Derby Rankings: Week 5

Rather than do another Sweet Sixteen when there are 17 horses that deserve to be on there, I felt it was best to go back to the standard Derby Dozen for now and see what transpires next Saturday in the loaded Southwest Stakes. After that race, we finally will have a good line on everyone and be able to put together a more definitive list. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 5, Feb. 15

By Steve Haskin


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

With Essential Quality’s debut postponed a week, he is able to maintain the No. 1 spot. Last week we noted his continuous progress on his Thoro-Graph numbers, especially his jump from a 4 1/2 to a 1, which already has him fast enough to win the Derby. His Brisnet numbers back that up as evidenced by his steady improvement (84 – 88 – 92 – 97 and 103 in the Holy Bull, with the 103 being the fastest figure by any member of this crop). He also is the fastest and most consistent closer, based on his late pace figures. For all those who still don’t grasp the intricacies of speed figures, all you have to know is that he not only is the fastest 3-year-old and the strongest closer, he is also on the best pattern and is Derby ready right now. With only one more start in the Florida Derby and then a five-week gap to the Kentucky Derby, there should be no concerns of him peaking too soon. If he just pairs up his last Thoro-Graph figure or shows slight improvement he will be ready for a peak performance on the first Saturday in May.


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

We’ll have to wait a week now to see what kind of transition he’s made from 2 to 3. His speed ratings at 2 are fast and show an excellent progression, and his 3-year-old debut in the Southwest Stakes will tell us in what direction he’s going. He doesn’t need to improve much to be right on course. With the postponement of the Southwest it raises a question. If he was planning on a three-race Oaklawn campaign he will now have only three weeks to the Rebel instead of four. If he were to skip the Rebel he would have to wait seven weeks to the Arkansas Derby. So if he is unable to match strides with the brilliant Jackie’s Warrior in the Southwest going 1 1/16 miles it’s not a big deal. He just needs to run his race and be competitive and it’s OK if he is unable to catch a horse with that kind of class and speed. You also want to see if he can outclose the late-running Keepmeinmind. You really don’t want him having a grueling race or run some outrageous speed figure trying to catch Jackie’s Warrior, especially with two possible more preps ahead of him.


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

The positive impressions I got watching his last two races were echoed by Barry Eisaman, who broke the colt  “He always acted like a high school student with a college student mentality,” he said. “Everything we asked him to do, he acted like he had done it a million times already.” As I said, he looks like a throwback to those sound, hard-knocking horses of the past who know exactly what they’re supposed to do. From a speed standpoint, Thoro-Graph, which takes trip and ground loss into consideration, had him running a very slow number in his maiden win, while Brisnet had him running a fast number and an equally fast late pace figure. Although Brisnet had him regressing from a 98 to a 92 speed figure in the Withers, Thoro-Graph had him making a big move forward from a 10 1/2 to a 3 1/4, which puts him right in line with most of the leading contenders. So, which one do you believe? Sometimes you have to go by the eye test, and I just liked what I saw in the Withers, and that is a professional horse who looks to be improving with every start. And I guess I’m a sucker for all that extraordinary Phipps breeding in his female family that reads like a “Who’s Who” and the 4 x 4 inbreeding to Damascus. Sure he needs to get a little faster, but he is relentless and just keeps coming at you. Now we have to see how he fares against better horses with the big points on the line.


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

He turned in his strongest work so far, going six furlongs in a bullet 1:12 flat and did it with the rider never moving his hands. He was striding out beautifully right from the start and was pure poetry down the stretch. This horse’s mechanics are flawless and this was as perfect a work as you are going to see. To show how strong he was after the wire, he cut the corner sharply going into the turn and was smack down on the rail, then continued to pour it on around the turn and into the backstretch before the rider had to step on the brakes to pull him up. I have always maintained that you want to see plenty of stamina in the female family when you have an Into Mischief, but Authentic threw that theory out the window last year. It just looks as if the Into Mischiefs are pure runners and if they have the look of a stayer then they’ll get a distance of ground, and Life if Good reminds me a great deal of Authentic in many ways – a long striding horse who is very light on his feet and just glides over the ground. But I still want to see him settle off the pace and close and that seems to be the way Baffert is training him. Right now it looks as if the San Felipe Stakes on March 6 is next.


