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TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

WinStar TDN Derby Top Twelve for Feb. 28

by T.D. Thornton

With only one major prep race last weekend (GII Risen Star S.), the winds of change only slightly resorted the TDN Derby Top 12. But expect that breeze to intensify this coming weekend, as sophomore stakes action in both Florida and New York will involve three horses within the Top 12 and an intriguing cast of under-the-radar horses vying for firmer footing on the road to the GI Kentucky Derby.

1. MCCRAKEN (c, GhostzapperIvory Empress, by Seeking the Gold)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O/B-Whitham Thoroughbreds, LLC (KY). T-Ian R. Wilkes. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 4-4-0-0, $310,848.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 1

Last Start: 1st, GIII Sam F. Davis S., TAM, Feb. 11

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 26, 1st, Street Sense S., CD, Oct. 30

Next start: GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 11

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 20

Undefeated TDN Derby Top 12 kingpin McCraken will next target the Tampa Bay Derby, and watching him progress from his juvenile to sophomore seasons has been like observing an imposing wave forming far off the shoreline. Will he peak prior to the first Saturday in May or precisely on that date? Tough to tell this far out, because even though the pecking order of Triple Crown contenders is starting to sort itself out, the entire list will undergo a not-so-subtle shift starting Mar. 25, when the majority of the important Derby preps extend to nine furlongs. In this ‘TDN Rising Star’s’ favor for remaining near the top of the list are his keen, in-race sense of being in control without being overly aggressive, and an impressive ability to shift into multiple gears while responding willingly to encouragement in the late stages of races. Working against McCraken is the low-percentage path of productivity that is the Tampa route to Louisville, as only one Tampa Derby winner in 35 runnings has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby.

2. MASTERY (c, Candy Ride (Arg)Steady Course, by Old Trieste)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Cheyenne Stables, LLC. B-Stone Farm (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $425,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 3-3-0-0, $271,200.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 2

Last Start: 1st, GI Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, LRC, Dec. 10

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GIII Bob Hope S., DMR, Nov. 19

Next start: GII San Felipe S., SA Mar. 11

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Mastery

KY Derby Points: 10

Trainer Baffert has solidified next-race plans for his pair of TDN Derby Top 12 horses: Mastery will remain at Santa Anita for the Mar. 11 San Felipe S., while American Anthem (Bodemeister) hits the road to Hot Springs for an engagement in the GII Rebel S. Mar. 18. Baffert has said he will give his pair of May-foaled colts only two prep races prior to aiming for Derby berths, banking on raw talent over the benefit of repeated seasoning. This ‘TDN Rising Star’ owns an undefeated record, and his natural, efficient speed has been an obvious tactical weapon so far. But Mastery’s résumé also can be read as a path of least resistance, with a maiden win followed by two five-horse-field stakes scores, both run in the lull after the Breeders’ Cup. In his Feb. 21 six-furlong bullet workout, Mastery tracked older MGSP workmate Cat Burglar (Unbridled’s Song) at a measured clip before edging away in the final furlong, then smoothly shifting into another gear on his own power in the final hundred yards to the wire. “I love this horse,” Baffert told TDN after the move. “He went really well. He’s improving. He’s maturing. He’s doing it the right way.”

3. IRISH WAR CRY (c, CurlinIrish Sovereign, by Polish Numbers)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O/B-Isabelle de Tomaso (NJ). T-H. G. Motion. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-3-0-0, $295,460.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 4

Last Start: 1st, GII Lambholm South Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 4

