By T. D. ThorntonThe Nos. 1, 2 and 3 candidates atop this week’s GI Kentucky Derby rankings are fascinating from a tactical standpoint. In order, their styles are that of a relentless stalker, a high-cruising speed specialist, and a dominant, off-the-pace tailgater. But the contenders ranked behind them are poised to pounce as we edge past the 90-day mark until the first Saturday in May.
1) ESSENTIAL QUALITY (c, Tapit–Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)O/B-Godolphin (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt & GISW, 3-3-0-0, $1,335,144.Last Start: 1st GI TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6Accomplishments Include: 1st GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, ‘TDN Rising Star’Next Start: GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 15Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 30.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Essential Quality can now add “2-year-old champ” to his 3-for-3 resume after winning Thursday’s Eclipse Awards vote. But there was also big news last week about plans for this Godolphin homebred’s 2021 debut, which trainer Brad Cox said will be the GIII Southwest S. Feb. 15 at Oaklawn (the GII Risen Star S. Feb. 13 at Fair Grounds had been the secondary option). The decision came down to a distance preference (1 1/16 miles for the Southwest versus half a furlong farther in the Risen Star), which is entirely logical for this Tapit colt’s first race back since the winning the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This athletic gray was a versatile stalker at age two, and looked well within his element employing intimidating pace-pressing tactics. Although “EQ” has twice won at 1 1/16 miles, both of those Grade I victories came over Keeneland’s short-stretch configuration, where races at that distance end at the sixteenth pole. How have Eclipse champs fared in the Derby? In the 21st Century, Street Sense, American Pharoah and Nyquist all managed that double. There were no Eclipse/Derby winners in the 1980s or ’90s. But in the ’70s that feat was quite common, and the honor roll includes some legendary names: Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Foolish Pleasure, Secretariat and Riva Ridge.
2) CADDO RIVER (c, Hard Spun–Pangburn, by Congrats)O/B-Shortleaf Stable (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: SW, 4-2-2-0, $166,092. Last Start: 1st Smarty Jones S., OP, Jan. 22.Accomplishments: ‘TDN Rising Star’Next Start: GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 13 or GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 10Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Caddo River is still basking in the afterglow of his tour-de-force, 10 1/4-length blowout in the opening-day Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn. A homebred for Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony’s Shortleaf Stable, trainer Brad Cox has confirmed that this colt will remain on the Hot Springs prep path. But considering how Cox is a proponent of spacing races, it seems likely that Caddo River might bypass the upcoming Southwest S. (which has already drawn commitments from the Nos. 1 and 5 contenders on this list) in favor of using the Mar. 13 GII Rebel S. and Apr. 10 GI Arkansas Derby as his launch pad to Louisville. This Hard Spun colt’s past-performance lines got a nice lift Saturday when Greatest Honour (Tapit) won the GIII Holy Bull S., because Greatest Honour had twice finished third in “loaded” New York MSW races in which Caddo River ran second. Although speed is Caddo River’s main weapon, he’s not so much a blast-out-of-the-gate presence as a colt who breaks fluidly then rapidly attains a high cruising speed and stays there, which is the type of speed that can be better leveraged into excelling over 10 furlongs.
3) GREATEST HONOUR (c, Tapit–Tiffany’s Honour, by Street Cry Ire)O/B-Courtlandt Farms (KY). T-Claude R. McGaughey III. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-2-1-2, $175,240.Last Start: 1st GIII Holy Bull S., GP, Jan. 30Next Start: GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Feb. 27 or GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 27Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.
Greatest Honour, a Courtlandt Farms homebred by Tapit, makes a leapfrog debut onto the Top 12 this week after unleashing a bold, sustained Holy Bull S. run that was as impressive in watching him build it up as it was in seeing him uncoil that devastating kick in the stretch knowing he was “just playing around,” as jockey Jose Ortiz quipped post-race. “I was really, really happy going to the five-eighths,” said Ortiz. “Luckily, I didn’t have to fight for any position. I was just able to take it. Honestly, when I put myself four wide in the clear, I showed him the whip one time and from that point I knew I was going to have a really, really good shot to win. When we got to the quarter pole, I knew I had it.” Greatest Honour earned an 89 Beyer Speed Figure, and trainer Shug McGaughey said in the winner’s circle this colt will prep for the Derby in at least one other Gulfstream stakes. Asked if the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth (FOY) was a possibility, McGaughey said it was before quickly adding, “But I think we need to wait a little bit. I mean, he’s not going to be a hard horse for me to have ready for the [Mar 27] GI Florida Derby. And a mile and an eighth is going to suit him even better than a mile and a sixteenth” in the FOY.
