TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

TDN Derby Top 12 for Apr. 16

The long prep season is over, and now the racing world locks its focus on the main event, the May 4 GI Kentucky Derby. Please note the rankings below are independent from the “Road to the Derby” points leaderboard Churchill Downs uses to determine starting berths. That list can be accessed here.

1) OMAHA BEACH (c, War FrontCharming, by Seeking the Gold)
O-Fox Hill Farms, Inc. B-Charming Syndicate (KY). T-Richard Mandella. Sales History: $625,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 7-3-3-1, $1,121,800.
Last Start: 1st, GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 137.5.

If Omaha Beach goes on to be a major factor in the Triple Crown after his GI Arkansas Derby win, you can point to his bold, aggressive move off the clubhouse turn and onto the backstretch as the moment that signified he’s the real deal. Jockey Mike Smith has been known to attempt this early-stage seize-the-lead move with high-level horses in the past (it doesn’t always work), and even trainer Richard Mandella said after the race his first thought was “Jeez, don’t move too quick,” before he rationalized, “Don’t be second-guessing Mike Smith.” This War Front colt torqued to the front and maintained an energetic tempo with a high cruising speed, and when Smith sensed main rival Improbable (City Zip) ratcheting up the pressure as the far turn loomed, Omaha Beach deftly clicked into a higher gear and seemed to relish the challenge. Off the far turn, the main visual takeaway was that Omaha Beach remained hand-ridden while Improbable was under a full-out drive while not truly slicing into the lead, and when Omaha Beach was set down for the final furlong he responded like a pro and kicked away to the finish–essentially making three well-executed moves over nine furlongs without giving any hint he was scraping bottom, stamina-wise. This colt is clearly thriving at the right time, and he has now purposefully defeated the two horses–Improbable and Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg})–who have dominated the Derby talk for the last six months.

2) GAME WINNER (c, Candy Ride {Arg}Indyan Giving, by A.P. Indy)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Gary & Mary West. B-Summer Wind Equine (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $110,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 6-4-2-0, $1,846,000.
Last Start: 2nd, GI Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 85.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Game Winner has made it through his two-race prep season in perfunctory fashion, and there shouldn’t be much doubt that Bob Baffert has enough Derby-winning training experience to have this $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) bay peaking right when he wants him to. But to be clear, Game Winner didn’t punch through to any new level of dominance in either the GII Rebel S. (where he had to be scrubbed on vigorously to finish a nose behind Omaha Beach) or the GI Santa Anita Derby (where he finished a half-length behind a longer-priced stablemate). Still, both races yielded enough clues to ascertain that Game Winner willingly fights through adversity. He wasn’t fully conditioned for his “A” effort at Oaklawn, then in the Santa Anita Derby, Game Winner was wide on both turns, led between stretch calls, and galloped out past Roadster (Quality Road) after the wire. All season long I’ve been writing about how difficult it is for a GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to also win the Derby—only two horses have done it in 34 years. But if Game Winner scores in Louisville, he will be the only Juvenile winner to have won the Derby without winning any race in the interim: Nyquist (2016) won both of his preps, and Street Sense (2007) won off the layoff and then ran second.

3) WAR OF WILL (c, War FrontVisions of Clarity {Ire}, by Sadler’s Wells)
O-Gary Barber. B-Flaxman Holdings Limited (KY). T-Mark Casse. Sales History: $175,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP; €250,000 2yo ’18 ARQMAY. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 8-3-1-1, $501,569.
Last Start: 9th, GII Louisiana Derby, Mar. 23
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 4
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on War of Will. KY Derby Points: 60.

War of Will’s formidable three-race win tear from November through February is going to get obscured by his debacle of a GII Louisiana Derby, but I’m taking the mindset that that slip out of the starting gate (he lost his hind action and never recovered) is not indicative of his true ability. From a pari-mutuel standpoint, that ninth-place try will only fatten his price in the Derby, and this €250,000 ARQMAY War Front colt appears poised to resume his upward progression arc. War of Will has displayed numerous in-race traits that will serve him well in a 20-horse melee: He has consistently created his own opportunities by breaking alertly in large fields, settling into a rhythmic stalk mode, relishing the pursuit of frontrunning prey, and responding when cued to quicken with a nice reserve of power that has yet to be fully tapped by jockey Tyler Gaffalione. War of Will bulleted five furlongs from the Keeneland gate in :59.00 Saturday (1/44). “He broke sharp and had running on his mind,” Gaffalione said. “He did everything very easy. [Trainer] Mark [Casse] said he wanted a good five-eighths, so I just let him do his thing. He cruised along and pulled up great and came back happy. He is really proud of himself.”

