Derby Rankings: Week 9

This is it. Nothing left but the big 100-point races that will make or break the Derby dreams of many trainers and owners. Right now they all have a chance, but it’s time to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Lots of intriguing new faces on the Rankings this week as we take a shot and try to uncover some hidden stars. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 9, Mar. 15

By Steve Haskin


1. Greatest Honour (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Tiffany’s Honour, by Street Cry)
He still has the strongest Thoro-Graph pattern and appears to be heading for a peak performance on the first Saturday in May. Although some feel he might be at a disadvantage having to come from far back, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, he was five lengths back at the eighth pole in the Fountain of Youth, but that was an aberration because he likely was a little dull the first part of the race coming off a huge effort and fast Thoro-Graph number in the Holy Bull Stakes. The fact is, in his five previous starts, the average distance he was behind at the half-mile call was 4 1/2 lengths (two lengths in his two-turn races), and the average distance behind at the three-quarter call was only three lengths (1 1/2 lengths in his two-turn races), so this is a horse who has enough tactical speed to be within striking range and still come home fastest of any 3-year-old with huge Brisnet late pace figures of 110, 106, and 105. The thought of him and Essential Quality hooking up at the head of the stretch surely is something to look forward to.

2. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
Despite Life is Good’s San Felipe romp and 107 Beyer figure, Essential Quality still is the only 3-year-old to run a negative Thoro-Graph number. When he runs next in the Blue Grass Stakes it will be interesting to see if he actually runs faster, pairs up that number, or regresses slightly. We have mentioned about the recent historic impact of the Blue Grass on the Kentucky Derby, and it should not be forgotten that the last Blue Grass winner to capture Derby was Strike the Gold 30 years ago. The fact that Essential Quality already has two Grade 1 victories at Keeneland, it is going to be very tough to beat him there. You can’t even plan strategy against him because he has shown he can beat you from anywhere on the track. He took advantage of a slow pace in the Breeders’ Futurity, battling head and head on the lead; took advantage of a fast pace in the BC Juvenile, coming from nine lengths back; and sat two to three lengths back through a moderate pace in the Southwest Stakes. And he’s won in the slop and has shown sprint speed, rallying to win at six-furlongs in 1:09 4/5 in his career debut. So good luck trying to beat this horse.

3. Concert Tour (Bob Baffert, Street Sense – Purse Strings, by Tapit)
I am ranking him ahead of Life is Good based mainly on pedigree and professionalism. Life is Good is freakishly fast but quirky. Remember, owner and breeder Gary West kept this colt and put Life is Good, who he also bred, in the sale. A lot of that was based on whose pedigree looked more geared to a mile and a quarter and who looked more appealing to buyers at the sale. Now it looks like they are on a collision course, like right out of the movies. Winning his two-turn debut is important enough, but outrunning the favorite and likely pacesetter Caddo River, then winning by 4 1/4 lengths geared down with his ears pricked and Rosario looking back three times and still coming home his last sixteenth in :06 2/5 was something no one could have predicted. The best thing to happen to this horse was having that tough race against Freedom Fighter in the seven-furlong San Vicente. So, if he does hook up with Life is Good, he is the one who is battle-tested and has shown he can win from off the pace. When he was at Nelson Jones Training Center in Ocala, trainer Jorge Villagomez started him off slowly like all the others, but when they began to get serious with him they had to keep working him with better horses each time because no one could keep up with him and his riders would come back saying, “Wow, what a horse!” Finally, he just ran out of competition. Now he is undefeated at three different distances at both ends of the country. Yes his Beyer figure was 13 points slower than Life is Good’s, but we’re talking 1 1/16 miles, and back on Febuary 20, Baffert texted, “This is my Real Quiet.” Well, we all know what happened when Real Quiet faced his far more brilliant stablemate Indian Charlie in the Derby.

