Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin unveils his inaugural Derby Dozen this week with a look at his leading contenders for the 146thKentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 2.
This weekend, the calendar for Derby preps stops at Oaklawn Park during its opening day racecard on Jan. 24 for the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes, before picking up steam on Feb. 2 with three more qualifying points races.
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It was important to see him work in order for him to secure the wide-open No. 1 spot, and he just got it in, breezing a half in :50 3/5 Jan. 12, then putting in a more serious half in :48 1/5. What makes him so intriguing is that we have no idea how high his ceiling is because of his star-crossed 2-year-old campaign. But, boy, when he has no incidents, he can be spectacular. Pay no attention to the 1 ¾-length margin of his Iroquois Stakes victory. He put his field away with ease and was totally geared down the final furlong. We’ll never know what might have happened had he not stumbled badly coming out of the gate in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But that is behind him and it’s time to start putting together a string of big efforts without any incidents.
I believe he is going to be the most underrated, underappreciated 2-year-old champion we’ve seen in years. Some looked at his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win as a farce after the travails of the three big horses, but he showed his versatility and competitiveness, and the horse he beat, Anneau d’Or, came back to prove he is top quality. If he debuts sprinting in the Feb. 9 San Vicente Stakes, as trainer Peter Eurton said, I will like him even more. With Santa Anita favoring speed in the Breeders’ Cup, the addition of blinkers helped him get to the lead. Now with a pair of solid two-turn races under him, it would serve him well to get a sharpener in before stretching out again. That is the way it used to be done, and Eurton has been around long enough to appreciate that. You can bet he will have him peaking on Derby Day. Let’s not forget his broodmare sire Tejano Run finished second in the Kentucky Derby and his sire Court Vision was a Grade 1 winner at both a mile and a mile and a quarter.
Trainer Bob Baffert believes he could have another major star in this guy, and after what he did in the Los Alamitos Futurity he could be right. Coming off one gutsy maiden sprint victory, he had graded stakes winner High Velocity on his inside and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Anneau d’Or on his outside and out-gamed both of them. It was a brilliant ride by Flavien Prat, who hit him right-handed to bring him in to look High Velocity in the eye. Then when he put that foe away, he switched to his left hand to bring him way out to look Anneau d‘Or in the eye, and Thousand Words refused to let him get by. There is a lot of speed in his female family, so we’ll see how much he continues to improve as the distances get longer. His second dam is by Point Given, so there is some stamina there. I like the fact that he has shown the ability to sit just off the pace going 6 ½ furlongs and 1 1/16 miles.
4. Tiz the Law
Maybe it’s the traditionalist in me, but his Champagne Stakes performance, blowing by a top-class horse in Green Light Go, was extremely impressive, as he covered the flat mile in a solid 1:35 2/5. And I am still a sucker for Champagne winners, knowing how many champions and classic winners it has produced. For now, I am going to throw out his third-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. He was stuck down on the inside with nowhere to go on a sloppy track and then had to bull his way between horses to get through, and was beaten only three-quarters of a length, despite losing his action when jumping back to his left lead while being sandwiched between two horses. The horses who finished second and fourth, Finnick the Fierce and Enforceable, came back to run big in the Lecomte Stakes. This is the same team that brought you Funny Cide 17 years ago and they look to have another top-class horse with a top-class pedigree. He has been working steadily at Palm Meadows, including three straight solid five-furlong works, and looks sharp and fit for his 3-year-old debut in the Feb. 1 Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull Stakes.
Coming off a 9 ½-length romp in his career debut going 5 ½ furlongs, he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity back in October and had to break from post 10. He got hung five-wide into the first turn, made an impressive move from sixth to first on the far turn, quickly opening a length lead, and before he had a chance to take a deep breath, Maxfield was all over him. You can certainly make a case for him hitting the front too soon. And stretching out from 5 ½ furlongs to 1 1/16 miles is no easy task, especially losing so much ground early and racing wide the whole way. Maxfield also was coming off only one start, but that was at a mile – big difference. I liked the turn of foot he showed going for the lead and the way he hung tough for second. He’s had four good works at Palm Beach Downs and is now up to five furlongs. I’d love to see him get three starts in to avoid having only four starts going into the Derby, but many trainers now use the less-is-better philosophy. Take advantage of his last defeat and get on board now.
