TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

WinStar TDN Derby Top Twelve for Feb. 7

by T.D. Thornton

The TDN Derby Top 12 had its first major shakeup in the rankings over the weekend, and the graded prep races at Gulfstream Park, Aqueduct and Santa Anita underscored that the balance of power in the division right now is firmly centered in Florida. Looking ahead, the new No. 1 sophomore will be in action this Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs in the GIII Sam F. Davis S., and Sunday’s GII San Vicente S. at Santa Anita is shaping up with an intriguing cast of characters that are light on seasoning but long on potential.

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

‘TDN Rising Star’ O/B-Whitham Thoroughbreds, LLC (KY). T-Ian R. Wilkes. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-3-0-0, $190,848.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: 2

Last Start: 1st, GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 26

Accomplishments Include: 1st, Street Sense S., CD, Oct. 30

Next start: GIII Sam F. Davis S., TAM, Feb. 11

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 10

McCraken inherits the kingpin spot because Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile)’s performance in the GII Holy Bull S. necessitated a correctional reshuffling of the rankings. Now it’s up to the undefeated ‘TDN Rising Star’ to defend his newly minted top billing. This undefeated son of Ghostzapper (Awesome Again) will go postward heavily (and deservedly) favored in his seasonal debut Saturday, and even trainer Wilkes concedes that the Davis S. at Tampa Bay Downs is not the most difficult spot for McCraken’s return try. “I don’t want a tough, tough race for him yet,” Wilkes said. “I want a race that will enable him to move forward right now.” This year the Davis carries slightly extra emphasis, because for the first time since 2013, it has been included in the Road to the Kentucky Derby points series (10-4-2-1); a win would enable McCraken to double his current points total. Should the colt’s connections eventually aim for the Mar. 11 GII Tampa Bay Derby, that progression would have a ring of familiarity to it for Wilkes. Only one Tampa Derby winner, Street Sense (Street Cry) in 2007, has parlayed a score in that prep into a Kentucky Derby victory. Wilkes helped handle that colt, though—at the time he was an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger.

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.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: 3

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

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

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

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Mastery

KY Derby Points: 10

‘TDN Rising Star’ Mastery is a May 3 foal. If he makes it into the starting gate for the Derby, will it make a difference that he’s conceding several months of experience to somewhat older sophomore peers? In the past 30 years, only Mine That Bird (Birdstone), foaled on May 10, and Thunder Gulch (Gulch), on May 23, have won the Derby with a May foaling date (there have been at least 10 overall, but many pre-1935 foal dates were not recorded). Even if you think birth rank matters, is it enough to outweigh the trend that trainer Baffert has won four Kentucky Derbies and unquestionably knows how to get 3-year-olds to peak in the spring? This tall, broad-striding colt uncorked a bullet (1/30) half-mile training move Jan. 30 and a sharp (2/89) five-furlong move Feb. 5 in anticipation of a March start, which will be only one of just two planned races prior to the Derby if Baffert’s stated game plan holds true. Right now Mastery is the fastest gun in the West, and whether he attempts to blaze a Derby trail via Oaklawn or remain at his training base of Santa Anita, it will likely result in some rethinking of plans by trainers whose lesser-ranked rivals might be better off avoiding Mastery.

3. 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, 3-2-1-0, $243,600.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: 4

Last Start: 1st, GII Remsen S., AQU, Nov. 26

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

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

KY Derby Points: 10

Sometimes minor decisions in a young horse’s progression end up having significant impact down the road, and with the benefit of hindsight, it now seems that scratching ‘TDN Rising Star’ Mo Town on the morning of the Nov. 4 GII Nashua S. at Aqueduct to help heal a strained hind-end muscle will pay dividends as the $200,000 KEESEP colt prepares for his 3-year-old debut. Given an additional three weeks after that scratch, Mo Town proficiently pressed the tempo and opened up willingly under brisk urging to capture his first two-turn stakes, the GII Remsen S. That race stamped him as a major player on the Derby trail, and since then, Dutrow has maintained a patient approach, letting his Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie) trainee take it easy during the early part of winter at Payson Park. The regimen has been ratcheted upward in recent weeks though, and a five-furlong bullet in 1:02.40 (1/6) on Jan. 31 is a sharp sign of willing improvement as the colt comes within a month of his seasonal debut. “Mo Town has just been fantastic–both physically and mentally,” Dutrow told TDN last week. “He’s growing, filling out, eating great and he’s very happy and training terrific.”

4. 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.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: On the Bubble.

