TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

TDN Derby Top 12 for Mar. 5

The GII Fountain of Youth S. this past Saturday was the only major GI Kentucky Derby prep of the weekend, but it produced five horses ranked within this week’s Top 12. This coming Saturday’s triple-header of preps at Santa Anita, Aqueduct and Tampa Bay Downs could be the first true make-or-break weekend that causes serious upheaval in the rankings. Get tied on and enjoy the ride.

1) 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, 7-3-1-1, $491,569.
Last Start: 1st, GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 16
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 19
Next Start: GII Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 23
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on War of Will. KY Derby Points: 60.

Not only does War of Will own the most authoritative 2019 prep race victory, but of the A-list sophomores who have started within the past two months, he gives the best impression that there are still deeper reserves of talent that have not yet been tapped. This €250,000 ARQMAY War Front colt has a solid, broad foundation of seven races (six at a mile or longer), and his 3-for-3 dirt transition from some very tough grass races includes a win in the slop at Churchill Downs and overcoming post 13 in a two-turn Grade II stakes. War of Will stands out among Derby candidates for consistently running well in crowded fields, as none of his races have featured fewer than 11 entrants. Bear in mind that while still a maiden, War of Will was beaten only 3 1/2 lengths in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. If he had not been fanned four wide on both turns, he might have upset that race at 15-1 odds, and then his connections might have felt compelled to keep him on the lawn instead of pursuing a Derby path. A win in the GII Louisiana Derby would give War of Will a sweep of all three Fair Grounds 3YO qualifying stakes, a feat previously accomplished by eventual Derby contenders Girvin (2017), International Star (2015), Friesian Fire (2009), and Dixieland Heat (1993).

2) 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
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI American Pharoah S., SA, Sept. 29; 1st, GI Del Mar Futurity, DMR, Sept. 3
Next Start: GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 30.

‘TDN Rising Star’ and juvenile champ Game Winner will square off against stablemate Improbable (City Zip) in Saturday’s GII San Felipe S., and it’s not often you see two undefeated horses from the same barn who are ranked within the top three of everybody’s Derby list going head to head in early March. This large-framed $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt proved at age two he has the mind and demeanor to overcome any obstacles encountered in his races, and anticipation will be high to see how he’s progressed since last seen uncorking a long, relentless drive at Churchill Downs to mow down a decent GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile field. Of particular interest will be how the pace scenario unfolds. Both Game Winner and Improbable are adept stalkers—will there be any sacrificial speed entered when the race is drawn on Wednesday? The relentless rain in the Santa Anita forecast also muddies the picture, and Baffert admitted last week that the elements have been a challenge to conditioning. “From here on out we can’t miss much time, and I don’t like the weather coming this next week,” he said. “I was training them very light during the month of January…Hopefully I’d like to get a breeze in before [Saturday] but I don’t know. I might not have a chance.”

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
Accomplishments Include: 1st, Street Sense S., CD, Nov. 2;
Next Start: Possible for GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on Improbable. KY Derby Points: 10.

When Triple Crown winner Justify went to the farm from Del Mar last summer, trainer Bob Baffert gave Improbable the honor of moving into his vacated stall. And when Improbable’s big white blaze flashed home first in the GI Los Alamitos Futurity in December, Baffert compared this $200,000 KEESEP City Zip colt favorably to Justify by noting that this ‘TDN Rising Star’ has a long stride similar to the champ’s. Improbable enters 2019 undefeated at 3-for-3, yet despite two daylight-margin stakes wins, one unchecked box is how well he will handle deep-stretch adversity against top-of-the-crop sophomores. In his only two stakes starts, Improbable has yet to have to fight back against a serious late-race bid. That will likely change when he goes up against stablemate Game Winner in the San Felipe S. Back on Breeders’ Cup weekend, there was speculation over whether Improbable’s 7 1/4-length undercard romp in the Street Sense S. was a more promising long-term indicator of Derby prowess than Game Winner’s emphatic score in the Juvenile. This Saturday, we’ll be one step closer to finding out.

