Derby Rankings: Week 6

The Risen Star Stakes was supposed to clear up the muddled Derby picture, but no one has a clue if it did or not, as the No. 1 and 2 ranked horses stayed right where they were despite both getting beat by a tough loose on the lead horse and having less than ideal trips. And so we move on. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 22, 2022 – Week 6

By Steve Haskin

1—Smile Happy (Ken McPeek, Runhappy – Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap)

Can I say here and now there is no true No. 1, so why drop him off a second-place finish in his 3-year-old debut when he was never able to get in the clear and had no chance to catch a top-class speed horse who had zero pressure on him at any point in the race and was able to just lope around there on an easy lead and then came home fast? I want to try to stay loyal to the No. 1 ranked horse for now who I said last week didn’t have to win this race. And let’s not forget he did come home in :24 1/5 and :12 flat, which normally would be fast enough to win most races. I normally don’t question a ride unless it’s obvious, but even though Corey Lanerie said he wasn’t able to get in the clear I thought he was too passive on him around the far turn and could have gotten out and in the clear by following Slow Down Andy, but he just sat on him and never asked him to run, allowing Zandon to pass him on the outside. He fell way too far behind Epicenter and then was forced to try to find room in the stretch coming between horses down on the inside where Lanerie loves to be. It’s frustrating to see a jockey motionless on a come-from-behind horse on the far turn as the others get farther away from him. We know he has a good turn of foot on the far turn; we’ve seen it before. But he was never asked to use it. He cleaned up his feed Sunday morning and I would look for a much improved race next time and hopefully a more aggressive ride.

2—Zandon (Chad Brown, Upstart – Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)

If I’m not going to drop Smile Happy I’m sure not going to drop him after being taken completely out of his game with a bad start and still able to run a huge race, just missing second. Once a horse whose best weapon is his early tactical speed hops in the air at the break and drops back to last in a 10-horse field his fate is pretty much sealed. For Zandon to drop so far back and then rally widest of all as if he were a true deep closer to finish third, it shows he is a very talented and versatile horse, who has been unlucky in his last two starts. He certainly showed enough to keep him ranked up there with the best 3-year-olds, whoever they may be. And, like Smile Happy, he came home in :24 1/5 and :12 flat and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a faster Thoro-Graph number than Smile Happy. Between the Remsen and the Risen Star he has had two great learning experiences, is battle-tested, has faced adversity, and I don’t believe we have seen anything even remotely close to this colt’s best. For a horse with only three career starts he’s been asked to overcome a great deal. I think a lot more of him now than I did before the race and I only hope those Remsen points that were taken away from him by the NYRA stewards’ horrible decision don’t stand in his way. This colt is a star. Next stop Bluegrass Stakes.

3—Rattle N Roll (Ken McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

He was originally scheduled to make his debut in the Tampa Bay Derby, and he will be nominated to the race, but McPeek says he has two more breezes left and is ready now, feeling “he needs to get a run under his belt,” so he likely will run instead a week earlier in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 5, which would allow him to come back in three weeks for the Louisiana Derby because of the 1 3/16-mile distance. That is what McPeek is looking at, so I guess he’s OK with coming back in three weeks. Most trainers would shudder at the thought. If that doesn’t work out there are plenty of other big races over the following two weeks. After some decent breezes coming off the layoff, he finally let it all out with five-furlong work in :59 3/5, third fastest of 42 works at the distance. So you can see why McPeek wants to move his debut up a week. As he said, he is ready now. There is absolutely no way you can fault him after his powerhouse victory in the Breeders’ Futurity. The Fountain of Youth is shaping up as a deep and competitive race that will no doubt launch someone right up near the top of the list. He is one horse who certainly does not have to win as long as he shows that same explosive kick he did at Keeneland. If he can run huge in the Fountain of Youth going 1 1/16 miles with that short stretch against several serious Derby horses he could even leap frog the two above him.