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

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

Next Start: Uncommitted, but likely to pursue Florida preps

Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Irish War Cry

KY Derby Points: 10

The paradigm-shifting moment that everyone will point to in the Holy Bull S. will be at the quarter pole when Irish War Cry was opening up in hand while Classic Empire was under the whip and struggling. But a more subtle sign of this ‘TDN Rising Star’s prowess actually occurred a furlong before that, when the undefeated New Jersey-bred sensed the odds-on divisional champion ranging up to within a length of his outside flank, primed to pounce, and Irish War Cry, all on his own, quickened away without being asked. That reaction alone was impressive, but to give the performance even more polish, this lightly raced Curlin (Smart Strike) homebred always looked comfortable leading under snug restraint, then closed willingly, with a nice reach, while only briefly encouraged with a show-and-tell crack of the crop at the sixteenth pole. His gallop back to the winner’s circle was bouncy and spirited, and trainer Motion now has a pleasant dilemma on his hands about which prep race to pursue next. “I don’t know if I want to run in every race [at Gulfstream–the GII Fountain of Youth and GI Florida Derby]. It will be hard enough to run back in one of them, obviously, but we’ll figure it out.”

5. 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.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: 1

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’s lackluster third-place effort in the Holy Bull S. at 1-2 odds has to be viewed in the context of his esteemed status as juvenile champion and with all of the lofty expectations he carried into his seasonal debut, which is the reason for his four-spot demotion on this list. Still, this $475,000 KEESEP colt was such a dominant, athletic force as a 2-year-old that it is not a wise idea to write him off entirely, even if it is difficult to come up with signs of positive progress from his 8 3/4-length loss. Classic Empire was mildly bumped on the clubhouse turn before asserting himself in a prime stalking spot for the run down the backstretch, but when it appeared as if he was about to inhale Irish War Cry three-eighths out, the pacemaker found several more gears and Classic Empire was not beaten up by jockey Julien Leparoux when it was obvious he was not going to reel in the winner. “There was really no excuse,” said Leparoux. “He got a little bit warm [prior to the race] but after that we had a good trip and every chance and he just didn’t kick at the end.” Trainer Casse said the day after the race that “more than likely, you won’t see him back at Gulfstream again. We’re already thinking about where we want to go, but wherever it is it will be somewhere he will train a little bit there before he runs. [His performance] came as a complete surprise to us, but the battle is far from over.”

6. 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.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: 5

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

Next start: Uncommitted, but on a two-prep path to Derby

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 4

American Anthem marks an intriguing turn in the TDN Top 12 list where the rankings morph from proven ability to sheer potential. This $435,000 Bodemeister (Empire Maker) colt has yet to do what every horse ranked higher on the list has done so far (win at least one graded stakes race impressively) but the brawny bay has the looks and attitude that suggest he won’t at all be overmatched when thrown into the deeper end of the high-stakes pool. American Anthem’s pedigree portends distance ability: His dam is a half-sister to the 1998 champion 3-year-old filly Banshee Breeze (Unbridled), who won multiple Grade I races up to 1 ½ miles, and sire Bodemeister was a domineering 9 1/2-length winner of the GI Arkansas Derby who also finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness S. under Baffert’s tutelage in 2012. Like stablemate Mastery (ranked No. 3), American Anthem is also on the two-prep path to the Derby (exact races undetermined for now). And, like Mastery, he is also a later foal compared to many of his peers–May 15.

7. 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.

Jan. 17 TDN Top 12 Rank: 9

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: Uncommitted, but likely to pursue New York preps

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 20

Riding a four-race win streak, El Areeb is capably and without fanfare checking off many of the boxes that represent required qualities of serious Derby contenders. Is he a one-dimensional speedball that can’t rate? That notion was put to rest in last Saturday’s GIII Withers S. victory, in which El Areeb appeared comfortably within himself while guided patiently outside of two longshot pacemakers. The first two quarters (:24.29 and :25.02) weren’t exactly blazing, so it’s not like this ‘TDN Rising Star’ benefited from a suicidal speed scenario when he moved three wide off the far turn to assume command. Well-focused into the Aqueduct stretch, he responded willingly to the hustling, arm-pumping finish by jockey Trevor McCarthy to win by 4 1/4 lengths at 55-100 odds. Even though that margin of victory pales in comparison to El Areeb’s 11 1/4-length GIII Jerome S. win a month earlier, trainer Lynch said “I thought he did it a little easier today. I know he didn’t win by as far, but Trevor tapped him once on the neck just to keep his attention. He’s shown maturity there, when he sat behind those guys.” Added McCarthy: “He didn’t prefer the [muddy] surface in the Jerome. Today, I felt a different horse underneath me. He had a bigger stride and was really running at the end.”