4) IMPROBABLE (c, City ZipRare Event, by A.P. Indy)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club International Ltd. & Starlight Racing. B-St. George Farm LLC & G. Watts Humphrey Jr. (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $110,000 Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $200,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-3-2-0, $619,520.
Last Start: 2nd, GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on Improbable. KY Derby Points: 65.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Improbable ran a gallant second in the Arkansas Derby considering he was fractious in both the post parade and the gate, then veered out approaching the clubhouse turn before finally settling back in on the turn. This $200,000 KEESEP City Zip chestnut angled about five paths off the rail onto the backstretch (in search of firmer footing on the sloppy track) and started picking off half the pack under his own power. With a four-wide surge he got within a length of Omaha Beach three-eighths out, but jockey Jose Ortiz was already urging him in earnest 2 1/2 furlongs out and had to resort to stick work at the quarter pole while Omaha Beach was still being hand-encouraged. Improbable zeroed in on the eventual winner with improved focus (no head-cocking like in previous races and works), but could not cut into Omaha Beach’s one-length margin at the wire while 5 3/4 lengths clear of everyone else. Trainer Bob Baffert indicated that the one-race blinker experiment (that was supposed to have sparked better early speed) is over. “I don’t think he needs the blinkers,” Baffert said post-race. “I think they got him a little upset. That’s probably why he acted up in the gate.” Ortiz did a good job of keeping Improbable as calm as he could, but the in-demand jock has ridden Tacitus (Tapit) to three straight wins, and it’s possible Ortiz could vacate the call on Improbable.

5) ROADSTER (c, Quality RoadGhost Dancing, by Silver Ghost)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Speedway Stable LLC. B-Stone Farm (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $525,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 4-3-0-1, $706,200.
Last Start: 1st, GI Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 100.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Roadster is certainly picking the right time of year to cycle back into top-notch form. His career arc includes being considered the top Derby prospect within Bob Baffert’s barn at Del Mar last summer, missing several months of training to correct a displaced soft palate, an easy two-turn allowance score in his comeback try, and an off-the-pace, wide-and-driving move to beat stablemate and juvenile champ Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby. He’s a lighter-bodied horse who gives the appearance of “punching above his weight” against heavier hitters, and this $525,000 KEESEP gray (second-priciest Quality Road sold at auction in 2017) has a distance-loving turf specialist half-brother in GISW Ascend (Candy Ride {Arg}). Roadster’s dam, Ghost Dancing, was more adept over shorter distances (stakes winner sprinting on the turf at Colonial Downs), but sire Quality Road would have been the favorite in the 2010 Kentucky Derby had not a quarter crack sidelined him the week before the race. As of right now, jockey Mike Smith has conflicting calls on both Omaha Beach and Roadster.

6) TACITUS (c, TapitClose Hatches, by First Defence)
O/B-Juddmonte Farms, Inc. (KY). T-Bill Mott. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 4-3-0-0, $653,000.
Last Start: GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 150.

Tacitus and Omaha Beach are the only horses ranked within the Top 12 to be riding three-race win streaks into the Kentucky Derby, and it’s hard to argue that this homebred Tapit gray hasn’t shown demonstrable progression in each of those starts over a five-month span. The stamina-centric Tacitus gets style points for admirably fighting for position through the first turn of the GII Wood Memorial, and he had plenty of strength left in reserve to swat away a determined rival in deep stretch over nine furlongs. But how will he adjust to rating from off the pace in a 20-horse field in a race where closers traditionally have to either get lucky by bulling through traffic or by giving up significant real estate? The quality of company lines in his GII Tampa Bay Derby and Wood wins also remains an open question, as the only horses he beat who appear headed to the Derby are Win Win Win (Hat Trick {Jpn}) and Tax (Arch), who figure to be 20-1 and 40-1 shots, respectively.

7) WIN WIN WIN (c, Hat Trick {Jpn}-Miss Smarty Pants, by Smarty Jones)
O-Live Oak Plantation. B-Live Oak Stud (FL). T-Michael Trombetta. Lifetime Record: SW & MGSP, 6-3-2-1, $367,300.
Last Start: 2nd, GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50.