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

He was entered in the Risen Star just in case, and although there was a just in case with the postponement of the Southwest, he will ignore that and wait the extra week, giving up a 50-point race at a mile and an eighth in a wide-open race with no standout for a 10-point race at a mile and a sixteenth against Essential Quality and Jackie’s Warrior. Now that is what I call having faith in your horse. Granted, he did draw an outside post at Fair Grounds, but with his running style I doubt that would have compromised his chances. Diodoro said he feels much better running him out of his own stall and that certainly makes sense. After all, it’s not that he needs to win this race, he just needs to show the same big stretch run he showed in his last three races. But despite his big finishes in two Grade 1 stakes and a Grade 2, he still needs to improve his speed figures. The one thing you have to like about him is his consistency; he is always closing. Because he has been aggressive in the mornings and working fast, Diodoro wisely slowed him down with a nice easy :49 3/5 breeze over a track labeled good.


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

After the LeComte I ranked him higher than the two horses who finished ahead of him, Midnight Bourbon and Proxy, because of his wide trip, stretching out to two turns for the first time, and being herded badly by Proxy in the stretch. For him to overcome the 10-post in the Risen Star Stakes, in which he raced three-wide the whole way going nine furlongs, and turn the tables on Midnight Bourbon and Proxy, that is proof enough that this is another Into Mischief who is for real and can handle a distance. With the addition of blinkers, he was able to stay close to the leaders and use his grinding style of running to power home by 1 1/4 lengths under a vigorous hand ride. This colt is not going to dazzle you with electrifying performances, but he is going to run hard race after race. After running a 4 on Thoro-Graph in the LeComte, it’s now only a question what kind of progression he made in the Risen Star. As we have mentioned, he has a ton of stamina in his female family and is inbred to classic/stayer influence His Majesty, so with a mile and an eighth victory already under his belt, I see no reason why the Derby should pose any problem. And his running style is geared for Churchill Downs. Could he provide a fitting farewell to Juddmonte founder Prince Khalid Abdullah, who recently passed away?


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

So, just how fast is this horse and how far can he carry his speed? His speed figures say he’s far from the fastest horse on the Derby trail, and there was little improvement in his last two races on Brisnet and no improvement on Thoro-Graph. Brisnet gives him strong middle pace figures, but he slows down late. In two of his four races, at seven furlongs and a mile, he went his first half in a blazing :44 and change. Although he doesn’t close fast from a speed ratings standpoint all he does is run off from his opponents, winning by huge margins. So, what do we make of this horse who no doubt is extremely talented and can decimate his opposition despite running fast early factions? And he has already hung two defeats on Greatest Honour sprinting. We won’t know any more until the Rebel Stakes, but for now he passes all the visual tests and he is by a sire who was known for carrying his speed classic distances.


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

We mentioned last week his dramatic move on Thoro-Graph from a 10 to a 1, making him the fastest 3-year-old we’d seen so far (now the co-fastest). He also became the first horse to run back-to-back triple-digit Brisnet figures (101 and 101), so it looks like his speed figures are legitimate, and combined with his 14-length maiden romp last out, we better start taking this horse seriously. O’Neill calls him a rock star. He will have to come off Lasix in his next start, the San Felipe Stakes, but he did run well without it when beaten the slimmest of noses in the Los Alamitos Futurity. I’m not going to pay much attention to the slow time of 1:15 4/5 in his latest six-furlong work. He sat off another horse with the rider never moving his hands and finished up strong. What interests me more is that he worked six furlongs coming off three one mile races and a mile and a sixteenth race, so O’Neill certainly isn’t babying him, just like he never babied I’ll Have Another and Nyquist.


