TDN Derby Top 12 for Jan. 25


Smile Happy | Coady Photo


We're about to tear the January page off the calendar, a ritual that signals a welcome thaw in the prep schedule for the GI Kentucky Derby. Over the next two weekends there will be four qualifying points stakes from coast to coast. Here's who's hot (and not) heading into February.

1) 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, 2-2-0-0, $284,810. Last Start: 1st GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. Next Start: GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 19. KY Derby Points: 10.

Smile Happy has brawn, natural speed, ahead-of-his-peers mental maturity, and “swagger factor” on his side. But they don't drape a blanket of roses across your back on the first Saturday in May just for checking a lot of boxes on the desirability list. This son of Runhappy needs racing experience to flesh out his authoritative two-for-two record as a juvenile, and trainer Ken McPeek has now settled on the GII Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds over 1 1/8 miles for Smile Happy's sophomore debut (after previously considering shorter and earlier preps at both Oaklawn and Gulfstream). McPeek told Daily Racing Form last week the Risen Star would be the first of what would “ideally” be a two-prep path to Louisville. Since 1937, only three horses have won the Derby with four or fewer previous lifetime starts: Animal Kingdom (four), plus Justify and Big Brown (three each). McPeek trainees returning after 60 to 90 days off in races of nine furlongs or greater have won two of 15 starts over the past five years. On Sunday, Smile Happy closed at 8-1 in Pool 2 of the Derby future wager, the lowest-priced individual betting entrant behind the 9-5 favored field.

2) PAPPACAP (c, Gun Runner–Pappascat, by Scat Daddy) O/B-Rustlewood Farm, Inc. (FL). T-Mark E. Casse. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 6-2-2-1, $596,000. Last Start: 3rd GIIII Lecomte S. Next Start: Next start: Possible for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 19. KY Derby Points: 14.

Pappacap got dethroned from the No. 1 ranking, but his third-place effort as the beaten favorite in Saturday's GIII Lecomte S. doesn't warrant a full-scale banishment from the upper crust of the crop. These winter stakes are, after all, preparatory efforts, and the wider view of Pappacap's career arc still portends well for getting 10 furlongs three-plus months from now. As usual, this always-engaged Gun Runner homebred broke without issue, then settled fifth at the fence, underscoring this colt has no confidence issues racing in a covered-up position at the rail. Jockey Joe Bravo let Pappacap cruise up under his own power between the six-furlong and half-mile poles to range within two lengths of pacemaking Epicenter (Not This Time). But by the far turn Pappacap was so seriously hemmed in that Bravo's commitment to the rail started to look like a liability rather than a ground-saving advantage. Epicenter drifted out under pressure, and while Pappacap leapt forward through the suddenly larger opening at the quarter pole, he didn't truly seize command. Pappacap gave Epicenter a stout run for his money from the three-sixteenths pole until 50 yards from the finish, where both were blindsided by a fresh 28-1 closer. “He fought all the way down the lane,” Bravo said. “Both [he and Epicenter] are special horses. They got into a fight and guess what happens? It set up for somebody else to run by both of us.”

3) CORNICHE (c, Quality Road–Wasted Tears, by Najran) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Speedway Stables LLC. B-Bart Evans & Stonehaven Steadings (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $385,000 RNA ylg '20 KEESEP; $1,500,000 2yo '21 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 3-3-0-0, $1,262,000. Last Start: 1st GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile presented by TAA. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: N/A.

Corniche was an undefeatable front-running force who cuffed around his peers at age two up to 1 1/16 miles. But he has yet to begin serious training for his sophomore campaign, and the looming confrontation over trainer Bob Baffert's banishment from Churchill Downs coupled with the inability of his entrants to earn Derby qualifying points is casting an unwelcome shadow over this Quality Road colt's highly anticipated return. Corniche's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile wire job is the race that will almost certainly earn him divisional championship honors. But you have to consider the fortuitous circumstances that played in his favor prior to that race–namely, the vet scratch of the morning line favorite, fellow 'TDN Rising Star' Jack Christopher (Munnings), who was the only other pure speed threat in the Juvenile. In addition, it's worth noting that the GI Juvenile Fillies run two races earlier that day produced a same-distance final clocking .26 seconds faster than Corniche's performance. This colt's GI American Pharoah S. score Oct. 1 might have actually been a better, stronger effort–he led under constant pressure, swatted away two legit challengers on the turn, and that race yielded two next-out stakes winners, a MSW winner, plus the runner-up in the Juvenile.

4) 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: GISP, 3-1-1-1, $181,100. Last Start: 2nd GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. Next Start: GIII Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 5. KY Derby Points: 6.

The Giant's Causeway out of a Thunder Gulch mare breeding line that anchors this colt's pedigree is only going to play into Classic Causeway's favor the deeper he advances on the Triple Crown path. Being a sharp breaker is also on his side, too, as the previous six Derby winners all either wired their fields or were second at the internal points of call. Yet this homebred for Kentucky West Racing and Clarke Cooper doesn't need to be in front to run well, and his concession of the lead from the one hole in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. shows that he can comfortably stalk inside. In that race Classic Causeway eventually escaped the rail in search of more room out in the clear, but he was out-kicked by a superior Smile Happy that November early evening under the lights at Churchill. He's three breezes back into his Palm Meadows training for a seasonal debut in the Feb. 5 GIII Holy Bull S., a potentially “loaded” affair that could also lure several other contenders on this list.