4. Life is Good (Bob Baffert, Into Mischief – Beach Walk, by Distorted Humor)
Since his runaway victory in the San Felipe he actually has become a polarizing figure on the Derby trail, as odd as that may seem. When his lofty Beyer speed figure of 107 was announced and he then closed in the latest Derby Future Wager at an absurd 2-1, it was assumed he was the new Derby darling, replacing Essential Quality. To demonstrate the wide chasm between the two, $62,000 was bet on Life is Good compared to $27,000 on Essential Quality. Although the 2-year-old champ held on to his No. 1 spot on the National Turf Writers’ poll, the gap was narrowed considerably, 369 points to 360 and 20 first-place votes to 17. Then some of the other speed ratings were released. Life is Good earned a solid 103 on Brisnet, but Weyburn actually ran a point faster in the Gotham. Life is Good then was a given a “zero” Thoro-Graph figure, which was excellent, but not as fast as Essential Quality ran the week before. And of course there was the drifting out from the top of the stretch to past the finish line, which bothered a number of people. So there are some who think he is the second coming and all but has the Derby wrapped up, and others who still have their doubts. Everything should be much clearer after the Santa Anita Derby, as Baffert likes to wait until the final Derby prep to show what his top horses are really capable of stretching out to 1 1/8 miles. That is when he unveils the true product he is sending to Churchill Downs.

5. Mandaloun (Brad Cox, Into Mischief – Brooch, by Empire Maker)
He continued his sharp works, drilling five-eighths in 1:00 3/5. Two weeks ago, I mentioned a potential Derby gods angle regarding Juddmonte Farms and the deaths of its founder Khalid Abdullah this year and one of its greatest stars Arrogate last year. Now we learn of the death at age 20 of one its top broodmares, Kind, dam of the great Frankel and champion and dual Group 1 winner Noble Mission. If Mandaloun can emerge victorious in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, he would join Greatest Honour, Essential Quality, Life is Good, and Concert Tour as the Fab Five of Kentucky Derby contenders. And he might just have the attention of the Derby gods. But getting back to reality, it will be interesting to see if he can separate himself from his two antagonists Proxy and Midnight Bourbon or if they remain glued to him like barnacles on a ship. Who knows, maybe it will be one of them who separates himself from the other two. The record of the Louisiana Derby as a Kentucky Derby prep has been abysmal, in good part to the six-week gap between races and not enough time to squeeze in another race. But with the distance lengthened to 1 3/16 miles this year, that trend could change, as it should give the horses a stronger foundation and not have to stretch out quite as far on the first Saturday in May.

6. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
OK, this is reaching, but when everything to say about a horse you’ve already said you look for any kind of new angle. So, here goes. In his last start he demolished Top Gun Tommy by 11 lengths. In Top Gun Tommy’s previous start he had beaten a horse named Southern Passage by 10 1/2 lengths. This past Thursday, Southern Passage was flying at the end of a one-mile allowance race to finish second, beaten only three lengths by the unbeaten sensation Prevalence at odds of 32-1. What does that mean in the grand scheme of things? Probably nothing, but for fans of Known Agenda you’ll take any kind of building block no matter how small and any handicapping angle no matter how trivial. This colt, after outgaming Greatest Honour last year going 1 1/8 miles, in which the future Withers runner-up Overtook finished 21 lengths back in third, he for some reason went to sleep in his next two races, earning a dismal “11” Thoro-Graph number. A frustrated Pletcher tried blinkers in his next start and that’s when he romped by 11 lengths, looking like a totally different horse and jumping all the way to a “3 1/2” Thoro-Graph number. This colt’s pedigree is crying out for a mile and a quarter and I feel that is where we will see him at his best. The eye test says this is talented colt and we got a glimpse of that talent in his last start.

