Derby Rankings: Week 6

This past weekend was the annual intermission on the Derby trail when the stakes races take a break and we have to come up with new things to say about these horses. The only difference this year is waiting for the Southwest Stakes to be run so we can find out once and for all if champion Essential Quality has made a successful transition from 2 to 3. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 6, Feb. 22

By Steve Haskin

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

He is No. 1 right now because he has earned it with the progress he’s made. He’s getting more professional, he’s getting faster with each race, he has shown the ability to run off from his opponents, and just has a look of class about him. He is pretty close to being Derby ready right now and just has to maintain his form, especially facing much more talented horses in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. McGaughey had him on the inside in his half-mile work in company Sunday, as both horses hooked up on the turn, were well off the rail turning for home, and finished dead even in :51 1/5, with Greatest Honour’s rider keeping his hands way down on the colt’s neck. On the gallop-out, however, Greatest Honour asserted himself and drew five lengths clear. McGaughey is following a similar pattern with him as he did with Orb, giving him three two-turn races at 3, although this colt is a little ahead of Orb, who didn’t make his stakes until the Fountain of Youth. Greatest Honour already has an impressive graded stakes victory under his belt, in which he earned very fast speed figures, so McGaughey has to make sure he leaves enough in the tank to peak on Derby Day, as that “1” he got on Thoro-Graph in the Holy Bull might have been a little fast for January. I’m just looking for a good solid effort in the Fountain of Youth to move him forward into the Florida Derby.

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

The No. 1 spot has been there for Essential Quality if he wanted it, but he hasn’t had the chance with two postponements of the Southwest Stakes. Now, he and Greatest Honour will vie for top billing on the same day at different tracks. It’s fortunate for him he is stabled at Fair Grounds and hasn’t missed any works. In fact, he turned in a sharp five-furlong drill in 1:00 4/5 on Saturday, third fastest of 41 works at the distance. Assuming they finally get to run the Southwest next week, a decision will be made where they go next for his final prep. It would be six weeks to the Arkansas Derby, so the more logical and likely spot would seem to be the Blue Grass Stakes a week earlier, where he scored impressive victories in the Breeders’ Futurity and BC Juvenile. It’s hard to believe, though, that it’s been 30 years since a Blue Grass winner captured the Kentucky Derby. Since Riva Ridge nearly 50 years ago, only Spectacular Bid and Strike the Gold have scored a Blue Grass – Kentucky Derby double. As for the Breeders’ Futurity, only one winner, Swale, has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby in the past 70 years. But enough of history; right now let’s just get a race in him and see what we’re dealing with 3 1/2 months after the BC Juvenile.

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

It seems as if every week is devoted to praising his workouts. Watching him work five furlongs in 1:00 4/5, once again by himself, I was amazed how fluid his stride is. Going around the turn, if you put the proverbial glass of water on the rider’s back not a drop would have spilled. His mechanics are as close to perfection as you can get, and the one horse who comes to mind watching him in action is American Pharoah. He followed that work with a bullet five furlongs in :59 3/5 on Sunday that was a carbon copy of his other works except for watching him weave his way between horses galloping out down the backstretch like a runaway train. Baffert got him going six furlongs in 1:12, out seven furlongs in 1:25 4/5. With that said he still has had only two lifetime starts, one of which was the Sham Stakes, in which he and Mike Smith hopefully learned a lesson and won’t treat a race like it was nothing more than a stroll in the park. Horses, especially those with limited racing, need to know what competition is. You don’t want them to fall asleep in a race, like Life is Good and Smith did in the Sham, and then have to quickly rouse them out of their slumber when a good horse like Medina Spirit suddenly is breathing down their neck. Now that he got that out of the way, I trust he and Smith will take the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby more seriously. When they do, who knows what we’ll see.