Accomplishments: 1st, Marylander S., LRL, Jan. 23

Next Start: GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 4

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Irish War Cry

KY Derby Points: 10

‘TDN Rising Star’ Irish War Cry is an easy horse to like (in the sense of rooting for him) because he’s undefeated, has risen from underdog status on a smaller circuit to knock off the juvenile champ, owns an eye-catching turn of foot, and is conditioned by a thinking-man’s type of trainer who sets a tone of enjoying the ride at racing’s elite levels. But likeability from a betting-to-win-the-Derby standpoint isn’t quite as solid, because being a lightly raced, May-foaled, New Jersey-bred doesn’t exactly match the profile for vanquishing 20-horse fields at 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May. On Saturday, ‘Irish’ had his first and only workout in prep for this weekend’s Fountain of Youth S., breezing five furlongs in company with MGSW turfer Divine Oath (Broken Vow) in 1:01.65 (14/17) at Palm Meadows. “It’s going to be a little different this time,” Motion said, contrasting the Fountain of Youth to his colt’s Holy Bull S. score. “We didn’t have a target on our back last time … This time it’s going to be a little bit different because people will have expectations, as they should. Look, I just would like to see him run a similar race. He’s doing great and I see no reason not to run in the Fountain of Youth. We’re looking forward to it.”

4. AMERICAN ANTHEM (c, Bodemeister–Indy’s Windy, by A.P. Indy)

O-WinStar Farm, LLC, S F Bloodstock, LLC & China Horse Club. B-WinStar Farm (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $180,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP; $435,000 2yo ‘16 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GSP, 2-1-1-0, $51,200.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 5

Last Start: 2nd, GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 7

Next start: GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 18

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 4

American Anthem has gained two positions by attrition on this list in the past three weeks, and No. 4 is a pretty lofty ranking for a 3-year-old who has not yet won a graded stakes. His upside is a tremendous reserve of untapped potential, and considering a four-time-Derby-winning trainer is calling the shots, that adds a level of confidence to his chances. Without a doubt, American Anthem has run the best last-out losing race of any horse ranked on the Top 12 (pinned on the inside by a more experienced foe, then kicked again determinedly to lose by a bob in the Sham S.). When the brawny bay ships to Oaklawn for the Mar. 18 Rebel S., he will be attempting to follow in the footsteps of sire Bodemeister (Empire Maker), another Baffert trainee who won the 2012 GI Arkansas Derby by nearly ten lengths, then subsequently finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness S. Baffert is on record as saying American Anthem needs to learn how to relax (he has trained without blinkers even though he races in them). As a lightly seasoned colt, he’ll need a measure of composure to handle the shipping experience to an unfamiliar track where the competition for the Rebel is bound to include a solid mix of local horses and several late-blooming shippers seeking Derby points.

5. EL AREEB (c, Exchange RateFeathered Diamond, by A.P. Indy)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O-M M G Stables, LLC. B-Dixiana Farms, LLC (KY). T-Cathal A. Lynch. Sales History: $100,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP; $340,000 2yo ‘16 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-4-1-0, $334,200.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 6

Last Start: 1st, GIII Withers S., AQU, Feb. 4

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GIII Jerome S., AQU, Jan. 2, 1st, James F. Lewis III S., LRL, Nov. 19

Next start: GII Gotham S., AQU, Mar. 4

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 20

A few days ago El Areeb was thrust back into the mix for Saturday’s Gotham S. after several weeks of weighing the pros and cons of either racing a colt who was giving all the signs of being ready, or trying to map out a schedule that gives him a breather. Stopping on an in-form, developing horse has its risks. Yet there are also risks in making plans that require shipping away from Aqueduct (where he has won two stakes by a combined 15 1/2 lengths), and in tweaking the ‘TDN Rising Star’s’ prep race schedule so it leaves imperfect gaps leading up to the Derby. Judging by the confident, well-within-himself way he carries himself in races, El Areeb appears to be a horse that does not require being babied, so why not let him do his thing in the Gotham? There are “a few less variables for us going [to Aqueduct],” trainer Lynch said. “Knowing that your horse likes the inner track is definitely an advantage. That can be a quirky track sometimes; some horses handle it and some don’t.” El Areeb is growing on me as the type of sophomore who might get cuffed around a bit the first time he finally engages stiffer competition, but his solid foundation and resiliency make it likely he’ll learn from the experience. He could solidify into a “wiseguy horse” by the time the Derby nears.

