Essential Quality’s numbers or surpass them in the Derby.

The horse I believe is on the best pattern and sitting on a peak performance is DYNAMIC ONE, who I called my “hidden gem” and “Derby sleeper” after he finished fourth in a maiden race back in January. Although four horses have run faster than him in their last race, his pattern is stronger because he ran an excellent “5” in his second career start and it is that number that provided him with a foundation to fall back on in case he made a big jump this year and you weren’t sure if he was going to regress off it. Well, he started the year off running an “8 ¾” in the aforementioned maiden race and then improved to a “5” breaking his maiden. Having already run that “5” as a 2-year-old it was pretty certain he was going to improve off it, and he did, running a “2” in the Wood Memorial thanks to a very wide trip, running 43 feet farther than the winner. With his rate of improvement, his maturing mentally, and turning in one of the strongest works we saw all week, I am projecting that he has another significant move forward in him that will put him in a position to either win at a big price or finish in the money and be part of the exacta or trifecta. On Brisnet he has run two triple-digit late pace figures, and despite his very wide trip in the Wood Memorial he still ran a solid 96 late pace figure.

The second best pattern belongs to his stablemate KNOWN AGENDA, another horse who caught my eye early, despite having won only a maiden race by head and being beaten nine lengths in the Remsen Stakes in the slop. I thought so highly of him I ranked him No. 8 in the first Derby Rankings in January. He looked to be going nowhere, running back-to-back “11” Thoro-Graph numbers and having mental lapses where he just wasn’t focused on running. Then a frustrated and desperate Todd Pletcher put blinkers on him and he romped by 11 lengths in a mile and an eighth allowance race, with his Thoro-Graph jumping from an “11” to a “3.” The question was, would he “bounce” or regress off such a big leap? Not only did he not regress he improved to a “1 ½” in the Florida Derby, which he won going away. With five weeks to the Derby and an extra furlong that he should relish, there is no reason why he shouldn’t make another move forward. He has the strongest foundation of all the starters, having already run in four mile and an eighth races.

Even looking at his Brisnet figures, he is one of only four horses to run a triple-digit number last out, along with Essential Quality, Rock Your World, and Highly Motivated. But his late pace figure of 112 in the Florida Derby is the fastest in the field, so he does have a very strong closing kick.

The third horse is HIGHLY MOTIVATED. The reason his Thoro-Graph pattern is so strong is that having started off his career running an “8 ¼” and then a “10 ¾” he jumped all the way to a “3” in the 6 1/2-furlong Nyquist Stakes on Breeders’ Cup day. Making his 3-year-old debut in the one-mile Gotham Stakes he was able to maintain that “3” with a troubled trip, which gave him a launching pad to move forward in the Blue Grass, which he did running a “1 ¼,” second-fastest in the field. Although he should improve a bit off that in this third start of the year and having gone two turns, his pedigree for a mile and a quarter is more questionable than those of Dynamic One and Known Agenda, who are bred to run all day. So he still has to prove he can stretch out in distance and maintain his fast figures, while with the two Pletcher horses there is no doubt they will appreciate the longer distance. However, he has the fastest Brisnet figures on a consistent basis, having run three consecutive 102 figures. And to show how high his cruising speed is, he ran three triple-digit middle pace figures in his first four starts, and then in the Blue Grass ran a 105 late pace figure, indicating a horse who can maintain his speed for a long period of time.

There are several horses who have made big jumps in their Thoro-Graph numbers, such as Rock Your World, O Besos, Soup and Sandwich, Bourbonic, Helium, and King Fury, but they were all in their last start, so we really don’t know in which direction they are going to go, because unlike Dynamic One they don’t have that fast number last year to fall back on. And then we have Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit, whose numbers are OK, but they have not improved at all in their last three starts, remaining stagnant (3 ¾, 3 ¾, 3 ¾ for Hot Rod Charlie and 3 ½, 3 ¼, and 3 for Medina Spirit). Those numbers should not be good enough to win the Derby, so they will have to improve them several points. They both are talented enough to do it, but we’re going by pattern, so it’s pure speculation that they will make that jump after three even performances.

HOT ROD CHARLIE is the biggest enigma. I love so many things about him, including his versatility, his courage under fire, how well he closed in the Louisiana Derby on the lead, and the way he’s been training. And his last Beyer figure of 99 is the second fastest in the field. But it all depends how you interpret his Thoro-Graph numbers. Even on Brisnet, his late pace figures have been significantly slower than his early and middle pace figures. So is he a strong closer or not? Those numbers say no, but the eye test says yes. So I am going to hold off on him until I see how he’s being bet and if there is value.

There is no sense even looking at Beyer figures. All you need to know about this year’s field is that Rock Your World has the highest Beyer at 100. In the past 30 years, only once was the highest Beyer in the field as low as 100 and that was in 2010 when Super Saver beat a mediocre field at best. If you want an alarming statistic how Beyer figures or horses have gotten slower, in 13 years between 1994 and 2006 the average number of triple-digit Beyer figures in the Derby field each year was 24.4. In 13 years between 2009 and 2021, the average is 5.2. To give you another example of the contrast, this year we have one triple-digit Beyer. When Fusaichi Pegasus won in 2000 there were 33. Of the 19 starters, 16 of them had at least one triple-digit Beyer and two of the ones who didn’t were coming from Dubai. So do we really care if one horse has 100 Beyer and the others have in the mid-to-high 90s?

 

TRAINING

Well, we’re back to DYNAMIC ONE, who along with KING FURY, made the biggest impression in their final work, as described in this week’s Derby Rankings. Both works were highlighted by sensational gallop-outs, especially King Fury with the rider up in the saddle and not asking him in the slightest. He has such a smooth, fluid stride, and the way he hugs the rail on the turns you realize how athletic he is and have to consider him in your exotics despite having only one start this year. His work, without company, was one of the best I’ve seen in my 30 years covering the Derby. Dynamic One has been doing everything right since he arrived at Churchill Downs and definitely looks like a horse sitting on a peak effort.

There were a number of other terrific works; way too many to detail. ROCK YOUR WORLD turned in three powerful and identical works in California, with huge gallop-outs and has been an imposing figure on the track at Churchill Downs. And you can’t fault HOT ROD CHARLIE’S Santa Anita works as well, as he’s been his usual steady self, and his back-to-back six furlong works, in which he galloped out strongly, gave him a lot of bottom since the Louisiana Derby. He was particularly strong in his Wednesday gallop, which is typical Doug O’Neill. So he is dead-fit and has a mile and three-sixteenths race under him already.

Some of the other works at Churchill Downs that caught the eye were by O BESOS, who was extremely powerful past the wire going out a strong seven furlongs; MANDALOUN, who has been gliding over the track; and SOUP AND SANDWICH’S first work. He no doubt is maturing quickly. And no horse has made a better physical impression than MIDNIGHT BOURBON, who is flourishing at Churchill Downs and growing into a magnificent-looking horse. His coat is radiant, he’s muscled out and carrying great flesh. And in his five-furlong work in :59 4/5 it didn’t look as if he was going that fast, which is what you want to see. So if you combine physical presence and works he looks like he’s sitting on a big race.

This is not to say that others have not looked terrific working. I’m just trying to pick out a few that stood out. A quick mention must also be made that Pletcher’s longshots, SAINTHOOD and BOURBONIC have been very strong and fluid in their gallops and both are feeling good.

One final work I have to mention because no one else has was the bullet half-mile work in a sizzling :46 1/5 by (the plodder?) KEEPMEINMIND. Churchill finally showed the work several days later and you would never think he was going that fast. I mentioned in the last Derby Rankings why this horse could be a live exotics play at a monster price with the blinkers off.

 

FINAL ANALYSIS AND WAGERING

OK, we’re finished with the window dressing. Now it is time to try to make some sense of this baffling Derby. With the exception of maybe three or four horses, it would not be a shock to see any one of these horses win, that’s how little we really know about most of them and what their ceiling is. There simply are too many questions and too few starts to get a good grasp of this field.

If you’re leaning toward one of the horses with good tactical speed or one of the deep closers, remember this: in 27 of the last 30 Derbys the winner was either first or second at the eighth pole. The only three that weren’t were Animal Kingdom (3rd), Grindstone (4th), and Giacomo (6th). With the last two, the pace was :46 flat and 1:10 flat for Grindstone and :45 1/5 and 1:09 2/5 for Giacomo. So assuming we’re not going to get a pace that fast you better have a horse who has a move explosive enough to pass 18 of the 20 horse by the time they get to the eighth pole. But then again, this 2021 and I must interject the lyrics of a song from the musical The King and I:

“There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know
Very often find confusion
In conclusion I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure
In my head are many facts
Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!
Is a puzzlement”

So, now that I have eliminated the word expert from this year’s Derby vernacular, we can proceed.

Although I can make a case for so many of them, especially to fill out the exotics, I will just try to make it as simple as possible. With that said, let’s go right to my two early Pletcher pet projects, KNOWN AGENDA and DYNAMIC ONE, who seem like old friends by now having been very high on them since January. Pletcher has started 28 horses in the Derby who were coming off victories in major Derby preps, all graded stakes. He won one, with Always Dreaming, coming off a victory in the Florida Derby. Well, Known Agenda is not only coming off a victory in the Florida Derby, he has the same owner as Always Dreaming. And as for Dynamic One, he finished second by a head in his previous start. Pletcher’s other winner, Super Saver, finished second by a neck in his previous start. So both horses fit the profile of a Todd Pletcher Derby winner. Exacta box anyone?

Here is something to ponder as meaningless as it may be. In 1997, Gary Stevens was elected to the Hall of Fame the same year he won the Kentucky Derby on Silver Charm. In 1999, D. Wayne Lukas was elected to the Hall of Fame the same year he won the Kentucky Derby with Charismatic. In 2000, Neil Drysdale was elected to the Hall of Fame the same year he won the Kentucky Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus. Well, as we all know, Todd Pletcher will be elected to the Hall of Fame next week. Just passing that along.

