Derby Rankings: Week 14

Well we are down to those long agonizing two weeks of just waiting, watching the training, and finally the anxiety of the post position draw. And of course hoping that everyone stays healthy. There isn’t much more to say about these horses that hasn’t been said before, so it’s now pretty much in your hands to decipher everything and try to make some sense of one of the most baffling Derbys in years with so many inexperienced horses with so many question marks. I see a lot of Travers horses in this field. So we have one more Rankings column and then our handicapping column and then most of us will be able to relate to the saying, “There is nothing like a horse to make a person feel like an ass.” ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Week 14, Apr. 19

By Steve Haskin


1. Rock Your World (John Sadler, Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
I admit, with only three starts and one on dirt there are more questions about him than the No. 2, 3, 4, and 5 horses, but his ceiling is the highest in the field. There are those who love him and those who feel he is a toss, although there are fewer of those now that Joel Rosario is on him. Because he is so polarizing, that is what makes him so intriguing. He has accomplished extraordinary things in only three starts, and the question is whether he himself is extraordinary. By ranking him No. 1 it is obvious I am banking on him being special. Yes, he is short on experience, but between his imposing physical prowess, his instant acceleration, and his monstrous gallop-outs, I am looking at him as a colt with more bottom than three starts would indicate. The Derby can easily expose horses with so few starts, but he is not really that much more inexperienced than the field as a whole. To demonstrate how much the Derby has changed, of the top 20 horses listed among the point leaders, their average number of lifetime starts is 4.8. Only two horses have as many as seven starts and of the horses still pointing for the Derby, four others besides him have had three career starts. So is he really at that big of a disadvantage, if any at all? As for his frontrunning performance in the Santa Anita Derby I don’t believe he needs the lead or is even more comfortable on the lead. I feel he went to the front only because he drew an inside post and used his natural speed to secure a comfortable position. I can easily see him rating off the pace and hopefully he will draw an outside post and get a clear trip and keep away from kickback. His speed figures as a whole are very strong, especially on TimeformUS, and he made a huge leap forward from grass to dirt on Thoro-Graph, going from an “8 ¾” to a “2 ¾” and I see another move forward in the Derby.

2. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
He has settled in at Churchill Downs and started off with a sharp five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5 in company with Sainthood, so he apparently likes the track. Sainthood is an up and comer with a combination of speed and grit and seemed to be a perfect workmate for him. I am a sucker for horses I had ranked in the Top 10 in Week 1, especially when they hadn’t accomplished much. But I can’t forget the courage and tenacity he showed outbattling Greatest Honour in a 1 1/8-mile maiden race last fall and I have been raving about his pedigree, especially his female family, right from the start. I have also watched him grow mentally from a quirky colt who sometimes seemed disinterested to a focused professional athlete who, with the addition of blinkers, has developed a killer instinct with the ability to crush his opponents. He is more of a grinder, and with four 1 1/8-mile races under him, there is no horse who has as strong a foundation and more stamina. All he needs is to establish a good position and just keep coming at them. And he will keep coming with that low action, his neck extended, and that great reach to his stride. And is there any jockey who is hotter right now than Irad Ortiz who is two-for-two on him since the blinkers were added? So I’ve been on him from the beginning and certainly not backing off now.

3. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality by Elusive Quality)
Sometimes it’s better to just simplify things. If you want to get a concise description of who he is, consider this: at the half-mile call of his races he has been a head back, a half-length back, 2 ½ lengths back, 7 ½ lengths back, and 9 lengths back. At the eighth pole he’s been 2 lengths in front and he’s been 2 lengths back . He has won three races off half-mile fractions of :48 and change and two races off half-mile fractions in :45 and change. In other words, what I’ve been saying all along is he can beat you from anywhere and off any kind of fractions. I better stop now before I convince myself to put him back to No. 1 where he was in Week 1. The temptation is strong, but for now I’m sticking with my two early finds and hope they live up to their promise. He knows how to win, he has the right pedigree, and he has the right trainer, so he certainly is a deserving favorite. I just feel like this is the year to be obstinate. Yes he is logical, but there has been very little about this year’s Derby trail that has been logical. He had a sharp five-furlong work at Churchill Downs in :59 3/5 in company finishing on even terms with his workmate who actually was stronger on the gallop-out as Essential Qualty went a bit wide into the turn. He doesn’t seem to paddle his left leg quite as much as he did earlier on and looked pretty smooth in his workout. In short, he hasn’t set off any fireworks on the road to Louisville, but he certainly knows his way to the winner’s circle and that’s all that counts.

4. Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher, Union Rags – Beat the Drums by Smart Strike)
By ranking a potential 25-1 shot No. 4 he obviously is my longshot pick, but I actually like him even more now after watching his first work at Churchill Downs. He is looking more and more like a horse who is peaking at the right time. Working in company with Bourbonic, the horse that nailed him on the wire in the Wood Memorial, he sat a half-length outside his workmate and was carrying his head petty high in the stretch. Although the rider on Bourbonic got down low and starting asking his horse inside the sixteenth, Dynamic One pulled away from him despite going the easier of the two. And even though he was on the outside he quickly opened six lengths on the gallop-out. That was the kind of work you want to see right before the Derby. He was back on the track Monday and was raring to go while making a great physical appearance. One of the main reasons I am so high on this horse now is the first impression he made on me back in January when he finished fourth in a maiden race. I wrote in Knocking on the Door: “As alluded to earlier, ANOTHER DUKE, coming off a third to Greatest Honour, broke his maiden at Gulfstream Saturday in fine fashion, but it was DYNAMIC ONE, second to Greatest Honour, who was much the best, going six-wide into the first turn from the disastrous 11-post and then making an eye-catching wide move on the far turn to battle for the lead four wide. He couldn’t sustain it for good reason and had to settle for fourth, beaten two lengths. This is my hidden gem of the year so far. With his amazing pedigree and explosive turn of foot I believe this could be a legit Derby horse who could even run well in stakes company next time if they decide not to bother with maiden races anymore.” This was before finding out he lost a shoe in the race and came back with mucus in his lungs. His Thoro-Graph figures show a horse who is making great progress and is ready for another career-best number.

5. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Indan Miss, by Indian Charlie)
The main thing you can say about him is that he is rock solid. He’s run big in California, Kentucky and Louisiana, on the lead and from eight lengths off the lead, and he’s the only horse who has won at 1 3/16 miles. He’s even run well at five furlongs on the grass. So he can handle any surface and has improved big-time since being equipped with blinkers. In short there isn’t much not to like about him. Nothing against Flavien Prat but Joel Rosario really seemed in tune with this horse and was the one who wanted to send him to the lead in the Louisiana Derby and then gave him the perfect ride. But because of some odd circumstances timing-wise following the performance of Concert Tour in the Arkansas Derby, O’Neill decided to name Prat on him. He looked strong in his six-furlong work in 1:14 1/5 in company, in which he eased clear of his workmate late and continued at a good clip past the wire while drawing several lengths clear. I don’t know where he’ll be in the Derby but you can be sure he is going to be competitive.

6. O Besos (Greg Foley, Orb – Snuggs and Kisses by Soto)
Now that he is in the Derby after being as far down the list as No. 25 he must be taken very seriously based on the progress he’s made with every start and his big finish in the Louisiana Derby. What first attracted me to him were his sprint races at Fair Grounds last year, in which he made some eye-catching late runs with a smooth easy-going stride and seemed to do things effortlessly. He has continued to improve going two turns in stakes company despite coming off Lasix and you can see his progress in all the speed ratings. After running a “7 ¼ ” and a pair of “6 1/2s” on Thoro-Graph he jumped to a “2 ¾” in the Louisiana Derby. His Beyer figures have gone from a 60 to 77 to 83 to 88 to 96 and his Brisnet figures have gone from a 76 to 82 to 88 to 91 to 94, so this horse has never taken a step backward in his entire career. And what better time to win the Kentucky Derby than just weeks after his sire was sold to Uruguay. We have seen it happen before on several occasions. I have a feeling he, like Dynamic One, could wind up a wise guy horse, but he still should be an enticing price. He is worth a win bet and no way I’m leaving this guy out of the exotics. He surely is one of those who is sitting on a peak performance and will be coming in the stretch.