6. MO TOWN (c, Uncle MoGrazie Mille, by Bernardini)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith & Team D. B-John D. Gunther & Eurowest Bloodstock (KY). T-Anthony W. Dutrow. Sales History: $200,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 4-2-1-0, $251,600.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 3

Last Start: 5th, GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 25

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GII Remsen S., AQU, Nov. 26

Next start: Uncommitted

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Mo Town

KY Derby Points: 10

Horses ranked No. 6 and No. 7 on this week’s version of the Derby list belong to formerly higher-ranked 3-year-olds who sputtered in their seasonal debuts. Each showed so much spark at age two however, that it would be foolhardy to demote them further without seeing second chances. Mo Town flat-out never fired in the Risen Star S. despite attaining gift positioning behind a breakaway pacemaker. “Perfect trip,” jockey John Velazquez said after the race. “I just don’t think my horse was too happy with the surface.” Trainer Dutrow added, “I thought [Mo Town] broke well and got himself into position and just wasn’t able to maintain it. Johnny’s comments were that the horse was struggling over the surface and never got a hold of it. He felt strongly that it was a surface Mo Town didn’t care for. So, we will see if he was right or not. No disrespect to Fair Grounds’ surface–it’s one of the reasons we came–it just didn’t work out for him today.” Not relishing a racing surface over which he’ll probably never compete again certainly won’t ruin this ‘TDN Rising Star’s’ long-range plans, but let’s face it: A highly hyped horse with the top-shelf level of athletic prowess that Mo Town is blessed with shouldn’t be so drastically disadvantaged by the footing. A regroup is obviously in order, most likely at the nine-furlong distance he’s already proven he can handle. But the path to the Derby just got a tad more arduous for Mo Town.

7. CLASSIC EMPIRE (c, Pioneerof the NileSambuca Classica, by Cat Thief)

O-John C. Oxley. B-Steven & Brandi Nicholson (KY). T-Mark E. Casse. Sales History: $475,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt, MGISW, 6-4-0-1, $1,520,220.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 7

Last Start: 3rd, GII Lambholm South Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 4

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, SA, Nov. 5, 1st, GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, KEE, Oct. 8; 1st, GIII Bashford Manor S., CD, July 2.

Next start: Uncommitted

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Classic Empire

KY Derby Points: 32

Classic Empire is in recovery mode after being derailed by a foot abscess in the Holy Bull S., a race where he appeared primed to pounce but didn’t show his characteristic kick from the three-eighths pole home. Trainer Casse reported Sunday via phone that the 2-year-old champ has been showing signs of his former self in light training at Palm Meadows: “We’ve been real happy with him the last few days. The plan is probably to breeze him towards the end of the week. We kind of feel like it’s not that big a rush. This was a pretty severe abscess, so we’re just kind of letting him get himself back together. Our feeling is that he can go into the Derby off of one race if need be. I think we’re just going to let him tell us. He’ll come back with an easy work, and as long as he handles that well, then come back with something a little stronger, then start thinking about what we’re going to do.”

8. GORMLEY (c, Malibu MoonRace to Urga, by Bernstein)

O-Mr. & Mrs. Jerome Moss. B-Castleton Lyons & Kilboy Estate (KY). T-John A. Shirreffs. Sales History: $150,000 RNA Ylg ’15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 4-3-0-0, $296,000.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 8

Last Start: 1st, GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 7.

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI FrontRunner S., SA, Oct. 6

Next start: Either GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 11, or GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 18

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Gormley

KY Derby Points: 20

Will Gormley be sharing a plane ride to Arkansas with the Baffert-trained American Anthem so the two can renew their rivalry in the Mar. 18 Rebel S., or will he remain at his home base of Santa Anita to run against Mastery, the committed favorite for the Mar. 11 San Felipe S.? It’s a split, multifactorial decision for trainer Shirreffs, who has two Derby contenders for the same owners, including “On the Bubble” Grade III winner Royal Mo (Uncle Mo). Gormley is a quick, high-energy horse who already has three races of two-turn graded stakes experience, and the fact that he’s more nimble than flashy partially explains why he doesn’t have a reputation as an intimidating contender. His next race will go a long way toward figuring out where he stands in the Triple Crown hierarchy, because although Gormley doesn’t need to win his next prep by a pole to prove he belongs, he does need to assert himself a touch more aggressively against either one of the two California-based sophomores that are ranked above him on this list.

