Derby Rankings: Week 8

We’ve cut the Rankings down to a bonus baker’s dozen this week for reasons you will read in Knocking of the Door, and it was extremely difficult to separate the top five horses, making this one of the biggest crap shoots we’ve seen in years with still more questions than answers. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Mar. 7, 2022 – Week 8

By Steve Haskin


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

I could have easily replaced him with Simplification, but it’s difficult dropping a horse after seven weeks as No. 1 and I’m just not quite ready to do that. He is still coming out of the best prep of the year and it’s not easy making your first start of the year at 1 1/8 miles and with so little foundation. He is still on course, so before becoming a prisoner of the moment I am going to stand pat and let this past weekend’s races sink in a little more. There isn’t a lot more to say about him that we haven’t said already, so let’s provide a little back story and see if he gave any signs of what was to come when he was a baby. His breeder Xavier Moreau said he was born just a few stalls down from the stall where Barbaro was born. Maybe that will prove to be a lucky barn. He could see a few days after he was born how balanced and correct he was and how smart he was with a beautiful eye and head. He had a great mind and just did everything they asked of him. He had so much appeal a group of Irish pinhookers offered to buy him two weeks before the sale, but Moreau turned down their offer. When he did sell, Moreau said he was like an old show horse and he was “so proud of him,” how well he stood and walked. Adrian Regan of Hunter Valley Farm, who then pinhooked him as a yearling, said he was a beautiful colt, who was extremely smart and did everything perfectly, and he remembers how much he loved his work and was always aggressive on the track. Well, it seems not much has changed. He still seems very intelligent and professional and loves to run and compete. So that is a little background so you can get to know him. His first race this year will serve as a good learning experience, hopefully for his jockey as well, and he will be ready for a big effort in the Bluegrass Stakes.


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

The same goes for this colt. I’m keeping him here for now because I don’t think any less of him. Being we’re devoting space this week to backgrounds I will add Zandon, who also is being pointed for the Bluegrass Stakes. It was veteran bloodstock agent Mike Ryan who picked him out at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $170,000 for owner Jeff Drown. Ryan had looked at him on the farm a few weeks before the sale and loved what he saw, which was “a big, strong colt and very impressive looking with a great head and eye (sound familiar?). He also felt he was a “quality colt who had a lot of presence and was a good mover.” After seeing again at the sale and still loving everything about him he called Jeff Drown and told him how much he liked the colt and wanted to buy him. Although he had already spent a lot of money for Drown it was decided to go ahead and buy him. He has been impressed with what he’s seen so far. “He ate a lot of dirt in his first start and had his head turned sideways,” he said. “There was no wasted action and he had excellent knee action and was a very efficient mover. I thought he looked magnificent and he seems to have a bright future.” Airdrie Stud’s Brereton Jones bred his dam and second dam and stands his sire and broodmare sire. “Zandon was a beautiful colt as a yearling,” said Brereton Jones’ son Bret who plays a major role in the operation and bred last year’s top-class sprinter Bell’s the One. “We lost (his second dam) Incarnate Memories this year, but fortunately we kept (Zandon’s dam). He first caught our attention when he worked in company with a son of Curlin and ran off and left him” I know how much Brown loved this colt from day one and I will trust his judgment.


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

I have liked this colt since the Mucho Macho Man and said I considered him more of a Derby horse after his Holy Bull defeat than I did before because it showed he was able to use adversity to expose a new dimension to him. Well, as it turned out, rather than go back to his old normal style of running he changed his m.o. completely and used that new dimension to easily win the Fountain of Youth Stakes. When was the last time you saw horse win on the lead in :45 4/5 and 1:09 4/5 and then rally from seventh to win off fractions of :48 1/5 and 1:12. He certainly is worthy of the No. 1 spot and may wind up there soon, but the only reason he isn’t there just yet is that with the scratch of top contenders Mo Donegal and Giant Game, High Oak and Galt falling at the top of the stretch, Rattle N Roll never being a factor, Emmanuel having a terrible trip, and an 87-1 sprinter with two career starts finishing third, there is the question of what he beat. He had won a listed stakes and was a troubled second in a graded stakes, while the second, third, and fourth-place finishers had never even run in a stakes. This is not to take away from his performance, which definitely stamps him as a serious Derby horse. But like Smile Happy and Zandon he still has to turn the tables on the horse (White Abarrio) who beat him easily in his last start. And as he did in the Holy Bull he failed to change leads again and will have to work on that. But the bottom line is that you rarely see a horse with his early speed not only turn into a closer but one who looked like he’s been doing it all his life. And you had to be impressed with the way he swung six-wide turning for home and just swept by everyone and quickly opened up on the field. As I said, any one of the top 5 could be No. 1. But for now I will let it all soak in.