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

He’s been a totally different horse since the addition of blinkers. Or has he? It sure looks that way on paper, but in his poor performances without them, one was his debut going six furlongs, which he wants no part of, and the second was on the grass, which he really isn’t bred for. So doing what he wants to do – going two turns on the dirt — he is undefeated. No, he’s not the fastest horse, and he’s not the most dynamic, and in today’s Kentucky Derby he doesn’t fit the mold of the California Chromes, American Pharoahs, Always Dreamings, Justifys, Maximum Securitys, and Authentics, all brilliant horses with good tactical speed. But I can’t help falling for the throwback types; those sound hard-running, hard-trying horses with classy pedigrees geared toward stamina. So until he proves otherwise I will keep looking at that Thoro-Graph jump from a 10 1/2 to a 3 1/4 in the Withers and consider him a leading contender. He returned to the work tab Sunday, breezing an easy half in :50.

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

Because the Oaklawn track has been closed, he hasn’t worked in 13 days, which means he didn’t work the weekend the Southwest was postponed the first time and didn’t work the weekend it was postponed the second time. Even if he does work early in the week, he will have only one work in three weeks going into arguably the toughest test of his career against grade 1 winners who have been working regularly at Fair Grounds. Diodoro had him razor sharp for his debut, which he actually has missed three times if you count him being entered in the Risen Star Stakes the same weekend as the first aborted Southwest Stakes. So as of this writing there are question marks concerning him, with his missed works and training on top of missed races. He does have several serious works behind him, so there is at least some foundation, but this is far from an ideal situation and there is no way of knowing what to expect on Saturday. With his style of running and at this distance against these horses, he really doesn’t have to win this race anyway, so if he is at least closing in the stretch and can pick up a piece of it that is something to build on. Horses these days are not given many opportunities to earn points, so it could all come down to his final prep.

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

He appears to be making big strides with every race and has now proven himself at a mile and an eighth, and with his female family I think we can put the question of distance to rest. If you want to judge his progress through his speed figures, he is improving slowly, one small step at a time. His Thoro-Graph numbers have gone from a 6 1/2 to a 4 to a 3, which means he still needs to get faster and only more race to do it before chilling out for six weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby. He has proven to be the fastest of his two rivals, Proxy and Midnight Bourbon, based on his wide trips. What he has in his favor is that there are very few fast 3-year-olds so far, so if he can improve several points going a mile and three-sixteenths in the Louisiana Derby he should be ready for the big test on the first Saturday in May, even off the layoff.

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

One of the few top 3-year-olds stabled at the frozen tundra of Oaklawn Park, he wisely skedaddled out of town and headed to the friendlier climes of Fair Grounds, where he worked a bullet five furlongs in :59 3/5 Saturday, fastest of 41 works at the distance. With the Southwest horses extremely unlikely to wheel back in two weeks for the Rebel, his main threat looks to be the annual Rebel raider Bob Baffert, who is scheduled to send his San Vicente Stakes winner Concert Tour. That should tell us just how fast Caddo River really is. Visually, he has looked faster than his back-to-back Thoro-Graph numbers of 4 1/4. We know he can run very fast early and can carry his speed, but the question with him is, how far can he carry it against a horse like Concert Tour, who didn’t dazzle anyone with his 5 1/4 Thoro-Graph figure in the San Vicente, but has sprinter’s speed and should be more formidable going two turns.

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

Now, if you’re looking for fast on the Thoro-Graph numbers, his gigantic leap from a 10 to a 1 makes him the fastest 3-year-old along with Greatest Honour and first-out winner Dream Shake. But was it too big a leap? We will find that out when he faces Life is Good and company in the San Felipe Stakes. When a horse runs a huge speed figure and wins by 14 lengths on top of that you have be very careful. You don’t want him running much faster than that now, but you do want him to stay in that range, possibly pairing it up to indicate that it was a legitimate number. He still has the Santa Anita Derby, so it’s OK if the San Felipe serves as a bridge to get there and shows that he can compete against far better horses than he faced in his maiden race and even in the Los Alamitos Futurity. As a side note, the highly touted Fenway, who he trounced by 30 lengths last time out, came back to run a good second behind another talented Baffert colt in Hozier. As we’ve mentioned, he will be coming off Lasix, and when they do after such a monster performance you just want to see that same spark. There is no reason why we shouldn’t, as his performance in the Los Al Futurity without Lasix was pretty impressive with second time blinkers. And he has run back-to-back 101 Brisnet sped figures, the only 3-year-old to do so, so all indications are that we are dealing with a vastly improved horse who could be any kind.

