Derby Rankings: Week 10

Is it possible this crop isn’t as deep as we once thought or is it we have weeded out many of the pretenders and are about to welcome a new wave of talented lightly raced horses? We have lost a big name from the top, the Fair Grounds horses have not lived up to their promise, and we have had two highly ranked Brad Cox horses run terribly for no apparent reason. Let’s hope things start going smoother and we can finally get a clear picture just how good this crop really is. Right now we have the Big 3 and then everyone else. For those who wish to discuss Saturday’s Florida Derby, handicap the race together and talk about the Derby Rankings and share your Derby opinions, you can still join me on my virtual forum this Saturday at 3 p.m. as part of the Secretariat Birthday Celebration. We can even talk about the morning’s Dubai World Cup and UAE Derby. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 10, Mar. 22

By Steve Haskin


1. Greatest Honour (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Tiffany’s Honour, by Street Cry)
He will have a huge class advantage over his opponents in the Florida Derby, and although it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he finishes a fast-closing second, it would have to be to an extraordinarily talented horse and he would have to have a less than ideal trip. He certainly can’t give himself as much to do as he did in the Fountain of Youth. He should be in contention at the head of the stretch and he also has an advantage returning to the regular finish line and a longer stretch. With the recent impressive victories by Baffert’s Life is Good and Concert Tour, he had fallen to No. 4 on most Derby rankings before Life is Good’s injury, but I still haven’t seen any reason to drop him from the top spot that he has occupied for so long. Another impressive victory on Saturday and he likely will retain that spot the rest of the way regardless of what the others do. As McGaughey said, “It’s fun to watch him run.” He has been giving him nothing but half-mile breezes between :50 and :51 most of the winter, but it has proven to be successful, so he’s not changing anything now. In his last work in :50 2/5 in company, he came home his final quarter under no urging at all in :23 and change.

2. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
Well, there is no doubt the champ is ready after his sensational five-furlong work in a bullet :59 flat, fastest of 25 works at the distance. With him it’s all about ability and we know he has plenty of that to go along with his versatility and adaptability. And he does still have the fastest Thoro-Graph number and has shown that speed in his works. Unlike most of the others, you just can’t plan strategy against him because he can counter anything you throw at him. According to Godolphin’s Jimmy Bell he has been uncomplicated from day one and never went through any awkward stages. Niall Brennan, who gave him his early training, had him pegged as a top prospect right from the beginning. And it took only one breeze at Keeneland to convince Cox this was the real deal. He has had a willing attitude ever since and always gives everything in his works and in his races. So, as I’ve been saying, good luck trying to figure out a way to beat him.

3. Concert Tour (Bob Baffert, Street Sense – Purse Strings, by Tapit)
I have to admit his speed figures are nothing to get excited about, with his Thoro-Graph number improving ever so slightly from a ”5 1/2″ to a fairly moderate “4 1/2,” which he probably will have to improve at least three points to set him up for the Kentucky Derby. But I believe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg with him, as he still has a great deal of room for improvement, having just made his two-turn debut. Let’s see what he does at 1 1/8 miles before we form an opinion on how fast he is, and, remember, he did win the Rebel under wraps so he certainly could have run faster. He clearly is Baffert’s big Derby horse now and one who will handle the longer distances. What excited Baffert was how much he reminded him of American Pharoah down the backstretch of the Rebel, the way he was striding out so smoothly with his ears pricked. That is enough praise for any horse. Baffert knows we haven’t seen anything close to his best and is looking forward to stretching him out another furlong. With his first two-turn race behind him, don’t be surprised to see him rate off the pace this time, just like American Pharoah did coming off the Rebel.

4. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
I have stuck with him through the ups and downs since day one, even excusing his 13-length defeat in the Remsen Stakes when John Velazquez had to go to three right-handed whips on the backstretch to wake him up. I attributed that to his dislike of the slop, but when he went into snooze mode again early in the Sam F. Davis Stakes I began thinking it was him, which totally contradicted his extremely gutsy victory over Greatest Honour going a mile and an eighth prior to those races. And now coming off that sensational 11-length romp last time out with blinkers and Lasix added we finally should find out in the Florida Derby who the real Known Agenda is. Pletcher worked him five furlongs and he went off a slow quarter in :14 1/5 and then came home in a quick :48 1/5 to complete the work in 1:02 2/5. I still believe this colt has a lot of untapped ability and I’m looking for another big race. You can’t say this horse doesn’t keep you guessing, but all the guessing could be over on Saturday night. With all those European Derby winners in his pedigree and one of the all-time great classic sire lines in his female family he’s just waiting for a mile and a quarter for everything to make sense.

5. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Indan Miss, by Indian Charlie)
He actually had the best Thoro-Graph pattern going into the Louisiana Derby, having paired up his career best figure of “3 3/4″ in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, and that is the main thing I look for because pairing up a career best number proves it is legitimate and is the perfect launch pad to move forward, which he obviously did. You certainly can’t doubt this colt’s courage and his willingness to get in a street fight. He loves to battle and almost won the Lewis despite being only 75% ready for the race and getting bounced around between horses the length of the stretch. Being a half-brother to sprint champion Mitole and a great-grandson of sprint champion Smoke Glacken you wouldn’t think he’d relish 1 3/16 miles, but he pays no attention to family and just does his own thing. When he sold at the Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale, Sean Feld, who was selling him and three other yearlings with his brother Bob, contacted Dennis O’Neill and told him he had an Oxbow half-brother to Mitole he liked who wasn’t getting any action. So he sent him photos of the colt and a video of him walking and Dennis fell in love with him, buying him for a bargain $110,000. And the colt has been a joy ever since. He does everything right and is very easy on himself, constantly sleeping in his stall. Even though he had never been on the lead, Joel Rosario called Doug O’Neill the morning of the race and told him he wanted to go to the front, all but assuring him he’ll go wire to wire. He got the green light and Charlie did the rest. Dennis remembers the day Doug told him following the colt’s neck maiden victory with blinkers added that he is a completely different horse now and he’s going to run him in the BC Juvenile. Dennis thought he was crazy, but he nearly pulled it off at 94-1 and is the only horse to get close to Essential Quality. If you’re going to have six weeks to the Derby, this is exactly the kind of race you want, and at this distance.

6. Risk Taking (Chad Brown, Medaglia d’Oro – Run a Risk, by Distorted Humor)
He breezed five furlongs in 1:01 4/5. Brown has finalized his plans with his three Klaravich Stable Derby hopefuls. Risk Taking and Gotham runner-up Crowded Trade will both run in the Wood Memorial and Highly Motivated, third in the Gotham, will head for the Blue Grass Stakes. As much promise as Crowded Trade and Highly Motivated have shown, Risk Taking gets the higher ranking because he is far more advanced and has already proven himself at 1 1/8 miles and will be looking to score his third straight victory at nine furlongs. With a huge Thoro-Graph leap from a “10 1/2” to a “3 1/4” in the Withers Stakes, it would seem a wise decision to wait for the Wood Memorial to avoid a possible “bounce.” Now we will just have to see whether he can continue to improve enough to set himself up a for a peak performance in the Kentucky Derby. I keep saying this colt seems like a throwback type. He’s tough, he’s sound, and he runs hard. And he has shown he can be put under pressure early and be able to sustain his run a long way. We will also see if he’s even the best horse in his own barn as he takes on the lightly raced but rapidly improving Crowded Trade. Check out the probable Wood field that is shaping up in Knocking on the Door.

7. Rock Your World (John Sadler, Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
Just like that he likely will be one of the favorites in the Santa Anita Derby, and those Derby points look a lot more reachable. His connections have never been afraid to take on the giants, as we saw when they ran Accelerate against Arrogate. Owner Kosta Hronis said the plan all along was to take on Life is Good at home. That’s how much they think of this horse, who, as we said last week, could be special if he handles the dirt the same as the grass. And his pedigree and his works say he should. We may have gotten a sneak preview in his last work, in which he went five furlongs in 1:00 flat. Rock Your World has shown in his two starts on grass that he has early speed, can engage other horses and withstand pressure, but also has quick-fire acceleration and can burst clear of horses in a flash. If he possesses those same weapons on dirt, watch out. There is just something about this colt I find very intriguing, even with only two starts. As I mentioned, if you watched him gallop out after both those races, you knew they had big plans for him.

