Derby Rankings: Week 13

Well, all the preps are over with the exception of the Lexington Stakes and we’re now in the homestretch. We lost two, possibly three top-class horses this past weekend, but all in all the form held up very well and we now have a solid base of contenders. I know a Top 17 is an odd count, but that’s all I have to rank. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: April 11, 2022 – Week 13

By Steve Haskin


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

I just needed to see what this colt could do when he was able to run his race. I wrote last week, “Once he puts it all together and gets a good trip and a little luck, we could see something special.” And I believe we did. I also admit to a certain lack of objectivity with him, as I wrote a “Derby Sleepers” column on him way back on October 18 after his maiden victory, giving his entire back story, so I have felt close to him, following his every move since then, from Derby sleeper to now possible Derby favorite. When I texted Chad Brown and told him I thought he had a potential star he wrote back, “I have NEVER stretched a horse out that far before off just one race (from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles), but this horse is freaky good…he can win the Derby.” Those last words have stuck with me ever since because I was amazed how well he ran in the Remsen. Yes, I know Epicenter beat him geared down in the Risen Star, but he was going 1 1/8 miles off a two and a half-month layoff, got left at the gate and had to rally five-wide from last to finish third. I was expecting him to be just off the pace in the Blue Grass, as he was in his maiden win and in the Remsen Stakes. But he again dropped back to last. Each time he tried to move up he got shuffled back again. But he was always in striking range. Finally, he took off, weaved his way through the field, overcame some bumping in the upper stretch, and blew right on by Smile Happy, who looked like he had the race won. This was the horse I was waiting to see, and we know now that he is shifty enough to overcome traffic and find his own openings. His final fractions of :24 1/5 and :12 1/5 were strong and if ever a race can set you up for the Kentucky Derby this is it.


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

He turned in a solid five-furlong breeze in 1:01 in company, out six furlongs in 1:14 3/5, pulling up seven panels in 1:29 2/5. He will have a good feel for Churchill Downs training over it for this long. You’re splitting hairs with the top three; I believe they are that close. It’s not common for a Derby winner to go into the race having never earned a Thoro-Graph number faster than a “2 ½,” but if you look at his pattern you can see him winning the race if he takes the next logical step. After running an “8 ½” last year he improved to a “5 ¾”in the Gun Runner stakes, then paired that number in the Lecomte Stakes. That set him up for another jump to a “2 ½” in the Risen Star, which he again paired up in the Louisiana Derby. When a horse pairs up a career best and shows a pattern of doing it you can expect a move forward in his next race, which he did in the Risen Star. If he makes the same kind of improvement in the Kentucky Derby it definitely would be put him in the zero to negative range, which would be good be enough to win. I don’t know what the Thoro-Grraph numbers will be from this past weekend, but no one has run faster than a “1,” which leaves the door open for a number of horses who in other years might have been considered too slow. It all depends on how he handles the six-week layoff. With the new 1 3/16-mile distance, the Louisiana Derby form held up very well last year.


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

Despite two defeats this year by more than two lengths, I am remaining loyal to the horse I had ranked No. 1 for the first 10 weeks, seeing just what I was hoping to see in the Blue Grass Stakes, which was the spark he showed in his first two starts last year that was missing to some degree in the Risen Star Stakes when he was ridden way too conservatively and being asked to run way too late. He really needed to put in a strong run and get something out of the race. First off, he needed to be closer to the pace, but had to overcome the 10 post, and as feared was caught five-wide going into the first turn, which was the last thing you wanted to see. Corey Lanerie had to make an early move with him to get him in a decent position in third down the backstretch in order to stay close to a loose on the lead Emmanuel. He was also forced to go after Emmanuel a little early, collared him turning for home, and took a couple of solid bumps from him. Lanerie, after throwing several crosses on him, went to a right-hand whip and the colt resented it, throwing his tail up and ducking in. Just then, Zandon came storming up on his outside, and by then he was starting to get a little tired from his earlier efforts, switching back to his left lead at the sixteenth pole. Although he was no match for the winner he still finished almost four lengths ahead of Emmanuel in a race he desperately needed. This should move him toward a peak performance in the Derby and I strongly believe he can win it coming off this race.


