TDN Derby Top 12 for Jan. 4


Pappacap | Benoit Photo


We're inside the 125-day mark for the May 7 GI Kentucky Derby. The initial Top 12 rankings are largely based on 2-year-old form, but a speculative element is baked into the equation with an eye toward projecting how these still-developing contenders will blossom over the next four months.

1) PAPPACAP (c, Gun Runner–Pappascat, by Scat Daddy)
O/B-Rustlewood Farm, Inc. (FL). T-Mark E. Casse. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 5-2-2-0, $576,000. Last Start: 2nd GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile presented by TAA. Next Start: GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 22. KY Derby Points: 12

Pappacap's past performance block might not suggest an obvious number-one ranking. After all, this is a colt who hasn't won a race since Aug. 7. But when you scrutinize the way this hard-trying Gun Runner homebred for Rustlewood Farm has gone about his business, the intangibles stack in his favor.

Pappacap was fast enough to win at first asking May 14 (pressured intensely by another dueler while the two opened up eight lengths), and he has been an alert breaker in all five of his starts. He's also shown a high level of comfort stalking in a covered-up position; has displayed poise beyond his peers in making multiple in-race moves; and, even in losing efforts, Pappacap noticeably digs in when he senses rivals closing on him. His runner-up try at 15-1 in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile fused many of those attributes: Pappacap led briefly the first few jumps, fought a rating hold through the first turn, settled onto the backstretch, then edged up to be jointly second 3 1/2  furlongs out. Asked for his best approaching the quarter pole, Pappacap was “on hold” in tight quarters for about six strides before shooting a narrow gap and earnestly responding to rousing, but the lone-speed fave was beyond his catching at 1 1/16 miles.

He'll try the New Orleans route to Louisville, and if he wins the GIII Lecomte S., Pappacap will be the third winner of that stakes in the past four years for trainer Mark Casse (who took the '19 and '20 editions but had no entrant last year).

2) 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: Possible for GIII Southwest S., OP, Jan. 29. KY Derby Points: 10

Physically imposing 'TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy produced the most visually arresting two-turn debut of any juvenile last season when he accelerated in hand three-eighths out in his Oct. 29 Keeneland unveiling, winning at will by 5 1/2 easy lengths. Perhaps the relatively low Beyer Speed Figure of 70 for that effort allowed this son of Runhappy ($175,000 KEENOV; $185,000 FTKSEL) to go off at generously overlaid 9-2 odds (third choice) in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. in start number two. But the 90 Beyer-earning, 3 1/2-length shellacking Smile Happy administered stamped him among the top of the crop.    Although he's lightly raced, this colt has an edge over other contenders in terms of “swagger factor.” A midpack fifth on the first turn at Churchill, Smile Happy got switched out to the four path on the far bend just off the flank of the primed-to-pounce favorite, then loped into his best stride 2 1/2 furlongs out to gain a menacing position fourth off the fence turning for home. Smile Happy's response was both instant and impressive when set down for the drive in upper stretch, and there was a definite transfer of torque into another gear at the eighth pole that no one in that fairly talented field could match. After a Florida freshening and a Jan. 1 return to the Gulfstream work tab–a three-eighths breeze in :38.46 (12/17)–this colt is aiming for an Arkansas prep campaign.

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

   'TDN Rising Star' Corniche has never been headed in three front-running scores from as many starts, and the way this stylish son of Quality Road (who topped last year's OBS April sale) broke fluidly from the outermost post and was always in control through brisk splits in the Juvenile almost assuredly cemented his chances of being crowned 2-year-old champ. But since the advent of the Breeders' Cup, winners of the Juvenile have accounted for only two Derby scores from 37 runnings (Nyquist in 2016 and Street Sense in 2007)–a daunting historical trend to overcome. As a counter to that stat, Corniche's pure-speed running style meshes well with the tactical profile of the previous six Derby winners, all of whom were either wire-to-wire winners or no worse than second at internal calls.

You can't talk about this dual Grade I victor's Derby chances without bringing up the subject of trainer Bob Baffert's banishment from Churchill Downs and the inability of his entrants to earn Derby qualifying points. But at this very early stage of the season, the Top 12 rankings will focus more on the contenders themselves while issues involving Baffert's status play out.

