Secretariat

Derby Rankings – Aug. 31, 2020

I hope you enjoy reading my final 2020 Derby Rankings below. Later this week, I will be posting a bonus column handicapping analysis of the race they call the Labor Day Kentucky Derby. It doesn’t matter much this year whether you follow my analysis and overall betting selections or your pet parrot’s if he can read the past performances on the bottom of his cage and tell you who he likes. But at least you’ll have more fun losing with mine. And who knows, maybe we all will stumble upon the winner and cash some nice exotics tickets.

When we started Derby Dozen on that other website back in January, no one ever heard of Covid-19 and Corona was just a beer. It seems as if Tiz the Law has been ranked No. 1 for like eight months…Oh, wait, he has. But is he worth a bet as the big favorite? Is Art Collector and Honor A.P. his equal? Can anyone knock off all three of them? Who are the longshots who can fill the exotics and make you some money? That’s what we hope to discover in our September 2nd Derby Handicapping and Analysis column right here on Secretariat.com. ~ Steve Haskin

1—TIZ THE LAW (Barclay Tagg, Constitution – Tizfiz, by Tiznow)
The big question with him is whether everything can continue to go perfect for him. No one has adjusted better to the crazy changes on the road to the Derby than Barclay Tagg, and he and his horse have flourished since back in February when everything was still right with the world. Tiz the Law would have been a solid Derby favorite on the first Saturday in May, as he will be on the first Saturday in September. That says a great deal about horse and trainer. His five-furlong work in :59 2/5 at Saratoga was a thing of beauty, as he came home his last quarter in :23 4/5 and then galloped out very strongly in 1:12 4/5, pulling up seven furlongs in a powerful 1:26, which is faster than most horses work. You would think he’d have just a maintenance drill as his final prep, but he came back with another bullet work in :59 1/5, which to this horse is a maintenance drill, although it was a bit faster than expected. You couldn’t see much of it in the dark, but you had to love the way he hugged the rail on both turns and how easily he did it, and how strongly he galloped out six furlongs. As I keep saying, he is a machine; you turn on the switch and he goes…all the time. Speed-wise, although his Thoro-Graph figures are only a bit faster than the other leading contenders, he is the only horse to run three negative numbers and his 115 Brisnet figure in the Travers towers over the other horses. The only flaws he has shown in the past were a tendency to drift out and to cock his head to the right, but so far they have not affected his performance or his dominance. However, if you’re looking for a reason to bet on someone else, he hasn’t been running against anything even close to Art Collector and Honor A. P.

2—ART COLLECTOR (Tom Drury, Bernardini – Distorted Legacy, by Distorted Humor) OUT OF RACE
He turned in his final Derby work breezing five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 and was never asked to run. He hugged the rail beautifully turning for home and down the stretch with the rider never moving his hands. He did switch over to left lead at the sixteenth pole, but again hugged the rail on the gallop-out and continued strongly with his head still down into the bit. It sounds strange to say a Derby horse’s reputation was boosted by a filly, but after what he did to Swiss Skydiver in the Blue Grass Stakes, and what Swiss Skydiver did to her opponents in the subsequent Alabama Stakes, there is no doubting that Art Collector defeated a very serious horse at Keeneland whose 109 Brisnet speed figure in the Alabama is faster than any Derby horse has run other than Tiz the Law. In fact, there haven’t been many opponents tougher on the Derby trail than this brilliant filly, who has won major stakes all over the country. If Art Collector has any advantage over Tiz the Law and Honor A. P., it is that the Derby is being run over his home track, where he finished first in three consecutive races by an average margin of 5 1/2 lengths. Also, he has proven to be more versatile in that he can beat you from anywhere on the racetrack – on the lead, just off the pace or from midpack. All three of these horses have an exceptionally high cruising speed and never get tired. Unlike Tiz the Law and Honor A. P., Art Collector has taken advantage of the Derby date change and has burst on the scene much later than the other two, rattling off a series of impressive victories.

