TDN Derby Top 12 for Feb. 8


Messier | Benoit Photo


We're inside the three-month mark to the GI Kentucky Derby. The Top 12 portfolio has been re-balanced by culling highly rated contenders who have yet to post published workouts in 2022. So 'TDN Rising Stars' Corniche (Quality Road) and Jack Christopher (Munnings) are out, and new shooters who emerged from this past weekend's trio of stakes have rushed forward to fill the gap. Nature abhors a vacuum–and so do Derby lists.

1) SMILE HAPPY (c, Runhappy–Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Lucky Seven Stable. B-Moreau Bloodstock Int'l Inc. & White Bloodstock LLC (KY). T-Kenneth G. McPeek. Sales History: $175,000 wlg '19 KEENOV; $185,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $284,810. Last Start: 1st GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. Next Start: GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 19. KY Derby Points: 10.

'TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy, the highest-priced of 45 Runhappy yearlings to sell at auction in 2020 ($185,000 FTKSEL), remains on target to headline the Feb. 19 GII Risen Star S. at the Fair Grounds. This past Saturday, this physically imposing colt tracked and blew by an unraced workmate in a :59.52 five-eighths breeze (2/24) at Gulfstream Park. A few hours later, Smile Happy's form upticked when White Abarrio (Race Day), who had run third behind Smile Happy in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., won the GIII Holy Bull S. by open lengths with a 97 Beyer Speed Figure.

Although light on experience, the 2-for-2 Smile Happy scores highly in terms of maturity. Both this colt's maiden win (big far-turn move) and subsequent stakes romp (menacing mid-pack stalk) earned style points as visually arresting performances.    Although Smile Happy's sire was the 2015 champion sprinter, his dam sire, Pleasant Tap, was resilient at distances up to 10 furlongs. He was third in the 1990 Derby, then second in the '91 GI Breeders' Cup Sprint. Pleasant Tap then stretched out and won champion older horse honors in '92, beating both A.P. Indy and Strike the Gold in the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup (before running a gallant second to A.P. Indy in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic).

2) PAPPACAP (c, Gun Runner–Pappascat, by Scat Daddy) O/B-Rustlewood Farm, Inc. (FL). T-Mark E. Casse. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 6-2-2-1, $596,000. Last Start: 3rd GIIII Lecomte S. Next Start: Next start: GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 19. KY Derby Points: 14.

Trainer Mark Casse told Daily Racing Form last week that Tyler Gaffalione will replace Joe Bravo as Pappacap's jockey for the Risen Star S. Feb. 19. That's an understandable move: Bravo is 3-for-21 for Casse in limited action over the last five years, and he hasn't won for the barn since Pappacap's last victory Aug. 7 in the GII Best Pal S. at Del Mar. Gaffalione, on the other hand, has ridden more than 400 horses for Casse over that same time frame, garnering a steady 17% win clip.

This hard-trying son of Gun Runner looked primed to pounce, but couldn't seal the deal when third in the Jan. 22 GIII Lecomte S. But the bet here is the stout run he uncorked from upper stretch to the final 50 yards did Pappacap more good than it might appear on paper. With six races under his belt, it's apparent this homebred for Rustlewood Farm is an alert breaker who displays a high level of comfort stalking in covered-up positions, and he has already shown he can launch multiple in-race moves coupled with a determined ability to dig in when rivals close in on him. But we're now past the six-month mark since Pappacap last saw the winner's circle, and he won't be able to rely on the street cred of his 15-1 runner-up try in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile much longer if he doesn't figure out how to translate all those positive attributes into winning efforts.

3) CLASSIC CAUSEWAY (c, Giant's Causeway–Private World, by Thunder Gulch) O/B-Kentucky West Racing LLC & Clarke M. Cooper Family Living Trust (KY). T-Brian A. Lynch. Lifetime Record: GISP, 3-1-1-1, $181,100. Last Start: 2nd GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. Next Start: GIII Sam F. Davis S., TAM, Feb. 12. KY Derby Points: 6.

Classic Causeway's training pattern at Palm Meadows has extended all the way up to six- and seven-furlong breezes so far this winter, noticeably different than the more commonplace workload of four- and five-furlong moves posted by his peers. The heft of his juvenile races–a 90-Beyer, 6 1/2-length winning sprint debut at the Spa; a third when forcing the pace from post 13 in a Grade I Keeneland route; then second behind Smile Happy in the Kentucky Jockey Club S.–will likely be enough to earn this Giant's Causeway colt favoritism in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. at Tampa on Saturday. This homebred for Kentucky West Racing and Clarke Cooper will be trying to erase a recent run of bad luck for the chalk in that Tampa prep: The last four faves (and five of the last six) have lost the Davis, including the presumptive 2021 Horse of the Year Knicks Go (Paynter), who was off the board in the 2019 edition.

