TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

TDN Derby Top 12 for Dec. 28

by T.D. Thornton

We’re now 128 days out from the 145th GI Kentucky Derby, and the pecking order is hazily taking shape. The initial Top 12 rankings are largely based on 2-year-old form, but there’s a speculative, forward-thinking element (read: guesswork) built into the equation, with the goal of projecting how these still-developing horses will blossom over the next four months. Get tied on and enjoy the ride.


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, 4-4-0-0, $1,496,000.
Last Start: 1st, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile , CD, Nov. 2
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI American Pharoah S., SA, Sept. 29; 1st, GI Del Mar Futurity, DMR, Sept. 3
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 30.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Game Winner is the undefeated victor of the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and appears to be a lock to earn the divisional championship at the Eclipse Awards. You have to respect those impeccable credentials while also realizing there is active debate as to whether he will turn out to be the best long-range Derby candidate within trainer Bob Baffert’s deeply stocked stable. I assembled this season’s debut Top 12 with him on top only after strongly considering other combinations that involved this week’s 1-2-3 kingpins. This $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt bulled his way to an impressive open-length debut win at Del Mar prior to asserting himself in back-to-back, short-field Grade I stakes on the SoCal circuit. Then he roared home with authority as the even-money Juvenile fave despite being bumped at the break and giving up four paths of real estate on both turns. Strongly in his favor is Baffert’s been-there-done-that success in Triple Crown races. But since the advent of the Breeders’ Cup, Juvenile winners are a collective 2-for-34 in the Derby (Nyquist and Street Sense). Game Winner is currently in light training at Santa Anita.

2) 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, 5-2-2-1, $448,990.
Last Start: 1st, GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 24
Accomplishments Include: 3rd, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, CD, Nov. 2; 2nd, GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, KEE, Oct. 6
Next Start: Aiming for GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.
While Signalman can’t match the four-for-four and three Grade I stakes wins of the only horse ranked above him in this week’s Top 12, he does have an edge in that he’s broadened his foundation beyond a third-place try in the Juvenile by coming back three weeks later to smartly annex the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. That Nov. 24 neck win resonates as a positive “how he did it” sign of advancement, because this $32,000 FTKOCT General Quarters colt exhibited a high level of comfort while covered up on the inside of a sloppy Churchill Downs surface. He also gets style points for launching a prolonged, confident march five furlongs out that he accentuated with a strong, willing finish, repulsing several potential winning bids before galloping out nicely. Trainer Ken McPeek picked out this relative bargain himself, telling TDN earlier this month that he “put a lot more emphasis on the conformation than the pedigree.” Having accomplished so much at the tail end of his 2-year-old campaign, Signalman is being freshened for the GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Park Mar. 2.
3) 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, 3-3-0-0, $269,520.
Last Start: 1st, GI Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, LRC, Dec. 8
Accomplishments Include: 1st, Street Sense S., CD, Nov. 2;
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on Improbable. KY Derby Points: 10.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Improbable’s 1-5 favored win in the GI Los Alamitos Futurity marks  him as an aggressive, confident stalker who responds well to rousing while using his energy efficiently. He was hard held to the backstretch (avoiding trouble that affected others on the turn), then picked off dueling pacemakers at will while being driven from the quarter to the eighth pole. He was kept to task while widening by five lengths to the wire, finishing like he had not scraped the bottom of his stamina reserve. Trainer Baffert noted post-win that the three-for-three Improbable “has a long stride like Justify (Scat Daddy). He’s just a smaller version. I’m not saying he’s at Justify’s level yet, but he’s a really good horse.” Baffert has now won the last five Los Al Futurities. The only two of those winners to go on and start in the Kentucky Derby—Dortmund (Big Brown) and Mor Spirit (Eskendereya)—both won Santa Anita’s GIII Robert B. Lewis S. in their next starts.

4) 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: GISP, 2-1-1-0, $146,750.
Last Start: 2nd, GI Champagne S., BEL, Oct. 6
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 4.
Based on his 14-1 adversity-overcoming second in the GI Champagne S. at Belmont Park (lost footing and pitched forward at break; nice five-wide run off turn) Code of Honor appeared poised to enter the Breeders’ Cup as the “wiseguy” horse for the Juvenile. But he spiked a temperature and scratched the night before the race, then trainer Shug McGuaghey kept him out of a planned next start in the GII Remsen S. because he was not totally satisfied with the energy level of this homebred Noble Mission (GB) colt. Code of Honor is now breezing at Payson Park, with an aim on a 2019 Gulfstream return. A fairly late foal (May 23) out of a Dixie Union mare, Code of Honor won on debut at Saratoga, wiring a six-furlong MSW at 6-1. Based on the disparate running styles of his only two races, it will be interesting to see whether he evolves as a pace presence or a stalker/closer. There are more accomplished stakes winners ranked behind him on this list. But the bet here is that Code of Honor will outperform them in the not-too-distant future.

