TDN Kentucky Derby Top 12 for Apr. 5

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White Abarrio | Coglianese Photo

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Seven horses among the current Top 12 will be in action Saturday in the last nine-furlong preps of the season. This past weekend's trio of stakes at Gulfstream, Oaklawn and Turfway dislodged former No. 1 contender Classic Causeway (Giant's Causeway), but no winners from those races vaulted into the upper echelon. The rankings below are independent from the “Road to the GI Kentucky Derby” points leaderboard Churchill Downs uses to determine starting berths. Access that list here.

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, 3-2-1-0, $364,810. Last Start: 2nd GII Risen Star S. Next Start: GI Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 30.

   'TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy coasts into the second Saturday of April with a 2-for-3 record that includes assertive juvenile form and one forgivable loss at three. This confidently powerful son of Runhappy ($175,000 KEENOV; $185,000 FTKSEL) got pocketed, moved too late, then ran up on heels under a full head of steam while second in the GII Risen Star S. behind the No. 2-ranked Epicenter (Not This Time). But it only took two jumps after the wire for Smile Happy to gallop out abreast of that geared-down rival, and the 94 Beyer Speed Figure he earned for the runner-up effort added to his upward-trending three-race arc. On Saturday at Keeneland, Smile Happy will return to the scene of his career unveiling, an emphatic 5 1/2-length victory in which he accelerated in hand three-eighths out to win with panache over a short-stretch, 1 1/16 miles configuration.

Smile Happy already showed no signs of wilting at nine furlongs in New Orleans. But 10 furlongs in the Derby? Smile Happy's sire was the 2015 champion sprinter. But his dam-sire, Pleasant Tap, was third in the 1990 Derby and won champion older horse honors in '92, and Derby winners like Super Saver and Pleasant Colony aren't too far back on each side of Smile Happy's pedigree.

2) 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: MGSW, 6-4-1-0, $1,010,639. Last Start: 1st GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 164.

Epicenter brings nearly impeccable credentials to the Derby: He breaks like a pro, attains speed-centric positioning, withstands up-tempo paces, fights when challenged, finishes strongly, is capable of triple-digit Beyers, has won at 1 3/16 miles, has won at Churchill, and has only lost once (barely) in the past six months. Yet he's facing several historical hurdles.

Trainer Steve Asmussen is 0-for-23 in the Derby, the longest active drought on record. Epicenter's most recent prep, the GII Louisiana Derby, which dates to 1894, has only yielded two horses who crossed the finish wire first in the Kentucky Derby (in 1924 and 1996). And only two horses since 1929 have won the first leg of the Triple Crown off a six-week break like Epicenter will be trying to do (Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Needles in 1956 did it; Authentic's 49-day layoff in 2020 occurred when the Derby got rescheduled to September). If Epicenter winds up being the third choice or higher in the Derby, he could represent betting value.

3) MESSIER (c, Empire Maker–Checkered Past, by Smart Strike) 'TDN Rising Star' O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert E. Masterson, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine M. Donovan, Golconda Stable & Siena Farm LLC. B-Sam-Son Farm (ON). T-Tim Yakteen. Sales History: $470,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: 5-3-2-0, $285,600. Last Start: 1st GIII Robert B. Lewis S. Next Start: GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 0.

As he primes for his final prep in Saturday's GI Santa Anita Derby, Messier–looking ahead one race–will be attempting to be the first Canadian-bred since Sunny's Halo in 1983 to win the Kentucky Derby. The only other Canadian-bred to win the Derby? The great Northern Dancer in 1964. Given the connection between his home country and hockey star namesake (Mark Messier), the Toronto Sun recently profiled this 'TDN Rising Star' and $470,000 FTKSEL bay by Empire Maker.     “He's big, robust, long-striding, athletic, well-balanced and most importantly, mentally a very focused colt,” said Tom Ryan of SF Racing, part of Messier's multi-partner ownership. “He knows his job and he enjoys his job.” Ryan further told the Sun that the recent training transition from Bob Baffert to Tim Yakteen has gone “incredibly well” under the “unfortunate” circumstances related to Baffert's suspension. “Messier, himself, he doesn't know. He's settled into his new surroundings very well. He's being cared for at the same elite level with Tim as he was with Bob. The foundation has already been laid and now it's just a matter of hoping we can maintain him and he continues on that upwards trajectory and he can be competitive at the elite level.”

4) 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, 4-2-0-2, $221,800. Last Start: 3rd GIII Holy Bull S. Next Start: GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 12.