He could turn out to be the best of the lot, but I just want to see him step up in competition and straighten out his pre-race antics. He beat two New York-bred maiden winners in the Jerome Stakes and toyed with a Monmouth Park shipper, who looks to be a sprinter, in the Nashua Stakes. But the third-place finisher in the Nashua did run a good third in the Remsen Stakes. Physically, he looks to be a top-class colt who does everything right once the gates open. He moved from Fair Hill to Tampa Bay Downs, where he had his first work, breezing a half in :49 3/5. He looks to have a strong enough pedigree to stretch out to longer distances. He was a $200,000 RNA as a 2-year-old, so it appears he has made great strides since then.
He likely would be ranked No. 1 if his immediate future wasn’t in doubt after withdrawing from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with an injury and coming around slowly. He is exactly what you want to see in a Derby horse, showing an explosive turn of foot to run right on by Gouverneur Morris in the Breeders’ Futurity and quickly drawing off. It is touch and go right now, as his connections will not rush him to make the Derby. He currently is at Bridlewood Farm in Ocala. He spent some time in a paddock and tack-walking and has begun jogging, according to Godolphin’s Jimmy Bell, who said they are taking a conservative approach with him. They should have a better idea where he’s at by the end of the month. This is one serious horse, and it would be a great loss to the Derby if he is unable to make it. As it is, even if he does, he likely would not have more than four career starts before the Derby. How long he is able to stay in the top 12 remains to be seen, as we have some big races coming up.
Leave it to Jimmy Jerkens to go old school and pass on the two-turn Holy Bull Stakes in favor of the seven-furlong Swale Stakes on the same Feb. 1 card at Gulfstream Park. I love that move. Jerkens is not one to be dictated by points and is doing what he feels is in his horse’s best interests. Jerkens alluded to the fact that he gets a better read on his horses sprinting at Gulfstream than in two-turn races, which he feels can be enigmatic at times. But that will come next. His Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite score last summer was very impressive, and he should never have been on a contested lead in the Champagne Stakes. As a result, he had no answer when Tiz the Law launched his powerful challenge. After the Swale sharpening, we’ll find out just what we have when he does finally stretch out to two turns. Coming off a defeat and passing the Breeders’ Cup, this might be the time to latch onto him in the future book.
This would be my future book horse right now. I love everything about this horse, especially the way he moves and his professionalism. His maiden win at Saratoga, going seven furlongs in 1:22 4/5, was one of the most impressive performances of the year. He runs low to the ground and has good extension and fluid action. He ran slow in his most recent score at Aqueduct, but this was just a workout, winning with his ears pricked and the jock looking back. You don’t see a lot of horses inbred to record-breaking Travers Stakes winner Honest Pleasure, but this colt is, as well as Damascus. He has been working steadily at Oaklawn Park and looks ready for his all-important stakes debut, which will come in the Jan. 24 Smarty Jones Stakes. His next start will tell us a lot about him.
10. Anneau d'Or
He seems to have all the tools and was barely beaten in two Grade 1 races by two highly-ranked horses. The only reason he is not ranked higher is that in both defeats he was extremely hard-ridden (hit 17 times in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 20 times in the Los Alamitos Futurity) and looked to have both races won, only to fail to get by the winner. It’s way too early to call him a hanger, but his next race will tell a lot. Blinkers might help, but that is for his trainer to decide. I believe he is the kind of horse that if he can get a lead, he’s not going to give it up. But he has to show he can get by good horses and not have to be whipped so vigorously to do so. He had his first work of the year Jan. 17, breezing five furlongs in a sharp 1:00 4/5 on the Tapeta surface at Golden Gate Fields.