5) 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: 1-1-0-0, $31,800. Last Start: 1st Gulfstream MSW. Next Start: Aiming for a two-turn allowance spot. KY Derby Points: 0.

Emmanuel spiked a temperature that forced trainer Todd Pletcher to scratch him from a Jan. 7 two-turn allowance at Tampa, which was to be his second career start off a visually appealing one-turn-mile debut score at Gulfstream (by 6 3/4 lengths with a 78 Beyer Speed Figure). That's the type of a setback that doesn't mean as much on the Derby trail in early January as it might in, say, late March. This $350,000 KEESEP colt by More Than Ready has since posted two bullet half-mile breezes at Palm Beach Downs on consecutive Saturdays, and Pletcher affirmed to TDN on Saturday that he will “hopefully” find another allowance spot instead of attempting a stakes for this physically imposing colt's first two-turn try. One concern as Emmanuel approaches seven weeks between starts is that seven of the horses he beat back on Dec. 11 have already come back to race; six of them lost and the only winner was a dropdown into the maiden optional-claiming ranks. So the “Who'd he beat?” question might end up being legit moving forward into start number two.

6) GIANT GAME (Giant's Causeway–Game For More, More Than Ready) O-West Point Thoroughbreds & Albaugh Family Stables LLC. B-H. Allen Poindexter (KY). T-Dale L. Romans. Sales History: $500,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: GISP, 3-1-0-2, $242,400. Last Start: 3rd GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile presented by TAA. Next Start: Possible for GIII Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 5. KY Derby Points: 4.

Giant Game's above-expectations third at 21-1 odds in the Breeders' Cup has a “deep end of the pool” appeal to it considering he shipped cross-country to square off against the best in his class in his first try outside the maiden ranks, then kicked on smartly while wide off the final turn. The effort was notable not so much for a massive breakthrough, but in terms of suggesting he could be a dangerous racehorse with seasoning at age three. We don't quite have much '22 form available yet to judge the progression of the horses he faced in the Juvenile (only three entrants have run back; all ran third in points-eligible Derby preps). But dig deeper to check out the two MSW races this $500,000 FTKSEL colt by Giant's Causeway competed in, and you'll see the makings of potential key races, as no fewer than a combined seven starters from both races (including Giant Game himself) returned to win next time out. This colt has built a base of five Gulfstream breezes in preparation for a possible start in the Holy Bull S., the last three of them five-eighths bullets.

7) COSTA TERRA (c, Gun Runner–Teardrop, by Tapit) O/B-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC (KY). T-Steven M. Asmussen. Lifetime Record: SP, 3-1-0-1, $57,900. Last Start: 5th GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity. Next Start: GIII Southwest S., OP, Jan. 29. KY Derby Points: 0.

Costa Terra may be a chestnut, but he's my Derby “dark horse” at this early juncture of the season. This Gun Runner homebred for Winchell Thoroughbreds has posted seven published breezes at Fair Grounds for trainer Steve Asmussen after a three-race juvenile campaign that consisted of two Ellis Park performances that were much better than they looked followed by a wide fifth against two-turn Grade I company at Keeneland. Dam Teardrop is a half-sister to Pyro, who won two legs of the Fair Grounds Derby prep stakes in 2008 (he was eighth in the Kentucky Derby). Half-brother Pneumatic was a listed stakes winner who attempted (but was off the board) in 2020's nine-furlong GI Belmont S. and the GI Preakness S. for these same connections.

8) NEWGRANGE (c, Violence–Bella Chianti, by Empire Maker) O-Golconda Stable, Madaket Stables LLC, SF Racing LLC, Siena Farm LLC, Starlight Racing, Stonestreet Stables, LLC, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine Donovan, Robert E. Masterson & Jay A. Schoenfarber. B-Jack Mandato & Black Rock Thoroughbreds (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $125,000 yrl '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $102,000. Last Star: 1st GIII Sham S. Next Start: GIII Southwest S., OP, Jan. 29. KY Derby Points: N/A.

The two-for-two, speed-centric Newgrange waited on horses before cresting into an unmatchable far-turn gear in the GIII Sham S., leaving the impression that despite a touch of greenness, this $125,000 KEESEP colt by Violence could be the type who's up for bigger and better challenges. Seven-time Derby winner Baffert has now won eight editions of the Sham, yet Authentic in 2020 was the only one of those Sham winners to also win the Derby (Medina Spirit was second in the '21 Sham and also won the Derby).

9) 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, 3-2-0-1, $197,800. Last Start: 1st GII Remsen S. Next Start: Aiming for GIII Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 5. KY Derby Points: 10.

