Derby Rankings Week 1: Back on the Trail Again

Welcome to the 2021 Kentucky Derby trail and the start of our Derby Rankings. Unlike the Derby Dozen, the rankings will not be limited to 12 horses, but we will begin with a dozen in order to properly introduce each horse in detail. In future weeks, the comments will be shorter and we will provide more information in the Knocking on the Door section. All readers’ comments are welcome whether you agree or disagree. So please stop by every week, share your opinions, and hopefully we can create a much-needed diversion from these crazy and scary times. Let the fun begin. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Back on the Trail Again

By Steve Haskin


1. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)

No need for any brilliant insight here, although I’m still not sure how good he is because of his great setups. He gets the No. 1 ranking because he’s an undefeated champion with two Grade 1 victories already, he hasn’t shown any noticeable weaknesses, and he has the right running style. He also showed the ability to adapt to any kind of pace, battling for the lead off slow fractions in the Breeders Futurity and coming from farther back off a fast pace in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, while showing good acceleration on the turn. And most of all, no one else has done enough to merit the top spot, although that may change after a couple of jaw-dropping first time out maiden winners step up in their next start. If you want to pick away at him a little, his pedigree is just OK with way too much inbreeding for my liking and his dam and third dam being pure sprinters. He had a perfect setup in the Breeders’ Juvenile when Keepmeinmind’s rabbit set a fast pace, hurting the chances of favored Jackie’s Warrior and everyone else near the lead. And finally he does paddle very slightly with his left leg. But at this point he is the most accomplished of this group, but I’m still waiting for someone to blow me away.


2. Keepmeinmind (Robertino Diodoro, Laoban – Inclination, by Victory Gallop)

If there is one thing you want to see in a deep closer, it is consistency and the ability to rally off any kind of pace and not have to depend on perfect setups. This colt has run four times, three going 1 1/16 miles and once going a mile, and in each race he came home fast and was right there at the finish off fast half-mile fractions of :45 1/5 and :45 4/5 and slow half-mile fractions of :48 4/5 and :48 1/5. The farthest he’s been beaten was 3 1/4 lengths in the Breeders’ Futurity behind Essential Quality, who was right up on the lead through a slow three-quarters in 1:13 2/5. With blinkers added and help from a rabbit, he came from 18 lengths back in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to be beaten two lengths by Essential Quality. In the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, he was last, but only six lengths behind a very slow pace, and rallied six-wide to win by three-quarters of a length with a rapid final sixteenth in :06 1/5. He has proven to be a relentless closer regardless of the pace and now has a victory and a second at Churchill Downs. From a visual standpoint, he keeps a straight course down the stretch and holds his legs under him perfectly. He looks to be the ultimate pro and there is nothing to dislike about him.


3. Senor Buscador (Todd Fincher, Mineshaft – Rose’s Desert, by Desert God)

This ranking is from the heart as well as the visuals and will be explained next week. It is based on two eye-popping performances at Remington Park, yes, Remington Park. People frown on horses who come from the clouds, but this horse doesn’t just rally from far back to win, he inhales his opponents and leaves them for dead. In both his starts he was never hustled out of the gate and immediately fell five lengths behind the next-to-last horse. In his debut going 5 1/2 furlongs, he took off around the turn, fanned seven-wide and flew by the leaders with only 50 yards to go and still won off by 2 1/2 lengths in a sprightly 1:03 3/5, earning a solid “7” Thoro-Graph figure. Stretching out to a mile in the Springboard Mile, he was 15 lengths back down the backstretch, but again kicked into high gear on the turn, fanned eight-wide, and blew by the leaders at the eighth pole like they were moving in slow motion. In a flash, he was three in front and just kept pouring it on to win by almost six lengths, coming home his last eighth in :12 flat and final three-eighths in a rapid :36 flat, this time earning a sensational “2 3/4″ Thoro-Graph figure, the same as Life is Good in the Sham Stakes. You rarely see such explosions and big winning margins from a deep closer. We should get a better line on him when runner-up Cowan runs in the Smarty Jones Stakes on Friday, but not sure he can beat Caddo River.


