TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

TDN Derby Top 12 for Apr. 2

With three major nine-furlong stakes upcoming this weekend, the first Saturday in April is usually when the sophomore division attains a new level of clarity. It had better. Favorites have now gone down in flames in nine consecutive Road to the GI Kentucky Derby qualifying points races run on United States dirt tracks, and only one of the top five horses in this week’s rankings won his last start. If a dominant division leader doesn’t emerge this weekend, it might be time to embrace the chaos rather than fight it.

1) 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, 5-4-1-0, $1,646,000.
Last Start: 2nd, GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Next Start: GI Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 45.

Two-year-old champ and ‘TDN Rising Star’ Game Winner has a chance to cement his status as the Kentucky Derby favorite with an emphatic, true-to-form win in Saturday’s GI Santa Anita Derby. The positives for this athletically built $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) bay include a been-there-done-that stakes résumé that is highlighted by a relentless, man-against-boys win over the Derby surface at Churchill Downs, a strong in-race presence and fighting spirit that belies his relative (five races) inexperience, a Classics-capable pedigree, and the well-seasoned guidance of five-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. But Game Winner is up against a glaring historical trend as he marches toward Louisville, as only two GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners from 34 runnings have gone on to win the Derby (Nyquist and Street Sense). And although it was obvious Game Winner wasn’t fully cranked to run his “A” race off a four-month layoff in the split-division (read: watered-down) Rebel S., it was a bit of a surprise to see how hard he had to be driven off the turn to engage a tenacious leader before fighting the length of the stretch to end up second, beaten a nose. Back on his home court and facing only six others based on probables listed for Saturday’s race, Game Winner will be a deserving–but not invincible–favorite.

2) 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.

Trainer Mark Casse wrote on Twitter that on Mar. 28 War of Will “went through extensive testing [that] included X-ray’s & ultrasound” and is now “cleared to start his training regimen” for the Kentucky Derby. That positive news arrived five days after this €250,000 ARQMAY War Front colt slipped and lost his action leaving the starting gate in the GII Louisiana Derby, then never looked comfortable when ninth as the beaten 4-5 fave. Like it or not, this “recovery” story line will shadow War of Will for the next 5 1/2 weeks, and although the issue of readiness is similar to the one Casse endured when juvenile champ Classic Empire battled season-long physical setbacks prior to his fourth-place run in the 2017 Derby, it is different because Classic Empire had a redemptive win in the GI Arkansas Derby just before heading to Louisville. Provided War of Will thrives in his training, I believe he’s got a big shot on the first Saturday in May, and I have zero problem with crossing a line through that Fair Grounds debacle and re-focusing on this colt’s powerful arc of races between November and February that established his dirt-form prowess. After a four-wide-both-turns, 3 1/2-length defeat in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, War of Will’s three main-track triumphs stamped him as a menacing stalker who has a high level of comfort racing in large fields and a keen willingness to finish with authority.

3) 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, 6-2-2-1, $452,990.
Last Start: 7th, GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Next Start: GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.

Forget about my prognosis a couple of weeks back that Signalman would be a wise-guy horse who could pop at a mild price in the GII Blue Grass S. Instead, he’s likely to go off as the favorite based on how that field is shaping up. This $32,000 FTKOCT General Quarters colt’s stock is on the rise again, largely because he’s cycling toward a much-improved comeback effort while other horses who had been ranked higher up the totem pole backpedaled because of their own poor efforts. Signalman is a bull of a racehorse with good tactical speed despite his brawniness, and trainer Ken McPeek has commented all winter and spring long how this colt also has a sharp mind to match his physical gifts. Signalman’s clunker of a seventh in the GII Fountain of Youth S. included a lost shoe at some point during the race, and I’m starting to think that race might be an aberration for everybody who ran in it because none of the 1-2-4 finishers from the Fountain of Youth were within 6 3/4 lengths of the winner in Saturday’s Florida Derby.

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, 4-3-1-0, $419,520.
Last Start: 2nd, GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on Improbable. KY Derby Points: 25.