7. Proxy (Mike Stidham, Tapit – Panty Raid, by Include)
With him, it’s very simple. If the blinkers help keep him focused and prevent him from racing erratically in the stretch, which very well could have cost him the LeComte and Risen Star Stakes, then he is going to be very tough to beat in the Louisiana Derby. His grinding style and the way he surged late in those two stakes to snatch second should make him even more dangerous stretching out to 1 3/16 miles. Watch him coming down the lane. If he’s not shying from the whip or drifting out on his own then expect to see him right there at the finish. This will be his second start under John Velazquez, so Johnny V should be much more familiar with him. Now, we’ll just have to see if he can turn the tables on his two conquerors Midnight Bourbon and Mandaloun, both of whom he has already finished ahead of. He tuned up for the race with a half-mile breeze in :49 3/5

8. Risk Taking (Chad Brown, Medaglia d’Oro – Run a Risk, by Distorted Humor)
He worked five furlongs in 1:02 at Belmont as he continues to prepare for the Wood Memorial, where he will attempt to win his third straight mile and an eighth race. Because of the spacing between races he hasn’t gotten a lot of buzz, but he looks to be one of those blue-collar horses that just goes out there and does his job, running hard every step of the way without a lot of fanfare. We’ve been saying all along he is like a throwback to those sound, hard-knocking horses of the past. He still needs to step up in class, but his Thoro-Graph jump from a “10 1/2″ to a “3 1/4″ indicates he has made great strides and will appreciate the time off between races. He’s an easy horse to overlook, but do so at your own peril.

9. Weyburn (Jimmy Jerkens, Pioneerof the Nile – Sunday Affair, by A.P. Indy)
All we can do is wait until they make him a late nominee for the Derby and then officially announce he will run in the Wood Memorial. Jerkens, like his father, is conservative in his approach, but when he decides to tackle a classic or Breeders’ Cup race you better take his horse very seriously. And this colt showed in the Gotham he is not one to be taken lightly. No he hasn’t been two turns yet, but with his pedigree that is not going to be a problem. In fact, he should improve the farther he goes. Let’s remember however, that he had to battle back to beat a horse with only one lifetime sprint. But we really have no idea how good Crowded Trade is, and there were some awfully talented horses behind him, including Freedom Fighter, who was coming a narrow defeat to Concert Tour, and Crowded Trade’s more accomplished stablemate Highly Motivated. And Weyburn’s jump from a “9” to a “3” Thoro-Graph number gives him room to move forward in the Wood Memorial.

10. Helium (Mark Casse, Ironicus – Thundering Emilia, by Thunder Gulch)
I have to admit I am in a quandary as to what to make of this colt and where to rank him. As I mentioned in great detail last week, I loved everything I saw in the Tampa Bay Derby, especially when horses do something they are not supposed to do. And what he did could only have been done by an extraordinary horse. With that said, I have all the faith in the world in Mark Casse’s decision making, as he knows his horse, but to go eight weeks to the Derby, having only one start at 3, and having never run farther than 1 1/16 miles, history is screaming at me not to get too carried away with him and look at him logically. Even ignoring the fact that only two horses have won the Derby with only three career starts in the past century, which is something I can live with in this new era of Thoroughbred racing, I still can’t help but be skeptical when none the other three factors I mentioned have been accomplished since the early 1900s. His Thoro-Graph progression is excellent, going from an “11” to an “8 1/4,” both on synthetic, to a “3” in the Tampa Bay Derby, which is a huge move forward, but ideally you want to go into the big race with a better number than that. So unless there is a change of heart, I will still be a big fan of this horse, but he will have to remain a dilemma.

11. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon)
His victory over Mandaloun and Proxy in the LeComte Stakes seems like ages ago and he has sort of been forgotten. One of the reasons is that he was able to control the pace in the LeComte when everyone let him cruise uncontested on the lead, which enabled him to hold off his two antagonists. But when he was forced to sit off the pace in the Risen Star Stakes he was unable to find a closing punch and had to settle for a so-so third. We really don’t know how he wants to run and if he can be effective coming from behind. He has never finished out of the money in six career starts and his Brisnet figures have pretty much improved with every start. The Louisiana Derby should identify who this horse really is, and you have to take into consideration that the Tiznows normally get better as they get older. If he is going to be a legitimate Derby contender this is the time to show it.

