Derby Rankings: Week 7

The Derby picture got a lot clearer, at least at the very top, when Greatest Honour and Essential Quality separated themselves from the others, at least until next weekend’s San Felipe Stakes, which will be accompanied by the Gotham and Tampa Bay Derby. Stay tuned for another busy weekend on the Derby trail. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 7, Mar. 1

By Steve Haskin

1. Greatest Honour (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Tiffany’s Honour, by Street Cry)
At the half-mile pole of the Fountain of Youth Stakes, he had lost his No. 1 ranking to Essential Quality. Less than a minute later he had it back, as he somehow managed to make up a ton of ground, despite the shortened Gulfstream stretch to blow by the pace-setting Drain the Clock in the final yards to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths. The truth is, I was expecting him to take a slight step backward after his brilliant score in the Holy Bull, in which I thought he may have run too fast too soon, as reflected in his big jump to a “1” Thoro-Graph figure and a 103 Brisnet figure. I would have taken a fast-closing second, but he has emerged as a truly exceptional colt. He probably did regress just a bit on Saturday, but was good enough to pull this one out with a furious closing kick. I feel this performance sort of leveled him off after that monster effort and should be a perfect steppingstone to the Florida Derby. We’ll see if that is backed up by his Thoro-Graph number. But what is most important is that this colt continues to show new dimensions, a will to win, and he always fires. With three 1 1/16-mile races and a gut-wrenching stretch battle at 1 1/8 miles in less than four months, he will appreciate the five-weeks off after the Florida Derby.

2. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
Well, he still paddles that left leg, but who cares? He just keeps winning and I feel he and Greatest Honour are nose and nose for the top spot. He obviously is the more versatile of the two and can be placed anywhere on the track. And give him a load of credit for turning in this strong a performance after having the race postponed twice, shipping to Oaklawn, and running on a tiring sloppy track. So far, this colt has shown he can do it all, and as the 2-year-champ likely will be No. 1 on most Derby rankings and deservedly so. But of the two sons of Tapit, Greatest Honour gets our nod because he has a stronger mile and a quarter pedigree, although Essential Quality should have no problem with the 10 furlongs. To be honest neither horse beat the toughest field, with Greatest Honour running down a horse making his two-turn debut and Essential Quality beating Spielberg, who lost all chance at the start when he ducked sharply to the outside, dropped to the back of the pack, and then lost ground into the first turn. Essential Quality’s main threat, Jackie’s Warrior, had no excuse and was done by the quarter pole. But all in all you couldn’t have asked for a better result from both horses.

3. Life is Good (Bob Baffert, Into Mischief – Beach Walk, by Distorted Humor)
OK, no more comments about his consistently sensational works and his flawless mechanics and how we haven’t seen a more beautiful moving horse since American Pharoah. It is finally time for all the morning praise to be replaced by equally strong accolades for his actions in the afternoon. Oh, OK, one more. He turned in yet another strong work on Sunday, going six furlongs in 1:12 1/5. Perhaps Baffert is right when he calls him “a beast.” Now we wait for Saturday’s loaded San Felipe Stakes, which will determine Southern California’s leading Derby contender. It is still only a mile and a sixteenth, so there is a lot of ground to cover before these horses get to a mile and a quarter. The question with him, and many of the Into Mischiefs, is whether he will be as effective stretching out to 10 furlongs. Although Life is Good’s female ancestors were sprinters tracing back to the swift Woodward filly Court Circuit, there is plenty of stamina from the males, and Court Circuit was versatile enough as a broodmare to produce the top-class late-running sprinter Honorable Miss, winner of the Fall Highweight Handicap twice, and her full-brother Bailjumper, winner of the Dwyer and Saranac, who is the grandsire of Skip Away and broodmare sire of Medaglia d’Oro. It is just a question of whether the sires or dams in his female family will prove dominant.

4. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
There is a reason I had him ranked No. 8 in the first Derby Rankings and kept him ranked until his baffling race in the Sam F. Davis Stakes when he pretty much fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the eighth pole when it was way too late. So a frustrated Pletcher added blinkers and Lasix for a mile and eighth last gasp allowance race Friday, and he certainly ran back to that initial high ranking with a powerful 11-length romp in a solid 1:50 2/5. Despite his being shoved four-wide into the first turn, you could tell down the backstretch this was a different horse, as he was striding out beautifully with great extension and was just biding his time. When it was time to go he quickly pounced on the leaders after a testing third quarter in :23 2/5, put the talented Top Gun Tommy, winner of his last two starts, away and bounded clear, winning in hand with his ears pricked and running perfectly straight down the stretch. One of the reasons I loved this horse from the start, in addition to his gutsy victory over Greatest Honour going nine furlongs, is the great European sire line on the dam side, which you can read about in Week 1’s rankings. I am going to assume it was the blinkers that woke him up and not the Lasix, and based on what I know he’s capable of, I am banking on this being the real Known Agenda and that we’re going to see a heckuva rematch between him and Greatest Honour in the Florida Derby. For now, welcome back to the Top 12.

