2021 Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for Feb. 17

Risk Taking won the Withers Stakes on Feb. 6 at Aqueduct to jump on the Kentucky Derby trail. (Joe Labozzetta/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 a week or two ago.

In this second edition of the year, the focus is the previous two weeks of prep 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


Eclipse Sportswire

1. Mandaloun

I took a deeper dive into what I like about Mandaloun in this week’s Making the Grade profile, but simply stated he’s progressing the right way. He showed improved maturity with the addition of blinkers in winning the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford Feb. 13 at Fair Grounds and for the fourth straight race improved his Beyer Speed Figures and BrisNet speed rating. I thought the Risen Star was the best Derby prep race to date, outside of last year’s TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and the Into Mischief colt was clearly the best in a 1 ¼-length victory. He came home reasonably fast and boasts class in his Juddmonte Farms pedigree, along with a dam (mother) who was a group stakes winner at 1 3/16 miles. He is a consistent type who has never run a bad race and looks to be adding to the overall package with every start for Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox. From my point of view, a true Kentucky Derby contender.

2. Risk Taking

Toss out Risk Taking’s first two starts – a sprint and a turf race – because this is a two-turn dirt horse who has now won back-to-back 1 1/8-mile races on the main track. I really liked his 3 ¾-length runaway victory in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes Feb. 6 at Aqueduct because of the way he leveled off and finished powerfully. He’s a big, long-striding horse that can devour ground when he gets moving, although he did not look as comfortable rallying on the far turn. Risk Taking earned a career-top 102 Equibase Speed Figure and 89 Beyer Speed Figure, while BrisNet had him dipping from a 98 in his maiden win to a 92. He’s in the capable hands of Chad Brown, and the Medaglia d’Oro colt is bred to run all day. He’s out of Run a Risk, by Distorted Humor, who was a winner at a mile and stakes-placed at 1 1/16 miles. Run a Risk is a half-sister to three stakes winners, one at 1 3/8 miles and two at 1 1/8 miles and hails from the family of top sire Seeking the Gold.

SV Photography

3. Candy Man Rocket

Candy Man Rocket absolutely deserves a spot in the top three after going from maiden winner of a three-quarter-mile sprint to Grade 3 winner in less than a month, but I admit I’m not yet sold on the Feb. 6 Sam F. Davis Stakes winner. As I detailed in last week’s Making the Grade profile, I didn’t like how he finished in the Sam Davis with a final sixteenth of a mile in 7.08 seconds and a final five-sixteenths of a mile in about 33.30 seconds. Tampa Bay Downs can play as a deep main track and it was his first try stretching out in distance, so I’m not dismissing his chances, but I do think he needs to show he’s significantly faster – 90 Equibase Speed Figure, an 87 BrisNet speed rating, and an 85 Beyer Speed Figure – than he has to date to be considered a serious win threat in the Kentucky Derby. Looking at the pedigree, I also have some distance concerns with him stretching out to 1 ¼ miles, but on the bright side he’s in terrific hands with Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.

Rombauer (Keeneland/Coady Photography)

Honorable Mention: Rombauer closed powerfully to win the El Camino Real Derby Feb. 13 at Golden Gate Fields against what looks like a suspect group. He earned a career-best 95 Equibase Speed Figure, while the 84 Beyer Speed Figure is just a point off his best. It was a good start to the season and earned him a guaranteed spot in the Preakness Stakes for trainer Mike McCarthy. I don’t view him as a win candidate for the Kentucky Derby right now, but with the right pace setup he looks like a deep closer who pass quite a few horses in the stretch for a minor share if he stays on course. … I thought Risen Star runner-up Proxy and third-place finisher Midnight Bourbon ran fairly well in defeat. The former profiles as more of a grinding type, but I think he’s a pretty nice prospect with some talent and stamina. I thought Midnight Bourbon battled gamely in defeat after leading entering the stretch, but I can’t tab the Lecomte Stakes winner as heating up.


Coady Photography

1. Smiley Sobotka

After three races of steady improvement as a 2-year-old, capped by a runner-up finish by three-quarters of a length in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Smiley Sobotka took a significant step in the wrong direction in the Sam F. Davis Stakes Feb. 6. He was fifth early but faded badly late and finished ninth, beaten by 22 ¾ lengths. One bad race on a main track at Tampa Bay Downs that some horses just don’t care for is no reason to sound the alarm, but this definitely was not the ideal way to kick off a 3-year-old campaign for an aspiring Kentucky Derby hopeful.

2. Known Agenda

Like many handicappers, I looked at Known Agenda’s win as a 2-year-old over Holy Bull Stakes victor Greatest Honour and subsequent third on a sloppy track in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes and thought he’d run really well in the Sam F. Davis Stakes Feb. 6.  Well, it wasn’t a disaster but the race definitely qualified as a disappointment. Eleventh early, the Curlin colt managed to pass a few horses late at Tampa Bay Downs but finished a nonthreatening fifth, beaten by 4 ¼ lengths by Candy Man Rocket in a race that was not especially fast according to the speed-figure makers. His Equibase Speed Figures have hovered between 83 and 86 in his four starts, so perhaps this is who Known Agenda is. If he is going to take a step forward, Known Agenda needs to do so quickly to be a player on the 2021 Derby trail.

Chelsea Durand/NYRA Photo

3. Capo Kane

Capo Kane ran OK in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes, certainly enough to warrant remaining on the Kentucky Derby trail, but I was a believer in the Street Sense colt after his Jerome Stakes win Jan. 1 and he was just no match for winner Risk Taking Feb. 6 at Aqueduct. He checked in third after holding a clear lead in early stretch and wound up five lengths behind Risk Taking and 1 ¼ lengths behind Withers runner-up Overtook. I was bullish on the front-runner’s chances to continue to excel as races got longer, but it appears the Withers showed that the distance concerns were not without merit. One the bright side, Capo Kane did earn a career-top 95 Equibase Speed Figure. But horses who struggle to keep pace with the top 3-year-olds at Aqueduct in mid-February rarely turn it around and prove they can compete with the best horses from across the country on the first Saturday in May.

Of note: I thought the slow early pace went completely against deep closer Senor Buscador in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Feb. 13 and he was wide throughout the 1 1/8-mile race (really wide on the final turn). He dipped from a 107 Equibase Speed Figure for winning the Remington Springboard Mile to an 86 for the Risen Star, so there was some regression there, but given the way the race set up I feel like he deserves another chance. I believe Senor Buscador is better than he showed in the Risen Star.

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