He no doubt is immensely talented, to draw off the way he did in the Sham Stakes despite racing so greenly in the stretch, switching to his wrong lead and ducking sharply to the rail twice. He is a May 5 foal, so he still has a lot to learn. He did have everything his own way on the lead and there is a question from his pedigree about how far he wants to go. Offspring by Into Mischief usually need stamina in their dam to stretch out effectively to classic distances, and he might be able to get it from the bottom of his pedigree. But first and foremost, he has to be more professional and get rid of that greenness he exhibited. You have to give him a lot of credit for stretching out from a swiftly run 5 ½-furlong maiden race to a Grade 3 stakes at a mile. He is another who would have only four starts before the Derby.
This one just bumped his Kentucky Jockey Club conqueror Silver Prospector off the final spot at the last minute with his sweeping victory in the Lecomte Stakes. He was flying at the end of the Kentucky Jockey Club to be beaten only two lengths and showed marked improvement at Fair Grounds, circling the field with a big move and drawing off, coming home his final sixteenth in a swift :06 1/5. It has taken him a while to get his act together, but he has turned in four straight big efforts since the addition of blinkers and established himself as a dangerous closer who should have no problem stretching out to longer distances. A $775,000 buy-back as a yearling, he has become a pet project for assistant and former trainer David Carroll, who handles Mark Casse’s string at Fair Grounds.
Knocking On the Door
Welcome to the 2020 Derby trail. Is this year’s winner sitting up there in the Top 12 or among the many knocking on the door, just waiting to make their presence felt? On first glance, pay close attention to those, who for one reason or another, have to wait their turn and are just a heartbeat away from ascending to the top. Let me say that in the beginning, it is impossible to list all the promising 3-year-olds, so if you don’t see your horse named this week, that doesn’t mean he won’t be mentioned next week. Right now it is mostly about catching up with the top horses from last year and the horses who have run big already this year.
As mentioned earlier, Silver Prospector had originally been the No. 12-ranked horse, but had to be dropped at the last minute to make room for Enforceable, who ran too good in the Lecomte to leave off. Silver Prospector improved dramatically when switched from grass to dirt, showing excellent speed at 6 ½ furlongs at Keeneland and one-mile at Churchill Downs in the Street Sense Stakes before stretching out to two turns in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where he came from sixth to score a game victory. He has decent stamina on top and speed on bottom, and we’ll see how far he wants to go.
Let’s begin by saying there were three races – two maidens and one allowance – in the past month-and-a-half that could have a major impact on the this year’s Derby trail. These three races were dominated by two horses, each of whom has boosted the reputation of the other.
On Dec. 8 at Gulfstream Park, first-timer Premier Star, favored at 2.20-1, broke sharply and stalked 2.80-1 second choice Caracaro before putting him away in the final sixteenth to win by 1 ¾ lengths in 1:23 flat for seven furlongs. Caracaro got bounced around coming out of the gate, was rushed to the lead, then raced greenly, lugging out coming to the top of the stretch and carried Premier Star out some five or six paths. This race was just the tip of the iceberg.
On Jan. 11, Caracaro returned stretching out to a flat mile. Sent off as the 2.10-1 favorite in a 10-horse field, he broke cleanly this time, sat comfortably behind a 76.30-1 shot, easily disposed of him on the turn, and ran professionally through the stretch to win going away by six lengths and galloping out very strongly. What was most impressive about this performance was that his time of 1:35 flat was almost two full seconds faster than an earlier maiden race at the same distance and conditions won by Kingmeister, who just held on to defeat 4-5 favorite Telephone Talker, trained by Chad Brown, in 1:36 4/5. Caracaro has a smooth easy-going stride and a great eye. Being by Uncle Mo, out of a War Front mare whose dam, Santa Catarina, won the Hollywood Oaks and was second in the Kentucky Oaks and third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Caracaro looks like a horse who will have no trouble stretching out in distance. All in all, this colt, trained by Gustavo Delgado, appears to have a bright future.