3—HONOR A. P. (John Shirreffs, Honor Code – Hollywood Story, by Wild Rush)
I admit I had some concerns about him going into the Derby off that effort in the Shared Belief Stakes, mainly whether he got enough out of it, with it being his only race in 13 weeks. But after watching his last three workouts those concerns are gone. Two works back he was so powerful and so smooth, and showed such great extension, I believe it was the best I’ve seen him work and that includes his previous work when he actually worked faster. Although he was credited with a five-furlong work in 1:00 1/5, he actually kept working past the wire with another eighth in :12 flat before galloping out seven furlongs in a sprightly 1:25 2/5 over a track that was not fast by any means. Shirreffs said he has learned to be cautious and not have him work too fast to the wire, but it is after the wire that he is asked for his best, as Shirreffs said, “To see what he’s made of.” Well, we sure saw what he’s made of. He then came back with a solid seven-furlong work in 1:27 starting on the clubhouse turn. This was a good foundation-building work with Smith keeping him three wide turning for home and nudging him along in the stretch, but this time he didn’t ask for much after the wire. Shirreffs said Honor A. P. is “very unique in that he hardly hits the ground. He has beautiful action and just floats over the track. He can rattle off :12 eighths and make it look effortless.” Shirreffs also is not concerned about the layoffs because the colt ran big in the San Felipe off a long layoff. So, with these three big works in him I am putting him right up there with the top two and am expecting a huge effort in the Derby. What makes Honor A. P. so special to Shirreffs and his wife Dottie is that his dam was Shirreffs’ first winner after they were married. As Dottie said, “It was a great way to start our honeymoon and marriage.”

4—ATTACHMENT RATE (Dale Romans, Hard Spun – Aristra, by Afleet Alex)
Obviously this ranking is outrageously high and I can’t take issue with anyone who thinks I’m out of my mind, but I like that Romans is keeping a lower profile than usual, as if he knows he has a live horse and wants to come in under the radar. I just liked his wake-up performance in the Ellis Park Derby and how much he has improved and what a huge turnaround he’s made. He certainly held his own against Art Collector, while finishing more than five lengths ahead of the third horse. Romans feels he has really matured over the summer after being a little behind earlier in the year, and we saw that when he demonstrated a huge turn of foot at Ellis Park that he had never shown before and when he changed leads on cue, something he had problems with all year. And add to that, you had to love how strongly he galloped out. In his final five-furlong breeze in 1:01 1/5, he did everything the right way, and when the rider asked him approaching the wire he really took off, showing that quick acceleration again, going a strong eighth of a mile past the wire before galloping out a long way. He is showing all indications of a horse ready to run a peak effort in the Derby. Now, whether that is good enough to be competitive with the big three is another matter. But when a horse runs five consecutive Thoro-Graph numbers ranging from “4” to “5” and then makes a gigantic leap to a “1/2,” you have to feel he is a changed horse and is sitting on big effort.

5—KING GUILLERMO (Juan Avila, Uncle Mo – Slow Sand, by Dixieland Band)
To win the Kentucky Derby off a four-month layoff is unfathomable. So, why in the world did I move him up? Because this is a crazy year where you can throw all the rules out and I believe this is a very gifted horse who turned in what I would call the quintessential Derby work, going five furlongs in :58 1/5 like it was nothing. He wanted to go galloping to the pole, throwing his around and pulling hard while under a tight hold. When the rider finally let him go he literally leaped in the air and quickly settled into a smooth fluid stride with the rider still pulling back on the reins and feet in the dashboard. Turning for home King Guillermo cut the corner beautifully, inches from the rail, showing off his athleticism, which I love to see. Down the stretch, the rider never moved his hands, allowing him to do everything on his own while on a loose rein. He then galloped out a long way. This work was reminiscent of Smarty Jones’ :58 1/5 work at Churchill, which I have always considered the best Derby work I have ever seen. This ranks right up there with that. Avila then wisely slowed him down considerably in his final work, which was somewhere between a work and an open gallop. I have tremendous respect for Venezuelan trainers, who I consider to be superior horsemen. This horse has an absolutely gorgeous head and carries himself with a great deal of class, and his Tampa Bay Derby victory was one of the most impressive Derby preps of the year. So I am going to throw out the history books and all logic and will consider him a very serious contender.

