Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin unveils his inaugural Derby Dozen this week with a look at his leading contenders for the 145thKentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 4.
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1. Game Winner
We won’t see him until March in the San Felipe Stakes, but it’s going to take some huge heroics to knock him off the top spot before then. Any doubts about him were erased when he overcame a bad trip to win the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile going away. You couldn’t ask for a better first work back, as he looked super just cruising along in his quick three-furlong breeze, and then followed that up with a visually impressive :48 3/5 half-mile. There’s no problem with stamina, as his sire Candy Ride set a track record at a mile and a quarter and his second dam, Fleet Indian, won the Personal Ensign Stakes and Delaware Handicap, both at a mile and a quarter. At this point, he looks like your quintessential professional and has proven he doesn’t need a good trip to win. Owners Gary and Mary West and their former trainer and now bloodstock agent Ben Glass have been a close, formidable team since they won the 1993 Arkansas Derby with 108-1 shot Rockamundo, trained by Glass. Teamed with Bob Baffert, the Wests also won the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with New Year’s Day and the 2017 Travers and Pennsylvania Derby with West Coast.
This is starting to look like American Pharoah and Dortmund from four years ago, with Bob Baffert controlling the top two spots. Like Game Winner, he is undefeated, winning his three starts at three different distances – his last two in spectacular fashion. Stalking is his game. He comes home fast, but having City Zip as his sire, he needs help from the female family and gets it big-time with bottom line names like A.P. Indy, Nureyev, and Turkoman – plus, his fourth dam, Darbyvail, is a half-sister to Belmont and Preakness winner Little Current. What I like most about him is the way he gets stronger in the stretch and pulls away from his opponents – running through the wire, as they say. Let’s remember that although City Zip was a pure sprinter, he did sire Collected, winner of the Pacific Classic at 1 ¼ miles and second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and he is a half-brother to Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year Ghostzapper. One thing is for sure, either he or Game Winner are going to be a terror out of town, as Baffert will have to figure out how to keep them separated.
The Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes winner is a big, strong handsome colt and tough as nails. He runs hard, can overcome adversity, can handle any kind of surface, and can come from anywhere on the track – close up, midpack or far back. Trainer Ken McPeek calls him “a man among boys.” He backed off him a little after a tough campaign and will point him for the Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes or Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, both in March. McPeek has always been very high on him, as he touted him strongly one morning at Saratoga before he had even broken his maiden. McPeek is known for being high on his horses, but I haven’t seen him as high on a young horse as he was when pointing him out at the Spa. He no doubt gets a lot of his toughness from his sire, General Quarters, who ran hard and fast. He showed how tough he is when he got bumped hard and almost put over the rail in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, but still came on to finish second. General Quarters is not fashionable at all as a sire, and McPeek is particularly proud, having picked Signalman out as a yearling for a mere $32,000.
He seems to have all the tools, including a sensational pedigree top and bottom, loaded with Claiborne Farm blood. His maiden romp was a thing of beauty and he didn’t have best of trips when second in the Hopeful Stakes, closing fast late. He’s been breezing short, but his last gallop-out was very strong. He has a solid foundation and it will not take him long to get fit. He still has to go two turns, but he should love it the farther he goes. Trainer Bill Mott has three legitimate Derby hopefuls, which is very unusual for him, especially this early in the year. Who knows, perhaps this is finally Mott’s year to break through. How popular would that be? Not only is Mucho’s pedigree inundated with Claiborne blood top and bottom, he has the Rasmussen Factor (RF) going for him, being inbred 3x3 to the Claiborne-bred mare Bound, the granddam of Mucho’s sire Blame and Mucho’s dam Extent.
5. War of Will
This colt made a big impression when he won his dirt debut at Churchill Downs, running one-fifth of a second slower than the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes the same day and doing it with ease throughout without being touched by the whip. I love the way he cruised to the lead on his own and took off after several crosses from Tyler Gaffalione. He came back and was even more impressive trouncing a talented field in the Lecomte Stakes, again cruising to the lead after sitting just off the pace and drawing off on his own, winning under a hand ride, while running nearly two full seconds faster than the winner of the Silverbulletday Stakes the race before. He is bred to run all day, being inbred top and bottom to the major stamina influence Forli, and having European stamina influences Sadler’s Wells, Riverman, and Sir Ivor in his female family. After four straight starts on grass and one in the slop, it was important to see what he could do on a fast track.