5. Risk Taking (Chad Brown, Medaglia d’Oro – Run a Risk, by Distorted Humor)
He has run back-to-back mile and an eighth races, and you have to go back to the days of the Everglades, Flamingo, and Florida Derby to find a horse who went into the Kentucky Derby off three straight mile and an eighth races. That is another reason why I call this colt a throwback. He has that “hickory” look to him in that he is tough, sound, and runs hard. With all the speedy lightly raced horses pointing for the Derby we need horses like him. With Medaglia d’Oro and Forty Niner in his pedigree and being inbred to both Damascus and Buckpasser, you’re not going to find bloodlines with tougher, sounder horses. We really don’t know yet how talented he is, but he did defeat two pretty good horses in Overtook and Capo Kane in the Withers Stakes and did it the right way. And he’s only going to improve off that. Bad weather and poor track conditions in New York made a workout too risky, but there is plenty of time to the Wood and he is dead fit, so Brown has no concerns at all putting the work off.

6. Mandaloun (Brad Cox, Into Mischief – Brooch, by Empire Maker)
He had his first work since his Risen Star victory, breezing an easy half in :50. Nothing to do now but wait for the Louisiana Derby where he will be stretching out to a mile and three-sixteenths. Let’s do something different this week and look at the Derby gods angle. Of course, this is a far cry from Mrs. Genter or the Sunshine Boys, Paul Mellon and Mack Miller, but what better time for one of racing’s great institutions, Juddmonte Farms, to get their first Derby winner after second-place finishes by Aptitude and Empire Maker. This would be the perfect year to celebrate the racing life of owner Khalid Abdullah, who passed away in January. Juddmonte bred Mandaloun’s dam, second dam, and third dam; bred his second dam’s sire Dansili; and bred Mandaloun’s broodmare sire, Empire Maker, and his dam Toussaud. The Derby is one of the few classics Juddmonte has not won. They have captured 13 classics in England, six in Ireland, and eight in France, plus five Arc de Triomphes. In America, they won the Belmont Stakes with Empire Maker, six Breeders’ Cup races, and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Travers, and Pegasus World Cup with Arrogate, who died at the age 7 last June. We’ll see if the Derby gods are watching.

7. The Great One (Doug O’Neill, Nyquist – Little Ms. Protocol, by El Corredor)
He turned in a strong six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5 in company for Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes. It is time to find out once and for all if he is worthy of his name and the person after whom he is named. Wayne Gretzky played several years as a King and a victory would make his namesake the king of California and among the top three early favorites for the Kentucky Derby. This is a big step up from a maiden victory, even if he did win by 14 lengths. But let’s remember he did get beat a nose in a Grade 2 stakes before that and has been a different horse since the addition of blinkers. Spielberg, who beat him in a near dead-heat in the Los Alamitos Futurity, ran a huge race to be second to Essential Quality in Saturday’s Southwest Stakes despite a horrendous trip and on his best day is a classy formidable opponent. As we’ve mentioned, The Great One’s last-out Thoro-Graph figure makes him the co-fastest 3-year-old in the country and Brisnet backs that up with his back-to-back triple-digit numbers, so he does have the credentials to suggest a possible star in the making. He will back that up if he can knock off Life is Good, Medina Spirit, and Roman Centurian on Saturday. If Life is Good is as special as he’s looked, then a solid second-place finish will still propel him into the ranks of leading Derby contenders.

8. Keepmeinmind (Robertino Diodoro, Laoban – Inclination, by Victory Gallop)
It’s difficult to put this any other way, but his schedule is totally messed up. There is nothing wrong with giving a horse two preps for the Derby, such as the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, but this horse was working lights out and was fit and sharp and ready for his debut in the Southwest Stakes. Then it was postponed a week and then another week, during which time he was unable to train; that’s three weeks with no works and two weeks with no training. Rather than run in the Southwest as planned off no training, he is now forced to wait another four weeks for the Rebel on top of the two weeks with no training. Can he still win the Kentucky Derby? Of course he can, but Diodoro is going to have to take a finely tuned athlete primed and ready for a race and start all over again. Even his first work back wasn’t ideal, as it came up sloppy for his five-furlong breeze in 1:03 1/5. So all we can do now is wait and see how he continues to train and how he looks going into the Rebel.

