Derby Rankings: Week 4

Although we had some movement this week, we now come to the make or break weekend when many of ranked horses compete in the Risen Star Stakes and Southwest Stakes, several of which were top 2-year-olds making their long-awaited debuts.  ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 4, Feb. 8

By Steve Haskin

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

If you’re questioning the quality of his Holy Bull performance from a speed aspect, you could not ask for a better progression Thoro-Graph, going from 9 3/4 to a 7 3/4 to a 4 1/2 to a 1. The Holy Bull figure equals The Great One’s last start as the fastest figure this year by a 3-year-old. But unlike The Great One’s dramatic leap from a 10 to a 1, his pattern has been such a steady improvement race to race there is no concern about a “bounce” and he is already fast enough to win the Derby. As is often the case, there are some who feel he is a deserving No. 1 and others who feel his not there yet, defeating a less than stellar field in the Holy Bull Stakes. But you should take note that runner-up Tarantino showed marked improvement switching to dirt going from a 10 to a very respectable 4 1/2, the same figure Caddo River ran winning the Smarty Jones by 10 lengths. No one really knows how good these horses are yet, so you go by what you see, pointing out strengths and possible weaknesses. In the case of Greatest Honour, I see no weaknesses or flaws, whether it is his progression speed-wise, his mechanics, consistency, versatility, professionalism, or his pedigree. And the horses he’s been running with, whether in sprints or two-turn races, have come back and run huge. So he checks off all the boxes.

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

You normally don’t see the first, third, and fourth-place finishers of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile making their 3-year-old debut in the Southwest Stakes, to be run next Monday, February 15. What makes BC Juvenile Part 2 even more unusual is that Essential Quality and Jackie’s Warrior will be shipping over from Fair Grounds, even though the Risen Star is being run that same weekend and at a new 1 1/8-mile distance that would favor Essential Quality. But Cox has LeComte third-place finisher Manadaloun staying home for that race, as is Jackie’s Warrior’s trainer Steve Asmussen with LeComte winner Midnight Bourbon. And that also gives Cox the luxury of waiting for the Rebel Stakes with Smarty Jones winner Caddo River. To add to all the strategizing, Essential Quality going to Oakawn means that Godolphin doesn’t have to worry about him clashing with their other Derby prospect, LeComte runner-up Proxy, trained by Mike Stidham, in the Risen Star. So all the pieces of the puzzle seem to fit. Essential Quality had a sharp five-furlong work in 1:00 3/5 and if he runs big in the Southwest he could very well return to the No. 1 spot.

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

It is difficult keeping a horse as high as No. 3 when you have to wait this long between races and he hasn’t been doing much in the mornings, at least on the work tab. And that work tab is at Sam Houston Park, not exactly a proven base to launch a Kentucky Derby campaign. So we’re into February and still basing everything on two races at Remington Park. We will finally find out where he fits on the Derby scene in Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes when he takes on far classier horses who have already proven their ability in stakes over this track. But he does get the added 1 1/8-mile distance, which he should appreciate. And I can’t get a good gauge on him in the mornings because he has been on an unusual work pattern. Since his explosive victory in the Springboard Mile he worked three furlongs 13 days later, then worked three furlongs again 10 days later, then three furlongs again 11 days later, and he finally went half 12 days later. Fincher has also been spacing his works, so we’ll see how that works when he faces proven stakes horses. And we’ll also have to see how he runs coming off Lasix. Fincher showed with Runaway Ghost that he knows how to develop a talented young horse so we’re not going to speculate what we’re about to see and instead focus on the two devastating moves we saw last year. He certainly doesn’t need to win the Risen Star, but with only two preps he is going to have to start earning points.

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

This horse has had enough of people thinking of him as a plodder with no speed. He tried to tell everyone they were dead wrong in his bullet work on January 22, but just in case they weren’t paying attention, he decided to give them one final preview of what just may be the new look Keepmeinmind. He worked five furlongs in a bullet :59 flat, going his opening quarter in a snappy :22 4/5 and then galloped out six furlongs in a Baffert-like 1:11 4/5, seven furlongs in 1:25 2/5, and pulled up a mile in 1:40 2/5 in what should not only hone whatever speed he has, but give him a great foundation for the arduous road ahead. This is the third straight sharp stamina-building work, and now Diodoro will have to decide whether to stay home for the Southwest or go for the longer Risen Star. As of now he is undecided, but has entered him in the Risen Star where he drew post 12 in the 13-horse field. Wherever he goes, I am sure Diodoro is looking down the road and just wants to see that familiar big stretch kick. He will give him an easy half-mile breeze on May and then a couple of stiff gallops during the week. Keepmeinmind is also going to have to erase the poor speed figures of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and the dismal performance of runner-up Smiley Sobotka in the Sam F. Davis Stakes.

