TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

TDN Derby Top 12 for Jan. 8

January’s first three significant prep races for the GI Kentucky Derby made a small dent in the Top 12 rankings, but we’re still largely in a familiar early-season holding pattern as we await February or March starts for the prime movers and shakers. The list right now resembles a beginning-game chess board, with a few bold pawns on the advance before the bigger playmaking pieces swing into action.

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
Next Start: Uncommitted. Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 30.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 1st
The 4-for-4 GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and near-certain divisional champ in the Eclipse Awards appears to be on target for a mid-March sophomore debut, and the two most likely landing spots for this ‘TDN Rising Star’ are either the GII San Felipe S. at Santa Anita Mar. 9 or the GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn Park a week later. This $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt administered a “man against boys” dismantling of the Juvenile field that included a long, relentless drive over the same Churchill Downs strip over which the Derby will be decided. But the deck of competition will get reshuffled many more times between now and the first Saturday in May, and Game Winner will have to not only outrun his maturing peers, but history as well (the imposing 2-for-34 strike rate for the elusive Juvenile/Derby double). It does bode well for Game Winner that he brought a well-honed sense of authority to his afternoon efforts at age two, and I’m especially curious to see what type of pace presence he’ll adopt as his strength at age three considering he’s now won dueling for the lead, stalking just off of it, and coming from farther back (after losing ground with a gate bump and being hooked wide on both turns in the Breeders’ Cup).

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
Next Start: Aiming for GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 2nd

Signalman debuted in May, broke his maiden on Labor Day weekend going seven furlongs at the Spa, then made a big (but premature) move when second in the two-turn GI Breeders’ Futurity S. at Keeneland. He overcame post 13 in the Breeders’ Cup, picking off targets ahead of him with a prolonged advance from over six furlongs out, then meshing fluidly into another gear five-sixteenths from the wire before rallying for third and galloping out past presumed divisional champ Game Winner–all at astronomical 67-1 odds. He returned to action only three weeks later over the same Churchill surface, deftly outkicking 13 rivals after being covered up at the rail and taking wet kickback. So in a broad sense, this $32,000 FTKOCT General Quarters colt already has established the most solid foundation among Top 12 contenders, exhibiting a high level of large-field confidence in the process. He’ll likely await a Mar. 2 sophomore debut in the GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Park, and if Signalman does make it to the Derby, he might be the only entrant to boast a 1-1-1 record over the Churchill main track, including two top-notch efforts in the slop.

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
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on Improbable. KY Derby Points: 10.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 3rd

Back on Breeders’ Cup weekend, there was open speculation abbot whether ‘TDN Rising Star’ Improbable’s 7 1/4-length undercard romp in the Street Sense S. might have been a better long-term prep race for the Derby than stablemate Game Winner’s decisive score in the main-event Juvenile. This $200,000 KEESEP City Zip colt further built upon that building block with a subsequent flaying of five overmatched rivals in the GI Los Alamitos Futurity, and he represents a top-tier divisional threat going into his sophomore debut, which has yet to be publicly decided. In limited opportunities (3-for-3), Improbable has displayed a nice mix of aggression and energy efficiency, and he’s fairly nimble for a long-striding prospect. But he was slightly green and required stretch-run stick work to stay focused when well clear in his Street Sense win, and in the Los Al victory even trainer Bob Baffert admitted the colt looked “a little lost” before his jockey again had to prompt him to finish with his mind on the task at hand. That’s all part of the learning process, though, and not a chief concern for Improbable moving forward.

4) MIHOS (c, Cairo Prince–Feline Flatline, by Lion Heart)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Centennial Farms. B-Wayne, Gray and Bryan Lyster. T-James Jerkens. Sales History: $320,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: SW, 3-2-0-1, $108,880.
Last Start: 1st, Mucho Macho Man S., GP, Jan. 5
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
Previous Top 12 ranking: N/A

Better late than never for Mihos in the one-turn-mile Mucho Macho Man S. at Gulfstream on Saturday, which ended up drawing a solid crew for a six-horse race. In just his first start both beyond six furlongs and outside of the maiden ranks, this $320,000 KEESEP Cairo Prince colt made his own breaks in reeling in a freewheeling pacemaker by a neck, and while it didn’t hurt that Trophy Chaser (Twirling Candy) was tiring in the final few jumps to the wire, Mihos’s learning experience extends beyond what it looks like in the official chart. He broke on top, responded to being rated to the fifth in a bunched field, advanced to carve out a prime stalking spot entering the turn, then was the only deep threat willing and able to go after the otherwise home-free speedster. Mihos admirably eroded a two-length cushion in the final furlong before galloping out as if the effort left him unfazed, and that aspect of the performance enables him to leapfrog so high up into the Top 12. “He was resolute, that’s for sure. That’s kind of typical of him,” trainer Jimmy Jerkens said post-race. Added jockey Jose Ortiz: “When we got to the three-sixteenths, my horse switched leads a little late [but] I hit left-handed and he gave me a great kick. He had a target in front of him and he kept coming.”

