TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

WinStar TDN Derby Top Twelve for Mar. 14

by T.D. Thornton

Favorites dominated this past weekend’s GI Kentucky Derby preps, although the brilliance of ‘TDN Rising Star’ Mastery (Candy Ride {Arg})’s victory in the GII San Felipe S. was immediately overshadowed by an abrupt pull-up and the revelation that he needs surgery for a condylar fracture to his left front ankle, knocking him off the Derby trail. Once this weekend’s GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn Park is in the books, the bulk of the remaining important Derby prep races will extend to nine furlongs, which will start separating the pretenders from the contenders. Here’s how the TDN Derby Top 12 looks at what is essentially the halfway juncture of the prep-race season.

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. 28 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: Possible for GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 8

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on McCraken

KY Derby Points: 20

McCraken’s return to the worktab with a :50.20 half-mile breeze (62/75) on Saturday at Palm Meadows was a welcome relief and an optimistic sign that a slight strain in his left front ankle was indeed just a “minor hiccup” as trainer Wilkes has described it. He missed a planned start in the GII Tampa Bay Derby, and will now aim for the first Saturday in May off a series of more intense workouts and a start in the Blue Grass S. This ‘TDN Rising Star’ might risk blemishing his undefeated record in what is shaping up to be a “loaded” prep race at Keeneland, but the idea will be for McCraken to get the most out of the Blue Grass conditioning-wise (even if he doesn’t win) so he’ll be in peak form for the Derby four weeks later. It’s an obvious advantage that McCraken already boasts three wins over the Churchill Downs strip, and it will be a tall task for the rest of the crop looking up at McCraken’s lofty position atop the TDN Top 12 to dislodge him from the kingpin ranking prior to that next planned prep race Apr. 8.

2. TAPWRIT (c, TapitAppealing Zophie, by Successful Appeal)

O-Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners & Robert V. LaPenta. B-My Meadowview, LLC (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $1,200,000 Ylg ‘15 FTNAUG. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-3-1-0, $313,902.

Mar. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: 8

Last Start: 1st, GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 11

Accomplishments Include: 1st, Pulpit S., GP, Dec. 10

Next Start: Uncommitted

Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 54

Tapwrit delivered in a big way in the Tampa Bay Derby, and he doesn’t look like he’s peaked yet, either. He had a slight stutter-step at the break, then didn’t appear to mind mixing it up in close quarters with midpack rivals while jostling for position through the clubhouse turn. He comfortably switched into cruise mode while settling at the back of the main flight, was repositioned a tad closer by jockey Jose Ortiz entering the far turn, then sliced deftly between foes five-sixteenths out before being switched outside for clear sailing turning for home. Ortiz needed to keep this $1.2 million colt focused with left- then right-handed encouragement through the lane, and Tapwrit pretty much maintained a measured margin back to the rest of the stragglers while encountering no serious threats late. “When I asked him between the half-mile and three-eighth poles, he let me know he was going to win the race right away,” Ortiz said. “He’s really scary, and I think he is going to keep improving.” It’s unlikely that we’ll see any other serious Derby horses emerge from the Tampa Derby also-rans, and Tapwrit’s stakes-record winning time (1:42.36) has to be assessed from the perspective that the track was playing glibly (three races earlier, an older Pletcher trainee established a new 1 1/16 miles track record of 1:41.75). But purely from a performance standpoint, Tapwrit showed he belongs, and can still progress further, within the top tier of Triple Crown hopefuls.

3. 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. 28 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 posted three straight bullet workouts and has gone back to being equipped with blinkers for morning training (last month trainer Baffert had removed them to keep the colt from getting too headstrong between races), and he appears well-muscled and primed to uncork a big effort in this Saturday’s Rebel S. On Mar. 11 he spotted older MGSW Mor Spirit (Eskendereya) two lengths on the back straight before engaging his mate on even terms at the quarter pole to finish nearly together under hand rides in 1:11.6 (1/15), but after the wire American Anthem had the reins shaken at him and was administered a couple of taps to respond with a little more gusto on the gallop out, which he did without hesitation. He’ll ship to Oaklawn to try and win a Derby prep race that Baffert-trained horses have won in six of the past seven years, but it won’t be a cakewalk. Unlike many of his West Coast peers, American Anthem has already showed he can handle being crowded a big field (he won his maiden against 11 rivals), and the fact that he was pinned on the rail in the mud by a more experienced stakes winner and overcame that type of pressure to fight back and hold second in the Sham S. shows he can tough out difficult trips when he has to. I’ve been gambling by ranking such an inexperienced horse so highly all season, but a breakout performance this weekend can elevate American Anthem even higher.