As I said, I can make this complicated by spewing out a whole bunch of exotic bet combinations, but I am going to start off by looking for value win bets. Although ROCK YOUR WORLD is still my No. 1-ranked horse I feel his odds will be too low to bet him to win, unless you’ve got a big bundle of money to spend, so I will save him for the exotics. Remember, this is about wagering picks and finding value more than who is the most talented horse. I still believe Rock Your World is the most talented with the higher ceiling, even though I am still against horses in the Derby with only three lifetime starts. In short, Essential Quality, Known Agenda, and Hot Rod Charlie are your AT&T, the safer and more reliable stock with a longer and solid history behind it. Rock your World is the exciting new company that is just getting started whose stock can take off at any time. But there is also the risk factor due to its lack of experience.

My main win bet has been on KNOWN AGENDA for a while for reasons I have been explaining since January and I was hoping he would be a good value bet. Before the Florida Derby Churchill Downs refused to include him in any of its Derby Future Wager fields, so I was unable to get him at a big price. Now that big price is long gone. With Rock Your World at 5-1 on the morning line and Known Agenda at only 6-1 I’m not sure where the value is with my meager means. Drawing the rail is never what you want and maybe that will push his odds up a little, along with Jim McIngvale’s $2 million win bet on Essential Quality. Maybe enough people will remember his $3.4 million bet on the Tampa Bay Bucs in the Super Bowl and figure he doesn’t lose bets like this. If Known Agenda’s odds are that low on Derby Day I will have to key him and Rock Your World in the exactas with about a dozen horses and use them prominently in trifectas, but more on that later.

As for Known Agenda’s inside post, it’s never ideal in a 20-horse field, but he did win the Florida Derby racing on the rail most of the way and easing out approaching the head of the stretch, so he’s at least shown he doesn’t mind being down on the inside and can negotiate a good trip. And it is still the quickest way around there. This is not like drawing the rail in past years. With the new single gate he will have more room to his inside and the five horses directly outside him have little or no speed, so he should not encounter any traffic problems early on as long as he breaks well. If you like him you don’t want to back off now and have him get a dream trip, so stick with him and let it play out.

I do know that I am making a pretty significant (for me) win bet on my longshot special DYNAMIC ONE and a slightly lesser bet on O BESOS. Those are my two main win bets at a big price. As of right now I likely will also put a win bet on MIDNIGHT BOURBON based on his work and how good he looks physically, and just hoping he gets the perfect trip and has used these six weeks to move forward. I just keep seeing flashes of Tiznow from a physical sense and not knowing when he is going to have that breakout performance. He is going to be much higher odds than his Louisiana Derby conqueror Hot Rod Charlie, but he needs the perfect pace scenario. I’m still trying to make up my mind whether to make a win bet on KING FURY based on his sensational work and gallops. It all depends on the price. I’d love to get at least 25-1 but preferably 30-1 or higher. He’s only had that one start, which I don’t like, and may be a bet-down horse with the buzz growing, so I will have to see how he’s being bet and will just hope for a big price. Worst case scenario is to play him underneath in the exotics, which is more logical.

Just a quick note on pace scenario: with Caddo River out there is no true speed horse, and none of the trainers of horses who do have early speed are planning on their horse being on the lead even though Rock Your World does have the early lick and the ability to run his opponents off their feet. Sadler, however, says he is looking for him to sit just off the pace. That leaves none other than Bob Baffert, who loves to use his horses’ speed and put them right in the mix up. If everyone hesitates he is more than happy to take the initiative. Even though Medina Spirit drew post 8 he is the inside speed and has to go from the start with so much tactical speed outside him. Medina Spirit’s main strength seems to be his willingness to battle in the stretch and not let horses get by him, so if he is going to win his best chance would seem to be to go to the front and try to hold off everyone.

As I said in the intro, I will be making updates through Saturday in the comments section depending on late observations and revelations over the next few days.

Those updates will include final thoughts on exotic bets because it is too early to commit to those. But in the exactas, using the safe horses Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Known Agenda, and Hot Rod Charlie on top, the horses to back them up at a good payoff will be, in addition to Dynamic One, O Besos, and Midnight Bourbon, the real bombs Keepmeinmind, King Fury, Bourbonic, Brooklyn Strong, Sainthood, Soup and Sandwich, and Super Stock. I need to see the odds on Medina Spirit to decide if it’s worth it. These are just $2 exactas for $20 or $1 exactas for $10, so you have to look for a monster payoff.

Just getting back to that Week 1 trifecta or exacta box of Essential Quality, Known Agenda, Medina Spirit, and Keepmeinmind, it’s not just a gimmick play based on the initial Derby Rankings. I think this is a pretty interesting combination of favorites, a mid-priced horse, and a huge bomb, all of whom have won Grade 1 or 2 stakes, with the shortest and longest priced horses having finished first and third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. You also have one horse who will be on or close to the pace, two horses probably around midpack, and one coming from far back. So we’ll give it a wild shot for a $1 trifecta box for $24. The key will be how Known Agenda beaks from post 1 and if he can settle into a good position without running into traffic down on the rail. I normally hate equipment changes for the Derby, especially with blinkers, but Keepmeinmind is sharp and sneaky and blinkers off isn’t as bad as blinkers on.

So I hope you’ve been able to digest all this. Right now the keys are my win bets on Dynamic One, O Besos, and Midnight Bourbon and possibly a small bet on King Fury and how much I want to bet on Known Agenda. I won’t know that until Saturday when I see his odds. And there are the four exactas with the bombs underneath, and of course the Week 1 trifecta box just for the heck of it. I am also looking at a Pletcher Oaks/Derby double of Malathaat with Dynamic One and Known Agenda. The rest will have to be sorted out, as I am totally baffled when it comes to the trifectas and may lay low on them. It could deprive me of a lifetime score, but more likely would cost me a month’s paycheck.

Good luck to everyone. It’s been quite a ride.

Final Derby Rankings: Week 15

Sunday, April 25th, 2021

Although the long road to the Derby is over and the Rankings will soon prove to be mere folly, as long as we all had a good time and made new friends it was a journey to remember. We still have a feeble attempt at handicapping on Wednesday evening and then it’s back to “Askin’ Haskin” and weekly columns about those special horses and races from the past and whatever subject pops into my head. And watch out for an interesting contest coming up before the Preakness. I want to thank everyone for all your wonderful, informative, and well-researched comments and for making this the best Derby trail I’ve been on since I started Derby Dozen 22 years ago. ~ Steve Haskin

Final Derby Rankings: Week 15, Apr. 25

Early Bird Edition By Steve Haskin

 

1. Rock Your World (John Sadler, Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
Let’s get right down to the nitty gritty. It’s pretty obvious by now that I believe this is the most gifted horse in the race, who has true star potential. When we will see the finished product I don’t know. But before you commit big bucks to him now, be wary of two things. You don’t want him drawing an inside post, like post 5 and in, and he needs to break sharply. With Caddo River out, if he does draw inside, Rosario may have no choice but to send him to the lead. He may want to send him anyway, because he is the one horse capable of running his opponents off their feet and keep going. He is a big long striding horse and you don’t want to get him stopped early and have to get him going again. And he has never experienced kickback before. Remember, he’s only had three career starts and one on the dirt, so he is still in the learning process. This is not to say he cannot overcome these things. He is really sharp now following two strong works, including a :59 1/5 gem on Saturday with another strong gallop-out. He does have high knee action, much like Barbaro, another horse who excelled on grass and dirt. If he doesn’t break sharply he and Rosario will somehow have to find a good position quickly. The ideal trip for him is have a clean break from a decent post and get a clear trip outside horses. But that doesn’t always happen in the Derby. We don’t know what this colt is capable of overcoming, only what we have seen so far. And what we’ve seen is a horse with extraordinary talent who has accomplished things far beyond his years, whether it be on grass or dirt, six furlongs or 1 1/8 miles, or on or off the pace. He has the ability to quickly separate himself from other horses and he has several gears that can be used anywhere on the track at anytime. Just hold off until you see where he draws and how he trains over the track.

2. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
While we’re getting down to the nitty gritty, I’ve been on him since last fall and he is still my main win bet at what I hope will be a decent price. He is the logical third choice, but after the way some people have trashed his first work Churchill Downs and his drifting out in the Florida Derby I am hoping they will start looking elsewhere for their third choice. The fact is he has never been a great work horse, while Sainthood, who worked in company with him in both his works, has always been an excellent work horse, and it makes sense that Pletcher would pair them up to get a good sharp work into Known Agenda, which he did on both occasions. If you thought Sainthood has looked the better of the two that should not be worrisome at all. He got Known Agenda to to work five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 and then 1:01. That’s about a dozen lengths faster than he worked at Palm Beach Downs all winter. In his first work I love the way he dropped his head nearing the wire and then kept going a good clip galloping out seven furlongs in 1:27 1/5. As for the drifting out in the Florida Derby, it’s not as if he did it on his own. As soon as he turned into the stretch, Ortiz pasted him with a left-handed whip. Even when he shied away from the whip Ortiz kept hitting him left-handed. The more he hit him the more he kept drifting out. Finally after nine smacks with the whip, he stopped drifting out and actually cut back to the inside. Why Ortiz hit him the second he straightened into the stretch and kept hitting him left-handed I have no idea. All you need to know about Known Agenda is that he has been a totally different horse since blinkers were added, and instead of being immature, moody, and sometimes unfocused, he now runs like a seasoned professional and has been in complete control of his last two races even down the backstretch. In short, the boy has grown into a man.

3. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
He has quietly gone about his business with little fanfare, but that’s always been him. He just goes out there every race and every workout and does his job, and no one has yet figured out how to beat him. I believe his action has improved a bit and he seems smoother now, and, as I’ve mentioned several times he can beat you from anywhere on the track. If you want to look for something to nitpick, although his final work was a solid five-eighths in 1:00 1/5, he could not get by his workmate in the stretch or in the gallop-out, which was a slow :14 1/5. Sometimes works can help you and sometimes they can confuse you even more, especially when a Derby favorite does something in his final work your weren’t expecting and is the opposite of what he has shown in his races. Cox said he was on the radio telling the rider not go to go too fast after the wire. So if you like the horse, as most people do, you have to be careful not to temper your enthusiasm based on a workout, especially the gallop-out. I’m sure some people will now start looking at the Blue Grass and focusing more on how he struggled to get past Highly Motivated who was making his two-turn debut and wondering if there is a tie-in between that and not passing his workmate. Just keep in mind that Essential Quality traveled 29 feet farther than Highly Motivated. I have given preference in the Rankings to horses who I believe have stronger mile and a quarter pedigrees, but I still acknowledge him as the horse to beat and a legitimate favorite. He’s done nothing wrong and no doubt is the most adaptable horse in the race along with Hot Rod Charlie.

4. Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher, Union Rags – Beat the Drums, by Smart Strike)
As much as I have liked him, especially the rate at which he’s been improving, I like him even more since watching his final work. This time there was no late-running Bourbonic to work with him; this time he worked with the brilliant Prime Factor, whose maiden victory back in January stamped him as Pletcher’s main hope for the Derby. He wanted to go right from the start, but still had his ears up. Jose Ortiz kept him a bit wide turning for home, as the two came down the stretch together. Dynamic One was striding out smoothly flicking his ears around with the pair hitting the wire together in a sharp :47 4/5 with a final eighth in :11 3/5. Despite being on the outside, when Ortiz nudged him going into the turn he left Prime Factor behind, still flicking his ears and continued to pour it on, rattling off eighths in :12 and change to get the five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 and the six furlongs in 1:13 1/5. You normally don’t see Pletcher horses work this fast, and he did it well within himself. That was as perfect a work as you could ask for. This colt is sharp, improving at the right time, and I believe ready for a big effort.

5. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Indan Miss, by Indian Charlie)
What might have gotten lost in his Louisiana Derby victory, which is now run at 1 3/16 miles, was that he came home his final three-sixteenths in :18 3/5 and he did it on the lead the whole way. If that odd final fraction doesn’t quite compute, think about this: it is faster than the Preakness final three-sixteenths of Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, one-time track record holders Nashua and Canonero, and, oh, yes, Secretariat, whose revised time shattered all the records before it. Heck, it was even faster than his own sire. So perhaps we should take the Louisiana Derby more seriously, especially when it was won by a horse who had never even been on the lead before, had never run over the track before, and had to turn back the challenge of the top-class Midnight Bourbon who was already a graded stakes winner over the track. I was never crazy about the six weeks between the Louisiana Derby and the Kentucky Derby and the fact that no Kentucky Derby winner in memory has come directly out of the Louisiana Derby. But I believe the longer distance will change that and I do like the way Hot Rod Charlie has been working and how strong he’s been past the wire, especially in his most recent six-furlong work in 1:13 3/5 before the first race. So with all that said you have to put Charlie right up there with the other betting choices, but also be aware that he has not gotten any faster since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with three straight “3 ¾” Thoro-Graph figures, which will have to improve.

6. O Besos (Greg Foley, Orb – Snuggs and Kisses, by Soto)
If you were impressed by Hot Rod Charlie’s closing three-sixteenths in the Louisiana Derby and its Preakness comparisons then you should also be aware that O Besos came home a fifth of a second faster, in :18 2/5. That’s two-fifths faster than Secretariat in his record-breaking Preakness. And O Besos was making only his second start going two-turns and actually got the fastest Thoro-Graph figure in the race, a full point faster than the victorious Hot Road Charlie. He turned in his final Derby work on Thursday and you can bet his stock will rise, as he seems to be a bit of a wise guy horse and was even before the work. Foley worked him a half-mile from the three-eighths pole to the seven-eighths pole, which is an eighth of a mile past the wire. I love seeing that with a horse like this because it teaches them to run through the wire, and O Besos is a horse who picks up steam the farther he goes, and you want him to be in full flight when he hits the wire. As mentioned with Hot Rod Charlie, the six week-gap between the Louisiana and Kentucky Derby has not been ideal, so you want to see a long stiff work to put more conditioning in them. At first glance, his half-mile work in :47 4/5 is fast, but not the lung opener you thought you’d see. However, O’ Besos’ work didn’t really begin in earnest until he hit the finish line. After flying his final eighth in :11 3/5, he kept going at a strong clip with another eighth in :11 4/5 to get the five furlongs in :59 3/5 and he still was far from finished. He went his six furlongs in 1:12 3/5 and finally pulled up seven furlongs in 1:26. That is the lung opener you want to see. Now he’s ready and you can expect him to be coming fast at the end.

7. Highly Motivated (Chad Brown, Into Mischief – Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward)
He had a sharp half-mile work in :47 1/5 at Keeneland before moving to Churchill Downs where he looked strong working five furlongs in company in 1:00 4/5. Although he is one of a number of brilliant colts who have the same running style and could get caught up in a contentious pace near the lead, you have to love his three straight 102 Brisnet speed ratings, his improving Beyer figures, and his excellent Thoro-Graph pattern, in which he followed a pair of solid “3s” with a “1 ¼” in the Blue Grass Stakes, the second fastest number behind Essential Quality. So we know he’s fast and we know he can run big on or off the pace. It’s just a question whether he can move forward going a mile and a quarter, especially if he’s under pressure the whole way. We always have that concern with the Into Mischiefs unless they have a stamina-laden female family. Authentic did disprove that last year, but he was left alone on the lead in both the Kentucky Derby, run in September, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. How they will do on the first Saturday in May with all that early speed is something we’ll just have to wait to find out. He certainly has the talent and the speed figures so it all depends on how the race plays out and where he draws. He is one of several horses capable of setting the pace with Caddo River out.

8. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon)
From a pure physical standpoint he is a standout. His coat is shining, he’s muscled out, and is carrying great flesh. It seems apparent the six weeks between races has a agreed with him, as it has given him time to grow into a magnificent-looking horse. His workout was very strong, and if this equates to performance then he has to be considered a live longshot. It’s all about strategy with the big question being can he catch horses in the stretch, something he failed to do in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby? But when allowed to control the pace on the front end he proved to be a dogged competitor refusing to let horses pass him. Trying to get the lead in the Derby is not going to be easy, so his next course of action would be to press the pace and use that Tiznow determination to keep up the pressure with the hope of tiring out the other pace horses. But if no one seems anxious to take the lead he would be the perfect horse to take the initiative, as he is the one they would probably leave alone. There is little doubt he will like the mile and a quarter. His Thoro-Graph numbers have improved steadily and if he has figured out a way to finish the job in the stretch then all those physical attributes come into play on Derby Day.

9. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed)
I’m not sure Baffert’s confidence level is what it usually is, but I still wouldn’t ignore him, at least underneath in the exotics. He’s too tough and honest to do that. In his most recent work, he did it in his usual manner, but when asked at the wire as most Baffert horses are, the typical acceleration just wasn’t there. I don’t like to dismiss a horse because of one part of a work, especially the part after the wire, so I’m not going to make a lot out of it. But it still is something worth mentioning. I do believe he has improvement in him off his second in the Santa Anita Derby, but we’ll have to see how much and if he can show any finishing power, which has not been his strong point. Like fellow Californian Hot Rod Charlie, his speed figures have not improved. They’ve been pretty much the same every race. Could that be a reflection of the California horses with the exception of Life is Good? He is a horse you would love to be right in the mix turning for home, even somehow getting the lead, because his one stakes victory was when he was able to set the pace and battle gamely in the stretch, refusing to let Roman Centurian and Hot Rod Charlie get by him. I’m still looking for a scenario where he can win, but I don’t know what his strengths are. I do know he should be competitive enough to be in the hunt.

10. Super Stock (Steve Asmussen, Dialed In – Super Girlie, by Closing Argument)
He is sort of like Bourbonic in that he closed strongly to win one of the major 100-point preps, but no one really knows how good he is or how good a race it was, as the favorite or favorites all were disappointing and most of the speed ratings were slow, as was the final three-eighths. So neither horse is really getting much respect. Would it be a surprise if he won the Derby? Absolutely not. You cannot fault him in any way and he did close after tracking a very fast pace in the Arkansas Derby and he is a horse on the improve. There was nothing to knock in his final work, as he went a solid five-eighths in company in 1:01 1/5 and did it easily. This sounds very simple and not informative at all, but you either like him or you don’t. You can make a case either way. I went into the reasons to like him last week and you have to love his back story regarding the Asmussen family connection. He certainly is an easy horse to root for. He should be closing in the stretch and we’ll just have to see if he’s good enough.

11. Soup and Sandwich (Mark Casse, Into Mischief – Souper Soup, by Tapit)
Again, the three starts, the pace scenario, and his previous greenness is a bit of a concern, but if there is one horse who has made great strides mentally and whose engine is revved up it is this colt, who has been on go in his two works at Churchill Downs. In his most recent one he was very aggressive early wanting to go, but did settle into a good stride and again drew off from his workmate to complete the half in :50, again galloping out very strong, in what was more of a maintenance drill compared to his work last week, which was also very strong. It’s hard to imagine him not being part of the early pace that will include three brilliant sons of Into Mischief. As good as he looked in the Florida Derby I feel it was a better race than it looked and I loved the way he hung tough in the stretch despite being shoved back on to his left lead turning for home and staying there the rest of the way. He has switched leads smoothly in both his works and I feel he should be over that problem. Like with so many others I don’t know if he’s ready to win the Derby, but he is going to be right there in the stretch and could hang around a long time. With him it’s not about ability, but whether he is mature enough mentally to handle this off only three starts and just now becoming more professional.

12. Bourbonic (Todd Pletcher, Bernardini – Dancing Afleet, by Afleet Alex)
For a Wood Memorial winner and a colt with a super pedigree who no doubt is improving rapidly he gets very little respect and is being dismissed as merely a plodder who got lucky in a very slowly run race. Pletcher actually put him in front in his workout in company with Dynamic One and he clearly was second best. He then turned in some strong gallops, making a great physical appearance on the track. Pletcher then decided to give him his final work by himself and he just went around there easy going his half in :49 3/5, out five furlongs in 1:02 2/5. That’s a sneaky fast eighth in :12 4/5 past the wire. He really is a good-looking horse with a nice smooth stride and a top-class pedigree. He obviously will be pace dependent and they will use the same tactics of taking far back and making the same kind of big late run he did in the Wood. Dynamic One got far faster Thoro-Graph figures in the Wood, having to go 43 feet farther, and he is the one who looks as if he is going to get bet down in the Derby. Even if you missed Bourbonic at 72-1 you’re still going to get huge odds for a major prep winner whose sire and broodmare sire won memorable runnings of the Preakness Stakes.