6—SOLE VOLANTE (Patrick Biancone, Karakontie – Light Blow, by Kingmambo)
Yes, I know, another totally bizarre and illogical ranking, but after the top three why not look for something wild, as none of these appear to be in the same class as the favorites. Not having run since the Belmont Stakes and performing so poorly in that race, it makes it difficult to profile him, especially with his unconventional training and not having run a meaningful race since June 10. And Biancone has said flat out that he is a turf horse who can run well on dirt. I still have confidence in him that he will run well, but you also have to take into consideration his jockey, Luca Panici, has no experience in races on this big a stage. With that said, I still can’t get his Sam F. Davis victory, his second in the Tampa Bay Derby, and his allowance score against a stakes quality field out of my head. And as I have always said, I love his quick-footed action, his European-like turn of foot, and his stamina-laden female family that has a European flair, but with plenty of classic American blood throughout his pedigree. And Biancone has proven on several occasions he can accomplish big things without going by the book, as he has done by working this horse on the grass, including two mile works. And if you’re still going gaga over Shirl’s Speight’s :57 work on the grass, what about his recent five-furlong work in :57 4/5. Biancone has been building this horse’s stamina and fitness with strong two-minute licks. The Belmont was a complete throw-out race, and it’s just a question if he is sharp enough to turn in that big move on the far turn. If he is within two or three lengths of the leaders turning for home he does have a powerful closing kick, and as Biancone says, if the pace is contentious enough and they go between :45 and :46 and change, then he might have a shot to run them down. From a physical standpoint, looking at photos of him in the spring and now, he has, as Biancone says, gone from a teenager to a grown man. That is what you want to see when you run the Kentucky Derby in September.

7—AUTHENTIC (Bob Baffert, Into Mischief – Flawless, by Mr. Greeley)
Based on accomplishments and natural ability, I admit he should be ranked higher, but I just can’t envision a scenario where he can win the Derby on the front end with Tiz the Law, Art Collector, Honor A. P., King Guillermo, Ny Traffic and others within striking distance the whole way, especially with his pedigree that seems more geared to a mile to a mile and eighth. And he still has not shown he can win coming from off the pace. I will say, however, I liked his mile work in 1:38 3/5, in which he was flicking his ears back and forth down the backstretch and was just gliding down the stretch with those big gazelle-like strides. It wasn’t until he hit the wire that he was really asked to run. He cut the corner beautifully and was pushed along all the way down the backstretch in what was an excellent stamina workout. He followed that up with a sharp six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5, in which looked ever better, flicking his ears back and forth and again was striding out smoothly. He was taken four-wide turning for home to prevent him from working too fast and was being pushed along to the wire. He hugged the rail on the gallop-out and was flying around the turn. So there is no doubt Baffert has built a solid foundation under him since the Haskell. Baffert feels he has turned the corner since his nose victory at Monmouth and all I can say is that you can never dismiss the white-haired wonder, and this colt has a ton of ability. But there are just several others ranked ahead of him that I find more fascinating at a huge price, something he will not be as the likely fourth choice. We’ll just have to see how far he can take them and whether he will make me look foolish for doubting his ability to wire the field going a mile and a quarter or win it from off the pace.

8—NY TRAFFIC (Saffie Joseph Jr., Cross Traffic – Mamie Reilly, by Graeme Hall)
While I have great admiration for this horse for his consistency and competitiveness, and feel he will make his presence felt in the Derby, I haven’t ranked him higher for two reasons. First, he has the same running style as the three top choices, and I have always found if you’re trying to beat a heavy favorite, as well as the strong second and third choices, find a horse who has a different running style, either one who will be ignored on the lead and possibly steal the race or a closer who can take advantage of a contentious pace and possibly pick up the pieces. I just can’t see Ny Traffic eyeballing Tiz the Law, Art Collector, and Honor A. P, and putting all three away. And second, he has a pedigree more geared to a mile, with the ability to stretch it out to a mile and an eighth. But I don’t regard him as a horse who you know will relish a mile and a quarter. I also believe the Haskell was more of a case of Authentic coming back to him than him suddenly accelerating in the final 70 yards. But if you are looking for a reason to bet him, his last-out negative-3/4 Thoro-Graph figure is as fast any horse in the Derby, his 107 Brisnet figure in the Haskell was a significant jump from his previous races, and he definitely will make you work for everything you get. That makes him a serious exotics play. He showed his sharpness working five furlongs in :59 2/5 in company at Saratoga. He will give you a thrill a long way into the race.