4. GUNNEVERA (c, Dialed InUnbridled Rage, by Unbridled)

O-Peacock Racing Stables, LLC. B-Brandywine Farm & Stephen Upchurch (KY). T-Antonio Sano. Sales History: $16,000 Ylg ’15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 8-4-2-0, $1,075,200.

Feb. 28 TDN Top 12 Rank: N/A

Last Start: 1st, GII Xpressbet Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 4

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GIII Delta Downs Jackpot S., DED, Nov. 19; 1st, GII Saratoga Special S., SAR, Aug. 14

Next start: GI Florida Derby, GP, Apr. 1

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Gunnevera

KY Derby Points: 64

The overachieving Gunnevera is shaping up as a horse who isn’t going to be anyone’s flashy favorite, but he nearly always looms as a hard-trying threat, and you can be certain that jockeys competing against him in the near future will be cognizant of where he is at the back of the pack while trying to measure their moves against the solid, respectable kick of this confirmed deep closer. With eight races under his belt so far–including victories that have been as diverse as sprinting at Saratoga and closing from dead last over the three-quarter mile Delta Downs strip–seasoning won’t be an issue. The nagging question for this $16,000 yearling though, is “Has he already shown us his best?” Sure, Gunnevera’s company lines are solid. Yet his running style means he’s pace-dependent, and trying to project what might happen to a one-run grinder in the 20-horse Derby often evokes visions of traffic trouble. The Florida Derby will be his next test, and it’s interesting to note that for a Gulfstream surface that has a reputation for being kind to early speed, the off-the-pace Gunnevera owns two wins and two seconds there from five starts.

5. 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, 5-3-0-1, $815,800.

Mar. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: 6

Last Start: 2nd, GII Xpressbet Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 4

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

Next start: Uncommitted

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 34

There aren’t many two-time Grade I winners who qualify as “sleepers” at this stage of the Derby prep season, but the winner of last year’s Hopeful S. and Champagne S. is aiming to prove that patience pays off so long as you peak when it counts. When second behind Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth S., Practical Joke launched into a stout, eye-catching rally from the half-mile home that only had about three furlongs worth of clout behind it, but that’s perfectly fine in the grand scheme of things because he wasn’t fully cranked to run down a tighter, more experienced foe coming off a three-month layoff. The chief beef against this chestnut remains that he has yet to win a two-turn race, but he did win a one-turn mile last October, and it’s not like he was disgraced when third and second at 1 1/16 miles in subsequent starts (GI Breeders’ Cup Classic, Fountain of Youth). Still, by the time he is next entered in one of the prep races that fall in early April, nine furlongs will be the standard for Triple Crown-bound 3-year-olds, and there will not be much room for pre-Derby tinkering if Practical Joke can’t punch through with an emphatic showing at 1 1/8 miles.

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.

Mar. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: 7

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

There are three horses on this week’s edition of the Top 12 that threw in absolute clunkers in their most recent races, yet they remain tethered to the list simply out of respect for previous accomplishments and as a hedge that they could blossom belatedly. Let’s face it, if you abandon hope every time a young, developing colt regresses, you’ll pretty quickly run out of contenders to critique, because not every Derby winner develops in linear, obvious fashion. This ‘TDN Rising Star’ breezed for the first time last week since his Feb. 25 beaten-fave fifth in the Risen Star S., and trainer Dutrow believes there are legit reasons to ignore Mo Town’s poor showing and focus forwardly. Although it was documented right after the race that the colt didn’t seem to care for the surface, Dutrow has since revealed that Mo Town also “hit himself in both hind legs … The horse has no history of hitting himself on any of the other racetracks he’s been on. Back on the worktab [at Payson Park], he didn’t hit himself.” The Florida Derby, Blue Grass S., and Wood Memorial are all in play.

7. 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.

Mar. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: 9

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

Next start: Uncommitted

Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 10

He’s an athletic, still-maturing bay who has already earned an impressive triple digit (102) Beyer Speed Figure on the Triple Crown trail. It will be useful to get a read on his company line from that Southwest S. victory when a number of Oaklawn-based horses that finished behind One Liner run back in this weekend’s Rebel S. He’s 3-for-3 lifetime, and his connections thought so highly of him that they unveiled him on opening weekend at Saratoga last summer. He’s stretched out incrementally in distance in each of his victories since then, but with lots of spacing between his races and likely only one more start prior to getting a shot in the Derby, one has to wonder if seasoning will be an issue leading up to the first Saturday in May.

8. 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, 4-3-0-0, $299,460.