4) 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: Possible for GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 54.

Code of Honor proved himself to be a nimble, agile midpack closer by winning the Fountain of Youth S. But good horses are supposed to capitalize on perfect trips and pace setups, so like Improbable ranked above, he’s going to have to show yet another “overcomes adversity” dimension (like he did when second in the GI Champagne S.) before his Derby bandwagon gets crowded. Last Saturday, a huge longshot drew favorite Hidden Scroll (Hard Spun) into a cutthroat speed duel while this first-crop Noble Mission (GB) homebred saved ground for most of the race. Code of Honor angled off the fence midway on the far turn to split horses, and did it again turning for home when he assertively claimed space in front of an overmatched Vekoma (Candy Ride {Arg}). Code of Honor didn’t shy when racing in close quarters alongside the more physically imposing (but tiring) Hidden Scroll through the lane and was kept to task to through the finish while responding to mild urging, but the onrushing Bourbon War (Tapit) was past him a jump after the wire. The GI Florida Derby is trainer Shug McGuaghey’s next-race preference, but he also mentioned the GII Wood Memorial S. and GII Blue Grass S. as outside possibilities.

5) DREAM MAKER (c, Tapit–To Dream About, by Monarchos)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O/B-John C. Oxley (KY). T-Mark Casse. Lifetime Record: 4-2-0-0, $72,850.
Last Start: 1st, Allowance/Optional Claiming, FG, Feb. 9.
Next Start: GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

The female family of ‘TDN Rising Star’ Dream Maker bears the stamp of owner/breeder John Oxley’s better-known campaigners from several decades back. Dam-sire Monarchos won the 2001 Derby after being purchased at auction by Oxley, and second dam Beautiful Pleasure was another Oxley-bought fan favorite who was voted champion older mare in 1999 after winning the GI Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday seems well within Dream Maker’s scope, and he’ll likely start favored based on his rip-roaring return to form with an 8 1/2-length, two-turn Fair Grounds allowance win Feb. 9 that included Dream Maker tearing off for an extended gallop-out after the finish. He breezed :49 for a half mile (26/87) with regular rider Florent Geroux this past Saturday, and David Carroll, who oversees trainer Mark Casse’s Fair Grounds division, said “we wanted to stretch his legs the last eighth. He finished up beautifully; it was a typical gallop out for him. He’s in a great place so hopefully he can take his game on to Tampa.”

6) 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, Jan. 26
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 5.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Hidden Scroll reportedly exited his fourth-place Fountain of Youth S. finish in good order, and his reputation did not get as banged up as one might expect when a highly hyped 6-5 favorite loses. Saturday’s Derby prep race at Gulfstream was the toughest one on paper all year, and this Hard Spun-sired Juddmonte homebred was entering it off a freakishly fast maiden debut romp. He overcame getting bumped offstride at the break but then got hooked into a too-fast (:22.80, :45.69) speed duel with a 132-1 shot who eventually faded to last, but on the far turn Hidden Scroll did adeptly repulse first- and second-run challengers before being softened up enough to give way when confronted by Code of Honor’s fresh stretch bid. “He ran good. It makes you wonder—should we have chosen an easier spot?” trainer Bill Mott said post-race. Although next-race plans are not yet firm, Juddmonte’s U.S. racing manager, Garrett O’Rourke, told TDN on Sunday that Hidden Scroll would likely remain on the Derby trail. He’ll have no shortage of backers in the betting if he goes in the Florida Derby.

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: GIII Gotham S., AQU, Mar. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Instagrand (Into Mischief) is heading to New York this Saturday for his long-anticipated comeback off what will be a 211-day layoff. You don’t often see top-level Southern California-based sophomores shipping East for Derby preps this early in the season, but Santa Anita’s recent wet weather, track closures, tough local competition for the same-day San Felipe S., and the distance of the GIII Gotham S. all factored into the decision for this $1.2 million FTFMAR co-sales-topping colt to hit the road. “After discussing races with [owner Larry Best] we decided that would be the best race for him,” trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said last week, noting that the comparatively shorter Aqueduct stakes “seems to be a better place to start going a one-turn mile rather than a mile and a sixteenth at Santa Anita. He’s been off for a while.” But the Gotham will be no cakewalk either for this ‘TDN Rising Star,’ who is likely to start favored even if Mind Control (Stay Thirsty), Much Better (Pioneerof the Nile), and possibly Knicks Go (Paynter) all turn up in the entries when the race is drawn Wednesday.

