Derby Rankings: Week 12

The big weekend of final preps that was supposed to clear up the Derby picture hardly accomplished that as we lost several of the old faces and added several new ones, including a megabomb that no one saw coming. So, now with only four weeks to the Derby here is the roster that has been assembled…with even more question marks. As you will see, I am not taking the conventional path when it comes to who reigns atop the Rankings. This is not the year to be boring. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 12, Apr. 5

By Steve Haskin

1. Rock Your World (John Sadler, Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
In the 22 years I’ve been doing Derby Dozen and Derby Rankings I have never had a tougher time deciding who to put No. 1. It all comes down to this: Essential Quality is an undefeated champion who is the most logical No. 1. Known Agenda has already had the top spot and is a horse I have been high on from day one. But despite having only three career starts, Rock Your World is the one horse who possesses freakish qualities you rarely see. I am looking at him as a horse who has had more than three starts because I have never seen a horse gallop out after a race the way he does and comes back as if he wants to go around again. He possesses a remarkable engine with numerous gears. In the Santa Anita Derby he used one gear to run his opponents off their feet early, another to quickly separate himself from the stalking Medina Spirit and Parnelli on the turn, and several more in the stretch as he kept changing leads and surging forward each time. After setting a wicked pace, he seemed to get stronger the farther he went, running through the wire and opening up at least 15 lengths on the gallop-out. After returning, jockey Umberto Rispoli had to tug hard on the reins to get him to pull up. And he still is raw, as he demonstrated when he needed Rispoli to help him change leads, and then when the rider hit him right-handed and looked back over his shoulder, he jumped back to his left lead and surged again as he did in the Pasadena. It’s as if he uses lead changes to find another gear. This horse is just different, which is why I have had him ranked so high off two starts and never having run on dirt. Physically, he is a beast and he’s doing things ordinary horses just don’t do. As I concluded in last week’s comment, “He could be special and we very well may be seeing a huge breakout performance on Saturday.” That we did. And for those who follow it, he is now the only one among the Derby hopefuls to earn a 100 Beyer this year.

2. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
It was tough dropping him to No. 2, but it’s almost a dead-heat. When a horse has been running Thoro-Graph numbers of “11” and makes a giant leap to a “3 1/2″ there are several factors to consider. In this case, making such a dramatic improvement you have to ask, was it due to the addition of blinkers? Was it due to the addition of Lasix? Will he regress coming off Lasix in his first Grade 1 stakes? Will he simply “bounce” off a figure that he’s never come close to running before? Well, all those questions became moot when he not only didn’t regress he took another jump forward running a “1 1/2.” So now we know this horse is on a strong upward trend. As for his pedigree, in this day and age where speed rules, he is a rarity with points in both the stamina categories of his Dosage Profile. His granddam comes from one of the strongest European sires lines of modern times, from her sire Darshaan, who won the French Derby and was a champion sire and broodmare sire in three countries to Darshaan’s sire Shirley Heights, who the English and Irish Derby and sired a French Derby winner and English Derby winner in back-to-back years to Shirley Heights’ sire, the legendary Mill Reef, winner of the English Derby, King George, and Arc de Triomphe, whose record of six consecutive Group 1 victories stood for 30 years and who sired eight classic winners and a Breeders’ Cup Turf winner. Known Agenda also is inbred to the English Derby winner Sir Ivor, and his tail-female family traces to Nijinsky II, the last horse to sweep the English Triple Crown. With Curlin on top the mile and a quarter should be a piece of cake. Think of him as Antares, one of the four white Arabians in the movie Ben Hur. The sheikh who owns him acknowledges he’s not as fast as the other three, but “he will run all day without tiring.” It is time for a resurgence of stamina on the first Saturday in May and this is the guy to do it.

3. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
I am fully aware it is sacrilegious to have him ranked No. 3, especially considering he is an undefeated champion and his Blue Grass victory was exactly the prep he needed for the Kentucky Derby, where he no doubt will be favored unless Concert Tour does something exceptional in the Arkansas Derby. With only one easy victory in the slop in five months he needed to have a tough race, and what made this a perfect prep is that he fought hard to beat a very good horse by a neck and most important there was a 5 1/2-length gap back to the third horse. His closing fractions of :23 4/5, :23 4/5, and :12 2/5, with a final three-eighths in :36 1/5 were very strong. The bottom line is that he is the logical and deserving Derby favorite, but this just isn’t the year I want to put a favorite on top, so I am just looking to latch onto something special and stand by my early convictions regarding the merits of the Top 2 horses. Essential Quality is still the only 3-year-old to run a negative Thoro-Graph number and I would expect to see another fast number in the Blue Grass. And as I have been mentioning all year, he has proven to be a horse you can put anywhere depending on the pace, whether on the lead, stalking the pace, or six or seven lengths back. In short you cannot plan strategy against him. But it has to be mentioned that no Blue Grass winner has won the Derby in 30 years.

4. Concert Tour (Bob Baffert, Street Sense – Purse Strings, by Tapit)
Judging from the prospective field for the Arkansas Derby he should be another going into the Kentucky Derby undefeated. He does need to continue to move forward and improve his Thoro-Graph numbers, but I doubt there is anyone who believes that won’t happen. He definitely is still a work in progress. He turned in another strong work, going six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 in the fog and working alone. He had his ears up the entire length of the stretch with the rider way up in the saddle and really poured it on after the wire, putting his ears back and picking up the pace. Baffert has always been very high on this colt and we will see how he adapts if they change tactics with the speedy Caddo River and let him roll this time. This not a horse who needs the lead and I am looking forward to seeing how he runs sitting off the pace, just as I was when American Pharoah ran in the Arkansas Derby and showed he was capable of winning that way. This is not the Derby you want a one-dimensional horse with so many tactical speed horses in there. After next week everything will be sorted out and we should have a better idea where all these horses should be ranked.

5. Greatest Honour (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Tiffany’s Honour, by Street Cry)
Yes, he’s down to No. 5 for now, but we’re talking five-horse photo and he is still the horse I will be betting, but now as an overlay instead of a favorite. I just can’t rank him above the top 4. What I don’t understand is all the panicking over one defeat. Horses have bad days for various reasons. I mentioned last week he had run at least one race in every month since September, including a mile and eighth race last fall over a deep tiring track, and this year ran too fast, too good, too early. There was no way he could keep moving forward every race after the Holy Bull. If you believe in blessings in disguise, consider this: if he had won the Florida Derby he would have gone into the Kentucky Derby off three consecutive two-turn graded stakes victories on dirt as a 3-year-old. The last time a horse did that and won the Derby was 42 years ago and his name was Spectacular Bid. Heck, four of the last five Triple Crown winners didn’t do it. Do you know how many horses have swept the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, and Florida Derby? That’s correct, none. I think we need to take a deep breath and give this horse a break. I am not saying he is going to win the Kentucky Derby and I’m not saying he isn’t regressing, but losing the Florida Derby with a poor ride is not a reason to dismiss him. Does anyone remember when Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby winner Thunder Gulch finished a dull fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes as the 6-5 favorite? He also was dismissed and the result was a $51 payoff at Churchill Downs on a horse who was the Derby favorite one race earlier. As Aaron Rodgers spelled out a few years ago after the Green Bay Packers lost several games: “R-E-L-A-X.” There is a reason he was ranked No. 1 for eight straight weeks and if you liked him before you’re going to feel awful foolish if he wins the Derby at a big price and you went off him.