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.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: 6

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

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

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

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Gormley

KY Derby Points: 20

Gormley, whose namesake is the British sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, has been a work in progress since trainer Shirreffs took over the conditioning of the well-conformed, intelligent-minded bay after the $150,000 KEESEP RNA was privately purchased by owners Jerry and Ann Moss. Gormley has always trained keenly in the mornings and displayed enough proficiency in his races to rack up a 3-for-4 record. But his stumble at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that cost him a better placing and his pre-load washiness prior to his hard-earned Sham S. win both contribute to the feeling that the Malibu Moon (A.P. Indy) sophomore needs a little bit more assuredness and maturity if he is to achieve elite status within this year’s Derby pecking order. Then again, perhaps a horse that is not so tightly wound is exactly what you want for the long, arduous Triple Crown chase. “The horse reminds me of California Chrome,” Gormley’s regular rider, Victor Espinoza, told the Los Angeles Times prior to winning the Sham. “He’s like a happy little kid just playing around. He can’t sit still for one moment and that’s how California Chrome was.”

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.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: 7

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 Gotham S., AQU, Mar. 4 or GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 4

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 14

After Palm Meadows-based Practical Joke fired a bullet (1/40) half-mile breeze Jan. 31, trainer Brown said in a phone interview that “he’s going to run in the Fountain of Youth or the Gotham, one of the two.” His wins at six, seven and eight furlongs (the latter being a one-turn mile) made him three-for-three entering the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But he was jostled at the start and got fanned five wide prior to finishing third in that race, leading to speculation that two turns might not be his best game. Brown disagrees, though: “We’ve freshened him a little bit and he’s been training very well. He just needs to improve with his age group. He showed a lot of talent at age two, he won two Grade Is, we think he’s a top colt. He was beaten 7 3/4 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup, but I want to give him another chance [going long] because he had a hard race in the Champagne S. and it might have taken something out of him. Now that he’s fresh, I see a stronger horse in front of me, so I want to try him again around two turns.

10. LOOKIN AT LEE (c, Lookin At Lucky–Langara Lass, by Langfuhr)

O-L and N Racing. B-Ray Hanson (KY). T-Steven M. Asmussen. Sales History: $70,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISP, 6-2-2-0, $299,795.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: 10

Last Start: 4th, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, SA, Nov. 5

Accomplishments Include: 1st, Ellis Park Juvenile S., ELP, Aug. 6

Next start: Possible for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 25

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 10

Lookin At Lee hasn’t missed a week of working out since Dec. 24, and the seventh breeze of the bunch, a 1:01 move for five furlongs on Feb. 3 (3/53), is yet another signal of steady progression for the $70,000 KEESEP Lookin At Lucky (Smart Strike) colt. A winner at second asking in an Ellis Park sprint last summer, he then won the Ellis Park Juvenile S. at seven furlongs before finishing second in the GIII Iroquois Stakes and GI Breeders’ Futurity. The winners of those races were Not This Time (Giant’s Causeway) and Classic Empire, who respectively ran second and first in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (while Lookin At Lee ran fourth after breaking from the extreme outside and rating from last).

11. GUEST SUITE (g, Quality RoadGuest House, by Ghostzapper)

O-W. S. Farish & Lora Jean Kilroy. B-W. S. Farish & Kilroy Thoroughbred Partnership (KY). T-Neil J. Howard.

Last Start: 1st, GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 21

Next start: Likely for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 25

Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 10

Trainer Howard told TDN last week that Guest Suite hasn’t shown any adverse signs since his Jan. 21 off-the-pace score in the GIII Lecomte S. and will be tentatively pointed to the GII Risen Star S. Feb. 25, the next logical step in the Fair Grounds’ prep race schedule for 3-year-olds. Delving back into his juvenile past performances, it’s noteworthy that the gelded son of Quality Road (Elusive Quality) was four deep through the turn in the Street Sense S. at Churchill Downs while beaten only five lengths by McCraken back in October, and he displayed a nifty turn of foot when seeking the lead in an optional claimer/first-level allowance score (also at Churchill) by open lengths on Nov. 26. He can rate or force the issue a little closer to the pace if need be, and those two wins at Churchill will become even more important assets should he continue to perform well enough to be on a path for Louisville on the first Saturday in May.

12. UNCONTESTED (c, Tiz Wonderful–Galileo’s Star, by Lil E. Tee)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Robert V. LaPenta & Harry T. Rosenblum. B-Richard Forbush (KY). T-Wayne M. Catalano. Sales History: $20,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: SW, 3-2-0-0, $135,300.