The fine-tuning for ‘TDN Rising Star’ Improbable over the past week included an announced jockey switch to Jose Ortiz for the GI Arkansas Derby and the addition of blinkers (at least during training) for the colt’s bullet 1:12.80 six-furlong work (1/24) on Saturday. Improbable capably reeled in a head-start workmate from about 2 1/2 lengths back, but despite the blinkers this $200,000 KEESEP City Zip chestnut did get to gawking toward the Santa Anita grandstand between the eighth and sixteenth poles, mirroring the occasional lack of mid-stretch focus he has exhibited in several of his races. His Oaklawn assignment is bound to draw a contentious, full field that will present additional tactical challenges, but Improbable’s neck defeat in the slightly slower (.07 seconds) division of the Rebel has to be viewed as a positive learning experience because of the way he overcame an outside post and gave up four paths of real estate on both turns before fighting on decently to the finish. Yet when you consider his entire body of work so far (just four races), this colt largely comes across like a work in progress whose peak potential is still not clearly in focus. Another ten solid days of training and an emphatic win in Hot Springs could change that.

5) 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: GSW, 6-2-3-1, $521,800.
Last Start: 1st, GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 37.5.

Of the four Southern-California based horses ranked within the Top 12, Omaha Beach is the latest to bloom, having been a four-time beaten-fave maiden before a nine-length MSW blast-off and next-out GII Rebel S. slugfest score over the divisional champ. In my mind, that also makes him the biggest unknown in terms of how much more untapped potential he might unleash in the Arkansas Derby. Let’s face it: Before the Rebel, the general consensus was that Game Winner would probably run well enough to win despite not being fully cranked off a four-month layoff, and that this War Front colt was an intriguing challenger with lots to prove. But Omaha Beach looked far more poised than the Breeders’ Cup winner turning for home while being hand-encouraged while Game Winner had to be pumped on to engage. Omaha Beach won by a hard-fought nose, and the two were 8 1/4 lengths clear of the rest of the pack. Instead of rematching in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, “Omaha Beach will go in the [Apr. 13] Arkansas Derby, mainly because I think he needs that extra week,” said trainer Dick Mandella. Omaha Beach worked a bullet :47.80 half-mile (1/25) at Santa Anita on Friday, leaving an overmatched maiden workmate about eight lengths in the dust.

6) ROADSTER (c, Quality Road–Ghost 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: GISP, 3-2-0-1, $106,200.
Last Start: 1st, Allowance/Optional Claiming, SA, Mar. 1
Next Start: GI Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Don’t look now, but ‘TDN Rising Star’ Roadster could be percolating as the classic “other” Bob Baffert horse in the Santa Anita Derby who gets overshadowed in the pre-race attention and in the betting by champion stablemate Game Winner. This $525,000 KEESEP Quality Road gray could be primed for an upset based on his easy win in a Mar. 1 allowance comeback from throat surgery. When you factor in that Game Winner had a fairly arduous, length-of-stretch fight in his own 2019 debut in the Rebel S., it would not exactly be a shocker if Roadster re-asserted himself as a major player with a more meaningful second-off-the-layoff race. Remember, it was only seven months ago that Roadster was being touted as Baffert’s best Derby prospect, and when you consider that he has zero qualifying points and either has to win or run second on Saturday to be in the hunt for Louisville, there will be added incentive for him to be fully primed to fire his best shot. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

7) LONG RANGE TODDY (c, Take Charge Indy–Pleasant Song, by Unbridled’s Song)
O/B-Willis Horton Racing, LLC (KY). T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-4-1-1, $851,125.
Last Start: 1st, GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 53.5.