9—THOUSAND WORDS (Bob Baffert, Pioneerof the Nile – Pomeroy’s Pistol, by Pomeroy)
There was a time earlier, back in early December to be exact, when Baffert felt Thousand Words was his next star and Derby horse, and commented that he moves and has a stride like Arrogate and never gets tired. Of course, things have changed a bit since then and he drifted off the Derby path, but seems to be finding his old self, knocking off Honor A. P. in the Shared Belief Stakes, winning wire to wire. I’m just not sure if he’s fast enough (on Thoro-Graph) to compete with the top horses and would have to improve a good three to four points, but he at least is heading in the right direction. In his five-furlong work in 1:00 flat in company with Cezanne, he sat three-quarters of a length behind his workmate, went wide turning home, and in typical fashion got up to finish a neck in front at the wire. He was ridden out strongly past the wire and had to cut to the inside to avoid two horses in front of him and was kept to his task a long way. He then came back with a similar work in :59 4/5, second fastest of 44 works at the distance. He is another horse who likes to run on or close to the pace and will be put to a test right from the start.

10—MAJOR FED (Greg Foley, Ghostzapper – Bobby’s Babe, by Smart Strike)
He is another coming into the Derby off a long layoff, which I am not crazy about, but once again you have to throw out the book this year. And he will be a monster price. He needs to make a significant jump on his speed ratings, but he has always shown ability and can rally from far back or sit in midpack. It’s a tall task, obviously expecting him to win, but I believe he has shown enough in top-class races to be competitive enough to possibly pick up some of the pieces, especially since his pedigree says he should relish the mile and a quarter. And if you’re looking for a horse who has been thriving at Churchill Downs, do not discount his bullet half-mile work in :46 4/5 and especially his most recent work, a five-furlong drill in a bullet :59 flat, fastest of 36 works at the distance, in which he came home his final eighth in :12 flat and galloped out a strong six furlongs in 1:12. Jimmy Graham popped him on the shoulder a little past the wire and he galloped out very strongly and cooled out quickly afterward. His connections feel they are bringing a happy horse over there and it’s just a matter of him getting a good position in midpack and keeping himself in striking position. I like the fact he has had seven works at Churchill Downs and has really taken to the track.

11—MAX PLAYER (Steve Asmussen, Honor Code – Fools in Love, by Not For Love)
He is now in the barn of Steve Asmussen and showed his sharpness by working five furlongs in :59 3/5. Breaking four lengths behind his workmate, he was being pushed along to get his neck in front at the finish and kept going strongly past the wire. He has run three straight Thoro-Graph figures of “3 1/2,” so he hasn’t improved on that front and would have to jump several points to be competitive in the Derby, and like a number of others would need a fast pace to make any kind of impact. But this will be his third start off a layoff, and that is often when a horse will run his best race. So, all in all, he has shown he has ability and can close, but whether he is fast enough to run with the others is another question. All these closers in the field look pretty much alike and it will be a question of who gets the best trip.

12—ENFORCEABLE (Mark Casse, Tapit – Justwhistledixie, by Dixie Union)
I still feel he is a sneaky one who can snatch a piece of it if he gets a contentious pace. He has had several wide trips and slow starts, but always seems to run strongly in the final eighth even though he hasn’t threatened the winners since his impressive score in the LeComte Stakes. I liked his six-furlong work in 1:12 1/5 in company even though you could only see the stretch run in the dark and fog. But he was striding out beautifully to wire, pulling away from his workmate with little urging. He came back with a half-mile work in :49 3/5, wearing blinkers and front bandages, and did it with enthusiasm. He is going to be a huge price and might be worth putting on the back end of the exotics. It looks like the big three and who can close faster than the others to get in the picture. And he is always coming in the stretch and should appreciate the mile and a quarter.