8) 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: 7th, GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 24
Next Start: Likely for GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.

Despite not being able to close into a too-fast Fountain of Youth pace that set up ideally for his late-running style, Signalman ranks higher than the second- and third-place finishers out of that race because he has the most realistic chance for major form-reversal improvement. Trainer Ken McPeek was on record prior to the race as saying that this $32,000 FTKOCT General Quarters colt didn’t need to win his 2019 debut to remain a viable Derby candidate, and he remains confident that a different horse will emerge in the GII Blue Grass S. “I think I undercooked him for the race, for one,” McPeek told TVG Sunday. “I’ll take the bullet on that. He also came back and lost a shoe in the race.” He noted that Signalman will be paired in morning training with GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up Restless Rider (Distorted Humor), who could very well be the fastest 3YO in the barn. “Signalman and Restless Rider, they’re going to be workmates for the rest of the winter here,” McPeek told TVG. “I think that actually is ideal. It reminds me of when I had [MGSWs] Take Charge Lady and Repent [in 2002]. We got those horses ready [together], and they ran some huge races off the layoff that winter.”

9) 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: 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 was the “now” juvenile within Bob Baffert’s deeply stocked stable last summer. But a displaced soft palate that required throat surgery knocked this $525,000 KEESEP Quality Road gray out of action after an odds-on defeat to stablemate Game Winner in the GI Del Mar Futurity. His comeback win in a five-horse allowance mile at Santa Anita last Friday is a welcome sign to his connections that his breathing difficulties are no longer an in-race issue. But Roadster scored under such ideal conditions—stalking a 70-1 pacemaker through moderate splits while 3-5 fave Nolo Contesto (Pioneerof the Nile) never really fired—that the effort doesn’t give us a crystal-clear indicator of how he’ll fare against stakes company. Roadster does not yet have any Kentucky Derby qualifying points, but rather than targeting a 50-pointer that might offer easier pickings out of town like the Mar. 24 GIII Sunland Derby, Baffert told Daily Racing Form on Sunday that “I think I’ll run him in the [GI] Santa Anita Derby. I’d rather run at home.”

10) MUCHO GUSTO (c, Mucho Macho ManItsagiantscauseway, by Giant’s Causeway)
‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Michael Lund Petersen. B-Teneri Farm Inc. & Bernardo Alvarez Calderon (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $14,000 Ylg ’17 KEEJAN; $95,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP; $55,000 RNA 2yo ’18 OBSMAR; $625,000 2yo ’18 EASMAY. Lifetime Record: MGSW & GISP, 4-3-1-0, $234,000.
Last Start: 1st, GIII Robert B. Lewis S., SA, Feb. 2
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 14.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Mucho Gusto is on the traveling team for trainer Bob Baffert, and will try and build on his 3-for-4 record in either the GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn Mar. 16 or the Sunland Derby at Sunland Park Mar. 24. Under regular rider Joe Talamo, this $625,000 EASMAY first-crop Mucho Macho Man colt co-bulleted with a maiden 3YO filly workmate Feb. 28 at Santa Anita after spotting her two lengths at the start of their :47.60 (1/20) half-mile drill. Learning to relax in stalk mode has been the purpose of Mucho Gusto’s recent stakes win and subsequent training. When you consider that his only defeat was a second-place effort against odds-on stablemate Improbable in December’s GI Los Alamitos Futurity (when Mucho Gusto ambitiously tried to wire the field in his first attempt at two turns), you’d have to think that the continued benefit of seasoning/maturity will harmonize well with his stamina-centric pedigree (by a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner out of a Giant’s Causeway mare).

