Derby Rankings: Week 14

The preps are officially over and there is nothing left but to watch the horses train and see who is thriving at Churchill Downs. There will be no Rankings next week, but we’ll have one final list the Monday before the Derby recapping what we’ve seen in the morning followed by a handicapping column on Thursday, May 5. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: April 18, 2022 – Week 14

By Steve Haskin


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

The only question I have with him is what his best running style is. He is so versatile it is a bit confusing because we have seen him be effective from just off the pace and from dead last. It seems as if he’s been comfortable in his last two starts rallying from the back of the pack, and he has shown he can weave his way through traffic. But the Derby hasn’t been kind to closers in recent years so he may wind up closer to the pace. Flavien Prat seems to fit him perfectly and is a good judge of pace, so I’m sure he’ll have him in the right spot. That versatility should bode well for the Derby knowing he is dangerous no matter where he is running. As someone who relies on the Thoro-Graph numbers I love his progression of “6 ½” to “4 ½” to “2 ½” to “1 ½,” a pattern that indicates he is ready to peak on Derby Day with a career-best number, and one more similar jump forward and he is going to be very hard to beat.


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

He turned in another sharp drill at Churchill Downs, going five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 working inside a stablemate. His Thoro-Graph pattern is very good, but there have been a half-dozen horses who have already run faster numbers and are also on a very good pattern. What he has going for him is the ability to go to the front or sit off the pace and come home fast. His closing fractions in the Louisiana Derby would be extremely fast for a closer, never mind a horse running just off the pace. According to assistant Scott Blasi the biggest change in him is how much he has matured physically since last fall; mainly how he has grown and filled out. He is a very straightforward colt and a pleasure to work with. He loves his carrots and a good nap. Blasi added that he has gotten more confident with winning. So there is no doubt this is a colt moving forward rapidly. He just needs to maintain everything he has built up in the six weeks between the Louisiana and Kentucky Derby. Normally that would be a long time, which can be attributed to the lack of success of horses coming off the Louisiana Derby. But the change to 1 3/16 miles should help a horse build more of a foundation, and we saw the success of Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie last year. With his high cruising speed and ability to come home fast he looks like the horse to beat.


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

It is very rare to have the top three ranked horses all having run in the same race, but the Risen Star surely looks like the key race of the year, especially now with fifth-place finisher Tawny Port winning Saturday’s Lexington Stakes following a strong second in the Jeff Ruby Steaks. We know Smile Happy loves Churchill Downs after his dominating victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and although he has dropped on most Derby rankings after losing his only two starts this year by more than two lengths, he is on strong Thoro-Graph pattern, with his career-best “1 ½”iin the Blue Grass Stakes the same number as the victorious Zandon, despite the winner’s 2 ½-length margin due to his wide trip. He also made an early move to advance into third behind a dangerous speed horse and I don’t believe he wants to be quite that close to the lead. I think in a bigger field with a more contentious pace he can settle in a comfortable position closer to midpack and launch his bid from there. For a horse who was ranked No. 1 most of the year and was the favorite in all the earlier Future Wager pools he should be an enticing price in the Derby and I think the third time could be the charm.


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

We finally had our first negative Thoro-Graph number with this freakish colt getting a negative-1/2 in the Santa Anita Derby following his exceptional “2” in his career debut. This makes him the fastest horse in the Derby, with the next fastest number being White Abarrio’s “1” in the Florida Derby, which frankly was much faster than expected considering the mediocre final time and pedestrian closing fractions. I really have no idea how to handicap this horse going into a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. He has taken the term “lightly raced” to a new level that could change the face of racing and the Derby if he should win. We are now in danger of having to handicap a field of strangers every year as the number of lifetime starts dwindle to the bare minimum. As I mentioned last week, no one puts a foundation into a young horse better than Baffert. The ones that can handle his training are fast, tough, and fit, which is why he has dominated the Run for the Roses in recent years. Yakteen merely has to keep this colt where he was when Baffert turned him over to him. Of course there is the bounce question, or simply put has he done too much too soon? The fact that he won the Santa Anita Derby so convincingly in such a professional manner, as if he were a hardened veteran, certainly boosts his chances of duplicating such a herculean performance. But as I’ve been saying it will take a freak to do it.