5) COLISEUM (c, Tapit–Game Face, by Menifee)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Godolphin LLC. B-Godolphin (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $31,800.
Last Start: 1st, Maiden Special Weight, DMR, Nov. 17
Next Start: Aiming for GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 5
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
A horse needs a “Wow!” effort to crack the Derby Top 12 off a maiden win alone, and ‘TDN Rising Star’ Coliseum delivered with a flourish at first asking when unveiled at 1-2 odds in a seven-furlong MSW at Del Mar Nov. 17. Godolphin’s well-meant homebred made all the running with devastating ease, widening under a light hold entering the turn before deftly clicking into a secondary stretch gear—hardly his last—when nudged home by jockey Joe Talamo before being taken in hand 6 3/4 lengths clear of the competition at the wire. Prior to his debut, Baffert told TDN‘s Bill Finley that Coliseum can be a bit of a problem child to train. “He’s a nice horse, but he’s a Tapit and has a lot of typical Tapit issues,” Baffert said. “He can be a head case. In the middle of his works he just wants to take off.”

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, 2-1-0-1, $72,000.
Last Start: 3rd, GI Del Mar Futurity, DMR, Sept. 3
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
For a while last summer, Roadster was the “now” juvenile within the potent Baffert barn. He broke his maiden on debut by an easy 4 1/4 lengths at 4-5 odds at Del Mar July 29, then was bet down to 7-10 favoritism in the GI Del Mar Futurity. This $525,000 KEESEP Quality Road colt managed third but never showed any true pop or spark while finishing behind stablemate Game Winner, and it was later reported he had displaced his soft palate and required surgery to correct it. Roadster has been working steadily at Santa Anita since Nov. 28, and he enters 2019 as a 32-1 shot in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

7) INSTAGRAND (c, Into MischiefAssets of War, by Lawyer Ron)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-OXO Equine LLC. B-Stoneway Farm (KY). T-Jerry Hollendorfer. Sales History: $190,000 Ylg ’17 FTKJUL; $1,200,000 2yo ’18 FTFMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $144,000.
Last Start: 1st, GII Best Pal S., DMR, Aug. 11
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
To steal a line from Winston Churchill, ‘TDN Rising Star’ Instagrand debuts on the Top 12 list as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That’s because this $1.2-million FTFMAR co-sales-topping son of Into Mischief won his first two starts by a combined 20 lengths and figured to be the slam-dunk favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before owner Larry Best cut short his reportedly healthy 2-year-old campaign with the aim of having a fresher, sturdier sophomore for 2019. Will the unorthodox game plan work? If Instagrand proves to be a major force on the Triple Crown trail, we might expect other owners and trainers to employ similar sit-it-out strategies in the future. If this highly hyped colt doesn’t deliver (or can’t replicate his form at longer distances), questions will abound over whether his aborted early-career arc cost him a shot at the Classics.

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: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $151,250.
Last Start: 1st GIII Nashua S., AQU, Nov. 4
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
Vekoma shares a name with a roller coaster manufacturer, but this undefeated $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt is still climbing his steep, initial upward arc without yet experiencing a dizzying descent. He was a pace-pressing (but slightly green) winner at first asking in a Belmont Park sprint, then pounced to victory again with a stalking attack off the turn (head cocked to the grandstand and on the wrong lead) in the one-turn mile GIII Nashua S. His trainer, George Weaver, told Daily Racing Form that because Vekoma is a May 22 foal, he “still has some maturing to do” and is set to resume training at Palm Beach Downs after a 30-day break. A late January sophomore debut is a possibility.

9) KNICKS GO (c, PaynterKosmo’s Buddy, by Outflanker)
O-KRA Stud Farm. B-Angie Moore (MD). T-Ben Colebrook. Sales History: $40,000 Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $87,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 6-2-1-1, $672,515.
Last Start: 11th GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 24
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, KEE, Oct. 6; 2nd, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, CD, Nov. 2; 3rd, Listed Arlington Washington Futurity, AP, Sept. 8
Next Start: Possible for GIII Sam F. Davis S., TAM, Feb. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.
This $87,000 KEESEP yearling (the first graded stakes winner for Paynter) earned the honor of being a hard-trying overachiever with an improbable bomb of a win at in the GI Breeders’ Futurity S., yet several things not directly related to Knicks Go went right in order for him to pull off that 70-1 wire job (morning line fave scratched due to illness; starting fave got clobbered out of the gate). But certainly more than luck contributed to his next-out, 40-1 second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when he hopped at the start, rushed to take the lead, then held on for as long as he could into deep stretch against the presumptive Eclipse Award winner. Knicks Go then faltered as the fave in the Nov. 24 Kentucky Jockey Club S., but I’m willing to chalk up that blah 11th to a sloppy track and three hard races in an eight-week span. He’s aiming for a Tampa return.

