TDN Derby 12 for March 1

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Classic Causeway | Horsephotos

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There was only one points-based GI Kentucky Derby prep last weekend, but even though it produced a 75-1 winner, there was no major shakeup within the ranks. This coming Saturday's quartet of qualifying points races, headlined by the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Park, portends the possibility of some major moves in the near future, though.

1) 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: GSW & GISP, 4-2-1-1, $301,100. Last Start: 1st GIII Sam F. Davis S. Next Start: GII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 12. KY Derby Points: 16.

This Giant's Causeway homebred for Kentucky West Racing and Clarke Cooper looms as the horse to beat in the Mar. 12 GII Tampa Bay Derby. But let the bettor beware–the last four editions of that race have been won by longshots higher than 8-1. Feb. 26 marked the first breeze for Classic Causeway since his grace-under-pressure wiring of the Feb. 12 GIII Sam F. Davis S., and he clocked in at :48.50 for a measured half mile at Palm Meadows (25/120). Although this colt's only other win from four starts was a 90-Beyer, 6 1/2-length score (at 13-1 odds!) in his Saratoga unveiling, his third- and second-place tries in subsequent graded stakes were also impressive and very much useful from an experience-building perspective.

Classic Causeway got hung out to dry from post 13 when a beaten fave in the GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity S. Oct 9, then he stalked capably and was on the move with 'TDN Rising Star' and eventual winner Smile Happy (Runhappy) before yielding late in the in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. Nov. 27. He didn't have to scrape the bottom of his stamina reserves when winning at 1 1/16 miles last month, and the deeper into the Derby season that he remains a top contender, the better his Giant's Causeway (out of a Thunder Gulch mare) breeding line will look come May 7.

2) 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,  3-2-1-0, $364,810. Last Start: 2nd GII Risen Star S. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 30.

We often hear trainers say some variation of “all options are open,” but that phrasing is not a cliché in the case of 'TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy. Here's a sky's-the-limit colt with some swagger to his style who'll be making his second start off of a better-than-it-appears 2022 debut, and he has the potential to scare off competition wherever trainer Kenny McPeek opts to send him. McPeek said Friday this son of Runhappy ($175,000 KEENOV; $185,000 FTKSEL) will likely race next in either the GI Curlin Florida Derby Apr. 2 or the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. Apr. 9. The goal, he said, is to keep Smile Happy and stablemate Rattle N Roll (Connect) separated. Both are stabled at Gulfstream, and “you'll see one in the Blue Grass and one in the Florida Derby.”

Of Smile Happy's second-place effort in the Feb. 19 GII Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds, McPeek said, “He ran well in New Orleans. I think he could have been a tad closer, but the pace didn't set up well for him. He still showed real bravery to run late.”

3) 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.

   'TDN Rising Star' Messier on Monday posted his first workout since a 15-length, 103-Beyer thrashing of the GIII Robert B. Lewis S. Feb. 5. He breezed a half mile in :48 at Santa Anita (16/57). This $470,000 FTKSEL colt by Empire Maker clearly rates as the top West Coast sophomore threat, but currently remains ineligible to earn Derby qualifying points or to start at Churchill Downs because of trainer Bob Baffert's banishment by the track's corporate parent. Baffert is also trying to fight a separate Kentucky Horse Racing Commission suspension related to a drug positive in his 2021 Derby winner that could keep him out of action for a 90-day period that would run Mar. 8-June 5.

4) 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: 2-2-0-0, $50,400. Last Start: 1st Tampa Bay Downs ALW. Next Start: GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 5. KY Derby Points: 0.

The physically imposing Emmanuel has been honed with two bullet breezes at Palm Beach Downs ahead of Saturday's off-Lasix start in the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream. This 'TDN Rising Star' has won his two combined starts by 10 1/4 lengths and has been on the front end at every call (although a rival in his Tampa allowance win briefly seized the lead between calls in upper stretch before Emmanuel snatched it right back). This $350,000 KEESEP son of More Than Ready has projected as a “speed of the speed” type of horse since a one-turn-mile MSW crushing three months ago at Gulfstream, and now he'll be asked to dive into the deep end of the Derby prep pool. Bearing the likely burden of favoritism will make the task even more difficult: The public's choice in the Fountain of Youth has gone down in defeat in four of the last five editions, managing only three wins from the last 15 renewals.

5) 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: GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 5. KY Derby Points: 12.

