2021 Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for March 31

Rebel’s Romance won the UAE Derby on March 27 at Meydan Racecourse to improve to 4-for-5 in his racing career. (Coady 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 week 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


Ryan Thompson/Coglianese Photo

1. Known Agenda

As much as I like Rebel’s Romance, the top spot this week was an easy pick. Known Agenda has looked like a different racehorse since adding blinkers to improve focus two starts back. His 2 ¾-length win in the $770,000 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa on March 27 at Gulfstream Park was a true breakout performance. Known Agenda earned a new career-best 112 Equibase Speed Figure, which is the best by a 3-year-old in a stakes race in 2021; he also posted a new top Beyer Speed Figure (94) as well as a new best BrisNet speed rating of 101. As I mentioned in this week’s Making the Grade profile, Known Agenda has the pedigree to excel at 1 ¼ miles, he’s fast enough on paper to be a top contender, and he’ll have five weeks of rest before the Derby giving him a great chance to duplicate or better the Florida Derby effort. I believe his sustained move in the Florida Derby with a final three-eighths of a mile in :36.59 bodes very well for his chances May 1 at Churchill Downs.

Eclipse Sportswire

2. Rebel’s Romance

Given his trainer, Charlie Appleby, seemed reluctant to commit to the Kentucky Derby after Rebel’s Romance’s 5 ½-length runaway March 27 in the Group 2 United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by Emirates NBD, it would have been easy to slot this colt in the honorable mention section. I just couldn’t do it … I really believe from the 3-year-olds we saw race last weekend, Rebel’s Romance has as good a chance as any to win the first jewel of the Triple Crown as any other horse aside from Known Agenda. In my opinion, this is an elite 3-year-old racehorse capable of bucking historical trends that scream to run away from UAE Derby winners in the Kentucky Derby. He improved to four wins from five starts with two victories on synthetic main tracks as a 2-year-old and two on dirt. His lone career defeat came when shipping to Saudi Arabia and running fourth Feb. 20 in the Saudi Derby sponsored by Al Rahji Bank. Owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has said many times through the years that he would really like to win the Kentucky Derby. While he has champion Essential Quality, the early favorite for the run for the roses, why not send another candidate with a real chance to win in case Essential Quality spikes a fever the week of the race or gets off to a bad start or finds traffic trouble in the Derby? So much can happen in a 20-horse field.

3. Soup and Sandwich

Making only his third career start and his stakes debut in the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa on March 27 at Gulfstream Park, Soup and Sandwich showed some immaturity in the Grade 1 race but his talent was apparent. The Into Mischief colt was a bit headstrong early, pulling his way up alongside early pacesetter Nova Rags and pushing his head in front on the backstretch. He clearly did not like it when Nova Rags moved up to try to regain the lead approaching the far turn and again surged ahead. Soup and Sandwich showed some tenacity and dug in when Known Agenda challenged at the top of the stretch, but he did not switch leads and thus did not accelerate with the winner. Despite all of that, he still completed his final three-eighths of a mile in :37.45 in his first try at 1 1/8 miles in only his second start around two turns. The 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby is a tall task for a headstrong, somewhat immature 3-year-old, but the bet here is on talent. The Live Oak Plantation homebred earned a career-top 90 Beyer Speed Figure and a 108 Equibase Speed Figure, which paint Soup and Sandwich as a contender at least a top-three finish on Derby day. He has the tactical speed to carve out a decent trip in the Kentucky Derby and I’d expect him to be near the lead on the final turn.

Like the King and connections. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Honorable Mention: It’s not that I wasn’t impressed with Like the King’s one-length win in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks March 27 at Turfway Park – on the contrary, I though he ran a terrific race – but his two starts on dirt were the worst two races of his career. That’s a problem given Like the King will be shifting back from three quality starts on a synthetic surface to race on dirt in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby. His speed figures also fall significantly below the top Derby hopefuls. … Panadol, runner-up in the Group 2 United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by Emirates NBD March 27, was one of nine 3-year-olds supplemented to the Triple Crown during the late nomination period, according to Churchill Downs March 31. He’s an interesting candidate for the U.S. classics after winning his first two starts, including a stakes win, on the dirt main track at Meydan before his distant second to Rebel’s Romance in the UAE Derby.


1. Collaborate

I’m always hesitant to include lightly raced, hyped prospects here, but Collaborate was the 4.70-1 second choice in the $770,000 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa on March 27 at Gulfstream Park and faded badly to finish fifth, beaten by 14 ¾ lengths. He showed tremendous potential in a 12-length runaway Feb. 27 in a one-mile maiden race at Gulfstream, and the future remains bright for this well-bred Into Mischief colt. But the Florida Derby was his once chance to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby and he came up a bit short in a stiff class test. Perhaps we’ll see him down the road in the Preakness or Belmont Stakes. Or, perhaps his connections might opt for an easier stakes race next that will set him up for some of the key races in the 3-year-old division over the summer.

Michael Burns/Woodbine Photo

2. Gretzky the Great

I have to admit, I really thought Gretzky the Great would run a big one in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks March 27 at Turfway Park. He led deep in the stretch of the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes on the same surface at Turfway four weeks earlier and faded to third in what was his first start off a 3 ½-month layoff. I expected him to have more foundation and run better in the Jeff Ruby, but he again faded late and ran fifth, 7 ¾ lengths behind winner Like the King. His 83 Equibase Speed Figure was more than 12 points off his career best, and that leads me to believe distance limitations were the issue here in his first try stretching out to 1 1/8 miles. He’s a Grade 1 winner on the turf, so this placement is certainly not an indictment of this Nyquist colt but rather a measure of his standing on the Kentucky Derby trail.

3. Greatest Honour

This one stings a bit because Greatest Honour was my top Kentucky Derby horse entering the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa on March 27 at Gulfstream Park. He didn’t run poorly, in fact he equaled his best Equibase Speed Figure of the year with a 103 and was just a few ticks below his top of 106. But this did confirm to me that the speed figures were correct that he needs to take a step forward and compete with the best 3-year-olds in the division. On paper, Greatest Honour is not as fast as the best of his peers, and that played out on the racetrack at Gulfstream Park last weekend. I still believe the Holy Bull Stakes and Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes winner will run well and pass a bunch of horses in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve May 1, but I do believe he’d need to improve significantly to be a serious win candidate.

Of note: I have no idea what to make of Tarantino’s performance in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks March 27 at Turfway Park, where he was distanced and walked off the track. The Holy Bull Stakes runner-up and Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes fourth-place finisher surely is better than what he showed, so we’ll just draw a line through the race for now.

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