Trainer Steve Asmussen has won the GI Belmont S. once (Creator) and the GI Preakness S. twice (Rachel Alexandra, Curlin). He has hit the board four times in the Kentucky Derby, including twice in the past three years, both with decent-odds horses (Lookin At Lee at 33-1 and Gun Runner at 10-1). If Long Range Toddy advances to the Classics, chances are he’ll similarly fly under the radar, betting-wise. In fact, this Take Charge Indy homebred is heading into the Arkansas Derby as the likely third favorite (behind Improbable and Omaha Beach) despite winning one division of the Rebel S. over Improbable. But take nothing away from this consistent colt: He owns a 4-1-1 record from seven starts, including three stakes wins, and even the races he loses are by small margins (never more than two lengths). Long Range Toddy has proven he can break well and maintain a position when pinned down on the rail, and when called upon for a stretch kick he nimbly uncorks late-race runs through chaos without seeming fazed by the task. A distance-centric Derby foundation (he’ll have six two-turn races heading to Louisville if he starts as expected at Oaklawn) is also in his favor.

8) PLUS QUE PARFAIT (c, Point of EntryBelvedera, by Awesome Again)
O-Imperial Racing, LLC. B-Calloway Stables, LLC (KY). T-Brendan P. Walsh. Sales History: $24,000 RNA Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $135,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-2-1-2, $1,590,400.
Last Start: 1st, G2 UAE Derby, MEY, Mar. 30
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 4
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 104.

Plus Que Parfait rocketed to both the top of the Derby points qualifying list (104) and sophomore earnings ($1.54 million) list over the weekend with a deft through-traffic win over 1 3/16 miles in the G2 UAE Derby. The field that this $135,000 KEESEP Point of Entry ridgling beat in Dubai did feature several Group 2 and 3 winning/placed horses, but it would be a stretch to say the also-rans included any serious Triple Crown-caliber contenders. Plus Que Parfait’s stateside company lines might yield better clarity as to where he fits in: The horses who ran second and third to him in his Oct. 7 Keeneland maiden win both eventually won stakes in 2019, and Plus Que Parfait did finish second, beaten only a neck, to the No. 3-ranked Signalman in a Nov. 24 Grade II stakes at Churchill. Several subpar runs behind No. 2-ranked War of Will suggested that Plus Que Parfait was heading in the wrong direction, but trainer Brendan Walsh surmised that this horse just didn’t like the Fair Grounds. Either way, Plus Que Parfait now sports a last-race win heading to Louisville, which is a feat only four other horses within this week’s Top 12 can boast.

9) 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
Next Start: Possible for GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 4
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 74.

As the connections of this first-crop Noble Mission (GB) homebred ponder whether they want to use their accrued points (74) to advance to the Derby, they’ll likely focus on how Code of Honor’s off-the-pace style was compromised by the moderate Florida Derby tempo that resulted in the one-two leaders at every call wiring the field while favorite Hidden Scroll (Hard Spun) went missing in action. Proven as a closer, Code of Honor opted for a three-path spot in eighth for most of the race, then finished up capably enough at the rail to win a photo for third when it was evident he couldn’t reel in the top two. Surely the fractions will be more robust in the 20-horse Derby, and you can even make the case that Code of Honor’s light-bodied, agile frame will be an asset in a crowded field if a pace meltdown occurs. His pedigree also suggests he’ll be a stayer over longer ground. But still, Code of Honor is a May 23 foal who’s had trouble putting together back-to-back solid efforts so far this winter and spring, and he’s beginning to carve out a reputation of being an opportunist who capitalizes only under favorable circumstances rather than as a horse who seizes control of race dynamics to make his own breaks.

10) 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: GSW, 3-2-0-1, $188,850.
Last Start: 3rd, GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Next Start: GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.

Vekoma will have a new jockey for Saturday’s Blue Grass S., with Javier Castellano replacing Manuel Franco (oddly enough, the Blue Grass is one of the few major Derby preps that Castellano has never won). This $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) chestnut was undefeated but green through the stretch as a juvenile, then ran a commendable third (while again shifting and drifting through the lane) when racing on Lasix for the first time in the Fountain of Youth S. What this May 22 foal lacks in in-race focus, he makes up for by generally being a hard trier, and he looks the part of a plausible play who might still have untapped upside heading into his Keeneland start. But with 2004 champion sprinter Speightstown as his dam-sire, 10 furlongs in the Derby remains a fuzzy proposition.

