TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

TDN Derby Top 12 for Jan. 22

There’s a fair amount of parity within this week’s edition of the Top 12. The dozen GI Kentucky Derby hopefuls are sired by 10 different stallions. Three of them are homebreds, and auction prices for the rest of the pack range from $32,000 up to $1.2 million. The horses ranked as Nos. 1-3 have held their positions all season long based on strong 2018 credentials, Nos. 4 and 5 delivered eye-opening performances in their first 2019 starts, and everybody else has flashed talent, but will need to do more to solidify their standings against a competitive crew of “On the Bubble” contenders.

1) GAME WINNER (c, Candy Ride {Arg}Indyan Giving, by A.P. Indy)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Gary & Mary West. B-Summer Wind Equine (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $110,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 4-4-0-0, $1,496,000.
Last Start: 1st, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile , CD, Nov. 2
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI American Pharoah S., SA, Sept. 29; 1st, GI Del Mar Futurity, DMR, Sept. 3
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 30.

When ‘TDN Rising Star’ Game Winner collects his Eclipse Award on Thursday for his 4-for-4, GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-winning season, it will be the 100-day mark until the GI Kentucky Derby–and 44 days until the divisional champ’s next expected start. Having just two sophomore prep races leading up to the first Saturday in May is so in vogue right now that it would be a shock to see a top contender deviate from that plan of attack, but rest assured that a Bob Baffert trainee won’t be the one to do it intentionally any time soon. Baffert has trained four previous 2-year-old champion males: Vindication (2002) did not start beyond age two. Midshipman (2008) missed the entire 2009 prep season and Triple Crown series. Lookin At Lucky (2009) ran sixth in the Derby, then won the GI Preakness S. in 2010. And the 2014 champ, American Pharoah? Well, you know what he accomplished. We’ve seen Game Winner score on the lead, stalking from just of it, and coming from off the pace, so one wonders what tactics Baffert is honing beyond fitness leading up to the GII San Felipe S. on Mar. 9. This $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt drilled a solo half mile in :48.60 (15/88) on Sunday (and looked good doing it), his second published work of 2019.

2) SIGNALMAN (c, General Quarters–Trip South, by Trippi)
O-Tommie M. Lewis, David A. Bernsen, LLC & Magdalena Racing (Sherri McPeek). B-Monticule (KY). T-Kenneth G McPeek. Sales History: $32,000 Ylg ’17 FTKOCT. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 5-2-2-1, $448,990.
Last Start: 1st, GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 24
Accomplishments Include: 3rd, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, CD, Nov. 2; 2nd, GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, KEE, Oct. 6
Next Start: Aiming for GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.

Signalman, in a way, is carrying the flag for underdog auction value and the concept of conformation trumping pedigree. His sire, General Quarters, now stands in Turkey, and Signalman’s buyer/trainer Ken McPeek, told TDN that this $32,000 FTKOCT colt compares favorably to 1995 Kentucky Derby runner-up Tejano Run, who McPeek also conditioned after a similar bargain buy ($20,000 KEESEP). Already displaying a fondness for the Churchill surface (both wet and dry), Signalman rebounded from a third-place try in the Breeders’ Cup to win the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. in adept fashion, catching the eye with a professional, covered-up, rail-skimming bid from five furlongs out before swatting away several strong challenges in the stretch. He’s recently been stretching his legs in light training at Payson Park, and the GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Park Mar. 2 is under consideration for his first race back as a sophomore.

3) IMPROBABLE (c, City ZipRare Event, by A.P. Indy)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club International Ltd. & Starlight Racing. B-St. George Farm LLC & G. Watts Humphrey Jr. (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $110,000 Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $200,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 3-3-0-0, $269,520.
Last Start: 1st, GI Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, LRC, Dec. 8
Accomplishments Include: 1st, Street Sense S., CD, Nov. 2;
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on Improbable. KY Derby Points: 10.

Improbable’s big white blaze flashed through the Santa Anita homestretch Sunday in a solo :48 half-mile training move (7/88), and while it’s not worth trying to pick apart January workouts to try and prognosticate what might happen on the first Saturday in May, it is worth noting that this undefeated ‘TDN Rising Star’ does carry himself pretty lightly and efficiently in both morning and afternoon assignments. This $200,000 KEESEP City Zip colt doesn’t have an announced 2019 debut race picked out yet, but by process of exclusion you can bet it won’t conflict with stablemate Game Winner’s planned comeback in the San Felipe S. at Santa Anita Mar. 9. Improbable has been so far ahead of his competition in the latter stages of his two daylight-margin stakes wins that it remains an open question as to how he’ll fare once he finally has a true stretch fight on his hands. But at least when he widened by five lengths late in the lane of his GI Los Alamitos Futurity romp, Improbable finished like he had plenty left in the tank, stamina-wise.