6. Highly Motivated (Chad Brown, Into Mischief – Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward)
I’m still not positive a mile and quarter will be his strength, but he ran a sensational race in the Blue Grass Stakes in his two-turn debut, setting all the pace and holding on doggedly to make Essential Quality work like he’s never had to work before. But this was a wacky race with the first three-quarters run in 1:12 and the deep closers Rombauer and Keepmeinmind running third and fourth only two lengths off the lead. But when the pace quickened, he and Essential Quality left the others far behind. It looked like only a question of how far Essential Quality would win by as they hit the top of the stretch. But Highly Motivated wouldn’t quit. He kept battling back and switched back to his left lead at the sixteenth pole, just falling a neck short. It might have been different if he didn’t drift out from left-handed whipping forcing Essential Quality out. Instead of being inches apart with Essential Quality unable to get by him, they were now several paths apart with Essential Quality no longer having to look him in the eye. With Highly Motivated now on his wrong lead he just failed to hold off the champ, who got his neck in front right before the wire. He is another horse who I believe doesn’t need the lead, but coming off one-turn races and with no pace at all it was the right move.

7. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Ind1an Miss, by Indian Charlie)
He breezed a half in :49 2/5, staying busy before the serious training begins. Does anyone else feel as if the Louisiana Derby was a long time ago? It’s pretty amazing how many horses who really aren’t need-the-lead types have set the pace in Derby preps, including him, Rock Your World, Concert Tour, Highly Motivated, Medina Spirit, Soup and Sandwich, and Midnight Bourbon. Who knows who is going to set the pace in the Derby? Maybe UAE Derby runner-up Panadol. This colt has proven his versatility and was 94-1 when he came from seventh and put quite a scare in Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He has proven that was no fluke, and like Essential Quality he can beat you from anywhere on the track. And his trainer has proven on more than one occasion he knows how to win the Kentucky Derby. Whether he is a true mile and a quarter horse we won’t know until the first Saturday in May, something I guess you can say about a lot of them. But he gives 100 percent every time and you know you’re in a race when you go up against him.

8. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch to Moon, by Malibu Moon)
He had his first work over the Churchill Downs track, breezing five furlongs in a sharp 1:01 1/5. Of the possible Derby pacesetters mentioned above, who is the one most likely to be ignored and left alone on an easy lead? It would have to be him, as his wire-to-wire victory in the LeComte Stakes has been long forgotten by most people and in his last two starts racing just off the pace he didn’t have the closing kick to get the job done. So in my opinion there is little strategy to discuss. You have to go for the lead either at the start and lull them to sleep or get the lead fairly early in the race. I have seen so many horses who cannot catch anyone in the stretch, but are hard to pass once on the lead. He is maturing physically, and being by Tiznow, his most powerful weapon appears to be tenacity and the ability to not let horses get by him in the stretch. One thing is for sure, he will be forgotten at the windows and will be a huge price for a horse who knows how to battle and has never finished out of the money in seven starts, five of them in graded stakes. He’s just a good horse to keep in the back of your mind on Derby Day.

9. Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher, Unon Rags – Beat the Drums, by Smart Strike)
You can bet he’s going to get a faster Thoro-Graph number than the winner in the Wood Memorial, which he appeared to have won, but just got nipped on the wire after losing a lot of ground on the first turn and racing wide throughout. According to Trakus, he ran 43 feet farther than the winner, indicating that with a ground-saving trip he would have won by many lengths. He still showed a good turn of foot sweeping by horses on the far turn to reach contention. He kept on determinedly, but all that ground loss eventually took its toll. And it didn’t help that the track was so ridiculously slow. That takes a lot out of a horse, which is why I believe several of the favorites ran poorly. It is not an ideal way to prep for the Derby and can very well dull a horse. Aqueduct in early April often is slow, but not this slow. As for Dynamic One, I fell in love with him off a fourth in a maiden race, in which he had a horrendous trip but showed me all the signs of a top-class horse. I was just waiting for him to get that maiden win out of the way, which he did on a similar slow track, and I felt he had a big shot to move forward several lengths in the Wood. He has a tremendous pedigree, but it’s just a question of whether he is fast enough now to win the Derby. He surely has the bottom under him and is dead fit. He may be more of a Belmont or even Travers horse, but I still feel with a good trip he can make his presence felt in the Derby.

