This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve are not quite as strong as they were last week.
For the inaugural 2019 edition of this column, this week the main focus is the first month of the year. With the action on the Derby trail percolating, this column will now appear regularly to analyze to biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.
1. War of Will
Of all of the winners of Kentucky Derby points races in 2019, War of Will is my favorite to date. After starting his career on the grass, he’s won two straight on dirt by a combined margin of nine lengths, including a visually impressive victory on Jan. 19 in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. I loved the way he finished in that race and he posted a new eight-point career-top 107 Equibase Speed Figure. His 94 Beyer Speed Figure also was promising. There is a ton of class in this pedigree – he’s by top sire War Front out of a Grade 1-producing mare by breed-shaping sire Sadler’s Wells – and to me he feels like the colt coming out of the first seven Derby preps of 2019 with the biggest upside.
Ordinarily, I would not place much stock in a dominant debut winner in the slop in late January, but maybe the late emergence of Justify in 2018 washed some of the stink off the steady stream of flash-and-flameout 3-year-old maidens from recent years. But more than that, much more in fact, is the reality that there has not really been a truly fast horse yet from this crop of dirt 3-year-olds. Champion Game Winner is talented and battle-tested, but he’s never posted a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure, and Hidden Scroll earned a higher Equibase Speed Figure for his debut than Game Winner earned in any of his three Grade 1 wins. That’s not to say Hidden Scroll is the better horse, but one edge he has on his peers is that he’s shown he can run very fast. In a 14-length runaway going a mile on Jan. 26 at Gulfstream, Hidden Scroll blitzed the opening half-mile in 44.75 seconds and still covered his final eighth of a mile in a solid 12.87 seconds en route to a 115 Equibase Speed Figure, a 104 Beyer figure, and a 102 Brisnet figure. Who knows what type of competition he beat – it may turn out to be a talentless bunch – but he flashed elite speed. Hidden Scroll is a product of the renowned Juddmonte Farms breeding operation and trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, so the sky is the limit.
3. Mucho Gusto
I went into this week’s Making the Grade profile on Mucho Gusto expecting not to come away a huge fan given he looks like Bob Baffert’s third-stringer. Instead, I think he’s a fly-under-the-radar candidate with a ton of upside. Mucho Gusto does have six lengths to make up on stablemate Improbable, but he showed a new wrinkle in winning the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes from off the pace, which enabled him to finish much better. He has room to improve and I like that there is some stamina in this pedigree that could offer reason for optimism as the races get longer. Baffert tends to keep his top 3-year-olds separated in the spring, and that means we could see him ship Mucho Gusto to Oaklawn Park for a race or find another nice spot where he can excel. I think he’s a terrific candidate to make the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby on May 4 and that’s a big part of the battle.
Honorable Mentions: Tax was impressive in winning the Grade 3 Withers Stakes by a head on Feb. 2 at Aqueduct and just missed the cut here. I love the pedigree but I didn’t like how slowly he finished, and the competition felt really thin. … Mind Control rebounded from a seventh-place finish in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with a front-running 1 ½-length win in the Jerome Stakes on Jan. 1. He earned a new career-best 103 Equibase Speed Figure, but his pedigree combined with his pace-pressing style could hurt him as the races get longer. … Longshots are fun and so is a racehorse named Harvey Wallbanger, who closed from last to first tow in the Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 2 at Gulfstream. But Harvey Wallbanger got a picture-perfect setup closing into a fast pace and the speed figures were uninspiring. He’s on the radar but I want to see him take another step forward. … Gray Attempt impressed in winning the Smarty Jones Stakes on Jan. 25 at Oaklawn, but I’m not sure he’s fast enough to be a true contender and, as a front-runner with stamina concerns, I worry about his ability to excel at 1 ¼ miles.
Maximus Mischief didn’t throw a complete clunker in the Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull Stakes, but the fact that they were crawling in the stretch and he couldn’t keep pace is a major concern. His placement here has more to do with how highly I regarded him before the race as he ranked in my top three Derby hopefuls. Simply put, I expected more out of him in the Holy Bull. The 102 Equibase Speed Figure was only a two-point drop from the 102 he earned for winning the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes, but I prefer to see incremental improvement at this stage in the game rather than a decline in performance. Maximus Mischief is worth giving another chance, but some of the shine is off now that he’s no longer undefeated after opening his career with three straight front-running wins.
I had high hopes for Plus Que Parfait after he rallied for second in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in his final start as a 2-year-old. With a pedigree that looks heavy on stamina plus a couple of strong races, he was sent off as the 4-1 second choice in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 19 but never seriously threatened while fifth, beaten by 6 ½ lengths. On the bright side, I love the winner of that race and Plus Que Parfait earned a new career-best 96 Equibase Speed Figure, but he looks like a racehorse who is really pace dependent and I think the upside might be significantly lower than I had anticipated after the Kentucky Jockey Club.
3. Tight Ten
I was willing to give him a shot to rebound from a ninth-place finish in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he had a ton of early trouble and was really taken out of his preferred running style. Tight Ten ran second in both the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes and Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes earlier in the season and I thought he’d bounce back and be very competitive in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, but he again encountered trouble early and never fired while 10th of 12, beaten by 10 lengths. Side note: This is the point where I jump off a 3-year-old’s bandwagon and they frequently get back on track in their next start, so be sure to add him to your Virtual Stable.
Of note: Coliseum was the early hype horse after a dominant 6 ¾-length romp in his November debut at Del Mar, but that fizzled quite a bit after he ran sixth in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes. The 94 Equibase Speed Figure was just two ticks off what he earned in his career debut so it wasn’t a terrible performance. But it does serve as a reminder that it’s tough to gauge the quality of competition in maiden races, particularly sprints with small fields. There is still reason for optimism: Coliseum, who may start in Sunday’s San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita Park, is training well for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert and he has a terrific pedigree.