8. Weyburn (Jimmy Jerkens, Pioneerof the Nile – Sunday Affair, by A.P. Indy)
He had an easy half-mile breeze in :50 4/5 in his first work since his gutsy victory in the Gotham Stakes. Jerkens said he had a hard race in the Gotham and he’s not the heaviest horse in the world, so he really didn’t need anything quicker or more strenuous. With his Thoro-Graph leap from a “9” to a “3” he is pretty much in the same position as Risk Taking, only the Chad Brown-trained colt will have more time between races going into the Wood. With Crowded Trade coming off only one maiden sprint victory in the Gotham, you have to wonder if he’s pretty exceptional in his own right, actually running a faster Thoro-Graph number than the winner, or does that detract at all from Weyburn’s performance. Right now, the feeling here is that they both are very good colts, as is third-place finisher Highly Motivated. One thing you can be sure of is that this colt has a ton of improvement left in him, especially stretching out to two turns, and if he makes it to Churchill Downs, Jerkens will have him ready to go a mile and a quarter.

9. Collaborate (Saffie Joseph, Into Mischief – Quiet Temper, by Quiet American)
He had his final tuneup for the Florida Derby, working five furlongs in a solid 1:01 flat. Like many lightly raced horses who have demolished weaker fields we can only speculate how good a horse he really is and how he will perform against far more talented and classier horses. What makes this colt stand out is how easily he does things and how much faster he’s going than it looks because of his humongous stride. Even early on he was considered remarkably athletic for such a big horse with a smooth, easy-going stride. Yes his one victory came in a maiden race, but he crushed his opponents by 12 lengths looking as if he was two-minute licking in the morning. Obviously we won’t know he good he is until he takes on Greatest Honour, Known Agenda, and Spielberg, who have far more experience in graded stakes. But for now we just have to go by the eye test and see if he can take that big step forward. Of course he will need to finish no worse than second, and we saw what happened to O Besos, just missing second by a head after rallying from last in the Louisiana Derby, and that head could very well cost him a spot in the Derby.

10. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed)
He lost a week of training after getting sick following his second-place finish in the San Felipe Stakes, but he’s back on track and will step in and replace Life is Good as Baffert’s Santa Anita Derby hope. Although he has been living in Life is Good’s shadow all year trying in vain to catch him and was beaten badly by him in the San Felipe, he did come closer than anyone in the Sham Stakes and received a big boost when Hot Rod Charlie, who he defeated in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, came back to win the Louisiana Derby impressively. Now he finds himself as the likely favorite in what promises to be a wide-open Santa Anita Derby. But he won’t be the barn’s only representative, as Baffert is planning on running Defunded, who is coming off an impressive maiden victory going six furlongs in which he rallied in the stretch to win going away in 1:09 4/5. Medina Spirit has shown he can close from off the pace and can win on lead, and that he is a tough competitor the way he dug in and held off Roman Centurian and Hot Rod Charlie in the Lewis after it looked as if they had him measured at the top of the stretch. He clearly was Baffert’s third best Derby hopeful, but he has moved up to No. 2 and we’ll see if can stamp himself as a legitimate contender in the Santa Anita Derby.

