Derby Rankings: Week 11

Well, four of the 100-point preps are in the books and four to go. And guess what, the picture is even more unclear than it was before. We have 11 horses from this country who have completed their preps, the majority of whom are fairly secure when it comes to points. But others have to sit back and see what transpires. There no doubt will be controversy regarding the placing of the top two ranked horses, but it is all explained and will be resolved in Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes. So here we go. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 11, Mar. 29

By Steve Haskin


1. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
No, this is not a knee-jerk reaction. Everyone thought I had this horse ranked way too high at No. 4, not having accomplished much in stakes company, getting a head-scratching 82 Beyer in his 11-length win last out, and Churchill Downs refusing to put him in the Future Wager field. I can regurgitate everything I have written about him and why I have been so high on him, but the bottom line is that he finally has arrived. All you had to do was look at that low action and the way he sticks out his neck and reaches out with those huge strides to know why he’s been such a pleasure to watch run. He got himself out of a precarious spot down on the rail, where he does not want to be, which gives one confidence he can handle a big Derby field. Why Irad Ortiz hit him eight times left-handed even while he was shying from the whip and drifting out is beyond me. Despite that and then being angled in sharply he still came home his final three-eighths in a sharp :36 4/5. And that came after quarters of :24 and :24 1/5. If you don’t think the blinkers have snapped him out of his recent malaise, his Thoro-Graph figure last race catapulted from an unseemly “11” to a “3 1/2” and now here he was trapped on the rail and weaving his way out just like an old pro. As for his top ranking, he is now two-for-two against previous No. 1 Greatest Honour. Eddie Woods, who gave him his early training said he was a beautiful mover, but more importantly he was a “star mentally,” and that’s what you want to hear going into the Derby. If you want a refresher course on this colt’s amazing pedigree you can either go back to Week 1 in the archives or wait for an even more in depth look at it next week.

2. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
Yes, I am fully aware he should be No. 1, and perhaps should have been even before the Florida Derby. But let’s look at it this way, Known Agenda, ranked No. 4, has stamped himself as a major contender who is progressing rapidly and has a pedigree to die for. If Essential Quality somehow gets beat in the Blue Grass, which is very doubtful, he would be No. 1 for only one week. This way, let’s just wait a week for him to defeat his far inferior opponents at Keeneland and then he can have four weeks on top. Also, let’s not forget that Brad Cox has already had two major contenders run terribly, although no one expects that from this colt. From a personal perspective, I am always looking for those hidden gems and right now it’s more fun going against the grain and not being so logical, while elevating one of those hidden gems despite the derision of others. I guess I am too loyal to them, as I was when I stubbornly refused to put Justify No. 1 over Vino Rosso, who kind of reminds me of Known Agenda, so I apparently didn’t learn my lesson. With that said, Essential Quality is now the clear-cut Derby favorite and the most sensible No. 1. The Blue Grass is looking like a fairly small field at this point, with no one who appears capable of beating him. His performance also could affect what Godolphin does with their impressive UAE Derby winner Rebel’s Romance. Tune in next week when we have the real Derby picture.

3. Concert Tour (Bob Baffert, Street Sense – Purse Strings, by Tapit)
His Thoro-Graph and Brisnet speed figures need to get a bit faster, but with his first two-turn race under him and the improvement expected from a horse with only three career starts and a single two-turn race that he won under wraps, there is little doubt Baffert will have him cranked up for a career best effort in the Arkansas Derby, which like the Blue Grass looks to be coming up light, at least as of now. So, barring the unforeseen, it appears we should have a Bob Baffert — Brad Cox showdown in the Derby, and you can bet Baffert didn’t like seeing this young gun come along last year and snatching the Eclipse Award he felt he deserved, especially considering that despite his remarkable success year after year he amazingly has won only one Eclipse award in the past 21 years and that was compliments of the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Now he has a chance to give Gary and May West the Derby victory they had taken away from them two years ago. As for Concert Tour, he does have to take another step forward and he helped his cause with an impressive looking five-furlong work in 1:00 4/5, which doesn’t sound exceptional by Baffert’s standards, but he worked alone and had his ears up the entire length of the stretch with the rider’s hands virtually motionless. Only when he was asked for a little more after the wire did he put his ears back and get down to more serious business. Baffert has always liked this horse and there was one week a while back when he was trying to tame the aggressive Life is Good and harness his speed that he said Concert Tour was his best 3-year-old.