To continue the reputation boosting, Premier Star then came back in a seven-furlong allowance race on Jan. 15. Sent off at 1-5, he broke sharply again and quickly opened up two lengths all on his own. From there, he just kept increasing his lead, winning by 5 ¼ lengths with his ears pricked, totally wrapped up in the final furlong, with the second-place finisher and 3.60-1 second choice finishing six lengths ahead of the third horse. Trained by Jorge Navarro, Premier Star is a son of the Tapit stallion Tapiture, out of a mare by Hold That Tiger, a Group 1 winner in France who placed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Woodward Stakes in the U.S. for Coolmore. Premier Star’s third dam, Dowager, is out of the top-class Princessnesian, who beat the boys in the 1 ¼-mile Hollywood Gold Cup in 1:59 4/5, at the time the fastest mile and a quarter ever run by a filly. Dowager’s sire, Honest Pleasure, shattered the track record for a mile and a quarter, winning the Travers Stakes in 2:00 1/5. It is stakes time for both horses and you will want to keep a close eye on them.
Getting back to the Lecomte Stakes, we may have witnessed the emergence of another major player with the excellent performance of runner-up Silver State, who put in a strong run behind Enforceable, but got bounced around after being stuck behind horses in the upper stretch, finally bulling his way through and rallying strongly to get second through a very quick final sixteenth. He was giving away a great deal of experience, having only run twice last year and making his two-turn debut. A $450,000 yearling purchase, he is yet another weapon in the arsenal of Steve Asmussen. What I love about him is that the female families of his sire and dam both trace to classic Darby Dan Farm families. In addition to being inbred to Darby Dan’s English Derby winner Roberto, these are also the families of champions Little Current and Sunshine Forever, as well as Dynaformer and Brian’s Time and Darby Dan foundation mare Golden Trail. I’m looking for continued improvement from this colt.
Last year’s Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up Finnick the Fierce ran well enough to finish fourth in the Lecomte, swinging very wide turning for home after racing at the back of the 13-horse field early. He definitely deserves another shot and should keep improving at the longer distances. As for fifth-place finisher, Scabbard, the 3.20-1 favorite, he was stuck down on the inside the whole race, looked to have a lot left turning for home, but ran into a wall of horses and had to steady and alter course. He was nosed for fourth and never threatened the top three, but was still finishing with good energy. He has shown enough in his four previous starts to still be regarded as a legitimate Derby contender if he can get the distance. A newcomer on the scene is third-place finisher, Mr. Monomoy, who was making his stakes debut. The half brother to champion filly Monomoy Girl stalked the early pace and raced evenly throughout, while squeezing through a narrow opening in the stretch and finishing up strongly, just getting nipped in the final stride for second. Watch for big improvement from the son of Palace Malice.
All in all, the Lecomte was a good race, leaving the door open for the first five finishers to continue on the Derby trail with confidence. However, it must be pointed out that a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claimer earlier on the card was run two-fifths faster than the Lecomte, for whatever that is worth. The winner of that race, Calumet Farm’s Blackberry Wine, a son of Calumet’s Preakness winner Oxbow, showed a lot of guts, coming back after being passed by 3-2 Digital to win by a full length. It was 4 ¼ lengths back to the other 3-2 shot, Chestertown. Blackberry Wine was making his sixth start for Joe Sharp, but three of those were on the grass, and his only victory came in a race taken off the grass at Churchill Downs, which he won by nearly six lengths in the slop.
I’m not sure if we saw any Derby horses come out of the California Cup Derby. In that race, the least experienced horse in the field, Fast Enough, with only one start, just got up to beat the far more seasoned Sacred Rider, with eight career starts. The top two finished five lengths clear of the third-place finisher. We’ll see how the winner, a gelding by Eddington, fares against open company next time out.