11. Helium (Mark Casse, Ironicus – Thundering Emilia, by Thunder Gulch)
Casse said the plans to go straight to the Derby haven’t changed. As much as it goes against history on so many counts and is a monumental task for any horse, you can make a case that with his Thoro-Graph number jumping from an “8 1/4″ to a “3,” there was risk of having him go backwards with another race. But the fact is eight weeks to the Derby, having only one start at 3, and never having run farther than 1 1/16 miles are three obstacles that have not been overcome since the early 1900s. Casse feels that getting that “3” Thoro-Graph figure “puts him with the big boys.” As skeptical as I am about Helium accomplishing this, Casse seems confident he is doing the right thing and I have to admire his confidence in not only his horse’s ability, but his own, getting him there fit enough, seasoned enough, and sharp enough to handle 19 opponents going a mile and a quarter with only two seven-furlong races on Polytrack last year and a 1 1/16-mile race this year under him. So why in the world is ranked in the Top 12? Because there was no way he was supposed to do what he did in the Tampa Bay Derby, and when a horse has shown he can do something he’s not supposed to do you have to give him and his trainer some benefit of the doubt.

12. Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher, Union Rags – Beat the Drums, by Smart Strike)
Although he has frustrated his connections in the past, I thought his fourth-place finish in a maiden race that he was expected to win, was a super performance considering he had to go six-wide on the first turn, run five-wide the entire race, and displayed a powerful turn of foot sweeping by horses on the final turn, It was not surprising he couldn’t sustain his run in the stretch. Then it was learned he lost a shoe in the race and came back with mucus in his lungs. Since that race I have been waiting for him to break his maiden so he could put himself on the Derby trail. He was shipped to Aqueduct for a mile and an eighth race and despite coming from Gulfstream and running on a very slow track he was able to stalk the early pace and draw off to a 5 1/2-length victory. He won’t have an easy time of it in the Wood Memorial, but he does have the bottom, he’s very professional, and he has one of the strongest pedigrees of any 3-year-old. Now it’s just a question of whether he’s good enough to handle proven stakes horses.

13. Nicky the Vest (Jonathan Thomas, Runhappy – Tazarine, by Cat Thief)
Can a horse coming off only two New York-bred races in his life find happiness in the Wood Memorial and go on to be one of the leading contenders in the Kentucky Derby? This year anything is possible and this is the time to latch on to a few of these lightly raced horses who have shown potential and hope to catch lightning in a bottle. He’s definitely sharp enough, as indicated by his bullet five-furlong work in 1:00 1/5. As I’ve been saying, with him it’s been about the eye test and he passes on all counts. To simplify things, he just looks like a flat-out runner, even if it has been against New York-breds. The only reason he is just below the Top 12 is that he hasn’t been two turns. He has beautiful action, gets down low, and has great extension to his stride. And his victory in the Gander Stakes was one of the most visually impressive performances I’ve seen all year. Can he duplicate it against far classier horses? That’s what we can’t wait to find out.

14. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch to Moon, by Malibu Moon)
Well, he’s the last one standing from the Fair Grounds big three. There is no doubting his honesty and consistency and never having been out of the money in seven starts, all of them at a mile or longer. He has the pedigree and you can see he’s been developing physically. He can run on the lead or off the pace, but he still hasn’t figured out a way to catch horses in the stretch. Running on his home track and being in a perfect position the whole way, he was unable to get by Hot Rod Charlie and even let him open up and win by two lengths. He’s always going to be a factor, but if he’s going to have any chance to win the Kentucky Derby he is going to have to take advantage of the six-week layoff by continuing to develop physically and find a weapon he can use to finish off his opponents. With Life is Good gone, he might be an excellent candidate to set the pace in the Derby and keep going. Many times horses who have a reluctance to pass horses in the stretch are themselves very hard to pass on the lead.

15. Roman Centurian (Simon Callaghan, Empire Maker – Spare Change, by Bernardini)
This is one horse you don’t want to give up on, He had no chance to threaten Life is Good in the San Felipe the way the race was run. His second in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes was very encouraging and it was announced he will head to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial, as trainer Simon Callaghan said that race and the new surface should set up for him well. But with the defection of Life is Good, will they change plans and stay home? As of Sunday he is still in the Wood. Perhaps Hot Rod Charlie had the right idea skipping the San Felipe and not having to chase Life is Good. Don’t forget, I thought enough of him after his maiden victory to rank him in the top 12 in the Week 1 Rankings, which I normally would never do. But with his strong pedigree and look of a true distance horse, I can’t get too down on him based on a 1 1/16-mile race with a small field and a top Derby contender alone on the lead who strung out the field. He had a visually impressive half-mile breeze in :50 2/5, in which he was kept wide turning for home and had a very strong gallop-out and I believe he will be tough wherever he runs.