Mar. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: 10

Last Start: 7th, GII Xpressbet Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 4

Accomplishments: 1st, GII Lambholm South Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 4, 1st, Marylander S., LRL, Jan. 23

Next Start: Uncommitted

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

KY Derby Points: 10

Still in regroup mode after firing a blank as the beaten favorite in the Mar. 4 Fountain of Youth S. This ‘TDN Rising Star’ has speed to spare, but it will be trainer Motion’s job to get him to relax and learn how to stalk effectively if Irish War Cry is to be a factor in the Triple Crown series. In the aftermath of this colt’s first career defeat, Motion indicated he would likely not be running back in four weeks’ time, so it will be interesting to see where and when this May 2 foal resurfaces. The talent is there, the timing is what’s iffy as far as the Derby is concerned.

9. 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.

Mar. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: 11

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: Possible for GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 8

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

KY Derby Points: 32

The juvenile champ’s foot abscess has cleared up. His mysterious back issue seems to have resolved. The 1-2 punch of those combined problems has been offered as an explanation for Classic Empire’s underwhelming third in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull S. and an abrupt, on-track cancellation of a planned Mar. 3 workout. Now, after breezing a half mile in :48.95 (3/34) in company with MGSW Airoforce (Colonel John) on Sunday at Palm Meadows, it appears as if Classic Empire is moving forward to reassert himself as a top Derby contender, with the Apr. 8 Blue Grass S. as his next planned prep. “He’s been doing extremely well since we had the doctor come and look at him and work on his back,” Casse told TDN after the workout. “If we’re going to make the Kentucky Derby, it’s going to be through the Blue Grass. We feel like we still have three more works with him, as long as he continues to do well. We’re not going to push it—if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we know we have a really good horse. But we’re not going to sacrifice him just to make the Blue Grass or the Derby. But right now, if things continue down the path that he’s on, we’re happy and we’ll keep going forward.”

10. J BOYS ECHO (c, MineshaftLetgomyecho, by Menifee)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Albaugh Family Stable. B-Betz/Blackburn/J. Betz/Ramsby/CNHHHNK (KY). T-Dale L. Romans. Sales History: $485,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-2-1-1, $299,600.

Mar. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: 12

Last Start: 1st, GIII Gotham S., AQU, Mar. 4

Next start: Probable for GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 8

Equineline PPs, Caulfield on J Boys Echo

KY Derby Points: 53

There was no shortage of speculation after this ‘TDN Rising Star’ won the Gotham S. about how his victory was aided by a favorable trip. But trainer Romans brought up an equally good counterpoint last week on “At the Races With Steve Byk” when he noted that J Boys Echo encountered significant trouble in all four of his previous career races. His comment lines are dotted with trouble calls like “slow start,” “steadied,” “ducked in,” and “wide first turn,” leading Romans to declare that the Gotham win was “the first pure, clean trip I think he’s ever had.” J Boys Echo flew to New York, but vanned back to Florida after his 102 Beyer Speed Figure win, and Romans outlined the game plan from here on out: “In a perfect world, the best strategy for us would probably be to train [at Gulfstream] up to about 10 days before the Blue Grass and then ship to Kentucky and get him ready to run in the Blue Grass 70 miles from home. Then he’d come back to home, at Churchill Downs, for Derby Day.” Although the competition in the Blue Grass is likely to be far tougher than what he’s faced so far, the nine furlongs shouldn’t be an issue, because this son of Mineshaft (A.P. Indy) has been running in nothing but 1 1/16-mile races since lifetime start number two back in October.

11. ROYAL MO (c, Uncle MoRoyal Irish Lass, by Saint Ballado)

O-Mr. & Mrs. Jerome S. Moss. B-Brandywine Farm (KY). T-John A. Shirreffs. Sales History: $300,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 4-2-2-0, $144,200.

Mar. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: N/A

Last Start: 1st, GIII Robert B. Lewis S., SA, Feb. 4

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

Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 10

It took Royal Mo three starts to break his maiden, and even though he did so fairly capably at Del Mar going a mile in November, the competition was edging closer at the end. The long-striding, tall (nearly 17 hands) colt subsequently progressed during morning training though, and he showed a new dimension winning the Lewis S. at 1 1/16 miles by establishing the lead from post one and repelling a stalking challenger to open up by 3 1/2 lengths at the wire. As trainer Shirreffs put it, “he made an effort, but made it look effortless.” Now a highly competitive Rebel S. assignment awaits, and it will be intriguing from a pace perspective to see where Royal Mo is positioned early on in this race. His last two running lines might be deceptive in that they make him look like he wants or needs the lead, but he was twice second while coming from farther back sprinting as a juvenile in several productive maiden races (once while forcing the issue from midpack, another time closing from twelfth), and a patient tactical approach could be a good match for his late-maturing, athletic way of going.