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

He returned to the work tab with a half-mile drill in :48 4/5 with the rider way up over his neck and never asking him to run. Looking at the Brisnet figures for the Robert B. Lewis for the first time, they came up a little on the slow side, but like with the Thoro-Graph figures he was the only horse to move forward. What was most disappointing on Brisnet were the slow late pace figures for the first three finishers. So once again we are left with the question, how good are these horses? I still like the progression he is on, jumping from a 13 to a 6 to a 3 on Thoro-Graph. And he has one of the more powerful pedigrees top and bottom, so all indications point to a horse who is making great strides with every race. Yes, he has to come home faster, but I am not going to judge him based on mile and a sixteenth races over a dead Santa Anita racetrack. I believe we won’t see the best of this horse until he goes a mile and an eighth and even more so a mile and a quarter.


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

With Life is Good heading for the San Felipe at this point, there is a decent shot we could see him in the Rebel, but as we all know, Baffert can change his mind at any time. If there is one thing we know about him it is that he can run big on the lead or from five lengths back, and he doesn’t back away from a fight. As mentioned earlier, his Brisnet speed figure regressed a couple of points off his runner-up finish behind Life is Good in the Sham Stakes, but he paired up his number on Thoro-Graph. He has been tested in different ways in his last two races and stood up to the test each time. Baffert refers to him as his Real Quiet in that it was the more brilliant Indian Charlie who was his big horse, defeating Real Quiet in the Santa Anita Derby. But when they stretched out to a mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs it was all Real Quiet, who went on to be beaten the slimmest of noses for the Triple Crown.


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

The more I watch the Robert B. Lewis Stakes the more impressed I am with his performance, which proved that his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile effort at 94-1 was no fluke. In the Lewis, I loved the way he rated and then accelerated on the turn when Joel Rosario moved his hands. In the stretch, he took all the worst of it, not only being in extremely tight quarters between Medina Spirit and Roman Centurian, but getting bounced around from both sides. While O’Neill was giving The Great One a six-furlong work in company, he breezed him an easy half alone in :51 1/5 with the rider sitting motionless throughout and then letting him run approaching the wire. As of now, The Great One will stay home for the San Felipe and he will head to Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby.


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

This colt still has a lot to learn and I’m not sure when we will see the best of him, but for now his race in the Withers and his Thoro-Graph jumps from a 20 to a 9 to a 5 1/4 suggest that he is improving enough to at least make his presence felt, especially with his powerful pedigree top and bottom. We know he can close and can sustain his run a long way and that could get him a piece of the Derby, but he is going to need to show more quickness and a turn of foot if he is going to have any chance of winning. And he is going to need to pick up points, whether it’s in the Wood Memorial or wherever he shows up. I know Pletcher is the last trainer to shorten a horse like this up to one turn and give him two more starts when he can give him one, but the one-mile Gotham might be a good place to sharpen him up a little and, win or lose, set him up for his big final prep. He also might pick up enough points the lessen the all-or-nothing pressure he would face in the Wood or wherever he shows up. But trainers today just don’t do that so I wouldn’t count on it.



SENOR BUSCADOR – You just can’t get away with being that far back when you face better horses no matter how spectacular you looked before, especially on a track where every winner was first or second turning for home.  I really wanted this colt to work out because of the great story behind him, and I haven’t given up on him. I was just hoping he would at least be in position to give himself a chance to win or be in the money, but you can’t be a dozen lengths back nearing the top of the stretch and expect to be competitive. He seemed to be close enough down the backstretch, but just when he started his run going into the turn the field became strung out with everyone making their moves and he found himself with way too much ground to make up. I still thought he might come charging home to pick up a piece of it, but that monster kick just wasn’t there, even though he did come home in :24 flat and :06 3/5. Remember, he hadn’t run in two months, had only two career starts, and only three three-furlong blowouts and a half-mile-breeze in between. Because he only runs the last part of it, I wasn’t crazy about him having only two preps off a layoff, so perhaps it would serve him better to go to Oaklawn for the Rebel and Arkansas Derby over a track that is more conducive to late closers. Otherwise he will have only one race to pick up a ton of points, and with his running style you sure don’t want to see him flying late and finish fourth in a four-horse photo.

PROXY – He is another I thought would take a big step forward with John Velazquez up. This time, he wasn’t hit left-handed, but whether it was habit or something else, he started bearing out on his own, and then continued to do so despite Velazquez hitting him continuously right-handed. To his credit he again battled to the wire to get second, but until he shows he can keep a straight course and not continue to bear out I can’t rank him in the Top 12. He has the talent and the pedigree, and I believe there so much more to this horse that he hasn’t shown. But he can’t keep compromising his chances every race. If he stays at Fair Grounds he will have only more prep to work out his issues.