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

KING FURY – A lot of people were hoping the Lexington Stakes winner would get in the Derby, especially his trainer Kenny McPeek, after his impressive victory in the slop, in which he made a long sustained run going from a dozen lengths back at the five-eighths pole to the lead turning for home before drawing away. With only one start this year I gave him little thought until I saw his work. Considering he worked alone, going five furlongs in 1:00 1/5, that was the best work I saw the past two weeks. The way he was reaching out with his neck extended and flicking his ears around, while cutting out :11 and change eighths the whole way, was pure poetry, pardon the cliché. I also loved the way he cut both corners hugging the rail, which shows how quick and athletic he is. What was most impressive about his gallop-out was that, while most horses who continue strong past the wire do it with some urging, his rider stood up at the wire and he still went out in 1:12 4/5 and 1:26 3/5 all on his own with the rider up in the saddle. Back at his barn he was “eating the bottom out of his feed tub.” This is another historical head scratcher with him having only made his 3-year-old debut three weeks prior to the Derby and at a mile and a sixteenth over a mediocre field. But he has a lot of bottom under him from last year and really developed during his 60 days at Three Chimneys Farm where he was out in his paddock almost 24 hours a day getting stronger. He did have an issue that contributed to his last two poor efforts, but after running Thoro-Graph numbers in the “8” to “12” range he returned from the farm and ran a “3” in the Lexington. I still don’t like him having one race, but after watching the Lexington again and his work, nothing he does would surprise me. He just may be that good.

KEEPMEINMIND – There is a lot more to ponder with this horse than one would think as he sneaks into the Derby at the 11th hour. First off, let’s not forget that he was one the top 2-year-olds last year and was ranked No. 2 in the first Derby Rankings, which you might want to go back and read. Since then, nothing has gone right for him, beginning with the cancellation of racing and training at Oaklawn, which means he couldn’t go to the track to train for 16 days. This happened when he was razor-sharp for his debut in the Southwest Stakes, which had to be postponed. Unfortunately, it was rescheduled for two weeks before the Rebel Stakes, for which he was also targeted. Not being able to run in both races he had to wait an additional two weeks to the Rebel and was so out of whack, having missed so much training and his scheduled debut, he showed nothing, which was uncharacteristic for such an honest and consistent horse. Instead of staying home and running in a weak Arkansas Derby he made his next start in the Blue Grass and received one of the more curious rides I’ve seen all year. Breaking from the disadvantageous outside post, instead of taking back as is his custom, he moved up with the leaders and was forced five wide going into the first turn. He then was rushed up between horses down the backstretch and was only two lengths off the lead in third, much to my shock. He still was third turning into the stretch, but finally got tired, bumping with another horse. Also, Keepmeinmind traveled 55 feet farther than runner-up Highly Motivated. Now he will race without blinkers, which I never thought he needed in the first place, and should take back and make one late run. While everyone was watching all the Derby works on Friday no one noticed him working a half in a bullet :46 1/5, fastest of 108 works at the distance, a work Churchill Downs never showed or even videoed. This is a horse who was second (without blinkers) and third to Essential Quality in Grade 1 stakes at 52-1 and 30-1 and closing fast each time. As I said, something to ponder.

BROOKLYN STRONG – Guess who’s coming to dinner? He is the guest who shows up unexpectedly just as you’e putting the food on the table. He attempted the unthinkable making his 3-year-old debut in the Wood Memorial and actually ran a sneaky-good race, finishing fifth, beaten 4 ¾ lengths. He broke sharply and jockey Manny Franco had to pull back on the reins in the first turn to try to get him to settle off the pace. He moved up steadily and then seemed to lose momentum on the far turn. But he kept coming and cut the corner turning for home and looked like he was going to be a factor. But two horses drifted in, closing up the rail and forcing Franco to steady briefly at the three-sixteenth pole. But Brooklyn Strong still kept coming and was running hard at the end in what was a terrific effort going a mile and an eighth in top company off more than a four-month layoff. He already had a lot of bottom under him with two victories at a flat mile and a courageous score in the nine-furlong Remsen Stakes. His pedigree is inundated with stamina top and bottom and it is interesting to note that his sire’s broodmare sire, Charismatic, won the Derby at odds of 31-1 and his dam’s broodmare sire, Thunder Gulch, won the Derby at odds of 24-1. To show what a weird Derby this is, I am making a huge case for the last three horses to get in the race.

MANDALOUN – Well, at least he’s looked great on the track in the morning and is acting like a horse sitting on a big race. He’s just a beautiful colt with a long fluid stride and his last two works were strong. But no horse in at least the last half-century has won the Derby off such a poor performance. So you can toss hm off that or you can toss the Louisiana Derby and chalk it up to just a bad day. Even if that race was an aberration, did he get enough out of it and can he come back six weeks later and return to his Risen Star form? There is no doubt he’s very talented and will be a top horse a bit down the road, but bouncing back to win the Derby is another matter. If you do want to make a case for him and throw out history, most horses who run bad races don’t come back in the Derby and those that do usually try to rebound in three or four weeks. Six weeks might be just the right amount of time he needs to regroup, and he has shown all the signs of a horse who is doing just that. Yet another puzzle to deal with this year.

HELIUM – If this colt had another start after the Tampa Bay Derby I believe he would be one of the favorites. What he did in that race was remarkable, but it was so long ago we tend to forget it. I certainly gushed over it. Mark Casse said in his 40 years of training he has never had a horse do what he did in the Tampa Derby and I agree that you just don’t see horses do that. Casse is well aware that what he is trying to do in the Kentucky Derby has never been done before, but he loves going against the grain and welcomes the challenge of trying to pave new ground. And if this horse proved one thing at Tampa it’s that he is capable of running a sensational race off a long layoff. But the Tampa Derby isn’t the Kentucky Derby. I have no doubt this is an extraordinarily talented colt, but before I can concede that what he is attempting is doable and will defy history I have to see it first. I will say however, watch out for this guy later in the year. I did like his last work, in which he was very smooth throughout, doing everything on his own, then was a strong on the gallop-out. Just to mention it again, he will be attempting to become the first horse to win the Derby off an eight-week layoff, off one start at 3, and never having run farther than 1 1/16 miles in over 100 years.

SAINTHOOD – The more I see of him the more I feel he could make his presence felt. Watching his last two races, he showed something you love to see and that is the determination and ability to kick into another gear when he sees the finish line and quickly accelerate. In the Jeff Ruby Steaks he did it after a terrible trip and when he was hit with a right-handed whip nearing the sixteenth pole it was as if his rider had floored the gas pedal, that’s how fast he took off. He has made a great appearance in the morning working with Known Agenda and then turning in some powerful gallops. He has just made a great impression out there. Can he win the Derby off three career stakes, with his only stakes appearance being on Polytrack? Once again, he looks like a horse to watch later on, but who really knows what he’s capable of in the Derby. Some of the experts are starting to like him to use underneath in thir exotics.

LIKE THE KING – He remains at Keeneland where he worked five furlongs in 1:01. He is another horse who is strictly a guess. If you like him you have to like Sainthood, who had a far worse trip in the Jeff Ruby Steaks and was flying at the end. There is nothing to fault with him other than having no clue how good he is or who he was beating at Turfway and how he will make the transition from Polytrack to dirt. We know he has a closing kick, but this is a whole new ballgame.

HIDDEN STASH – With no one watching he quietly worked five furlongs in 1:00 3/5, then the following day schooled at the gate. This is a really nice horse who gives his all every race and he does have a decent closing kick. He just hasn’t shown yet he’s good enough to beat these horses, and until he does he has to be considered more of an exotics filler at best. Look, in this field any horse who can close and is honest and consistent can finish on the board if they get a perfect setup and a perfect trip.

Derby Rankings: Week 14

Monday, April 19th, 2021

Well we are down to those long agonizing two weeks of just waiting, watching the training, and finally the anxiety of the post position draw. And of course hoping that everyone stays healthy. There isn’t much more to say about these horses that hasn’t been said before, so it’s now pretty much in your hands to decipher everything and try to make some sense of one of the most baffling Derbys in years with so many inexperienced horses with so many question marks. I see a lot of Travers horses in this field. So we have one more Rankings column and then our handicapping column and then most of us will be able to relate to the saying, “There is nothing like a horse to make a person feel like an ass.” ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 14, Apr. 19

By Steve Haskin

 

1. Rock Your World (John Sadler, Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
I admit, with only three starts and one on dirt there are more questions about him than the No. 2, 3, 4, and 5 horses, but his ceiling is the highest in the field. There are those who love him and those who feel he is a toss, although there are fewer of those now that Joel Rosario is on him. Because he is so polarizing, that is what makes him so intriguing. He has accomplished extraordinary things in only three starts, and the question is whether he himself is extraordinary. By ranking him No. 1 it is obvious I am banking on him being special. Yes, he is short on experience, but between his imposing physical prowess, his instant acceleration, and his monstrous gallop-outs, I am looking at him as a colt with more bottom than three starts would indicate. The Derby can easily expose horses with so few starts, but he is not really that much more inexperienced than the field as a whole. To demonstrate how much the Derby has changed, of the top 20 horses listed among the point leaders, their average number of lifetime starts is 4.8. Only two horses have as many as seven starts and of the horses still pointing for the Derby, four others besides him have had three career starts. So is he really at that big of a disadvantage, if any at all? As for his frontrunning performance in the Santa Anita Derby I don’t believe he needs the lead or is even more comfortable on the lead. I feel he went to the front only because he drew an inside post and used his natural speed to secure a comfortable position. I can easily see him rating off the pace and hopefully he will draw an outside post and get a clear trip and keep away from kickback. His speed figures as a whole are very strong, especially on TimeformUS, and he made a huge leap forward from grass to dirt on Thoro-Graph, going from an “8 ¾” to a “2 ¾” and I see another move forward in the Derby.

2. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
He has settled in at Churchill Downs and started off with a sharp five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5 in company with Sainthood, so he apparently likes the track. Sainthood is an up and comer with a combination of speed and grit and seemed to be a perfect workmate for him. I am a sucker for horses I had ranked in the Top 10 in Week 1, especially when they hadn’t accomplished much. But I can’t forget the courage and tenacity he showed outbattling Greatest Honour in a 1 1/8-mile maiden race last fall and I have been raving about his pedigree, especially his female family, right from the start. I have also watched him grow mentally from a quirky colt who sometimes seemed disinterested to a focused professional athlete who, with the addition of blinkers, has developed a killer instinct with the ability to crush his opponents. He is more of a grinder, and with four 1 1/8-mile races under him, there is no horse who has as strong a foundation and more stamina. All he needs is to establish a good position and just keep coming at them. And he will keep coming with that low action, his neck extended, and that great reach to his stride. And is there any jockey who is hotter right now than Irad Ortiz who is two-for-two on him since the blinkers were added? So I’ve been on him from the beginning and certainly not backing off now.

3. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality by Elusive Quality)
Sometimes it’s better to just simplify things. If you want to get a concise description of who he is, consider this: at the half-mile call of his races he has been a head back, a half-length back, 2 ½ lengths back, 7 ½ lengths back, and 9 lengths back. At the eighth pole he’s been 2 lengths in front and he’s been 2 lengths back . He has won three races off half-mile fractions of :48 and change and two races off half-mile fractions in :45 and change. In other words, what I’ve been saying all along is he can beat you from anywhere and off any kind of fractions. I better stop now before I convince myself to put him back to No. 1 where he was in Week 1. The temptation is strong, but for now I’m sticking with my two early finds and hope they live up to their promise. He knows how to win, he has the right pedigree, and he has the right trainer, so he certainly is a deserving favorite. I just feel like this is the year to be obstinate. Yes he is logical, but there has been very little about this year’s Derby trail that has been logical. He had a sharp five-furlong work at Churchill Downs in :59 3/5 in company finishing on even terms with his workmate who actually was stronger on the gallop-out as Essential Qualty went a bit wide into the turn. He doesn’t seem to paddle his left leg quite as much as he did earlier on and looked pretty smooth in his workout. In short, he hasn’t set off any fireworks on the road to Louisville, but he certainly knows his way to the winner’s circle and that’s all that counts.

4. Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher, Union Rags – Beat the Drums by Smart Strike)
By ranking a potential 25-1 shot No. 4 he obviously is my longshot pick, but I actually like him even more now after watching his first work at Churchill Downs. He is looking more and more like a horse who is peaking at the right time. Working in company with Bourbonic, the horse that nailed him on the wire in the Wood Memorial, he sat a half-length outside his workmate and was carrying his head petty high in the stretch. Although the rider on Bourbonic got down low and starting asking his horse inside the sixteenth, Dynamic One pulled away from him despite going the easier of the two. And even though he was on the outside he quickly opened six lengths on the gallop-out. That was the kind of work you want to see right before the Derby. He was back on the track Monday and was raring to go while making a great physical appearance. One of the main reasons I am so high on this horse now is the first impression he made on me back in January when he finished fourth in a maiden race. I wrote in Knocking on the Door: “As alluded to earlier, ANOTHER DUKE, coming off a third to Greatest Honour, broke his maiden at Gulfstream Saturday in fine fashion, but it was DYNAMIC ONE, second to Greatest Honour, who was much the best, going six-wide into the first turn from the disastrous 11-post and then making an eye-catching wide move on the far turn to battle for the lead four wide. He couldn’t sustain it for good reason and had to settle for fourth, beaten two lengths. This is my hidden gem of the year so far. With his amazing pedigree and explosive turn of foot I believe this could be a legit Derby horse who could even run well in stakes company next time if they decide not to bother with maiden races anymore.” This was before finding out he lost a shoe in the race and came back with mucus in his lungs. His Thoro-Graph figures show a horse who is making great progress and is ready for another career-best number.

5. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Indan Miss, by Indian Charlie)
The main thing you can say about him is that he is rock solid. He’s run big in California, Kentucky and Louisiana, on the lead and from eight lengths off the lead, and he’s the only horse who has won at 1 3/16 miles. He’s even run well at five furlongs on the grass. So he can handle any surface and has improved big-time since being equipped with blinkers. In short there isn’t much not to like about him. Nothing against Flavien Prat but Joel Rosario really seemed in tune with this horse and was the one who wanted to send him to the lead in the Louisiana Derby and then gave him the perfect ride. But because of some odd circumstances timing-wise following the performance of Concert Tour in the Arkansas Derby, O’Neill decided to name Prat on him. He looked strong in his six-furlong work in 1:14 1/5 in company, in which he eased clear of his workmate late and continued at a good clip past the wire while drawing several lengths clear. I don’t know where he’ll be in the Derby but you can be sure he is going to be competitive.

6. O Besos (Greg Foley, Orb – Snuggs and Kisses by Soto)
Now that he is in the Derby after being as far down the list as No. 25 he must be taken very seriously based on the progress he’s made with every start and his big finish in the Louisiana Derby. What first attracted me to him were his sprint races at Fair Grounds last year, in which he made some eye-catching late runs with a smooth easy-going stride and seemed to do things effortlessly. He has continued to improve going two turns in stakes company despite coming off Lasix and you can see his progress in all the speed ratings. After running a “7 ¼ ” and a pair of “6 1/2s” on Thoro-Graph he jumped to a “2 ¾” in the Louisiana Derby. His Beyer figures have gone from a 60 to 77 to 83 to 88 to 96 and his Brisnet figures have gone from a 76 to 82 to 88 to 91 to 94, so this horse has never taken a step backward in his entire career. And what better time to win the Kentucky Derby than just weeks after his sire was sold to Uruguay. We have seen it happen before on several occasions. I have a feeling he, like Dynamic One, could wind up a wise guy horse, but he still should be an enticing price. He is worth a win bet and no way I’m leaving this guy out of the exotics. He surely is one of those who is sitting on a peak performance and will be coming in the stretch.

7. Highly Motivated (Chad Brown, Into Mischief – Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward)
To be honest it’s difficult throwing any horse out in this year’s Derby and his gutsy performance against Essential Quality in the Blue Grass Stakes in his two-turn debut stamps him as another serious contender. He could go to the lead again, but we saw in the Gotham Stakes he is just as comfortable coming from off the pace. The big question with him is the mile and a quarter. I have no idea how he will handle the extra furlong with a contentious pace in a 20-horse field. He was holding off Essential Quality for most of the stretch run, but did switch back to his left lead at the sixteenth pole, so perhaps he was getting a little tired, which is understandable. In his most recent work at Churchill Downs, Brown had him on the inside of a workmate and he showed that same grit he did in the Blue Grass, pinning his ears and refusing to let his workmate get by him. I like that Javier Castellano has ridden him in all of his starts and he is another who has a great Thoro-Graph pattern. I love when horses make a huge leap and then pair off that number followed by another move forward. He went from a “10 ¾” to a “3,” ran another “3” in the Gotham, and then ran a “1 ¼” in the Blue Grass, second fastest last-out number in the field. He also has run three consecutive 102 Brisnet figures and no one in this field has run faster. He’s done it three times. So he has a lot going for him and is a smart play based on his speed ratings.

8. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa by Brilliant Speed)
If courage under fire is an important attribute to have in this year’s Derby then he is a must use in most exotic bets, because you can count him battling to the wire. I don’t know if he’s fast enough to win or if he has the closing kick to win, but you have to take him very seriously. I can confidently state that there won’t be anyone in the race that has as many gutsy horses in his pedigree than this colt does, and it apparently has been passed on to him. Let’s start with his sire. If you get a chance go on You Tube and watch the 2015 Alysheba Stakes and how Protonico, after a stretch-long battle and appearing to be beaten, lunges forward at the wire to stick his nose in front. Protonico is a son of Giant’s Causeway, arguably the gamest European horse in the past quarter of a century, winning five consecutive Group 1 stakes by under a length, including three by a head. In each race he refused to let the best horses in Europe get by him. And don’t forget his gutsy performance against Tiznow in the BC Classic when his rider dropped the reins right before the wire. Medina Spirit’s broodmare sire Brilliant Speed won the Blue Grass Stakes by closest of noses; Brilliant Speed’s sire Dynaformer won two stakes by a nose and a half-length; and Dynaformer’s sire Roberto won the English Derby in the closest finish in history of the race, outbattling eventual Arc de Triomphe winner Rheingold in a finish so close his rider Lester Piggott dismounted before it was official because he thought he has lost. Finally, in Medina Spirit’s tail-female family, his third dam is by Holy Bull, out of a Forty Niner mare. Holy Bull scored one of the gutsiest victories in the history of the Travers Stakes and Forty Niner was involved in nine photos, winning the Haskell and Travers by a nose, outgaming Seeking the Gold each time. That is the family I want in a street fight.

9. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch the Moon by Malibu Moon)
He is one horse I think I may have ranked too low, but I’m not quite sure just where to put him. You had to love his work on Monday in which he went five furlongs in :59 4/5 in company and was just on cruise control down the stretch, galloping out six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 and pulling up seven panels in 1:26. That is what we refer to as a Derby work. He looks to be getting stronger and more filled out and it’s only a matter of when the Tiznow in him is going to come out. If he continues to train like this he likely will move up. I do know that he, along with Dynamic One and O Besos look to be my price win bets at this point. He runs hard every race and we have seen how tenacious he is when he’s in front, just like his sire. The big thing is to get him to the front, either from the start or at some point in the race. He has shown he’s not as effective having to catch horses in the stretch, so his main hope is that no one really wants the lead and he can cruise up there and then lull everyone to sleep, because they most likely will pay little attention to him. But he is not a horse you want to ignore for very long. In fact, if he continues to flourish he might not even need the lead to win. Not only is he a half-brother to Haskell and Louisiana Derby winner Girvin and Iroquois Stakes winner Cocked and Loaded, he has the much desired Rasmussen Factor on his dam’s side, being inbred to Monique Rene, who was not a top-class filly but did win 13 minor stakes and won 29 of her 45 starts, finishing in the money 37 times. Monique Rene’s sire made 56 starts and her dam 65 starts. In addition, her daughter Walk Away Rene, who is Midnight Bourbon’s third dam, produced horses who made 69, 58, and 39 starts, so we know where Midnight Bourbon gets his toughness and durability to go along with Tiznow. He is only one of two Derby horses this year to have made as many as seven lifetime starts, has never been out of the money, and has never raced under a mile, so he is the veteran of this group with one of the strongest foundations.

