TDN Derby Top 12 for Mar. 26

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Game Winner | Coady photo

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Another weekend of preps for the GI Kentucky Derby is in the books, and favorites continue to stumble through March without posting authoritative victories that match their odds. But the calendar from here on out is loaded with nine-furlong opportunities, perhaps providing some separation between the true contenders and the early spring pretenders.

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, 5-4-1-0, $1,646,000.
Last Start: 2nd, GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Next Start: GI Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 45.
This week ‘TDN Rising Star’ Game Winner re-inherits the kingpin spot atop the Top 12 rankings that he occupied during the earlier part of the season. But considering that the top five horses on this list are all coming off explainable “learning experience” defeats, the juvenile champ does not hold as domineering a lead as he once did. This $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) bay lost the slightly (.07 seconds) faster division of the GII Rebel S. by a head bob, but you’d have to think based on both his pedigree and the way he finished that Game Winner is in line to improve at nine furlongs and beyond. We saw from the Rebel that even after a stutter-step start, he can comfortably slip into midpack stalk mode while rating willingly, and he tipped out for a prolonged bid 4 1/2 furlongs from the wire while gradually winding up for a far-turn attack. Approaching the quarter pole, it was a bit startling to see jockey Joel Rosario pumping and driving on Game Winner while Omaha Beach (War Front) kept gliding along under hand encouragement, but Game Winner determinedly closed the gap, responding to vigorous urging like he knew that’s part of the job. It was only in the final few jumps that he alternated nods with the resolute Omaha Beach, but the effort as a whole (8 1/4 lengths clear of everyone else) likely gave him what needs to uncork a more polished performance next time out in the GI Santa Anita Derby.

2) HIDDEN SCROLL (c, Hard Spun–Sheba Queen, by Empire Maker)
‘TDN Rising Star’ O/B-Juddmonte Farms, Inc. (KY). T-William I. Mott. Lifetime Record: 2-1-0-0, $50,600.
Last Start: 4th, GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Next Start: GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 5.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Hidden Scroll will be a very dangerous and legitimate favorite in Saturday’s GI Florida Derby. This Hard Spun-sired Juddmonte homebred has paired a freakishly fast maiden romp with a too-keen GII Fountain of Youth S. fourth. But his two-turn stakes debut was much better than it looks on paper considering he prevailed in an overly ambitious speed duel, then rebuffed both first and second runs on the turn before giving up ground without caving in deep stretch. Trainer Bill Mott’s primary purpose since then has been schooling Hidden Scroll behind workmates to “eat dirt” while still finishing up into the bridle, and Mott told XBTV after a bullet five-eighths in 1:02.40 (1/7) on Friday that he is satisfied with the results. “I think this horse is fine in behind horses. I think he’s fine on the lead if the pace is such that he needs to be on the lead,” he said. “Some horses will tend to kind of fall apart on you after a real hard race, but he seems like he’s done well. He’s just one of those horses that gets better with the work. He’s got a really good hindquarter on him. He’s not a big, heavy horse in front, which is to his advantage. I think it’s good not to be [too] bulky. He’s really a streamlined sort of horse. He’s got a good hip, a lot of power, yet not so heavy that it’s going to work against him.”

3) 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, 6-2-2-1, $452,990.
Last Start: 7th, GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Next Start: GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.
I’m betting that Signalman will run big in his final test before the Derby, the GII Blue Grass S. at Keeneland Apr. 6. It really seemed like that was his main target prep race all along, and when you consider all the variables from his uncharacteristic seventh in the Fountain of Youth S.–a very deep race on paper, the admission by trainer Ken McPeek that Signalman wasn’t trained tightly enough off the layoff, his losing a shoe at some point in the race–this $32,000 FTKOCT General Quarters colt now seems poised to build on the prowess he displayed at the end of his 2-year-old season. McPeek has touted Signalman as a strong horse with speed and smarts, and his prolonged up-the-rail move against 13 rivals on a sloppy Churchill Downs surface to win the Nov. 24 GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. still stands out as one of the more visually impressive juvenile stakes from last year. He also finished within 3 1/4 lengths of Game Winner in the Breeders’ Cup, and has been in the money in all three Churchill starts (two over wet tracks).

4) 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, 4-3-1-0, $419,520.
Last Start: 2nd, GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on Improbable. KY Derby Points: 25.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Improbable checked the “overcomes adversity” box by turning in a credible second in his division of the Mar. 16 Rebel S. Considering the change-of-plans shipping experience, crowded Oaklawn indoor paddock, outside post, and getting hung four wide on both turns, it’s obvious that this $200,000 KEESEP City Zip chestnut got something useful out of the race. And yes, he became a touch unfocused in mid-stretch when he hit the lead and had his big, white blaze cocked to the grandstand. But he stayed on pretty well through the final furlong given he hadn’t raced in three months and was intentionally not fully cranked to peak in mid-March. He’ll be a tighter contender with a touch more demanding training under his belt between now and his next planned start in the Apr. 13 GI Arkansas Derby. But part of what trainer Bob Baffert wanted to avoid this spring with his top sophomores was multiple shipping excursions, and if Improbable starts in both another Oaklawn race and the Kentucky Derby, that will make for three separate trips east from California within a seven-week span for this colt.