12. Rock Your World (John Sadler, Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
This is going to come from left field, but it is time to put some new exciting faces into the Derby picture. As much as I am against horses running in the Derby with only three career starts, there is something about this colt I find extremely intriguing. Both of his starts have been on grass and both left an indelible impression. In his career debut going six furlongs, he battled on the lead with two other horses and put them away on the turn with one quick burst, opening a clear lead, which can often take its toll on grass. But he won off in hand in 1:08 1/5 with the rider looking back twice in the final furlong. Stretching out to a mile in the Pasadena Stakes, he tracked the early pace, and it looked as if he was going to be in for a battle with co-even-money favorite Cathkin Peak. But when Cathkin Peak tried to come inside him he bumped with Rock Your World, causing him to jump back to his left lead and then burst clear with a devastating turn of foot. Why his having only three races doesn’t bother me as much is because in both his races he just kept going at a rapid click after the wire and was still going strong well into the backstretch. He just exudes class, has a regal air about him, and comes back in a strong gallop as if he hadn’t even run. As far as not having run on dirt, his sire Candy Ride was a superstar on grass and dirt, setting a new track record in the Pacific Classic; his maternal great-grandsire Giant’s Causeway nearly knocked off Tiznow in the BC Classic in his dirt debut, and his tail-female family traces to Majestic Light, who won the Man o’ War Stakes, Bernard Baruch, Cinema Handicap and was second in the D.C International, Canadian International, and Turf Classic all on grass and won the Monmouth Invitational, breaking the track record, the Amory Haskell Handicap, Swaps Stakes, and Washington Park Handicap all on dirt. In short, I am banking on this colt being special.

13. Collaborate (Into Mischief – Quiet Temper, by Quiet American)
Here we go again with another horse who will have only three career starts. The reason this colt is different, besides his easy 12-length maiden romp going a mile, is that he is a physical beast with a humongous stride who dwarfs his opponents. Not only did he weigh an outrageous 154 pounds at birth and stand 42 1/2 inches tall, but to show how tough his dam is, she delivered him standing up, which is difficult with a foal that size. He naturally grew up to be a big imposing colt, but he was remarkably athletic and had a smooth easy stride for such a big horse. The first thing Ian Brennan, who broke him, noticed was how fluid his stride was. He may be a physical brute who dwarfs his opponents, but his dam was said to be extremely kind and gentle around people and other horses. Now all this is not going to win him the Kentucky Derby, but it does set him apart from other horses, and watching him bound away from his opponents as if he were in a gallop with those long fluid strides, who knows what we’re dealing with? For a horse his size to go out this weekend and work a half in a bullet :47 flat, fastest of 51 works at the distance, and come home the last quarter in :22 4/5 is pretty remarkable. Like with Rock Your World, I’m just taking a wild shot and looking for horses who are different and might just be special. If it doesn’t work out in their respective Derby preps, then you just move on to someone else. Such is life on the Derby trail. But for now both these horses get the juices flowing.

14. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Indan Miss, by Indian Charlie)
With the Rebel Stakes in the book, here is a chance for the California horses to really assert themselves. They already have had Bob Baffert destroy the Oaklawn horses and his fourth best horse finish second to Essential Quality, and now Hot Rod Charlie can dampen the hopes of what looks to be a strong Fair Grounds home team. Although he ran a gutsy race getting jostled between horses in the furious stretch run of the Robert B. Lewis, the quality of that field is in question after Life is Good demolished Medina Spirit and Roman Centurian in the San Felipe Stakes. But let’s remember his huge effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile getting beat three-quarters of a length by Essential Quality at 94-1. After pairing up a “3 3/4″ Thoro-Graph number in his last two starts there is no reason why he shouldn’t move forward off that, and he is already faster than most of the Fair Grounds horses and less than a point off Mandaloun’s career high “3.” He tuned for his final Derby prep with a sharp five-furlong drill in 1:00 flat.

15. Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher, Union Rags – Beat the Drums, by Smart Strike)
How about yet another new face? In Week 2 I called him my “hidden gem” when he was still a maiden coming off a fourth-place finish, beaten only two lengths despite going six-wide on the first turn and then making a huge five-wide move on the far turn, in which he demonstrated a powerful turn of foot. I then discovered he lost a shoe in the race and returned with mucus in his lungs and obviously loved him even more. In Week 5 when he was still a maiden I called him my “megabomb sleeper,” Well, since then he finally broke his maiden impressively going 1 1/8 miles over a very deep track at Aqueduct. Now he steps into the big-time in the Wood Memorial along with stablemate Overtook. He certainly doesn’t have to win this race, just run well enough to get into the Derby. He has a pedigree to die for and has as strong a female family as you will ever see. All the pieces are in place and he just has to step up. You can bet he is a huge price in the future book.

16. Nicky the Vest (Jonathan Thomas, Runhappy – Tazarine, by Cat Thief)
Here is the third of our horses who aren’t supposed to win the Derby off three lifetime starts but have made it on the rankings anyway. With these horses you have to go by gut feeling and what you see out on the racetrack. Although this colt’s two starts have been against New York-breds I like everything I’ve seen, mainly his powerful running style, his flawless action, his professionalism, and his ability to overcome adversity. He is by a sprint champion who wasn’t bred to be a sprinter, out of a very strong and classy female family and there is no reason to think he won’t appreciate longer distances. In his career debut going a flat mile, he broke sideways from the rail and came out of the gate dead last. In a matter of seconds he was fighting for the lead and just opened up on his field without being asked and coasted home by 3 1/4 lengths. In the one-mile Gander Stakes against Todd Pletcher’s unbeaten Rego Park Stakes winner Perfect Munnings, he broke sharply, stalked the early pacesetter and in the blink of an eye was three in front nearing the quarter pole, then simply outdistanced his opponents, winning off by nearly 12 lengths. What I love most about this horse is his flawless mechanics and his ability to completely ignore the unnecessary use of the whip by his rider in the Gander and keep a perfectly straight path the entire length of the stretch. He is just a pleasure to watch run and now just has to show the same strengths against far better competition. Being a May 11 foal he has a lot of room for improvement.


PREVALENCE — He got the job done, extending his mini unbeaten streak to two, but he didn’t have quite the “wow” impact he had in his debut, being pushed along late to win by three lengths over a former claimer. It was good to see him rate off the pace, which bodes well for the future, and his second quarter in :22 1/5 was strong, as were his final two eighths in :12 2/5 and :12 3/5. This was a good experience for him, and at this point the Wood Memorial is being mentioned as his next possible target. With Essential Quality and Proxy hot on the Derby trail Godolphin certainly doesn’t need to rush this promising colt and try to stretch him out to a mile and a quarter at this stage of his career. But inexperience no longer is a deterrent on the Derby trail, especially this year, so it looks as if they are going to give him every opportunity to earn his way in.

RUN CLASSIC — If you’re looking for yet another fresh new face to possibly make a big splash at a price in the Louisiana Derby, here is what I wrote in Week 5: “One horse who made a big impression in a maiden race at Fair Grounds Saturday was the Bret Calhoun-trained Runhappy colt Run Classic, who was stretching out to a mile and a sixteenth off a rough trip going six furlongs. Rating nicely in third, he took over at the head of the stretch, changed leads on cue, and drew off impressively. He kept building up momentum with long fluid strides and galloped out very strong, still hugging the rail. His time of 1:44 1/5 was a full second faster than Sainthood ran in the other division, three-fifths of a second faster than a strong allowance race on the same card, and a full second faster than the Rachel Alexandra Stakes. And you had to be impressed with his closing fractions of :24 and :06 1/5, which were significantly faster than the closing times of the other maiden race and allowance race.” Should be interesting.

HIDDEN STASH — There was some concern the way he ran off before the Tampa Bay Derby and was so out of control. But it appears it was in reaction to a female lead pony, so he can be forgiven. His second-place finish after seemingly having the race won was actually a big effort considering the energy he wasted before the race. And the winner did come out and brush him a couple of times. He has the pedigree top and bottom, he’s consistent, he’s improving with very start, and he’s already won at Churchill Downs. He did have a problem changing leads in his first five starts, but did finally change in the Tampa Derby, so one would think he has no place to go but up.