10. Soup and Sandwich (Casse, Into Mischief – Souper Scoop, by Tapit)
He is yet another work in progress and another Into Mischief. His sons are running amok on the Derby trail and you just never know how far they want to go. Like several of the lightly raced horses this year he is doing things he shouldn’t be doing for a green horse who hasn’t figured it out yet. He showed that with his powerful runner-up effort in the Florida Derby coming off two races in which he made enough mistakes to last an entire career. But Casse got him to run much more professionally and he was able to carry his speed farther than one might have thought at that point in his career. The Derby might be a race or two too early for him, but he has to be respected. I believe once he becomes more polished we will see a very good horse who will win his share of stakes. His owner Charlotte Weber is old school and a true sportswoman and next year it will be 40 years since she finished second in the Derby with longshot Laser Light.

11. Bourbonic (Todd Pletcher, Bernardini – Dancing Afleet, by Afleet Alex)
So he was coming off of Lasix, and coming off a $50,000 claiming race and a starter allowance optional claimer for horses who had run in a claiming race and he wins the Wood Memorial at 72-1 coming from far back with an powerful stretch run after trailing the field until inside the three-sixteenths pole. Does that sound like a Todd Pletcher-trained horse to you? I believe part of it is that many of the leading contenders were spinning their wheels on that deep track and never fired, resulting in a :39 1/5 final three-eighths, the slowest mile and an eighth stakes on the card, which earned him a slow 89 Beyer speed figure. But to his credit he did come home his final three-eighths in a respectable :37 1/5. Don’t ask me what to make of this horse or this race, but one thing is certain and that is he has an amazing pedigree with a ton of class and stamina, and his sire and broodmare sire are remembered for scoring two of the most impressive Preakness victories we’ve seen in a long time. He also has improved dramatically with blinkers. Who knows, maybe he was just treading water until he was able to stretch out to a mile and an eighth. If that is the case, what is going to happen when he stretches out to a mile and a quarter? We can just envision the list of Derby winners that bore the name of Calumet Farm: Citation, Whirlaway, Iron Liege, Tim Tam, Bourbonic.

12. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed)
He is certainly consistent and he has been running in top company all year, but he has yet to show he has enough weapons to win the Kentucky Derby. He has excellent tactical speed but not much of a closing punch, so I’m not sure what tactics he would use. But he has earned his way into the big race and deserves a shot at it, especially considering he has never finished out of the money and has proven he is a fighter on the lead. He was always in perfect position in the Santa Anita Derby, stalking a fast pace set by Rock Your World, but when the winner accelerated on the far turn he could not match strides with him, and like in the San Felipe he got the best of Dream Shake in the final furlong for second. Look, there is nothing wrong with running hard in big stakes and picking up a check each time. His victories will come; it just doesn’t have to be in the Kentucky Derby.


Getting back to ROCK YOUR WORLD, it has to be mentioned that his was bred by Ron and Debbie McAnally. Here is a Hall of Fame trainer who had the legendary John Henry 40 years ago and is approaching his 90th birthday with a leading Kentucky Derby contender that he bred thanks to his breeding right to the brilliant Candy Ride, who he saddled to a track record-breaking performance in the Pacific Classic. “This is so incredible to be able to breed a horse like this,” Debbie said. “But all the credit goes to my man. He picks out all the matings.” They knew this colt could be special before they sold him because he was such an imposing individual whose measurements revealed an outstanding physical specimen, as we saw on Saturday. “Even at age 89, Ron is out at the track every morning unless I’m able to lasso him in,” Debbie continued. “But it’s in his blood and keeps him young. This is all about hopes and dreams and we certainly have both.”

One other statistic regarding the Santa Anita Derby: Rock Your World set fractions of :22 3/5, :46, 1:10 3/5, and 1:36 1/5. By comparison the fractions of the Santa Anita Oaks run earlier were :24 1/5, :49 1:13, and 1:38. That those fractions took nothing out of him and he galloped out in another area code tells you all you need to know about this colt.