10) MAXIMUS MISCHIEF (c, Into MischiefReina Maria, by Songandaprayer)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Cash is King LLC & LC Racing. B-Martha Jane Mullholland (KY). T-Robert E Reid, Jr. Sales History: $165,000 Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $170,000 RNA ’17 FTNAUG; $245,000 RNA 2yo ’18 FTFMAR; $340,000 2yo ’18 FTIMAY. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-3-0-0, $192,100.
Last Start: 1st GII Remsen S., AQU, Dec. 1
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.
Big, strong, speed-centric ‘TDN Rising Star’ Maximus Mischief earned a trip to Florida for the winter by leaping from the Parx allowance sprint ranks to being a nine-furlong graded stakes winner in New York’s final top-level juvenile test of 2018. This $340,000 EASMAY Into Mischief colt (pinhooked for $165,000 then twice RNA’d at $170,000 and $245,000) accomplished his GII Remsen S. win by establishing a prime stalking spot, then dueling a pair of longshot pacemakers into defeat while vigorously shaken up for the stretch run to stay focused. His connections expressed encouragement that ‘Max’ learned how to relax in his two-turn debut while stepping up in class, and his up-close running style fits the traditional speed-friendly profile of Gulfstream Park, where he is likely to next race.
11) AVIE’S FLATTER (c, Flatter–Avie’s Empire, by Empire Maker)
O-Ivan Dalos. B-Tall Oaks Farm (ON). T-Josie Carroll. Lifetime Record: MSW, 4-3-0-0, $251,834.
Last Start: 1st Coronation Futurity, WO, Nov. 18
Accomplishments Include: 1st, Cup and Saucer S., WO, Oct. 7
Next Start: Aiming for GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
Avie’s Flatter is a true outlier to be included on anyone’s Top 12 list. But his credentials aren’t that far-fetched. This Flatter homebred is the heavy favorite to win the Sovereign Award for 2-year-old champion colt in Canada, and although he’s unraced on dirt, Avie’s Flatter made it onto my watch list Sep. 16 with a game, much-better-than-it-looks fourth against a deep field in the GI Summer S.—an extremely ambitious assignment right off his maiden score. He then dismantled Canadian-breds on both dirt and Tapeta in a pair of stakes at Woodbine, and will resurface at Tampa Bay Downs later this winter. “I’ll try to go the same route that I did [in 2015] with Ami’s Flatter (Flatter), who came down to Florida and ended up running second in the [GII] Tampa Bay Derby and third in the [GI] Florida Derby,” owner/breeder Ivan Dalos told TDN earlier this month.

12) CAIRO CAT (c, Cairo PrinceLa Belle Cat, by Tale of the Cat)
O-Walking L Thoroughbreds, LLC. B-Clifton Farm, LLC (KY). T-Kenneth G McPeek. Sales History: $130,000 Ylg ’17 FTKJUL. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-0-0, $133,750.
Last Start: 1st GIII Iroquois S., CD, Sept. 15
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.
Cairo Cat outran 18-1 odds winning career start number two going seven furlongs at Saratoga, then exceeded expectations again with a 17-1 first-time-Lasix score in the Sep. 15 Iroquois S.  In that 1 1/16 miles Churchill stakes score, he dug in for a rail trip and angled out to nail an aggressively ridden favorite. This $130,000 FTKJUL colt has been unraced since, and is gearing back up for a 2019 campaign at Payson Park. No next-race plans have been confirmed, but his sire, Cairo Prince, was the favored winner of the 2014 GII Holy Bull S. at Gulfstream.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order)

Bankit (Central Banker): Bulled from last to get second and galloped out past stablemate winner of Springboard Mile S.

Gray Attempt (Graydar): Could stretch out in Jan. 25 Smarty Jones S. off Dec. 22 Sugar Bowl S. wire job.

Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy): Boxed and bottled off turn yet prevailed in Springboard Mile.

Network Effect (Mark Valeski): Second in both Remsen and Nashua S. to close out 2018.

Mihos (Cairo Prince): ‘TDN Rising Star’ could be aiming for one-turn-mile Mucho Macho Man S. on Jan. 5.

Mind Control (Stay Thirsty): GI Hopeful winner missed Keeneland stakes start because of fever; training for comeback in Jan. 1 Jerome S.

Mucho Gusto (Mucho Macho Man): ‘TDN Rising Star’ likely to ship our of SA for next stakes start, per Baffert via DRF.

War of Will (War Front): Nice turf stakes form while still a maiden, then won in Churchill Downs slop. Aiming for GIII LeComte S.