5) 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.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 6th

‘TDN Rising Star’ Roadster maintains a Top 12 ranking purely out of respect for his crackerjack Del Mar debut last summer combined with the prognostication that he’ll rebound positively after subsequent surgery for a displaced soft palate. This $525,000 KEESEP colt (second-priciest Quality Road yearling sold at auction in 2017) has a distance-loving turf specialist half-brother in GISW Ascend (Candy Ride {Arg}), and his dam was a stakes winner sprinting on the turf at Colonial Downs. But Roadster will likely be given ample opportunity to follow in the dirt-track footsteps of his two-turn MGISW sire prior to seeing what he can do on the lawn as Plan B.

6) 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.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 8th

The 2-for-2 Vekoma is at Palm Beach Downs after winning the one-turn mile GIII Nashua S. Nov. 4. He’s a May 22 foal who will benefit from some maturing (somewhat green in both career victories), but as he awaits his next afternoon assignment, this $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt’s company lines are being buoyed by subsequent sharp performances by the horses he’s beaten. Epic Dreamer (Orb), the horse who ran second in Vekoma’s MSW score Sep. 23, came back to break his maiden next time out, then was the beaten 6-5 fave while encountering minor trip trouble in the Dec. 16 Springboard Mile. From the same MSW, third-place finisher Mihos also broke his maiden next out after losing to Vekoma; Mihos was tabbed a ‘TDN Rising Star’ in that effort, and this past Saturday at Gulfstream earned a berth into the Top 12 by winning the Mucho Macho Man S.

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.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 7th

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer saddled the two best-performing overlays in each of the last two Kentucky Derbies: Battle of Midway (Smart Strike) ran a huge third at 40-1 in 2017, and Instilled Regard (Arch) ran an admirable fourth at 85-1 last season. For some sticker-shock pari-mutuel perspective, ‘TDN Rising Star’ Instagrand closed as the 10-1 third favorite in Pool 1 of the 2019 Derby Future Wager–more than five months before the race will even be run. When you consider that this $1.2 million FTFMAR co-sales-topping son of Into Mischief only has two career sprint wins under his belt and has been unraced since Aug. 11 after being withdrawn from training by owner Larry Best, that futures price really says something about the public’s outsized expectations. The undefeated Instagrand did, however, absolutely demolish his fields in those two victories (combined margins of 20 1/4 lengths), and he has now had two three-furlong workouts at Santa Anita in anticipation of a yet-to-be-announced return race.

8) 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
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 9th

Knicks Go didn’t even have to leave his Tampa Bay Downs stall last week to exceed expectations yet again. He was named one of three finalists for the juvenile male Eclipse Award, building on the “likeable underdog” narrative he put together in October and November of his 2-year-old season. This $87,000 KEESEP Paynter colt parlayed a 70-1 wire job in Keeneland’s Breeders’ Futurity S. into a commendable 40-1 second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and although he subsequently fizzled in the slop as the fave in the Kentucky Jockey Club S., he figures to be a strong pace presence when he resurfaces about a month from now, likely in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. At the moment he’s the only January-born sophomore ranked within the Top 12, so in theory he’s got a slight seasoning advantage in terms of actual foaling date.

9) 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.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 10th

It was 15 years ago that a talented colt based in Philadelphia won his first two starts locally, then made the jump to being an unlikely Triple Crown contender by scoring in a New York stakes. That eventual dual-Classic victor was none other than Smarty Jones, and now ‘TDN Rising Star’ Maximus Mischief will opt for the Florida prep path after a similar 3-for-3, Parx-to-Aqueduct career arc to see if he can also blaze a trail to Louisville on the first Saturday in May. This $340,000 EASMAY Into Mischief sophomore seems to be honing many of the coveted tools (speed, strength, relaxed attitude when stepping up in class and stretching out in distance) that can put him into the hunt at an elite level. But if he goes next in the GII Holy Bull S., he’ll be slicing back a sixteenth of a mile in distance against higher-caliber horses, and he will not likely have the advantage of pressing/leading the pace with soft internal splits of :25.12, :50.67, and 1:14.60 like he got away with in the GII Remsen S. last month.