4—Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Not This Time – Silent Candy, by Candy Ride)

I have been saying all along this colt is bred more for stamina than speed, and it was that stamina that allowed him to just cruise along on an uncontested lead with strong and steady quarters of :23 3/5, :24 1/5, :24 2/5, and :24 1/5 and come home his last three-eighths in a swift :36 3/5. There are not many horses who are going to beat him running a race like that and then closing that fast. And he did it under wraps the final furlong with Joel Rosario looking back four times as the colt came home in a virtual gallop with his ears pricked.  He telegraphed this performance with that strong five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5, which gave him a little more bottom than the usual Asmussen half-mile works. He could have easily been elevated to No. 1, as his running style is what wins most Kentucky Derbys these days, but I do want to see him rate just off the pace to show he can adapt in case some fast horse is intent on getting the lead. I thought Bodocks would be that horse, but he just wasn’t good enough or fast enough to keep up with Epicenter, or simply didn’t try to. This colt is a powerful galloper as they would say in Europe and that is why all that European stamina makes him even tougher. I will go into his pedigree in more detail next week. The bottom line is that this colt surely is capable of leading every step of the way on the first Saturday in May, but I’m just looking for that one final edge that would give him the option to go to the front or stalk, which would make him even harder to beat at Churchill Downs.

 5—Messier (Bob Baffert, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

He is another horse you can definitely make a case for being No. 1, as he has shown he has all the tools. He has a big turn of foot and he has the speed to run you off your feet on the lead. And he has shown he can demolish his opponents. But two little things need to be resolved. As of Monday he hasn’t worked since the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on February 6, and what the heck are they going to do with him already? Everything is hush hush and I can understand waiting as long as possible, especially if they’re going to go straight to the Santa Anita Derby and give him two months between races and put all their point in one barrel. As much as I believe he is a worthy No. 1, I can’t go that far not knowing who will be training him if he goes in the Derby or if they are going to leave him with Baffert no matter what or if Churchill Downs lifts their ban for some reason. You can count on Baffert appealing the 90-day suspension by the Racing Commission regarding Medina Spirit’s disquaification. Starlight, SF, Madaket and Company have more Derby and Preakness-caliber horses this year than many trainers have horses, and they are all in limbo right now. And then we come to the matter of Slow Down Andy and what to make of him running so poorly in the Risen Starr after having beaten Messier fair and square. The California horses are extremely thin this year with the Baffert bunch dominating the 3-year-old races, basically having only themselves to beat, as they single-handedly fill all these races. So was Slow Down Andy’s performance a barometer as to the true merits of Messier or was the Los Al Futurity simply a fluke, with Messier unable to settle early and having a dislike for Los Alamitos, the scene of both his defeats? I have no idea, and so we wait.

6—Newgrange (Bob Baffert, Violence – Bella Chianti, by Empire Maker)

You knew Baffert was going to return to the friendly confines of Oaklawn Park for the $1 million Rebel and who better to send than Newgrange with the Southwest already under his belt. If you thought Newgrange was more of a workmanlike colt and not the brilliant type, he did his best to prove you wrong with a stunning bullet five-furlong work in :58 3/5 in company with Doppelganger, who no doubt helped carry him to such a fast time that was fastest of 17 works at the distance. Newgrange sat right off Doppelganger’s flank, collared him at the head of the stretch, but just couldn’t get his head in front. Still, this work really sharpened him, and don’t underestimate Doppelganger because he finished fourth of five in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, finishing behind two other Baffert horses. I believe he wants two turns with his powerful tail-female line going back to major stamina influence Herbager and Pretendre, the sire of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Canonero. So this was a real eye-opener for Newgrange. But he has already lost 20 points because of the ban and now we’re getting into the serious points, which he can’t afford to lose. Something’s gotta give.

7—Simplification (Antonio Sano, Not This Time – Simply Confection, by Candy Ride)

He had a similar situation as Zandon at the start. For a horse who wasn’t allowed to run his race in the Holy Bull Stakes after breaking badly, he was itching to step on the gas once again, as indicated by his bullet five-furlong work in :58 3/5, fastest of 42 works at the distance. Hard to believe it was once thought by the owner to put him away for a while after the Mucho Macho Man. He has nothing but running on his mind now and got his “bounce” out of the way in the Holy Bull and can now return to that quick “2 ½” Thoro-Graph number, in which he leaped from a “14.” He has a strong pedigree, especially on the dam side, so there is no reason to think he won’t carry his speed long distances. In the Holy Bull he still was able to get second despite not changing leads in the stretch. I believe this colt has tremendous upside and I can’t wait to see what he does getting back to his normal running style in the Fountain of Youth.