13—STORM THE COURT (Peter Eurton, Court Vision – My Tejana Storm, by Tejano Run)
The main thing he has going for him is the grass to dirt angle, hoping that this and his five-furlong work in :59 flat are enough to wake him up. Although he couldn’t match strides with the winner in the La Jolla, his first start on grass, I did like the way he was striding out strongly in the stretch. His main problem has been that he doesn’t seem to have an identity, meaning he doesn’t have any particular strengths and he has been pretty much one-paced in his races this year. In his one shining moment last year he took advantage of a paceless Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and was able to score a dogged wire-to-wire victory. In his :59 work, he was asked a long way out, cut the corner nicely and was pushed along in the stretch. He went wide on the gallop-out but kept going. As I said, by asking him throughout the work, perhaps it was to wake him up and keep him sharp. Then as a late stamina builder he worked a sharp six furlongs in 1:12 4/5. You don’t often see horses working that far a week before the Derby unless you’re John Shirreffs. Good move by Eurton.

14—FINNICK THE FIERCE (Rey Hernandez, Dialed In – Southern Classic, by Southern Image)
He gets the final sport because he is only one of two horses to finish in front of Tiz the Law, and he did it at Churchill Downs in the grade 1 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and subsequently managed a third in the tougher division of the Arkansas Derby this year. So, although he has been up and down, we do know he is capable of putting in a big effort against the top horses. And he has thrown in some good allowance efforts for good measure. But he will have to rebound off a well-beaten seventh-place finish in the Blue Grass, in which he made brief move before tiring in the stretch. He has a good deal of stamina in his pedigree, so the distance will not be a problem.

15—WINNING IMPRESSION (Dallas Stewart, Paynter – Unbridled Sonya, by Unbridled’s Song)
Although he is not coming into the race with good form, having been well beaten in his last two starts, I did like his five-furlong work in :59 1/5. He was all business and really stretching out with fluid strides around the turn. He was nudged along down the stretch and finished well before galloping out strongly. Watch for him to take a lot of place money based on Stewart’s record of sneaking in late-closing longshots to finish second in classic races. This horse was showing excellent progress and finished a decent fourth in a division of the Arkansas Derby, but was banged around at the start of the of the Indiana Derby and lost a ton of ground in the Ellis Park Derby, finishing seventh in both races. He does have a good closing kick and we’ll have to see if he can bounce back with a good trip this time. Definitely watch out for him on a sloppy track, on which he is two-for-two, especially with Unbridled’s Song as his broodmare sire.

16—NECKER ISLAND (Chris Hartman, Hard Spun – Jenney’s Rocket, by Mr. Greeley)
Third in the Ellis Park Derby, he has been knocking off sharp half-mile works at Churchill Downs, including three sub :48 works, so Hartman obviously is keeping him sharp and not focusing much on stamina. In his last work, he came home his final quarter in a swift :23 2/5. He has already run seven times at a mile or farther, so he has plenty of foundation, and his back-to-back third-place finishes in the Indiana Derby and Ellis Derby were solid enough efforts. But he would really need to make a huge leap on his speed figures just to be competitive.

17—MONEY MOVES (Todd Pletcher, Candy Ride – Citizen Advocate, by Proud Citizen)
He is the last to join the show, and he’ll have to settle for the bottom spot, even though I believe he is going to be a top horse down the road. He just doesn’t look ready to tackle this assignment with only three career starts, no stakes appearances, and losing his two-turn debut as the 2-1 favorite. But he does have the pedigree to go long and I had him ranked in the Top 5 of new faces to watch a few months ago. He actually looked to be headed to the Pat Day Mile before his late detour to the Derby. After two workmanlike victories in a maiden and allowance race, he was beaten going a mile and an eighth in another allowance, losing by a neck. He did work a sharp five furlongs in 1:00 flat at Saratoga, and Pletcher said it’s once in a lifetime opportunity for “these guys” to take a shot with a horse who is training well, and he does get Javier Castellano, who just lost his mount on Caracaro. But also take notice that Pletcher will not be there to saddle him.

