Derby Rankings: Week 5

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.


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.


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.


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