11) 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: Possible for GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 21.

Did Bourbon War march into contention with a bold late run to aggressively grab second in the Fountain of Youth S., or was his late kick into a melted-down pace just an artifact of how the race collapsed for a closer? Your perspective on that question determines how highly you’d rank this $525,000 KEESEP Tapit colt’s try last Saturday. Most importantly, Bourbon War did surge past winner Code of Honor a jump after the wire. “He’s a horse that likes to run. I really liked his stride the last sixteenth. He just lowered his head and he really knew what he wanted,” trainer Mark Hennig said. “[Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.] said he kind of had to wait a little at the quarter pole for some room, but he said he didn’t want to ask him and have to check. So he said he waited and waited and he was just humming down the stretch… I don’t know if you always get that pace setup, but I think he’s proven he doesn’t need a pace setup. If they’re going slower he’ll race a little closer.” The Florida Derby could be next. “He’s also won at Aqueduct,” Hennig added, meaning the Wood Memorial could also be in play.

12) 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
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GIII Nashua S., AQU, Nov. 4
Next Start: Possible for GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.

I had some doubts about Vekoma going into the Fountain of Youth S. off a four-month layoff. As a May 22 foal who had only two (albeit undefeated) races under his belt, he had exhibited stretch greenness in both wins, and he was targeting the deepest stakes yet on the Derby prep calendar. But this $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt showed enough spark on Saturday to make me think he’s got some overachievement in him. Racing for the first time on Lasix, he broke alertly and carved out a sweet stalking spot as the leader of the second flight while four paths off the rail down the backstretch behind the rip-away speed duel and a third-place chaser. Approaching the top of the lane, Vekoma got second run on favored pacemaker Hidden Scroll but never totally uncoiled, and when eventual winner Code of Honor outmuscled him for position Vekoma became unfocused and resorted to shifting and drifting laterally. Still, he persisted with his run to finish third while not being overly abused in deep stretch, and if you view this effort through a “work in progress” lens, it will likely serve as a useful stepping stone to a nine-furlong stakes try.

On the bubble (alphabetical order):
Avie’s Flatter (Flatter): Top 2YO Canadian kingpin on target for Tampa Bay Derby.
Country House (Lookin At Lucky): Mott trainee on Top 12 periphery after green but game second behind War of Will in Risen Star S.
Galilean (Uncle Mo): Jerry Hollendorfer-trained 3-for-4 California-bred likely to get a shot in open-company Derby prep stakes start.
Growth Engine (Tapit): Chad Brown-trained two-turn MSW winner at Gulfstream could resurface in stakes try.
Gunmetal Gray (Exchange Rate): Deep threat could capitalize if pace sizzles and fizzles in Saturday’s San Felipe.
Harvey Wallbanger (Congrats): Last-to-first upset winner of Holy Bull S. still on target for GI Florida Derby at nine furlongs.
Knicks Go (Paynter): With Tampa tightener under his belt, could be a sneaky upset choice if he goes in the one-turn mile Gotham S.
Mihos (Cairo Prince): ‘TDN Rising Star’ lurking as figurative dark horse for presumed late March/early April stakes start.
Mind Control (Stay Thirsty): Can factor as one of the faves in Saturday’s Gotham S., but lack of two-turn success and sprint-oriented female pedigree have relegated him out of Top 12 for now.
Mucho (Blame): ‘TDN Rising Star’ was odds-on sprint winner at Gulfstream on Saturday off six-month layoff for Mott; stakes stretchout under consideration.
Sueno (Atreides): SoCal shipper achieved better-than-looks second in Oaklawn’s Southwest S. last time out.
Well Defined (With Distinction): Meets tougher cast of characters in Tampa Bay Derby after 7-1 wire job when fave failed to fire in Davis S.
Win Win Win (Hat Trick {Jpn}): Three Tampa bullets off 7 1/4-length track-record 7f stakes score there in prep for Tampa Bay Derby. Geez, do you think he handles that track pretty well?