Final Derby Rankings: Week 15

Although the long road to the Derby is over and the Rankings will soon prove to be mere folly, as long as we all had a good time and made new friends it was a journey to remember. We still have a feeble attempt at handicapping on Wednesday evening and then it’s back to “Askin’ Haskin” and weekly columns about those special horses and races from the past and whatever subject pops into my head. And watch out for an interesting contest coming up before the Preakness. I want to thank everyone for all your wonderful, informative, and well-researched comments and for making this the best Derby trail I’ve been on since I started Derby Dozen 22 years ago. ~ Steve Haskin

Final Derby Rankings: Week 15, Apr. 25

Early Bird Edition By Steve Haskin


1. Rock Your World (John Sadler, Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
Let’s get right down to the nitty gritty. It’s pretty obvious by now that I believe this is the most gifted horse in the race, who has true star potential. When we will see the finished product I don’t know. But before you commit big bucks to him now, be wary of two things. You don’t want him drawing an inside post, like post 5 and in, and he needs to break sharply. With Caddo River out, if he does draw inside, Rosario may have no choice but to send him to the lead. He may want to send him anyway, because he is the one horse capable of running his opponents off their feet and keep going. He is a big long striding horse and you don’t want to get him stopped early and have to get him going again. And he has never experienced kickback before. Remember, he’s only had three career starts and one on the dirt, so he is still in the learning process. This is not to say he cannot overcome these things. He is really sharp now following two strong works, including a :59 1/5 gem on Saturday with another strong gallop-out. He does have high knee action, much like Barbaro, another horse who excelled on grass and dirt. If he doesn’t break sharply he and Rosario will somehow have to find a good position quickly. The ideal trip for him is have a clean break from a decent post and get a clear trip outside horses. But that doesn’t always happen in the Derby. We don’t know what this colt is capable of overcoming, only what we have seen so far. And what we’ve seen is a horse with extraordinary talent who has accomplished things far beyond his years, whether it be on grass or dirt, six furlongs or 1 1/8 miles, or on or off the pace. He has the ability to quickly separate himself from other horses and he has several gears that can be used anywhere on the track at anytime. Just hold off until you see where he draws and how he trains over the track.

2. Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Curlin – Byrama, by Byron)
While we’re getting down to the nitty gritty, I’ve been on him since last fall and he is still my main win bet at what I hope will be a decent price. He is the logical third choice, but after the way some people have trashed his first work Churchill Downs and his drifting out in the Florida Derby I am hoping they will start looking elsewhere for their third choice. The fact is he has never been a great work horse, while Sainthood, who worked in company with him in both his works, has always been an excellent work horse, and it makes sense that Pletcher would pair them up to get a good sharp work into Known Agenda, which he did on both occasions. If you thought Sainthood has looked the better of the two that should not be worrisome at all. He got Known Agenda to to work five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 and then 1:01. That’s about a dozen lengths faster than he worked at Palm Beach Downs all winter. In his first work I love the way he dropped his head nearing the wire and then kept going a good clip galloping out seven furlongs in 1:27 1/5. As for the drifting out in the Florida Derby, it’s not as if he did it on his own. As soon as he turned into the stretch, Ortiz pasted him with a left-handed whip. Even when he shied away from the whip Ortiz kept hitting him left-handed. The more he hit him the more he kept drifting out. Finally after nine smacks with the whip, he stopped drifting out and actually cut back to the inside. Why Ortiz hit him the second he straightened into the stretch and kept hitting him left-handed I have no idea. All you need to know about Known Agenda is that he has been a totally different horse since blinkers were added, and instead of being immature, moody, and sometimes unfocused, he now runs like a seasoned professional and has been in complete control of his last two races even down the backstretch. In short, the boy has grown into a man.

3. Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
He has quietly gone about his business with little fanfare, but that’s always been him. He just goes out there every race and every workout and does his job, and no one has yet figured out how to beat him. I believe his action has improved a bit and he seems smoother now, and, as I’ve mentioned several times he can beat you from anywhere on the track. If you want to look for something to nitpick, although his final work was a solid five-eighths in 1:00 1/5, he could not get by his workmate in the stretch or in the gallop-out, which was a slow :14 1/5. Sometimes works can help you and sometimes they can confuse you even more, especially when a Derby favorite does something in his final work your weren’t expecting and is the opposite of what he has shown in his races. Cox said he was on the radio telling the rider not go to go too fast after the wire. So if you like the horse, as most people do, you have to be careful not to temper your enthusiasm based on a workout, especially the gallop-out. I’m sure some people will now start looking at the Blue Grass and focusing more on how he struggled to get past Highly Motivated who was making his two-turn debut and wondering if there is a tie-in between that and not passing his workmate. Just keep in mind that Essential Quality traveled 29 feet farther than Highly Motivated. I have given preference in the Rankings to horses who I believe have stronger mile and a quarter pedigrees, but I still acknowledge him as the horse to beat and a legitimate favorite. He’s done nothing wrong and no doubt is the most adaptable horse in the race along with Hot Rod Charlie.

4. Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher, Union Rags – Beat the Drums, by Smart Strike)
As much as I have liked him, especially the rate at which he’s been improving, I like him even more since watching his final work. This time there was no late-running Bourbonic to work with him; this time he worked with the brilliant Prime Factor, whose maiden victory back in January stamped him as Pletcher’s main hope for the Derby. He wanted to go right from the start, but still had his ears up. Jose Ortiz kept him a bit wide turning for home, as the two came down the stretch together. Dynamic One was striding out smoothly flicking his ears around with the pair hitting the wire together in a sharp :47 4/5 with a final eighth in :11 3/5. Despite being on the outside, when Ortiz nudged him going into the turn he left Prime Factor behind, still flicking his ears and continued to pour it on, rattling off eighths in :12 and change to get the five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 and the six furlongs in 1:13 1/5. You normally don’t see Pletcher horses work this fast, and he did it well within himself. That was as perfect a work as you could ask for. This colt is sharp, improving at the right time, and I believe ready for a big effort.

5. Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Oxbow – Indan Miss, by Indian Charlie)
What might have gotten lost in his Louisiana Derby victory, which is now run at 1 3/16 miles, was that he came home his final three-sixteenths in :18 3/5 and he did it on the lead the whole way. If that odd final fraction doesn’t quite compute, think about this: it is faster than the Preakness final three-sixteenths of Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, one-time track record holders Nashua and Canonero, and, oh, yes, Secretariat, whose revised time shattered all the records before it. Heck, it was even faster than his own sire. So perhaps we should take the Louisiana Derby more seriously, especially when it was won by a horse who had never even been on the lead before, had never run over the track before, and had to turn back the challenge of the top-class Midnight Bourbon who was already a graded stakes winner over the track. I was never crazy about the six weeks between the Louisiana Derby and the Kentucky Derby and the fact that no Kentucky Derby winner in memory has come directly out of the Louisiana Derby. But I believe the longer distance will change that and I do like the way Hot Rod Charlie has been working and how strong he’s been past the wire, especially in his most recent six-furlong work in 1:13 3/5 before the first race. So with all that said you have to put Charlie right up there with the other betting choices, but also be aware that he has not gotten any faster since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with three straight “3 ¾” Thoro-Graph figures, which will have to improve.

6. O Besos (Greg Foley, Orb – Snuggs and Kisses, by Soto)
If you were impressed by Hot Rod Charlie’s closing three-sixteenths in the Louisiana Derby and its Preakness comparisons then you should also be aware that O Besos came home a fifth of a second faster, in :18 2/5. That’s two-fifths faster than Secretariat in his record-breaking Preakness. And O Besos was making only his second start going two-turns and actually got the fastest Thoro-Graph figure in the race, a full point faster than the victorious Hot Road Charlie. He turned in his final Derby work on Thursday and you can bet his stock will rise, as he seems to be a bit of a wise guy horse and was even before the work. Foley worked him a half-mile from the three-eighths pole to the seven-eighths pole, which is an eighth of a mile past the wire. I love seeing that with a horse like this because it teaches them to run through the wire, and O Besos is a horse who picks up steam the farther he goes, and you want him to be in full flight when he hits the wire. As mentioned with Hot Rod Charlie, the six week-gap between the Louisiana and Kentucky Derby has not been ideal, so you want to see a long stiff work to put more conditioning in them. At first glance, his half-mile work in :47 4/5 is fast, but not the lung opener you thought you’d see. However, O’ Besos’ work didn’t really begin in earnest until he hit the finish line. After flying his final eighth in :11 3/5, he kept going at a strong clip with another eighth in :11 4/5 to get the five furlongs in :59 3/5 and he still was far from finished. He went his six furlongs in 1:12 3/5 and finally pulled up seven furlongs in 1:26. That is the lung opener you want to see. Now he’s ready and you can expect him to be coming fast at the end.