5) WAR OF WILL (c, War FrontVisions of Clarity {Ire}, by Sadler’s Wells)
O-Gary Barber. B-Flaxman Holdings Limited (KY). T-Mark Casse. Sales History: $175,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP; €250,000 2yo ’18 ARQMAY. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 8-3-1-1, $501,569.
Last Start: 9th, GII Louisiana Derby, Mar. 23
Next Start: Possible for GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 4
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on War of Will. KY Derby Points: 60.
Almost everyone agrees that War of Will’s loss in the GII Louisiana Derby is a throwout because of his scary slipping/loss of action leaving the starting gate. The big question is will the reportedly strained ligaments in his right hind leg prevent him from training purposefully up to the Kentucky Derby? Trainer Mark Casse can be expected to err on the side of caution, so as long as this $298,550 ARQMAY War Front colt remains aimed for the Derby, he still belongs with the top half of the pack in these rankings based on his well-constructed resume of dirt victories since transitioning from equally impressive grass starts. Prior to Saturday’s botched effort at Fair Grounds, he has consistently run well in crowded fields as an aggressive stalker who can make his own breaks, and his previous two New Orleans stakes wins were among the most authoritative prep race victories of 2019. If he’s not deemed ready for the main-track rigors of the Triple Crown, War of Will would be the logical favorite for the New York Turf Triple series, which commences July 6.

6) OMAHA BEACH (c, War Front-Charming, by Seeking the Gold)
O-Fox Hill Farms, Inc. B-Charming Syndicate (KY). T-Richard Mandella. Sales History: $625,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-2-3-1, $521,800.
Last Start: 1st, GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 37.5.
After four narrowly beaten-fave tries, Omaha Beach finally blasted through the maiden ranks with a nine-length shellacking of his SoCal foes on Feb. 2, and bettors thought highly enough of that effort to make him the second choice behind 2-year-old champ Game Winner in the second division of the Rebel S. That showdown did, in fact, turn out to be a two-horse race, with the top two contenders in the wagering clearing of the rest of the overmatched pack by 8 1/4 lengths after a stirring length-of-stretch hookup. This War Front colt earned major style points by breaking alertly, rating to third on the clubhouse bend, then targeting and inhaling a 48-1 pacemaker while still having plenty left in reserve to throw down with a far more seasoned competitor while pinned on the inside for the better part of two furlongs. Omaha Beach displayed an admirable competitive streak when put to sustained pressure by the division leader, and he extended the effort well through his gallop-out after nosing out Game Winner at the wire.

7) 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: GSW & GISP, 4-2-1-0, $384,820.
Last Start: 1st, GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Next Start: GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 54.
Code of Honor got shuffled back a bit in this week’s rankings (from No. 4), largely because of my perception that this first-crop Noble Mission (GB) homebred benefitted greatly from a ground-saving gift trip and pace meltdown in his Fountain of Youth S. win. In a sense, he’s going to have to prove himself again in the Florida Derby, and even after that there will be lingering questions about his lighter physical frame and the fact that he’s a May 23 foal. But on the plus side, Code of Honor is a very nimble mover whose efficient stride could be a plus in a 20-horse race like the Kentucky Derby, and he has been able to handle the more assertive conditioning that trainer Shug McGaughey has thrown his way over the past several months.

8) 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, 3-2-0-1, $106,200.
Last Start: 1st, Allowance/Optional Claiming, SA, Mar. 1
Next Start: GI Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Roadster remains on the Derby periphery largely because of how highly hyped he was last summer at Del Mar. But with a lone 2019 allowance win serving as his comeback race off of surgery to fix a displaced soft palate, this $525,000 KEESEP Quality Road gray is on the outside looking in with zero qualifying points. He’s scheduled to start next in the Santa Anita Derby and will likely require a first- or second-place finish to earn a points berth, and that will mean going head to head against stablemate Game Winner. That’s ironic, because last September when Roadster was considered the top 2-year-old in the Baffert barn, it was the eventual divisional champ who beat him in the GI Del Mar Futurity. Roadster currently isn’t scaring away any competition, but considering who trains him and how mercurial the entire crop has been so far this season, he’s just one explosive race away from vaulting into contention as a plausible play on the first Saturday in May.