4) WAR OF WILL (c, War FrontVisions of Clarity {Ire}, by Sadler’s Wells)
O-Gary Barber. B-Flaxman Holdings Limited (KY). T-Mark Casse. Sales History: $175,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP; €250,000 2yo ’18 ARQMAY. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-2-1-1, $251,569.
Last Start: 1st, GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 19
Next Start: Possible for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 16
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on War of Will. KY Derby Points: 10.

War of Will’s four-length throttling of Saturday’s decent GIII Lecomte S. field wasn’t a seismic jolt to the Top 12 rankings. But it did put the 1-2-3 kingpins on notice that the gap between them and the rest of the pack just shifted uncomfortably tighter. Trainer Mark Casse–hardly known as a tout of his own horses–had been telling anybody who’d listen that this turf-pedigreed €250,000 ARQMAY War Front colt is the real deal in terms of being a Derby-caliber dirt horse, and War of Will (who ran in two Grade I stakes as a juvenile maiden) capably proved he could handle two-turn graded stakes company. A sharp break gave jockey Tyler Gaffalione his pick of positioning, and he opted for clear passage four deep through the first turn with War of Will resisting restraint before settling into rhythmic stalk mode down the backside behind moderate splits. He always looked primed to pounce, and took over in hand about a quarter mile out. When his rider asked for more oomph with a vigorous hind ride, War of Will uncoiled into another deep-stretch gear but was never fully extended before galloping out with high energy. “I never turned my stick on him,” Gaffalione said post-race. “I just let him open up a bit. He really is special.”

5) MIHOS (c, Cairo Prince–Feline Flatline, by Lion Heart)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Centennial Farms. B-Wayne, Gray & Bryan Lyster. T-James Jerkens. Sales History: $320,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: SW, 3-2-0-1, $108,880.
Last Start: 1st, Mucho Macho Man S., GP, Jan. 5
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Mihos shares a name with the ancient Egyptian lion god (fitting for a Cairo Prince colt out of a Lion Heart mare). At this early point on the Derby trail, horses usually attract attention because of sheer physical dominance, with the caveat that they may not mentally be ready for prime time. But the connections of this ‘TDN Rising Star’ say his poise and professionalism have been evident since they bought him as a $320,000 KEESEP yearling. Yet even though the long-framed Mihos displayed a high level of confidence when he launched into a length-of-stretch drive to nail a breakaway pacemaker in the Mucho Macho Man S. at Gulfstream (his first start after an Aqueduct MSW sprint win), we may still be a race or two away from witnessing this colt’s “A” game in terms of raw prowess. Mihos switched leads a tad late when winding up for his Jan. 5 winning bid, and it looked like he left himself too much to do inside the final furlong. But he did kick immediately when jockey Jose Ortiz cued him for acceleration, and Mihos appeared to relish the reeling in of his target. Another Gulfstream stakes start is under consideration.

6) VEKOMA (c, Candy Ride {Arg}Mona de Momma, by Speightstown)
O-R. A. Hill Stable & Gatsas Stables. B-Alpha Delta Stables, LLC (KY). T-George Weaver. Sales History: $135,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $151,250.
Last Start: 1st GIII Nashua S., AQU, Nov. 4
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Vekoma has breezed three and four furlongs the past two Saturdays at Palm Beach Downs, recording his first two published works of 2019, but his connections have yet to publicly commit as to which prep will be the 2-for-2 colt’s first sophomore start. Based on limited afternoon action, we know this $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt can be a pace-pressing threat against top-notch competition (his brief company lines feature several subsequent stakes winners). But he’s also been green in both stretch runs, which can be forgiven considering he won both starts and is a May 22 foal. As such, Vekoma is a work in progress, and he’s still yet to race around two turns (his GIII Nashua S. score at Aqueduct was a one-turn mile). So while there’s plenty of upside, there are still quite a few unanswered questions.

7) INSTAGRAND (c, Into MischiefAssets of War, by Lawyer Ron)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-OXO Equine LLC. B-Stoneway Farm (KY). T-Jerry Hollendorfer. Sales History: $190,000 Ylg ’17 FTKJUL; $1,200,000 2yo ’18 FTFMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $144,000.
Last Start: 1st, GII Best Pal S., DMR, Aug. 11
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Instagrand (Into Mischief) has now strung together two three-furlong works followed by a pair of half-mile training moves in anticipation of his yet-to-be-divulged 2019 debut. He sailed through a solo four furlongs in :47.60 (5/88) on Sunday morning at Santa Anita, but until Instagrand steps into the starting gate for an afternoon engagement, his chief narrative will continue to revolve around how owner Larry Best cut short the reportedly healthy 2-year-old campaign of this $1.2-million FTFMAR co-sales-topper with the aim of having a fresher, more durable sophomore. Instagrand’s bedazzling pair of juvenile efforts–winning his maiden and the GII Best Pal S. by a combined 20 1/4 lengths–certainly tipped off potentially freakish talent. But both of those races are now nearly six months behind in the rear-view mirror, and none of the nine other entrants he beat in those sprints are currently considered even C-level contenders on the Derby trail.

