By T. D. Thornton
The first week of January doesn't have much in common with the first Saturday in May–with the exception that the inaugural TDN Top 12 has arrived to herald the coming of the seemingly far-off GI Kentucky Derby season. Get tied on and enjoy the ride.
1) ARABIAN KNIGHT (c, Uncle Mo–Borealis Night, by Astrology)
'TDN Rising Star'. O-Zedan Racing Stables, Inc.; B-Corser Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $250,000 Ylg '21 KEESEP; $2,300,000 2yo '22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $86,025. Last start: 1st Keeneland Maiden Special Weight, Nov. 5. KY Derby Points: 0.
It wasn't too long ago that ranking a colt who has zero experience beyond the maiden ranks as your Derby kingpin in the dead of winter would have been an audacious selection. But now, in this era where a Triple Crown “foundation” often consists of just two or three sophomore prep races, heading a list with a lightly experienced contender like 'TDN Rising Star' Arabian Knight isn't all that outlandish.
This powerful son of Uncle Mo ($250,000 KEESEP; $2.3 million OBSAPR sale-topper) didn't just “debut” on the Breeders' Cup undercard–his presence in Lexington on racing's championship weekend was a well-orchestrated unveiling by trainer Bob Baffert for owner Zedan Racing Stables. Fast and fluid off the mark going seven furlongs, this bay responded to rating from John Velazquez but still drew away responsively to win by a dazzling 7 1/4 lengths (97 Beyer Speed Figure).
“We took a big chance bringing him here to run,” Baffert said post-win. “Johnny asked me, 'How Good is he?' I said, 'You ride him like you rode Uncle Mo, because I think he's Uncle Mo.' And the way he moves; he's been working with older horses-unbelievable.”
Baffert told TDN via text on Sunday he's not ready to commit to a particular comeback race and that, “We are going slow with him. No rush to run him.” But Arabian Knight is now five works into his training at Santa Anita, including a bullet six furlongs on Dec. 30, so he's got to be getting close.
For the second straight year, Churchill Downs has banished Baffert from the Derby related to his under-appeal equine drug DQ from the 2021 Derby, and his trainees are prohibited from earning qualifying points. While this issue plays out in the courts and at the racing commission level, the focus for TDN's Top 12 writeups will be on the horses and not the trainer's eligibility status.
2) FORTE (c, Violence–Queen Caroline, by Blame)
'TDN Rising Star'. O-Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable; B-South Gate Farm (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $80,000 Wlg '20 KEENOV; $110,000 Ylg '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 5-4-0-0, $1,595,150. Last start: 1st GI FanDuel Breeders' Cup Juvenile presented by TAA, Nov. 4. KY Derby Points: 40.
'TDN Rising Star' Forte stamped himself as the crop-topper among up to 1 1/16 miles, and he looms as the deserving favorite for the divisional championship in the Eclipse Award voting. Two Grade I wins in his only two route attempts underscore that this son of Violence has already checked some important boxes along his development arc.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has outlined a two-prep path to Louisville that includes a sophomore debut in the Mar. 4 GII Fountain of Youth S., followed by either the GI Florida Derby or the GI Blue Grass S. This two-time auction grad ($80,000 KEENOV; $110,000 KEESEP) has proven capable of carving out fortuitous trips while negotiating large fields, largely thanks to precision far-turn targeting over short-stretch configurations at Keeneland by jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Owned in partnership by Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable, Forte outmuscled a tenacious runner-up by wresting back the lead in deep stretch of the 14-horse GI Breeders' Futurity S., and in the 10-horse GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile he adeptly reeled in the odds-on favorite while encountering no serious challengers late in the lane (100 Beyer).
Forte's biggest Derby obstacle might involve bucking a daunting historical trend: Since the advent of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, Juvenile winners have accounted for only two Derby wins (Nyquist and Street Sense) from 38 runnings.
3) CAVE ROCK (c, Arrogate–Georgie's Angel, by Bellamy Road)
'TDN Rising Star'. O-Michael E. Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman; B-Anne and Ronnie Sheffer Racing LLC (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $210,000 Wlg '20 KEENOV; $550,000 Ylg '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 4-3-1-0, $748,000. Last start: 2nd GI FanDuel Breeders' Cup Juvenile presented by TAA, Nov. 4. KY Derby Points: 0.
'TDN Rising Star' Cave Rock, who races with his head slung low in a style reminiscent of his sire, Arrogate, has been likened to a big, powerful football fullback by trainer Bob Baffert. But despite being very mature-looking physically, this imposing dual sales grad ($210,000 KEENOV; $550,000 KEESEP) got so keyed up prior to his second-place finish as the beaten fave in the Breeders' Cup that the mental duress surely cost him some on-track energy.