The seven-furlong Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs was won in brilliant fashion by 7-5 favorite Liam’s Lucky Charm, who had the distinction of depriving Chance It of a sweep of the Florida Stallion Series by defeating the recent Mucho Macho Man Stakes winner by a head in the Affirmed Division. The son of Khozan had no trouble wiring his field in the Pasco, drawing off to a 5 ½-length victory following a bumping incident in the upper stretch and covering the seven panels in a sharp 1:21 3/5. He has to show a lot more stretching out than he did when he was beaten nearly 11 lengths by Chance It in the 1 1/16-mile In Reality Stakes.
Okay, let’s catch up on some of the leading 2-year-olds from last year who just failed to make the top 12. Runhappy Hopeful Stakes winner Basin, who hasn’t run since then, had his first breeze back for Steve Asmussen, going as easy half in :52 2/5 at Fair Grounds followed by a half in :51. The son of Liam’s Map isn’t scheduled to make his debut until the Rebel Stakes in March, and we really don’t know yet how far he wants to go. Also back working are the one-two finishers of the Remsen Stakes – Shotski and Ajaaweed. Shotski breezed five furlongs in 1:02 at Laurel Park and is headed to the Withers Stakes Feb. 1, while Ajaaweed, who definitely is one to watch going long for Godolphin, breezed a half in :49 2/5 at Palm Meadows. I see him improving with each race. American Theorem, runner-up in the American Pharoah Stakes, had his first work since that race, breezing three furlongs in :39 1/5 at Santa Anita. The American Pharoah runaway winner, Eight Rings, who ran dismally in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, has not returned to training yet and likely won’t be seen until March, possibly at Oaklawn. Eight Rings’ trainer, Bob Baffert, looks to have High Velocity, third in the Los Alamitos Futurity and winner of the Bob Hope Stakes, sharp for a possible start in the Feb. 1 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, working him six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 on Jan. 14 following a pair of five-furlong works.
Baffert added another potential Derby horse when first-time starter Nadal broke his maiden impressively by 3 ¾ lengths on Jan. 19 at Santa Anita in a sprightly 1:15 4/5 for 6 ½ furlongs. I know Baffert pulled it off with the freakish Justify, but for him to win the Derby again with a colt with only three career starts is still a longshot. Trying to get four starts in him might be pushing it a bit, but it is doable if Baffert wants that badly to get him to the Derby. Nadal, a son of Blame, certainly is bred for stamina top and bottom, so his potential is limitless. He did not break sharply and had to be urged a bit to take the lead. He really did nothing wrong in the stretch and won under a fairly vigorous hand ride.
Two horses who earned everyone’s respect were last year’s Florida Stallion Series standout Chance It and Gulfstream Park West’s Juvenile Sprint winner As Seen on Tv, runner-up in last year’s Smoke Glacken Stakes at Monmouth. Both colts, who were born one day apart in Florida, put on quite a show ding-donging it on the lead the length of the stretch in the one-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes Jan.4, with Chance It, jumping back to his left lead in the shadow of the wire, just sticking his head in front to eke out a victory in 1:35 2/5. Chance It had already romped going two turns in the In Reality Division of the Florida Stallion Series, so give him credit for dropping back to one turn and running so gamely in racehorse time.
It seems like a lot of people really like impressive maiden winner Honor A.P., who came from the clouds to finish second in his career debut at six furlongs and then stretched out to a mile and wired his field by 5 ¼ lengths, defeating Tizamagician, who broke his maiden by 2 ½ lengths going a mile on Jan. 1 for Richard Mandella. Honor A. P. was scheduled to run in the Sham Stakes, but was withdrawn with an injury that appears to be minor, and hopefully the John Shirreffs-trained son of Honor Code will be back in action soon. The good news is that he has returned to training, breezing an easy three-eighths in :39 1/5. A big effort next time will no doubt escalate him into the top 12.