8) KNICKS GO (c, PaynterKosmo’s Buddy, by Outflanker)
O-KRA Stud Farm. B-Angie Moore (MD). T-Ben Colebrook. Sales History: $40,000 Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $87,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 6-2-1-1, $672,515.
Last Start: 11th GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 24
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, KEE, Oct. 6; 2nd, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, CD, Nov. 2; 3rd, Listed Arlington Washington Futurity, AP, Sept. 8
Next Start: GIII Sam F. Davis S., TAM, Feb. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.

Sporting more weight and muscle than when last seen in action in a race nearly two months ago, Knicks Go fired a bullet off the bench with a :47 half-mile breeze at Tampa Bay Downs (1/71) on Saturday, his first published workout of the year in preparation for the GIII Sam F. Davis S. The announced plan for the Eclipse Award finalist–known for seizing the lead and outrunning long odds–also includes the GII Tampa Bay Derby and the GII Blue Grass S. This $87,000 KEESEP yearling who was the 40-1 runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile will aim to build on a string of “firsts” that propelled him to prominence in the span of just a few weeks last autumn: His 70-1 wire job in Keeneland’s GI Breeders’ Futurity S. represented the first graded stakes winner for sire Paynter; the first Grade I wins for owner KRA Stud Farm, trainer Ben Colebrook, and jockey Albin Jimenez, and the first major win of any kind for breeders Angie and Sabrina Moore, the mother/daughter bloodstock team whose GreenMount Farm in Maryland is relatively new to the business.

9) MAXIMUS MISCHIEF (c, Into MischiefReina Maria, by Songandaprayer)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Cash is King LLC & LC Racing. B-Martha Jane Mullholland (KY). T-Robert E. Reid, Jr. Sales History: $165,000 Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $170,000 RNA ’17 FTNAUG; $245,000 RNA 2yo ’18 FTFMAR; $340,000 2yo ’18 FTIMAY. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-3-0-0, $192,100.
Last Start: 1st, GII Remsen S., AQU, Dec. 1
Next Start: GII Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.

In the interim since the last Top 12 rankings, ‘TDN Rising Star’ Maximus Mischief got a jockey change and had plans solidified for his two-prep path to the Kentucky Derby. TDN‘s Bill Finley reported last Friday that Jose Ortiz will replace Parx-based jockey Frankie Pennington (who had ridden in all three starts), and that the game plan for this $340,000 EASMAY Into Mischief colt will now include starts in the Feb. 2 GII Holy Bull S. and the Mar. 30 GI Florida Derby. Although the score by Maximus Mischief in the GII Remsen S. gives him the theoretical advantage of a win over nine furlongs at a time when few other Derby contenders have even attempted that distance, history has not been kind to winners of that stakes: Only three horses in the last 55 years–Thunder Gulch, Go For Gin and Pleasant Colony–have parlayed wins in the Remsen into a blanket of roses at Churchill Downs. A :58.02 five-furlong bullet breeze (1/57) at Gulfstream on Saturday has Maximus Mischief heading in the right direction, though.

10) MIND CONTROL (c, Stay Thirsty–Feel That Fire, by Lightning N Thunder)
O-Red Oak Stable (Brunetti) and Madaket Stables LLC. B-Red Oak Stable. T-Gregory Sacco. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-3-1-0, $323,400.
Last Start: 1st, Jerome S., AQU, Jan. 1
Next race: GIII Withers, AQU, Feb. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.

Right now this homebred Stay Thirsty colt is the boss of the New York winter prep path, which can be a lonely Derby road to travel at this time of year. But because Mind Control is a Grade I winner (last summer’s Hopeful S.), he is likely to remain focused on Aqueduct’s preps, because the presence of a Grade I winner in the GII Wood Memorial triggers a purse bonus that raises the purse from $750,000 to $1 million. He’s reportedly training well and on target to start as the fave in the GII Withers S. on Feb. 2, the only graded nine-furlong Derby prep stakes on the calendar between now and late March. His sire won the 2011 version of the GIII Gotham S. (which this year is Mar. 9 at a mile), and although Stay Thirsty ran twelfth in the Derby, longer-distance races were not a problem for him, as evidenced by his second in the GI Belmont S. and a win in the GI Travers S.