4– Taiba (Tim Yakteen, Gun Runner – Needmore Flattery, by Flatter)

Is this the freak of all freaks? If he wins the Kentucky Derby off two lifetime starts then there is no use handicapping the Derby anymore based on logic even if he is a freak. I would never consider ranking a horse with two starts this high, but no matter what you think of Baffert, no one puts a foundation into a horse like he does and this colt has a tremendous foundation, turning in some sensational long works over  deep tiring racetracks. Also, he’s a powerfully built colt with a massive shoulder on him and big hind end, yet he runs low to the ground and is very light on his feet. I refused to rank Justify high because of the three starts and I would hate to make that mistake again. Even though Baffert no longer trains him he tried the same thing with Paynter, who finished a strong fourth in the Santa Anita Derby coming off only one 5 ½-furlong maiden victory. He then went on to be beaten a neck in the Belmont Stakes and easily win the Haskell. What I wouldn’t give to see Churchill Downs have to present the Derby trophy to Amr Zedan, the owner of Medina Spirit, who they recently disqualified from last year’s Derby, made an event out of taking down his Derby winner’s sign in the paddock, and made him give this horse to another trainer. And remember Zedan couldn’t stop raving about Baffert after winning last month’s Dubai World Cup. But getting down to the reality of it all, this horse not only has to be a freak to have won this race, it was the way he did it, looking like a seasoned veteran who didn’t seem to raise a sweat, blowing right by Messier and winning by 2 ¼ lengths in a solid 1:48 2/5 with a final furlong in :12 2/5. He ran an amazing “2” on Thoro-Graph in his career debut so we knew he was special. After this victory is he in danger of bouncing big-time in the Derby?  I have over 50 years of history telling me he can’t win off two career starts and coming off such a monstrous performance. Now someone has to tell him that.


5– Messier (Tim Yakteen, Empire Maker – Checkered Past, by Smart Strike)

It was agonizing trying to figure out which horse to rank higher. You can knock him for getting beat by his stablemate who had only one six-furlong maiden win, but let’s assume Taiba is a total freak and Messier needed this race coming off a two-month layoff and a stroll in the park victory against inferior competition. I know he officially is not trained by Baffert, but let’s not forget that Baffert has won three Kentucky Derbys with horses coming off a second in the Santa Anita Derby, and that doesn’t include Authentic because of the timing factor. He did miss the break on Saturday and had to be rushed a bit to split horses going into the first turn. John Velazquez no doubt was focusing all his attention on Forbidden Kingdom who he was chasing all the way. He got the lead from him easier than expected and before he knew it Taiba was all over him. I know there is very little depth to the 3-year-old division in California and I don’t know how much he is going to improve in the Derby, but he did do the dirty work and you have to think this race will move him forward. Because of the winner’s lack of experience and Forbidden Kingdom packing it in early it makes the Santa Anita Derby all the more confusing. This horse has shown some chinks in his armor, getting beat by Slow Down Andy, but he has also shown sparks of brilliance. I believe he will improve in the Derby, but how good he really is depends in some ways on how special Taiba is. I could reverse their rankings after watching them train at Churchill Downs and perhaps coming to my senses. But for now let’s give the slightest nod to the freak.


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

Kudos to him for tossing his lackluster Thoro-Gaph numbers in the trash. Going into the Wood Memorial off a “6 ½,” a “6,” and a “6 ½” he looked like a horse who was going nowhere numbers-wise and showing no improvement, despite good efforts in the Remsen and Holy Bull. Also, his Brisnet numbers of 91, 93, and 92 were nothing to rave about, nor were his Beyers of 82, 90, and 90. Plus he missed the Fountain of Youth with a fever and was coming into the Wood off a nine-week layoff. So from a handicapping standpoint there had to be doubts about him going into this race. But he took advantage of a fairly solid pace set by Early Voting over a drying out track and was able to wear him down late with some brilliant closing fractions of :23 3/5 and :11 4/5, while covering the mile and eighth in 1:47 4/5, the fastest Wood since Bellamy Road’s freakish performance in 2005. How legit those are I have no idea. His Beyer figure of 96 obviously was an improvement, but he still needs to move forward off that. Breaking from post 1, he was able to hug the rail most of the way, found room on the inside turning for home, eased outside Early Voting late and ran him down by a neck, so we’ll have to wait to see how much his Thoro-Graph numbers improved. He doesn’t have that quick acceleration and it takes him a while to build momentum He was also helped by the favorite Morello breaking terribly, dropping back to last, and never firing. He still hasn’t shown a big turn of foot, but just keeps coming at you, and credit Pletcher for having him razor-sharp off the layoff.