7. Highly Motivated (Chad Brown, Into Mischief – Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward)
To be honest it’s difficult throwing any horse out in this year’s Derby and his gutsy performance against Essential Quality in the Blue Grass Stakes in his two-turn debut stamps him as another serious contender. He could go to the lead again, but we saw in the Gotham Stakes he is just as comfortable coming from off the pace. The big question with him is the mile and a quarter. I have no idea how he will handle the extra furlong with a contentious pace in a 20-horse field. He was holding off Essential Quality for most of the stretch run, but did switch back to his left lead at the sixteenth pole, so perhaps he was getting a little tired, which is understandable. In his most recent work at Churchill Downs, Brown had him on the inside of a workmate and he showed that same grit he did in the Blue Grass, pinning his ears and refusing to let his workmate get by him. I like that Javier Castellano has ridden him in all of his starts and he is another who has a great Thoro-Graph pattern. I love when horses make a huge leap and then pair off that number followed by another move forward. He went from a “10 ¾” to a “3,” ran another “3” in the Gotham, and then ran a “1 ¼” in the Blue Grass, second fastest last-out number in the field. He also has run three consecutive 102 Brisnet figures and no one in this field has run faster. He’s done it three times. So he has a lot going for him and is a smart play based on his speed ratings.

8. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa by Brilliant Speed)
If courage under fire is an important attribute to have in this year’s Derby then he is a must use in most exotic bets, because you can count him battling to the wire. I don’t know if he’s fast enough to win or if he has the closing kick to win, but you have to take him very seriously. I can confidently state that there won’t be anyone in the race that has as many gutsy horses in his pedigree than this colt does, and it apparently has been passed on to him. Let’s start with his sire. If you get a chance go on You Tube and watch the 2015 Alysheba Stakes and how Protonico, after a stretch-long battle and appearing to be beaten, lunges forward at the wire to stick his nose in front. Protonico is a son of Giant’s Causeway, arguably the gamest European horse in the past quarter of a century, winning five consecutive Group 1 stakes by under a length, including three by a head. In each race he refused to let the best horses in Europe get by him. And don’t forget his gutsy performance against Tiznow in the BC Classic when his rider dropped the reins right before the wire. Medina Spirit’s broodmare sire Brilliant Speed won the Blue Grass Stakes by closest of noses; Brilliant Speed’s sire Dynaformer won two stakes by a nose and a half-length; and Dynaformer’s sire Roberto won the English Derby in the closest finish in history of the race, outbattling eventual Arc de Triomphe winner Rheingold in a finish so close his rider Lester Piggott dismounted before it was official because he thought he has lost. Finally, in Medina Spirit’s tail-female family, his third dam is by Holy Bull, out of a Forty Niner mare. Holy Bull scored one of the gutsiest victories in the history of the Travers Stakes and Forty Niner was involved in nine photos, winning the Haskell and Travers by a nose, outgaming Seeking the Gold each time. That is the family I want in a street fight.

9. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch the Moon by Malibu Moon)
He is one horse I think I may have ranked too low, but I’m not quite sure just where to put him. You had to love his work on Monday in which he went five furlongs in :59 4/5 in company and was just on cruise control down the stretch, galloping out six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 and pulling up seven panels in 1:26. That is what we refer to as a Derby work. He looks to be getting stronger and more filled out and it’s only a matter of when the Tiznow in him is going to come out. If he continues to train like this he likely will move up. I do know that he, along with Dynamic One and O Besos look to be my price win bets at this point. He runs hard every race and we have seen how tenacious he is when he’s in front, just like his sire. The big thing is to get him to the front, either from the start or at some point in the race. He has shown he’s not as effective having to catch horses in the stretch, so his main hope is that no one really wants the lead and he can cruise up there and then lull everyone to sleep, because they most likely will pay little attention to him. But he is not a horse you want to ignore for very long. In fact, if he continues to flourish he might not even need the lead to win. Not only is he a half-brother to Haskell and Louisiana Derby winner Girvin and Iroquois Stakes winner Cocked and Loaded, he has the much desired Rasmussen Factor on his dam’s side, being inbred to Monique Rene, who was not a top-class filly but did win 13 minor stakes and won 29 of her 45 starts, finishing in the money 37 times. Monique Rene’s sire made 56 starts and her dam 65 starts. In addition, her daughter Walk Away Rene, who is Midnight Bourbon’s third dam, produced horses who made 69, 58, and 39 starts, so we know where Midnight Bourbon gets his toughness and durability to go along with Tiznow. He is only one of two Derby horses this year to have made as many as seven lifetime starts, has never been out of the money, and has never raced under a mile, so he is the veteran of this group with one of the strongest foundations.

10. Super Stock (Steve Asmussen, Dialed In – Super Girlie by Closing Argument)
The more I study the Arkansas Derby and this colt’s career the more I’m convinced his victory at Oaklawn Park was more than just having a perfect setup race. Right now I just can’t rank him any higher until I see how he trains at Churchill Downs. I just don’t know how good he is. Yes, Caddo River and Concert Tour cut out some wicked fractions, but Super Stock, coming off only one race in four and a half months, was only 1 ½ to two lengths behind them and kept coming, blowing by both of them in the final sixteenth. This is a colt who won the 5 ½-furlong Texas Breeders’ Futurity last year battling with four other horses in fractions of :22 1/5 and :45 3/5. As he has stretched out he has turned that into tactical speed, sitting comfortably behind any kind of pace. In his two-turn debut in the Breeders’ Futurity, he was too keyed up early racing on the inside and behind horses. His rider had to step on the brakes, pulling back on the reins to prevent him from running up on horses’ heels. By the time he got clear, the two leaders, including Essential Quality, had opened up three lengths. Despite getting bumped and herded in the stretch he still managed to finish third. Following a game second to King Fury in the Street Sense Stakes, he turned in a sensational work for the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes that had Asmussen all excited. But after cooling out, while they were putting up his hay and feed bucket he got loose and ran out of the stall, skinning his hind legs and suffering a puncture that required him being sent to Rood and Riddle for treatment. Because of his great disposition (he just eats and sleeps all day), and being such a smart horse, he was the perfect patient and soon was sent back to Asmussen. Two races later he is a Grade 1 winner and one of the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

11. Soup and Sandwich (Mark Casse, Into Mischief – Souper Soup, by Tapit)
With only three career starts and still showing signs of greenness in his races, I don’t know if he is ready to to win the Derby, but one thing I am sure of is that this colt has extraordinary talent and is going to be a terror down the road. He has matured rapidly and showed so much grit, speed, and overall talent in the Florida Derby, you really cannot dismiss him, especially after watching his huge five-furlong work in :59 4/5 work, which was as good as any work I’ve seen so far at Churchill Downs. First off, he changed leads on cue, which is what you wanted to see from him, but the way he was striding out down the stretch on a very loose rein and just took off from his workmate was extremely impressive and convinced me he has grown up in a short period of time and has made extraordinary progress since his first two starts. If this horse had one more start in which to develop a little more mentally and gain experience he would be ranked much higher. As it is, I would not be surprised to see him run a big race in the Derby. His Thoro-Graph number did jump from a “9 ¾” to a very strong “1 ¾” in the Florida Derby, making him one of the fastest horses in the race, but was it too big a leap and can he move forward off it? The five weeks surely will help, and judging from this last work, I am seeing a different horse, one who is on a big upward spiral.

