TDN Derby Top 12 for Dec. 30

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Essential Quality | Horsephotos

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We're now inside the 125-day mark until the first Saturday in May. The debut 2021 GI Kentucky Derby rankings are compiled largely with an eye toward sophomore prowess rather than lauding horses for accomplishments at age two. Interestingly, five homebreds have secured spots within the initial Top 12, a departure from previous seasons when there were only one or two.

1) ESSENTIAL QUALITY (c, TapitDelightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)

O/B-Godolphin (Ky); T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: GISW, 3-3-0-0, $1,335,144.

Last Start: 1st GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Kee, Nov. 6

Accomplishments Include: 1st GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity, 'TDN Rising Star'

Next Start: Uncommitted

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 30.

'TDN Rising Star' and presumptive divisional champ Essential Quality is the Top 12 kingpin on the cusp of his sophomore season. That also means this assertive gray will have a figurative target on his back as he attempts to buck the daunting, decades-long stat (2-for-36) that argues against the likelihood of the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner going on to win the Derby. This high-energy Tapit homebred for Godolphin earned top billing by orchestrating an authoritative, undefeated three-act performance over the span of just two months in 2020, and the scary-good thing is that Essential Quality hardly seemed to be running all out or scraping stamina bottom in any of those races. He broke his maiden sprinting over the Churchill surface, then won back-to-back Grade I routes over Keeneland's short-stretch 1 1/16 miles configuration. His GI Breeders' Futurity S. win was notable for the confident, pace-pressing ability this colt displayed before drawing off at will, and his late-closing Juvenile score earned the top two-turn Beyer Speed Figure (95) by any 2-year-old this year in a two-turn race. Essential Quality is wintering in New Orleans, with two December breezes so far at Fair Grounds and no prep races publicly disclosed.

2) LIKEABLE (c, Frosted–Dashing Debby, by Medaglia d'Oro)

O-Repole Stable, St. Elias Stable & Stonestreet Stables LLC. B-Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings, LLC (Ky). T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $350,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 3-1-1-0, $49,050.

Last Start: 13th GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Kee, Nov. 6

Accomplishments: Mdn win, Belmont, Sept. 19

Next Start: Uncommitted

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

Likeable ran 13th in the Juvenile and has only a maiden win to his credit, so yes, it does seem a little outlandish to have him ranked this highly to start the season. But I've been intrigued by this $350,000 KEESEP Frosted colt since his unveiling at Saratoga, and see no reason to bury him deeper down the list because a more polished version of Likeable has the potential to explosively improve at age three. His Aug. 22 off-turf, seven-furlong debut caught the eye because Likeable was widest on the turn, moved (prematurely) to engage the leaders, got banged around in the stretch, yet still didn't pack it in while fighting to the finish against a well-meant winner. He stretched to a one-turn mile at Belmont Sept. 15, flashing sharp speed under restraint while pulling in spots before swatting away a 4-5 fave on the turn and cantering home by 8 1/2 lengths. Trainer Todd Pletcher then gambled on throwing Likeable into the Breeders' Cup, and he ran like a youngster not quite ready for prime time, dragging the rider four wide through the turn to engage a 41-1 kamikaze pacemaker through the fastest opening quarter in the Juvenile since 2014 and that race's fastest half-mile split since 2003. After a bit of time off, Likeable has resumed breezing at Palm Beach Downs in Florida, where his strong early turn of foot should be a great match for Gulfstream's speed-conducive surface.

3) PRIME FACTOR (c, Quality Road–Haylie Brae, by Bernardini)

O-CHC Inc. & WinStar Farm LLC. B-Two Hearts Farm LLC (Ky). T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $900,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $24,000.

Last Start: Mdn win, Gulfstream, Dec. 12

Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'

Next Start: Uncommitted.

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

There is no need to search for better-than-it looks nuance in the emphatic, blast-off debut of Prime Factor, a $900,000 KEESEP colt who was the co-second priciest of 63 Quality Road yearlings to sell in 2019. This Pletcher trainee pressed the lone speed and took control at will in a Gulfstream MSW sprint Dec. 12, earning 'TDN Rising Star' status by widening under wraps to win by 8 3/4 lengths in a 1:10.38 clocking (85 Beyer) that went .08 seconds faster than the only other six-furlong race on the card, the GIII Sugar Swirl S. for older female sprinters. “We were looking forward to a good debut. Honestly, he exceeded expectations,” Pletcher said post-race. Michael Wallace, the CEO of co-owner China Horse Club, added that the colt was “in the top three of our yearling selections and has impressed all throughout the year. We will discuss the next step for him with our partners, WinStar Farm, but he is undoubtedly an exciting prospect for 2021.”