MIDNIGHT BOURBON – It is so difficult separating him, Proxy, and Mandaloun, as they have now finished pretty much on the wire together twice. He had his own way on the front end in the LeComte and was able to hold off the other two who were way out in the middle of the track. This time he was put in a stalking position with Mandaloun sitting right behind him. He ran hard down the stretch, but couldn’t match strides with Mandaloun and failed to hold on to second, despite having a perfect trip. He is another who will have to step up in his next race. He is by Tiznow, so he likely is still a work in progress. I’m just not sure if he has the weapons needed to win the Derby.

JACKIE’S WARRIOR – I’m putting him here for now even though I think he has a big shot to win the Southwest Stakes on Saturday at a distance that should favor him. But he still has to prove he is as effective around two turns as he was around one turn, and whether he can rate off the pace if he has to, something he was unable to do successfully in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He did, however, run a bang-up race chasing a brutal pace, so we’ll see what kind of progress he’s made since last fall.

ROMBAUER – I try not to fall into any synthetic traps and get too excited when a horse looks good over the Tapeta surface in the El Camino Real Derby, especially when they just get up to defeat a filly. But this horse has run big on dirt, grass, and synthetic and you can depend on him to be closing every race. It was a good move sending him up there to get a mile and an eighth race in him and now it’s on to bigger and better things. If this were a Sweet Sixteen ranking like the last two weeks he definitely would be on it. I just want to see him get into the fray earlier and not leave himself with so much to do.

Catching up from last week, while the eyes of the racing world were glued to BEZOS in his much-anticipated career debut going 6 1/2 furlongs, they might have missed that blur that blew right past him at the top of the stretch. Suddenly, all eyes became fixed on DREAM SHAKE, as he opened up on his field with every stride and looked like he was just getting started as he crossed the finish line 4 3/4 lengths in front. Even though he received a solid 90 Brisnet figure for a maiden race and a strong 95 late pace figure, it was his Thoro-Graph figure that was astonishing, as he received a “1,” which you rarely see for a first-time starter. That equals the number Greatest Honour ran in the Holy Bull Stakes. The big concern with that is, where does he go from there? If you’re a follower of Thoro-Graph, that is way too fast for a horse making his career debut. He is yet another horse who would have only three career starts before the Derby, so, like Prevalence, we really have no idea how to rank him. We saw what happened to another spectacular maiden winner, Prime Factor, when they rushed him into the Holy Bull off one sprint.

Speaking of PRIME FACTOR, he worked a solid half in :48 3/5 and should show improvement with that last race under his belt and more bottom under him. He just didn’t seem ready to tackle those horses in a graded stakes jumping from six furlongs to a mile and a sixteenth.

One horse who made a big impression in a maiden race at Fair Grounds Saturday was the Bret Calhoun-trained Runhappy colt RUN CLASSIC, who was stretching out to a mile and a sixteenth off a rough trip going six furlongs. Rating nicely in third, he took over at the head of the stretch, changed leads on cue, and drew off impressively. He kept building up momentum with long fluid strides and galloped out very strong, still hugging the rail. His time of 1:44 1/5 was a full second faster than Sainthood ran in the other division, three-fifths of a second faster than a strong allowance race on the same card, and a full second faster than the Rachel Alexandra Stakes. And you had to be impressed with his closing fractions of :24 and :06 1/5, which were significantly faster than the closing times of the other maiden race and allowance race. In addition, his time was only three-fifths slower than the Mineshaft Stakes won by the 4-year-old Maxfield, who many believe to be the best horse in the country. And to take it one step further his time compared favorably to the time of the nine-furlong Risen Star Stakes, run a tick under 1:50 2/5. His pedigree is a good mixture of speed and stamina and he definitely bears watching.