CROWDED TRADE – He actually received a faster Thoro-Graph number in the Gotham than the winner, jumping from a solid “7” in his career debut to a “2 1/2,” so he certainly looks like a colt with a bright future, but still has yet to go two turns. Just another of the many guesses this year.

HIGHLY MOTIVATED – He rounds out the Chad Bown trio of Derby hopefuls. As we said that week, his third-place finish in the Gotham Stakes was much better than it looked considering the trip he had coming off a layoff. The big question with him is how far he wants to go. He also hasn’t been two turns so he will have a lot to prove next time out.

BIG LAKE – After nearly blowing a six-length lead in his previous start he ran a big race to finish third in the Rebel Stakes and probably would have finished second had he not gotten wiped out in the stretch by Caddo River and knocked into Get Her Number. He’s a big good-looking horse who definitely is on the Improve. If you want a horse with a strong Kentucky Derby influence, his sire won the Derby, his grandsire was second in the Derby, his great-grandsire was second in the Derby, and his great great-grandsire won the Derby. That’s just his sire’s line. On his female side, his great-grandsire won the Derby, his great great-grandsire was second in the Derby, and his fourth dam is a full-sister to a Derby winner.

MEDINA SPIRIT and SPIELBERG – Although they are not in the same class as Baffert’s top two Derby hopeful they still are extremely productive and can hold their own with most of the others. It’s just a question of where Baffert runs them. He could even go straight to the Derby with Medina Spirit after three straight two-turn stakes.

CADDO RIVER – What was disappointing other than his performance was the way Geroux fought him down the backstretch, almost standing up on the horse trying to keep him off Concert Tour, when in my opinion he would have been better off engaging him, considering Caddo River had more experience and was more seasoned, and Concert Tour was the horse to beat. You just do not let Bob Baffert horses get an uncontested lead. By the time he finally let the horse go he was empty and couldn’t even keep a straight course in the stretch.

KEEPMEINMIND – With all the setbacks in his racing and training schedule you can forgive a defeat in the Rebel Stakes, but the fact that he came up completely empty in the stretch is a reason for concern. But he does deserve another chance.

ROMBAUER – He is a consistent closer and handles all kinds of surfaces, and has run well in top company. But he needs to get faster and put himself in contention earlier and not leave himself with so much to do. We’ll see if they go back to the dirt or stick with the synthetic track in the Jeff Ruby Steaks.

DREAM SHAKE – Let’s not forget he was able to finish third in the San Felipe Stakes coming off only one sprint victory in which he received an amazing “1” Thoro-Graph number. It was no surprise he regressed off that, and now he is in position to take another step forward.

THE GREAT ONE – He has a lot of rebounding to do in the Florida Derby after his dismal effort in the San Felipe coming off Lasix and a huge Thoro-Graph number. All his connections can hope for is that he simply had a bad day and can bounce back at a new track against different competition.

OVERTOOK – As mentioned earlier Todd Pletcher will run him and Dynamic One in the Wood Memorial. Both have the same ownership and if Dynamic One falters he should be running late. He has already established his class with his fast-closing second in the Withers Stakes.

SOUP AND SANDWICH — He turned in a bullet half-mile work in :47 3/5 at Palm Meadows, fastest of 39 works at the distance. He is no doubt gifted, but still green, and if he can get his act together in the Florida Derby who knows what he’s capable of.

As you can tell from this week’s Rankings, the three starts to the Derby trend has taken off, as brilliant horses are making their career debuts later and later for whatever reason and then hope they can make a mad late dash into the big event. At the present time we have at least a dozen talented 3-year-olds who could attempt to get in the Derby off three career starts. We will go over them in detail next week.

Side note: Talk about horses getting a late start, too bad for American Pharoah’s brother TRIPLE TAP the Derby isn’t in September again this year. He is a beautiful mover who gets down low and covers a lot of the ground with great extension to his stride. He definitely is one to watch later on.


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