4. Life is Good (Bob Baffert, Into Mischief – Beachwalk, by Distorted Humor)

OK, put on the brakes if you were disappointed in seeing his four-length lead in the Sham Stakes evaporate into a frantic three-quarters of a length victory. You have to take into consideration that he had earned a “2 3/4″ Thoro-Graph number in his maiden romp, going four-wide on the first turn, and went into the Sham having worked a scorching six furlongs in 1:10 3/5 six days before the race. He was going two turns for the first time and Mike Smith had him geared down completely in the stretch. When he realized another (Baffert) horse was closing in quickly, he went from a pull to a drive in a matter of seconds, something the colt had never experienced before and he began to drift out. This will, in my opinion, help him, as you don’t want a young horse to think everything is easy and not know how to react when pressured for the first time. With all this, he still paired up his “2 3/4” Thoro-Graph number, which is just what you want to see. You don’t want him to regress too much off that first race, but more important, you don’t want a young inexperienced horse to run faster this early in the year. Also note that the second- and fourth-place finishers in his 9 1/2-length maiden victory both came back to win their next start impressively.


5. Greatest Honour (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Tiffany’s Honour, by Street Cry)

He still needs to move up in class, but so far he looks like your quintessential Derby-type horse who is improving with every start, as indicated by his Thoro-Graph pattern, debuting with a “10” and three starts later running a “4 1/2.” In his first two starts sprinting he finished right behind a very fast and talented colt in Caddo River. Stretching out to 1 1/8 miles over a dead track at Aqueduct he hooked up in a gut-wrenching stretch duel with the highly regarded Pletcher horse Known Agenda after a long sustained run through dawdling fractions and was beaten a head with a gap of 21 lengths back to the third horse, another promising Pletcher horse. Then at Gulfstream going 1 1/16 miles, he dropped back to last early and was bothered by a horse who unseated his rider, but shrugged it off and moved up methodically going four-wide and ran down a $725,000 Pletcher horse under a hand ride to win by 1 1/2 lengths, coming home in a sharp :24 1/5 and :06 1/5. If you’re looking for a mouth-watering pedigree, his dam is a half-sister to Belmont winners Rags to Riches and Jazil, as well as Breeders’ Cup Marathon winner Man of Iron and Peter Pan winner Casino Drive. His second dam Better Than Honour is a half-sister to the dam of Irish Oaks and Yorkshire Oaks winner Peeping Fawn, and his third dam Blush With Pride won the Kentucky Oaks and Ashland Stakes and is a half-sister to Sex Appeal, the dam of Irish Derby and 2,000 Guineas winner El Gran Senor.


6. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed)

Baffert ran this colt in the Sham Stakes against Life is Good with the thought of sending him to Saudi Arabia for their rich Derby, but he ran such a strong race he decided to keep him home and leave him on the Kentucky Derby trail. He showed good speed in his debut going 5 1/2 furlongs, winning off by three lengths. Stretching out to a two-turn mile in the Sham he put a scare into Life is Good, closing strongly to be beaten three-quarters of a length. What made this such a powerful race by the top two, it was 12 3/4 lengths back to the highly regarded Parnelli, who I had ranked in my Top 10 before this race. Medina Spirit’s Thoro-Graph number jumped from a “9 1/2″ to a “3 1/4.” I love the way this horse runs with his front legs perfectly aligned, while keeping a straight course. His breeding is not typical for a Baffert-trained horse but before you ask, “who are those horses?” Protonico is a son of Giant’s Causeway and was a graded stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles and placed in the 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. Brilliant Speed is by Dynaformer and his second dam is a full-sister to Belmont winner Touch Gold. In fact, of Medina Spirit’s four great-grandsires, one won the Belmont, one won the Kentucky Derby, one sired a Kentucky Derby winner, and one sired a Preakness and Belmont winner. Distance will not be a problem.


7. Smiley Sobotka (Dale Romans, Brody’s Cause – Dance Thewayyouare, by Mineshaft)

Not sure yet how he stacks up against stablemate Sittin’ On Go, who outworked him on Jan. 16, but he did beat him fairly soundly in his game second-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes coming off a maiden score and making his two-turn debut. I’m also not sure if he was in there to assure a good pace, but he did go to the lead for the first time and just kept going despite constant pressure from two horses on his outside. He actually was headed by both horses at the top of the stretch and battled back to take the lead again. I loved how gutsy he was turning back all challenges and I don’t believe he ever saw the victorious Keepmeinmind on his far outside. His maiden victory at Keeneland was very impressive, and I love his professionalism and the way he moves with his head low and neck extended. Despite a series of left-handed whips in his maiden win he never moved off his path the length of the stretch. And he ran just as straight down the lane in the Kentucky Jockey Club. I don’t believe he wants to be on the lead and I would imagine we’ll see him take back off the pace again. He has plenty of stamina top and bottom, and his fourth dam, Sabin, was a top-class grass filly who won 12 graded stakes and placed in the Alabama.


8. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)

This colt may have the best stamina breeding of any 3-year-old and he has already been a mile and an eighth twice. In his debut, he ran a strong second to the highly promising Highly Motivated going 6 1/2 furlongs and then stretched out to nine furlongs and outgamed Greatest Honour in a furious stretch dual, in which they finished 21 lengths ahead of the third horse. In the Remsen, although he was third, beaten nine lengths, he gets a pass, as it looked as if he detested the slop, having to be whipped three times down the backstretch. He still was trying in the stretch and never quit. He has one of the great European stamina lines. His maternal great-grandsire Darshaan won the French Derby and was a champion sire and broodmare sire in three countries: Darshaan’s sire Shirley Heights won the English Derby and Irish Derby and was a top-class stallion, siring a French Derby winner and English Derby winner in back-to-back years; and Shirley Heights’ sire Mill Reef was one of the greatest racehorses and sires of all time, winning the English Derby, Arc de Triomphe, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and numerous other Group 1 races, and siring eight classic winners and a Breeders’ Cup Turf winner.


9. Prime Factor (Todd Pletcher, Quality Road – Haylie Brae, by Bernardini)

I normally would never rank a maiden winner with one career start, but I’m getting bolder in my old age and this colt not only was super impressive in his debut, he did everything like a seasoned pro. He broke perfectly straight and rated kindly off the leader while just flicking his ears back and forth through testing fractions of :22 1/5 and :45 1/5 like it was nothing. At no point was he put to pressure, just coasting to the lead nearing the head of the stretch, still flicking his ears around. After switching leads on cue, Irad Ortiz gave him a couple of short crosses and he was gone, running straight as a proverbial arrow down the stretch, his legs perfectly aligned. And he was eased the last sixteenth, winning by nearly nine lengths with his ears pricked. This was as perfect a debut as you could ask for. His sire was brilliant and could carry his speed and his dam is by Bernardini, out of a full-sister to Canadian Triple Crown winner and Hall of Famer Dance Smartly and a half-sister to Smart Strike, sire of classic winners Curlin and Lookin At Lucky. He is coming off a pair of sharp five-furlong works and his next start against winners will tell us if he’s just a flashy maiden winner or a leading Derby contender.


10. Capo Kane (Harold Wyner, Street Sense – Twirl Me, by Hard Spun)

For every Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher there has to be a Todd Fincher and a Harold Wyner to assure some semblance of balance and give hope to the “little guy.” Wyner, who showed he knows how to develop a good young horse with his early work last year with Ny Traffic, now has a chance to take one all the way. Capo Kane has been in the auction ring four times, selling for $35,000 and then $75,000 as a yearling. He RNA’d for $87,000 as a 2-year-old before taking a major nosedive at the Timonium sale, selling for a paltry $26,000. Training at Parx, he was sent off at odds of nearly 7-1 in the one-mile Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, despite coming off an impressive romp in a mile and 70-yard maiden race. In the Jerome he went right to the lead from the rail and just kept pouring it on, winning by 6 1/2 lengths. What I love about this horse is his ability to repulse challenges while still on cruise control and then bound away from his rivals despite being green with a tendency to wander in the stretch. He is a very efficient mover with an effortless stride and is light on his feet. By a Kentucky Derby winner, his female family is loaded with European stamina with two English Derby winners and an Arc de Triomphe winner, and his third dam, French-bred Tuzla, earned $1.3 million, most of it in the United States.


11. Roman Centurian (Simon Callaghan, Empire Maker – Spare Change, by Bernardini)

Because a precedent has been set regarding first-out maiden winners and to keep things lively on here rather than list only the obvious horses, I am including another maiden winner who really caught the eye. After chasing Life is Good in his debut he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles facing two more promising Baffert colts. He settled near the back of the pack, but always in sight of the leaders. When asked for his run on the turn he demonstrated an excellent turn of foot and quickly reached contention nearing the top of the stretch while going five-wide. He charged to the lead leaving the eighth pole and quickly drew off with a final sixteenth in :06 1/5 to win by almost four lengths, running perfectly straight down the stretch, and was a dozen lengths clear on the gallop-out. His Thoro-Graph number jumped from a “13” to a “6.” If you’re looking for a pedigree loaded with class, The Phippses bred his first four dams, his second and third dams were Grade 1 winners, his fourth dam was a Grade 2 winner and the dam of three Grade 1 winners, and his fifth dam, Lady Pitt, won the CCA Oaks, Mother Goose, and Delaware Handicap.