 8—White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Race Day – Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief)

He’s another one we’re still waiting to work, which he hasn’t done since the Holy Bull Stakes on February 5. And I’m still looking to make some sense of his pedigree even with his powerhouse grandsires Tapit and Into Mischief. The rest of it, especially in his tail-female family is a hodgepodge of names that don’t define him in any way. He does have the look and demeanor of a top-class horse, and even with his main opponents in the Holy Bull having a rough go of it, he still looked great visually and beat them all pretty handily. The bottom in is that he’s won three of his four career starts all by fairly large margins with his only defeat coming in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when he didn’t have the greatest trip. He definitely is a Cinderella story having sold for a paltry $7,500 after just turning one-year-old at an Ocala January mixed sale. His Thoro-Graph numbers need improving from the “5” he received in the Holy Bull, but he has made slow and steady improvement with each race. Now let’s just get him back on the work tab.

9—Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Calingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

He keeps running strong races, but he really doesn’t tell you as much about himself as you would like to know. He closes fast without overwhelming you, and although his final sixteenth of the Holy Bull Stakes was visually impressive, he got going way too late after failing to respond when asked nearing the head of the stretch. The bettors love him sending him of at only 14-1 in the latest Derby Future Wager and you can be sure he will get bet in all his future races because he is such a consistent closer. But he is another who has not made much progress on Thoro-Graph since his Remsen victory, improving only a quarter of a point from that race, with his Brisnet figures down a point from a 93 to a 92. So he does need to get faster. Pletcher has a barn full of inexperienced 3-year-olds with a lot of potential who are more brilliant than he is, but he is the most dependable with the most experience and looks to be the most likely to get to the Derby.

 10—Classic Causeway (Brian Lynch, Giant’s Causeway – Private World, by Thunder Gulch)

I’m kind of torn with him and somehow he got pushed down a few places at least for this week. Everything about the Sam F. Davis Stakes was impressive from the way he put away the speed horse hounding him most of the way through fast fractions and pulled away with a strong :05 4/5 final sixteenth. But as it turned out I’m not sure what he beat and his Thoro-Graph numbers have shown no improvement since his career debut. He got a “5” then, a “5” in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and a “5” in the Sam Davis, which actually was slower than the number given runner-up Shipsational, a New York-bred who had never run in open company. Like Epicenter he is not bred for speed and has plenty of stamina in his female family, with his fifth generation sire Gun Shot being a son of the great Hyperion. The Sam Davis was an excellent first start back, and we’ll see how much he can improve going against better company.

11—Emmanuel (Todd Pletcher, More Than Ready – Hard Cloth, by Hard Spun)

Having only those two walks in the park against maiden and mediocre allowance horses, I have to admit I was getting bored having to come up with new things to say about him. And with both his Thor-Graph numbers being a slow “8 ¼” and “8 ½” with no improvement I was starting to have my doubts if he was worthy of a top 10 or 12 high ranking. Then he went and worked five-furlongs in a bullet 1:00 1/5, fastest of 13 works at the distance, in company with the stakes-winning Major General, who is trying to bounce back after being sidelined since his victory in the Iroquois Stakes. Emmanuel is another Pletcher horse the bettors and the analysts have been high on since his maiden victory, but it obviously is based more on speculation, and from my end the visual aspects of his races. He now has to go out and prove he is that good when he takes on some pretty talented and proven stakes horses in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. This last workout should at least have him sharp enough to show what he’s got and whether he is worthy of all the accolades.

12—Commandperformance (Todd Pletcher, Union Rags – Smitten, by Tapit)

He is now up to five furlongs in his works, going in 1:01 3/5 as he gets closer to his 3-year-old debut, which will be in a maiden race. Imagine having a maiden ready to run and this guy shows up. You don’t see many Champagne runnersup entered in a maiden race heading into March. Pletcher has to sort out his 3-year-olds and now has another one in Pioneer of Medina, so it will be interesting to see where they all will show up next. I guess he just wants to a get a victory in this colt. If he loses, those roses could start to wilt very quickly. Let’s not forget that for Pletcher and the owners to run a maiden with one start in the Champagne they have to think very highly of him. And for a horse who suffered an injury in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile his fourth-place finish was not bad at all. There’s something about his career debut that was so impressive, even getting beat, that inspired me to start a new series on Derby sleepers, and he was the first I wrote about, so I am not going to stop believing in him until he shows me he is not the horse I thought he was from day one. You never know how they are going to return after an injury, even a minor one, or make the transition from 2 to 3, so perhaps Pletcher just wants to find that out before putting him on the Derby trail. He has the foundation; now all he needs is to win a race.

