Because of the oddity of this year's Triple Crown series, I will continue to provide an occasional rankings column through the end of July just to keep things interesting and updated.
This is not the Derby Dozen, and will not follow the usual Derby Dozen format. So there will be no Knocking on the Door, but that doesn't mean other horses will not be discussed and there will be no set number of horses that will be ranked. It could be 10 or it could be 20. This week we’ve got a new update following Tiz the Law’s win in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, and we're sticking with the Sweet 16.–Steve Haskin
1. Tiz the Law
Although the competition in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets was suspect and several of the leading contenders just didn't show up, he again put on a stunning visual performance, and many trainers have to be figuring out a way how to beat this machine of a horse. So far this colt has exhibited no flaws and always seems to be in the right place, regardless of the pace. And it all seems so easy for him. With this race out of the way, it's time for the real show in the Runhappy Travers Stakes and then the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Like the cicadas, Barclay Tagg and Sackatoga Stable come out every 17 years and this invasion could be bigger than the last one.
2. Honor A. P.
Whether it be in the Travers and/or Kentucky Derby, we could be treated to a classic East vs. West showdown, and what makes it even more appealing is that Honor A. P. and Tiz the Law both have the same running style. They both like to lay just off the pace and then pounce on the leaders nearing the top of the stretch. What makes the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby winner so dangerous is that he continues to improve and mature, both in his races and workouts. He is the only 3-year-old to run triple-digit early, middle, and late pace figures on Brisnet in the same race. What a treat it would be to see both these horses moving together and then battling it out in the stretch.
3. Cafe Pharoah
After the top two you can put all the other names in a hat and just pick one, that's how big a gap there is, at least until someone steps up and shows they have the ability to threaten Tiz the Law and Honor A. P. Yes, this is a huge reach, but few horses have impressed me more than this son of American Pharoah, who demonstrated good early speed and then a brilliant turn of foot to crush a large field in his previous start over in Japan. Before that, he turned in an Arrogate-like performance, overcoming a poor start and circling another large field, then drawing clear with powerful strides. If a Japanese horse is to take the roses back to Japan, this could be the one and this could be the year to do it.
Another reach, going with a horse who has never run in a stakes, but his past three performances have been extremely impressive, and he has shown his versatility, winning from off the pace and on the lead. In his previous start, on June 13 at Churchill Downs, he set a slow pace and then powered home in a sensational :23 flat and :05 4/5 for the final sixteenth without being touched with the whip. His Brisnet late pace figure of 114 is the highest this year by far of all the Derby hopefuls. To demonstrate his versatility, in his win before that, also at Churchill, the son of Bernardini came from sixth, 7 ¾ lengths back at the head of the stretch, to win going away. He is very professional, runs straight, and keeps his legs under him perfectly. The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on July 11 likely will tell us just how he fits in the Derby picture.
5. Sole Volante
Yes, I am extremely stubborn and am not ready to give up on this colt, even though the selectors of the Derby Future Wager field have. I can't ignore his previous races, all of which were impressive. I never felt like he belonged in the Belmont Stakes going on turn on that speed-favoring track. In addition, his jockey Luca Panici said he knew five strides out of the gate he wasn't handling the track. That was backed up by him going from three "2 ¼” Thoro-Graph figures this year to a dismal "9 ¾." He just seemed lost out there and never fired. This is a quick-footed horse with a big turn of foot and he wasn't suited to that big sweeping turn anyway. Plus, he was ridden by a jockey who was inexperienced at Belmont. There were other top horses who floundered on that track in the Belmont, so I am just crossing this race out and will wait for him to get back on a tighter track.
6. Dr Post
Although I didn't consider the Belmont Stakes field to be one with classic caliber horses, you can't knock this colt's performance as the runner-up. He has shown a different quality each time he's run and he has proven himself to be a hard-knocking throwback type of horse reminiscent of his sire Quality Road, who was more of a mile-and-an-eighth horse, but with a great combination of speed and class. I'm not sure he will relish the mile-and-a-quarter, but that's not to say he won’t. One thing we do know, he doesn't mind playing it rough and seems to be improving with every start.
There is a question mark how far he wants to go, and trainer Bob Baffert is pointing him to the TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes, which often favors speed. His second to Honor A. P. in the Santa Anita Derby actually was a pretty good effort considering his bad start, in which he ducked out sharply from the outside post and then had to be rushed into contention. Unlike his two stakes victories, he wasn't able to get a clear lead and had to press the pace in third early and couldn't resist the challenge of Honor A.P. He looks like a horse that likes to take control of the race up front, but this race at least will give him some experience in overcoming adversity and not getting his own way.
8. Max Player
He showed a lot coming off an almost five-month layoff and rallying well to finish third in the Belmont Stakes. Like Honor A. P., he is a son of Honor Code and credit trainer Linda Rice for training him old school with an extended series of long, quick works. Eight of his past nine works were either six furlongs or seven furlongs, with the other a bullet five-furlong work. His last work, six furlongs in a powerful 1:12 1/5, set him up for his strong performance in the Belmont in only his fourth career start. Watch for him to keep improving.
I don't know if I'm getting suckered into this, because I don't know how fast the track is at Mark Casse's training center. But his past two five-furlong works there in :58 4/5 and :59 flat from the gate were a far cry from his works at Fair Grounds earlier this year. With nine starts under his belt, the last five in graded stakes, he seems to have relished the time off enjoying the tranquility of Ocala and should return a bear in the Blue Grass Stakes, which would seem the likely spot for him. He has been consistent and possesses a dynamite stretch run, and should be razor-sharp off those works. He just needs a good pace and a clean trip.