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

If you offered me a Pool 3 Future Wager ticket on any horse it would be on this guy at 41-1. That is the kind of value I would be looking for. His third-place finish in the three-horse Robert B. Lewis photo went pretty much under the radar, which no doubt is why his odds are that high compared to the 25-1 on Medina Spirit, who beat him a neck. It should be noted, however, that Roman Centurian, coming off a maiden victory and battling two graded stakes-placed horses to the wire, earned a faster Thoro-Graph number than both of them. Rather than repeat in detail his terrific pedigree, dominated by four generations of Phipps breeding, let’s just say he should keep improving as the distances get longer and will relish the mile and a quarter. He demonstrated his sharpness by working five furlongs in 1:00 2/5, wearing four bandages. But unlike the Baffert horses, he was being pushed along in the stretch, continuing at a good clip past the wire.

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

Baffert loves referring to him as his Real Quiet. So, if we assume then that Life is Good is his Indian Charlie, let’s go back to the 1998 Santa Anita Derby when the faster and more precocious Indian Charlie opened a two-length lead on Real Quiet at the eighth pole and couldn’t extend it. The fact that Real Quiet was able match strides with him in the final eighth, it set him up perfectly to turn the tables on the first Saturday in May. That is something to remember in the San Felipe when Medina Spirit and Life is Good are likely to meet again. The first time they met, Medina Spirit almost caught his stablemate napping, and that is not likely to happen again. Normally, Medina Spirit would have pointed for the Sunland Derby, but with that track closed, Baffert has little choice but to keep him home. Like Real Quiet, he is not a robust colt and Baffert does not want to ship him long distances. He did turn in a strong six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5, so he should be sharp and fit for the big rematch.

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

He will add a fresh new face when he heads to Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby in an attempt to break up the three-horse domination of Mandaloun, Proxy, and Midnight Bourbon, who have been virtually joined at the hip in the LeComte and Risen Star Stakes. Hot Rod Charlie showed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Robert B. Lewis Stakes he is a dogged competitor, whether it’s against Essential Quality or Medina Spirit or at Keeneland or Santa Anita. Now we’ll see what he can do stretching out to a mile and three-sixteenths at his third track in three starts. He is another who has improved big-time with the addition of blinkers. By taking this route he also will have only two starts this year and will have to go into the Kentucky Derby off a six-week layoff, which is why the new 10-furlong distance of the Louisiana Derby is such an important change based on the race’s poor record of producing Derby winners.

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

As of Sunday morning, he still hasn’t worked since the Withers, which was more than two weeks ago, so that will bear watching. His place in the Top 12 is tenuous at this point with two huge preps next weekend. He has shown marked improvement since the blinkers were taken off, and although right now he doesn’t look fast enough or quick enough to be a legitimate Derby win prospect, he does look like a horse who can pick up a piece of it with his late run and strong pedigree. So far he hasn’t shown that instant burst that can put him in contention turning for home. It seems as if Pletcher always leaves his slower, stamina-oriented horses in New York with the early nine-furlong Withers to point for rather than the shorter preps in Florida that are often dominated by horses with good natural speed. But speed has been winning the Derby and he will always be pace dependent. What he has in his favor is a great deal of scope for improvement, so he could show us something new and different in the Wood Memorial with the two months between races.