10. Super Stock (Steve Asmussen, Dialed In – Super Girlie by Closing Argument)
The more I study the Arkansas Derby and this colt’s career the more I’m convinced his victory at Oaklawn Park was more than just having a perfect setup race. Right now I just can’t rank him any higher until I see how he trains at Churchill Downs. I just don’t know how good he is. Yes, Caddo River and Concert Tour cut out some wicked fractions, but Super Stock, coming off only one race in four and a half months, was only 1 ½ to two lengths behind them and kept coming, blowing by both of them in the final sixteenth. This is a colt who won the 5 ½-furlong Texas Breeders’ Futurity last year battling with four other horses in fractions of :22 1/5 and :45 3/5. As he has stretched out he has turned that into tactical speed, sitting comfortably behind any kind of pace. In his two-turn debut in the Breeders’ Futurity, he was too keyed up early racing on the inside and behind horses. His rider had to step on the brakes, pulling back on the reins to prevent him from running up on horses’ heels. By the time he got clear, the two leaders, including Essential Quality, had opened up three lengths. Despite getting bumped and herded in the stretch he still managed to finish third. Following a game second to King Fury in the Street Sense Stakes, he turned in a sensational work for the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes that had Asmussen all excited. But after cooling out, while they were putting up his hay and feed bucket he got loose and ran out of the stall, skinning his hind legs and suffering a puncture that required him being sent to Rood and Riddle for treatment. Because of his great disposition (he just eats and sleeps all day), and being such a smart horse, he was the perfect patient and soon was sent back to Asmussen. Two races later he is a Grade 1 winner and one of the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

11. Soup and Sandwich (Mark Casse, Into Mischief – Souper Soup, by Tapit)
With only three career starts and still showing signs of greenness in his races, I don’t know if he is ready to to win the Derby, but one thing I am sure of is that this colt has extraordinary talent and is going to be a terror down the road. He has matured rapidly and showed so much grit, speed, and overall talent in the Florida Derby, you really cannot dismiss him, especially after watching his huge five-furlong work in :59 4/5 work, which was as good as any work I’ve seen so far at Churchill Downs. First off, he changed leads on cue, which is what you wanted to see from him, but the way he was striding out down the stretch on a very loose rein and just took off from his workmate was extremely impressive and convinced me he has grown up in a short period of time and has made extraordinary progress since his first two starts. If this horse had one more start in which to develop a little more mentally and gain experience he would be ranked much higher. As it is, I would not be surprised to see him run a big race in the Derby. His Thoro-Graph number did jump from a “9 ¾” to a very strong “1 ¾” in the Florida Derby, making him one of the fastest horses in the race, but was it too big a leap and can he move forward off it? The five weeks surely will help, and judging from this last work, I am seeing a different horse, one who is on a big upward spiral.

12. Bourbonic (Todd Pletcher, Bernardini – Dancing Afleet, by Afleet Alex)
Like Super Stock you just don’t know what to make of his last race as impressive as it was. Is he a horse who has made rapid improvement since running in claiming and starter allowance races or did he catch a field in which the top horses failed to fire or tired over a track that was incredibly slow? Dynamic One, who he caught on the wire, had a far worse trip and a far better Thoro-Graph number and totally dominated him in their work in company, in which Pletcher had him in front on the inside. Perhaps that is not how he is comfortable running. You have to love his pedigree and it looks as if he is finally running to it. But if he runs like he did in the Wood he is going to have to get very lucky coming from so far back and getting past so many horses. He is still a bit of a mystery horse who has a lot to prove.

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

As for the others, there are still several you can pick out of the hat and get some buzz for your buck. They just might have more question marks than the ones in the Top 12 and would be more of a reach. The most enigmatic of them all is HELIUM, who has untapped ability and has looked good working at Churchill Downs, turning in a pair of strong five-furlong works. In his last work he kept going past the wire and was still strong down the backstretch. But as I’ve been saying every week, he has so much history and common sense handicapping to overcome you just wish he had another start after his gutsy Tampa Bay Derby victory. He will have to overcome three historical factors and no horse has overcome any of them in over 100 years. So if he wins, handicapping the Derby will never again be the same.

One of the more consistent horses is the hard-trying HIDDEN STASH, who may have overcome his inability to change leads, but we don’t know that for sure. He hasn’t shown quite enough to suggest he can win the Derby but the placings are wide open and he could be capable of sneaking in there if he gets a perfect trip and does everything right, especially change leads. But he will be a huge price for sure.

The Jeff Ruby Steaks one-two finishers LIKE THE KING and SAINTHOOD both looked good in that race, but they still have to prove themselves on dirt in top-class company. So you can certainly take a shot that they will be just as effective, but they are still guesses. Like the King has more experience and has never been out of the money in six starts, while Sainthood has had only three career starts, but did make huge progress coming off a nose victory in a maiden race at Fair Grounds.

If CADDO RIVER runs, and it is looking like he will, he could very well dictate the pace, being the one true frontrunner in the field who has the speed to outrun anyone if they are determined to get him to the lead. And it is safe to say that is where he is most effective. It’s just a matter of how far he can carry it. If he doesn’t want any part of the mile and a quarter he can still provide a good pace for Essential Quality.

I have no idea what to expect from MANDALOUN. He made a nice appearance on the track working in company, but it’s very hard to excuse his last race. Horses just do not win the Derby off that poor a performance. Once again, the talent is there; we have seen it on several occasions. It just looks like they are taking a shot, hoping the last race was an aberration and he can return to his past form. But it is asking a lot.

GET HER NUMBER is getting a little buzz the way he was finishing late in the Arkansas Derby and the fact he is a Grade 1 winner. But were Caddo River and Concert Tour simply tiring coming home the last three-eighths in :39 3/5. Peter Miller is always dangerous, but he will have to really improve to be a factor. If you feel he is worth a play at a monster price you will be getting gigantic odds for a Grade 1 winner who did show big improvement in his second start back.

I didn’t think they were going to run DREAM SHAKE, but so far he’s still in there. He is another with a big future, but it looks to be down the road. Although his two stakes efforts were not bad at all, finishing third both times, he really hasn’t shown enough to suggest he is ready for this big a test.

Still waiting to get in is KING FURY, despite having made his 3-year-old debut only two weeks ago in the Lexington Stakes. As impressive as he looked winning with authority it is asking a lot to go 1 ¼ miles off one 1 1/16-mile race with so little bottom under him this year. If he does get in it will then be another two weeks to the Preakness, which looks like a more realistic target for him.

Here are the fastest last-out winners on Thoro-Graph and Beyer:

Thoro-Graph
Essential Quality 0
Highly Motivated 1 ¼
Known Agenda 1 ½
Soup and Sandwich 1 ¾
Dynamic One 2
Rock Your World 2 ¾

Beyer
Rock Your World 100
Hot Rod Charlie 99
Essential Quality 97
Highly Motivated 97
Midnight Bourbon 96
Known Agenda 94
Medina Spirit 94

Brisnet
Essential Quality 102
Rock Your World 102
Highly Motivated 102
Known Agenda 101
Hot Rod Charlie 96

 

Derby Rankings: Week 13

Monday, April 12th, 2021

Well, we thought we had all four corners of the puzzle in place just to get us started, but one of those corners got lost under the couch on Saturday, so how are we going to put it together when all the other pieces look alike? It’s too taxing on the brain. Admit it, other than three horses, maybe four, how many can you envision actually winning the Derby? In fact, how many of you can even figure out how the race is going to be run. But the strategy will unfold and someone is going to win it, so let’s at least give it a shot and see if the puzzle starts taking shape. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 13, Apr. 12

By Steve Haskin

 

1. Rock Your World (John Sadler, Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
Ranking a horse like this is similar to the NFL draft coming up in a few weeks. You can either draft a player you need to fill a position or draft the player with the most natural ability who looks like he could become a Hall of Famer. I “drafted” Rock Your World not by any logical standards, but because he looks to be the most gifted athlete of the group who has superstar potential. I intially would never have ranked a horse with only two career grass starts at No. 7 unless he showed me something extraordinary. He also seems like the kind of horse who will do whatever you ask him to. I believe the only reason he went to the lead was because the speedy Parnelli drifted out going into the turn and he just inherited the lead being down on the rail. Once he got those big strides going the wisest thing to do was just let him roll. Just when it looked like Medina Spirit was ready to make his move, Respoli let out a notch and in a flash he was almost three lengths clear, showing that same acceleration he showed in his first two races. I have no doubt he will be comfortable sitting off the pace if that’s what they want. Don Robinson, who raised the colt from birth at his Winter Quarter Farm in Lexington, Ky., said he was a “big strong quality horse from the get-go and very professional,” and referred to him as “Mr. Cool.”Although his Thoro-Graph number of “2 ¾ “ was not quite as fast as I expected, he did get big figures on Beyer (100), Brisnet (102), and especially TimeFormUS, where he earned a 124 compared to 118 by Essential Quality. And I do expect him to make another leap forward in the Derby. As a side note of interest, his full-sister was born on March 27 weighing an incredible 165 pounds. Because the mare was having trouble, she was sent to Hagyard Equine Hospital, where they had to use chains to pull her out. It looks like this is a family of beasts.

2. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
I admit I’m taking a shot with the unfinished, but intriguing Rock Your World, but this is the horse who will be on all my tickets. I like the fact that his Thoro-Graph numbers and his Brisnet numbers parallel each other and show an almost identical progression. His Thoro-Graph numbers jumped from an “11” to a “3 ½” to a “1 ½.” To improve in a Grade 1 stakes off such a huge leap indicates a horse who is on an upward spiral. The Brisnet figures back that up, making a big leap from an 82 to a 94 and then another big move forward to a 101. I have discussed his pedigree numerous times, especially all the European stamina influences, and there is no horse on this year’s Derby trail who is more of a sure thing to relish the mile and a quarter. And if you want a horse with a ton of bottom, how many horses can you remember going into the Derby having run 1 1/8 miles four times, winning three? What I love most about him is the dramatic change with blinkers, which has helped him go from a frustrating underachiever to a professional colt who now takes no prisoners. You have to love watching him in action as he gets down and stretches out that neck and reaches out with those long strides. I also feel a close attachment having him ranked No. 8 in week 1 despite him having won only a maiden race by a head and coming off a nine-length defeat in the Remsen Stakes. I feel he is sitting on another big race and he could very well return to No. 1 as things progress in the next few weeks.

3. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
His “zero” Thoro-Graph number in the Blue Grass Stakes following a “negative-1/2” in the Southwest confirms he is the fastest 3-year-old in the country based on trip handicapping. Combine that with his versatility and the ability to beat you from anywhere on the track and you have a solid Derby favorite, especially now that Concert Tour has taken a big step backward. His Brisnet pace figures are strong, indicating he can maintain a solid pace throughout and still come home strong. When you can combine good tactical speed with a a strong closing punch it makes you awfully tough to beat. The bottom line is, whether it’s a fast or sloppy track, there is no way to plot strategy against him or find a chink in his armor. So why isn’t he ranked No. 1? I can’t give a logical answer other than to say I find the top two more interesting and had them ranked high when no one knew anything about them. So call it loyalty or ego, but this is a year I am following the words of Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” I’m just hoping that taking the road less traveled will make all the difference, especially at the mutuel windows. Although I feel the Blue Grass Stakes was an excellent prep and just what he needed, he did look vulnerable through most of the stretch run and was all out to barely beat a horse who had never been two turns. Hey, I’m just looking for anything I can find to justify not having him No. 1.

4. Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher, Unon Rags – Beat the Drums, by Smart Strike)
With the top tier diminishing in number and the rest of them pretty much interchangeable, I just spin the roulette wheel and it keeps landing on his number, so what the heck. Everyone is throwing the Wood Memorial out, especially a horse who got caught late by a 72-1 stablemate in such a slowly run race. But if there is a “tortoise” who can catch all these hares napping it is this vastly improved colt with the outrageously strong pedigree. As for getting beat a head in the Wood, it must be noted that he ran 43 feet farther than the victorious Bourbonic according to Trakus, which is equivalent to about five lengths. So if you want to say he was five lengths better than the winner go right ahead. Let’s not forget that we held the Gotham Stakes one-two finishers, Weyburn and Crowded Trade, in high regard coming off huge speed figures and he put both of them away, one inside him and one outside him, at the eighth pole. And this was coming off a maiden race. We haven’t seen anything close to his best yet, and you could see him with his head up flicking his ears when he got the lead in the Wood and then pinning them back once Bourbonic came alongside him. He may still be a bit green and needs encouragement by the rider, at least I hope that’s the reason why Jose Ortiz hit him 19 times in the stretch. Despite the vigorous whipping he deviated only slightly off his path, which bodes well for his professionalism. In any event, he has plenty of bottom under him coming off two 1 1/8-mile races over ridiculously slow tracks, and his Thoro-Graph numbers have climbed from an “8 ¾” to a “5” to a “2,” with his Wood number being two points faster than the winner and almost a point faster than Rock Your World’s Santa Anita Derby. It is also important to note that he ran a “5” in his second career start last year, which means he has a big early number to fall back on, legitimizing the big numbers he’s running now and his steady progression. I’m not saying he’s going to win the Derby, but don’t be too quick to dismiss him, especially in the exotics. I’m already looking at a Pletcher exacta.

5. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Indan Miss, by Indian Charlie)
He breezed five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 in company with jockey Flavien Prat aboard. It was the best I’ve ever seen him work, as he did it easily, was striding out beautifully down the stretch, and galloped out strong. He is scheduled to work at Santa Anita every Saturday up until the week before the Derby and then ship to Louisville on the Sunday before the race. Like several other California trainers O’Neill is more comfortable training at home and being assured good weather and no disruptions in his schedule. Hot Rod Charlie is one of a number of Derby contenders who have won preps wire-to-wire despite not being true speed horses, which could make it more difficult deciding who will be on the lead. In Charlie’s 94-1 breakout performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile he came from seventh, eight lengths off the lead, only to be run down in the final sixteenth by Essential Quality, so, like the champ, you can put him anywhere on the track. In his front-running performance in the Louisiana Derby, jockey Joel Rosario felt strongly he could wire the field and he did just that after getting the green light to send him from O’Neill. What was most impressive was not only turning back a serious challenge from the classy Midnight Bourbon but drawing clear to win by daylight. One thing to remember, however, he has not improved his Thoro-Graph numbers (3 ¾, 3 ¾, and 3 ¾) or his Brisnet numbers (100, 93, then 96) since the Breeders’ Cup, so he has not gotten any faster in the last five months. But you can count on him being right there battling at the eighth pole and we’ll see if he can finish it off.

6. Highly Motivated (Chad Brown, Into Mischief – Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward)
He is another who set the pace in his last race, but is not a true speed horse. He just took advantage of a paceless race, was coming off one-turn races, and was breaking from an inside post. For him to hold off Essential Quality until the final strides was a sensational effort. Perhaps it was Highly Motivated forcing Essential Quality out several paths at the eighth pole giving him separation or Highly Motivated getting a bit tired and switching back to his left lead at the sixteenth pole or simply Essential Quality asserting his superiority and class. In any case, it was a gutsy performance from a horse who had never been on the lead and had never been two turns. All I know is that in his last three starts, at 6 ½ furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/8 miles, he has earned a lofty 102 Brisnet speed figure in all three, so it’s obvious this is a fast horse no matter what the distance. In fact, after running a “3” Thoro-Graph number in his two previous starts, he improved to a “1 ½” in his two-turn debut. Now it’s a question whether he can stretch out another furlong. If you’re looking for words of encouragement, his sire’s granddam is by Stop the Music, who sired a Belmont and Travers winner (Temperence Hill) and his dam’s granddam is by Kingmambo, who sired a Belmont and Travers winner (Lemon Drop Kid).

7. Super Stock (Steve Asmussen, Dialed In – Super Girlie, by Closing Argument)
I think I need more time to digest this Johnny come lately who looked good winning the Arkansas Derby, but had a perfect setup with the two favorites battling on the lead in :22 3/5 and :46 2/5 and then crawling home the last three-eighths in :39 3/5. By comparison, in the Oaklawn Mile with good older horses they went the opening half in :47 4/5, so this was set up perfectly for a horse sitting right behind Caddo River and Concert Tour who can close. Even 24-1 shot Get Her Number, coming off a seventh-place finish in the Rebel Stakes, closed well to be beaten only a half-length for second. Also, his Thoro-Graph numbers were pretty slow going into the race, never having run faster than a “7,” and his Beyer figure for the Arkansas Derby was only a 92. This is not to suggest Super Stock isn’t a quality colt. He has never been off the board in six stakes appearances and was beaten only four lengths by Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Futurity. And this was only his second start of the year after a decent fourth in the Rebel, although he was beaten 6 ½ lengths. In his last start at 2 in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs he was beaten a half-length by King Fury, who won the Lexington Stakes Saturday in his 3-year-old debut. So you can take the good with the bad with him, which is why he is ranked somewhere in the middle at this time. This was not a particularly strong Arkansas Derby field, with a small field and not much depth to it. So let’s sit tight for now and add him to the many Derby dilemmas. The way the Derby is looking now, it could actually wind up being another race that sets up perfectly for his running style. We just have no idea how good he is based on this race.

8. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch to Moon, by Malibu Moon)
The key to this horse is whether Caddo River runs and how committed to the lead Dubai invader Panadol is. And if Caddo River doesn’t run, will Baffert just send Concert Tour, feeling that is his most potent weapon and his only shot to win? The reason those are key points is that I believe this colt is much more effective on the lead, and as I have been stating, I don’t know if he has the closing punch to take back off the pace. I do, however, feel if he can get the lead and have them ignore him, feeling he will come back to them, he could be tough to get by in the stretch, much like his sire was. His LeComte Stakes victory is the blueprint he needs to use where he can steal this race, because he can catch them napping and has the pedigree and the tenacity to hold them off once they wake up. But if Caddo River runs or if Concert Tour is determined to get the lead all bets are off, because he doesn’t have their early speed. I do think he is getting stronger and is on a good Thoro-Graph pattern and is capable of popping a big one at any time. I also loved to see him turn in a bullet five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5 at Churchill Downs. So if you’re looking for a talented, consistent, and classy horse who is working well over the track and will be ignored in the betting, he is one to consider for your exotics.

9. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed)
He’s sort of perplexing in a way. He has as much chance to run a strong race as any of the second tier horses, but I have concerns if he’s fast enough or has the closing punch to actually win. His Thoro-Graph numbers have remained a constant “3” in his last four races and it seems that’s who he is, steady and competitive. He did get a career-high 98 Brisnet number in the Santa Anita Derby, but was he carried to that number by Rock Your World’s 102? With that said, he did have that small ulcer in his throat and was beginning to entrap after the San Felipe and had a procedure done, which meant he had to wait 16 days to have his first work back, so it’s possible he may have been a tad short for the Santa Anita Derby. He still hasn’t shown he possesses the kind of weapon it would take to win the Kentucky Derby, but has shown enough in top-class company to indicate he will be competitive. He is just another of the many pieces to the puzzle.

10. Bourbonic (Todd Pletcher, Bernardini – Dancing Afleet, by Afleet Alex)
He’s a Wood Memorial winner, he turned in by far the most explosive stretch run of the year, he’s a beautiful looking horse, and he has one of the strongest pedigrees of any 3-year-old. So why does everyone dismissing the Wood as a fluke and still consider him a huge longshot for the Kentucky Derby? It apparently is all about the slow time of the race, the fact he was 72-1, and that he was coming off a $50,000 claiming race and a starter allowance race made up of former claimers. Heck, people don’t even know how to correctly pronounce his name. So what do you make of this colt moving forward to the Kentucky Derby at a distance he should relish even more than the 1 1/8 miles of the Wood, which by the way is starting to look stronger in the grand scheme of things. If you’re into historical pedigrees, how about this: Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the most iconic breeders in the history of the sport, bred his third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth dams, with his seventh dam being a full-sister to Native Dancer. There is a saying in racing about betting a horse off a victory in which he paid a monster price and you didn’t have him: if you didn’t go to the wedding don’t go to the funeral. Well, you may have missed the big payoff, but you’re still likely to get 20-1 or higher in the Derby. It may not be the wedding, but you can still cash in on the honeymoon.