Owned by Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, this two-time Grade I winner unleashed a 104 Beyer in his two-turn debut, the GI American Pharoah S., while never appearing close to being fully extended.
But it was a different story a month later in the Juvenile, when Cave Rock was committed to the lead outside of a 70-1 shot through a :22.90 opening quarter, had trouble settling, then took command about halfway home with foes nipping at his heels. Approaching the far turn, it initially looked as if Cave Rock was cresting to a high cruising speed with a short-stretch finish ahead and main rival Forte six lengths behind.
But Forte was just getting wound up while Cave Rock was feeling the effects of his toil, and although Cave Rock initially met Forte's challenge, he came unhinged under left-handed stick work while languishing too long on his left lead in the stretch. He was no match for the winner, but Cave Rock left the impression that a better-focused version of him could be capable of reversing that result.
4) TAPIT TRICE (c, Tapit–Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)
O-Whisper Hill Farm LLC and Gainesway Stable (Antony Beck); B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds Ltd. (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $1,300,000 Ylg '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 2-1-0-1, $56,950. Last start: 1st Aqueduct Maiden Special Weight, Dec. 17. KY Derby Points: 0.
This gray son of Tapit who hammered for $1.3 million at KEESEP was bet down to second favoritism debuting at Aqueduct Nov. 6. A bit raw at the break of a one-turn mile from the outermost post, Tapit Trice got a decent schooling tucking in behind, then splitting horses before finishing with interest and galloping out ahead of the only two horses who beat him (73 Beyer).
Owned in partnership by Whisper Hill Farm and breeder Gainesway, this Todd Pletcher trainee learned from that experience by overcoming trip adversity to score in start number two, another one-mile-try, as the 17-10 fave Dec. 17 over a sealed, muddy Aqueduct surface.
Off slowly, Tapit Trice lagged but got maneuvered to the eight path to avoid getting pelted with kickback. It took him awhile to get into gear, tagging on to the end of the first flight about a half mile from home, then commencing a field-looping bid way out in the six path. He engaged the two leaders off the bend, maintained the upper hand when enduring some brushing and bumping from the outward-shifting second fave, then nailed the win by a neck without seeming one bit fazed by the stretch fight (89 Beyer).
The effort wasn't a spectacular, blow-away victory. But Tapit Trice completed his assigned task very capably while demonstrating there is raw, Derby-quality talent beneath a still-unpolished surface.
5) BANISHING (c, Ghostzapper–Dowager, by A.P. Indy)
O/B-Godolphin (KY); T-Brendan Walsh. Lifetime Record: 2-1-0-0, $42,000. Last start: 1st Fair Grounds Maiden Special Weight, Dec. 26. KY Derby Points: 0.
A chestnut with a distinctively jagged blaze, this Godolphin homebred by Ghostzapper out of an A.P. Indy mare started his career Nov. 13 in a one-turn-mile MSW at Churchill, breaking from post 12 and racing in the 10 path early while cruising up to be within two lengths of the lead through a well-contested pace.
Banishing was four wide into the turn, quickened 3 ½ furlongs out, then got within a nostril of the lead just before the field hit the top of the stretch. He initially seemed to tire from that stout middle move, but sparked back to life late in the lane only to lose a photo for fourth behind a favored winner and a third-place horse who came back to win at 3-5 odds in a subsequent Gulfstream MSW.
On Dec. 26 at Fair Grounds, this Brendan Walsh trainee added Lasix, stretched out to 1 1/16 miles, and was sent off as the 2-1 chalk. Unhurried out of the gate, he established position at the rail in a three-way go and kept edging away under pressure. Banishing was headed off the final turn but immediately met that affront, throttling open late while leaving the second and third faves reeling in his 8 ½-length wake.
He earned a 90 Beyer, and his maiden-breaking final clocking of 1:44.80 was .05 seconds faster than the same-distance Gun Runner S. for more experienced juveniles later on the card.
6) LOGGINS (c, Ghostzapper–Beyond Blame, by Blame)
'TDN Rising Star'. O-Spendthrift Farm LLC, Steve Landers Racing LLC, Martin S. Schwartz, Michael Dubb, Ten Strike Racing, Jim Bakke, Titletown Racing Stables, Kueber Racing LLC, Big Easy Racing LLC, and Winners Win; B-Popatop, LLC (KY); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $460,000 Ylg '21 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: 2-1-1-0, $175,500. Last start: 2nd GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity, Oct. 8. KY Derby Points: 0.