In this age of fewer starts for A-list horses, some sophomores–including highly heralded ones every year–get very deep into their Derby prep seasons without having been truly tested in a stretch fight. That won't be the case with Mo Donegal, who athletically tipped out past four frontrunners at the head of the lane before bumping and grinding through a :12.33 final furlong in the GII Remsen S. to prevail by a hard-fought nose. That was a much more impressive effort than it might appear considering this $250,000 KEESEP buy was facing winners for the first time while stretching out to the 1 1/8-mile distance. His MSW win at 1 1/16 miles was no slouch either, as Mo Donegal was roused from midpack to close an open-length gap late in the lane. Even his career debut–seemingly a throwout race on paper–was of the sneaky-good variety. Mo Donegal broke slowly from the rail in a 6 1/2-furlong sprint, checked at the half-mile pole, was still double-digit lengths off the leaders turning for home, then rallied determinedly to snag third before galloping out past everyone after the wire.

10) 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: GSP, 2-1-1-0, $99,500. Last Start: 2nd GII Remsen S. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 4.

Trainer Chad Brown has favorably compared Zandon to his 2017 GI Preakness S. winner Cloud Computing; both colts won their MSW debuts going short even though neither was really cut out to be a sprinter. Stretching all the way out to nine furlongs in the GII Remsen S., this $170,000 KEESEP colt by Upstart stalked effectively behind a tepid pace, split horses in upper stretch, then had a visually impressive and roughly run throwdown/showdown with nose winner Mo Donegal. Earlier this month, Brown told TDN he was on the fence between what now appears to be a deep Holy Bull S. and the Risen Star S., which we learned this week will feature No. 1-ranked Smile Happy. Neither figure to be an easy spot, but Zandon could prove to be an overlooked entity at decent odds in either one of those stakes.

11) 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: SW & GSP, 4-2-1-0. Last Start: 2nd GIII Lecomte S. Next Start: Possible for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 19. KY Derby Points: 14.

Epicenter won several internal battles within Saturday's Lecomte S., but he got pipped at the wire to just lose the overall war. The effort was strong enough to launch him into the Top 12. And yes, the two horses who ran second and third in the Lecomte are both ranked higher than the out-of-the-clouds winner, because these ratings try not to rely too heavily on who-beat-whom recency at the expense of the bigger picture. Epicenter established control by the time the field hit the first turn, and although he ran slower consecutive quarter miles on the front end at each call, he gets style points for turning back a wall of horses off the turn when he could have just as easily cracked under pressure. Epicenter repulsed the favorite, Pappacap, in a length-of-stretch fight, then galloped out stronger and longer than the unexpected long shot who rolled by him with mid-track momentum. The top two, separated by a head, shared 88 Beyer Speed Figures.

12) JACK CHRISTOPHER (c, Munnings–Rushin No Blushin, by Half Ours) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Jim Bakke, Gerald Isbister, Coolmore Stud & Peter M. Brant. B-Castleton Lyons & Kilboy Estate (KY). T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $145,000 RNA ylg '20 FTKSEL; $135,000 ylg '20 FTKOCT. Lifetime Record: GISW, 2-2-0-0, $330,000. Last Start: 1st GI Champagne S. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 10.

Jack Christopher gets a little bit of a haircut in this week's rankings, dropping from No. 7 to No. 12, but that's a reflection of his inactivity rather than potential ability. This Munnings colt is recovering from a stress fracture discovered after he was scratched as the morning-line fave for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and although the GI Champagne S. victor rejoined trainer Brown in Florida earlier this month, he's yet to post a published workout. “He's going to be up against it, that's for sure,” Brown told TDN earlier this month when asked about making the Derby. “I don't want to rule anything out…but he's certainly behind. To get him to go a mile and a quarter I'm going to need to have something under his belt. We'll see where he takes us and if he doesn't make [the Derby] we have several other races we'd love to target with him.”

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Call Me Midnight (Midnight Lute): Blasted home a $59 winner from well off the tailgate in Saturday's Lecomte. Trainer Keith Desormeaux said Risen Star S. is next for this four-time auction entrant ($25,000 KEENOV; $37,0000 RNA at KEESEP; $17,000 OBSOCT; $80,000 OBSMAR).

Early Voting (Gun Runner): This $200,000 KEESEP colt for trainer Brown broke his maiden in a one-turn mile and is being pointed for GIII Withers S. at Aqueduct Feb. 5.

Major General (Constitution): The two-for-two winner of the Sept. 18 GIII Iroquois S. at Churchill ($265,000 KEEJAN; $420,000 KEESEP) is three breezes into his '22 comeback for trainer Pletcher, with early March preps on his radar.

Rattle N Roll (Connect): Saturday was the first breeze back for this 81-Beyer, 4 1/4 -length GI Breeders' Futurity S. victor ($55,000 KEENOV, $210,000 KEESEP). He then missed the Breeders' Cup with a foot abscess; could resurface in Mar. 12 GII Tampa Bay Derby.

Slow Down Andy (Nyquist): Reddam homebred a bit erratic through the long Los Al stretch, but prevailed in five-entrant GII Los Alamitos Futurity.

Tiz the Bomb (Hit It a Bomb): Runner-up in GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (FTKSEL $330,000) goes back to dirt in Holy Bull S. on Feb. 5. He wired an off-grass mile MSW at Ellis Park last July.

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