Mo Donegal owns two victories sandwiched by a pair of thirds, and it wouldn't be a stretch to say he's packed more learning into those starts than any of the other contenders on this list. This $250,000 KEESEP colt by Uncle Mo broke slowly from the rail in his 6 1/2-furlong debut, checked at the half-mile pole, then rallied with purpose. His MSW win at 1 1/16 miles featured a midpack rally to close an open-length gap late. In the GII Remsen S., he glided athletically past four frontrunners at the head of the lane before engaging in a tenacious stretch battle to beat well-regarded Zandon (Upstart) by a nose after :12.33 final furlong. His Holy Bull run produced a world of trip trouble, but Mo Donegal overcame being boxed in and getting hooked wide before unleashing a belated burst through the final sixteenth (that could have resulted in a better placing had the race not been run under a short-stretch configuration at Gulfstream).

6) 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: MGSP, 3-1-1-0, $139,500. Last Start: 3rd GII Risen Star S. Next Start: Possible for GI Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 14.

Although Zandon is one of two horses ranked within the Top 12 not to have won beyond the maiden ranks (No. 12 is the other), his bandwagon is sagging under the weight of supporters piling on after his gallant blown-break rally in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds. It's also a little odd to see that such a coveted mount has had a new jockey every time he's raced (Joel Rosario, John Velazquez, Jose Ortiz). Earlier this winter, trainer Chad Brown favorably compared Zandon to his 2017 GI Preakness S. winner Cloud Computing (both won their MSW debuts going short even though neither was cut out to be a sprinter). If this $170,000 KEESEP colt by Upstart goes next in the Apr. 9 GI Blue Grass S. as anticipated, he'd have only four starts under his belt if Brown then opts to go to Louisville with him. Since 1937, only three horses have won the Derby with four or fewer lifetime starts: Animal Kingdom (four), plus Justify and Big Brown (three each).

7) 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: GSW, 5-3-1-0, $410,639. Last Start: 1st GII Risen Star S. Next Start: GII Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 26. KY Derby Points: 64.

After Epicenter got nailed at the wire by an out-of-the-clouds longshot to lose the GIII Lecomte S. by a head back on Jan. 22, jockey Joel Rosario described him as a hard tryer who is “very straightforward, everything he does.” That description resonated after this $260,000 KEESEP colt wired the GII Risen Star S. in wrapped-up fashion in his next start. But the Lecomte might end up being the better barometer moving forward. An all-business Epicenter won several internal pace battles before turning back a wall of horses at the head of the lane, then won a prolonged stretch battle with the favorite. Yes, he got blindsided at the final jump by a pick-up-the-pieces 28-1 shot. But Epicenter galloped out stronger and longer after the wire. That's the type of total-race composure that is invaluable in Louisville, but that sophomores don't often display in the middle of winter. With two open-length wins and a narrow defeat over the Fair Grounds surface, this son of Not This Time will have a distinct home-court advantage heading into the Louisiana Derby.

8) 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.

The write-up for Zandon (at No. 6 above) referenced that he could only have four lifetime starts heading into the Derby. But his stablemate, Early Voting, might only have three. The difference is this $200,000 KEESEP colt owns a stakes win and a 2-for-2 record. The little bit we've seen from this first-crop son of Gun Runner so far indicates he's a speed-centric threat capable of applying sustained pressure rather than making one flashy move, and his learning curve appears to be arcing upward. Early Voting is the lone Top 12 contender to be training in New York for the winter; unless trainer Chad Brown decides to enter him on Wednesday for Saturday's GIII Gotham S. (a cut back to a one-turn mile after a GIII Withers S. win at nine furlongs), it appears as if the Apr. 9 GII Wood Memorial S. will be his target. At the time Early Voting won the Withers, a legit criticism was that the field seemed weak. But this past Saturday's GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn featured a $152 upset by Withers runner-up Un Ojo (Laoban).

9) 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: GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 5. KY Derby Points: 10.

Trainer Kenny McPeek keeps bringing up an interesting point on Twitter: Why aren't all points-eligible Derby preps run at equal weights? He cites, for example, that Rattle N Roll, as a graded stakes winner at a mile or over, will run off a five-month layoff in Saturday's Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. carrying the maximum 123 pounds. Others with lesser records will be eligible for weight breaks.

“Should my 3-year-olds be pointed to only preps that are equal weights?” McPeek wrote. “This has me thinking about doing exactly that.”

Regardless of the weight his colt will have to shoulder, McPeek probably wouldn't want to swap out this son of Connect ($55,000 KEENOV; $210,000 KEESEP) for any other Derby prospect. Rattle N Roll unwound from midpack to run off with the GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity S. by 4 1/4 lengths back on Oct. 9, leaving current No.1 contender Classic Causeway in his wake. A foot abscess kept him out of the Breeders' Cup, and McPeek has brought him back slowly but steadily, with two breezes each at three, four and five furlongs since the end of January.

10) MAJOR GENERAL (c, Constitution–No Mo Lemons, by Uncle Mo) O-WinStar Farm LLC & Siena Farm LLC. B-Circular Road Breeders (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $265,000 ylg '20 KEEJAN; $420,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $232,525. Last Start: 1st GIII Iroquois S. Next Start: GII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 12. KY Derby Points: 10.