6. Win Win Win
A winner of three of his four starts, his bravura performance in the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs last weekend was the most impressive performance seen so far on the Derby trail. That track-record 1:20 4/5 for seven furlongs was breathtaking, but hopefully it wasn’t too fast this early in the year. What I liked most was that he ran the final three-eighths in a swift :35 4/5 and final eighth in :12 flat under a hand ride. I can’t wait to see him stretch out. He’s a beautiful mover and bred for the classics. Both his grandsires won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and were second in the Belmont, his maternal great-grandsire won the Kentucky Derby, and his maternal great-great-grandsire won the Belmont. That was Caveat, who is by Kentucky Derby winner Cannonade. Paternal grandsire Sunday Silence is by Halo, who sired two Kentucky Derby winners and Halo is by Hail to Reason, who sired a Kentucky Derby winner and a Preakness winner. Also on his male side are three more Belmont winners and two Preakness winners. Although he doesn’t have the facial markings, he does remind me of Sunday Silence. Live Oak Plantation’s Charlotte Weber is as classy as they come and is still trying for the roses after finishing second 37 years ago, ironically to the owner of Sunday Silence. This colt seems to have it all and could be special. Trainer Michael Trombetta will have to handle this keg of dynamite carefully.
He’s a big, powerful moving colt, but even though he is undefeated and untested and won the Remsen Stakes at 1 1/8 miles, he still has to show he can come from off the pace, especially with a speed-oriented sire and broodmare sire. But he beat a good field in the Remsen, and the fourth-place finisher Bourbon War looked good winning an allowance at Gulfstream Park over the weekend by 2 ¼ lengths. Judging from his sensational :58 flat breeze for five furlongs this past weekend, the fastest of 57 works at the distance, he is raring to go and should come out winging in the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 2. It will be interesting to see if, despite that work, he can settle off the pace. But that strategy change might have to wait if he is fresh and on the muscle. He is a daunting and imposing presence on the lead and not the kind of horse you want to take on early. Do the opposing trainers really want their horse to go all out and tangle with him this early in the year, or will they be content to use the Holy Bull as a prep to see just where their horses are at? Unlike most of the other Derby hopefuls, he has a lot of foundation under him.
He’s undefeated and appears to be a relentless stretch runner, but I won’t be fully convinced he’s a mile and a quarter horse until he goes two turns. He is rated this high because of trainer Jimmy Jerkens and the Derby gods factor. No one deserves a Derby win more, and what a legacy it would be for his legendary father, who never won a classic and rarely participated in them. And for Jimmy Jerkens to do it some nine months after having heart surgery and for Centennial Farms, one of his oldest clients, who remained loyal to him after he lost several of his major owners, would make it all the more special. And there was Don Little Jr. building Centennial back up following the death of his father, who succumbed to injuries suffered when he was thrown from a horse while show jumping. Sorry, I had to get a Derby gods reference in there somewhere, and what a story this would be. I did not like the sluggish :27 1/5 final quarter he ran in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, but he ran his first quarter in :24 and his second quarter in :21 3/5, so you have to give him credit for hanging in there after that fast a second quarter and running down a very good horse in Trophy Chaser, who had opened a 2 ½-length lead at the eighth pole. I never trust fractions at Gulfstream Park, so all that might be moot, but his stretch run was impressive from a visual standpoint and he was stretching out off two sprints. We’ll see how this story develops.