HELIUM – Can we call him 13A as part of the Derby Baker’s Dozen? He belongs with the others mentioned in the last five spots, but I have been saying for a while he has so much history to overcome with the eight-week layoff, having only one start at 3, and never having run farther than 1 1/16 miles He will be attempting something that has not been accomplished in over 100 years. But I do have to say I love his works, especially his most recent five-furlong drill in 1:01 2/5 at Palm Meadows in which he was strong from the beginning. He runs hard and always seems very determined, which no doubt helped him battle back in the stretch to win the Tampa Bay Derby going away. We’ll keep monitoring his works closely and leave it up to Mark Casse to figure out a way to pull this off.

MANDALOUN – Despite his dull effort in the Louisiana Derby, he is at Churchill Downs and worked a half in :49 4/5 for the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Brad Cox could offer no excuse at Fair Grounds saying he simply ran out of gas. After talking it over with the Juddmonte brass they are going to throw the race out and if he continues to train well he will run in the Derby. They have always been very high on this colt, which makes his performance even more puzzling. Might as well give him another shot with six weeks to regroup.

CADDO RIVER – While on the subject of throwing a race out, Brad Cox will also be doing it for Caddo River after his disappointing effort in the Rebel Stakes when he wasn’t asked to challenge Concert Tour for the early lead and fought his rider, eventually fading out of contention. He will get another chance in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby and certainly is still sharp, working five furlongs in company in 1:00 1/5, galloping out six furlongs in 1:13 2/5. Expect different tactics this time.

PROXY – Mike Stidham said he’s been a puzzle and he had to make a positive visual move forward to continue on to Kentucky, which he didn’t. So his inclination was to not run in the Derby. Although his Ragozin and Thoro-Graph numbers were career bests and he is progressing in his overall development, Stidham doesn’t want to force him into the Derby. He did turn in a swift half-mile work in a bullet :46 4/5, fastest of 64 works at the distance. He probably will need points if they do want to give him a shot, so watch for him to show up in Saturday’s Lexington Stakes, which would also give him one last shot to get his act together and stop lugging out in the stretch every race.

O BESOS – He looks to have little chance of getting in with 25 points. Although there is still the Lexington Stakes with enough points to possibly get him in the Derby, they have decided to sit pat, with the worst case scenario being a start in the Pat Day Mile on Derby Day as one of the favorites. Greg Foley and his son and assistant Travis were thrilled with his performance in the Louisiana Derby, where he got the fastest Thoro-Graph number in the race, a “2 3/4.” They realize he is still immature physically and growing and improving every day. He certainly belongs in the Derby off that performance, which came up a head short of putting him in the starting gate. But it’s a long year and he has a bright future.

Four horses definitely in the Derby if their connections wish to go are REBEL’S ROMANCE and PANADOL, one-two in the UAE Derby, and LIKE THE KING and SAINTHOOD, one-two in the Jeff Ruby Steaks. Panadol, who was a late Triple Crown nominee, would be the natural pacesetter.

HIDDEN STASH with 32 points continues to run well, but not quite well enough, and the same can be said of ROMBAUER with 34 points, although it was a surprise to see him so close to the lead in the Blue Grass. It was no surprise to see a brilliant but lightly raced and untested PREVALENCE struggle on that deep track in the Wood. He will move on to bigger and better things. But there seemed to be no excuse for RISK TAKING, who was never in the race. CROWDED TRADE and WEYBURN ran OK, but below expectations. Crowded Trade had every chance in the stretch, but couldn’t sustain his run. In California, DREAM SHAKE picked up another piece of the purse, but doesn’t seem quite ready to move forward in the Derby.

In addition to Concert Tour and Caddo River, the Arkansas Derby will have Rebel runner-up HOZIER along with other California invaders GET HER NUMBER and possibly ROMAN CENTURIAN, who scratched from the Santa Anita Derby. Also expected are SUPER STOCK and the Dallas Stewart-trained LAST SAMURAI, who is taking a wild shot to try to get a small piece of it.


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