Jan. 24 TDN Top 12 Rank: 12

Last Start: 1st, Smarty Jones S., OP, Jan. 16

Next start: GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 20

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 11

Locally based horses tend to do pretty well in the early part of Oaklawn’s series of sophomore prep stakes, but once March and April roll around, you get top-name trainers shipping in from California and Florida with more formidable foes trying to make their marks in the GII Rebel S. and GI Arkansas Derby. Trainer Catalano, though, saddled Crypto Star (Cryptoclearance) to a favored win the 1997 Arkansas Derby, setting up a respectable fifth in the Kentucky Derby. Could he pull it off again 20 years later? Despite some decent performances by emerging horses who ran decently in this past weekend’s prep races nationwide, this ‘TDN Rising Star’ retains his top-12 ranking for at least one more week because he has an emphatically quick turn of foot from the gate and, according to his connections, displays an uncommon level of maturity and unflappability for his age–a desirable combination of traits you don’t often see coupled.

On the Bubble: Royal Mo (Uncle Mo) is on the cusp of giving owners Jerry and Ann Moss two contenders in the TDN Derby Top 12 after his 3 1/2-length win in last Saturday’s GIII Robert B. Lewis S. The lack of depth in the Lewis makes it difficult to gauge how good the performance was, however. He dueled the maiden Irap (Tiznow) into defeat before drawing away, but never faced any fresh challenge from the other three overmatched entrants in the race … True Timber (Mineshaft) ran the best losing race out of this past weekend’s trio of graded Derby preps. He stumbled to his nose at the break of the Withers S., made a deft rail-skimming move into the first turn to attain the lead, then hung on for second at 29-1 and was clearly best of the rest when El Areeb powered past … Gunnevera (Dialed In) ran second behind Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull, but it was too much of a pick-up-the-pieces effort to retain his placing within the Top 12. The late-running colt was closer to the pace than usual, but ran up on heels on the far turn and briefly lost momentum when steadying.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Battalion Runner (Unbridled’s Song) is headed to stakes company for trainer Todd Pletcher after a dominant Feb. 3 allowance route score at Gulfstream. The 1-5 favorite enjoyed a perfect stalking trip and advanced at will on the far turn to throttle the pacemaker before clicking into a slightly higher gear and winning in measured fashion … The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Battle of Midway (Smart Strike), who earned a ‘TDN Rising Star’ status on debut at Santa Anita Jan. 21, is probable for the Feb. 12 GII San Vicente S. The Baffert-trained Jan. 13 debut winner Aquamarine (Gemologist) is on target for the same race, as is the ridgling Iliad, set to make his first start for trainer Doug O’Neill since being transferred from Baffert’s barn by Kaleem Shah … Two weeks ago in this column, Baffert predicted a next-out maiden victory for Reach the World (Tapit), although at 3-5 odds, that was not exactly a shocker when it happened Feb. 4. Expect a stakes start for the highly regarded gray next time out … Last-to-first GII Swale S. winner Favorable Outcome (Flatter) won’t be stretching out to any two-turn Derby preps. He’s not even nominated to the Triple crown. “It’s going to be a campaign of just one-turn dirt races this whole year,” said trainer Chad Brown. “There are a lot of good races for 3-year-olds in that category.”

Chief Know It All (Flashy Bull), a Jan. 27 front-running allowance/optional claiming winner at Oaklawn after two trip-troubled races at Churchill last autumn, will be considered for the Southwest S., trainer Brad Cox reported. “He’s a very hard-trying horse. He’s got some ability and talent. It almost looks like he gets himself in a little bit of a tight spot sometimes.” Cox added that long-striding maiden Arklow (Arch), fourth in the Lecomte S., will target the Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds on Feb. 25 … Takeoff (Arch) returned to the worktab Feb. 4 for the first time since a hard-trying third in the Lecomte, breezing five furlongs in 1:01 (4/41). “He’s fit, he looks well and came out of his effort well,” said Mark Casse’s Louisiana-based assistant, David Carroll. “Right now, we’re planning on the Risen Star. After that, we’ll decide what will happen with him as far as the (Kentucky) Derby trail, but right now we’re very happy with him” … It’s Your Nickel (Dialed In), an allowance winner via disqualification at Fair Grounds Jan. 27, is nominated to the Risen Star S. But trainer Ken McPeek said “I’m not sure that’s where we’ll run. We may just wait for the (GI) Louisiana Derby (on Apr. 1). We think he’s that kind of horse. He came together real quick for this race. He was working so well. Any horse that breaks his maiden at Saratoga is a nice horse, obviously. I was shocked they didn’t get a lot of respect on the board.”