7. Highly Motivated (Chad Brown, Into Mischief – Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward)
He had a sharp half-mile work in :47 1/5 at Keeneland before moving to Churchill Downs where he looked strong working five furlongs in company in 1:00 4/5. Although he is one of a number of brilliant colts who have the same running style and could get caught up in a contentious pace near the lead, you have to love his three straight 102 Brisnet speed ratings, his improving Beyer figures, and his excellent Thoro-Graph pattern, in which he followed a pair of solid “3s” with a “1 ¼” in the Blue Grass Stakes, the second fastest number behind Essential Quality. So we know he’s fast and we know he can run big on or off the pace. It’s just a question whether he can move forward going a mile and a quarter, especially if he’s under pressure the whole way. We always have that concern with the Into Mischiefs unless they have a stamina-laden female family. Authentic did disprove that last year, but he was left alone on the lead in both the Kentucky Derby, run in September, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. How they will do on the first Saturday in May with all that early speed is something we’ll just have to wait to find out. He certainly has the talent and the speed figures so it all depends on how the race plays out and where he draws. He is one of several horses capable of setting the pace with Caddo River out.

8. Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Tiznow – Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon)
From a pure physical standpoint he is a standout. His coat is shining, he’s muscled out, and is carrying great flesh. It seems apparent the six weeks between races has a agreed with him, as it has given him time to grow into a magnificent-looking horse. His workout was very strong, and if this equates to performance then he has to be considered a live longshot. It’s all about strategy with the big question being can he catch horses in the stretch, something he failed to do in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby? But when allowed to control the pace on the front end he proved to be a dogged competitor refusing to let horses pass him. Trying to get the lead in the Derby is not going to be easy, so his next course of action would be to press the pace and use that Tiznow determination to keep up the pressure with the hope of tiring out the other pace horses. But if no one seems anxious to take the lead he would be the perfect horse to take the initiative, as he is the one they would probably leave alone. There is little doubt he will like the mile and a quarter. His Thoro-Graph numbers have improved steadily and if he has figured out a way to finish the job in the stretch then all those physical attributes come into play on Derby Day.

9. Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, Protonico – Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed)
I’m not sure Baffert’s confidence level is what it usually is, but I still wouldn’t ignore him, at least underneath in the exotics. He’s too tough and honest to do that. In his most recent work, he did it in his usual manner, but when asked at the wire as most Baffert horses are, the typical acceleration just wasn’t there. I don’t like to dismiss a horse because of one part of a work, especially the part after the wire, so I’m not going to make a lot out of it. But it still is something worth mentioning. I do believe he has improvement in him off his second in the Santa Anita Derby, but we’ll have to see how much and if he can show any finishing power, which has not been his strong point. Like fellow Californian Hot Rod Charlie, his speed figures have not improved. They’ve been pretty much the same every race. Could that be a reflection of the California horses with the exception of Life is Good? He is a horse you would love to be right in the mix turning for home, even somehow getting the lead, because his one stakes victory was when he was able to set the pace and battle gamely in the stretch, refusing to let Roman Centurian and Hot Rod Charlie get by him. I’m still looking for a scenario where he can win, but I don’t know what his strengths are. I do know he should be competitive enough to be in the hunt.

10. Super Stock (Steve Asmussen, Dialed In – Super Girlie, by Closing Argument)
He is sort of like Bourbonic in that he closed strongly to win one of the major 100-point preps, but no one really knows how good he is or how good a race it was, as the favorite or favorites all were disappointing and most of the speed ratings were slow, as was the final three-eighths. So neither horse is really getting much respect. Would it be a surprise if he won the Derby? Absolutely not. You cannot fault him in any way and he did close after tracking a very fast pace in the Arkansas Derby and he is a horse on the improve. There was nothing to knock in his final work, as he went a solid five-eighths in company in 1:01 1/5 and did it easily. This sounds very simple and not informative at all, but you either like him or you don’t. You can make a case either way. I went into the reasons to like him last week and you have to love his back story regarding the Asmussen family connection. He certainly is an easy horse to root for. He should be closing in the stretch and we’ll just have to see if he’s good enough.

11. Soup and Sandwich (Mark Casse, Into Mischief – Souper Soup, by Tapit)
Again, the three starts, the pace scenario, and his previous greenness is a bit of a concern, but if there is one horse who has made great strides mentally and whose engine is revved up it is this colt, who has been on go in his two works at Churchill Downs. In his most recent one he was very aggressive early wanting to go, but did settle into a good stride and again drew off from his workmate to complete the half in :50, again galloping out very strong, in what was more of a maintenance drill compared to his work last week, which was also very strong. It’s hard to imagine him not being part of the early pace that will include three brilliant sons of Into Mischief. As good as he looked in the Florida Derby I feel it was a better race than it looked and I loved the way he hung tough in the stretch despite being shoved back on to his left lead turning for home and staying there the rest of the way. He has switched leads smoothly in both his works and I feel he should be over that problem. Like with so many others I don’t know if he’s ready to win the Derby, but he is going to be right there in the stretch and could hang around a long time. With him it’s not about ability, but whether he is mature enough mentally to handle this off only three starts and just now becoming more professional.