In the aforementioned mile and a sixteenth allowance race at Fair Grounds, the flashy American Pharoah colt BIG LAKE held off the late closing charge of DEFEATER to win by a diminishing half-length after opening a six-length lead at the eighth pole. Trained by Steve Asmussen, Big Lake has improved since stretching out to two turns and did well breaking from post 10, going three-wide on the first turn. His second dam is a full-sister to four-time Grade 1 winner Lakeway, who placed in the Alabama, Kentucky Oaks, and Breeders’ Cup Distaff. His third dam is a full-sister to Grade 1 winner Saratoga Six, and his fourth dam is a full-sister to Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Bold Forbes. You had to be very impressed with Defeater, who was making only his second career start and first around two turns, and he was gobbling up ground in the stretch and blew by the winner on the gallop-out. Trainer Tom Amoss thought so highly of the son of Union Rags he entered him in the Risen Star Stakes, but elected to run in this spot instead. He is another to keep an eye on down the road.

A few weeks ago I mentioned DYNAMIC ONE as my megabomb sleeper, despite still being a maiden. He has always been highly regarded, and Todd Pletcher still has time to get another race in him in early March and have him ready for a huge leap to one of the big 100-point preps. He had a number of excuses in his last start, which I believe he would have won by several lengths. Despite tiring a bit in the stretch, it was still one of the more visually impressive races I’ve seen this year, and I just want to see what he can do when he’s healthy, doesn’t lose a shoe, and can get a decent trip. It was good to see him return to the work tab for the first time, as he breezed a half-mile in :49 in company with Amount.

Pletcher also has another maiden who bears watching. BRACKEN has never had a race that was suited for him. In his debut he chased his brilliant stablemate Prime Factor home in second in what I felt was a promising effort. In his next race he wound up going head and head for the lead and tired to finish third. Pletcher put him on the grass Saturday and he drew post 11, got hung four-wide on both turns racing back in seventh, but showed a brilliant turn of foot to reach contention. He ran on strongly, but was outrun by the even-money favorite Floriform, who slipped through on the inside. Watch out for this horse if Pletcher puts him back on the dirt. He is ready for a bust out performance.

In other Pletcher news, KNOWN AGENDA, who I have always been high on but can’t figure out, likely will try blinkers in his next start after his bizarre race in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. He is still very slow on his speed figures and they can only hope the blinkers will wake him up and put some speed in him. We know the talent and the speed are there; we have seen it, but lately he’s been all over the place. Pletcher sent out two gutsy maiden winners this week. ATLANTIC ROAD, a son of Quality Road, battled to the wire and prevailed by a half-length going seven furlongs at Aqueduct. Then on Saturday his Mshawish colt SAINTHOOD battled back after appearing beaten to eke out a nose victory at Fair Grounds. It was a good week for photos for Pletcher, as he also scored a narrow victory with the Constitution gelding HYPERFOCUS, who got up by a neck in a four-horse blanket finish going a mile on the grass.

PREVALENCE, who had more than a few jaws dropping watching his sensational maiden victory, will be looking for a two-turn allowance race in the next few weeks. If there is nothing in the book for him or it doesn’t fill he probably would make a huge leap into the Fountain of Youth Stakes. But again we’re talking about a horse will have only three lifetime starts going into the Derby; a tall task. He did turn in a solid five-furlong work this week in 1:01.

HIGHLY MOTIVATED moved a step closer to his debut in the Gotham Stakes, breezing five furlongs in 1:02 2/5 at Payson Park. American Pharoah winner GET HER NUMBER continued on his road back with a half-mile breeze in :49 2/5 at San Luis Rey Downs. Also getting closer to his 3-year-old debut and a return to the dirt is Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner FIRE AT WILL, who breezed six furlongs in 1:15 2/5 for the Fountain of Youth Stakes. His only dirt race was a narrow victory in the off-the-turf With Anticipation Stakes run on a sloppy track. Holy Bull Stakes runner-up TARANTINO had his first work since that race, breezing a half in :49 2/5. He, too, could show up in the Fountain of Youth Stakes

If you are looking for an update on last year’s mile and an eighth Remsen winner BROOKLYN STRONG, he hasn’t worked since that race, but should be on the work tab in the near future. He needs to start working, as he doesn’t have much wiggle room if he expects to be ready for a debut by early March, possibly in the Gotham Stakes.


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