4. Greatest Honour (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Tiffany’s Honour, by Street Cry)
Here is a tip for today’s not so old racing fans: horses lose. They do it all the time, especially after they have won three in a row. Believe it or not, in the 19 years between 1992 and 2010, 13 Derby winners lost their previous start, including those trained by Baffert (twice), Lukas (twice), Pletcher, Zito, Shirreffs, Tagg, and Mack Miller. Sure, we’ve been spoiled in the past several years, but the recent Derby winners that have won their previous start were lightly raced and had little wear and tear. But Greatest Honour has had seven starts, five of them around two turns, and has raced every month since September without a break. He unfortunately ran too big a race in late January, all those long races have dulled him, and he has tailed off a bit; it has happened before. Fortunately, he, like the others alluded to earlier, has a Hall of Fame trainer who is very capable of using the next five weeks to get him sharp again. And let’s add that he received a very questionable ride in the Florida Derby, going four-wide into the turn, then cutting sharply to the rail for some reason and again dropping to the back of the pack. Stuck in a precarious situation, he then was asked to make a premature move down the backstretch and ran smack into a traffic jam with no way out until it was too late. Yes, he came up empty in the stretch, but this is a horse who wants to be clear on the outside, and now it’s up to McGaughey to bring back the horse we saw in the Holy Bull, who was only four lengths off a :46 4/5 half and won going away.

5. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed)
After his last race, he had a little ulcer in this throat and looked like he was starting to entrap, so they did a minor procedure on it and he’s doing great now and has since tuned in two strong works. In Sunday’s half-mile drill he worked from the 4 1/2-furlong pole and really picked it up after the wire, going out six furlongs in about 1:12, and doing it very smoothly. Let’s not forget that Life is Good is the only horse to defeat him and he has shown he can win on the lead and dig in gamely when threatened and can close from off the pace. And he is versatile enough to win at 5 1/2 furlongs and 1 1/16 miles. He likely will be the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby and with his speedy stablemate Defunded in there, it is expected he will provide a solid pace. This looks like a very competitive race on paper and should be an excellent steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby. But with his problems cleared up and Life is Good out of the way, this is his time to shine.

6. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Indian Miss, by Indian Charlie)
I honestly don’t know what to make of the Louisiana Derby and have no idea how much this colt has improved since the Breeders’ Cup. The Louisiana Derby has fooled us many times in the past when it comes to producing Kentucky Derby horses, but you would think the 1 3/16-mile distance should set these horses up for the big race better than in past years. After he paired up “3 3/4” Thoro-Graph numbers I thought he would move forward off that, but he ran another “3 3/4,” which means he hasn’t gotten any faster since the Breeders’ Cup. And despite the fact that he won by two lengths, his Thoro-Graph number was the fourth fastest in the race, a full point slower than the third-place finisher. He has proven to be a tough competitor who never backs down from a fight, and he is another who is versatile enough to win from on or off the pace. There is a good chance he will lose Joel Rosario to Concert Tour, and Rosario will be tough to replace, so we will have to see how that plays out.