16. Spielberg (Bob Baffert, Union Rags – Miss Squeal, by Smart Strike)
After finishing a strong second to Essential Quality in the Southwest Stakes despite a terrible start, he is heading to Gulfstream for the Florida Derby. Baffert said he came out of the Southwest in great shape and just needs to break well this time. As expected, he has him razor sharp, working him five furlongs in :59 2/5. He has had an up and down career, but what he has going for him are the excellent performances of the California shippers so far. On his best day he is a formidable opponent and we’ll see how he stacks up against the top Florida-based 3-year-olds. And his “1” Thoro-Graph number in the Southwest equaled Greatest Honour’s fastest number. He is a seasoned veteran with eight career starts who has been ridden by five different jockeys and has never been off the board. He showed a totally new dimension in the Southwest and looked like a serious threat to Essential Quality turning for home after having to come from last following his awkward start. Baffert rarely ships to Florida, so when he does you have to take him seriously.



ROMBAUER – They had been putting off announcing his next start, but after working five furlongs in :59 1/5 and the defection of Life is Good he will now go in the Santa Anita Derby. You can expect him to be closing late, but he needs to put himself in contention earlier to give him a legitimate shot to win. This isn’t the Tapeta surface at Golden Gate against lesser rivals. But if the pace is contentious and honest enough he definitely has a shot, as do most of the horses in this field, which has no real standout anymore.

DREAM SHAKE – Now, if you’re looking for fast workouts how about his sizzling five furlongs in a bullet :58 1/5 in company, fastest of 75 works at the distance. With his two-turn debut in the San Felipe out of the way and a decent third-place finish behind runaway winner Life is Good, there is no reason why we won’t see a big performance in the now very wide-open Santa Anita Derby. We still have no idea how good this horse is.

PREVALENCE – It wasn’t a good week for Thoro-Graph figures, as he actually regressed from his career debut from a “3 1/4″ to a “5 1/2,” which does not bode well for him being competitive enough in the Arkansas Derby or wherever he attempts to earn his way into the Kentucky Derby, unless he makes a big turnaround. With Proxy’s disappointing effort in the Louisiana Derby, it seems more likely now they will pursue the Derby.

KEEPMEINMIND – There was some concern about hs Thoro-Graph figure in his victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, in which he earned only a so-so “6” following his “5 3/4″ in the his third-place finish in the BC Juvenile. So, here he is finally making his 3-year-old debut following two postponements and missing 16 days of training. Although he finished a disappointing sixth, beaten eight lengths, in the Rebel Stakes, he actually earned the same “6” he got winning a Grade 2 stakes. That isn’t that far off Concert Tour’s winning number, so if you believe Concert Tour can improve several points in the Arkansas Derby, why can’t Keepmeinmind, who certainly had a reason to come up short in this race? But the bottom line is he needs to get faster.

THE GREAT ONE – It has been decided to give him more time between races, so the original plan of going to the Florida Derby has been scrapped and he will now point for the Santa Anita Derby. With a Thoro-Graph regression from a “1” to a “7 1/4,” after a huge “bounce” he is another who needs to make a pretty dramatic turnaround and improve at least four or five points. His connections have no clue why he ran so poorly in the San Felipe. His blood was good after the race and he looks great physically, so they are just hoping he had a bad day. He worked a half in :49 1/5 breaking off behind a workmate. He finished up strong under no urging at all and galloped out even stronger.

SOUP AND SANDWICH – Watching his first two races I have no doubt this is a talented colt with a bright future. The big question jumping up in the Florida Derby is whether he has matured enough to make his presence felt considering how green he’s been. He’s been able to win in spite of it, but against far weaker competition than he’s going to face on Saturday. He had a nice half-mile tuneup in :48 2/5 and we’ll just have to see how much progress he’s made.