9.  Caddo River (Brad Cox, Hard Spun – Pangburn, by Congrats)
He remains sharp, working five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 at his new home base at Fair Grounds, where he has been stabled since Oaklawn Park closed down for racing and training due to prolonged horrible weather conditions. What looked like a possible thin field for the Rebel Stakes now appears to be a very competitive race with Baffert sending the undefeated Concert Tour; the addition of Keepmemind, who had to finally give up his attempt at the Southwest Stakes; and the 3-year-old debut of American Pharoah winner Get Her Number. This will be the test we need to see for this colt, who has been outdistancing lesser competition, but looking very good doing it. He has had an interesting Thoro-Graph pattern, pairing up a 9 1/2 in his first two starts, and then pairing up a 4 1/4 in his next two starts. So he should move up several points in the Rebel. His Brisnet figures show a steady progression of 87, 89, 94, and 96, and another move forward will make him very formidable, regardless of who he is running against. His strength is his mid-race speed, which has run his opponents off their feet allowing him to open up and cruise home from there. All we need to see now is for him to use more of his speed in the last part of the race when better horses will be testing him.

10.  Roman Centurian (Simon Callaghan, Empire Maker – Spare Change, by Bernardini)
OK, if you bet this colt in the last Future Wager at 41-1, this is your opportunity to put that ticket in a safe place and guard it with your life, because it is going to be a valued commodity if he runs big in the San Felipe, considering he is only going to get better going a mile and an eighth and a mile and a quarter. And with two Baffert beasts in there as well as the vastly improving The Great One, he doesn’t have to win this race going a mile and a sixteenth, just like he didn’t have to win the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, in which he came out of his blanket third-place finish smelling like roses, while earning a faster Thoro-Graph number than the winner. If he is closing again and is right there against theses horses then you can expect bigger and better things to come. He tuned up for the race with a sharp half-mile work in :48 1/5. Look for him to take the outside route again and come charging late. He did have every chance in the Robert Lewis, but considering the wider trip and coming off a maiden race, there is no reason to think he won’t improve off that effort.

11. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed)
Baffert has been in a dilemma trying to figure out where to run him. He already has horses confirmed for the San Felipe, Gotham, and Rebel Stakes. With no Sunland Derby this year there simply is no place to run him without doubling up. So after a so-so work last week, Baffert wanted to see how he worked on Saturday before confirming him for the San Felipe. As it turned out he worked “great” according to Baffert after his sharp six-furlong drill in a bullet 1:11 1/5, so we now have a rematch to look forward to, but this time you can bet Life is Good and Mike Smith are not going to fall asleep at the wheel and will have their foot on the gas all the way to the wire. Medina Spirit also will be ridden by john Velazquez, replacing Abel Cedillo who rode the colt in his first three starts. Medina Spirit has a sneaky good pedigree despite his little known sire and broodmare sire. There are plenty of class and stamina influences and his dam traces back to the Rokeby Stable owned and bred Leap Lively, who placed in the Epsom and Yorkshire Oaks and produced the dam of Blue Grass Stakes winner High Yield.

12. Proxy (Mike Stidham, Tapit – Panty Raid, by Include)
Although there have been small pockets of gold so far, you can’t help but feel it’s only a few more feet down before Stidham strikes the mother lode. He keeps digging but he may have finally found the right vein when he put blinkers on the colt for his last work and he sizzled a half in a bullet :47, fastest of 40 works at the distance. If ever a horse looked like he needed blinkers it’s this guy, who just has to learn to keep a straight course to go from being a good solid horse to a leading Derby contender. It is for that reason that he returns to the Top 12. After back-to-back “5” Thoro-Graph numbers, which is just OK, I fully expect him to improve several points with the blinkers and stretching out to a mile and three-sixteenths in the Louisiana Derby. With names like Broad Brush, Damascus, and Ack Ack in his female family, we know where he gets his toughness. Now we’ll see if he can use his five doses of Raise A Native and Mr. Prospector, along with the blinkers, to bring out his speed. We have seen how he manages to dig in and get up for second in his races. Now he has to take it one step further and get up for the win. That’s where we feel the blinkers will help.


HOT ROD CHARLIE – Because he won’t be running for another three weeks, he has, for now, slipped just under the Top 12 until we can sort out the 3-year-old picture following next weekend’s three big stakes. We also need to sort out Doug O’Neill’s contenders, two of which will be running next Saturday. He is keeping busy, working five furlongs in 1:01 1/5. He’s still a very live contender and has proven to be a classy hard-knocking horse, so let’s see where he stands after next week.