12. Caddo River (Brad Cox, Hard Spun – Pangburn, by Congrats)

I don’t know how far this colt can carry his speed, but he is extremely fast and we know he can carry it a flat mile. There is no reason why he shouldn’t win Friday’s Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn, so we’ll keep him ranked for now and see how he fares. He has shown he can rattle off :44 and change and :45 and change half-miles and keep going, but can he rate when he goes two turns? His breeding says he should, so Friday’s race could be a good spot to teach him to harness some of that speed if he is to be considered a Derby horse. What I liked most about his nine-length maiden romp last time out was the way he hugged the rail every step of the way, cut the corner sharply, and was never touched with the whip. That to me showed how athletic he is. And his jump from a pair of “9 1/2″ Thoro-Graph numbers to a “4 1/4″ was a good step forward. If he shows all the right signs in the Smarty Jones he likely will move up several places.



It’s tough separating the first three finishers of the Lecomte, as MIDNIGHT BOURBON, PROXY, and MANDALOUN ran 1-2-3 the whole way around, so we’re going give that race a week to sink in and go more in depth next week. All three at this point look to be legitimate Derby contenders, but still are knocking on the door. Two other visually impressive maiden winners we’re watching closely are AMOUNT, who looks to have all the tools and certainly the pedigree, but needs to improve off his “9 1/2″ Thoro-Graph number, and PRATE, another Into Mischief who looked great visually but has some distance questions. The horse he beat handily, BLAMEWORTHY, came back and broke his maiden in game fashion Saturday. First-out winner WOLFIE’S DYNAGHOST, a beautifully bred half-brother to Sadler’s Joy, hasn’t worked since Nov. 14. Also WIPE THE SLATE was an impressive winner coming off his second to Life is Good, but with his questionable female family I need to see him go two turns. The same goes for first-out winner DEFEATER. Finally, the improving WEYBURN is working lights out at Belmont and bears watching when he stretches out to two turns.

Some of the more accomplished horses right on the edge of the Rankings who will be discussed in detail in the next couple of weeks are the immensely talented JACKIE’S WARRIOR, who has to show he wasn’t exposed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a need-the-lead type of horse; BC Juvenile runner-up HOT ROD CHARLIE, who is a half-brother to a Sprint champion and the great-grandson of a Sprint champion; SPIELBERG, who no doubt is a talented horse and worked a strong six furlongs Saturday, but not sure where he ranks in the Baffert barn; MUTASAABEQ, who beat a questionable field in workmanlike fashion in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes and may be a better grass horse; the John Shirreffs-trained RED FLAG and PARNELLI, both of whom I was very high on before their most recent disappointing performances; SITTIN ON GO, who has regressed speed-wise since his impressive Iroquois Stakes score, but deserves one more shot, especially with the way he’s been working; BROOKLYN STRONG, who hasn’t worked since his Remsen Stakes victory; ROMBAUER, who is classy and has a good closing kick, but needs to show a quicker turn of foot in the stretch; Nyquist Stakes winner HIGHLY MOTIVATED, who had his first work back on Saturday and if he can handle two turns, watch out; and we’re still waiting for major stakes horses REINVESTMENT RISK, DR. SCHIVEL, and GET HER NUMBER to return to the work tab, as well as the highly promising maiden winner SPEAKER’S CORNER.

Shug McGaughey has stopped on Remsen and Nashua runner-up TEN FOR TEN, and the horse who beat him in the Nashua, PICKIN TIME, ran poorly in his two subsequent starts. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner FIRE AT WILL is bred for turf but has begun breezing on dirt at Gulfstream and is expected to try the Derby trail.

So far, the claim of the year goes to RIGHTANDJUST, who was claimed for $50,000 in a race he won wire to wire by 5 1/2 lengths and then came back Saturday to wire his field again in a competitive 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Fair Grounds at 22-1. And how about this: his sire Awesome Again and broodmare sire Tiznow have three Breeders’ Cup Classic wins between them. One horse who has me stumped is Saturday’s Pasco Stakes winner NOVA RAGS. There is a lot about him I love, but I still haven’t decided if he’s better sprinting. More on him next week.


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