I have no idea what to make of this horse, only to say that he is immensely gifted. I cannot remember a 2-year-old starting off his career with two more brilliant performances. It was a good move by his connections putting him away for the year after a pair of 10-length romps for fear of too much too early. He has a long way to go to be considered a mile and a quarter horse, but he sure does have that “Wow” factor. He’s up to a half-mile in his works, and word from the Jerry Hollendorfer barn is that he’s grown up and has gotten bigger and stronger. He also has a very good mind. He’s fast but not speed crazy and can idle as long as you want, and he takes off when you ask him. He does have stamina in his female family, so if he can control all that speed, as they expect him to, then we could be dealing with something very exciting and very special. His fastest Brisnet pace figure was his 103 late closing figure in the Best Pal Stakes last summer, so that is encouraging. But he does have to stretch out from six furlongs, so his first start back will be important in telling us just where he’s at.
He’s a Cal-bred taking the same path as California Chrome. He has the pedigree, the brilliance, and the looks, and passes the eye test with flying colors. He won the two-turn King Glorious Stakes by nine lengths rattling off his quarters in :23 4/5, :23 2/5, :23 3/5, and :23 4/5 to complete the mile in 1:35 flat. To sustain that kind of speed over a distance of ground is extremely impressive. His only defeat, by a neck with blinkers added, was to the Bob Baffert-trained favorite Cruel Intention, who was coming off a 5 ½-length maiden victory in 1:09 3/5, and Galilean finished 16 lengths ahead of the third horse after putting away two challengers early through a :44 4/5 half. A $600,000 purchase at Barretts, he will leave the major stakes preps to his proven stablemates – Instagrand, Gunmetal Gray, and Rowayton – for now and point for the Cal Cup Derby before heading into open company, just as California Chrome did. So far he has shown all the signs of being a top-class colt, and the barn feels, like Instagrand, he is rateable and has been using his speed to assure a good trip.
11. Gunmetal Gray
His placing is based more on his second to Game Winner in the American Pharoah Stakes and his impressive maiden victory than his recent score in the Sham Stakes, in which he had a perfect setup and came flying late through a snail-like :27 1/5 final quarter. And his sire Exchange Rate is not known for siring distance horses, despite having a distance pedigree. He showed good early tactical speed when he broke his maiden at a mile by 6 ¾ lengths and when second in the American Pharoah, finishing ahead of Rowayton. In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he managed to close from 12th to finish a respectable fifth, and in the Sham he came from last in the seven-horse field and was still sixth at the eighth pole. But with the heavily favored Coliseum no factor after a slow start, he only had to deal with 18.50-1 shot Sueno, whose only wins were on a synthetic surface at Golden Gate Fields in the Gold Rush Stakes and for an $80,000 claiming tag. He is consistent and classy, and we just have to wait and see if he has changed his running style and if he can catch more accomplished horses running that way.
12. Knicks Go
Although he floundered in the slop in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, finishing 11th as the 3.10-1 favorite, he was extremely impressive romping in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and putting up a heck of a fight to finish second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He returned to the worktab Jan. 19, breezing a sharp half-mile in :47 flat at Tampa Bay Downs. We’ll just have to see if it was the slop that contributed to his poor effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club or if he was over the top by then. He likes to run on or just off the pace and it’s just a question of how far he can carry his speed. But he no doubt is a runner and overall does have the pedigree to go longer, although the two stakes his dam won were both at 5 ½ furlongs. So there are still question marks surrounding him, and we won’t know more until he makes his 3-year-old debut. His broodmare sire, Outflanker, is out of a half-sister to Weekend Surprise, dam of A.P. Indy and Summer Squall, and to Charming Lassie, dam of Lemon Drop Kid.
Knocking on the Door
They are not knocking this year, they are pounding, as hordes of promising 3-year-olds, many coming off impressive maiden victories, wait to get their chance against winners and earn a spot in the Top 12. If you do not see a horse you like mentioned in Knocking on the Door, there simply are too many of them to mention in the first week, and they most likely will be mentioned next week. This week I will be mentioning a few of them, but focusing more on some of the bigger stables and proven horses who are lurking just outside the Top 12.