5. Risk Taking (Chad Brown, Medaglia d’Oro – Run a Risk, by Distorted Humor)

Could this be the year we finally see a horse take the New York path to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle? This high ranking may seem like a knee-jerk reaction, but he looks to be a throwback horse, of which I am particularly partial. Blinkers seem to have really gotten this colt’s mind on racing, as he improved dramatically after two dismal efforts to score a workmanlike victory going a mile and eighth over a dead Aqueduct track in December. The big question going into the Withers was how much progress he had made in the past two months. This was a much more professional effort, as he ran straight in the stretch and never flinched from the whip. As he showed in his maiden win, he runs hard and keeps coming at you, and he doesn’t miss a beat when a horse (Capo Kane) drifts out into his path. There is a term that isn’t used anymore, but it can be said he is all hickory – a tough, sound, hard-running horse who has no quit in him. With back-to-back nine-furlong wins he has a strong foundation and his pedigree says he can’t wait to stretch out even farther. This horse is the embodiment of Phipps breeding and it doesn’t get much classier than that. Ogden Phipps bred his third, fourth and fifth dams, and from these families have come Buckpasser, Personal Ensign, Numbered Account, Seeking the Gold, Reviewer, Private Account, Dance Number, Rhythm, and Majestic Light. In the bottom half of his female family alone through sires, dams and siblings are 12 horses bred by Phipps. He is inbred to Buckpasser, and to deviate from the Phipps family, he is also inbred to Damascus. And Buckpasser and Damascus were two horses who epitomized the term “all hickory.”

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

Returned to the work tab with an easy half in :50 3/5, going off a slow quarter in :26 and coming home in :24 3/5 before galloping out a strong five furlongs in 1:03. That’s just what you’re looking for – to teach him to relax early and come home fast. We know he can beat Greatest Honour sprinting and he has since gone on to bigger and better things with a pair of electrifying victories stretching out. Now it’s basically a question of how far he can carry his speed. Let’s remember, however, that his Thoro-Graph figures in his last two starts don’t quite reflect the margins of victory, so he does still have room for improvement and is far from speed crazy. Having decimated his rivals twice now, his trainer has the luxury of shipping Fair Grounds-based stablemate Essential Quality to Oaklawn for the Southwest Stakes and waiting until the Rebel Stakes on March 13 for this colt. Trying to get a good grasp of his pedigree is not easy, because his female family is fairly nondescript. I mentioned last week about his sire Hard Spun’s ability to carry his high cruising speed a classic distance of ground. That can be attributed to his dam being by Marlboro Cup winner Turkoman, out of a half-sister to Preakness and Belmont winner Little Current, both being stone closers.

7. Life is Good (Bob Baffert, Into Mischief – Beach Walk, by Distorted Humor)

How many times have you been awestruck by a Baffert horse’s workout? You no doubt have lost count That is why you have to be impressed to see a fast colt like Life is Good working relatively slow half-miles, his most recent being a :48 4/5 breeze. Baffert knows how fast this horse is and he is content right now to just work him by himself and not ask for any speed. From strictly a visual standpoint these last two breezes were extremely impressive, as he was relaxed the whole way, but still striding out beautifully, his ears pricked and totally responsive to the rider. In short, he can catch the eye even breezing a slow half-mile. Now all he has to do is show that he can harness his speed enough to get him a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May. The only reason he is not ranked higher is I am waiting to see a little more versatility and for him to get a tough test and look a horse in the eye. He has all the physical tools and is a pleasure watch run, but he has had two easy strolls in the park and it almost cost him last time. He also will have only four career starts before the Derby, so he needs toughening.