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

Although it looks as if the sloth-like closing fractions of the Florida Derby will remain as is, despite top-class horses rarely ever running that slow, there is the other side of the coin, and that is White Abarrio’s Thoro-Graph number of “1.” So we have dueling speed statistics and you will have to decide which one to go by. Can a horse run that fast a number while closing like it was at the end of a three-mile marathon? In this case do you like the tortoise or the hare? That Thoro-Graph number equals Messier’s Robert B. Lewis figure as the fastest run by a 3-year-old this year. Prior to this race, White Abarrio had been on a steady, but unspectacular, pattern, going from “10 ½” to an “8 ¼,” to a “7” to a “5.” Then when he crawls home and can’t break 1:50 for a mile and an eighth he leaps to a “1.” I surely can’t figure it out, but it does put the colt in a good position to win the Derby. His Brisnet numbers also are conflicting. His 96 speed figure in the Florida Derby was down a point from the Holy Bull, but still good enough to make him dangerous at Churchill, and his middle pace figure was a strong 110. But his late pace figure was a sluggish 77, which is reflective of the slow closing fractions. One thing about him, he does know how to put himself in perfect striking position every race and that certainly will help him at Churchill Downs. I am not enamored with him, but I definitely respect him.


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

As I’m sure you have noticed I often use the Brisnet speed figures because they give you a number of variables, such as early, middle, and late pace figures and not just straight speed figures. They also have a main figure called Prime Power, which measures the quality of each horse’s recent starts by combining dozens of handicapping factors into one rating — speed, class, pace, form, weight, distance, and many other factors – to form a sophisticated computer generated algorithm. The reason I mention this is, despite finishing third in the Florida Derby and getting just an OK 93 speed rating, Simplification’s Prime Power number of 146.7 is the highest of all the 23 horses listed in the final Future Wager before Saturday, which indicates there is lot more going on with this colt than one might think. As I mentioned last week, I look at the Florida Derby in a positive light, considering Sano’s strategy to put him back on the pace blew up in his face. In his previous two starts when he rallied from off the pace his two middle pace figures were a solid 93 and 92. In the Florida Derby when he was caught in the middle of a three-horse speed duel his middle pace figure was 113, which is way too fast to expect a horse to close off that. So I am forgiving his ridiculously slow final factions and late pace figure, which I am not convinced are correct, considering Gulfstream’s poor record timing racing. When Simplification won the Mucho Macho Man on the lead he was able to show off his high cruising speed with an early pace figure of 95, middle pace figure of 101, and late pace figure of 95, resulting in a strong 99 speed figure. His maiden victory speed figure of 103 has since been topped by only Messier’s 104. This horse’s best race can win the Kentucky Derby.


9– Cyberknife (Brad Cox, Gun Runner – Awesome Flower, by Flower Alley)

He’s a good horse who obviously is improving and you can’t dismiss him, but he just doesn’t excite me. With Secret Oath coming out of the Arkansas Derby very tired after making a move that was by far the most exciting part of the race, I’m not really sure what he beat. The most hyped prospect in the race, We the People, didn’t run a lick and the Rebel winner cut himself open on the starting gate and was never a factor. His Thoro-Graph numbers are progressing nicely with a career best “2 ¼ in the Arkansas Derby,” but he had run a “5” twice early in his career, so he hasn’t moved that far forward since last year. As for his Brisnet figures he has run a 94 in last two starts, both career highs, and that is nowhere near the fastest horses, so he would have to make a pretty huge jump in the Derby. The same goes for his 92 Beyer figure. On the Brisnet Prime Power we mentioned earlier he ranks 11th. I don’t want to sound like he is a no hoper who has little chance to win the Derby. I’m just going by the stats and what I’ve seen and figuring he will be bet somewhat in the Derby off his victory at Oaklawn. He also has been tough to handle at times, as we saw when he dumped his rider in the post parade of the Arkansas Derby, and that is the last thing you want to see on Kentucky Derby day. He should get the distance with no problem and we’ll see if can dazzle us with his works at Churchill Downs.


10– Charge It (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – I’ll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie)

After pairing solid “5s” in his first two career starts on Thoro-Graph he made an impressive jump to a “2 ¼” in the Florida Derby, going from a maiden race to a Grade 1. So we know he is a talented colt with a very bright future. What we don’t know is whether he can improve once again in the Kentucky Derby, which he likely will have to do, and in only his fourth career start. As I have said, I am not a fan of horses with only three career starts going in the Derby. I realize that times are changing and we can drop the “race” from racehorses, with today’s equine stars making fewer and fewer appearances and are virtual strangers when they get to Churchill Downs. But I still need to see horses with three starts be successful in the Derby on a fairly regular basis rather than a freak occurrence that has happened only two times, with both winners being freaks themselves who came along in a weak crop. So while I acknowledge that Charge It is capable of running a strong race in the Derby, even with running greenly in the Florida Derby, and nothing shocks me anymore, I am still not ready to place my win bets on him. But if he is as good as he has looked and can take another step forward then he could pick up a piece of it and be used in the exotics.