CONCERT TOUR – I came very close to putting him on the list at No. 12, but it is still several weeks to the Rebel Stakes, so there is time to see how next weekend’s Fountain of Youth and Southwest Stakes shake things up. For now, there is no need for any major changes. That will come next week. I was very impressed watching him work a half in :47 1/, second fastest of 39 works at the distance, especially the way he did it and how smooth he was down the stretch under no urging at all. Like most Baffert horses, he continued strong past the wire with the rider having to step on the brakes, his feet in the dashboard, when he ran up on horses training in front of him on the backstretch. Remember, he has plenty of stamina in his pedigree, although his female line is not strong at all.

PROXY AND MIDNIGHT BOURBON – I am putting these two together because of reasons I stated last week. Also, in the Risen Star, both horses paired up their “5” Thoro-Graph number from the LeComte when I felt they should have improved off that. So I still need to see a significant move forward with only one more prep to go. Both should benefit from the added distance of the Louisiana Derby, but Proxy still needs to show he can keep a straight course, and Midnight Bourbon still has to show he can close after tracking the pace. The one thing I like about Proxy is that when hits the shadow of the wire he knows how to dig in and get second. Now he just has to show he can do the same thing to get first.

TARANTINO – He will attempt to build on his second-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes when he takes on Greatest Honour again in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. The Holy Bull was his dirt debut, despite a pedigree that is geared toward dirt. He showed good tactical speed, but just couldn’t match strides with Greatest Honour. “I think we have to give him a chance to qualify on his own,” trainer Rodolphe Brisset said. “If it doesn’t work out we’ll focus on the grass. Based on what we’ve seen his past week, he needed (the Holy Bull).”

PREVALENCE AND PRIME FACTOR – You can’t win your career debut any more impressively than these two colts did, and now they both will try prove they weren’t one-race wonders. Prime Factor showed what can happen when you jump from one maiden sprint to a two-turn graded stakes, and now he will have to rebound off a disappointing performance in the Holly Bull Stakes. He has the Fountain of Youth or Tampa Bay Derby as a next possible start, but Prevalence will have to wait after spiking a temperature. He is back galloping now, and this could very well be a blessing in disguise, as perhaps he won’t be rushed to try to make the Derby.

JACKIE’S WARRIOR – He breezed an easy half in :50 1/5 as he awaits the Southwest Stakes. Like Essential Quality, he is fortunate to be stabled at Fair Grounds and has been able to work during the two postponements. Although he still needs to show he can win going two turns, he should have an advantage over Essential Quality going 1 1/16 miles, especially if he is able to establish an easy lead or can show he can win from off the pace. This may be his only opportunity to beat the champ, so he has to take advantage of it.

SENOR BUSCADOR – There isn’t much to add from last week other than to say if you are looking for something positive, his Springboard Mile was flattered on Saturday when runner-up Cowan closed very fast to narrowly miss winning the Saudi Cup Derby. I still can’t ignore what I saw in his first two races, but I also can’t ignore what I didn’t see in the Risen Star. With only three career starts and running only a half-mile with his late closing style, he really needs to step up in his final prep and show that incredible closing power and late burst he demonstrated at Remington Park. I still think there is a possibility he was a bit short in the Risen Star, having only two career starts and three three-furlong breezes and a one half-mile breeze at Sam Houston between races.

FIRE AT WILL – He will add some additional flavor to the Fountain of Youth making his dirt debut on a fast track. He did win the off-the-turf With Anticipation Stakes in the slop, but he has been working steadily on dirt. Mike Maker said he’s ready after his five-furlong work in 1:02 3/5, but admits this is a tough task, adding that the colt deserves a chance on the Derby trail.

ROMBAUER – Trainer Mike McCarthy said all options are open for him following his come-from-behind score in the El Camino Real Derby. With his style of running, the 9 1/2 furlongs of the Louisiana Derby would seem like a good fit and he should improve coming off the Tapeta surface. As mentioned last week, he just needs to get into the fray earlier and not give himself so much ground to make up late.