His third-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, beaten four lengths, was a lot better than one might think. Although he seemed to be making little impact on the race sitting behind the pace, I really liked the way he found his best stride in the final furlong, and although not reflected in the chart, he was striding out beautifully at the end. His Thoro-Graph numbers keep improving, and although he still has to improve more, you can't ignore his jump from a 92 Brisnet figure to a strong 103, which ranks him among the top five 3-year-olds.
11. King Guillermo
I have no idea where to rank this horse, last seen running second in the second division of the Arkansas Derby to now-retired Nadal. Based on his past two races, he is one of the most talented and fastest 3-year-olds around. But he is currently tucked away in bubble wrap and there has been talk of him training up to the Derby, which, of course, I want no part of. If he starts working again and we learn that there is a particular race he is pointing toward before the Derby, then he would catapult near the top of the list. Until then, we'll wait and see what's going on with him.
He is another I want to see back on a tighter track. I still believe he is a top-class horse, but he is still a work in progress and probably would have been much better suited to the Blue Grass Stakes than the Belmont Stakes, where he finished fourth. Remember, he was beaten only 1 ¾ lengths by Maxfield in the Matt Winn Stakes in a race in which he was forced to set the pace from the rail, something he really wants no part of. Coming off the 1 1/8-mile Belmont and that big sweeping turn, I am looking for a much improved effort next time out.
13. Mr. Big News
We'll see if his 46.80-1 shocker in the Oaklawn Stakes was for real when he runs in the Blue Grass Stakes. He definitely is sharp right now, coming off five-furlong works in :59 2/5 and :59 3/5 at Churchill Downs. We know he has the closing kick from a visual standpoint, as he showed at Oaklawn Park, but his Late Pace Figure on Brisnet was only an 82, which makes that race all the more puzzling. One thing about this group of 3-year-olds, you better be willing to overlook negatives, because there are plenty of them.
14. Man in the Can
This Arkansas-bred has won his past three starts, two of them Arkansas-bred stakes, but his breakout race came in a recent 11/8-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs, in which he beat a solid field and came home his final eighth in a sharp :12 2/5. By winning at nine furlongs he has already outrun his speed-oriented pedigree, so we will have to see if he can stretch out another furlong.
15. Money Moves
Although he has only two lifetime starts, you have to like what you've seen so far. He's been sidelined for three months, during which he didn't work for two months. But he is back working at Saratoga and is coming off a bullet half-mile breeze. He still has time to get a couple more starts in, but it's time to step up. With him training in New York, one would think the July 16 Peter Pan Stakes on opening day at Saratoga would be a good spot for him and set him up for his big leap in the Travers Stakes on Aug. 8 if he is that good. Distance should not be a problem, so we'll just see how he progresses in the next few weeks.
16. Mystic Guide
He still needs to be tested for class coming off a second to Tap It to Win in a rapidly run mile-and-a-sixteenth allowance race at Belmont. I have been very high on him and still am, as he had no shot of catching Tap It to Win on that track. Godolphin's Jimmy Bell said all options are open, he's doing well, and they look forward to his next start, which again could be the Peter Pan, as he is training at Fair Hill. What is important is that he has a sensational pedigree and his maiden victory at Fair Grounds was extremely impressive. I feel there is a lot more to him and we will see that wherever he shows up next.
Lurking in the wings is Thousand Words, who will be looking to bounce back big-time off a pair of dismal performances, but the word is that he has found a new lease on life and is ready to regain his old form in the July 4 Los Alamitos Derby, which would put Bob Baffert right back where he started earlier in the year when he felt strongly this was his next Derby horse and star. I just want to see if he does bounce back before elevating him back up near the top. Baffert also has a promising colt in Uncle Chuck, who came late to the show but looked awfully impressive in his career debut, winning by seven lengths going a mile. But he has a lot to prove and not much time to do it. I am putting Ny Traffic, another horse I've liked, on hold until he works again. He hasn't been on the work tab since June 14.
I was hoping to see Ete Indien, a horse who has been on the Derby Dozen most of the year, use a recent allowance race at Gulfstream Park to learn how to rate, but with blinkers added he wound up going head and head with the speedy Curlin Florida Derby runner-up Shivaree and tired in the final furlong to finish fourth, while Shivaree hung tough to finish third, beaten 1 ½ lengths by Sole Volante, and finishing 4 ¼ lengths ahead of Ete Indien. Shivaree has proven he is not a horse you want to tangle with early.
Last year’s 2-year-old champ, Storm the Court, finished third in the Ohio Derby last Saturday, won by longshot Dean Martini. We'll see if Anneau d'Or, runner-up to Storm the Court in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall and a disappointment so far this year, can bounce back in the July 4 Los Alamitos Derby. Another horse looking to improve is first division Arkansas Derby runner-up Basin, who still has to prove he wants a mile-and-a-quarter. He'll likely get a chance in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
I am also giving a mulligan to Farmington Road and Modernist, who never showed up in the Belmont Stakes and saw their Thoro-Graph numbers pretty much self destruct, indicating that they too didn’t handle that track. Two of my old favorites, Major Fed and Attachment Rate, have been working and we'll see where they wind up. And finally, do not hold that Easy Goer Stakes fiasco against Sonneman, who is a stone closer and was forced to indulge in a match race when the field whittled down to two. The horse that beat him. Celtic Striker, has excellent early speed, which gave him a huge advantage in a match race, and Sonneman just had no shot. You can catch him at a price next time out. This is still a good horse with a bright future.