HIDDEN STASH – He went an easy five furlongs in 1:04 at Payson Park and could show up next in the Blue Grass Stakes. As I’ve mentioned, his second in the Tampa Bay Derby can be excused after he ran off before the race throwing his head wildly, which has been attributed to his reaction to a female lead pony. Now that we know he can change leads, we’ll just see how he does wherever he runs.

O BESOS – He is improving at the right time and made big run up the rail to get third in the Louisiana Derby, but by just missing to catch Midnight Bourbon for second he may have cost himself a spot in the Derby. He does have 25 points so all is not lost. It all depends on how things play out from here.

PROXY – It’s not that he ran poorly in the Louisiana Derby, he just didn’t perform up to expectations, especially with blinkers added. Yes. He did get squeezed at the start and was taken out of his game plan, and then rallied wide at the top of the stretch, but at that point you had to feel he should have at least been able to finish in the money. However, he had little punch in the stretch, so now I don’t know here he stands.
MANDALOUN – As successful as Brad Cox has been it hasn’t been a good two weeks on the Derby front with the inexplicably poor efforts from Caddo River and now Mandaloun, who had no apparent excuse and just called it quits at the top of the stretch after tracking the leaders in third. We’ll just have to see if we learn any more about both horses.

PARNELLI – He’s been totally forgotten after two bad efforts, but don’t ignore him in the Santa Anita Derby. He is a horse I once had high hopes for and was prepared to rank him very high on the Derby Rankings. In his second and third starts at one mile he was beaten a neck each time, first by Hot Rod Charlie and then by Spielberg. In his third start, again at a mile, he looked fantastic winning off by almost six lengths under a hand ride. But then in the Sham Stakes and Robert B. Lewis Stakes he was beaten badly each time. John Shirreffs gave him time off and put blinkers on in the morning and the colt has looked sensational, working five furlongs in :59 4/5 and 1:00 2/5, and on Thursday worked seven furlongs in a powerful 1:26, in which Shirreffs said the rider was blowing a lot harder than Parnelli. This is a horse who has shown a tendency to get intimidated down on the rail and in the Lewis he was tight quarters between horses and was forced to steady, then tried to rally along the rail, but quickly called it a day. If the blinkers help in the Santa Anita Derby and if he can get to the outside this could be a wake-up race for him. The talent is there.

BROOKLYN STRONG – He hasn’t even run this year after several setbacks, but he is at least extremely sharp right now, working five furlongs in a bullet :59 3/5, fastest of 16 works at the distance. Debuting in the Wood Memorial is asking a lot, but they obviously want to get in the Derby so they’ll take a shot. At least he’s a Grade 2 winner at 1 1/8 miles.

MOONLITE STRIKE – I’m not sure how far he wants to go, but he ran an excellent third in the Tampa Bay Derby at 34-1 and is coming off a pair of sharp half-mile works in a bullet :47 2/5, fastest of 87 works at the distance, and :47 3/5. With Saffie Joseph running Collaborate in the Florida Derby he could show up in the Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby.

In other works of note, HIGHLY MOTIVATED drilled a sharp half in :48, fourth fastest of 156 works at the distance. The puzzling and frustrating SITTIN ON GO, whose career has taken a major plunge since winning the Iroquois Stakes, worked a half in a bullet :59 1/5 at Gulfstream, making him even more puzzling. His stablemate SMILEY SOBOTKA, another disappointment this year, worked five furlongs in 1:00 3/5. You know Dale Romans is going to keep persevering with both of them.

Here is the way the Wood is shaping up: Weyburn, Risk Taking, Crowded Trade, Roman Centurian, Nicky the Vest. Dynamic One, Overtook, and Brooklyn Strong. Possible starter is Prevalence. This is a fascinating group, as six of these horses have been ranked, so something has to give.

Meet Steve Haskin virtually this upcoming weekend and participate in his informative Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby Rankings Preview as part of the festivities during the March 27, Secretariat Birthday Celebration


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