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.
Essential Quality did not surprise me in any powerful way in winning the Southwest Stakes by 4 ¼ lengths Feb. 27 at Oaklawn Park, nor did he make a major jump from a speed-figure perspective or on my personal rankings. The reason I decided to award the 2020 champion 2-year-old male the top spot this week is two-fold. One, you just never know if a standout 2-year-old will progress and continue to develop at 3. Two, he is a legitimate threat to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve May 1. I try to give the top placing to either a 3-year-old who really jumps up with a breakout performance OR one who I believe can win the first jewel of the Triple Crown. I really liked what I saw from Essential Quality in the Southwest: he handled his first start on an “off” track (sloppy); he overcame adversity in being very wide on both turns and the backstretch, and he responded eagerly when asked to move. His final sixteenth of a mile in 6.43 seconds was solid and he improved four points to a new top 105 Equibase Speed Figure and one point to a career-best 96 Beyer Speed Figure. BrisNet had Essential Quality declining four points from a 101 for his win in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance to a 97. Considering the Southwest was his first start in 113 days, Essential Quality ran very well and deserves to be at or near the top of any serious 2021 Derby rankings.
On Feb. 27 entering his second start he was a maiden, and by Tuesday, March 2, he was listed among the 23 individual entries for the fourth Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Yep, a 12 ½-length runaway on the undercard of a stakes-packed Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes card with all eyes watching will capture the imagination of Kentucky Derby fans. Following a debut fifth-place finish, beaten by a length, going three-quarters of a mile on a sloppy track at Gulfstream Park Feb. 6, this Into Mischief colt stretched out to a mile and posted a 90 Beyer Speed Figure and 97 Equibase Speed Figure in winning his second race for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. and owners Three Chimneys Farm and e Five Racing. By 2019 and 2020 leading sire Into Mischief out of 2010 Fair Ground Oaks winner Quiet Temper, by Quiet American, and a $600,000 purchase at auction, it’s to understand why there is optimism surrounding this colt. He could make his next start in the $750,000 Florida Derby on March 27. “We feel like he’s a Derby horse,” Joseph said. “I know we’re a little behind schedule, but with the ability he has he can probably overcome it.”
3. Known Agenda
Known Agenda made the cooling down list in the last edition of this blog after he finished a disappointing fifth as the 3-2 favorite in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes Feb. 6 at Tampa Bay Downs. In that blog post, I wrote: “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.” Known Agenda did just that with the addition of blinkers at the suggestion of jockey John Velazquez. With Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons, Curlin colt stalked the pace in a 1 1/8-mile allowance-optional claiming race Feb. 26 at Gulfstream Park and accelerated clear to win by 11 lengths and earn a new career-best 103 Equibase Speed Figure, which is 17 points above his previous best. After beating Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Greatest Honour as a 2-year-old and placing in a Grade 2 race in 2020, Known Agenda appears to be back on track now for a start in the Florida Derby. “We’ll talk about it, but I think he ran well enough today that it’s definitely in play,” trainer Todd Pletcher said after the allowance win. “Johnny [Velazquez] recommended blinkers last time. We just needed to get him a little more focused. We know he’s got a lot of talent.”
Honorable Mention: Greatest Honour ranked atop my Kentucky Derby list entering the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes Feb. 27 and, while the speed figures came back less than inspiring, I was impressed enough that I’ll keep him on top. He looks like he has the stamina to run all day and I still think he’s a special 3-year-old. … Hush of a Storm won the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes Feb. 26 at Turfway Park by 1 ½ lengths to boost his Equibase Speed Figure by 10 points to a new career-best 97. The Creative Cause colt lost his only career start on dirt, but that was his career debut so it simply could have been inexperience. Still, I prefer to wait and see if his talent translates before I elevate him too far up my Derby list.
After back-to-back Grade 1 wins as a 2-year-old, Jackie’s Warrior set a torrid pace in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and faded late to finish fourth, beaten by 3 ¼ lengths, in a race that I thought was better than it looked on paper. But in the Southwest Stakes Feb. 27 on a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park, Jackie’s Warrior was allowed to set an easy tempo through a half-mile in :48.11 in his season debut and still had little punch left for the stretch run, fading to finish 8 ½ lengths behind champion (and Juvenile winner) Essential Quality. It was by no means a disastrous start coming back off the long layoff (113 days), but you could scarcely have scripted a better scenario for Jackie’s Warrior and Essential Quality defeated him even more soundly in the Southwest than he did in the Breeders’ Cup while coming off the exact layoff. Both of Jackie’s Warrior’s Grade 1 wins as a juvenile came in one-turn races, and I think it’s fair to reason the Maclean’s Music colt might be best-suited as a sprinter-miler.
I was eager to forgive this Mineshaft colt after a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford Feb. 13. The pace shape went against a deep closer like Senor Buscador in that race and he was wide throughout as his Equibase Speed Figure dipped from a 107 for winning the Remington Springboard Mile to an 85 for the Risen Star. I still believe that he’s better than he showed in the Risen Star, but on March 1 Daily Racing Form reported that he emerged from a workout with a minor injury to his right front leg. He will miss a planned start in the Rebel Stakes March 13 and trainer Todd Fincher said they decided to send him away for a comprehensive evaluation at Elgin Veterinary Hospital in Elgin, Texas. “You have to do the right thing,” Fincher said. “It’ll pay off in the long run.” Keep him in your Equibase Virtual Stable, but right now Senor Buscador appears to be a longshot to make the run for the roses.
Circumstances not performance placed Drain the Clock on the cooling down portion of this list. I felt there was a good chance Drain the Clock would run well when stretching out from seven-eighths of a mile to 1 1/16 miles and trying two turns in the Feb. 27 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The Maclean’s Music colt set the pace in the Fountain of Youth and repelled all challengers except for Holy Bull Stakes winner Greatest Honour, who swept past late to win by 1 ½ lengths. The runner-up finish was promising for Drain the Clock after setting an honest, albeit uncontested, pace through a half-mile in :47.18. But like me, his connections sound like they wonder just how far Drain the Clock can carry his speed. He is not nominated to the Triple Crown, and after the Fountain of Youth trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. said the plan was to cut back in distance rather than press on toward the Kentucky Derby. “I think we’re going to step back and keep him at one turn,” Joseph said. “We tried it and I think he handled the mile and a sixteenth, but I don’t think we’re going to try to push it. I think we have a really good horse. I feel like we have a Grade 1 horse and he’s probably going to be best at one turn, so most likely we’re going to stick to one turn.”