4) MESSIER (c, Empire Maker–Checkered Past, by Smart Strike) 'TDN Rising Star' O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert E. Masterson, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine M. Donovan, Golconda Stable & Siena Farm LLC. B-Sam-Son Farm (ON). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $470,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: 5-3-2-0, $285,600. Last Start: 1st GIII Robert B. Lewis S. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: N/A.

When you win by 15 lengths and post a 103 Beyer in your sophomore debut, it's good enough to leapfrog two-thirds of the field to land in the Top 12. 'TDN Rising Star' Messier, a $470,000 FTKSEL colt by Empire Maker, broke running from the rail in the GIII Robert B. Lewis S. and withstood steady pace pressure (:23.24 and :23.70 for the first two opening quarters) from two outside rivals while always dictating the cadence of the three-way go. He put away one rival seven-sixteenths out and let the other linger until the quarter pole before drawing away with assurance at the top of the lane.

Blinkers had been removed from Messier after an odds-on defeat in the GII Los Alamitos Futurity, but jockey John Velazquez didn't think the equipment change is what sparked Messier's rebound.

“It was just the way the race set up. I'm in post one and I don't want to give the lead to them in front of me, then they slow down in front of my face and I can't get out of there,” Velazquez said. “I'm not going to chase them, but I'm going to let him get his legs underneath of him. If they want to go faster, they can go faster and I don't have to be on his mouth….It was a strategy that worked.”

Because Bob Baffert is currently barred by Churchill Downs from participating in the Derby and his trainees can't earn qualifying points, Messier is currently a “ghost contender” in Churchill's official rankings. Here within TDN's own Top 12, Baffert's 3-year-olds will remain listed for the time being based on the merits of the horses themselves while the Derby status decision appears headed for litigation.

5) EMMANUEL (c, More Than Ready–Hard Cloth, by Hard Spun) 'TDN Rising Star' O-WinStar Farm LLC & Siena Farm LLC. B-Helen K. Groves Revocable Trust (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $350,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $31,800. Last Start: 1st Tampa Bay Downs ALW. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 0.

'TDN Rising Star' Emmanuel turned in an appealing one-turn-mile win in his Dec. 11 Gulfstream unveiling, and trainer Todd Pletcher strongly believed that this More Than Ready colt needed to make his two-turn debut in an allowance race instead of a stakes. So he shipped Emmanuel to Tampa for that schooling, and the 3-to-10 favorite delivered as expected Jan. 30, winning by a comfortable 4 1/2 lengths while not having to truly extend himself. On the lead throughout (and racing with Lasix for the first time), Emmanuel got away with a pedestrian :25.03 opening quarter in that mile and 40 yards race, then ramped up the tempo under light restraint, posting a second quarter in :24.65 and a third in a more racehorse-like :23.92 with three closers on his heels at the quarter pole. One of them briefly seized the lead between calls in upper stretch, but Emmanuel responded instantly by snatching back the top spot and accelerating fluidly with plenty of power in reserve (89 Beyer). His wins over both of Florida's main-track surfaces put the Mar. 5 GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. and the Mar. 12 GII Tampa Bay Derby in play as possible next-race options.

6) MO DONEGAL (c, Uncle Mo–Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit) O-Donegal Racing. B-Ashview Farm & Colts Neck Stables (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $250,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 4-2-0-2, $221,800. Last Start: 3rd GIII Holy Bull S. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 12.

Considering he was a closer on Gulfstream's short-stretch configuration for 1 1/16 miles races, Mo Donegal was an ill-advised favorite in the Holy Bull S. on Saturday. But he ran well enough (in spots) to spark speculation about what this $250,000 KEESEP colt by Uncle Mo might be able to do under less arduous trip circumstances. Irad Ortiz Jr. worked to get him positioned at the fence while a midpack fifth through the first turn, then went on the drift all the way out to the five path as soon as they turned onto the backstretch in search of better running room. They didn't find it, and this colt gradually became boxed in, necessitating Ortiz to thread back inside to the two path entering the far turn. When that decision also failed to yield an express lane, Mo was once again shifted outside, directed widest of all for the drive. Initially, the administration of right-handed stick work didn't inspire Mo at all, and a couple of lefts sent him veering to the eight path in upper stretch. But a sixteenth from the finish, even though the winner was well clear, something clicked for Mo, and he responded, digging in with renewed interest to shoot alongside the runner-up, just barely getting pipped for the place photo. “The last hundred yards he was making up a lot of ground. He just kind of ran out of real estate at the end,” said trainer Todd Pletcher.

7) EARLY VOTING (c, Gun Runner–Amour d'Ete, by Tiznow) O-Klaravich Stables, Inc. B-Three Chimneys Farm, LLC. T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $200,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $181,500. Last Start: 1st GIII Withers S. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 10.