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

With the defections of Forbidden Kingdom, Classic Causeway, Slow Down Andy, and Emmanuel, and the possible defection of Early Voting, the Derby might have lost a good deal of its speed, leaving Messier and Zozos as the two potential frontrunners, along with Summer is Tomorrow, who doesn’t possess that kind of speed. We also have two horses, Epicenter and Simplification, who have won stakes on the lead, but have become more versatile and professional and seem more likely to sit off the pace. For what it’s worth, Messier’s Thoro-Graph number of “1” in the Robert Lewis Stakes has been changed to a “1 ½,” giving him back to back races with that number. Although that number is a tad slower than originally listed, at least it now means he didn’t regress slightly in the Santa Anita Derby. Considering he was coming off a layoff, that “1 ½” was a solid enough number and put him in a good position to make a substantial leap forward in the Kentucky Derby. In short, without him having to do the dirty work chasing a speedball like Forbidden Kingdom, and with the Santa Anita Derby under his belt, I expect to see a stronger horse at Churchill Downs who is going to be a lot tougher to run down than he was at Santa Anita.


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

I have brought up his relatively slow speed figures, going into the Wood Memorial off three consecutive races in the “6” to “6 ½” range, which is well below Derby standards, and his equally slow Brisnet and Beyer figures. Thoro-Graph gave him a far more respectable “2 ¾” in the Wood Memorial while Brisnet went a bit wild with a huge 111 figure. Does that mean his nine-week layoff and excellent works did wonders for him and gave him that razor-sharp edge he needed after a series of workmanlike two-turn races? No one is going into the Derby off a stronger final three-eighths and final eighth than he is with his brilliant :35 2/5 and :11 4/5 closing fractions in the Wood. And I have never used the word brilliant describing him before. Are we about to see a new more exciting Mo Donegal in the Derby? Yes, he had a perfect ground-saving trip in the Wood, but I believe he ran down a very talented horse in Early Voting, who had a two-length at the eighth pole and came home in :12 1/5. Most frontrunners are not going to get beat under those circumstances. And I loved the fact that just as Early Voting was starting to string out the field on the far turn, Mo exhibited a much quicker turn of foot than I’ve ever seen from him on the turn. Unfortunately he loses Joel Rosario, who was riding him for the first time and is committed to Epicenter. Why his regular rider Irad Ortiz stayed in Kentucky to ride a maiden in the Blue Grass is beyond me. I believe this colt is sharper now than he’s ever been and is sitting on a peak performance.


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

Joseph obviously is focusing his attention on sharpness right now. The colt went into the Florida Derby off a three-furlong blowout in :34 4/5 and he zipped three furlongs in bullet :34 2/5 in his first work following the race, fastest of 41 works at the distance, then galloping out a strong five-eighths in 1:00 2/5. Joseph said this work has boosted his confidence in the colt because of the way he went so fast so easily. Jockey Junior Alvarado, who worked him, said it was like his feet weren’t touching the ground. The way the Kentucky Derby is shaping up he should be able to get a great position behind the leaders. One thing about him he is very tactical and always seems to put himself in the right spot. Following a Thoro-Graph jump from a “5” in the Holy Bull to a “1” in the Florida Derby, he should appreciate the five weeks between races. With all the big performances since the Florida Derby it wouldn’t surprise me if gets ignored a bit in the betting and goes off at pretty attractive price. He’s not as flashy as some of those mentioned above and his most recent efforts might get lost, especially with the five-week layoff.


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

I know his Thoro-Graph numbers keep jumping up and down, from a “14” to a “2 ½” to a “5 ½” to a “2 ½” to a “3 ¼,” and he would have to make a fairly big move forward to get into the win range, but his performances have been all over the place and I never know what to expect from him, including where he’s going to be running – on the lead or back in seventh. That’s what makes him so intriguing. We have seen sparks of brilliance from him on the lead and we have seen his ability to close from farther back. His 103 Brisnet speed rating is one of the fastest among the Derby horses, but that was in a Florida-bred maiden race in his second career start last October. The closest he’s come to it was his 99 in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes in his 3-year-old debut. His 95 in the Fountain of Youth and 93 in the Florida Derby is heading in the wrong direction, but I still get the feeling there is a huge effort bubbling under the surface waiting to burst out with the right kind of trip. He has shown enough in spurts to indicate that he is capable of great things if he can put it all together. He’s been on the lead when he shouldn’t have been; he’s been far back when he shouldn’t have been; he’s failed to switch leads when he should have; and he’s been in the wrong spot in both his meetings with White Abarrio. One of these days we’re going to see the real Simplification with all the stars aligned perfectly and when we do you’re going to want to be holding some mutual tickets on him.