18—MR. BIG NEWS (Bret Callhoun, Giant’s Causeway – Unappeasable, by Galileo) LATE ADDITION
A last-minute entry, he certainly belongs as much as some of the other longshots, especially with his closing punch, as inconsistent as it may be, and a classic pedigree that will enable him to get the mile and a quarter for fun. His big moment came when he won the listed Oaklawn Stakes with a big wide rally at odds of 46-1. You can excuse his poor performance in the subsequent Blue Grass Stakes, in which he didn’t have the smoothest of trips and finished a well-beaten 10th at 34-1. He had been headed for the grass, with his grass-oriented pedigree, but with the expected rain in Kentucky this week, there is a good chance the course will be on the soft side, so why not take a chance and hope to pick up a piece of it in the Derby.

19—SOUTH BEND (Bill Mott, Algorithms – Sandra’s Rose, by Old Trieste) LATE ADDITION
Although this horse was entered at the last minute, I have always felt he was a Derby horse, despite his disappointing fourth-place finish in the Travers Stakes, in which he was beaten over nine lengths. He sure looked like Derby material when he won the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs last year. But after a sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes over a deep sloppy track, he went to the grass for six races, racing well on occasion but never winning, Finally he was returned to the dirt and was flying at the end of the Ohio Derby, finishing second, beaten three-quarters of a length. Then came the Travers, and if you’re willing to forgive that effort, even though he finished on the board, then he could be an enticing prospect trying a mile and a quarter for the second time. Yes, his broodmare sire, Old Trieste, was a speedball, but you won’t find a stronger pedigree. In his first four generations he has seven classic winners, two of them twice. So of the 15 sires in his first four generations, 9 of them were classic winners. And how about Bill Mott winning the Derby outright this year with another bomb? This horse is not really ranked No. 18. He is just here because of his extremely late entry.

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Obviously, there is no one left to knock, and besides, the door has been wide open for quite a while for anyone to mosey on through. So we now have only 17 left who are willing to enter the cavernous halls of Churchill Downs and compete for the roses in dead silence. Yes, it will be eerie, and there will be no cheers for the winner resounding from the grandstand and infield, which will look like an empty cow pasture without the mass of humanity gathered there. But the race is still called the Kentucky Derby and trophy still is the same, and there is still a space in the history books reserved for the winner.

But what if Churchill Downs had left the Derby where it was and not used their own private crystal ball to foresee the future and force NYRA and the Maryland Jockey Club to have to scramble in order to find a spot for their classics? We would have had a normal Triple Crown and no mile and an eighth Belmont Stakes kicking off the Triple Crown and a Preakness left dangling out there in October when the world is already thinking Breeders’ Cup.

So, let’s assume the Derby was run on the first Saturday in May in front of the same size crowd they are going to get on the first Saturday in September. Here is what that field might have looked like:

Tiz the Law, Honor A.P., Nadal, Charlatan, Maxfield, Authentic, King Guillermo, Sole Volante, Ete Indien, Gouverneur Morris, Modernist, Major Fed, Wells Bayou, Attachment Rate, Storm the Court, Rushie, Anneau d’Or, Enforceable, Ny traffic, and Silver Prospector.

So, that’s 10 horses who have survived the extra months and 10 who did not. Imagine a Derby with Tiz the Law, Honor A.P., Nadal, Maxfield, Charlatan, and Authentic heading the list. And King Guillermo would have been a hotter commodity coming off his huge win in the Tampa Bay Derby.

We still have some star-quality horses on the top end, but it drops off quite a bit after the first half-dozen. But hope for the longshots lies in the fact that we have so many horses taking unconventional routes and long layoffs to get here, and even the big favorite will have to win back-to-back mile and a quarter races, and no horse has ever won the Derby off a mile and a quarter race.

This is what is left, and if everything falls into place we at least should have a big-time showdown among the best horse in New York, the best horse in Kentucky, and the best horse in California.

So sit back, relax in your favorite chair and enjoy the strangest Derby show ever.