OVERTOOK – He also has slipped from the No. 12 spot and we will know more once it is decided where he goes next. It was initially assumed he would remain in training New York and point for the Wood Memorial. He still may target that race, but has been shipped to Florida to train in better weather. He breezed a half in :50 at Palm Beach Downs in company with Dynamic One, and we’ll see where they decide to go with him.

CONCERT TOUR – He is sitting just below the Top 12 waiting to jump aboard with a victory in the Rebel Stakes, but we’ll have to wait two weeks to see if Bob Baffert’s praise for him is warranted. If he can beat the likes of Caddo River and Keepmeinmind in his two-turn debut after only a pair of sprints then we will know for sure he is the real deal and he will catapult up the rankings.

SENOR BUSCADOR – This year’s Cinderella story is over, at least as the Derby is concerned. The colt suffered a strained ligament and if off the Derby trail, just as his brother was three years ago. Hopefully there will other chapters to write for this talented horse.

To show just how dominant Greatest Honour and Essential Quality were in their own way on Saturday, there is not another horse coming out of the Fountain of Youth and Southwest Stakes that can be considered a serious Derby horse. That either says a lot about the two winners or more about the quality of horses they were beating. DRAIN THE CLOCK ran his heart out on the front end in his two-turn debut, but going longer distances certainly is a major question mark. He had every chance to win this race, controlling the pace and opening a clear lead at the eighth pole. SPIELBERG on his best day is a formidable opponent, but still is ranked No. 4 in the Baffert barn, although he did run big considering his horrible start. PAPETU, who actually had some decent Thoro-Graph numbers going into the Fountain of Youth, showed enough promise coming from far back to finish third to suggest that he could move forward in his next race and put himself into the mix. The obvious big disappoints were PRIME FACTOR, who surprisingly was farther back than expected and never fired, and FIRE AT WILL, who it is assumed will return to the grass. As for JACKIE’S WARRIOR, it looks like one turn will be his game unless the sloppy track simply was too tiring for him.

As much as I don’t like horses going into the Kentucky Derby off only three career starts (only freakishly talented horses like Justify and Big Brown have been successful in less than stellar fields), there are several horses apparently heading in that direction that have left a very strong impression and are worth following closely despite the task they will be undertaking. I am now resigned to the act that yesterday’s rules and trends no longer apply in these abbreviated career times. We really don’t know any of these horses going into the Derby anymore, so we’re all guessing.

The first horse who caught my eye was the New York-bred NICKY THE VEST, who like Tiz the Law is a New York-bred in name only. In his first start going a mile, he broke last and then made a dramatic move to take the lead on his own. He eased clear and won for fun by 3 1/4 lengths. In the one-mile Gander Stakes, he broke sharply and contested the early lead before again opening up on his own nearing the quarter pole and extending his lead through the stretch, winning by nearly 12 lengths, with Todd Pletcher’s undefeated Rego Park Stakes winner Perfect Munnings finishing third. What impressed me about this colt was his professionalism, especially for a May 11 foal; his smooth action, and how perfectly balanced he was, never deviating off his path in the stretch.

His paternal grandsire is a Kentucky Derby winner and his maternal grandsire is a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and he is inbred three times to the great Nijinsky. By Runhappy, he has a strong Paul Mellon (Rokeby Stable) influence in his female family and you don’t get much classier than that. In the just the bottom half of his female family are four Travers winners – Java Gold, Key to the Mint, Damascus, and Sword Dancer. And his fifth dam, Quill, was champion 3-year-old filly and the dam of top-class stayers One For All and Caucasus and the granddam of champion grass horse Run the Gantlet, winner of the Washington D.C. International, Man o’ War, and United Nations. Instead of running in the Gotham at one mile again, he will wait for the Wood Memorial. Expect to hear from this colt come April.

And then we come to SOUP AND SANDWICH, one of the most intriguing and fun horses we’ve seen all year. This striking gray son of Into Mischief has toyed with his opponents in his two starts despite not having a clue what he’s supposed to be doing. He breaks to the inside, gawks at everything, loses focus, and has no idea what he’s doing when it comes to his lead changes. We don’t know what he was beating in his maiden win at Gulfstream and allowance score at Tampa Bay going two turns, but he’s just out there having fun and goofing around. In his first start going 6 1/2 furlongs he just cruised to the lead on his own and drew off with ease to win by 7 1/4 lengths in a sharp 1:16 4/5 without changing leads until 30 yards from the wire and constantly looking at the grandstand. After returning he stood for a while just staring into the infield and had to be coaxed into turning around to head to the winner’s circle.