Early Voting is emerging as a speed-centric threat whose specialty is sustained intensity. Rather than blitzing his rivals with an all-out frontal assault, this $200,000 KEESEP colt torques them into submission, grinding away with metronomic efficiency. His 2-for-2 start is even more impressive when you factor in his debut score was accomplished over what trainer Chad Brown termed as a “dead” track, and how Saturday's GIII Withers S. wire job came over what jockey Jose Ortiz said was a “tiring” muddy surface.

By Gun Runner out of a Tiznow mare, Early Voting was sent for speed at the break and willingly spearheaded the field. Although he faced only mild pace pressure early, he gave the impression of being able to power away at will, and after opening up incrementally on the backstretch, it was only by the far turn that the laborious nature of the surface begin to show in his stride. Kept to task through the lane, Early Voting stayed on capably despite some late drifting while clear of minor threats to win by 4 1/2 lengths.

The splits for nine furlongs (:23.57, :24.47, :26.25, 27:46 for the first four quarters, then :14.15 for the final eighth) are more telling of the toiling nature of the track than the capability of the winner; his so-so 78 Beyer might also be a bit skewed in relation to his true talent. Considering Early Voting is undefeated at Aqueduct, the GII Wood Memorial Apr. 9 has to be considered a strong next-race option.

8) NEWGRANGE (c, Violence–Bella Chianti, by Empire Maker)O-Golconda Stable, Madaket Stables LLC, SF Racing LLC, Siena Farm LLC, Starlight Racing, Stonestreet Stables, LLC, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine Donovan, Robert E. Masterson & Jay A. Schoenfarber. B-Jack Mandato & Black Rock Thoroughbreds (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $125,000 yrl '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 3-3-0-0, $552,000. Last Star: 1st GIII Southwest S. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: N/A.

Newgrange displayed a new dimension when scoring via stalk mode in the GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn. But given the primo, trouble-free setup he enjoyed behind two long-shot speedsters, this 3-for-3 Violence colt (with zero Derby qualifying points) made the task more difficult than it needed to be. He popped out of the 10-hole alertly and was not hard-used to attain the lead; rather, John Velazquez let Newgrange watch the backstretch action percolate while five or six paths off the rail. A half-mile out, Johnny V. allowed a couple of mid-race movers to pulse through inside, but by the far turn this $125,000 KEESEP colt had to be pushed along with unexpected urgency. Once he got rolling, Newgrange appeared well-positioned to inhale the pacemakers with a four-wide sweep at the head of the lane, but he faltered for a few strides turning for home. Velazquez eventually figured out a workable rhythm in deep stretch, allowing Newgrange to finally grind past his outclassed rivals. Trainer Bob Baffert later said Newgrange might have been having difficulty handling the purportedly cuppy surface early in the race. The 89 Beyer represents a one-point advance over his GIII Sham S. score.

9) ZANDON (c, Upstart–Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause)O-Jeff Drown. B-Brereton C. Jones (KY). T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $170,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSP, 2-1-1-0, $99,500. Last Start: 2nd GII Remsen S. Next start: GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 19. KY Derby Points: 4.

This $170,000 KEESEP colt by Upstart has been re-aimed for the Risen Star S. after his connections opted to pass on the Holy Bull S. this past Saturday. The obvious positives in favor of shipping Zandon to the Fair Grounds include the extra half-furlong over a longer home straight, plus more Derby qualifying points. Potential negatives include having to travel away from Zandon's home base in Florida and the fact that trainer Chad Brown told the Blood-Horse last week that he's “a little more uncomfortable” about having to wait until Feb. 19 with a colt that is “ready to run now.” The Risen Star will equate to a 78-day layoff since Zandon ran second in the GII Remsen S. at Aqueduct. Over the last five years, Brown is 4-for-13 with 3-year-old males in nine-furlong or greater races returning off layoffs between 70 and 90 days. He also rarely ships to New Orleans. Brown's record at the Fair Grounds since 2017 is 1-for-4, all of them grass stakes.

10) EPICENTER (c, Not This Time–Silent Candy, by Candy Ride {Arg}) O-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC. B-Westwind Farms (KY). T-Steven M. Asmussen. Sales History: $260,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: SW & GSP, 4-2-1-0, $170,639. Last Start: 2nd GIII Lecomte S. Next Start: Aiming for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 19. KY Derby Points: 14.

Epicenter's loss by a head in the Lecomte S. told us more about him than the two victories that preceded it. This $260,000 KEESEP colt by Not This Time established control, turned back a wall of horses off the final turn, won a prolonged stretch fight with the favorite, then just got nailed at the wire by an out-of-the-clouds 28-1 shot. He had to juggle multiple tasks and handled himself admirably in a narrow defeat.