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: Possible for GIII Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 5. KY Derby Points: 6

You don't see too many 90-Beyer, 6 1/2-length wire jobs from 13-1 firsters at the Spa. But the burden of favoritism while hung out wide from post 13 at Keeneland next time out contributed to a forgivable regression to third when this colt ambitiously forged to the front in the short-stretch GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity S.

Trainer Brian Lynch then focused on trying to get this Giant's Causeway homebred to relax during his training. The strategy worked for the most part in the Kentucky Jockey Club S., when Classic Causeway broke running from post one, then conceded the lead to a trio of pacemakers after attaining good inside position. Jockey Joel Rosario repositioned this colt to the three path entering the final turn, and Classic Causeway was on the move with eventual winner Smile Happy when the contenders stacked up four across the track at the head of the lane. Classic Causeway couldn't match strides with a much-the-best winner that day, but the runner-up effort left an impression of room for positive progression into 2022. Classic Causeway will be pointed to the Gulfstream preps while based at Palm Meadows.

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: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 0

Emmanuel forced the issue from the one hole going a one-turn mile in his Dec. 11 debut, and the way this brawny son of More Than Ready effortlessly accelerated away at the half-mile pole after posting legit splits suggests the $350,000 KEESEP colt is going to be problematic for any Derby aspirant who dares to engage him on the front end over a Gulfstream surface he so obviously relishes. Favored at 7-5 and crowned a 'TDN Rising Star' in the process of that MSW smackdown, he earned a 78 Beyer that could have been higher had he not been geared down late.

“We've had a lot of More Than Readys over the years, and this is a bigger, scopier colt than a lot of them,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “He kind of reminds me of a Verrazano type–a big, physical, strong imposing colt.”

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: Aiming for a to-be-determined Florida stakes. KY Derby Points: 4

Giant Game took over three-eighths out to win career start number two, a slow-paced, first-wire-finish route at Keeneland, and that Oct. 9 MSW has subsequently yielded three next-out winners and two well-bet runners-up. His entry into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile four weeks later was a big ask, yet it resulted in a very credible third at 21-1 odds. This $500,000 FTKSEL colt was cued to quicken out of the gate, and jockey Joe Talamo picked a ground-saving spot behind the slightly rank Pappacap. Tipped out to the three path, Giant Game loomed 3 1/2 lengths off favored frontrunner Corniche, then quickened cadence on his own accord while needing only light encouragement to briefly seize second turning for home, widest of the front five. He dug in as well as he could and never packed it in, but while Corniche expanded his winning margin, Pappacap clearly outkicked Giant Game for the place.

After a bit of a break, this well-balanced, athletic colt has recently posted two Gulfstream half-mile breezes in prep for a to-be-determined Florida stakes start.

7) 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

   'TDN Rising Star' Jack Christopher had been the 9-5 favorite on the morning line for the Juvenile when he was forced to scratch the day before that championship race with what trainer Chad Brown described at the time as a “callous on his shin that [Breeders' Cup veterinarians] were uncomfortable with.” A subsequent bone scan revealed a stress fracture, and in mid-November this Munnings colt had a screw surgically inserted to help it heal.

Expectations had been high going into the Juvenile based on an 8 1/2-length blowout debut when favored on the Travers undercard (92 Beyer), and in the one-turn-mile GI Champagne S., Jack Christopher relentlessly engaged the pacemaker on the far turn to earn a 102 Beyer under strong urging. When Jack Christopher's big white blaze eventually graces the work tab in Florida, he'll be the most closely scrutinized sophomore comebacker in the country.

8) 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: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 0

Costa Terra is flying under the radar coming off a subpar fifth when last seen in the Breeders' Futurity S. in October. But this homebred for Winchell Thoroughbreds caught the eye with enough gusto in his first two races at Ellis Park to merit consideration as a plucky fighter who has the pedigree (by Gun Runner out of a Tapit mare) to adapt to longer distances.

Costa Terra's July 1 debut in the slop was remarkable for the huge gap he closed in a five-furlong sprint, in which he looked surely beaten from the quarter pole until the final jump. He was third next, beaten half a length, despite a momentum stall on the turn and running up on heels late in the Ellis Juvenile S. before galloping out like he wanted more.

Stretched around two turns at Keeneland, Costa Terra's running line suggests he was a no-impact threat from well back. But he likely got a decent learning experience out of his four-wide journey into the first turn from post 11 before making mild progress on the far bend. He then got a two-month freshening and now has built up a work log of five steady breezes at Fair Grounds.