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

I have to admit I could be making a mistake not having him No. 1 because of his natural speed and closing power and how easily he won the Risen Star, and I fully expect him to win the Louisiana Derby the same way. But with a rocket ship like Forbidden Kingdom now firmly on the Derby trail with the ability to run any horse in the country off his feet early, it is time for Epicenter to show he can come from the off the pace and not be one-dimensional. If Forbidden Kingdom makes it to the Derby there is no one who is going to outrun him. So if Epicenter can sit behind a horse in the Louisiana Derby and win the same way he did in the Risen Star, coming home that fast, then he would be a legitimate Derby favorite because I already I know he can get a mile and a quarter, as I explained in last week’s comments. So in short, I just want to see him display some versatility as Simplification has done. He checks off all the other boxes. Now, if Forbidden Kingdom does not make it to Churchill Downs then it’s a different story because if any horse can wire the Derby field it is him. But it’s always good to have another weapon just in case he needs it, and with Forbidden Kingdom now in the picture he will need it.


5—Morello (Steve Asmussen, Classic Empire – Stop the Wedding, by Congrats)

I put him below Epicenter only because Epicenter runs two weeks earlier, which will give me a clearer picture. It’s pretty much a dead-heat right now for No. 4 and close to a five-horse dead-heat for No. 1. He still has a big test to pass going two turns for the first time in the Wood Memorial against far more seasoned and talented horses, but I have been raving about this colt every week since the Jimmy Winkfield and to be honest, while all the top horses look like potential stars he is the one horse I have seen who has exhibited all the signs of a superstar. I thought he could be special after the Winkfield and now after the Gotham I am convinced of it. He is so professional and brilliant and so machine-like you can’t tell one of his races from the other. In three starts he has drawn off from his opponents with a remarkable surge of power and he has yet to feel the whip. When a horse does what he does all on his own without being asked that is a rare quality. He also is a horse who exudes a great deal of class before, during, and after a race. He just needs to face better quality horses going two turns. His pedigree says distance not only will be no problem, he should get better the farther he goes. Toby Sheets, who has had him from the beginning felt he was special last summer, but a minor setback prevented from starting until late November. I mentioned that his Thoro-Graph numbers leaped from a “7” to a “1 ¾” in the Winkfield, making him already one of the fastest 3-year-olds in the country. I can’t wait to see what he gets in the Gotham. To pair up that number would be perfect.


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

Even though Simplification lost all chance at the start of the Holy Bull, his emphatic victory in the Fountain of Youth has to flatter this colt, who beat Simplification with the same authority the Fountain of Youth winner beat his opponents on Saturday. Ironically, both races sort of fell apart due to scratches, bad trips, or top horses not firing. So who knows if we got a true gauge of the competition? All we can go by is what we saw and both colts certainly passed the eye test. The main question with him is how far he wants to go. That’s not to say he can’t go a mile and a quarter, but his pedigree doesn’t shout distance. We know he has speed in the morning with his :47 flat and :59 2/5 works before the Holy Bull. Because he was skipping the Fountain of Youth to go directly to the Florida Derby, he returned to the work tab a couple of weeks after the Holy Bull with an easy three-furlong breeze and now we’ll see how he picks up the pace getting ready to go a mile and an eighth.


7—Secret Oath (D. Wayne Lukas, Arrogate – Absenthe Minded, by Quiet American)

It was obvious she would get a much better Thoro-Graph number than the Rebel winner, but I had no idea the difference would be this huge. The Rebel looked to be a slow race and it certainly was for the ground-saving winner Un Ojo, who a got a “7.” Secret Oath not only far surpassed the Rebel she now has the most impressive pattern of any 3-year-old, male or female. When she jumped from a “9 ¼” and a “9 ½” to a “3 ¾”in an allowance romp on December 31 it was important to see if she could move forward off that. When she jumped to a sensational “1 ½” in her runaway Martha Washington score on January 29 she was in danger of peaking too early in the year. She was already in Kentucky Derby range, so it would be understandable if she regressed a little off that. But when she paired up that number with another “1 ½” in the Honeybee it confirmed that she is indeed that fast and now ready to improve off that. It was the second-fastest Thoro-Graph number by any 3-year-old behind the “1” run by Messier in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, but she has paired up her number while Messier needed more time to recover from his effort and skipped the San Felipe. So what all that means is that she is the only 3-year-old in the country numbers-wise who is Derby ready. Just a slight improvement would win many Derbys.