11– Early Voting (Chad Brown, Gun Runner – Amour d’ete, By Tiznow)

I’m still not sure what the plans are for him, if they’re thinking Derby or Preakness. If they commit to the Derby he could move up a few spots. I thought he ran an excellent race coming off the nine-week layoff, as did Mo Donegal, but there should be a lot of pace pressure in the Derby and the question is how he will stand up to it with only three career starts and one start in 13 weeks. Considering he did get pressure in the Wood from A.P.’s Secret through fractions in :47 3/5 and 1:11 2/5 and came home in :24 and :12 1/5 that was a huge effort. By comparison, the fractions in the Gazelle two races later were :49 1/5 and 1:13 4/5. There is no doubt he will get the mile and a quarter without any problem, so it’s a tough decision. Unlike most of the Gun Runners, he’s a bigger, more muscular type, so he should be able to handle whatever is thrown at him. At this point it looks like he would be the speed of the Derby unless Slow Down Andy can’t be slowed down and would provide a good strong pace to run at. But don’t expect him to stop.


12– Tiz the Bomb (Kenny McPeek, Hit It a Bomb – Tiz the Key, by Tiznow)

I have to admit this horse is really starting to intrigue me. I normally don’t put a lot of stock in races run on a synthetic track, but Turfway is now Tapeta and I feel that may translate better to dirt than Polytrack. I’m not sure how that track was playing, but no matter how it was, the final time of 1:48 3/5 is racehorse time and I loved how quickly he shifted into another gear and accelerated on the far turn. It wasn’t a long explosive move, like Secret Oath in the Arkansas Derby, but it was the instant acceleration when Brian Hernandez stepped on the gas. Dare I say like a European grass horse? I went back and watched his 14-length maiden victory on the dirt at Ellis Park and that was pretty spectacular, with his action extremely smooth, but powerful. And for sheer closing power, watch his stretch run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf after he finally found racing room, and how he was flying at the end to snatch second after appearing a sure thing to be out of the money. So we know he handles the dirt and can decimate his opponents, we know he has an explosive closing kick, and we know he has a sudden turn of foot. We just have to figure out what happened in the Holy Bull. Was it his first kickback and over a pretty sandy course? His Thoro-Graph numbers of “4 ¾” in his last two starts aren’t going to blow you away, but synthetic tracks seem to bring slower numbers. If for some reason he takes to the Churchill surface and can handle the kickback, you never know. It’s a total guess, but it could prove a lucrative one in the exotics.


13– Zozos (Brad Cox, Munnings – Papa’s Forest, by Forestry)

Now at Churchill Downs, he returned to the work tab with a solid half-mile drill in :48 flat, getting his last quarter in :23 and galloping out a strong five-eighths in 1:00 4/5. As I have said a number of times I don’t like having only three lifetime starts going into the Derby, and he is a speed horse by a speed sire, which will make it even more difficult for him, especially with what appears to be a good deal of speed in this year’s race. But he does have some things in his favor as well. He has run a “3 ½ “ and then a “3” on Thoro-Graph in his last two starts, so he is in position to improve several points off that. His Brisnet speed figures have jumped from a 78 to 94 to a 98, and in his stretch-out to 1 3/16 miles in the Louisiana Derby, a tall task for a horse in this third career start, his early, middle, and late pace figures of 90, 93, and 98 not only were pretty solid, he got stronger as the race went on and did it on the front end. In his previous start he was able to get away with easy early and middle pace figures of 75 and 75 and then flew home with a terrific 111 late pace figure. So he is a speed horse who can close fast off moderate fractions and also get stronger off faster fractions, and he should only improve in the Derby. Whether or not the three starts catch up to him, he’s not going to be easy to put away.