4) LIFE IS GOOD (c, Into Mischief–Beach Walk, by Distorted Humor)O-CHC Inc & WinStar Farm LLC. B-Gary & Mary West Stable (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $525,000 ylg ’19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $94,200.Last Start: 1st GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 2Next Start: Possible for GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 6Accomplishments: ‘TDN Rising Star’Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Life Is Good, a $525,000 KEESEP Into Mischief bay, is the top gun among California-based horses. But like many Bob Baffert phenoms who dominate short-field Santa Anita stakes as prohibitive favorites, it can be difficult to gauge just how talented these sophomores actually are. This past Saturday, we got a little help in judging where Life Is Good stands from a company-line perspective. Fellow Baffert trainee Medina Spirit (Protonico), who finished three-quarters of a length behind Life Is Good in the Jan. 2 GIII Sham S. (and 13 lengths ahead of everyone else), won a three-horse photo to tenaciously snag the GIII Lewis S. But bettors who participated in Pool 2 of the Derby Future Wager the previous weekend needed no such convincer: They made Life Is Good the 7-1 second choice behind the “field” option. What is perplexing about the Future Wager odds though, is that Life Is Good actually closed at a lower price (5-1) back in November’s Pool 1 when he only had a highly hyped maiden win on his record. So anyone who waited for Life Is Good to win a stakes race and edge two months closer to the Derby got rewarded with the better price despite the proposition looking much stronger. It’s supposed to work the other way around, but future-bet markets are rife with inefficiencies.
5) JACKIE’S WARRIOR (c, Maclean’s Music–Unicorn Girl, by A.P. Five Hundred)O-J Kirk & Judy Robison. B-J & J Stables (KY). T-Steve Asmussen. Sales History: $95,000 ylg ’19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 5-4-0-0, $502,564.Last Start: 4th GI TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6Accomplishments: 1st GII Saratoga Special, 1st GI Runhappy Hopeful S., 1st GI Champagne S.Next Start: GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 15.Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 12.
Now that Essential Quality’s connections have committed to the Southwest S., the highly anticipated grudge match between the two Breeders’ Cup Juvenile favorites is on for Feb. 15, representing the first true clash of the year between “headline” horses on the Derby trail. The first time they met, then-undefeated Jackie’s Warrior was bet down to 9-10 odds and got first run into a sacrificial speed duel after enjoying an in-the-clear stalking trip. Still-undefeated “EQ” was the 7-2 second choice in the Breeders’ Cup, and he was content to drop a dozen lengths off the action and build gradual momentum that didn’t crest until a sixteenth of a mile from the wire, catapulting him to victory while “Jackie” was fourth, beaten 3 1/4 lengths. Purely from a next-race perspective, this $95,000 KEESEP Maclean’s Music colt is likely to hold the upper hand based on his wicked turn of foot and the tendency for speed-oriented horses to do well at Oaklawn. But until Jackie actually wins a two-turn race (he was 4-for-4 at age two, winning at five, six, seven and eight furlongs), the jury is still out as to whether or not a 10-furlong Derby is within his scope.
6) PREVALENCE (c, Medaglia d’Oro—Enrichment, by Ghostzapper)O/B-Godolphin (KY); T-Brendan Walsh. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $25,800.Last Start: 1st Maiden Special Weight, GP, Jan. 23Next Start: UncommittedAccomplishments: ‘TDN Rising Star’Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
Prevalence is one of three Godolphin homebreds currently ranked within the Top 12. This Medaglia d’Oro-sired ‘TDN Rising Star’ is the only one based in Florida though, so it would seem that the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. could be his next start. That would work out to five weeks between races and keep him geographically separated from Godolphin’s other two top sophs, Essential Quality and Proxy (Tapit), who appear bound for the Southwest S. and Risen Star S., respectively. The 89-Beyer MSW debut for Prevalence on the Pegasus undercard a week and a half ago at Gulfstream still resonates as a “Wow!” effort, both for how this colt won it (by 8 1/2 geared-down lengths after dominating a five-way fight for the lead) and the well-intended colts whom he beat (Justify’s half-brother and a $1.05-million KEESEP buy).
7) MIDNIGHT BOURBON (c, Tiznow–Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon)O-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC; B-Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings LLC (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Sales History: $525,000 ylg ’19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 5-2-1-2, $221,420.Last Start: 1st GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16Next Start: GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13Accomplishments: 3rd GI Champagne S., 2nd GIII Iroquois S.Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 16.