7. Rock Your World (John Sadler, Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
I ranked him this high last week off two grass starts because they were eye-catching performances, in which he displayed a quick turn of foot and had two monster gallop-outs. I admit at first I wasn’t that crazy about his work last week, as the rider was way too busy on him tying to keep up with his workmate and had him in a full-out drive at the wire. But I saw in Sunday’s work that’s him. And boy was he rolling in his spectacular five-furlong work in a bullet :59 1/5, which not only was the fastest of 76 works at the distance, it was two full seconds faster than the average time that day of 1:01 1/5. He again was being asked in the stretch, with the rider throwing a cross on him and riding him hard at the wire. But he seems to thrive on that, coming back a week after a hard six-furlong work and working lights out like this. Sadler certainly doesn’t baby him in the morning like many trainers these days do. He has such a powerful stride with great extension and seems to get stronger the farther he goes. Just watch the gallop-outs after his two races. His pedigree is made up of several top-class horses who excelled on both grass and dirt and at all distances. As I’ve been saying the past few weeks, he could be special and we very well may be seeing a huge breakout performance on Saturday.

8. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch to Moon, by Malibu Moon)
The blueprint for this horse is simple if he is going to win the Derby. He has shown he just doesn’t have the desire or more likely the closing punch to pass horses in the stretch, but good luck tying to get by him if he has the lead. His sire was not the type to run down horses in the stretch, but there wasn’t a horse who could get by him. He did battle on gamely when apparently beaten to stick his nose in front of Sakhee at the wire in his second Classic victory, but he was a 4-year-old and fully battle-tested, and he was a Hall of Famer. This colt needs to find out who he is and how to use the one weapon his sire apparently has passed down to him. We know what he can’t do and we saw what he can do in the LeComte Stakes and he definitely looks like he has a lot of Tiznow in him in that he is a dogged competitor who needs to be in front to be able to use his tenacity and courage. So, here we are at the Derby. There are two scenarios for victory: he goes to the lead knowing no one is going to pay attention to him and he lulls everyone to sleep until it is time to go after him. That is when he pulls out his main weapon and dares anyone to pass him; or he sits right off a horse who is determined to get to the front and then catches him by surprise and takes over by the time they hit the top of stretch. He just needs to be in front before they turn for home. There you go, the general has spoken.

9. Soup and Sandwich (Mark Casse, Into Mischief – Souper Scoop, by Tapit)
First off, I feel this colt is probably one race short of being ready to win the Kentucky Derby, but he showed me so much more than I expected from such a green immature horse who hasn’t beaten anything that I am at least convinced he is ready to be competitive. In his first two races he was gawking at everything, was intimidated easily, ducked sharply to the inside in the stretch for no apparent reason, managed to get himself trapped in a three-horse field at Tampa Bay, and had trouble changing leads. Although he still refused to change leads in the Florida Derby, he ran perfectly straight down the stretch and was far more professional in general. He floated a bit too wide going into the first turn, but settled nicely pressing the early pace. He managed to get a short lead nearing the head of the stretch and I thought John Velazquez would set him down before the big horses closed in on him, but he just kept sitting chilly on him, and it looked as if he was caught by surprise when Known Agenda suddenly swung out and showed up right alongside him. Velazquez looked over and it was like, “Oops, where did you come from?” By then it was too late, as Known Agenda was by him. He was so close to him, possibly even brushing him that it might have impeded his lead change. He remained stuck on his left lead the rest of the way, but still hung in there and ran strong to the wire, finishing three lengths ahead of Greatest Honour. He definitely is still a work in progress and when the final product emerges we’re going to see a very exciting horse. But this was a huge step forward for him. Now all he has to do is show he can change leads.

10. Risk Taking (Chad Brown, Medaglia d’Oro – Run a Risk, by Distorted Humor)
Boy, the Wood Memorial is a tough race to figure out, with so many elements and different types of horses converging. This is a pure crap shoot. Any one of seven horses has a legitimate shot to win. I have had him ranked highest and no sense changing now. I’m not sure if he is fast enough for some of these horses, but he has made such great strides and is so tough and a relentless closer I have no choice but to stick with him knowing any one of his opponents can pop a big one and beat him, including his own stablemate Crowded Trade, who could be any kind, but like Nicky the Vest, Prevalence, and Brooklyn Strong, he has a lot of catching up to do. Risk Taking on the other hand is a seasoned, battle-tested pro with a lot of foundation. So I am just going to sit back and enjoy what promises to be a cavalry charge in the stretch and see who prevails.