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

If I had to put a future book bet on a horse at a big price he would be the one right now. I explained last week that he was ranked higher than Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes because of the ground loss, having to run 30 feet farther than the winner. After seeing the Thoro-Graph figures from that race I like him even more. Even though the figures for all three horses were extremely close, Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie ran the same figures they did in their previous start, while he jumped from a 6 to 3 1/4. Also he was coming off a maiden score and they were coming off huge efforts in graded stakes company. So as of now I like the trajectory he is on and I don’t believe we have seen anything even close to his best. With his pedigree and his continued improvement I can see him peaking on Derby Day.

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

Unlike Life is Good, we know what he can do when he gets in a dogfight. He looked like a beaten horse in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, but he showed his grit and refused to let two talented horses get by him. We also saw his determination when he didn’t get discouraged trying futilely to chase down Life is Good, who was on cruise control and on his way to coasting to an easy victory. But he kept running hard and when Life is Good practically fell asleep in the final furlong he was in position to put quite a scare in him. So we have seen what he do running from off the pace and on the lead. He is not getting a lot of respect, in part to the number of hyped horses in the Baffert barn and his obscure pedigree, which happens to be inundated with class and stamina influences. I am sure he also will be a huge overlay in this week’s Future Wager and looks to be a very enticing bet. I also believe as those above him sort themselves out he will move up several spots in the coming weeks.

10. Proxy (Michael Stidham, Tapit – Panty Raid, by Include)

Although I still want to see him take a left-handed whip and not react so strongly or show what he can do without the whip, I did get several things cleared up that makes me look at him in a more positive light. Stidham explained that in the LeComte his new rider Mitchell Murrill hit him left-handed to put the pressure on Mandaloun, who he felt was his main danger on his outside. It was a case of race-riding, and while he did force Mandaloun out as intended and was able to outgame him to the wire, he drifted well clear of the pace-setting Midnight Bourbon, who was able to eke out a narrow victory on the rail after setting a slow pace. That explains why Proxy never passed Midnight Bourbon; he was too occupied with Mandaloun and too far away from the winner to look him in the eye. Stidham believes he is learning with every race and has really matured physically from a tall leggy horse to a wider more muscular individual. He was extremely happy with his latest work, in which he went a sharp five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 in company with Jim Dandy winner and Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up Mystic Guide and gave the older horse “all he can handle.” What convinced me we are going to see a more polished horse in the Risen Star, and no disrespect to Murrill, is that he now gets John Velazquez, and that alone merits his rise in the rankings. I still believe Johnny V gets more out of a horse than any rider in the country.

11. Mandaloun (Brad Cox, Into Mischief – Brooch, by Empire Maker)

Like Proxy, he bounced out of his hard race in the LeComte with a sharp five-furlong breeze in a bullet :59 4/5 over a track listed as good. It was the fastest of 34 works at the distance, and now comes his big test stretching out to a mile and eighth in the Risen Star Stakes. But with his running style he will have a lot to overcome drawing the 11 post. Cox could have sent him to Oaklawn to run at the shorter distance of the Southwest Stakes next weekend, but decided to send Essential Quality there and run this colt at the longer distance. With Mandaloun having already run in a 1 1/16-mile stakes this year, this will give him even more bottom running in back-to-back nine furlong races, which he will need with the six-week gap between the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby. It is just a question how much ground he will lose breaking that far outside. You never know how far an Into Mischief will run, but he looks to be a grinder who just keeps coming and can sustain his run a long way. And he has plenty of stamina in his female family, as well as being inbred to class/stamina influence His Majesty. What I liked most about his race in the LeComte was that he was making his first start around two turns, while Midnight Bourbon and Proxy were already proven two-turn horses, and he had a wide trip the whole way, earning a faster Thoro-Graph number. Good luck not having an even wider trip this time.

12. The Great One (Doug O’Neill, Nyquist – Little Ms. Protocol, by El Corredor)

Like with several other horses on the Derby trail this year, we are going to have to guess what will happen when he has to race without Lasix. In his case, he hadn’t run with Lasix until his last start, and even though he had run big in the Los Alamitos Futurity as a maiden he had never demonstrated the brilliance and explosiveness he showed in his devastating 14-length romp last time out. And we can’t remember such a dramatic leap in speed figures, going from a 10 to 1 on Thoro-Graph. Was it the Lasix or the addition of blinkers several races back or moving way down in class from a Grade 2 to a maiden race? Those questions won’t be answered until he runs again in the San Felipe Stakes. Because there is so much speculation regarding this colt I am going by what I saw in his last two races and will assume he is a horse who has finally matured physically and mentally and is just now figuring it all out. We’ll just have to wait until March 6 to find out what kind of horse we are dealing with.

13. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon)

He turned in a solid five-furlong work in 1:01 as he prepares for a rematch with Proxy and Mandaloun in Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes. The question is, how will he be ridden this time? In the LeComte he took advantage of a paceless race and was able to be in complete control all the way. I believe his best race is off the pace, but we still don’t know what kind of closing punch he has. It is difficult separating the first three finishers of the LeComte and I think strategy will play an important role again with the threat this time coming from the rear of the pack in the form of Senor Buscador. Midnight Bourbon has the look of a distance horse and the pedigree to match, so the extra distance of the Risen Star should only help him. We’ll just have to wait and see if there is any speed in the race this time.

14. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Indian Miss, by Indian Charlie)

The main reason he is this far below Medina Spirit and Roman Centurian is that I know they will relish a mile and a quarter and I’m still not quite sure about him. Not that his pedigree suggests he’s a sprinter or miler, it’s just that it is somewhere in the middle of the road, possibly maxing out at a mile and an eighth. But that is pure speculation, especially in this day and age when horses with all kinds pedigrees are able to carry their speed. He did take all the worst of it the Robert. B. Lewis being the meat in the sandwich in a three-horse stretch battle and getting bounced around from both sides. As mentioned earlier he did pair up his Thoro-Graph figure from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so we still don’t know if he has improved from 2 to 3, and he will need to move forward off this race

15. Jackie’s Warrior (Steve Asmussen, Maclean’s Music – Unicorn Girl, by A.P. Five Hundred)

Well, we know Jackie the Jet is ready to take off judging from his five-furlong work in a bullet :59 2/5, fastest of 18 works at the distance. He will make his debut in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest Stakes and should have a distance and tactical advantage over the debuting Essential Quality. The big questions with him are whether he can win coming from off the pace and around two turns and how far he can carry his speed. I actually felt he ran a pretty strong race in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile getting outrun by two horses, one of them a 41-1 rabbit for Keepmeinmind, and being shuffled back to fourth. He did look strong taking the lead nearing the top of the stretch and never quit, getting beat only three lengths despite chasing brutal fractions of :22 2/5 and :45 1/5. By comparison, the Juvenile Fillies went in :23 1/5 and :47. Despite all the speed in his pedigree he doesn’t have the physical appearance of a sprinter and has a very classy look about him. The word from the barn is that he is extremely intelligent and not speed crazy at all, so we’ll see how he runs in the Southwest before deciding whether he looks like a Derby horse.

16. Overtook (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Got Lucky, by A.P. Indy)

If you’re going to rank Risk Taking high then you surely have to at least acknowledge this colt’s improvement since the removal of blinkers and becoming a rare Pletcher deep closer. A $1 million yearling purchase, he has the looks and the pedigree, with his dam earning over $950,000. But in the Withers he was under a strong ride early, leaving the half-mile pole, and couldn’t close any ground on Risk Taking, who still hadn’t been asked for his run. He didn’t show much acceleration at any point and just kept grinding away, eventually passing tired horses, although he did seem to be leveling off nicely at the end. I just don’t know if he’s fast enough at this point to be considered a major player, unless he can demonstrate a quicker turn of foot.


I am holding off a week or two before ranking CONCERT TOUR, mainly because he still hasn’t been two turns and he showed he is still a little green. And I want to see the results of next weekend’s big stakes. He was running beautifully after turning for home in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, but then starting deviating off his course, drifting to the outside, possibly because he was under pressure for the first time trying to get by his speedy stablemate FREEDOM FIGHTER. If Concert Tour goes on to be a leading Derby contender, which I believe he will, he owes a good part of it to Freedom Fighter, who taught him some valuable lessons he probably would not have learned had he not been confronted with a horse this fast and game. But what you have to like about him the most is that, with the exception of his maternal great-grandsire Mt. Livemore, there is nothing in his pedigree to suggest he wants anything to do with sprinting. I like that Baffert is taking a gradual approach and not rushing him into two-turn stakes, and I believe we will see a much improved horse when he goes two turns in his next start.