Another horse who has made his way on some Derby lists and is a finalist for an Eclipse Award is the unbeaten Structor, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Presented by Coolmore America. His trainer Chad Brown has expressed an interest in trying dirt right off the bat, as he is certainly bred for the dirt. But he hasn’t worked since the Breeders’ Cup, so until he does work and tries the dirt for the first time, we’ll just put him on hold and see what develops.
One of the more intriguing horses is the Louisiana-bred No Parole, who is really a Louisiana-bred in name only, being by Violence, out of a Bluegrass Cat mare. Trained by Tom Amoss, this colt is either a freak among state-breds or a freak, period. Racing twice at six furlongs, all he’s done is win both starts by 14 ¼ lengths and 13 ¼ lengths in the identical time of 1:10 1/5 (1:10.24 to be precise), and was eased in the final yards both times. He did everything like a true professional, and he has plenty of stamina top and bottom, so stretching out to two turns should not be a problem.
The Dec. 15 Springboard Mile was a close finish, but the first three could all have a say in upcoming stakes. We are all aware of the winner Shoplifted, who did not run well in his two starts at Santa Anita last fall, but did run well in his two starts at Saratoga, breaking his maiden impressively going 5 ½ furlongs and then finishing a well-beaten second in the Hopeful Stakes. At Remington Park, he rallied from sixth to just beat Answer In by a head and has been turning in steady five-furlong works at Oaklawn in preparation for a start in the Jan. 24 Smarty Jones Stakes. I’m not sure how far Shoplifted wants to go, being by Into Mischief, out of a Yes It’s True mare and inbred to sprinter Clever Trick, but I do know that Answer In, who had to alter course to the inside in deep stretch, should keep stretching out with no problem. The son of Dialed In, trained by Brad Cox, was extremely impressive breaking his maiden at Churchill Downs, rallying from off the pace to win going away by 5 ¼ lengths in a sprightly 1:22 2/5 for the seven furlongs. This is another you want to keep an eye on, and he could prove to be a bargain in the future book if you get on board now. He recently breezed a half-mile in :48 4/5 at Oaklawn Park. Third-place finisher Embolden, in the money in all six of his starts, was coming off four straight grass races. He hasn’t worked since that race.
The Bret Calhoun-trained Mailman Money may have distance limitations, but so far the son of Goldencents is a perfect two-for-two, including a 5 ¾-length score coming from just off the pace in a mile and 70-yard allowance/optional claimer at Fair Grounds Jan. 12.
Untitled, an 11-length first-out maiden winner going six furlongs at Gulfstream on Dec. 14, has since been sold and turned over to Mark Casse. After breezing a half-mile in :48 at Casse’s training center, he was sent to Palm Meadows where he worked five furlongs in a sharp 1:00 4/5.
Several maiden winners to keep an eye on who have been working are Ancient Warrior, a 4 ¼-length maiden winner at Del Mar who has been working at Los Alamitos for Jerry Hollendorfer; the stamina-laden Portos, who broke his maiden by 10 ¾ lengths going 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct for Todd Pletcher and has been breezing at Belmont Park; Mayberry Deputy, an impressive winner at Gulfstream Park going a mile for Kenny McPeek, who breezed an easy half in :51 3/5 at Gulfstream; and Sharecropper, a well-bred son of Pioneerof the Nile, out of a Curlin mare, who broke his maiden at Churchill Downs in October.
One horse who just returned to the work tab is the Greg Foley-trained Major Fed, who was very impressive breaking his maiden by 4 ¼ lengths going 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds Jan. 1. The son of Ghostzapper, who is bred to run all day, breezed a half in :48 4/5 Jan. 20. He could be one to watch.
Another maiden winner who was impressive in his career debut was the Ian Wilkes-trained Violent City, a son of Violence who scored a four-length victory at Gulfstream Jan. 11. He covered the six furlongs in 1:10 2/5.
Devil Made Me Doit, a 9 ½-length maiden winner at Santa Anita, has been injured and is off the Derby trail.