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.

Mar. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: N/A

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

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

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 50

Girvin resurfaces on the list this week, taking aim on the Apr. 1 Louisiana Derby with his first workout since posting an 8-1 upset under extremely favorable pace and positional conditions in the Feb. 25 Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds. Former jockey Rosie Napravnik was aboard for Saturday’s :49 half-mile breeze (19/86), finishing about on even terms with stakes-winning stablemate Cool Arrow (Into Mischief). It’s difficult to get a true line on his Fair Grounds form considering the two legitimate faves in the Risen Star were essentially no-shows while Girvin coasted home unchallenged. But he does have the makings of a versatile sort considering he’s won sprinting, was beaten less than a length going a mile on the grass against stakes foes, then stretched out willingly on dirt to 1 1/16 miles. The way the Derby trail is shaping up so far this season, just being consistent with incremental improvement might be enough to stand a horse in good stead when the first Saturday in May rolls around. Girvin may have won with a “gift” trip in the Risen Star, but that doesn’t mean he requires one. If he can channel his current consistency into an ability to overcome adversity at nine furlongs against graded-stakes company, look out.

On the Bubble:

Battle of Midway (Smart Strike), who earned ‘TDN Rising Star’ status off a sharp Jan. 21 maiden win, but then ran third at 4-5 in the GII San Vicente S., will be now be aimed for the GI Santa Anita Derby after a first-level, 1 1/16 miles allowance score at Santa Anita Mar. 9 … Santa Anita is reporting that the second- and third-place horses left in the wake of the brilliant but injured Mastery’s scintillating GII San Felipe S score on Saturday are both in the mix for the Santa Anita Derby. Iliad (Ghostzapper) was giving his all, but truly looked like he was in another league while trying to reel in the runaway winner, and Term of Art (Tiznow)’s effort was strictly an overmatched, pick-up-the-pieces try. The race came back with a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest of any Triple Crown prep race so far (there have been three previous 102 ratings) … It wouldn’t be a surprise if Gormley (Malibu Moon), who was a well-positioned stalker but cracked under the San Felipe pace pressure, also resurfaced in the signature 3-year-old race over his home track.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Battalion Runner (Unbridled’s Song), a 1-5 allowance winner going long at Gulfstream Feb. 3, is pointing for the Florida Derby. “The main thing we are focused on now is making sure that we do enough with him while he has the added time between races to have him fit and ready to go the mile and the eighth,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “We’re trying to keep him fresh and healthy but also we know we have to be ready to go April 1. I think the way he handled the stretch from seven [furlongs] to a mile and a sixteenth encouraged me that he will take that next step forward in distance.” Always Dreaming (Bodemeister), a colt that is owned by a partnership that includes the same owners of Battalion Runner, also has an outside chance at taking a shot in the Florida Derby after wiring a Gulfstream allowance race on the Fountain of Youth S. undercard. “We also talked about the Florida Derby with Always Dreaming, who came out of the allowance win well, but it’s not likely we would run the two of them against each other,” said Pletcher in reference to Battalion Runner. “But depending upon the size of the field we might consider entering them both in case one of them drew an unfavorable post. But that’s for down the road, when we have more information about how many starters there might be.”

A Mar. 10 bullet five-eighths in :58.80 (1/39) by Oaklawn-based Uncontested (Tiz Wonderful), has caused his connections to reconsider this Saturday’s Rebel S. Last week it was reported that this ‘TDN Rising Star’ would be on hold until the Apr. 15 GI Arkansas Derby, but he’s now “highly probable” to show up in the Rebel field when entries are taken on Wednesday. “The way he came back, he wasn’t winded at all,” co-owner Harry Rosenblum said of his mud-loving Smarty Jones S. winner, who galloped out six furlongs in 1:10.60 and seven in 1:24.80 … ‘Rising Stars’ Untrapped (Trappe Shot), second in both the Risen Star S. and the GIII Lecomte Stakes, and Malagacy (Shackleford), a 2-for-2 sprinter, are also likely Rebel entrants. Among the Oaklawn-based contingent of Rebel aspirants are the second- through fourth-place finishers out of the Southwest S.–Petrov (Flatter), Lookin At Lee (Lookin At Lucky), and Silver Dust (Tapit)–plus recent maiden-breaker Silver Bullion (Pioneerof the Nile).

WinStar TDN Derby Top Twelve for Mar. 14 Recent News