9. PRACTICAL JOKE (c, Into MischiefHalo Humor, by Distorted Humor)

O-Klaravich Stables, Inc. & William H. Lawrence. B-Whispering Oaks (KY). T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $135,000 Ylg ‘15 KEEJAN; $240,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 4-3-0-1, $739,800.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 9

Last Start: 3rd, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, SA, Nov. 5.

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI Hopeful S., SAR, Sept. 5; 1st, GI Champagne S., BEL, Oct. 8.

Next start: GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 4

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 14

He’s a two-time Grade I winner with bullet morning moves in three of his last five workouts, yet Practical Joke figures to go off as an under-the-radar horse in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth S. Even toward the end of his 2-year-old campaign, trainer Brown routinely described the Hopeful S. and Champagne S. winner as mentally ahead of his peers, and now that he’s been training forwardly in Florida for the past two months, the adjective “stronger” is often added to the mix when Brown describes the colt’s progression. Although positionally Practical Joke has closed from as far back as seventh to both win and hit the board in graded stakes, he wasn’t really that far off the action in terms of lengths, so the hunch here is that he won’t be attempting a prolonged back-of-the-pack run at 1 1/16 miles, especially if expected fave Irish War Cry is humming along loose on the lead like he was in his Holy Bull S. wire job. A good showing in the Fountain of Youth keeps Practical Joke in this section of the Derby Top 12; a decisive win vaults him into the top tier.

10. ONE LINER (c, Into MischiefCayala, by Cherokee Run)

O-WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club & SF Racing, LLC. B-Kingswood Farm (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $150,000 Ylg ‘15 KEEJAN. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-3-0-0, $373,800.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 11

Last Start: 1st, GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 20

Next start: Uncommitted

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 10

One Liner has an athletic build and the looks of a developing colt that will flesh out nicely as he puts on a bit more muscle, but he’ll need to improve his mental focus to handle the duress of the Derby experience. After his Southwest S. victory, jockey John Velazquez said he had to keep after the “relaxed” colt on the backstretch run to make sure he was aware of the horses in front of him, although once engaged, One Liner did respond with competitive aggression. In his Jan. 26 allowance sprint win at Gulfstream, One Liner earned an “asked to gallop out” chartcaller’s comment, which meant a right-handed tap of the whip at the wire was required to instruct the colt to keep his mind on business after cruising home unchallenged by 2 1/2 lengths. One Liner earned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure (BSF) in the Southwest S., which ties for top BSF among all active 3-year-olds on the Derby trail (Classic Empire’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win was the other). Experience can only improve One Liner, although he might get only one more start prior to taking aim at the Derby.

11. ILIAD (r, GhostzapperLittle Swoon, by You and I)

O-Kaleem Shah, Inc. B-Sungyeoun Lim (KY). T-Doug F. O’Neill. Sales history: $50,000 Wlg ‘14 KEENOV; $80,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP; $285,000 2yo ‘16 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-0-0, $147,345.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 12

Last Start: 1st, GII San Vicente S., SA, Feb. 12

Next Start: Likely for GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 11

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 0

Save for his debut loss to American Anthem in a strong Dec. 3 maiden try, Iliad has taken over at the top of the stretch and extended his margins through the lane in each of his two victories since then. The most recent was a pace-pressured seven-furlong score in the San Vicente S. on Feb. 11, and he’ll have a daunting task in trying to repeat while stretching out to two turns against more battle-tested foes in the San Felipe S. on the second Saturday in March. In a :50.20 half-mile maintenance move last Friday (43/60), the ridgling worked solo, was never seriously urged, and gave the impression that he wanted to do more. He holds a tenuous position on the bottom tier of this list, because two major East Coast preps will be run the week before his next expected start at Santa Anita, and the TDN Derby Top 12 is likely to undergo a serious shakeup before he gets a chance to prove his mettle.