Win Win Win started his 2019 season with a track-record score over seven furlongs at Tampa. He next stretched to 1 1/16 miles in the Tampa Bay Derby and ran third, (beaten only 2 1/2 lengths despite being hooked five wide off the turn), and that effort looked even more promising when the winner, Tacitus, came back to impressively annex the Wood Memorial. This Hat Trick (Jpn)-sired homebred’s subsequent start in the GII Blue Grass S. was also a credible effort, as Win Win Win got bumped offstride at the break, rated comfortably while parked in 13th, encountered moderate traffic on the far turn, then was winging it late with a wide run against the grain of a fairly solid Keeneland speed bias. His paternal grandsire, Sunday Silence, won the 1989 Kentucky Derby. Then 15 years later, his maternal grandsire, Smarty Jones, won the 2004 Derby. Another 15 years have now passed–is the timing (and pedigree) aligning for Win Win Win to keep the streak alive?

8) VEKOMA (c, Candy Ride {Arg}Mona de Momma, by Speightstown)
O-R. A. Hill Stable & Gatsas Stables. B-Alpha Delta Stables, LLC (KY). T-George Weaver. Sales History: $135,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 4-3-0-1, $788,850.
Last Start: 1st, GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 110.

Will Vekoma be a main pace presence in the Derby? His running style suggests he’s not a needs-the-lead-to-win horse. But approaching two weeks to the race, no one else within the Top 12 is a truly confirmed frontrunner either, so you wonder if this light-framed May 22 foal might be best served in a field of 20 by attempting to secure the top spot straight out of the gate to avoid the first-turn crush that would likely put him at a tactical disadvantage (in his three wins, Vekoma has never been more than a length off the leader at the second call). This $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt got nine furlongs successfully in the Blue Grass S., but his shifting and drifting stretch run was assisted by a speed-friendly Keeneland surface that hampered closers. And until he actually proves his stamina over 10 furlongs in the Derby, having a champion sprinter (Speightstown) as his dam-sire is another credible concern that will shadow Vekoma into the starting gate.

9) SIGNALMAN (c, General Quarters–Trip South, by Trippi)
O-Tommie M. Lewis, David A. Bernsen, LLC & Magdalena Racing (Sherri McPeek). B-Monticule (KY). T-Kenneth G McPeek. Sales History: $32,000 Ylg ’17 FTKOCT. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 7-2-2-2, $552,990.
Last Start: 3rd, GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 38.

Despite being ranked within the Top 12 on this list, Signalman is on the outside looking in where it counts–on the Derby qualifying points list (currently 22nd and needs defections to start). Assuming he makes the cut, I keep going back and forth over whether Signalman is a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” type of horse. On the plus side, this $32,000 FTKOCT General Quarters colt has legitimate excuses for both of his 2019 defeats: He lost a shoe when seventh in the GII Fountain of Youth S., then in the Blue Grass S. he was trying hard but couldn’t make up ground behind a frontrunning winner on a speed-favoring surface. On the negative side, Signalman would head into the Derby without having won a sophomore race, and he really hasn’t uncorked an emphatic performance since winning the Nov. 24 GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., which will be nearly six months in the rearview mirror by the time Derby day rolls around.

10) PLUS QUE PARFAIT (r, 3, Point of EntryBelvedera, by Awesome Again)
O-Imperial Racing LLC. B-Calloway Racing LLC (KY). T-Brendan Walsh. Sales History: $24,000 RNA Wlg KEENOV ’16; $135,000 Ylg KEESEP ’17. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-2-1-2, $1,590,400.
Last Start: 1st, G2 UAE Derby, MEY, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 104.

Plus Que Parfait is ranked 4th on the qualifying points list, but trainer Brendan Walsh is taking a wait-and-see approach before committing to a start in the Derby for the G2 UAE Derby winner. “The next week to 10 days will be very important,” he said Friday. “If he is not [100%] we will rethink his [next race].” Currently stabled at Churchill, plans call for an easy half-mile breeze either this Friday or Saturday. “He has the right mentality for the Derby; nothing really bothers him,” Walsh said. “We saw that with the way he handled everything in Dubai,” where this $135,000 KEESEP Point of Entry ridgling unleashed a sustained run through traffic. Plus Que Parfait will have to outrun history if he does start in Louisville: Ten winners of the UAE Derby have gone on to compete in the Kentucky Derby, and the best finish among them was sixth (along with two DNF’s and a 20th-place try).