11. Weyburn (Jimmy Jerkens, Pioneerof the Nile – Sunday Affair, by A.P. Indy)
He has never been two turns, but I have no doubt he will not only handle it, but probably will improve. I am also a sucker for any horse trained by Jimmy Jerkens, especially one that comes from such a strong family that has the presence of Sky Beauty, the Hall of Fame Triple Tiara winner trained by Jimmy’s father Allen, one of the truly great trainers who taught his son well. Yes, I like this horse, especially the way he bounced back from an illness that cost him valuable time to run one of the gutsiest races of the year going a tough flat mile, but more so I am confident Jerkens will get the best out of him and have him ready for a peak effort in the Kentucky Derby. But first he has to get past this tough race and we will see how he handles the two turns. All I know is that Weyburn is going to be ready for this test and the big one in five weeks when we will see a fitter and more polished colt. He had a bit of a lung opener this week, working six furlongs over the deeper Belmont training track in 1:16.

12. Helium (Mark Casse, Ironicus – Thundering Emilia, by Thunder Gulch)
There are only so many times I can go over all the historical obstacles he has to overcome, but here goes one more time.  Eight weeks to the Derby, having only one start at 3, and having never run farther than 1 1/16 miles. You know who has overcome all that in the past 100 years? No one. I admit in this day and age you never say never. We have no idea how good this horse is and he has already accomplished something he never should have, so he may be special. But with so many lightly raced horses this year and such mass confusion after the top five or six horses you have to draw some kind of line somewhere. If he pulls this off don’t expect to see future Derby horses compete very often. I did love his latest work, a half in :49 1/5 in company. Even working with another horse you can see how determined this horse is and how much he loves competition. I expect soon we will see some longer works to put some bottom in him.

13. Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher, Union Rags – Beat the Drums, by Smart Strike)
This is another Pletcher horse on which I have gone out on a limb, way more than with Known Agenda. Obviously I have been much higher on Known Agenda, but this horse really grabbed my attention in a fourth-place finish in a maiden race. There were so many things I liked about him and reasons why that race was a throwout. Now that he finally broke his maiden going 1 1/8 miles in fine style there is no telling how far he can move forward. Nothing fancy here. I just like what I’ve seen and absolutely love his pedigree, both of which I have already written about. He will be a big price in the Wood and a second would be huge. Although he needs a fairly big jump forward off his “5” Thoro-Graph number it is doable. He is a must bet for me for a very minimal wager even if he is up against it and doesn’t look as fast and as classy as the others. Like with many of these I’m just taking a wild shot that there is a top-class colt lurking in there just waiting to bust out. But I admit that more likely will come later on.

14. O Besos (Gregory Foley, Orb – Snuggs and Kisses, by Soto)
Hopefully he won’t turn out to be the heartbreak story of the Derby trail, missing by a head of getting in the Derby. That head separating him from second in the Louisiana Derby could cost him dearly, as his connections can only sit back and wait to see if 25 points will get him in. And that normally doesn’t, and the Florida Derby and Jeff Ruby Steaks didn’t help with four horses shooting past him. They can thank Churchill Downs for buying Turfway Park and increasing the Jeff Ruby winning points from 20 to 100. And we still have to wait to see what happens in the four big remaining preps and if anyone comes from Japan or Europe, and if either of the top two finishers of the UAE Derby come. He deserves to get in, but as Clint Eastwood said to Gene Hackman, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” He has really improved and what makes it even more frustrating was that he was gaining fast on runner-up Midnight Bourbon, just coming up inches short. He also got the highest Thoro-Graph number in the race, a “2 3/4,” which puts him right up there in the in the top five fastest 3-year-olds. He would have been ranked higher if his status wasn’t so precarious.