11) CODE OF HONOR (c, Noble Mission {GB}–Reunited, by Dixie Union)
O/B-W. S. Farish (KY). T-Shug McGaughey. Sales History: $70,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISP, 2-1-1-0, $146,750.
Last Start: 4th, Mucho Macho Man S., GP, Jan. 5
Next Start: Aiming for GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 4.

I’m willing to give Code of Honor another shot within the Top 12 after initially ranking him highly at No. 4, then relegating him to the “On the Bubble” list after a blah fourth as the 4-5 beaten fave in the Mucho Macho Man S. Circumstances have been against him, and despite the poor showing earlier this month, trainer Shug McGuaghey is fully behind this homebred Noble Mission (GB) colt. Code of Honor ran a crackerjack second in the GI Champagne S. despite trip trouble, then he spiked a fever and missed the Breeders’ Cup and a subsequent planned start in the Remsen S. McGaughey said last week on “At the Races With Steve Byk” that he will be training Code of Honor more aggressively going in to the Fountain of Youth S., and that the colt will be allowed to revert to an off-the-pace running style. Because this is an owner/trainer combo that does not generally push young horses onto the Derby path if they don’t belong, I’m betting that this May 23 foal still could be the real deal given time to mature both physically and mentally.

12) AVIE’S FLATTER (c, Flatter–Avie’s Empire, by Empire Maker)
O-Ivan Dalos. B-Tall Oaks Farm (ON). T-Josie Carroll. Lifetime Record: MSW, 4-3-0-0, $251,834.
Last Start: 1st Coronation Futurity, WO, Nov. 18
Accomplishments Include: 1st, Cup and Saucer S., WO, Oct. 7
Next Start: Aiming for GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Avie’s Flatter is the presumptive favorite to win the Sovereign Award for 2-year-old champion colt in Canada, and this Flatter homebred (from the breeder who produced 1998 GI Belmont S. winner Victory Gallop) is aiming for a prep or two at Tampa Bay Downs followed by a start in the Florida Derby if all goes well. Although he’s unraced on dirt, Avie’s Flatter ran a much-better-than-it-looks fourth on grass against a deep field in the GI Summer S. right off his maiden score, (finishing close behind this week’s No. 4-ranked War of Will). He then won two stakes against Canadian-breds on both dirt and Tapeta at Woodbine. After a brief break, Avie’s Flatter had his first published work of 2019 last Friday, breezing three furlongs in :38.45 (6/9) at Palm Meadows.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order)
Bankit (Central Banker): New York-bred entered in Friday’s opening-day Oaklawn feature (Smarty Jones S); will try to build off sharp Springboard Mile S. second.
Bourbon War (Tapit): Fountain of Youth S. could be next after sharp allowance/optional claiming win at Gulfstream on Friday. Trainer Mark Hennig: “I think he’s ready to take the step back into graded-stakes company.”
Coliseum (Tapit): Speedy ‘TDN Rising Star’ worked from gate on Sunday at Santa Anita after slow-start sixth at 3-5 odds in GIII Sham S.
Gray Attempt (Graydar): Stretching out from sprints and should be the outside (but not the only) speed in Friday’s Smarty Jones S.
Gunmetal Gray (Exchange Rate): Off-the-pace move won the Sham S.; likely to return in another SoCal prep.
Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy): Likely fave in Friday’s Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn after back-to-back stakes wins at Remington.
Moretti (Medaglia d’Oro): Half to Battle of Midway (Smart Strike), who was third at 40-1 in 2017 Derby. Todd Pletcher trainee has already won at nine furlongs and will take aim at Withers S.
Network Effect (Mark Valeski): Chad Brown trainee now up to five-furlong breezes at Palm Meadows after New York seconds in both Remsen and Nashua S.
Mucho Gusto (Mucho Macho Man): ‘TDN Rising Star’ training at Santa Anita but could hit road for next start considering glut of talent in Baffert barn.
Roadster (Quality Road): Last summer’s “now” juvenile within the Baffert barn started season ranked within the Top 12, but has not worked in over a month. Quarter cracks are the issue, DRF reported Sunday.
So Alive (Super Saver): Pletcher colt won Tampa allowance/optional claimer with blinkers added Jan. 6 and now could aim for Davis S. there, following similar Derby prep path as half-brother Vino Rosso (Curlin) traveled last year.
Win Win Win (Hat Trick {Jpn}): Set new track record for seven furlongs in 7 1/4 length Pasco S. romp at Tampa on Saturday.