4) JACKIE'S WARRIOR (c, Maclean's MusicUnicorn Girl, by A. P. Five Hundred)

O-J Kirk & Judy Robison. B-J & J Stables (Ky). T-Steve Asmussen. Sales history: $95,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 5-4-0-0, $502,564.

Last Start: 4th GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Kee, Nov. 6

Accomplishments: 1st GII Saratoga Special, 1st GI Runhappy Hopeful S., 1st GI Champagne S.

Next Start: Uncommitted.

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 12. 4) Jackie's Warrior

From June through October, Jackie's Warrior ran the table with four consecutive open-length wins that resonated as man-against-boys throttlings in which he controlled legit splits and often turned for home in hand while overmatched rivals were under full-out drives. Then came the Breeders' Cup, in which this Maclean's Music colt went off favored in the Juvenile and enjoyed a no-excuse stalking trip with an overly ambitious speed duel in front of him. “Jackie” got first run at those caving pacemakers, but was tag-teamed turning for home, first by the longest shot on the board before Essential Quality powered past to win. This $95,000 KEESEP colt ended up fourth, beaten only 3 1/4 lengths, so it was not the type of loss that will tarnish his overall body of work. But a defeat in his only two-turn attempt means distance questions will linger into 2021 until Jackie otherwise proves route races are within his wheelhouse. His 100 Beyer from winning the one-turn mile GI Champagne S. still clocks in as the only triple-digit Beyer earned by a juvenile in 2020.

5) PROXY (c, Tapit–Panty Raid, by Include)

O/B-Godolphin (Ky). T-Michael Stidham. Lifetime Record: 3-2-1-0, $67,700.

Last Start: 1st, Alw, FG, Dec. 19

Next Start: Uncommitted.

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

Proxy won a Dec. 19 NW2L allowance over 1 1/16 miles at the Fair Grounds that impressed more from a “how he did it” perspective rather than “how fast” (76 Beyer). Backed to 7-10 favoritism in a four-horse race, this Godolphin homebred brushed the gate, assumed command into the turn and onto the backstretch, then conceded the lead between calls. He reclaimed the top spot at the entrance to the final bend, then braced for a two-pronged attack from the closers. Proxy drifted out three times in upper- and mid-stretch under left-handed stick work, and one of his outward sways intimidated a rival while emboldening Proxy. Asked for another gear, this colt dug in stoutly, opening up to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Proxy raced on Lasix for both of his Fair Grounds wins after running second, beaten a neck, without it in his Monmouth Park debut. In this transition year for Lasix, he is the only horse within the Top 12 to have raced on it, and if he is to advance as a top-tier Derby candidate, he'll have to forego that medication moving forward. This year's Derby (and its major points-earning preps) are all being conducted Lasix-free.

6) SPEAKER'S CORNER (c, Street Sense–Tyburn Brook, by Bernardini)

O/B-Godolphin (Ky). T-William Mott. Lifetime Record: 2-1-0-1, $43,290.

Last Start: 1st Mdn, Belmont, Oct. 11

Next Start: Uncommitted.

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

Speaker's Corner is the third Godolphin homebred (for three different trainers) to crack the inaugural Top 12 list. This one's a Street Sense bay out of a Bernardini mare conditioned by Bill Mott. Even though Mott's firsters generally need a race or two before rounding into best efforts, this colt got pounded to odds-on favoritism for his Saratoga debut Sept. 7. A slow start and moderate rally left a slightly green Speaker's Corner third, 6 3/4 lengths behind the winner that day, but start number two reconciled the advance hype. In a deep-on-paper Oct. 11 MSW over seven furlongs at Belmont, he got bumped at the break then rallied into swift splits (:22.04, :44.64), reeling in next-out winner–and subsequent 'TDN Rising Star'–Caddo River (Hard Spun) with an impressive, grind-down stretch rally, earning Speaker's Corner an 80 Beyer. In addition, the third-place finisher in that race came back to run second as the fave in a nine-furlong MSW, and the eighth-place finisher subsequently wired a MSW grass route.