In his previous win, the Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds, Epicenter sparred with the speed, then drew off without facing any serious stretch challenge.

Rivals running back out of that Dec. 26 stakes are now 0-for-3, and the maidens who ran behind Epicenter in his Nov. 13 MSW score at Churchill are a collective next-out 1-for-8, so his company lines aren't exactly brimming with winners. Steve Asmussen has him on track for the Risen Star S., a race the trainer won with Gun Runner (2016) and Pyro (2008).

11) RATTLE N ROLL (c, Connect–Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg) O-Lucky Seven Stable. B-St. Simon Place (KY). T-Kenneth G. McPeek. Sales History: $55,000 wlg '19 KEENOV; $210,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 4-2-0-1, $379,460. Last Start: 1st GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 10.

Rattle N Roll is edging close enough to a comeback (the Tampa Bay Derby is a possibility) to merit a foothold within the Top 12. Trainer Kenny McPeek last year compared this $55,000 KEENOV and $210,000 KEESEP colt favorably to grand-sire Curlin, and a shared trait of poise shone through in Rattle N Roll's comfortable uncoiling from midpack to run off with the GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity S. by 4 1/4 lengths. A left hind foot abscess kept him out of the Breeders' Cup, and he's now three Gulfstream breezes into being race-ready.

12) WHITE ABARRIO (c, Race Day–Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief) O-C2 Racing Stable LLC and La Milagrosa Stable, LLC. B-Spendthrift Farm LLC (KY). T-Saffie A. Joseph, Jr. Sales History: $7,500 ylg '20 OBSWIN; $40,000 2yo '21 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 4-3-0-1, $240,850. Last Start: 1st GIII Holy Bull S. Next Start: GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Apr. 2. KY Derby Points: 12.

White Abarrio is an efficient-moving, athletic gray who clearly has an affinity for Gulfstream, where he's 3-for-3 with combined win margins of 15 1/4 lengths. He also benefitted immensely from an ideal tactical setup in the GIII Holy Bull S. Although it's not his fault that the four horses who were bet lower than White Abarrio's 6-1 all suffered some sort of trip adversity that kept them from firing their best shots, those circumstances have to be taken into account when assessing whether this Race Day colt ($7,500 OBSWIN; $40,000 OBSMAR; privately purchased after his debut win) is a Derby threat.

Then again, White Abarrio's impressive 97 Beyer might end up speaking for itself. Hustled out of the gate, he applied pressure at the vulnerable flank of a 19-1 pacemaker just out of the maiden ranks, taking over midway through the far turn. By the time White Abarrio was being set down and kept to task in upper stretch, the favorite had already been blocked and boxed, the second fave had blown the break, the third choice reportedly displaced his soft palate, and the fourth was getting pelted with kickback in an unsuccessful turf-to-dirt transition. All that meant White Abarrio faced only belated bids while coasting home on a short-stretch configuration that played to his advantage. A more seasoned cast of contenders and an extra half-furlong await in the GI Curlin Florida Derby.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Call Me Midnight (Midnight Lute): This $59 winner rallied to collar a softened pacemaker at the last jump in the GIII Lecomte S. As per Daily Racing Form, trainer Keith Desormeaux is now on the fence between the Risen Star S. and the GII Louisiana Derby for this four-time auction entrant ($25,000 KEENOV, $37,0000 RNA KEESEP, $17,000 OBSOCT, $80,000 OBSMAR).

Giant Game (Giant's Causeway): This $500,000 FTKSEL colt had a no-excuse stalking trip for three-quarters of the Holy Bull S., then plummeted through the pack. As per a twitter post by co-owner West Point Thoroughbreds, he reportedly displaced his soft palate.

God of Love (Cupid): Two-time Woodbine stakes victor and three-time auction buy ($77,000 KEENOV; $9,000 KEESEP; $100,000 OBSMAR) could be the wild card of Saturday's Sam Davis at Tampa (entries taken Wednesday) after winter weather necessitated a rerouting from New York's Withers S. last weekend.

In Due Time (Not This Time): Not too many 92-Beyer allowance winners by 5 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream go off at 10-1 odds. Trainer Kelly Breen said “all options are open” for this three-time sales grad ($9,500 KEENOV; $35,000 KEESEP; $95,000 OBSAPR).

Major General (Constitution): The 2-for-2 winner of the Sept. 18 Iroquois S. at Churchill ($265.000 KEEJAN; $420,000 KEESEP) could resurface for his '22 debut in the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. for trainer Pletcher.

Slow Down Andy (Nyquist): Did he catch Messier at a vulnerable time in that colt's development in the GII Los Alamitos Futurity or is this Reddam homebred the real deal, Derby-wise? His upcoming trip to New Orleans for the Risen Star should help answer that.

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