For years, we’ve been talking about the quirkiness of the Tampa Bay surface. It is much faster than it used to be, but we still get head-scratching performances, such as those of KNOWN AGENDA and SMILEY SOBOTKA in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. I have no idea why Known Agenda, who had demonstrated good tactical speed, was running last and just couldn’t get going until it was way too late. He did get bumped around a little after the start, but it should not have affected him to that extent. He was able to make up a lot of ground in the stretch with horses tiring in front of him. I still feel he’s a very good horse, but we need to see what he does on a different surface and back to his usual running style. Smiley Sobotka was up there with pace, but quickly retreated to beaten nearly 23 lengths.

Right now I can’t get too excited about this race. Give the winner CANDY MAN ROCKET credit for stretching out from a 9 1/4-length romp going six furlongs to a mile and 40 yards and defeating his stablemate, Pasco Stakes winner NOVA RAGS, but these horses were tiring late and crawled home, so we’ll have to wait to see if they can improve off it. Third-place finisher HIDDEN STASH made up four lengths in the final furlong and just keeps improving, but he saved ground the whole way, was closing on tired horses, and never switched leads. We’ll see if he can take another step forward next out.

CAPO KANE, making his two-turn debut following a 6 1/2-length romp in the one-mile Jerome Stakes, looked like a winner turning for home after controlling the pace, but couldn’t keep a straight course and tired to finish third. He will now cut back to a mile in the March 6 Gotham Stakes.

Well, we saw the monster performance we expected from BEZOS, except it wasn’t from Bezos. It was the horse who flew by him at the head of the stretch and just spread-eagled his field from there with his ears pricked and jockey Joel Rosario looking back several times. That was DREAM SHAKE, who could be any kind for trainer Peter Eurton. As for Bezos, who finished up the track, the only bigger losers were all the people who bet on an unraced horse in the Derby future book and Future Wager. More on Dream Shake next week when we find out his plans.

Keep an eye on Tampa maiden winner UNBRIDLED HONOR, who showed a lot of professionalism after being trapped most of the way and staring at a wall of horses in front him after turning for home. But he waited patiently and when a hole finally opened on the inside he quickly altered course and shot through to win by a half-length for Pletcher. By Honor Code, his dam is a half-sister to two Grade 1 winners – Haskell winner Roman Ruler and Cigar Mile winner El Corredor.

Two very interesting first-out maiden winners entered in the Risen Star are both trained by Tom Amoss and both sons of Union Rags. CARILLO was extremely impressive breaking his maiden at a mile at Aqueduct for Chad Brown in his career debut. He then was sold for $875,000 at the Estate of Paul Pompa dispersal and turned over to Amoss. He worked five furlongs in a sharp 1:00 3/5 and could surprise a lot of people if he is as good as he looked in his debut and runs to his pedigree. The other maiden winner is DEFEATER, who drew off impressively going six furlongs at Fair Grounds, despite a rough trip.

Several horses are right on the outer edge of the Rankings. Because of this past weekend’s results and the big upcoming stakes, TARANTINO had to be dropped off the Sweet Sixteen, but I’m pretty sure it will only be temporary.

The late-closing ROMBAUER was scratched from the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and instead worked five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 and most recently another five furlongs in a bullet :59 2/5, fastest of 38 works at the distance. Trainer Mike McCarthy elected to wait for the mile and an eighth El Camino Real Derby run over the Tapeta surface. We have no idea how he will handle it, but this horse is much more suited to nine furlongs than the 1 1/16 miles of the Lewis with a small field.

Another borderline horse is FIRE AT WILL, who will return to the dirt in the February 27 Fountain of Youth Stakes. A big race there and he surely has to be regarded as a leading contender. He turned in another solid work, going five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 at Gulfstream Park.

Still another on the outside waiting to get in is the impressive Nyquist Stakes winner HIGHLY MOTIVATED, who breezed a half in :49 1/5 at Payson Park, as he prepares for his debut in the Gotham Stakes.

American Pharoah Stakes winner GET HER NUMBER is up to a half-mile in his works, turning in a :50 2/5 breeze at San Luis Rey Downs.


Please Note: Oaklawn has canceled their weekend card and the Southwest Stakes will now be run Saturday Feb. 20. The next Rankings will be on Monday as usual.


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