I originally had Mind Control at No. 12, but when Knicks Go had his first work this past weekend, I decided to give him the edge off his huge performances in the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the fact that Mind Control still hasn’t won going two turns and finished 16 lengths behind Knicks Go in the Juvenile. And we will know a lot more about him when he stretches out in his next race, so let’s just wait until then. Another big performance and he will almost certainly be back in the Top 12. There is no doubting his speed and tenacity, and he showed his class beating a very talented colt in Mucho in the Hopeful Stakes. His Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was a throwout, as he had a pretty eventful trip, and he bounced back to win the Jerome Stakes, showing a lot of grit while stretching out to a mile. I still need to see him come from off the pace going two turns, as his dam was a sprinter. His sire should make him competitive going that far, but with him having shown :45 and change half-mile speed sprinting, now it’s all about settling behind horses.
I try to make it a practice not to put maiden winners, no matter how impressive they were, in the Top 12, especially in the first one. Too many times these horse regress when they meet more experienced horses who have won. But sometimes they don’t regress; they actually move forward because they’re that good. This year I came agonizingly close to putting two maiden winners on the list; that’s how impressive I thought they were. So, because of the logjam of proven stakes horses, they are sitting just on the outside waiting for the first vacancy. Now is the time to bet them in the Future Book if you are so inclined. The two maiden winners I am referring to are Nolo Contesto and Country House.
Nolo Contesto’s gutsy half-length maiden score going a mile at Santa Anita Park was arguably the best maiden race seen so far, as he went five-wide into the first turn, raced wide every step of the way, and despite shying a bit from a left-handed whip in the stretch, he dug in and outgamed a very talented colt in even-money favorite Omaha Beach, who you will be hearing from soon, and who finished eight lengths ahead of the third horse. Omaha Beach is a classy-looking colt who was making his dirt debut for Richard Mandella and Fox Hill Farm. I loved the way Nolo Contesto ran coming off only one start, in which his rider lost an iron. He is owned and trained by the same connections as Accelerate – Hronis Racing and John Sadler. This was a classy maiden race and I am expecting big things from him when makes his stakes debut. He bounced out of that race with a sharp half-mile drill in :47 1/5. I have high hopes for this colt. And Omaha Beach definitely is a horse to watch. He came back and worked big in the slop.
As for Country House, I know his speed figures were not strong in his maiden victory at Gulfstream Park, but he could not have looked more impressive after veering in sharply at the start, nearly hitting the rail, and dropping far off the pace. He moved up steadily on his own before unleashing a wide, sweeping move on the far turn and quickly charging to the lead. He powered clear and drew off to win by 3 ½ lengths, with very strong final fractions of :23 2/5 and :06 flat. Because the second and third-place finishers were coming off low Beyer Speed Figures, there was no way he was going to get a big number, which he no doubt would have had he not lost at least eight lengths at the break. He did earn an 85 Beyer in his previous start, so he does have something to build on.
Country House is by Lookin At Lucky out of a War Front mare and has the look of a stayer. Assistant trainer Riley Mott said of Country House, “Physically, he’s built like a grown man. If you had a two-turn horse, you would want it to look like him.” He also has the Rasmussen Factor (RF) in his pedigree, being inbred 4x4 to the great broodmare No Class, dam of four champions – Sky Classic, Regal Classic, Grey Classic, and Classy N Smart, who in turn produced Canadian Triple Crown winner and Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Dance Smartly, as well as two-time champion sire Smart Strike, sire of Curlin, Lookin At Lucky, English Channel, Battle of Midway, and My Miss Aurelia.
Country House joins Mucho and the maiden winner Tacitus, a Juddmonte Farm-owned and bred colt by Tapit out of $2.7 million earner Close Hatches, to form a strong three-pronged Bill Mott assault on the Derby. Tacitus broke his maiden going a mile at Aqueduct and should improve off that race. Mott added that Tacitus is still growing into his frame and will get better as he gets older.
