2021 Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for March 23

Hot Rod Charlie (right) leads Midnight Bourbon (second from right) and the rest of the Louisiana Derby field into the homestretch en route to a front-running victory on March 20. (Jan Brubaker/Hodges Photography)

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 edition, 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


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1. Hot Rod Charlie

Hot Rod Charlie has been consistently very good throughout his career, but on March 20 at Fair Grounds he took the step forward you look for in a 3-year-old on the Kentucky Derby trail when he led from start to finish under Joel Rosario to win the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby by two lengths. Prior to the Louisiana Derby, the dark bay or brown colt by 2013 Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow had run second by less than a length in the 2020 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and third by a neck in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes Jan. 30. Hot Rod Charlie – a half-sibling to 2019 champion sprinter and Grade 1-winning miler Mitole – had proved his class against the best of his crop but until the Louisiana Derby he had yet to nail down a breakthrough stakes win. I’m not sure about the quality of the horses Hot Rod Charlie defeated at Fair Grounds, but he was an easy winner going 1 3/16 miles and only needs to stretch out an additional sixteenth of a mile on May 1 at Churchill Downs. He earned a career-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure and nearly matched his career-best Equibase Speed Figure (100) with a 99; his BrisNet speed rating of 96 was four points off his career top. With Life Is Good now out of contention for the Kentucky Derby and six weeks of rest before the first jewel of the Triple Crown, Hot Rod Charlie is fast enough to be a top contender and he has a great chance to move forward off a very good stakes win.

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2. Concert Tour

I profiled Concert Tour in last week’s Making the Grade, and I really liked his chances to win the Kentucky Derby even before stablemate Life Is Good was sidelined following a March 20 workout with an injury that will force him to miss the Triple Crown races. Now, I view him as significantly more formidable. The Street Sense colt led from start to finish under Joel Rosario to post a 4 ¼-length win in the $1 million Rebel Stakes March 13 and improve to 3-for-3. He’s also shown the versatility to rally from off the pace for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Concert Tour is following the same roadmap Baffert used in 2020 for Nadal, who won the San Vicente Stakes, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby before he was sidelined with an injury. Concert Tour was stretching out around two turns for the first time in the Rebel for Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby six times and swept the Triple Crown twice, and he essentially paired the speed figures he earned when winning the seven-furlong San Vicente. Concert Tour earned a 105 Equibase Speed Figure, 95 BrisNet rating, and 94 Beyer figure for the Rebel win, which is a positive indicator to say the least. One thing I mentioned in the profile was that Concert Tour’s pedigree, at first glance, appeared to be tailor-made for the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance, but a deeper dive led to a bit less enthusiastic analysis. I believe he can excel at 1 1/8 miles in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby April 10, but I’m more skeptical about the extra eighth of a mile three weeks later in the Kentucky Derby. It will be interesting to see which talented 3-year-old Rosario opts to ride in the Kentucky Derby should Concert Tour win the Arkansas Derby (see Hot Rod Charlie, above).

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3. Midnight Bourbon

This was really a toss-up between Rebel Stakes runner-up Hozier, Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby runner-up Midnight Bourbon, and Louisiana Derby third-place finisher O Besos, but ultimately Midnight Bourbon gets the nod because he’s cemented his spot in the Kentucky Derby field with 66 points and he’s been rock-solid all year. Sure, he was unable to match strides with Hot Rod Charlie after challenging him on the final turn of the Louisiana Derby March 20 at Fair Grounds, but he held off deep closer O Besos for second and matched his career top with a 96 Beyer Speed Figure and came up three points short of his best Equibase Speed Figure with a 96. As mentioned at the start, Midnight Bourbon has been very consistent this year in winning the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, running third by 1 ¾ lengths in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford, and finishing second by two lengths in the Louisiana Derby. I think the speed figures for his three starts – 91-96-96 Beyer and 99-95-96 Equibase – support the eye test as far as consistency and talent and with six weeks of rest he has a chance to take a small step forward that would make him a serious player for a top-three finish on May 1 for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. By Tiznow out of multiple stakes producer Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon, Midnight Bourbon is a half-brother to 2017 Louisiana Derby and Haskell Invitational Stakes winner Girvin.