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

Don’t blame him for being overhyped all year and overbet in the Fountain of Youth Stakes off a maiden and allowance win against far less talented horses. And certainly don’t blame him for his fourth-place finish, in which he actually showed, at least to me, he was a serious Derby horse. Drawing post 8 didn’t do him any good, neither did get getting hammered at the start by A.P.’s Secret who broke out into him, causing him to drop back and not be able to use his early speed. Then he got stuck in traffic and was four-wide going into the first turn, while the winner saved ground with a perfect rail trip, as did the runner-up In Due Time. He came out of the turn back in eighth six-wide and remained way out in the middle of the track down the backstretch. Passing the half-mile pole he unleashed a big five-wide sweeping move to reach contention and continued five-wide around the turn when Simplification, who had moved to the outside, stormed up outside him. Emmanuel was starting to tire a bit and Simplification had all the momentum as he charged by him turning for home. He then had to alter course outside Simplification when the winner came in and took his path away. He then got shoved around by Dean Delivers, who he was battling with for second inside the sixteenth pole, and finally was passed by the ground-saving In Due Time and then nailed on the wire for third by the surprising O Captain. This was certainly an excellent learning experience and should really toughen him up for his all-important final prep. He showed a whole new dimension and proved he wasn’t just a horse who can win on an easy uncontested lead. Yes, he got a little tired, as to be expected considering all his travails, but let’s just say the boy turned into a man.


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

This was a big step up from his impressive allowance victory and he showed that performance was legitimate by coming on strong to get second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. I didn’t rank him higher than Emmanuel because he had a far better trip and I expect Emmanuel to get a faster Thoro-Graph number. But that still doesn’t diminish his performance in his first two-turn race and facing top-class stakes horses for the fist time. And he is one horse you know is going to keep improving the farther he goes. You can be sure he is going to be tough to beat next time out going a mile and an eighth. After jumping from an “8 ¾” to a “3” Thoro-Graph number in his last start it will be interesting to see if or how much he improved off that. Although he did save ground it was good to see him go between horses and come home strong. He has a big easy stride that covers a lot of ground with seemingly little effort and that also will work in his favor.


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

I love the way Lynch gave him strong long works for the Sam F. Davis Stakes and now has him sharp for Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby with a :59 4/5 final work. With a series of “5” Thoro-Graph numbers this is his big opportunity to finally take a jump forward and put down a number that is at least competitive with the top horses. I like the fact that he was able to battle through quick fractions an and come home strong, but like some of the others we really don’t know what he beat in the Sam Davis and he no doubt will face some tougher horses on Saturday. It is important for a horse to show that he made the transition from 2 to 3, which he did. Unlike most of the others, he is on a three-prep schedule, which is getting to be a forgotten plan to get to the Derby. Lynch has been old school all the way – not afraid to work them long and not afraid to run. Now let’s just see him improve on those Thoro-Graph numbers.


11—Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit)

Whether it was a low-grade fever or drawing the 12 post, scratching out of the Fountain of Youth wasn’t a catastrophe, but it’s not what you want to see. He still is on a decent schedule for the Kentucky Derby, but the fact is he now is on a two-prep schedule instead of a three-prep schedule, which Pletcher was planning on. So in that respect he has had to resort to plan B. There is very little I can say about him until he runs in the Wood Memorial. All we can go by is the fact that he is battle-tested, consistent, and is always closing in the stretch. For now we just have to wait for him to get back on the work tab and see how he progresses there. The Wood is still a long way off and he will have to go into the race off a nine-week layoff, which obviously is not ideal.


12—Rattle N Roll (Kenny McPeek, Connect – Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg)

You didn’t expect me to dump him off one race, as dull as it looked, did you? I said all along I didn’t like this spot for him, especially on this track with the short stretch. This is a big galloping type of horse who needs to get fit by racing and his style does not fit Gulfstream at all. McPeek wasn’t crazy about this spot either and could have run him a week later at Tampa, but he liked the timing of this race better to set him up for the real test in the Louisiana Derby at 1 3/16 miles with that long stretch. He doesn’t even need to win that, only to run a strong second to Epicenter, because he will move forward again at Churchill Downs. The bottom line is he was down on the inside with that big stride of his and never got out and was beaten 7 ¼ lengths, which is hardly insurmountable. This colt is reminiscent in many ways of another McPeek horse, Tejano Run, who also won the Breeders’ Futurity and started off his 3-year-old campaign with a dull fifth-place finish, beaten over 10 lengths, in the Risen Star at 1-2. But he also needed racing, and after then finishing second in the Jim Beam Stakes and third in the Blue Grass Stakes he was a fast-closing second in the Kentucky Derby. McPeek said Rattle N Roll ate up great Sunday morning and he is not discouraged in the slightest. He expects a big turnaround at Fair Grounds, so I will let everything play out before giving up on him.