Trainer Steve Asmussen indicated after Midnight Bourbon’s 91-Beyer wiring of the GII Lecomte S. that win that he’d like to keep this $525,000 KEESEP colt in New Orleans to try and sweep the Risen Star S. and GII Louisiana Derby en route to a berth in Louisville. Those were the same races that Midnight Bourbon’s half-brother, Girvin, won for different connections in 2017 prior to a trip-troubled 13th in the Kentucky Derby. Although Girvin benefitted from weak renewals of those Fair Grounds stakes, he did mature into a level-headed sophomore who could handle multiple levels of in-race pressure, which is something that Midnight Bourbon still must prove, because his Lecomte score had an “everything his own way” flavor to it. Three horses have swept the Lecomte, Risen Star, and Louisiana Derby: International Star in 2015 was the most recent, but he did not did not start in the Kentucky Derby. Friesan Fire swept the series in 2009 prior to running 18th in the Derby. Dixieland Heat won all three New Orleans races in 1993, and then (underscoring that he raced in a very different era) additionally ran third in the GII Blue Grass S. prior to finishing 12th in the Derby.
8) PROXY (c, Tapit–Panty Raid, by Include)O/B-Godolphin (KY). T-Michael Stidham. Lifetime Record: GSP, 4-2-2-0, $107,700.Last Start: 2nd GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16Next Start: Possible for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 4.
Proxy isn’t one of those colts whose past performances leap out at you as a top-tier Derby candidate, but he does have the look and feel of the type of contender capable of quietly rounding into form and sneaking up on everybody by the first Saturday in May. He got first run at a loose leader in the Lecomte S., and while he did not win, this Tapit homebred for Godolphin prevailed in the “race within the race” for second. Proxy’s previous two Fair Grounds victories were on the lead, so he’s no longer so one-dimensional, tactics-wise, and he’ll bring four races of two-turn experience into the Risen Star S. if his connections opt for that spot. Proxy’s pedigree has a versatile, distance-centric slant: In 2007, his dam, Panty Raid, won the GI American Oaks Invitational S. at 10 furlongs on the turf, the GI Spinster S. at nine furlongs on a synthetic track, and the GII Black-Eyed Susan S. at nine furlongs on dirt.
9) HIGHLY MOTIVATED (c, Into Mischief–Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward)O/B-Klaravich Stables, Inc (KY). T-Chad Brown. Sales History: $240,000 wlg ’18 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: SW, 3-2-1-0, $124,050.Last Start: 1st Nyquist S., KEE, Nov. 6Next Start: GIII Gotham S., AQU, Mar. 6Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
Highly Motivated breezed a half mile in :49:20 (9/35) Saturday at Payson Park, one day after trainer Chad Brown disclosed the colt’s 2021 debut will be in the GIII Gotham S. at Aqueduct Mar. 6. This $240,000 KEENOV Into Mischief colt needed patient handling after emerging “a little stiff” from his Nov. 6 track-record-setting Nyquist S. score, Brown told DRF.com. “I gave him a little extra time, and that put me behind a little bit,” he said. “I approached him like I have some of these other horses that I have, in that I don’t want to run him too much before the Derby because if they’re not good enough I want to have the rest of the year.” Highly Motivated has yet to race beyond 6 1/2 furlongs, so the one-turn-mile is a natural progression. But if he runs well enough to remain under consideration for a two-prep path to Louisville, that means Highly Motivated will go into the Derby with (most likely) only one two-turn race under his belt. The betting public let Highly Motivated drift to 24-1 in last week’s Pool 2 of the Derby Future Wager after an 18-1 opening back in November.
10) MEDINA SPIRIT (c, Protonico–Mongolian Changa, by Briliant Speed)O-Zedan Racing Stables. B-Gail Rice (FL). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $1,000 ylg ’19 OBSWIN; $35,000 2yo ’20 OBSOPN. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $105,200.Last Start: 1st GIII Robert B. Lewis S., SA, Jan. 30Next Start: UncommittedAccomplishments: 2nd GIII Sham S.Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 14.