'TDN Rising Star' Loggins ($460,000 FTSAUG) went off favored in the “loaded” (five next-out winners) Breeders' Futurity S. at Keeneland, and if there was such an award as the best losing effort in a juvenile stakes, his second-place try behind the No. 2-ranked Forte would have slam-dunked it for 2022.
Running back in just three weeks after a 6 ½-furlong MSW winning debut, Loggins (trained by Brad Cox and carrying the colors of Spendthrift Farm in a 10-way partnership) established strong early inside positioning amid a crush of first-turn traffic, then was content to concede the lead while covered up in third at the fence on the backstretch.
He seized the top spot 4 ½ furlongs from the wire, and although the bid initially appeared premature, Loggins confidently chugged homeward before being accosted by Forte at the head of the lane. Forte muscled in on Loggins with one furlong left, but the less-experienced Loggins gamely responded by clawing back the lead for about six jumps before Forte eked out a neck victory at the finish.
Back in October, Cox had outlined a break for Loggins that would have the colt off for about 45 days and back in his Fair Grounds barn by December. But as of Sunday, Cox told TDN via text that Loggins still “required a little extra time” away and that his return to the track would be “soon” with no specific prep race as the target.
7) FAUSTIN (c, Curlin–Hard Not to Like, by Hard Spun) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Michael L Petersen. B-DATTT Farm (Ky). T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $285,000 RNA yrl '21 KEESEP; $800,000 2yo '22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $40,200. Last start: Maiden win at Santa Anita. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
Faustin, a high-energy gray whose damsire and sire (Hard Spun and Curlin), ran second and third in the 2007 Derby, achieved 'TDN Rising Star' status in his Dec. 26 debut when he cuffed around a MSW sprint crew at Santa Anita in a manner more impressive than his 2 ¾-length winning margin and 89 Beyer might suggest.
Off a beat slow, this Bob Baffert trainee for owner Michael Lund Petersen was quickly hustled into contention by jockey Ramon Vazquez, but the hole they were aiming for closed just as the field cleared the gap. Continuously kept busy, Faustin accelerated as asked while Vazquez kept shifting laterally in an effort to pick a stalking spot, twice coming off the inside and then dropping back near the fence again in his run down the backstretch and through the turn.
At the head of the homestretch, Faustin lost momentum (but just momentarily) when he twice had to be snatched off heels and switched outward to clear rivals. But once he saw daylight, this colt ($285,000 RNA KEESEP; $800,000 OBSAPR) didn't need much encouragement to kick into a willing overdrive just outside the sixteenth pole.
Faustin was digging in and appeared to be relishing the task; in this era of top prospects racing only sparingly, he has already cleared the “overcomes adversity” hurdle well ahead of most of his peers.
8) SIGNATOR (c, Tapit–Pension, by Seeking the Gold) 'TDN Rising Star' O-West Point Thoroughbreds, Woodford Racing, Gainesway Stable, Phipps Stable, Ken Langone, Edward Hudson, Jr. and Lane's End Racing. B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds. T-Claude McGaughey III. Sales history: $1,700,000 2yo '22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 2-1-1-0, $71,250. Last Start: Maiden win at BAQ Oct. 14. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
With a pedigree topped by Tapit out of a Seeking the Gold mare, Signator wasn't expected to excel sprinting in his Sept. 16 debut. But after racing a bit greenly in upper stretch, this $1.7 million OBSAPR colt made the most out of that experience by finishing with a visual flourish through the final sixteenth to gain second before galloping out with purpose past the winner.
Start number two was a muddy mile over a drying-out Aqueduct surface, and as the 3-5 favorite, Signator absorbed some bumping out of the gate, then raced with his head cocked toward the infield under a snug grab down the backstretch. Through most of the far turn, Javier Castellano kept Signator on hold near the fence behind a four-horse wall while gambling that inside passage would open up, and when it did, Signator pulsed on through like a pro, earning 'TDN Rising Star' placement in the process.
Owned by an eight-way partnership, Signator was scratched from the Nov. 6 GII Nashua S. because of a wrenched ankle that has reportedly since healed. He rejoined trainer Shug McGuaghey's Payson Park string in Florida three weeks ago and just hit the work tab on Dec. 31. His pair of relatively low 73 Beyers might be cause for pause for some Derby prognosticators, but Signator rates higher on the “how he did it” scale rather than “how fast.”
9) VICTORY FORMATION (c, Tapwrit–Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Spendthrift Farm & Frank Fletcher Racing Operations. B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds Ltd. (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $100,000 wnlg '20 KEENOV; $150,000 yrl '21 FTKJUL; $340,000 2yo '22 FTMMAY. Lifetime Record: SW, 3-3-0-0, $282,285. Last Start: 1st Smarty Jones S., Jan.1 at OP. Kentucky Derby Points: 10.