7) LIFE IS GOOD (c, Into Mischief–Beach Walk, by Distorted Humor)

O-CHC Inc & WinStar Farm LLC. B-Gary & Mary West Stable (Ky). T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $525,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $34,200.

Last Start: 1st Mdn, Nov. 22, Del Mar

Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'

Next Start: Possible for GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 2

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

The gaudy, 91 Beyer debut romp by 'TDN Rising Star' Life Is Good ($525,000 KEESEP) was so impressive in the eyes of the betting public that this Into Mischief bay closed at 5-1 odds in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager one week later, making him the top choice among the 22 individual betting interests beyond the “field” at 6-5. His scintillating 9 1/2-length scorcher at Del Mar was hallmarked by natural breakaway speed under a sitting-chilly ride by Mike Smith, and the runner-up just came back to win a MSW by 3 1/4 lengths on opening day at Santa Anita. After bulleting six furlongs in 1:10.60 (1/6) Sunday at Santa Anita, trainer Bob Baffert said, “We're still debating whether Life Is Good will go in the [one-mile GIII] Sham S. or the seven-eighths [Grade II] San Vicente [S. Feb. 7].”

8) HIGHLY MOTIVATED (c, Into Mischief–Strong Incentive, by Warrior's Reward)

O/B-Klaravich Stables, Inc (Ky). T-Chad Brown. Sales history: $240,000 wnlg '18 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: 3-2-1-0, $124,050.

Last Start: 1st Nyquist S., Kee, Nov. 6

Next Start: Uncommitted.

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

During the two-day Breeders' Cup meet at Keeneland, six dirt-track records were established and speed-centric horses accounted for 10 of 14 dirt winners. This $240,000 KEENOV Into Mischief colt was one of them, and it's logical to question whether Highly Motivated's stalking 6 1/2-furlong Nyquist S. score was primarily the product of a quick track that played to his liking. But those thoughts are starting to be offset by how decently that undercard stakes is shaping up as a key race. It has now yielded three next-out wins from the second-, third-, and fifth-place horses, and they were all favorites (in the Sugar Bowl S. at Fair Grounds, a Churchill open allowance, and a Louisiana-bred stakes at Fair Grounds, respectively). In the same key-race vein, Highly Motivated's maiden win at Belmont Sept. 27 was 1 3/4 lengths better than Known Agenda (Curlin)'s runner-up effort, and that colt broke his maiden next out at 3-5 odds and then went on to run third in the Dec.5 GII Remsen S. So Highly Motivated has been keeping relatively classy company. But he's yet to race beyond 6 1/2 furlongs, which is the chief reason his ranking wasn't elevated a peg or two on this list.

9) MANDALOUN (c, Into Mischief–Brooch, by Empire Maker)

O/B-Juddmonte Farms Inc. (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $91,252.

Last Start: 1st Alw, Churchill Downs, Nov. 28

Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'

Next Start: Aiming for GIII Lecomte Stakes, FG, Jan. 16

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

Juddmonte homebred Mandaloun, by Into Mischief out of an Empire Maker mare, is targeting the GIII Lecomte S. at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 16 at Fair Grounds in an attempt to run his record to 3-for-3. Dubbed a 'TDN Rising Star' off his Oct. 24 Keeneland MSW sprint win at six furlongs, Mandaloun added another furlong and powered home first in a Churchill allowance/ optional claimer under the lights late on the Nov. 28 card that featured all 2-year-old races. He loomed encouragingly with an outside bid after stalking the leaders, but Mandaloun had to be ridden with purpose between the five-sixteenths pole and the sixteenth pole to uncork his sustained half-mile rally. To his credit, he was quite responsive to that vigorous encouragement, winning by 1 3/4 lengths while punctuating his final half-furlong with a near-the-wire burst once he cleared his lone remaining rival.

10) CADDO RIVER (c, Hard Spun–Pangburn, by Congrats)

O/B-Shortleaf Stable (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: 3-1-2-0, $76,092.

Last Start: 1st Msw, Churchill, Nov. 15

Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'

Next Start: Uncommitted.