12. Bourbonic (Todd Pletcher, Bernardini – Dancing Afleet, by Afleet Alex)
Like Super Stock you just don’t know what to make of his last race as impressive as it was. Is he a horse who has made rapid improvement since running in claiming and starter allowance races or did he catch a field in which the top horses failed to fire or tired over a track that was incredibly slow? Dynamic One, who he caught on the wire, had a far worse trip and a far better Thoro-Graph number and totally dominated him in their work in company, in which Pletcher had him in front on the inside. Perhaps that is not how he is comfortable running. You have to love his pedigree and it looks as if he is finally running to it. But if he runs like he did in the Wood he is going to have to get very lucky coming from so far back and getting past so many horses. He is still a bit of a mystery horse who has a lot to prove.


As for the others, there are still several you can pick out of the hat and get some buzz for your buck. They just might have more question marks than the ones in the Top 12 and would be more of a reach. The most enigmatic of them all is HELIUM, who has untapped ability and has looked good working at Churchill Downs, turning in a pair of strong five-furlong works. In his last work he kept going past the wire and was still strong down the backstretch. But as I’ve been saying every week, he has so much history and common sense handicapping to overcome you just wish he had another start after his gutsy Tampa Bay Derby victory. He will have to overcome three historical factors and no horse has overcome any of them in over 100 years. So if he wins, handicapping the Derby will never again be the same.

One of the more consistent horses is the hard-trying HIDDEN STASH, who may have overcome his inability to change leads, but we don’t know that for sure. He hasn’t shown quite enough to suggest he can win the Derby but the placings are wide open and he could be capable of sneaking in there if he gets a perfect trip and does everything right, especially change leads. But he will be a huge price for sure.

The Jeff Ruby Steaks one-two finishers LIKE THE KING and SAINTHOOD both looked good in that race, but they still have to prove themselves on dirt in top-class company. So you can certainly take a shot that they will be just as effective, but they are still guesses. Like the King has more experience and has never been out of the money in six starts, while Sainthood has had only three career starts, but did make huge progress coming off a nose victory in a maiden race at Fair Grounds.

If CADDO RIVER runs, and it is looking like he will, he could very well dictate the pace, being the one true frontrunner in the field who has the speed to outrun anyone if they are determined to get him to the lead. And it is safe to say that is where he is most effective. It’s just a matter of how far he can carry it. If he doesn’t want any part of the mile and a quarter he can still provide a good pace for Essential Quality.

I have no idea what to expect from MANDALOUN. He made a nice appearance on the track working in company, but it’s very hard to excuse his last race. Horses just do not win the Derby off that poor a performance. Once again, the talent is there; we have seen it on several occasions. It just looks like they are taking a shot, hoping the last race was an aberration and he can return to his past form. But it is asking a lot.

GET HER NUMBER is getting a little buzz the way he was finishing late in the Arkansas Derby and the fact he is a Grade 1 winner. But were Caddo River and Concert Tour simply tiring coming home the last three-eighths in :39 3/5. Peter Miller is always dangerous, but he will have to really improve to be a factor. If you feel he is worth a play at a monster price you will be getting gigantic odds for a Grade 1 winner who did show big improvement in his second start back.

I didn’t think they were going to run DREAM SHAKE, but so far he’s still in there. He is another with a big future, but it looks to be down the road. Although his two stakes efforts were not bad at all, finishing third both times, he really hasn’t shown enough to suggest he is ready for this big a test.

Still waiting to get in is KING FURY, despite having made his 3-year-old debut only two weeks ago in the Lexington Stakes. As impressive as he looked winning with authority it is asking a lot to go 1 ¼ miles off one 1 1/16-mile race with so little bottom under him this year. If he does get in it will then be another two weeks to the Preakness, which looks like a more realistic target for him.

Here are the fastest last-out winners on Thoro-Graph and Beyer:

Essential Quality 0
Highly Motivated 1 ¼
Known Agenda 1 ½
Soup and Sandwich 1 ¾
Dynamic One 2
Rock Your World 2 ¾

Rock Your World 100
Hot Rod Charlie 99
Essential Quality 97
Highly Motivated 97
Midnight Bourbon 96
Known Agenda 94
Medina Spirit 94

Essential Quality 102
Rock Your World 102
Highly Motivated 102
Known Agenda 101
Hot Rod Charlie 96



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