13—Forbidden Kingdom (Dick Mandella, American Pharoah – Just Louise, by Five Star Day)

I guess this looks to be a low ranking off his “workout” in the San Felipe Stakes, but I still don’t see him as a Derby type horse. He was 10 times faster than anyone else is this small overmatched field, which had accomplished nothing. So, sure he was able to blow them away from the start and simply outsprint them, running them into the ground with fractions of :45 4/5 an 1:10 2/5, while opening a seven or eight-length lead, and then crawling home under no pressure in :26 2/5 and :07, winning by 5 ¾ lengths in what was the easiest Grade 2 win we’ve seen in quite a while. He can win the Derby like that if he’s Spend A Buck, but that seems unlikely. Don’t get me wrong, this is a brilliant talented colt that any trainer would love to have, but it’s a long stretch to a mile and a quarter with his style of running and we first have to see what he does against Messier in the Santa Anita Derby. I have no idea who else is out there to run against them. Perhaps he will turn it into a match race and again just blast out of gate and play catch me if you can. Doppelganger gave him a bit of a run in the stretch to slightly narrow his margin of victory, but I would think that performance could set him up well for the Arkansas Derby. If any trainer can stretch this colt out it is Mandella, but the Kentucky Derby is another matter.


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

It doesn’t happen often heading into mid-March, but I am actually looking forward to a maiden race more than the Tampa Bay Derby on the same card. I loved his five-furlong work Saturday in 1:00 4/5, indicating he is sharp and ready for the most important maiden race of the year. If he can’t beat Tampa maidens then how is he going to do against serious Derby contenders in their final prep? But Pletcher certainly doesn’t want him going into the Derby as a maiden. Not only is he supposed to win Saturday’s race he is supposed to win it pretty impressively. Now we just have to see who and how many they get to run against him. He was my first Derby sleeper after his career debut, so he caught my eye from day one. If it wasn’t for the slight bone bruising that has sidelined him since his fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile I firmly believe he would have been no worse than second in that race. All we can do now is see how he bounces back off the layoff.



Derby Rankings typically features four more horses than the original Derby Dozen of past years. And we extended it to 20 last week, which I felt was too many and diluted the Rankings, so a bonus baker’s dozen seems appropriate this week rather than try to rank an ever-extending group of horses who all look pretty much alike. Proven Breeders’ Cup horses GIANT GAME and PAPPACAP are looking to rebound off disappointing efforts, even if Giant Game did have a legitimate excuse, displacing his palate and losing his air. We’ll likely see him in the Tampa Bay Derby after scratching out of the Fountain of Youth. And I can barely remember CALL ME MIDNIGHT’S nose victory in the Lecomte Stakes it was so long ago. And the rest to me are inseparable, needing to move forward off good, but not great performances. In that group are PIONEER OF MEDINA, UN OJO, ETHEREAL ROAD, BARBER ROAD, the surprising O CAPTAIN, and DEAN’S LIST, who looks like a one-turn horse. And what to you do about the unfortunate Bill Mott pair of HIGH OAK and GALT, who thankfully escaped injury in the Fountain of Youth. Despite coming off a six-month layoff, High Oak was loaded throughout the race and despite racing wide was right up there with a cluster of horses vying for the lead at the head of the stretch when A.P.s Secret tried to squeeze his way through and came out in front of him, causing him to clip heels and go down hard. Stablemate GALT, rallying from last, had to avoid the fallen horse and threw his rider Joel Rosario. Fortunately he and Junior Alvarado seemed to escape serious injury. If both horses are able to bounce back from this they will be dangerous, especially High Oak, who was running a huge race at the time.

So how do you take just those 11 horses and place them is some kind of order? And who do you leave out of the top 20? I did rank Ethereal Road ahead of Un Ojo and Barber Road last week because of his wide trip in the Rebel, while they both saved ground all the way. As it turned out, Un Ojo and Barber Road got mediocre at best Thoro-Graph numbers of “7” and “7 ¼”, respectively, while Ethereal Road got a respectable “4,” which was a big  improvement from his “9” the race before, That is a huge difference between horses who virtually finished on the line together. So you can consider Ethereal Road in the top 16.

TIZ THE BOMB returned on the Turfway Polytrack and scored a solid victory in the John Battaglia, despite racing wide the whole way. If he can repeat in the Jeff Ruby Steaks we’ll see what Kenny McPeek decides to do with him.

Out of sheer desperation and a deep respect for the talents of MESSIER I contacted one of his owners who I know and asked him for a simple yes or a no off the record if I should put the colt in my Rankings. As expected I got no response, so it is just wait and see from now on.

Last year’s Iroquois winner MAJOR GENERAL had his final tune-up for the Tampa Bay Derby, breezing five furlongs in 1:02 1/5. SLOW DOWN ANDY returned to the work tab Sunday with a solid :48 3/5 half-mile drill. I would think Doug O’Neill will give him another shot in the Santa Anita Derby, as he certainly didn’t run his race in the Risen Star when he was pulling hard early.



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