Trainer Todd Pletcher had some juggling to do among his sophomores at entry time for Saturday's Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., and with Emmanuel and Mo Donegal opting for Gulfstream, that put Major General on the traveling team headed for the Mar. 12 GII Tampa Bay Derby. This Constitution colt ($265,000 KEEJAN; $420,000 KEESEP) will be approaching nearly six months between starts, having wrapped up his juvenile season early on Sept. 18 with a victory in the GIII Iroquois S. at Churchill Downs. That race resonated strongly from a visual perspective–Major General overcame a bobble at the break, lost momentum four wide through the first turn, engaged the favorite 2 1/2 furlongs out while not shying from rough contact in upper stretch, then still had enough left late overpower an onrushing closer. Yet the Iroquois has proven to be a weak race, with the horses Major General defeated that night under the Churchill lights now a collective 2-for-20 since then. And its 1:44.88 final clocking wasn't stellar either: In the prior race on the card, 2-year-old fillies in the GIII Golden Rod S. at the same 1 1/16 miles distance ran faster by 1.10 seconds.

11) 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.

Only No. 3-ranked Messier (103) and No. 7-ranked Epicenter (98), have run faster Beyers than White Abarrio (97) among all sophomores so far this season. After wiring the Holy Bull S. at 6-1 odds ahead of trip-troubled favorites, this son of Race Day ($7,500 OBSWIN; $40,000 OBSMAR) had his first breeze back since the win on Sunday, working three furlongs in :36.22 (4/29) at Gulfstream, where he is 3-for-3 and preparing for the Florida Derby.

“Going into his last race, he really didn't have ideal preparation,” said trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. “He actually missed two works. When you go into a race like that after missing two works, you're giving up some kind of fitness. When a horse runs such a big race and you don't have him as fit as he should be, I think it's taxing for a horse. You don't want to bring them back too quick off a layoff.”

12) GIANT GAME (c, Giant's Causeway–Game For More, by More Than Ready) O-West Point Thoroughbreds & Albaugh Family Stables LLC. B-H. Allen Poindexter (KY). T-Dale Romans. Sales History: $500,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: GISP, 4-1-0-3, $244,900. Last Start: 8th GIII Holy Bull S. Next Start: GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 5. KY Derby Points: 4.

Would you breathe easier knowing that Giant Game's eighth-place finish in the Holy Bull S. was at least partially attributable to a displacement of his soft palate that has since been corrected by a common surgical procedure? Hopefully, this son of Giant's Causeway will be the one breathing easier in Saturday's Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. Remember that airway problems plagued Medina Spirit around this time of the season last year (March operation to fix an entrapped epiglottis), and he recovered well enough to go from being a mid-tier California contender to crossing the wire first in the Kentucky Derby at 12-1 odds. This $500,000 FTKSEL colt ran an above-expectations third at 21-1 in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and he's gotten a lot thicker since last autumn according to trainer Dale Romans: “He's not the tallest horse in the world. He's a more racier Giant's Causeway than you usually see.”

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Belgrade (Hard Spun): We're edging into March and there isn't much room on the list for late bloomers, but this H. Graham Motion trainee ($45,000 at FTKSEL and just sold for $700,000 at KEEJAN) remains an intriguing wild card off a 2-for-2 start at Fair Grounds and Tampa.

Blackadder (Quality Road): This $620,000 KEESEP colt was back on Monday's work tab at Santa Anita following a late-run win in the Feb. 12 El Camino Real Derby.

Charge It (Tapit): Whisper Hill Farm homebred and 'TDN Rising Star' owns an 8 1/2-length, 93-Beyer win for Pletcher in a one-turn MSW mile at Gulfstream.

Ethereal Road (Quality Road): Gave up serious real estate while hooked four wide on both turns in the slowly run GII Rebel S., yet led from the quarter pole until 50 yards from the wire. Not a bad effort for a recent 19-1 MSW grad. GI Arkansas Derby is next for this D. Wayne Lukas-trained $90,000 KEEEP colt.

In Due Time (Not This Time): Three-time sales grad ($9,500 KEENOV; $35,000 KEESEP; $95,000 OBSAPR) rides an upward-trending speed figures arc (that tops out with a 92 Beyer) into stakes company with a start in Saturday's Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S.

Un Ojo (Laoban): This one-eyed, New York-bred gelding leapfrogged the leaderboard to snare second on the qualifying points list after a 75-1 shocker in the rain-soaked Rebel. He saved ground every step and came to life 50 yards before the finish to post an 84-Beyer upset; 3-year-old fillies in a companion stakes ran nearly a second faster for same distance earlier on that card. Onward to the Arkansas Derby.

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