 13—Call me Midnight (Keith Desormeaux, Midnight Lute – Overseen, by First Defence)

The Lecomte Stakes has turned into a mixed bag. Of the two horses he nailed on the wire at 28-1, Epicenter came back and toyed with his opposition in the Risen Star Stakes, but Pappacap tired badly after stalking the leaders along the inside. Call Me Midnight has had his ups and downs. The Lecomte was set up for him to come from the clouds with the rapid pace set by Epicenter, but he still had to take advantage of it and run down a very fast and talented horse. He should get a lot of speed from broodmare sire First Defence, who is out of a terrific sprinter in Honest Lady, but his dam’s female family is loaded with stamina, mainly through third dam, English Oaks runner-up Slightly Dangerous, who is by English Derby winner Roberto.

14—Pioneer of Medina (Todd Pletcher, Pioneerof the Nile – Lights of Medina, by Eskendereya)

I have no choice but to keep adding Pletcher horses if I feel they belong. Coming off maiden and allowance scores in workmanlike fashion he was 33-1 in the Risen Star and had the unenviable task of chasing Epicenter in second. But surprisingly, he never gave up the chase and was right there battling with Smile Happy and Zandon to the wire, finishing fourth, beaten only 3 ¼ lengths. So is he that good or did his big effort show how much the pace was a factor, as he and Epicenter just kept going. All I know is that he never backed off and gave Smile Happy and Zandon all they could handle for the place and show spot. He is bred to go farther and may just now be coming into his own.

 15—Barber Road (John Ortiz, Race Day – Enounter, by Southern Image)

He’s come a long way since selling as a weanling for $15,000 and breaking his maiden for a $30,000 claiming tag. But he has kept improving and has now run second in three consecutive stakes, including a big run from far back in the Southwest Stakes. But he still has a tendency to not finish his run, whether you want to call it hanging or not. He’s been having steady five-furlong works and had his fastest work on February 15, going in a sharp 1:00 2/5, so we’ll see how that plays out in the Rebel. If you’re not familiar with his sire, he won the Oaklawn and Razorback Handicaps and Fayette Stakes and is a son of Tapit, out of a More Than Ready mare. He is now in South Korea. Barber Road’s dam had the dubious distinction of selling as a broodmare at Keeneland in foal to Divine Park for $1,000. So there is a good story there.

 16— In Due Time (Kelly Breen, Not This Time, Sweet Sweet Annie, by Curlin)

Always a good worker, he turned in a sharp five-furlong drill in :59 3/5 and just seems to be improving rapidly at the right time as indicated by his huge Thoro-Graph leap from an “8 ¾” to a “3” and the way he manhandled two highly regarded Pletcher colts. He appears to have a high cruising speed and can close off it. I could have put any one of a number of horses in this spot, but this colt intrigues me because of the way he won his last race and with the speed figures showing he appears to be close to a peak performance. Again, it’s all speculation, but this is the time of year when 3-year-olds start figuring it all out and burst on the scene, and this colt looked like he was doing just that in his last start. He is  complete outcross through his first five generations, so that is something else that is different about him.


The reason I dropped Withers winner EARLY VOTING is because I believe he will try the Wood Memorial  and then go to the Preakness, which is what Chad Brown did with Preakness winner Cloud Computing. And Early Voting has only two lifetime Starts. SLOW DOWN ANDY, who was too headstrong early in the Risen Star, and PAPPACAP, whose effort was really surprising, were obvious demotions.

Kenny McPeek still has high hopes for TIZ THE BOMB, who ran poorly in the Holy Bull Stakes, failing to handle the kickback. He is being pointed for Turfway Park’s John Battaglia and/or the Jeff Ruby Steaks on Polytrack, with the option of still giving the Derby a shot. He did put in a tease work on Saturday, drilling a half in :47 flat, second fastest of 102 works at th distance, as if asking for one more shot on dirt. But McPeek also is nominating him for the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas and Derby. Remember, his sire Hit it A Bomb is out of an Irish-bred mare and was a listed stakes winner in Ireland for Aidan O’Brien before coming here and winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. As for his other disappointment DASH ATTACK, who was never a factor in the Southwest Stakes after winning the Smarty Jones Stakes impressively, McPeek admitted he didn’t do a good job preparing him for the race, having missed some training with him due to the frozen tracks and sent out a short horse. He was thrilled with his first work back on February 12, drilling five furlongs in :59 4/5 followed by a 1:00 1/5 drill, galloping out in 1:13 1/5. The colt certainly is sharp and fit now and will try for redemption in the Rebel Stakes, but will have to overcome the 11 post.