Honorable Mention: I liked what I saw from Hozier when he stepped up from a maiden win and ran second to Concert Tour in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes March 13, earning a new career-top 99 Equibase Speed Figure and 87 Beyer Speed Figure. I just want to see him do it again before I buy stock in this lightly raced Pioneerof the Nile colt. … O Besos earned 20 points for running third in the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby March 20, rallying from last of eight and passing five horses at 28.80-1 odds in a very promising start. O Besos is by 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb out of multiple stakes winner Snuggs and Kisses, by Soto. His dam was a winner at 1 1/8 miles and a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles and O Besos finished really well and galloped out powerfully in the Louisiana Derby. I could see him generating some buzz Kentucky Derby week if he wins up with enough points to qualify. He currently has a total of 25.


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1. Life Is Good

The depth and quality of the field for the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve took a major hit March 20 when early favorite Life Is Good came out of a workout with a hind-end injury that will send him to the sidelines and force him to miss the Triple Crown. On paper, Life Is Good was clearly the fastest 3-year-old of his crop – he looked like Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s best prospect from among a stacked hand that also includes Rebel Stakes winner Concert Tour and runner-up Hozier, Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Medina Spirit, and Los Alamitos Futurity winner Spielberg – and simply dominated the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes when winning by eight lengths from the aforementioned Medina Spirit. Early reports suggest Life Is Good should make a full recovery and return later this year, but the fastest 3-year-old is now off the Derby trail.

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2. Mandaloun

The 1.30-1 favorite in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby coming off a 1 ¼-length win in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford, Juddmonte Farms’ homebred Mandaloun turned in a clunker at Fair Grounds. He was rated in third early as he had been in both the Risen Star and when third in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes in January, but when asked to accelerate in the Louisiana Derby the Into Mischief colt failed to respond. Mandaloun finished sixth, beaten by 11 ¾ lengths, in what most likely will be his final prep for the Kentucky Derby. With 52 points for trainer Brad Cox, Mandaloun’s spot in the starting gate is secure May 1 at Churchill Downs and he has a win on that main track, but that was far from an ideal final prep for his most important race of the year. From a speed-figure perspective, Mandaloun needed to take a step forward in the Louisiana Derby to be competitive with the best 3-year-olds. Instead, he declined 15 points from a career-top of 97 to an 82 Equibase Speed Figure. Sure, he could bounce back with six weeks of rest and get back to his career top in the Kentucky Derby, but it’s tough to envision a scenario where he wins the first jewel of the Triple Crown coming off such a disappointing final prep.

3. Caddo River

Caddo River was the 6-5 favorite in the March 13 Rebel Stakes coming off a 10 ¼-length victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes in January. However, the Hard Spun colt’s chances most likely went out the window when Concert Tour beat him to the front entering the first turn at Oaklawn Park and took command. Caddo River’s two wins had come when leading from start to finish and, after pressing Concert Tour in the Rebel, he faded to finish fifth, beaten by 6 ¾ lengths. Viewed through a Kentucky Derby lens, there will be plenty of competition to set the pace on May 1 at Churchill Downs and it looks like Caddo River is a need-the-lead type. Even though he only dipped six points from a career-best 101 Equibase Speed Figure to a 95 in the Rebel, it’s hard now to look at Caddo River as a serious win threat in the Kentucky Derby knowing his chances very likely depend upon him being in front after the opening quarter-mile. Long-term, this unplaced finish didn’t really dampen my outlook for Caddo River – I still think he’s a quality 3-year-old with a bright future – but I can’t envision a scenario where I would back him to win the Derby.

Of note: I expected a better race from Keepmeinmind in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes March 13 after he closed out his 2-year-old season with a win in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, but he showed little in a sixth-place finish coming off a long layoff. From an Equibase Speed Figure perspective, the 93 he earned in the Rebel was just five points off his career best, but for a deep closer like Keepmeinmind you’d at least expect to see him pass a few horses in the stretch and he just didn’t do much running at all in the Rebel. I’m inclined to give him another shot in the April 10 Arkansas Derby because I’m always on the lookout for deep closers to fill out the trifecta and superfecta at a price in the Kentucky Derby. Plus, Keepmeinmind has run well at Churchill Downs.

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