12. GIRVIN (c, Tale of EkatiCatch the Moon, by Malibu Moon)

O-Brad Grady. B-Bob Austin & John Witte (KY). T-Joe Sharp. Sales History: $140,000 RNA Ylg ‘15 KEESEP; $130,000 Ylg ‘15 FTKOCT. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $274,400.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: N/A

Last Start: 1st, GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 25

Next start: Likely for GII Louisiana Derby, FG, Apr. 1

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Girvin

KY Derby Points: 50

There was a fair amount of pre-race chatter about Girvin being an overlooked local hopeful in the Risen Star S. Much of it centered on how swiftly he broke his maiden sprinting in December and then got caught up in the quarantine crisis at Fair Grounds, leaving him with only a Feb. 4 turf stakes prep (in which he was second) prior to Saturday’s return to dirt against graded stakes company. His 8-1 upset was admirable, but when you dissect the Risen Star, it comes across as being better on paper prior to the race than how it actually played out on the track. Neither of the two obvious favorites–Mo Town or Guest Suite (Quality Road)–ran a lick despite each getting their preferred trips position-wise. And winner Girvin skimmed the rail almost the entire way before shifting and drifting in the lane under intermittent urging while no true closers threatened him. The fact that he’s the new Derby points leader (50) does come with some status, but if Girvin continues to progress, jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. might eventually be forced to choose between him and the call he has on the No. 1 horse on this list, McCraken.

On the Bubble:

After drawing post 14 and initially telling the Fair Grounds notes team “I don’t mind being on the outside,” trainer Doug O’Neill scratched So Conflated (Eskendereya) from last Saturday’s Risen Star S., citing a poor post. The ridgling will instead detour to this weekend’s Gotham S. It could be the big bust-out race for So Conflated coming off his better-than-it-looks Jan. 21 California Derby win. But with the benefit of hindsight, having seen how the two top faves never fired in the Risen Star, it’s fair to say So Conflated might have a tougher time reeling in inner-track specialist El Areeb, especially if the race draws light in terms of other pace-pressers.

Takaful (Bernardini) didn’t have to fully extend himself, gliding five furlongs in :59.95 (1/17) while working solo at Palm Meadows last Saturday in preparation for this weekend’s Fountain of Youth S. engagement. This ‘TDN Rising Star’s’ monster maiden win at Belmont Park Oct. 29 generated considerable buzz about him being a leading Derby contender, but he’s been in regroup mode since finishing an okay third in the Remsen S. and caving badly without an apparent excuse when favored in the Jan. 2 Jerome S … The $ 1.2-million yearling Tapwrit (Tapit) appears on the cusp of breaking through to the Top 12, especially if he gives McCraken a run for his money in the Mar. 11 Tampa Bay Derby. He was beaten only 1 1/2 lengths by the No. 1 contender despite balking at the gate and enduring a difficult trip; trainer Todd Pletcher has indicated this is a colt that is really starting to get the hang of things and definitely could resonate as a late bloomer.

The trainers of the horses that ran 2-3-4 in the Southwest S. at Oaklawn last week–Petrov (Flatter), Lookin At Lee (Lookin At Lucky), and Silver Dust (Tapit)–all reported they’re likely to take a crack at running back in the Rebel S. Mar. 8 at Oaklawn … Conquest Mo Money (Uncle Mo), a New York-bred based in New Mexico, is now 3-for-3, including two stakes wins, after winning Sunday’s $100,000 Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park by two lengths over a field that included three maidens. Next up for him is the Mar. 26 GIII Sunland Derby.

WinStar TDN Derby Top Twelve for Feb. 28 Recent News