SPRINT ALERT: The last two weeks I have been raving about MORELLO, who has been absolutely flawless in his two sprints, including his impressive score in the seven-furlong Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, in which he got a sensational “1 ¾” Thoro-Graph number. He has never once been touched with the whip. As of now I fully expect him to continue his unbeaten streak in the Gotham Stakes; that’s how good I believe he is. And then it would be on to the Wood Memorial. Now we have another so far sprinter to watch. His name is BELGRADE and he was brilliant winning first time out by six lengths at Fair Grounds in December, getting the six furlongs in 1:10 3/5. How impressive was that race? The son of Hard Spun had sold as yearling for $45,000. A month after his maiden race he sold at this year’s Keeneland January mixed sale for $700,000 and turned over to Graham Motion, who ran him back this past weekend in a seven-furlong allowance race at Tampa Bay. Sent off at 2-5, he only won by a head, but stumbled badly breaking from the rail, moved up and then got squeezed back to last. He rallied four-wide and was game down the stretch to out-battle a nice colt in Morgan Point, who is by Rachel Alexandra’s son Jess’s Dream and who was coming off an allowance victory and was far more seasoned and experienced. Motion now is considering moving him up to the big-time in the Tampa Bay Derby. There is no reason why both these colts shouldn’t appreciate going two turns.

HIGH OAK, who was so impressive winning last year’s Saratoga Special over eventual Hopeful winner  Gunite, is progressing in his works, breezing back-to-back half-miles in :49 3/5 at Payson Park following two five-furlong works, the last of which trainer Bill Mott called “a thing of beauty.” After missing the Swale Stakes with a slight fever the son of Gormley is now likely scheduled to make his return in the Fountain of Youth, with  the Gotham a very outside possibility. His disappointing effort in the Hopeful was attributed to the beginning of a small fracture in his hind ankle. But the time off has done wonders for him and Mott feels he is ready to fire big in his two-turn debut.

Brad Cox said his recent runaway allowance winner ZOZOS will get some time off and likely will take one shot to try to get into the Kentucky Derby. That could be in the Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass Stakes. Cox also has a promising colt in CYBERKNIFE, who won a good allowance race at Fair Grounds Saturday.

After the 16.3-hand, 1,300-pound bulldozer ETHEREAL ROAD, who came from another area code to win his last race, worked five furlongs from the gate in 1:01 4/5, trainer Wayne Lukas said he is heading to the Rebel Stakes, for which he was entered, drawing post 10. The son of Quality Road ran a slow “9” Thoro-Graph number in that race, but it sure did get everyone’s attention. Another horse waiting for the Rebel is the impressive last-out winner CHASING TIME, who breezed a half in :49 3/5 at Oaklawn Park. It will be interesting to see how good this colt really is. He could be the controlling speed, and it might be up to BEN DIESEL, third in the Southwest Stakes, to keep a close eye on him if he returns to his earlier races when he showed speed, unlike the Southwest when he rallied from off the pace. If Chasing Time is as good as he looked in his last out allowance romp we could have a repeat of the Risen Star.

For those looking for more positives from SHIPSATIONAL’S second-place finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, his “4 ¼” Thoro-Graph number, which was big jump from his “8 ¾” in his previous start, was three-quarters of a point faster than the victorious Classic Causeway. Another horse who made big Thoro-Graph leap was the runaway Oaklawn allowance winner ZOZOS, who went from an “8 ½” to a “3 ½.”

Care to guess who got the fastest Thoro-Graph number last weekend and who is improving in leaps and bounds? What’s that? You say CHARGE IT in his sensational maiden victory? Not even close, as he got a “5 ¾”, which was slower than his previous start. The answer is the New York-bred BARESE, winner of the one-mile Gander Stakes, who has gone from an “11 ¼” to a “7” to a “2,” which makes him one of the fastest 3-Year-olds in the country. Time to move up to open company and show everyone he is a legitimate Derby contender. He is now undefeated in three starts for trainer Mike Maker with two state-bred stakes scores. The only question is how far he wants to go, with a number of top-class sprinters and milers in his pedigree.

After displacing in the Holy Bull Stakes, in which he suddenly dropped back, it was good to see GIANT GAME back on the work tab with a half-mile drill in :48 3/5, his breathing problem obviously corrected. So he surely deserves another chance.

The brilliant Cal-bred STRAIGHT UP G’s status as a Derby horse is in question following his recent defeat, in which he looked more like a sprinter/miler type, but he sure does work fast, with his last move a :59 2/5 drill for five furlongs.


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