10) MIND CONTROL (c, Stay Thirsty–Feel That Fire, by Lightning N Thunder)
O-Red Oak Stable (Brunetti) and Madaket Stables LLC. B-Red Oak Stable. T-Gregory Sacco. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-3-1-0, $323,400.
Last Start: 1st, Jerome S., AQU, Jan. 1
Next race: Possible for GIII Withers, AQU, Feb. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.
Previous Top 12 ranking: N/A

Red Oak Stable’s homebred Mind Control earned a spot in the Top 12 with a capable, wire-to-wire annexation of the Jan. 1 Jerome S. He had dueled his way to a frontrunning score in the GI Hopeful S. at Saratoga last summer, but spiked a fever that forced him to scratch from an October stakes start at Keeneland. A poor shipping experience combined with a bad gate break then derailed his chances in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Mind Control’s Jerome effort seems to be indicative of his truer form, and he made all the pace under tag-team pressure on a drying-out Aqueduct track (which might explain some moderate internal splits). Jockey John Velazquez said “I remembered from Saratoga he opens up and he waits, so I waited until they came after him to get after him really hard and he responded really well.” Trainer Greg Sacco said he was impressed his colt “took the heat” pace-wise, but added “he’s still green and learning.”

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
Next Start: Aiming for GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 11th

It’s early enough in the season that the Top 12 rankings have enough flexibility to include a true wild card, and Avie’s Flatter is it. The presumptive winner of the Sovereign Award for 2-year-old champion colt in Canada will be aimed for the GII Tampa Bay Derby, and although owner/breeder Ivan Dalos of Tall Oaks Farm is not an annual major player in the Triple Crown chase, his homebred Ami’s Flatter (Flatter) ran second in the 2015 Tampa Bay Derby and third in the GI Florida Derby. Think back 20 years and you might recall another blast from the past that Dalos bred and sold as a $25,000 KEESEP yearling: Victory Gallop, who was second in both the 1998 Derby and GI Preakness S. before denying Real Quiet the Triple Crown in the GI Belmont S.

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.
Previous Top 12 ranking: 12th

Cairo Cat debuted as a grass route prospect when eighth in a MSW on opening weekend at the Spa, then was entered back on the lawn and upset an off-the-turf rainout at 18-1 odds going seven-eighths over a “good” main track. Perhaps thinking he was better intended as a turfer, bettors let him go at 17-1 in the Sep. 15 Iroquois S. at Churchill Downs, and this $130,000 FTKJUL Cairo Prince colt kicked from tenth along the rail before angling off the fence to gun down the all-out fave for a half-length win. He’s currently readying for a 2019 campaign at Payson Park with no comeback race publicly announced.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order)
Bankit (Central Banker): Nice last-to-second move in Springboard Mile S.; stabled at Oaklawn and aiming for Jan. 25 Smarty Jones S.
Code of Honor ( Noble Mission {GB}): Bounced out of Top 12 for failing to fire as 4-5 fave in Mucho Macho Man S.
Coliseum (Tapit): Speedy ‘TDN Rising Star’ needs mental makeover after no-show sixth at 3-5 odds in GIII Sham S.
Gray Attempt (Graydar): Should be pace presence in Smarty Jones S. off Dec. 22 Sugar Bowl S. wire job.
Gunmetal Gray (Exchange Rate): Got ideal speed setup to rally from last and benefited from 3-5 favored rival going missing in action in Saturday’s Sham S.
Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy): Could inherit favoritism in Smarty Jones S. after back-to-back stakes wins at Remington.
Network Effect (Mark Valeski): Chad Brown trainee breezing at Palm Meadows after seconds in both Remsen and Nashua S.
Mucho Gusto (Mucho Macho Man): ‘TDN Rising Star’ training at Santa Anita but could hit road for next start considering glut of talent in Baffert barn.
Tackett (Limehouse): Fair Grounds maiden and allowance winner will step up in GII Lecomte S. Trainer Michael Stidham said he’s “probably our top two year old turning three.”
War of Will (War Front): Might be force at Fair Grounds in GIII Lecomte S. Trainer Mark Casse said from day one “he’s always seemed special.”