11) TACITUS (c, TapitClose Hatches, by First Defence)
O/B-Juddmonte Farms, Inc. (KY). T-Bill Mott. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-0-0, $253,000.
Last Start: 1st, GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 9
Next Start: GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50.

Trainer Bill Mott thinks nine furlongs in the Wood Memorial will suit Tacitus well, and that another eighth of a mile farther in the Derby should be within this homebred Tapit gray’s scope. Seasoning is what the large-framed GII Tampa Bay Derby winner lacks, as he’s only had one race in 2019 and three overall. As a first-time-Lasix winner at Tampa, Tacitus rated willingly and rallied through traffic, but he did hesitate for a beat or two when he hit the lead, prompting late-race encouragement from Jose Ortiz and the jockey’s post-race comment that Tacitus likely hasn’t yet given him 100% effort in his three races. Mott also trained this colt’s Juddmonte-bred dam, Close Hatches, who was the champion older mare in the 2014 Eclipse Awards and a MGISW who excelled in dirt routes. Sire First Defence was another Juddmonte homebred whose lone Grade I stakes win was at seven furlongs, but First Defence was out of a Seattle Slew mare, providing a Triple Crown connection in Tacitus’s not-too-distant bloodlines.

12) DREAM MAKER (c, Tapit–To Dream About, by Monarchos)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O/B-John C. Oxley (KY). T-Mark Casse. Lifetime Record: 5-2-0-0, $72,850.
Last Start: 10th, GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 9.
Next Start: GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Although he’s a gray, ‘TDN Rising Star’ Dream Maker could be the proverbial dark horse in Saturday’s Blue Grass S. I had him ranked as high as No. 5 a month ago, and although he got dropped from the main list after his next-to-last finish in the Tampa Derby, I have to think that poor showing is not truly indicative of this Tapit-sired John Oxley homebred’s real ability. Tampa can be kind of a “twilight zone” track that produces off-kilter individual results, and Dream Maker broke poorly, rated in last, then had his head cocked to the infield while not responding to urging on the far turn. His dam-sire Monarchos won the 2001 Derby, and this colt’s second dam, Beautiful Pleasure, was a champion stayer for Oxley. In an effort to instill a newfound sense of urgency in Dream Maker’s breaks from the gate, trainer Mark Casse drilled him in :46 flat from the Keeneland barrier last Saturday, earning a bullet for the half-mile distance (1/48). Should Dream Maker figure things out this weekend, he’ll have good momentum, a 10-furlong pedigree, and a maiden win over the Churchill surface all in his favor heading to Louisville.

On the bubble (in alphabetical order):
By My Standards (Goldencents): Ranked second in qualifying points based on 22-1 Louisiana Derby upset. That was his only win beyond MSW ranks, but he’s never been off the board in five tries.
Country House (Lookin At Lucky): Mott told TDN last week that the Arkansas Derby is a “doable thing with him because he is a big, tough, robust kind of horse.”
Cutting Humor (First Samurai): Stalked off fast fractions for track-record GIII Sunland Derby win; note that three GIII Southwest S. also-rans have now come back to win stakes next out.
Haikal (Daaher): Rides three-race win streak into Wood Memorial but still must prove he’s not a middle-distance horse who requires speed setups.
Instagrand (Into Mischief): Jockey change to Flavien Prat for Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby for this ‘TDN Rising Star’ who was a juvenile sensation, winning first two races by combined 20 1/4 lengths.
Maximum Security (New Year’s Day): He’s gone from the $16,000 maiden-claiming ranks to being the undefeated winner of the Florida Derby in just 3 1/2 months. Got away with a moderate tempo last Saturday; questions abound over whether he can replicate that effort in Louisville.
Outshine (Malibu Moon): Tampa Derby runner-up stretches to nine furlongs in Wood Memorial.
Spinoff (Hard Spun): Followed up 11 3/4-length allowance romp at Tampa with decent second in Louisiana Derby. Owns 40 Derby qualifying points, currently good for 12th on that eligibility list.