If you are looking for a powerful closer with a dramatic turn of foot you’re going to have to look all the way to Japan to find such a colt in LA PEROUSE, who appeared to be hopelessly beaten in the one-mile Hyacinth Stakes, but came charging between horses to snatch victory. By a grandson of Sunday Silence, his female family is dominated by top-class American sires and racehorses. In his previous start, he electrified the crowd with a devastating run to win going away and duplicated that in the Hyacinth after breaking slowly and falling far off the pace in a big field. He definitely will get the mile and a quarter and it’s only a question of whether he comes for the Derby and whether he is as good as he’s looked. But he is worth keeping an eye on.

Saffie Joseph was to decide on the next scheduled race for Swale winner DRAIN THE CLOCK after watching the colt work. Although always considered a sprinter, Drain the Clock has given his connections a touch of Derby fever and now a decision will be made whether to stretch him out to two turns in the Fountain of Youth or to a one-turn mile in the Gotham Stakes. Normally when a trainer considers a horse a sprinter and runs him in five sprints, he usually is. But there is always that nagging thought that maybe he was wrong. This horse looks to be a sprinter, but on the Derby trail it doesn’t hurt to give the horse a chance to prove people wrong.

If Drain the Clock goes in the Gotham it would be quite a slugfest with the speedy HIGHLY MOTIVATED, Baffert’s San Vicente runner-up FREEDOM FIGHTER, and runaway Jerome winner CAPO KANE all pointing for the race. Highly Motivated is up to five furlongs in his works, turning in a 1:02 2/5 breeze over the deep Payson Park track. Capo Kane, who got a bit tired in the nine-furlong Withers Stakes, stayed sharp with a :48 4/5 half-mile drill at Parx. Freedom Fighter worked six furlongs in 1:13 flat with SPIELBERG (remember him?), who also worked in 1:13 flat. Baffert will now send him to Saturday’s Southwest Stakes. When you have your typical overload of Derby horses, as Baffert does every year, it is hard to pass up a $750,000 purse.

I have no idea where DREAM SHAKE goes after getting that spectacular “1” Thoro-Graph number in his career debut, but he remains sharp, working five furlongs in 1:00 flat.

Todd Pletcher worked KNOWN AGENDA and DYNAMIC ONE a half-mile in company in :49 flat. I am looking for a big turnaround from Known Agenda if he can get his act together, and I still consider Dynamic One my megabomb sleeper as he awaits another two-turn maiden race in early March.

HIDDEN STASH, a fast-cosing third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, returned to the work tab with an easy half-mile breeze in :50 1/5 at Payson Park. We still don’t know how good this horse is because he has never changed leads, and until he does we really won’t know where he fits on the Derby trail. Sam F. Davis winner CANDY MAN ROCKET breezed a half in :49 at Payson Park and is looking to improve off that slowly run race now that he has a two-turn race under him.

Remsen winner BROOKLYN STRONG, who missed two months with an illness and has been unable to get back to the races, has all but run out of time. A start in the Gotham won’t happen and if Derby fever gets a firm grip on his connections he could still try to make the Wood Memorial or Arkansas Derby as a springboard into the Derby off only one start; further proof that the rule book has been tossed in the trash.

John Shirreffs could have the two most talented disappointments in California in RED FLAG and PARNELLI. But he continues to persevere, working both five furlongs in a snappy :59 4/5. Red Flag in particular deserves another chance based on his impressive early performances. Also in California, American Pharoah winner GET HER NUMBER is up to five furlongs in his works at San Luis Downs and should be ready for his return shortly.

Steve Asmussen-trained SUPER STOCK, third in the Breeders’ Futurity and Iroquois Stakes and second in the Street Sense Stakes has been working steadily for his return. He has plenty of bottom and wouldn’t need much to be ready for the Derby.


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