12. Bourbonic (Todd Pletcher, Bernardini – Dancing Afleet, by Afleet Alex)
For a Wood Memorial winner and a colt with a super pedigree who no doubt is improving rapidly he gets very little respect and is being dismissed as merely a plodder who got lucky in a very slowly run race. Pletcher actually put him in front in his workout in company with Dynamic One and he clearly was second best. He then turned in some strong gallops, making a great physical appearance on the track. Pletcher then decided to give him his final work by himself and he just went around there easy going his half in :49 3/5, out five furlongs in 1:02 2/5. That’s a sneaky fast eighth in :12 4/5 past the wire. He really is a good-looking horse with a nice smooth stride and a top-class pedigree. He obviously will be pace dependent and they will use the same tactics of taking far back and making the same kind of big late run he did in the Wood. Dynamic One got far faster Thoro-Graph figures in the Wood, having to go 43 feet farther, and he is the one who looks as if he is going to get bet down in the Derby. Even if you missed Bourbonic at 72-1 you’re still going to get huge odds for a major prep winner whose sire and broodmare sire won memorable runnings of the Preakness Stakes.


KING FURY – A lot of people were hoping the Lexington Stakes winner would get in the Derby, especially his trainer Kenny McPeek, after his impressive victory in the slop, in which he made a long sustained run going from a dozen lengths back at the five-eighths pole to the lead turning for home before drawing away. With only one start this year I gave him little thought until I saw his work. Considering he worked alone, going five furlongs in 1:00 1/5, that was the best work I saw the past two weeks. The way he was reaching out with his neck extended and flicking his ears around, while cutting out :11 and change eighths the whole way, was pure poetry, pardon the cliché. I also loved the way he cut both corners hugging the rail, which shows how quick and athletic he is. What was most impressive about his gallop-out was that, while most horses who continue strong past the wire do it with some urging, his rider stood up at the wire and he still went out in 1:12 4/5 and 1:26 3/5 all on his own with the rider up in the saddle. Back at his barn he was “eating the bottom out of his feed tub.” This is another historical head scratcher with him having only made his 3-year-old debut three weeks prior to the Derby and at a mile and a sixteenth over a mediocre field. But he has a lot of bottom under him from last year and really developed during his 60 days at Three Chimneys Farm where he was out in his paddock almost 24 hours a day getting stronger. He did have an issue that contributed to his last two poor efforts, but after running Thoro-Graph numbers in the “8” to “12” range he returned from the farm and ran a “3” in the Lexington. I still don’t like him having one race, but after watching the Lexington again and his work, nothing he does would surprise me. He just may be that good.

KEEPMEINMIND – There is a lot more to ponder with this horse than one would think as he sneaks into the Derby at the 11th hour. First off, let’s not forget that he was one the top 2-year-olds last year and was ranked No. 2 in the first Derby Rankings, which you might want to go back and read. Since then, nothing has gone right for him, beginning with the cancellation of racing and training at Oaklawn, which means he couldn’t go to the track to train for 16 days. This happened when he was razor-sharp for his debut in the Southwest Stakes, which had to be postponed. Unfortunately, it was rescheduled for two weeks before the Rebel Stakes, for which he was also targeted. Not being able to run in both races he had to wait an additional two weeks to the Rebel and was so out of whack, having missed so much training and his scheduled debut, he showed nothing, which was uncharacteristic for such an honest and consistent horse. Instead of staying home and running in a weak Arkansas Derby he made his next start in the Blue Grass and received one of the more curious rides I’ve seen all year. Breaking from the disadvantageous outside post, instead of taking back as is his custom, he moved up with the leaders and was forced five wide going into the first turn. He then was rushed up between horses down the backstretch and was only two lengths off the lead in third, much to my shock. He still was third turning into the stretch, but finally got tired, bumping with another horse. Also, Keepmeinmind traveled 55 feet farther than runner-up Highly Motivated. Now he will race without blinkers, which I never thought he needed in the first place, and should take back and make one late run. While everyone was watching all the Derby works on Friday no one noticed him working a half in a bullet :46 1/5, fastest of 108 works at the distance, a work Churchill Downs never showed or even videoed. This is a horse who was second (without blinkers) and third to Essential Quality in Grade 1 stakes at 52-1 and 30-1 and closing fast each time. As I said, something to ponder.