9) 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: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: N/A

With a 2 3/4-length win in Saturday's GIII Sham S., this Baffert trainee is two-for-two without having yet been unleashed to his full potential. This $125,000 KEESEP colt by Violence controlled an even-tempoed mile en route to an 88 Beyer (eight points better than his winning six-furlong debut). But the major visual takeaway was how effortlessly Newgrange opened up on his favored stablemate, Rockefeller (Medaglia d'Oro), three-eighths from home while Rockefeller was ridden with greater urgency.    “There was one speed, the other Bob Baffert horse, and I'm pretty sure he didn't want them in a head-and-head,” jockey John Velazquez said. “He told me to put my horse on the lead. Once my horse got to the lead he waited. I took a little hold of him [and] by the time we got to the backside I kind of let him do his own thing. I let him get in a comfortable rhythm. After that it was pretty easy. He's so green…I had to give him a little reminder to keep his mind on running. And his gallop-out was pretty good, so it still seems like he's learning.”

10) 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: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 10

Lost amid all the talk about the controversial non-DQ in the stretch run of the GII Remsen S. is the fact that Mo Donegal and Zandon (Upstart) engaged in a rousing fight from the eighth pole home that will hopefully result in a rematch of rivals. Both were stepping up off maiden wins and trying two turns for the first time, and they crossed the wire separated by only a nose with Mo Donegal in front while 9 3/4 lengths clear of the outclassed stragglers. This $250,000 KEESEP colt earned style points for how he skimmed across the heels of the four frontrunners to escape traffic at the top of the lane before grinding down Zandon while applying relentless outside pressure (described as an “attempt to intimidate” by the Equibase chart caller). The two bumped and brushed approaching the wire (final eighth in :12.33) and co-earned 89 Beyers in the only nine-furlong Derby prep for late-season 2-year-olds.


11) 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

As described above, this $170,000 KEESEP colt by Upstart turned in a big Remsen effort when second on the stretch-out from a six-furlong MSW score. He's a sizable good-looker with a nearly black coat, and he enjoyed a clean stalking trip behind a dawdling pace to get second run on two tiring long shots. After splitting horses with authority in upper stretch, this colt braced for the final-furlong confrontation with the eventual winner. And although the onrushing Mo Donegal had built better momentum, Zandon was not intimidated by being hemmed in tight at the fence, and in fact seemed emboldened by the confrontation. Mo Donegal won it by a nose, but Zandon got his head down in front just after the finish, galloping out slightly stronger and longer than his rival.

12) MAJOR GENERAL (c, Constitution–No Mo Lemons, by Uncle Mo) O-WinStar Farm LLC & Siena Farm LLC. B-Circular Road Breeders (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $265,000 ylg '20 KEEJAN; $420,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $232,525. Last Start: 1st GIII Iroquois S. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 10

The two-for-two Major General won the very first qualifying points race for the '22 Derby, the Sept. 18 GIII Iroquois S. at Churchill, but soon after was shelved for what was announced in October as a 60-day break. The winning effort by this Constitution colt stood out considering he overcame a bobble at the break and some momentum loss through the first turn. Major General then uncoiled with a big move 3 1/2 furlongs out and bumped two times with the favorite in upper stretch. The roughhousing did not dissuade this colt, and he still had enough power left late to fend off an onrushing closer to win by a neck.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Epicenter (Not This Time): Sparred with the speed then drew off without facing a serious stretch challenge in the 87-Beyer Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds Dec. 26. Lecomte looms as next start for this Steve Asmussen trainee.

Rattle N Roll (Connect): McPeek-trained winner of the Breeders' Futurity S. at Keeneland missed the Breeders' Cup with a foot abscess. Galloping at Gulfstream, but yet to post a published work.

Slow Down Andy (Nyquist): Won five-entrant GII Los Alamitos Futurity while lugging in with head cocked to grandstand through stretch. Trainer Doug O'Neill considering blinkers for next start, which could come at Oaklawn in the Southwest S.

Tiz the Bomb (Hit It a Bomb): Grade II grass winner at Keeneland and runner-up in GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf was going to try a dirt transition for trainer McPeek in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. in late November, but a left front foot infection scuttled that start. Posted first published breeze since then on Jan. 1 at Gulfstream.
White Abarrio (Race Day): Stalked and kicked late to achieve third in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. Now aiming for Holy Bull S. at Gulfstream, where this gray is two-for-two.

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