11. Concert Tour, Bob Baffert, Street Sense – Purse Strings, by Tapit)
Although he was a horse on the verge of possible Derby favoritism, I can’t rank him any higher until we know what’s going on with him. Even Baffert has no answers for his performance in the Arkansas Derby and hasn’t even committed to the Kentucky Derby until he sees how he works at Churchill Downs. Once we find out he’s definitely pointing for the Derby and Baffert is happy with him we can try to make some sense of the Arkansas Derby and move him up in the rankings. To have a 1-5 shot this highly ranked get beat in his final Derby prep is one thing, but to fail to outduel a horse for second that you just crushed the race before is reason for concern. He ran the race he was expected to, sitting right off the flank of Caddo River and pressing him the whole way. When he pulled on even terms at the head of the stretch, everyone expected him to draw clear, but he couldn’t put Caddo River away. He did get his head in front, but let him come back to get second while the winner was blowing by both of them. So this was discouraging on all fronts. Can we chalk this performance up to him having only one easy victory around two turns and being a bit short for this race? He has trained very well so it would seem he was primed for a big effort. As I mentioned in past comments, his Thoro-Graph numbers going into the race were not very fast, especially for a horse many felt was the one to beat in the Kentucky Derby, but they were far better than the winner, so figure that one out. And on top of that he may very well lose jockey Joel Rosario, who is also the regular rider of Hot Rod Charlie.

12. Soup and Sandwich (Mark Casse, Into Mischief – Souper Scoop, by Tapit)
Even though he didn’t change leads in the Florida Derby, which might not have been his fault, as his lead change looked to be disrupted when Known Agenda brushed with him, it looks as if he has become much more professional since his first two starts when he was extremely green making numerous mistakes. He is a very aggressive horse, coming out of the gate with his ears already pinned and looking for action. He tracked the early leader for a short while, but you could see he wanted the lead and after taking over, he turned back all challenges. I believe John Velazquez might have waited a bit too long to set him down and he was caught by surprise when Known Agenda eased out and showed up alongside him. But Soup and Sandwich kept battling on his left lead. He might have made it closer if Known Agenda wasn’t out in the middle of the track where he didn’t have to look him in the eye, because I believe this colt is a fighter. His main problem is that there are so many good horses who have the same running style and I’m not sure he can relax and settle into a comfortable stride. If he can then he will be dangerous.

13. O Besos (Gregory Foley, Orb – Snuggs and Kisses, by Soto)
He will move up once he gets in the field, but he needs several ahead of him in points to officially withdraw. If he does get in he is a very live longshot. For now, turn the clocks back to 1993. The Claiborne Farm stallion Polish Navy is sold to Japan and shortly after, his son Sea Hero wins the Kentucky Derby. Now here we are in 2021 and the Claiborne Farm stallion Orb is sold to Uruguay just weeks before his son O Besos is to run in the Kentucky Derby. Food for thought? Even recently we had the stallion New Year’s Day sold to Brazil and four months later his son Maximum Security finishes first in the Kentucky Derby. Of course none of that means anything unless you believe in karma. But in O Besos’ case, he is another of the vastly improved colts who is trending upward coming into the Kentucky Derby. His maiden and allowance sprint victories were both eye-catching performances, in which he exploded in the stretch and drew away under a hand ride, demonstrating a smooth, effortless stride. In his two-turn debut in the Risen Star Stakes, he was closer to the pace and raced a bit greenly, as he was late changing leads and ducked out sharply from a left-handed whip, but still finished a respectable fourth. In the Louisiana Derby, his make-or-break race to get in the Kentucky Derby, he raced at the back of the pack, rallied turning for home, then cut to the inside in midstretch and showed a good burst of speed in the final sixteenth to just miss second by a head. After running a pair of “6 ½” Thoro-Graph numbers, he jumped to a “2 ¾,” the fastest number in the race. Although his Brisnet number was a moderate 94, it has steadily climbed from a 76 to 82 to 88 to 91 to 94, which was only two points slower than the victorious Hot Rod Charlie, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t improve once again in the Derby.

14. Rombauer (Mike McCarthy, Twirling Candy – Cashmere, by Cowboy Cal)
Here is an early exacta bet for you. A fairly common scenario we’ve seen in the Derby in recent years has been having a favorite or near favorite racing on or just off the pace finish first and a big longshot, usually around 30-1, rallying from far back to get second. Maximum Security, the second choice, finished 1st and 65-1 shot Country House rallied from far back to finish second. Always Dreaming, the favorite, finished first and 33-1 shot Lookin At Lee rallied from far back to finish second. California Chrome, the favorite, finished first and 37-1 shot Commanding Curve rallied from far back to finish second. Barbaro, the third choice, finished first, and 30-1 shot Bluegrass Cat came from eighth early to finish second. Although he wasn’t a pace horse, you also had Orb, the second choice, finish first, and 34-1 shot Golden Soul rally from far back to finish second. Well, how about this exacta with a pace horse and a deep closer. Rock Your World is by Candy Ride…Rombauer is by a son of Candy Ride. Rock Your World’s maternal granddam is by Giant’s Causeway…Rombauer’s maternal grandsire is by Giant’s Causeway. Rombauer is inbred only to Mr. Prospector…Rock Your World is inbred only to a son of Mr. Prospector. Rock Your World made his first two career starts on grass and then won a Grade 1 stakes on dirt in his next start…Rombauer made his first two career starts on grass and then finished second in a Grade 1 stakes on dirt in his next start. With Rombauer running uncharacteristically close to the pace in the Blue Grass Stakes, it put just enough speed in him to now take far back, as is his custom, but this time be sharp enough to have a more explosive stretch kick. No charge for that historical exacta tip.

15. Helium (Mark Casse, Ironicus – Thundering Emilia, by Thunder Gulch)
He’s now at Churchill Downs and Casse is starting to sharpen him up for the tough task ahead, working him five furlongs in company in :59 1/5 with jockey Julien Leparoux aboard. The Tampa Bay Derby winner broke sharply with an opening eighth in :11 4/5 and came home his last quarter in :23 4/5 before galloping out six furlongs in 1:12. This is the kind of work we needed to see with him going into the Kentucky Derby off an eight-week layoff, one start this year, and never having run farther than 1 1/16 miles. I keep mentioning those three facts because they are important, considering no horse has overcome any of those obstacles in over 100 years. He is trying to overcome all three, and if he does, don’t expect to see Derby horses in action that much in the future, as he will singlehandedly turn the Derby into a race that requires hardly any foundation and any prep races. There is no doubt he is a very talented and game horse who runs well off layoffs and has a Hall of Fame trainer, and he is in a position to rewrite the book on how to prepare a horse for the Kentucky Derby.

16. Like the King (Wesley Ward, Palace Malice – Like a Queen, by Corinthian)
This colt is actually kind of sneaky. Yes, he was beaten by 7 ¾ lengths and 12 lengths in is two dirt starts, but they were early in his career and he did finish second and third in those races. He is coming off three big efforts on Polytrack, including a victory in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, but also has turned in a bullet five-furlong work in :59 4/5 on dirt at Keeneland and had two more bullet works at Keeneland last fall. As for his pedigree, he has a Kentucky Derby winner (Unbridled), Preakness winner (Curlin), and Belmont winner (Palace Malice) in his first three generations and three more Belmont winners (A.P. Indy, Easy Goer, and Bet Twice) in his fourth generation female family. In his last three starts, he’s won on the lead with a slow pace; come from fourth, two lengths back; and come from eighth, 7 ½ lengths back, so we know he is versatile enough to adapt to any pace. He recently worked six furlongs in 1:16 at Keeneland on the grass in company with two other horses. With jockey Drayden Van Dyke aboard, he broke off well behind his workmates and collared them in the stretch. His next two works before the Derby will be on the main track.

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Although HIDDEN STASH hasn’t given any indication he can win the Derby, he has never been off the board in seven career starts and always runs hard. He had a big problem with his lead changes, but did switch to his right lead for the first time in the Tampa Bay Derby and was narrowly beaten after running off badly before the race. In the Blue Grass, just as he switched to his right lead he bumped with Keepmeinmind, knocking him back on his left lead and that’s the way he ran the rest of the way. He was unable to quicken and just ran evenly to finish a well-beaten fourth. He is a better horse than he’s shown and just needs to put everything together.

So now that MANDALOUN opened eyes with a bullet :58 4/5 work at Churchill Downs, should we simply throw out his dismal performance in the Louisiana Derby or did he just fail to stay the 1 3/16 miles? I doubt it was the distance because he was done at the top of the stretch, so he remains another of the many mysteries going into this year’s Derby.

I am not ready to rank UAE Derby runner-up PANADOL yet until he gets on the plane and we see how he travels and how he takes to his new surroundings. Plus I have no idea how good he is other than he is a solid frontrunner who was beaten by a very classy horse at Meydan. This year in particular I’m certainly not going to throw him out.

CADDO RIVER ran a much improved race in the Arkansas Derby and showed a lot of guts outdueling Concert Tour for second, but he sure looks like a live Preakness horse to me, and I have a feeling that is where Brad Cox wants to go unless owner John Ed Anthony has Derby fever and is willing to jeopardize his chances at Pimlico.

KING FURY, who needed some ankle remodeling time in December, looked great winning the Lexington Stakes coming back off a vacation at Three Chimneys Farm, where he spent every day out in a paddock for several months wearing a Rambo (turnout) blanket, coming in for only two hours to get fed and be checked out. That no doubt helped him in many ways and he came back fresh and raring to go. Although trainer Kenny McPeek says he will run in the Derby if he gets the points, that makes no sense to me, and I will still consider him a Preakness horse until they actually enter him.

In other Preakness news, BROOKLYN STRONG, who ran a good race in the Wood Memorial, finishing a solid fifth in his 3-year-old debut, will target the second leg of the Triple Crown and may use the 1 1/8-mile Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel April 24 as a prep.