Medina Spirit’s 91-Beyer GIII Lewis S. score on Saturday rates as one of the grittiest winning runs on the Derby trail this season. Seizing the lead from the rail, he took heat on the front end in a three-way go while drilling splits of :22.89 and :46.61, looked like he might be cooked at the quarter pole when two fresh closers barreled at him from off the pace, then dug in and never once relinquished the lead in a stretch battle that had him a neck in front in a three-way photo. “That reminded me a little bit of [1997 Derby winner] Silver Charm,” trainer Bob Baffert said post-race. “He had every reason to give it up late down the stretch [when] those horses came to him; I thought he was beat. I thought they were going to get by and he wouldn’t let them by. He fought on. He really is not as tired as I thought he would be. He got caught up in the speed duel. We were afraid about the one hole and I was hoping he could just back off a little bit … He’s going to get a lot out of this race, but I think you have to take him pretty seriously now.”
11) MANDALOUN (c, Into Mischief–Brooch, by Empire Maker)O/B-Juddmonte Farms Inc. (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: GSP, 3-2-0-1, $111,252.Last Start: 3rd GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16Next Start: GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13Accomplishments: ‘TDN Rising Star’Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 2.
Trainer Brad Cox said last week that he was going to equip ‘TDN Rising Star’ Mandaloun with blinkers for a Saturday half-mile work that clocked in :48.20 (2/99), and that this 2-for-3 colt would wear them when he next starts in the Risen Star S. on Feb. 13. The beaten 4-5 fave when three wide around both turns behind a tepid pace in the Lecomte S., this Juddmonte homebred by Into Mischief now has to scramble a bit to regain Derby relevance. Speaking on “At the Races with Steve Byk,” Cox said that coming back on four weeks of rest with an elite-level sophomore is “something I’m not wild about, but at the end of the day, when a 3-year-old is on the Derby trail, you’ve got to push him along a little more.” Mandaloun displayed good fighting instincts when crashing through heavy traffic to break his maiden, and ranged up threateningly after stalking the leaders in his allowance score. But he had to be ridden with vigor in both of those races to uncork his best rally, and his subpar third in the Lecomte lacked a similar display of self-confidence. Perhaps the blinkers will offer a different perspective.
12) KEEPMEINMIND (c, Laoban–Inclination, by Victory Gallop)O-Cypress Creek LLC & Arnold Bennewith. B-Southern Equine Stables, LLC (KY). T-Robertino Diodoro. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 4-1-2-1, $394,320.Last Start: 1st GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 28Accomplishments: 2nd GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, 3rd GI TVG Breeders’ Cup JuvenileNext Start: GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 15.Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.
This Laoban bay will celebrate his Feb. 8 foaling birthdate prior to his next start in the Southwest S. at Oaklawn. As a maiden, Keepmeinmind ran second and third behind No. 1-ranked Essential Quality in to Grade I stakes, beaten only 5 ¼ combined lengths. He then went off favored in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., and his rally from last to collar a tiring leader was notable for how much lateral movement he made while trying to pick a spot at the back of the pack (three wide first turn, six deep entering backstretch, then down to the rail and gradually out to the seven path turning for home). The effort produced one of the weaker stakes Beyers (80) on this year’s Derby trail, and it clocked .54 seconds slower than 2-year-old fillies covered the same 1 1/16 miles distance in the GII Golden Rod S. earlier on that same card. But this off-pace specialist will benefit from any sort of speed setup that might occur in the Southwest, and any progress in his 2021 debut should not be judged so much by whether or not he wins the race but by how he finishes. This guy could be a slow-developing surprise.
On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):
Freedom Fighter (Violence): Away since wiring Aug. 1 Del Mar debut for Baffert as 1-2 fave. Listed by Santa Anita as “possible” for Saturday’s GII San Vicente Stakes.
Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow): Half to 2019 sprint champ Mitole ($17,000 FTKFEB; $110,000 FTKOCT) stumbled at break of Lewis S. and took bumping in deep stretch when rallying capably for third in three-way photo. That was his first race back off 94-1 second in the Breeders’ Cup.
Prime Factor (Quality Road): This ‘TDN Rising Star’ is relegated out of the Top 12 after a no-excuse third in the Holy Bull S. in which he stalked two long-shot pacemakers and never fired when called upon for run. Fellow Todd Pletcher-trained stablemate Likeable (Frosted) also lost his standing within the Top 12 after running up on heels and coming up empty in the GIII Swale S.
Roman Centurian (Empire Maker): Nice try first time against winners when rallying from last and beaten only a neck in the Lewis S. over a tiring, drying-out track.
Tarantino (Pioneerof the Nile): Eye-catching 26-1 effort in Holy Bull S. on Saturday. Hustled for lead, attended pace, put nose in front three-eighths out, got inhaled by stalkers but stayed on with purpose to regain second.