Well-bet, wire-to-wire winners have now captured the ungraded (but points-awarding) Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn in five of the past six years after the coast-to-coast score by Victory Formation ($100,00 KEENOV; $150,000 FTKJUL; $340,000 EASMAY) on Sunday.
A 3-for-3 'TDN Rising Star' owned in partnership by Spendthrift Farm and Frank Fletcher Racing Operations, this son of Tapwrit's heavy lifting on Jan. 1 consisted largely of clearing a pesky 56-1 shot while breaking from post eight.
After an up-tempo opening quarter of :23.20, Flavien Prat reeled off consecutive quarters of :24.55, :24.61 and :25.78 to coast home unopposed by three lengths at 3-5 odds in 1:38.14 for the short-stretch mile (91 Beyer).
“This horse has a great mind. He doesn't overdo it in the morning. He settles and I think the farther the better,” said trainer Brad Cox. ” He's got a lot of natural speed.”
10) LITIGATE (c, Blame–Salsa Diavola, by Mineshaft) O-Centennial Farms. B-Nursery Place & Donaldson & Broadbent (Ky). T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $370,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $46,750. Last Start: Aqueduct Maiden win Nov. 19. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
Litigate, a $370,000 KEESEP buy for Centennial Farms, was sent to trainer Todd Pletcher. According to DRF's Formulator, that owner/trainer partnership is a first (at least as far back as the database goes), and it got off to a good start when this nice-striding son of Blame won at first asking sprinting 6 ½ furlongs at Aqueduct Nov. 19.
Javier Castellano asked Litigate for just enough speed to attain a sweet stalking spot behind a three-way battle for the lead, then patiently took the overland route four deep through the turn. Litigate responded to several judicious cracks of the crop in upper stretch, was still third at the eighth pole, but finished up respectably under brisk hand urging to win by three-quarters of a length (76 Beyer).
Litigate will next try a first-level allowance/optional claimer Dec. 8 at Gulfstream. Every entrant in the field of eight is first-time Lasix, with none of them entered for a tag.
11) INSTANT COFFEE (c, Bolt d'Oro–Follow No One, by Uncle Mo) O-Gold Square LLC. B-Sagamore Farm (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $200,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-0-0, $322,815. Last Start: Won Nov. 26 GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. Kentucky Derby Points: 12.
Instant Coffee (Bolt d'Oro) sprung a 14-1 upset at Saratoga in his seven-furlong debut, then was one of four next-out stakes winners to emerge from the key Breeders' Futurity S. at Keeneland, a race in which he rallied from tenth to get fourth. That effort was good enough to merit favoritism in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. Nov. 26 at Churchill.
This $200,000 KEESEP colorbearer for Gold Square, LLC, and trainer Brad Cox was slightly hesitant at the start, then kicked into a smooth stride. After going four wide into the first turn, Instant Coffee tucked into the three path to be a midpack fifth behind a slow pace down the backstraight, then was roused assertively by Luis Saez some 3 ½ furlongs from home while again four deep on the bend.
He gave up even more ground off the final turn, but doing so freed Instant Coffee from a logjam of tiring horses toward the inside, and he responded to Saez' repeated rousing with a grinding tenacity. He momentarily shied from the outward shifting of a more physically imposing rival shortly after grabbing a brief lead at the eighth pole, but only for a stride or two before leveling off with purpose to win by 1 ¼ lengths.
Instant Coffee's lack of progression based on Beyers (debut of 85, then 81 and 82) kept him from being ranked higher at this early juncture of the season.
12) JACE'S ROAD (c, Quality Road–Out Post, by Silver Deputy) 'TDN Rising Star' O-West Point Thoroughbreds & Albaugh Family Stables LLC. B-Colts Neck Stables (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $510,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: SW & GSP, 4-2-0-1, $126,800. Last Start: Won Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds Dec. 26. Kentucky Derby Points: 13.
'TDN Rising Star' Jace's Road, a $510,000 KEESEP son of Quality Road, got back to his winning ways in the Gun Runner S. Dec. 26 as the second betting choice after what trainer Brad Cox had described as a “meltdown” eighth-place try as the beaten fave in his previous stakes attempt.
Owned in partnership by West Point Thoroughbreds and Albaugh Family Stables, Jace's Road's Fair Grounds performance is best described as a no-nonsense wiring through moderate-tempo splits.
He got a bit of a break when the favorite stumbled at the start and was relegated to chase mode for most of the race, and the only challenger within sniffing distance of his 5 ½-length winning margin (90 Beyer) was a pick-up-the-pieces 23-1 long shot.