I am going to totally throw out Code of Honor’s last start, in which he was a disappointing fourth in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, and I nearly included him in the Dozen, but ran out of room. I cannot forget about his powerful second in the Champagne Stakes, run in a rapid 1:34 3/5, in which he closed from last, finishing three lengths ahead of Saratoga Special winner Call Paul. At the top of his form he was forced to then miss the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile due to a fever and then was forced to miss the Remsen Stakes when he wasn’t training up to Shug McGaughey’s standards. So that is two important starts he was forced to miss. Going into the Mucho Macho Man off only a few short breezes, I just felt as if he had lost that edge and came up flat. But like the winner, Mihos, he had to run a very fast second quarter in :21 2/5 while moving up too early. Mihos was able to turn it off and wait, but Code of Honor kept going to reach contention before tiring in the stretch. I am looking for big improvement next time out.
Another proven stakes winner not in the Top 12 is Vekoma, winner of the Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct who has just started breezing at Palm Beach Downs for George Weaver. Although he is undefeated in two starts, he does paddle his left leg very noticeably and has been a bit green in the stretch, running with his head cocked. We’ll see how he looks coming off a layoff and how much progress he’s made from 2 to 3.
Training steadily at Palm Meadows for Chad Brown is Network Effect, runner-up to Vekoma in the Nashua and then second again in the Remsen. The son of Mark Valeski puts in a strong run in the final furlong, but it has taken him too long to get going, leaving himself with too much to do. If he can show a little more quickness and turn of foot and put himself in closer contention, we’re talking about a serious Derby contender. Right now he definitely is in the Top 15 and is teetering on the edge of the Top 12. He has turned in three solid breezes and I’m looking for an excellent effort in his 3-year-old debut.
And a horse I am keeping a very close eye on, Limonite, had his first work of the year, breezing a half in :50 1/5 at Fair Grounds and will be very tough when he makes his 3-year-old debut, possibly in the Feb. 16 Risen Star Stakes. You had to be impressed with his fast-closing third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and we’ll see if he can duplicate that effort on a fast track, although he has run three excellent races on a fast surface, including a neck defeat to Signalman in his career debut. He is another horse trained by Steve Asmussen, and is owned by Ron Winchell and Willis Horton. I absolutely love this colt’s pedigree, which is perhaps the best stamina pedigree of any 3-year-old. His sire, Lemon Drop Kid, is 23 and it’s nice to see him have a colt of this caliber. Limonite’s broodmare sire, Know Heights, is a son of English Derby winner Shirley Heights, who along with his sire Mill Reef have formed one of the most successful male lines in the world. I no doubt will convince myself to put him in the Top 12 very soon.
Although Jerry Hollendorfer has three horses in the Top 12 and Baffert has the No. 1 and 2 ranked horses, that is not the extent of their Derby brigade. Hollendorfer also has stakes-placed Rowayton, who has made great progress from 2 to 3 after finishing second in the Del Mar Futurity and third in the American Pharoah Stakes. We’re still waiting on his first work.
Baffert has not lost faith in the brilliant maiden winner Coliseum after his poor trip in the Sham Stakes. He has another classy colt in Mucho Gusto, winner of the Bob Hope Stakes at seven furlongs and then second to Improbable in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity after setting the early pace. Baffert also has maiden winner Kingly, who has been working well, and the recent impressive maiden winner Dessman, who romped by 7 ½ lengths in his career debut and was so impressive people no doubt will be looking at him as the next Justify because of his late start and the brilliance of his performance. One of Baffert’s earlier starters, Roadster, who won first time out by 4 ¼ lengths before finishing third in the Del Mar Futurity, has not worked since December 19, so his future is up in the air right now.
Looking at Todd Pletcher’s leading hopefuls, the one I have been most impressed with, King for a Day, is the one who has not worked yet this year, so I’ll hold off on him. Pletcher has Moretti, already a winner at a mile and an eighth, repeating at that distance in the upcoming Withers Stakes. As an old schooler, I would have loved to see Moretti cut back to seven furlongs just to sharpen him up, but having already won at nine furlongs a with Derby qualifying points on the line, Pletcher felt it was best keeping him at that distance. You just have to hope that two races that long, the first run in very slow time, will not dull him. But he obviously has a lot of ability and we’ll see how he stacks up against the likes of Mind Control and other proven horses on Feb. 2.