15. Roman Centurian (Simon Callaghan, Empire Maker – Spare Change, by Bernardini)
There are so many horses you can bet in the Santa Anita Derby, but if the price is right I would probably bet a few bucks on him along with Rock Your World because I believe he could be a huge overlay, having come within a head of Medina Spirit off a maiden win that was so impressive and pleasing to the eye I had him ranked in the Top 12 in Week 1, and I very rarely if ever rank a horse off a maiden victory. Too many maiden winners look great but regress when they face winners. He justified the ranking with his huge effort in the Robert Lewis, in which his Thoro-Graph numbers went from a “13” and a “6” to a “3 1/4.” He had no shot in the San Felipe with Life is Good controlling the pace and then having the field get way too strung out on the turn for him to threaten. He was going to skip town to run in the Wood Memorial, but now it looks like he’s staying home where he should get plenty of early pace. If he can rebound with another big effort he would be a very serious horse, especially with his breeding.

16. Dream Shake (Peter Eurton, Twirling Candy – Even Song, by Street Cry)
He definitely is bettable in the Santa Anita Derby after his solid third in the San Felipe off one six-furlong victory, but I have a feeling he is going to get bet, quite possibly down to second choice. There has been a buzz surrounding this horse ever since his eye-catching debut when he came from off the pace and blew away the field that included the highly touted Bezos. I’m still not convinced he can be ready for a winning effort in the Kentucky Derby off the two races in which he has run, but I will admit his first race was awfully impressive and he ran quite well in the San Felipe considering who he was thrown in against being so inexperienced and with so little foundation under him. He could do anything on Saturday and it wouldn’t surprise me, because as I have said ad nauseam I have no idea how good these horses are.



UNTREATED – Just found out he is running the Blue Grass Stakes. Watch out for this colt. In his last start he demonstrated the most impressive turn of foot and explosive burst of speed I’ve seen all year, going from seventh to first in a matter of seconds and then absolutely crushing his field, while not drifting an inch off his path. He is one race short of being ready for this kind of test but his connections say they can only play the cards they’ve been dealt. They are taking a shot with no idea how’s going to do. But if you’re looking for a fresh new face you know nothing about to burst on the scene, this colt could be the one if he can duplicate that devastating move we saw at Tampa Bay. He is the long lean type who looks as if distance will be no problem and is another whose talent and class is unknown, but who has shown enough to suggest he is one to keep an eye on. With Essential Quality in there, it’s a tough spot, but they would be be thrilled with a second. It’s just whether or not he’s up to this test being one race away from top form.

PREVALENCE – I have no doubt this is an exceptional colt, but I just want to see more than I saw in his three-length allowance victory beating a $50,000 claimer. I know he did miss time with a fever, but he is far superior to those horses. Like many this year I don’t know if he will be ready to go a mile and a quarter in five weeks, but he obviously is extremely talented, and no doubt all eyes will be on him. He did turn in a sensational half-mile work in :47 3/5 in company and breaking off in front on the inside. He was very smooth down the stretch, but with powerful strides, and blew the doors off his workmate. If that’s the Prevalence we’re going to see on Saturday it sure will make things interesting.

REBEL’S ROMANCE – So what does Godolphin do? They should have a clearer picture after the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial depending on how Essential Quality and Prevalence do. And they already have Proxy in the starting lineup. But this gelding sure looked impressive putting in a powerful stretch run to put away a tough classy frontrunner in the undefeated PANADOL, who had wired his field in the Al Bastakiya, the second leg of the UAE Triple Crown, and is a U.S.-bred son of Flatter. Godolphin has been trying to win the Derby with a horse trained in Dubai since the ‘90s, but have come up empty. Rebel’s Romance’s two grandsires are Dubai Millennium, who was Sheikh Mohammed’s pride and joy, and Street Cry, who had a big chance to give him his Derby victory until he got hurt a little over a week before the race. Both Dubai Millennium and Street Cry went on to win the Dubai World Cup. Dubai Millennium sired only one crop before dying from grass sickness at age 5. But in that crop was Dubawi, the sire of Rebel’s Romance. Street Cry sired two of the greatest mares in history, Zenyatta and Winx, before his premature death in Australia at the age of 16. How special would it be for Sheikh Mohammed to finally win the elusive Kentucky Derby with a grandson of Dubai Millennium and Street Cry. Trainer Charlie Appleby didn’t seem overly enthusiastic after the race about him going, but realizes it will be Sheikh Mohammed’ decision. If I knew he was running he would be ranked in the Top 10.