9) BOURBON WAR (c, Tapit–My Conquestadory, by Artie Schiller)
O-Bourbon Lane Stable & Lake Star Stable. B-Conquest Stables (KY). T-Mark Hennig. Sales History: $410,000 Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $525,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSP, 4-2-1-0, $155,100. Last Start: 2nd, GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Next Start: GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 21.
The most intriguing aspect of Bourbon War’s most recent Derby prep isn’t reflected in his past performance line: He surged past Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor a jump after the wire, and his gallop-out was stronger and longer than the winner’s. Nine furlongs in Saturday’s Florida Derby seems within his scope, but questions about his ability to excel in A-level races center on whether or not he requires a favorable pace setup to rally into. This $525,000 KEESEP colt’s trainer, Mark Hennig, has indicated that Bourbon War can sit closer to the lead if need be, and it’s worth noting that this colt won his one-turn mile maiden by stalking in third, about a length off the leader. “He’s made great progress. I think that first race really woke him up a lot. He’s a horse that was never really enthusiastic as a training horse prior to running,” Hennig said of that Nov. 14 Aqueduct debut. “Once he ran, the light came on for him. It’s been quite a wake-up for him. He’s a typical Tapit that was bored of all the training and was ready for some race experience.”

10) LONG RANGE TODDY (c, Take Charge Indy–Pleasant Song, by Unbridled’s Song)
O/B-Willis Horton Racing, LLC (KY). T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-4-1-1, $851,125.
Last Start: 1st, GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 53.5.
Despite a 4-1-1 record from seven starts that includes three stakes wins (and never losing by more than two lengths) Long Range Toddy is a capable, under-the-radar sort who has a pedigree to run well at Classics distances. His winning trip in the first division of the Rebel S. was pretty impressive: This Take Charge Indy homebred broke on top, settled comfortably at the rail to concede the lead, and held his position well while the pack shifted outside of him. Then in the stretch he adeptly shifted, two, three, and eventually four paths wide to avoid getting caught on heels while finishing with purpose to gun down 2-5 fave Improbable. He has a decent foundation of five two-turn races, but is likely to start at another underdog price (he’s never been favored) when he goes in the Arkansas Derby.

11) 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, 3-2-0-1, $188,850.
Last Start: 3rd, GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Next Start: Likely for GI Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.
The farther down the pecking order of Derby contenders you get, the more dependent next-race prep choices tend to be based on matchups of who else is going where, and that seems to be part of a realistic game plan for Vekoma. “Right now we’ve got three options on the table,” trainer George Weaver said last Friday. “We’re looking at the Florida Derby, the [GII] Wood [Memorial S.], and the Blue Grass.” This $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt didn’t duck any heavy hitters when Weaver entered him in the very deep Fountain of Youth S., and although Vekoma was once again green through the lane, he never packed it in or stopped trying when it was clear he wouldn’t win. “We thought he ran well in his comeback race,” Weaver said of the third-place try. “I thought it was a solid effort and he’s been training forwardly since then. He was a May 22 foal, so he’s really been starting to fill out and you can see the maturity he’s gained over the winter and he’s continuing to grow.”

12) TACITUS (c, Tapit–Close Hatches, by First Defence)
O/B-Juddmonte Farms, Inc. (KY). T-Bill Mott. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-0-0, $253,000.
Last Start: 1st, GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 9
Next Start: Possible for GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50.
Before Hidden Scroll blossomed, Tacitus was considered the primary Juddmonte-bred Derby hopeful in trainer Bill Mott’s barn. He’s a large-framed runner who is light on experience (2-for-3), and this gray son of Tapit takes quite a while to uncoil and find his best stride in workouts and races. His first-time-Lasix win in the GII Tampa Bay Derby is a little tough to gauge considering no one else was truly firing in the final furlong. But Tacitus did everything he was asked, rating willingly, securing a nice midpack stalking spot, and responding to a rousing ride by slipping through an inside path through traffic. “He’s a big horse and when he made the lead, he didn’t keep going; he kind of waited a little bit,” jockey Jose Ortiz said after that win. “He does everything so easy and I don’t know if he’s given me 100% yet [in his three races].” The Apr. 6 Wood Memorial is likely next, although Mott indicated there’s an outside chance Tacitus could go in the same-date Blue Grass S.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order)
By My Standards (Goldencents): On to Louisville after 22-1 pick-up-the-pieces Louisiana Derby upset.
Country House (Lookin At Lucky): Could have a dark-horse shot to redeem Louisiana Derby fourth if he goes in the Arkansas Derby.
Cutting Humor (First Samurai): Track-record GIII Sunland Derby win gives trainer Todd Pletcher an interesting late-blooming Derby chance.
Haikal (Daaher): Wide and driving GIII Gotham S. winner “hopefully won’t have to have a hot pace” in front of him to repeat in Wood Memorial, per trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
Harvey Wallbanger (Congrats): Last-to-first upset winner of Holy Bull S. will be another big price yet again in Florida Derby.
Instagrand (Into Mischief): Veil of next-race secrecy continues to shadow this colt, who is reportedly training toward an early April start. Will it be the Santa Anita Derby or something less ambitious?
Mucho Gusto ( Mucho Macho Man): Made the pace but couldn’t sustain it when third as fave in Sunland Derby, which dropped him out of the Top 12.
Spinoff (Hard Spun): Credible second in Louisiana Derby earned him 40 qualifying points; his light 2019 schedule so far still allows for a start in Arkansas Derby if Pletcher deems it necessary.

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