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

You certainly can’t knock his first work at Churchill Downs, a five-furlong drill in 1:00 flat. Cox at one point looked to have no serious Derby contenders and now he could have three in the starting gate. But as good as Zozos and Tawny Port have looked this guy remains the most Derby ready of the three, coming off back-to-back wins and a solid victory in the Arkansas Derby. My big question with him is how good he is. He’s definitely improving and was never in danger of getting beat at Oaklawn, but with Secret Oath faltering in the stretch following an explosive move on the far turn I’m just not sure what he beat or where he fits among the leading contenders. One thing he has going for him is his red-hot sire who came within a neck of having the Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial winners. He will be a pace presence sitting in the second tier right behind the leaders, but he’s going to have to outrun a number of very talented horses from there, and I’m just not sure if he’s quite ready to do that.


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

Is it possible he could be one of the wise-guy horses that people will latch onto come Derby week? I still can’t get too excited over any horse with only three lifetime starts. Yes, I have Taiba ranked high with only two starts, but he at least has the potential to be a freak, and only freaks like Big Brown and Justify have won the Derby with three lifetime starts. Although Charge It wasn’t as smooth or polished in the Florida Derby as he was in his first two starts, he still was able to finish second despite racing greenly, so there is a lot to say about that and what he might accomplish coming off that race. I believe he has tremendous upside and a bright future, but I still can’t get past the three starts at least when it comes to winning. He certainly can hit the board with another step forward. After running a “5” and a “5 ¾” on Thoro-Graph in his first two starts he made a good jump to a “2 ¼” in the Florida Derby, so he’s never run a slow race. In fact, not even the possible Derby favorite Epicenter has run that fast. Now the question is can he make another jump forward in a 20-horse field with so little experience?


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

It is difficult making comparisons of horses on dirt and synthetic surfaces, but you still can’t overlook the fact that he was flattered by Tawny Port’s Lexington victory following his second-place finish in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, where he was no match for Tiz the Bomb. I mentioned last week about the legitimate time of 1:48 3/5 in the Jeff Ruby and the way Tiz the Bomb accelerated instantly on the far turn to quickly put himself in contention. You can’t be too sure how he’s going to handle the kickback in the Derby after his Holy Bull fiasco, but if he does and can demonstrate the same turn of foot he showed in the Jeff Ruby and the explosive stretch run he unleashed in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf then we’re talking about a serious longshot chance in the Derby. He is one horse I am really looking forward to watch train at Churchill Downs. He started off on the right foot with a solid half in :48 2/5. If he dazzles us with the way he handles the Churchill Downs surface then we’re talking about perhaps the most intriguing horse in the field when it comes to betting, as we know he has all tools. He just has to show the Holy Bull was a fluke and that his spectacular maiden victory at Ellis Park last year was a true indication of how he handles the dirt. He looks to be a sure-fire win bet at a big price, and you just hope he is able to use all the weapons we’ve seen from him on grass and synthetic.


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

The more I watch the UAE Derby the more I say why not. He ran 1 3/16 miles over a deep slow track that saw a top-class field in the Dubai World Cup run the slowest time (on dirt) in the history of the race, and he raced four-wide into the first turn, was still wide on the second turn, and ran down a tough frontunner despite not changing leads the entire length of the stretch. So I’m not sure if any Derby horse got more out of his final prep than he did. And who is going to doubt the ability of the Japanese horses after last year’s Breeders’ Cup and this year’s Dubai World Cup card, which produced five winners from Japan. Not only is he inbred 3 x 4 to Sunday Silence, his third dam’s sire and dam are both by Arc de Triomphe winners. He had his first work at Churchill Downs, but don’t let the absurdly slow time of 1:18 3/5 for six furlongs fool you. Don’t try to figure out what the Japanese are doing in the morning. I’m sure this was more of an open gallop that the clockers timed. If you leave him out of your bets you’re going to have him hanging over your head.