11) TAX (g, Arch–Toll, by Giant’s Causeway)
O-R. A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Lynch, Hugh and Corms Racing Stable. B-Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider (KY). T-Danny Gargan. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-2-2-1, $326,300.
Last Start: 2nd, GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 52.

Tax has the pedigree depth (by Arch out of a Giant’s Causeway mare) to stay the Derby distance, and he’s never been off the board in three graded stakes (two of them over nine furlongs). He doesn’t shy away from in-race engagement (he’s a stalker by trade), and although some handicappers might discount the Classics chances of a gelding who broke his maiden for a $50,000 claiming tag, this could be shaping up as one of those offbeat years when conventional Triple Crown wisdom is best left to theorists. In the Wood Memorial, Tax got first run on the tiring pacemakers and held his own pretty well before submitting to the more physically imposing Tacitus. Tax was second, beaten 1 1/4 lengths, but galloped out on even terms with the favored winner. I’ve got him on my bet list as a potential “bombs away” inclusion for exotics.

12) CODE OF HONOR (c, Noble Mission {GB}Reunited, by Dixie Union)
O/B-W. S. Farish (KY). T-Shug McGaughey. Sales History: $70,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 4-2-1-0, $384,820.
Last Start: 3rd, GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 74.

This nimble first-crop Noble Mission (GB) homebred certainly has a stayer’s pedigree to handle the Derby distance. But he’s a light-bodied May 23 foal whose inability to put together solid, back-to-back tries as a sophomore leaves the impression of a horse who does not seize control of race dynamics to make his own breaks. But when he does put it all together and hit his best stride, Code of Honor is a very efficient mover. After a one-paced third behind lone speed in the GI Florida Derby, trainer Shug McGaughey shipped Code of Honor to Keeneland, where he said he hoped “a change in weather will jump start him some.” The colt worked last Friday, breezing a half mile in :49.00 (9/27), galloping out in 1:00.80 for five furlongs. “He looked good,” McGaughey said. “I was pleased with the way he went off and he galloped out well. I will probably have [regular jockey] Johnny [Velazquez] work him [this Friday or Saturday] and then have his final work at Churchill.”

Rounding Out the Starting Gate…

13) Cutting Humor (First Samurai): Talk about under the radar. This could conceivably be a $400,000 FTSAUG track-record holder (GIII Sunland Derby) from the barn of a two-time Derby-winning trainer (Todd Pletcher) going off north of 50-1 in the Derby. Exclude from exotics at your own peril.

14 Country House (Lookin At Lucky): Earned a Derby berth based on points with his third-place Arkansas Derby try. But a trip to Louisville is not etched in stone for this ‘TDN Rising Star.’ “He came with a good run. On the middle of the turn, he was creeping up,” said trainer Bill Mott. “I thought he might have started waiting a little bit and then the fourth horse came up on his inside and kind of pushed him along a little bit.”

15) Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy): The step up to stiffer Grade I competition resulted in a punchless sixth-place Arkansas Derby try, but he qualifies for a Derby berth via points. A solid foundation of six races at a mile or longer certainly won’t hurt his chances over 10 furlongs.

16) Maximum Security (New Year’s Day): Without much early speed among the probable favorites, this undefeated former $16,000 maiden-claiming frontrunner has the makings of a sacrificial pacemaker who could lead the field past the Twin Spires for the first quarter mile of the race. His “stolen” Florida Derby win is suspect because of the no-pressure fractions he got away with, and that gift-trip win occurred in his only lifetime try around two turns. Different ballgame in the Derby.

17) Spinoff (Hard Spun): Bumped leaving post 10, then hooked four wide on club turn while seeking the lead in Louisiana Derby before getting run down in the long Fair Grounds stretch. Should contribute to what looks like a fuzzy, in-flux Derby pace scenario.

18) By My Standards (Goldencents): Louisiana Derby upsetter has had two easy works with two more planned at Churchill prior to the Derby. “Quite frankly, horses either can get a mile and a quarter or not,” said trainer Bret Calhoun. “It’s a very demanding distance and I don’t want to push him or go overboard with his training. He’s ready and where he needs to be.”

19) Gray Magician (Graydar): Nice late-race rally behind Plus Que Parfait in the UAE Derby earned him enough qualifying points to make the trek to Louisville. But he’s still winless beyond the maiden ranks.

20) Haikal (Daaher): Never off the board from five starts but best races have been pick-up-the-pieces efforts behind cave-in pace scenarios over shorter distances.