14– Pioneer of Medina (Todd Pletcher, Pioneerof the Nile – Lights of Medina, by Eskendereya)

He returned to the work tab with an easy half in :49 3/5 at Palm Beach Downs. He is another who will be in the first flight, just off the pace. He definitely is improving and remember, he was only a half-length and a head behind Smile Happy in the Risen Star. But until he can find a closing punch I don’t see him as potential Derby winner. He’ll be running hard, however, and should be in the mix down the stretch. As I said last week I like his steady progression moving up the class ladder, and after leaping from a “10 ½” Thoro-Graph number to a “3” in his fourth-place finish in the loaded Risen Star he paired up that “3” in the Louisiana Derby with a solid third-place finish. That puts him in position to take another big step forward, which he will have to do if he is to have any shot in the Kentucky Derby. The pedigree is there and he’s already been 1 1/8 miles and 1 3/16 miles against the No. 1, 2, and 3 ranked horses, so he certainly is no slouch. He just has to take another step forward and find a weapon he can use to win.


15– Barber Road (John Ortiz, Race Day – Encounter, by Southern Image)

When you lose five races in a row, with four seconds it’s not a coincidence. Simply put, he has to learn how to win. Yes, he’s won two races, but those were in a maiden claiming race and a starter allowance race. He keeps moving up in class and facing better horses and keeps running the same race. He can surely be one of those Derby longshots that closes for second, but he will have to show a lot more if he is to be thought of as a horse who can win it all. His Thoro-Graph numbers don’t tell you much more, fluctuating between “4s” and “7s.” All he can hope for is a fast pace, which he could very well get, and a bit of racing luck and see what he can do with it. He’s a great horse to have in the barn and always gives you 100 percent and a thrill in the stretch. But for the Derby he’ll have to step it up a notch or two if he’s going to pick up a piece of it.


16– Crown Pride (Reach the Crown – Emmy’s Pride, by King Kamehameha)

He’s at Churchill Downs and has been galloping. He’ll be in the quarantine barn until the race. There obviously is no way to know if he is a serious contender, but with the Japanese horses on a tear all over the world you certainly have to pay attention to him. He did put in a long sustained run in the UAE Derby to wear down a good horse in Summer is Tomorrow, who was stretching out from a seven-furlong romp at Meydan a month before. He is inbred to Sunday Silence to bring some familiarity to fans who are considering betting on him. He’s made three starts over a mile in his career and has won all of them, with his only defeat coming in the mud. I wouldn’t dare talk anyone out of betting him, because the respect for the Japanese keeps growing and we just don’t know good their horses are on an individual basis. All you can do is see how he handles Churchill and what kind of appearance he makes.


17– Slow Down Andy (Doug O’Neill, Nyquist – Edwina E, by Square Eddie)

As of Sunday he hasn’t returned to the work tab. If he gets to the Derby it looks like he could be the speed unless the Sunland Derby speedfest was a fluke with the addition of blinkers and O’Neill can get him to settle off the pace this time. He’s not pretty to watch and he still has his quirks, but he is a fighter, as he showed in the Sunland Derby and in last year’s Los Alamitos Futurity against Messier. If he does blast out of there again in the Derby he probably can outrun Early Voting, but what comes after that is a totally different story because no one has any idea. He is another you want to see train at Churchill and how he relaxes with all the activity. O’Neill is far from a conformist when it comes to training and no one has a clue how he’s going to train this horse. Be prepared for anything. But one thing is for sure of, he knows how to win the Derby, even though this colt is not in the class with I’ll Have Another and Nyquist, and likely not Hot Rod Charlie.



Although the form held up well over the weekend we did lose MORELLOFORBIDDEN KINGDOM and EMMANUEL, who is headed to Winstar Farm for some light training with the possibility of pointing for grass races such as the Pennine Ridge and Belmont Derby. The toughest break, of course, was Morello’s terrible start in the Wood Memorial, in which he found himself in last coming out of the gate, and being a stalker he was taken way out of his comfort zone and never made an impact on the race. There has been no official word yet on Morello, but it is assumed he will not be pointed for the Derby. Forbidden Kingdom will have his epiglottis checked for any breathing issues.

Horses who have shown potential, such as IN DUE TIME, have only the Lexington Stakes left to sneak into the Derby, and with In Due Time it would mean going a mile and a quarter never having been farther than 1 1/16 miles.

Others pointing for the Lexington are MAJOR GENERAL (Todd Pletcher), MIDNIGHT CHROME (John Servis),  STRAVA (Dallas Stewart), CALL ME MIDNIGHT (Keith Desormeaux), DASH ATTACK (Kenny McPeek), and THE SKIPPER TOO (John Ortiz) with  BYE BYE BOBBY (Todd Fincher) and TAWNEY PORT (Brad Cox) possible.


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