In his next start against only two opponents, he threw his head in the air as if intimidated when a horse started drifting in towards him. Then he managed to get himself boxed in down the backstretch in a three-horse field. But when the rail opened up he just burst to the lead while still under a hold. This time he changed leads inside the eighth pole, but ducked sharply to the inside for no apparent reason, jumped back to his left lead, then immediately back to his right lead. I mention this horse in depth because I don’t believe we have seen anything even close to his best, and who knows what’s in store once he figures it all out? Even trainer Mark Casse says he is clueless, but extremely talented. Casse said he didn’t even take a deep breath after this last race. He and owner Charlotte Weber, who surely does not wear rose-colored glasses, think so highly of him they are going to throw him right into the Florida Derby. When this horse figures it all out we could see something special. I just don’t know when that will be.

And to add one more, we had yet another freakish Into Mischief pop up and run off the screen when Three Chimneys Farm homebred COLLABORATE demolished his field in a one-mile maiden race at Gulfstream, winning wire to wire under wraps by 12 1/2 lengths for Saffie Joseph in his second career start. His breeder Three Chimneys Farm sold him as a yearling for $600,000 to Bob Edwards and stayed in for part ownership. He had a few niggling physical problems that delayed his debut, but he showed enough promise for his owners to be patient with him. But that patience might be over, as Joseph is so high on him he is considering a jump into a major stakes race in order to possibly pick up enough points to get in the Derby. We’ll have to see if he becomes another late starter to try to get in the Derby off three career starts.

No, we’re not done quite yet. This past weekend we also saw a huge performance in the Pasadena Stakes by ROCK YOUR WORLD, who is now undefeated in two starts on the grass. The son of Candy Ride has mainly dirt influences in his pedigree and he showed he can rate off the pace and rocket home in the final furlong. But when I saw how strong he galloped out and how far he went at such a rapid clip it was time to find out if there was a major Derby prep in his immediate future. Sure enough, the plan is to run in one of the preps to get Derby points but it will be up to trainer John Sadler to decide which prep to use. And so we have another one to start following.

CAPO KANE, who will be cutting back to a mile in the Gotham, turned in a sharp five-furlong drill in 1:00 1/5 at Parx. The one-mile race looks to be the proverbial barn burner with the Baffert-trained FREEDOM FIGHTER, who just worked a bullet five furlongs in :59 1/5, fastest of 53 works at the distance; the brilliant HIGHLY MOTIVATED, who will be making his 3-year-old debut; and another California shipper, WIPE THE SLATE, who worked six furlongs in 1:11 3/5 and will race without blinkers after getting too speed crazy early in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Previously he had run second to Life is Good before breaking his maiden impressively.

The exciting maiden winner PREVALENCE, who was forced to miss the Fountain of Youth after spiking a fever, returned to the work tab, breezing a half in :48 2/5 in company and on the inside with the rider’s hands motionless throughout. CANDY MAN ROCKET worked a sharp half-mile in :48 2/5 at Payson Park, which is fast time over that track. He will try for a stakes double in the Tampa Bay Derby. HIDDEN STASH, who still needs to learn how to change leads, tuned up for the Tampa Bay Derby with a five-furlong breeze in 1:02 at Payson Park.

American Pharoah winner GET HER NUMBER is starting to get serious, working six furlongs in 1:13 at San Luis Rey Downs. Trainer Peter Miller says he’s not ready for the San Felipe, so they will wait for the Rebel Stakes for his 3-year-old debut. El Camino Real Derby winner ROMBAUER, whose next start is still to be decided, stayed sharp with a half-mile work in :48 flat.

My super duper Derby maiden longshot DYNAMIC ONE is scheduled to try one more time to get back that “W” he should have gotten in his last start when he goes in a mile and a eighth maiden race next Sunday. He worked a half in :50 in company with the newly arrived Overtook. This obviously is his last chance to catapult himself into the Derby picture and one of the major final preps. Remsen winner BROOKLYN STRONG finally made it back to the work tab after a series of setbacks, blowing out three furlongs in :36 4/5. With the Wood Memorial or Arkansas Derby mentioned as possible first starts back, that would be the ultimate in Derby fever.

In the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park, HUSH OF A STORM made it three-for-three on Polytrack with an impressive come from behind victory, in which he rallied from eighth to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths despite trying to lug in. Unfortunately, his only start on dirt in his career debut was a dismal effort.


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