Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for Feb. 5

Max Player vaulted onto the 2020 Kentucky Derby points leaderboard with a 3 ¼-length win in the Withers Stakes on Feb. 1. (Susie Raisher/NYRA Photo)

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.

In this edition, the focus is the previous week of races. With the action on the Derby trail heating up, this column will now appear regularly to analyze to biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard


Bob Coglianese/Gulfstream Park

1. Tiz the Law

I debated placing Max Player in the top slot, but I think there were some real concerns with Tiz the Law entering the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes Feb. 1 that he stepped up and squashed emphatically. I also think he very clearly deserves to be considered the early 2020 Kentucky Derby favorite after a three-length Holy Bull win that earned the first triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure (100) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby as well as a flashy 117 Equibase Speed Figure and an impressive 108 BrisNet speed rating. Because I went in depth to profile Tiz the Law in this week’s Making the Grade, I’ll try to keep this capsule narrow in focus. Tiz the Law is the fastest horse so far on the 2020 Triple Crown trail in the hands of a Derby-winning trainer in Barclay Tagg. He has an exciting pedigree and seems to have a strong mind and push-button acceleration. The Constitution colt ticks all of the boxes and even has a great storyline as a New York-bred Derby hopeful for Sackatoga Stable, which won the Derby-Preakness with New York-bred gelding Funny Cide in 2003.

Eclipse Sportswire

2. Max Player

Max Player earned his spot on this list based upon the significant jump from maiden winner to Grade 3 winner and bona-fide 2020 Kentucky Derby hopeful based upon his win the Withers Stakes Feb. 1. The 10 qualifying points – Max Player’s first points – vaulted the Honor Code colt all the way up to 13th on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard. Essentially, he went from fringe player to firmly on the Derby trail in one race. Max Player earned a 103 Equibase Speed Figure, which is on par with second-/third-tier 3-year-olds on the 2020 Derby trail and a less-rosy 86 Beyer Speed Figure from Daily Racing Form. The 95 BrisNet speed rating probably was the most encouraging, but to the naked eye it looked like everyone in the 1 1/8-mile Withers was staggering home. It’s tough to get too excited about a colt who completed his final eighth of a mile in 13.51 seconds according to Trakus data and his final three-eighths in 39.42. Of course, it’s important to remember Max Player was making his stakes debut and only his third career start in the Withers, so there obviously is plenty of room to improve and develop. Max Player has improved his Equibase Speed Figure by at least 12 points in each of his races. A half-sibling to Group 2 winner Seahenge, Max Player is out of the stakes-winning Not For Love mare Fools in Love, who is a half-sister to 2015 Louisiana Derby winner International Star. It’s clear there is some talent here and Max Player is in the capable hands of trainer Linda Rice, but he needs to take another step before I consider him a serious threat in the 2020 Derby.

BENOIT photo

3. Thousand Words

I dabbled with placing Royal Act here rather than Thousand Words, and realistically he probably made the bigger jump, but I decided to stick with the 3-year-old who right now looks like the superior Kentucky Derby candidate. What I liked most about Thousand Words after his win in December in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity is the same thing that I liked about his three-quarter-length win Feb. 1 in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes: grit. Thousand Words is tenacious and a true fighter – he likes to win and he does not let horses past him. He steadily imposed his will on pacesetting stablemate High Velocity in the stretch of the 1 1/16-mile Lewis and then safely held off fast-closing Royal Act in deep stretch and even beyond the finish line. He took a small step forward from a 101 to a 107 Equibase Speed Figure and essentially paired his Beyer Speed Figure (92 for the Los Alamitos Futurity, 91 for the Lewis), so I think he is positioned to take another step forward in his next race for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. I would like to see him finish just a bit faster, but he’s proved he can track a solid pace and still have something left for the stretch. My biggest concern is 1 ¼ miles because he has not finished his races exceptionally well and, while his dam, Pomeroys Pistol, was a terrific racehorse, his pedigree slants toward speed. He entered last weekend clearly in my top five and I have him rated just behind Tiz the Law and stablemate Authentic at this point.

Honorable Mention: Royal Act deserved and received consideration for the final spot after a strong showing in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes Feb. 1 in his first start on the main track. The American Pharoah colt earned a career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure while coming up three-quarters of a length short of a 3-year-old colt I like very much in Thousand Words.


Adam Coglianese/NYRA

1. Prince of Pharoahs

After winning a state-bred maiden race in October 2019 at Belmont Park, Prince of Pharoahs ran a solid second on the Kentucky Derby trail in the Jerome Stakes on Jan. 1. However, the American Pharoah colt took a step backward when finishing sixth, beaten by 16 ¼ lengths, in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes Feb. 1. He pressed an easy pace through a half-mile in a leisurely :49.16 before fading badly late with no obvious excuse. His Equibase Speed Figure dipped nine points from the Jerome to a 79 in the Withers, and I think it’s fair to wonder if he’s good enough right now to compete with elite 3-year-olds given the strength of the Withers field was probably worse than both the Holy Bull Stakes and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes.

2. Toledo

Picking three for the cooling down section was difficult this week because very few horses truly ran a bad race, but I think these next two are examples of 3-year-olds who simply underperformed expectations. Toledo was sent off as the 9-5 second choice in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes Feb. 1 and ran third, but the key is that he was 14 ½ lengths behind winner Tiz the Law. Perhaps expectations were too high for a nicely bred Juddmonte Farms homebred coming off a runner-up finish in an allowance-optional claiming race and making only his fourth lifetime start. I also think there is a very good chance the pace setup, race configuration (short stretch for a 1 1/16-mile race), and dirt main track at Gulfstream were variables that played against him. Toledo is worth giving a second chance.

High Velocity (BENOIT photo)

3. High Velocity

As I said in the Toledo capsule, it’s tough to be too critical of High Velocity after he set a new career-high with a 105 Equibase Speed Figure while running third in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes Feb. 1. But I do think it’s fair to evaluate that race and ask whether there is any chance this colt can thrive at 1 ¼ miles or improve in any way with more distance. High Velocity clearly is a very talented racehorse, but it seems like he’s best suited for one-turn races and I’m not sure an extended run on the 2020 Triple Crown trail is in the cards.

Of note: Racehorses only have one shot to compete on the Triple Crown trail, so it was worth taking a shot with Encoder, a multiple stakes winner on grass, in the Robert B. Lewis. The English Channel colt never fired in his first try on the main track, recording the worst Equibase Speed Figure of his career, and most likely heads back to the turf, a surface on which he has a bright future.  

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