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 first edition of the year, the focus is the first month of 2021. With the action on the Derby trail heating up, this column will now appear regularly to analyze the biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.
This Tapit colt’s Holy Bull Stakes victory was the first real “wow” race for me on the Kentucky Derby trail, at least since the calendar flipped to 2021. The way he blew past his opponents on the turn – he also did so impressively in his maiden win Dec. 26 – gave me that rush I feel when I see what I think might be a special racehorse or special performance. As I outlined in this week’s Making the Grade feature on Greatest Honour, this is a 3-year-old who is bred to run all day with a fantastic bled of class and stamina. He’s in the hands of a Hall of Fame trainer in Shug McGaughey who knows how to gradually crank up a maturing racehorse for a target race, and Greatest Honour has shown steady improvement. His Beyer Speed Figures and BrisNet speed ratings have improved with every start, and his Equibase Speed Figures improved for each of his first four races before a small three-point decline to a 101 for the Holy Bull. We are just getting started on the Derby trail, but right now he’s my top 3-year-old and therefore has made the biggest jump.
2. Caddo River
I’ve heard pedigree concerns as it pertains to this Hard Spun colt continuing to excel as races get longer on the Derby trail, but when I wrote his Making the Grade profile I became more optimistic about his chances at longer distances. He’s won his last two races by a combined margin of 19 ¾ lengths, including a front-running runaway win in the Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 22. He earned a 92 Beyer Speed Figure for that win and a 99 Equibase Speed Figure, meaning he will need to get faster, but those figures currently fall within range of the best 3-year-olds if he can continue to improve. Caddo River has a high cruising speed and has demonstrated the ability to relax when he gets to the front. I’d still like to see him win from off the pace, but he showed the ability to stalk and pounce in his second start before tiring late. The Smarty Jones was a promising stakes debut for Caddo River, and trainer Brad Cox, who also trains 2020 champion 2-year-old male Essential Quality, looks like he has a formidable hand for this year’s classics. He’s another whose stock really rose in January.
3. Life Is Good
It feels like I’m more skeptical than most about Life Is Good. There is no denying he’s very fast on paper, but I didn’t love the way he finished in his stakes debut in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes Jan. 2 when he needed to dig in late to hold off stablemate Medina Spirit by three-quarters of a length. He completed his final quarter-mile in 25.97 seconds, so he wasn’t exactly blazing his way through the Santa Anita Park stretch in the Sham, but the speed figures were strong: 112 Equibase Speed Figure, 101 Beyer Speed Figure, and 120 TimeForm US rating. The Sham win also was flattered when Medina Spirit came back and won the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck Jan. 30. My main concern with Life Is Good is the way he finished in the Sham combined with a pedigree that does not inspire confidence for 1 ¼ miles. I believe in the talent, though, so that’s why he found his way into the last spot. Well, that and he’s trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who has two Triple Crown sweeps, six Kentucky Derby wins, and 16 classic victories on his résumé.
Honorable Mention: I really wanted to put Jerome Stakes winner Capo Kane in the final spot, but he does need to take a pretty significant step forward to be fast enough to become a legitimate Derby contender. The good news is he has a chance to prove himself this weekend in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes Feb. 6 at Aqueduct. I believe he will run well. … I mentioned Medina Spirit earlier in the capsule about stablemate Life Is Good. He showed heart in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes Jan. 30 at Santa Anita to hold off Roman Centurian. Under the circumstances, I thought he ran well, but his Equibase Speed Figure and Beyer Speed Figure both declined so it was a bit of a mixed bag. … Midnight Bourbon took a nice step forward in winning the Lecomte Stakes by a length when leading from start to finish, but he’s a little inconsistent for me and he’s struggled when matched up against a better class of horses. I need to see him duplicate that Lecomte effort before I buy in. … Drain the Clock won the Grade 3 Claiborne Farm Swale Stakes by 6 ¼ lengths and has won all four races he’s finished (the jockey’s irons broke in his only defeat), but he’s a Maclean’s Music colt who has been sprinting exclusively so I’m cautiously optimistic at best about his chances to excel around two turns. The bottom of his pedigree offers a bit of hope in this regard. … I’m definitely also keeping an eye on impressive recent maiden winner Concert Tour, a Street Sense colt from the family of champion Stardom Bound who won a Jan. 15 maiden race by 3 ½ lengths for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
This Quality Road colt put up some big speed figures as a 2-year-old while winning one of four starts and finishing second in the other three. He posted 105 and 93 Equibase Speed Figures in his final two starts in 2020, both at one mile. The jump to stakes competition, however, has not gone smoothly. After running an okay third in the Jan. 2 Sham Stakes – he was beaten by 13 ¾ length but earned an 89 Equibase Speed Figure – Parnelli was pretty much a no-show in the Robert B. Lewis, fading to fifth, defeated by 19 ¼ lengths. The track was rated as good for the Lewis, so perhaps he didn’t care for the surface in his first try on a main track not rated fast. Still, it’s tough to be optimistic about his chances on the Kentucky Derby trail after two disappointing stakes starts in January.
2. Prime Factor
The Cooling Down slots on these early lists are always tough because in many cases we’re talking about lightly raced, unproven 3-year-old who often are trying something for the first time, like two turns or stakes competition and sometimes both. Such is the case with Prime Factor, who was stretching out from three-quarters of a mile in his debut to 1 1/16 miles in a Grade 3 race when he contested the Holy Bull Stakes Jan. 30. The Quality Road colt generated a ton of buzz leading into the race and reportedly had been training very well, but he had nothing left for the stretch and faded to finish third, beaten by 9 ½ lengths, as the 11-10 favorite. I expected him to run better but, as I said at the start of this capsule, he merits another chance given how much was being asked of him in his stakes debut.
After a front-running three-length maiden win in his third start and a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, there was reason for optimism entering Swill’s 3-year-old debut in the Jerome Stakes Jan 1. He did not fire in his first try on a muddy track when fourth, beaten by nine lengths. The 74 Equibase Speed Figure tells the story – it was not a strong effort – but given the “off” track he deserves another chance. Still, based off what I’ve seen, I’ll let Swill beat me in his next start.