BROOKLYN STRONG – Guess who’s coming to dinner? He is the guest who shows up unexpectedly just as you’e putting the food on the table. He attempted the unthinkable making his 3-year-old debut in the Wood Memorial and actually ran a sneaky-good race, finishing fifth, beaten 4 ¾ lengths. He broke sharply and jockey Manny Franco had to pull back on the reins in the first turn to try to get him to settle off the pace. He moved up steadily and then seemed to lose momentum on the far turn. But he kept coming and cut the corner turning for home and looked like he was going to be a factor. But two horses drifted in, closing up the rail and forcing Franco to steady briefly at the three-sixteenth pole. But Brooklyn Strong still kept coming and was running hard at the end in what was a terrific effort going a mile and an eighth in top company off more than a four-month layoff. He already had a lot of bottom under him with two victories at a flat mile and a courageous score in the nine-furlong Remsen Stakes. His pedigree is inundated with stamina top and bottom and it is interesting to note that his sire’s broodmare sire, Charismatic, won the Derby at odds of 31-1 and his dam’s broodmare sire, Thunder Gulch, won the Derby at odds of 24-1. To show what a weird Derby this is, I am making a huge case for the last three horses to get in the race.

MANDALOUN – Well, at least he’s looked great on the track in the morning and is acting like a horse sitting on a big race. He’s just a beautiful colt with a long fluid stride and his last two works were strong. But no horse in at least the last half-century has won the Derby off such a poor performance. So you can toss hm off that or you can toss the Louisiana Derby and chalk it up to just a bad day. Even if that race was an aberration, did he get enough out of it and can he come back six weeks later and return to his Risen Star form? There is no doubt he’s very talented and will be a top horse a bit down the road, but bouncing back to win the Derby is another matter. If you do want to make a case for him and throw out history, most horses who run bad races don’t come back in the Derby and those that do usually try to rebound in three or four weeks. Six weeks might be just the right amount of time he needs to regroup, and he has shown all the signs of a horse who is doing just that. Yet another puzzle to deal with this year.

HELIUM – If this colt had another start after the Tampa Bay Derby I believe he would be one of the favorites. What he did in that race was remarkable, but it was so long ago we tend to forget it. I certainly gushed over it. Mark Casse said in his 40 years of training he has never had a horse do what he did in the Tampa Derby and I agree that you just don’t see horses do that. Casse is well aware that what he is trying to do in the Kentucky Derby has never been done before, but he loves going against the grain and welcomes the challenge of trying to pave new ground. And if this horse proved one thing at Tampa it’s that he is capable of running a sensational race off a long layoff. But the Tampa Derby isn’t the Kentucky Derby. I have no doubt this is an extraordinarily talented colt, but before I can concede that what he is attempting is doable and will defy history I have to see it first. I will say however, watch out for this guy later in the year. I did like his last work, in which he was very smooth throughout, doing everything on his own, then was a strong on the gallop-out. Just to mention it again, he will be attempting to become the first horse to win the Derby off an eight-week layoff, off one start at 3, and never having run farther than 1 1/16 miles in over 100 years.

SAINTHOOD – The more I see of him the more I feel he could make his presence felt. Watching his last two races, he showed something you love to see and that is the determination and ability to kick into another gear when he sees the finish line and quickly accelerate. In the Jeff Ruby Steaks he did it after a terrible trip and when he was hit with a right-handed whip nearing the sixteenth pole it was as if his rider had floored the gas pedal, that’s how fast he took off. He has made a great appearance in the morning working with Known Agenda and then turning in some powerful gallops. He has just made a great impression out there. Can he win the Derby off three career stakes, with his only stakes appearance being on Polytrack? Once again, he looks like a horse to watch later on, but who really knows what he’s capable of in the Derby. Some of the experts are starting to like him to use underneath in thir exotics.

LIKE THE KING – He remains at Keeneland where he worked five furlongs in 1:01. He is another horse who is strictly a guess. If you like him you have to like Sainthood, who had a far worse trip in the Jeff Ruby Steaks and was flying at the end. There is nothing to fault with him other than having no clue how good he is or who he was beating at Turfway and how he will make the transition from Polytrack to dirt. We know he has a closing kick, but this is a whole new ballgame.

HIDDEN STASH – With no one watching he quietly worked five furlongs in 1:00 3/5, then the following day schooled at the gate. This is a really nice horse who gives his all every race and he does have a decent closing kick. He just hasn’t shown yet he’s good enough to beat these horses, and until he does he has to be considered more of an exotics filler at best. Look, in this field any horse who can close and is honest and consistent can finish on the board if they get a perfect setup and a perfect trip.


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