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

'TDN Rising Star' Caddo River closed at 27-1 odds in Pool 1 of the Derby Future Wager. By contrast, his sire, Hard Spun, went off at 24-1 in the Derby Sire Future Wager, meaning a discerning bettor could have had all of that stallion's offspring instead of just one of them for a difference of only three points. Futures market inefficiencies aside, this Shortleaf Stable homebred merits respect based on his ability to withstand internal pace pressure as the runner-up in the “loaded” Belmont MSW won by No. 6-ranked Speaker's Corner, which Caddo River then parlayed into a 9 1/2-length blowout in a one-turn Churchill MSW mile (83 Beyer) Nov. 15. This colt forged his way to the front and set demanding splits of :22.38 and :44.59 (albeit with a strong wind behind him on the backstretch), then torqued out smoothly for an unopposed, kept-to-task stretch run that got style points for looking poised and professional (as opposed to explosively flashy). Caddo River recently shipped from Churchill to Oaklawn, where he figures to earn a return trip to Louisville via the Hot Springs preps.

11) KEEPMEINMIND (c, LaobanInclination, by Victory Gallop)

O-Cypress Creek LLC & Arnold Bennewith. B-Southern Equine Stables, LLC (Ky). T-Robertino Diodoro. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 4-1-2-1, $394,320.

Last Start: 1st GII Kentucky Jockey Club S.

Accomplishments: 2nd GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity,

3rd GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile

Next Start: Uncommitted.

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 18.

As a maiden, Keepmeinmind ran second and third behind No. 1-ranked Essential Quality in the GI Breeders' Futurity S. and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, beaten only 5 1/4 combined lengths. This Laoban bay then went off favored in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. under the lights at Churchill, rallying from last to collar a tiring leader. But Keepmeinmind's Churchill score registered a touch on the tepid side numbers-wise (80 Beyer), and it clocked .54 seconds slower than 2-year-old fillies covered the same 1 1/16-miles distance in the GII Golden Rod S. one race earlier. Keepmeinmind is likely to attempt the Oaklawn prep path, which is where his run-all-day dam-sire Victory Gallop won the then-GIII Rebel S. and then-GII Arkansas Derby prior to running second in both the 1998 Derby and GI Preakness S. and winning the GI Belmont S.

12) KING FURY (c, Curlin–Taris, by Flatter)

B-Heider Family Stables LLC (Ky). T-Ken McPeek. Sales history: $950,000 yrl '19 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: SW, 5-2-0-0, $142,739.

Last Start: 5th GII GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., Churchill, Nov. 28

Accomplishments: 1st Street Sense S.

Next Start: Uncommitted.

Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

King Fury, a $950,000 FTSAUG colt by Curlin, already owns two wins over the Churchill surface, and this Jan. 12 foal has a stamina-centric base with five races already at 1 1/16 miles (only one other Top 12 horse, Jackie's Warrior, has made as many starts; four of them were one-turn contests). The best of King Fury's routes was his Oct. 25 Street Sense S. score, in which this bay stalked, made an outside bid, and stayed on willingly to mow down an odds-on favorite who was gamely trying to re-rally. His seventh-place effort in the Breeders' Cup 12 days later might have been too big an ask (although getting trapped on the far turn behind a spent speedster didn't help), and trying new tactics as the blinkers-on pacemaker in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. generated only a fifth-place result. But that solid early-career foundation, attractive pedigree, and the capable patience of trainer Ken McPeek all signal that King Fury should not be eliminated from top-tier contention based on two subpar late-season races.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Brooklyn Strong (Wicked Strong): As a $5,000 OBSAPR buy, this Remsen S. upsetter has the potential to be the Cinderella story of 2021 provided his improvement arc continues upward.

Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow): Second in the Juvenile at 94-1, this colt ($17,000 FTKFEB; $110,000 FTKOCT) is a half to 2019 champ sprinter Mitole, but trainer Doug O'Neill said post-Breeders' Cup “he's built like a two-turn horse.”

Prate (Into Mischief): 'TDN Rising Star' dazzled in Fair Grounds sprint debut, which went faster than two stakes for juvenile males and fillies on same card. But trainer Brad Cox told DRF, “I think there's a question mark if he'd stretch out” while indicating next race is likely another sprint.

Smiley Sobotka (Brody's Cause): Trying stakes company off a MSW win, this $185,000 FTSAUG colt boldly repelled multiple bids to almost steal the Kentucky Jockey Club S.

Spielberg (Union Rags): His long drive won the GII Los Alamitos Futurity by a nose, but he was all out to reel in a tiring (but not quitting) 33-1 maiden.

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