The best of the Pletchers could turn out to be So Alive, a half-brother to Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, by Pletcher’s first Derby winner Super Saver. In his career debut at Keeneland, he came out of nowhere in the stretch to win going six furlongs. Following a dull effort at a mile in the slop at Churchill Downs, he was equipped with blinkers and showed good tactical speed to win a mile and 40-yard allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs by 1 ½ lengths. He is owned by Robert LaPenta, who had a big year with Catholic Boy last year. Considering who So Alive’s brother is, LaPenta got this colt at a bargain $160,000.
Pletcher recently finished second in an allowance race to Remsen fourth-place finisher Bourbon War with Cutting Humor, who was coming off a one-mile maiden victory at Gulfstream Park West. Bourbon War, a son of Tapit, trained by Mark Hennig, looks to have a bright future. Pletcher also has the undefeated Gemologist colt Federal Case, who is two-for-two and is coming off a sharp five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5. Although Overdeliver, like Moretti owned by Repole Stable, was a well-beaten second behind Win Win Win in the Pasco Stakes, he did win his debut at Gulfstream Park by two widening lengths in a solid 1:10 3/5, so he is eligible to improve when he stretches out to two turns.
At Fair Grounds this week, the consistent and hard-knocking Owendale, trained by Brad Cox, upset the 6-5 favorite Gun It, who was coming off an impressive maiden score for Steve Asmussen, but could do no better than third over a track labeled good. Owendale tracked the early pace, opened up by 1 ½ lengths in the stretch and maintained that margin to the wire.
At Oaklawn Park this week, I am keeping a very close eye on Super Steed, a horse I have been touting big time since his eye-catching maiden victory in allowance company, in which he exploded past horses on the turn to win by six lengths, but who then ran a dull fourth in the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Stakes at even-money odds. I am looking forward to seeing him stretch out to a two-turn mile in Friday’s Smarty Jones Stakes. His maiden win was in the slop, so I need to see if he can duplicate that kind of effort on a fast track. Another son of Super Saver, he is trained by Larry Jones, who has always been very high on him. Winning the Smarty Jones will be no easy task facing the Sugar Bowl winner, Gray Attempt, who is also stretching out, and it is important to note that the Sugar Bowl third-place finisher Hog Creek Hustle ran a sensational race to finish a closing second in the Lecomte Stakes at 13.40-1.
Also in the Smarty Jones are the one-two finishers of the Springboard Mile, Long Range Toddy and Bankit, both of whom look like legitimate Derby horses after their big performances. Both are trained by Steve Asmussen, with Long Range Toddy having won three in a row, all at Remington Park. Bankit is a New York-bred with a huge stretch kick who won the Sleepy Hollow Stakes by almost six lengths. Asmussen also has Boldor, second to Super Steed in the allowance race after defeating him by a head in his career debut. Looking at that Super Steed allowance win again while still a maiden, remember that Boldor finished 11 lengths ahead of the third horse, making that race even more impressive.
Although there are many others to mention, I am not going to inundate everyone with too many names first crack out, but do want to mention two impressive maiden winners. The first is Global Campaign, a son of Curlin who looked super winning at Gulfstream by 5 ¾ lengths, and second is Asmussen-trained Jersey Agenda, who ran a dynamite race winning at Churchill Downs last November. One minute he looked to be in a battle turning for home, and in a flash he was gone, opening up in the final furlong to win by four lengths in a performance that was both gutsy, battling head and head, and brilliant, blowing his field away. Last week he turned in a sharp five-furlong work in a bullet 1:00 flat at Oaklawn.
Another horse I like is the Shadwell Stable-owned, Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Haikal, who turned in a huge stretch run to break his maiden at Aqueduct on Dec. 15. In both his starts, a neck win and a neck defeat, he exploded in the final furlong. He’s been training at Belmont Park and most recently turned in a strong half-mile breeze in :48 flat. His sire Daaher won the Cigar Mile and his half-brother, Takaful, won the Vosburgh Stakes and finished in the Allen Jerkens Stakes, so we just have to see if he can deliver that same stretch kick going two turns.
As mentioned, there are still a number of promising horses who haven’t been mentioned, but they will be in the next week or two. There’s too much to digest in one shot.