LIKE THE KING – The Jeff Ruby Steaks winner does have a second on the dirt in his career debut, but has been racing on synthetic since. He came from far back, made a big sweeping move on the far turn and was widest of all turning into the stretch before powering home to win by a length. His sire Palace Malice won the Belmont Stakes and his third dam is by Belmont winner Bet Twice, so there is plenty of stamina top and bottom with the addition of Curlin, Unbridled, and Easy Goer.

SAINTHOOD – I you want an up-and-coming star who had an unbelievable trip in the Jeff Ruby, you have to keep an eye on this Todd Pletcher-trained son of Mshawish. Coming off a narrow maiden victory in only his second career start, he broke sharply and found himself on the lead briefly before settling back in second. Down the backstretch he was passed by several others and dropped six lengths off the pace. He made his move on the inside rounding the turn, but again lost ground, falling back to sixth. He was swung to the far outside nearing the top of the stretch, but ran right into the winner who blocked his way and who then shoved him back in and behind a wall of horses forcing jockey Gerardo Corrales to steady briefly looking for an opening. He finally got him to the outside, but Like the King was long gone by then. Corrales gave him one right-handed whip at the sixteenth pole and Sainthood exploded, tearing into the winner’s lead in the final yards, but fell a length short. It’s difficult to gauge a horse’s true talent on a synthetic course, but he was incredibly game in his maiden victory at Fair Grounds, re-breaking and battling back to win by a nose. He’s in the Derby if they want to move forward with him.

I don’t even know where to begin with the others. If there is one improving horse who could make his presence felt against Essential Quality, at least to finish second, it likely would be HIDDEN STASH, who might have won the Tampa Bay Derby if he didn’t get freaked out by a female lead pony and run off for a long way hugging the rail and throwing his head around wildly. He finally was reined in by the outrider and still went out there and finished a good second, running a career-high “4” Thoro-Graph number. Two others who bear watching are HIGHLY MOTIVATED stretching out to two turns and possibly KEEPMEINMIND, who may wind up waiting for the Arkansas Derby. We may also see TARANTINO wheel back in a week after his disastrous start in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, in which he was outdistanced and just loped around the track. It looks as if the Blue Grass could get California invader ROMBAUER and he certainly has a shot to come flying late to get a piece of it. John Battaglia winner HUSH OF A STORM passed the Jeff Ruby Steaks to prep on the dirt in the Blue Grass.

In the Wood, BROOKLYN STRONG will be making his 3-year-old debut in a desperate attempt to get in the Derby and I have no idea what to expect with him not having run since his Remsen victory in November. And can CROWDED TRADE repeat that huge performance in the Gotham? He is another we don’t much about, but that was an exceptional performance and we are going to find out if he is just as effective going two turns.

Three horses trying to bounce back big-time in the Santa Anita Derby off poor efforts are THE GREAT ONE, who has been impressive working long and trying to return to the Rankings, PARNELLI, who will get blinkers and has been working super in them, and GET HER NUMBER, who didn’t have the best of trips in the Rebel Stakes. Any one of these can rebound and return to their earlier form. We’re talking Doug O’Neill, John Shirreffs, and Peter Miller, so you cannot dismiss any of them.

So here are the horses who have completed their preps and next stop Kentucky Derby: Known Agenda, Greatest Honour, Soup and Sandwich, Hot Rod Charlie, Midnight Bourbon, O Besos, Proxy, Mandaloun, Helium, Like the King, and Sainthood. Possibles: Rebel’s Romance, Panadol, and let’s call Mandaloun a possibility.

Don’t look now but that’s more than half the field already and we still have four major preps remaining and the last gasp Lexington Stakes, and who knows if anyone will be coming from Japan or Europe.


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