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

He had his second work at Churchill Downs, going five-eighths in 1:00 3/5. That’s two strong works already over the track. As mentioned earlier, the speed horses are dwindling and he now is the possible pacesetter. But he will have an awful lot of brilliant horses right behind him just waiting to take him on. With only three lifetime starts, he likely will have his hands full holding off that many top-class horses. His pedigree is a bit of an enigma. He is by the speed influence Munnings, but he has already shown he can be a force at 1 3/16 miles going against the potential Derby favorite in Epicenter. This colt no doubt has a very bright future, but at this stage of his career it looks like the best he can do is hope to hold on for a piece of it. If for some reason he does get loose on the lead then that will make things a bit more interesting


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

I still haven’t been able to touch base with Brown regarding their plans. I have gotten the feeling all year he would prefer to point for the Preakness using the same path as Cloud Computing. As strong a race as he ran in the Wood Memorial, you don’t want to see a Derby horse blow a two-length lead at the eighth pole in his final prep and then go into the Derby with only three career starts, and he won’t be getting any easy leads this time. Also, Brown already is in a great position with Zandon, a horse he has been crazy about since last fall. So there is no use saying anything more on this guy for now until we know whether he’s headed to Churchill Downs. If he is, he likely will move up the Rankings. But until then I am treating him more as a Preakness horse.


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

He is one of those horses who will be between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He is a tactical speed horse who doesn’t quit, but doesn’t have the fire power to outkick the top contenders. He has made great strides with every race and is going to win his share of races, but right now I don’t see a scenario where he can win. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t put a scare in these horses by hanging tough for a long time. After all, he was right there in the Risen Star, beaten only a half-length and a head for second by Smile Happy and Zandon, and was a solid third behind Epicenter and Zozos in the Louisiana Derby. So he has faced the best and hasn’t backed down. His Brisnet figures have increased in his last four starts, and after getting a “10 ½” Thoro-Graph number n his allowance win he leaped to a “3 ½” in the Risen Star and pretty much paired that up with a “3” in the Louisiana Derby. That certainly makes him legitimate.



A lot to ponder down here. You had to be impressed with TAWNY PORT’S victory in the Lexington Stakes, in which he raced wide all the way and still was able to come away with the victory in only his second dirt race. He has high action and holds his head high, and his future may very well be on the grass, but for now he is an interesting newcomer to the Derby picture if they decide to go in that direction. ETHEREAL ROAD and CALL ME MIDNIGHT failed to finish in the money for the second race in a row and IN DUE TIME ran well to finish third, but is better off not getting in the Derby, as he has yet to run farther than 1 1/16 miles and his best races are down the road. Credit must be given to MAJOR GENERAL who battled gamely in the stretch after setting the pace and put himself in good position for a try at the Preakness.

Rebel Stakes winner UN OJO, who had an excuse in the Arkansas Derby, cutting himself up coming out of the gate, returned to the work tab with an easy five-furlong drill in 1:03 at a training center in Louisiana before leaving for Churchill Downs on Tuesday. The one-eyed gelding surely will have his following, But he has a lot of improving to do even off his Rebel score. He does have a good late closing kick and you never know who is going to come on in the final furlong to pluck second or third in the Derby at a huge price. The other Oaklawn-based horse who will have a strong following is BARBER ROAD and he certainly fits that bill if the pace is hot enough. He is just one step behind right now and needs to make his move a little sooner and get a little more luck in the stretch. He definitely is good enough to be ranked and will be once again if Early Voting defects. No one will be that surprised if he winds up getting a piece of it in the Derby.

MORELLO, who lost all chance in the Wood Memorial at the break, is still listed among the point getters, but I am going to assume they will not run in the Derby. As much as I have loved this colt, I see no reason to pursue the Derby off a race that told you nothing about the horse and did nothing to set him up for a big comeback effort.

Although UAE Derby runner-up SUMMER IS TOMORROW set all the pace and held the lead until the final yards, remember he was coming off six straight sprints and had romped by 8 ¼ lengths going seven furlongs in his previous start at Meydan, so who knows if he can show that kind of speed again with that long a race under him.


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