Mo Donegal hasn't been to work in the afternoon in two months, but his stock has ticked upward based on the subsequent graded stakes wins racked up by the winner, runner-up, and seventh-place finisher out of the GIII Holy Bull S. This $250,000 KEESEP Uncle Mo bay ran a trip-troubled third as the beaten fave in that Feb. 5 stakes, and he'll be stretching back out to his most recent winning distance and surface when he goes as the likely chalk in Saturday's GII Wood Memorial S. at Aqueduct.

Although the GII Remsen S. itself has fallen off the map as a producer of Derby winners (only three horses won both stakes in the last 58 years–Thunder Gulch, Go For Gin and Pleasant Colony)–it was still pretty impressive back in early December to see Mo Donegal bump and grind through a hard-fought final furlong in :12.33 to prevail by a nose over the well-regarded Zandon (Upstart).

5) 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: MGSP, 3-1-1-0, $139,500. Last Start: 3rd GII Risen Star S. Next Start: GI Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 14.

Provided he makes the qualifying cut, Zandon will go into the Derby with three consecutive nine-furlong preps, which is something you don't generally see these days–especially when the colt in question will only have four lifetime starts.

Considering this $170,000 KEESEP colt has only a MSW sprint win to his credit, he's been well supported by Derby prognosticators all winter long, chiefly on the premise that he's persevered well through two rough/unlucky trips in the GII Remsen S. and the GII Risen Star S.

On Saturday, Zandon will partner with Flavien Prat for the first time, and it's also a little out of the ordinary to see such a highly ranked horse be ridden by four different jockeys in as many starts. But here's another stat to chew on in case you don't think this lightly raced Chad Brown trainee belongs with the top of the crop: The only horses who have ever finished in front of Zandon are ranked at Nos. 1, 2 and 4 on this list.

6) SIMPLIFICATION (c, Not This Time–Simply Confection, by Candy Ride {Arg}) O-Tami Bobo. B-France & Irwin Weiner (FL). T-Antonio Sano. Sales History: $50,000 wlg '19 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 7-3-1-2, $515,350. Last Start: 3rd GI Curlin Florida Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 74.

Although he finished third in the GI Florida Derby, Simplification delivered the performance that rates above the two rivals who beat him. He applied direct pressure to front-running Classic Causeway, and even though he cracked that rival with little resistance 4 1/2 furlongs out, the move by jockey Jose Ortiz appeared premature when Pappacap (Gun Runner) immediately launched a go-for-broke bid that hooked both of them into a far-turn slugfest through the fastest quarter-mile segment (:23.44) of the race. When confronted anew by White Abarrio (Race Day) at the head of the lane, Simplification made the eventual winner work until the eighth pole to wrest command, and this colt hung in as well as he could without being pumped dry before Kentucky Derby day. He's sixth on the points list for Louisville, where his tactical speed and résumé of five 90-plus Beyers will rate him as a legit threat in the 15-1 range.

7) WHITE ABARRIO (c, Race Day–Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief) O-C2 Racing Stable LLC and La Milagrosa Stable, LLC. B-Spendthrift Farm LLC (KY). T-Saffie A. Joseph, Jr. Sales History: $7,500 ylg '20 OBSWIN; $40,000 2yo '21 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-4-0-1, $823,650. Last Start: 1st GI Curlin Florida Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 112.

He's smaller in stature and his auction history ($7,500 OBSWIN; $40,000 OBSMAR) is more modest than most of his peers, but this athletic Race Day gray has punched above his weight through a five-race career. Yes, you can argue that White Abarrio's two graded stakes scores came over his home court at Gulfstream when he encountered clear sailing while favorites either ran into trip trouble (the Holy Bull S.) or embroiled themselves in a tactical meltdown (the Florida Derby). But at some point, even detractors have to acknowledge the admirable fact that White Abarrio keeps finding ways to win. It's also to his credit that his only loss was a respectable third in the most meaningful juvenile prep race from last autumn (the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S.). White Abarrio gave up real estate on both turns Saturday, yet he has a nimble enough way of going to think that he could have an advantage fighting for position in a crowded 20-horse race like the Derby.

8) 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: 3-2-0-0, $69,600. Last Start: 4th GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. Next Start: GI Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 5.

We won't see the entries until Wednesday, but the Blue Grass S. could shake out with 'TDN Rising Star' Emmanuel as the controlling speed. That's provided this physically imposing son of More Than Ready reverts to seeking the lead like he did in his first two victories against MSW and allowance company. In the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., this $350,000 KEESEP colt rated from off the pace while four and then five wide on the turns, but his middle move was decent enough considering the lost ground (229 feet more than the winner) and it being his first try against graded stakes company. Trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Blue Grass on three previous occasions (Carpe Diem 2015, Monba '08 and Bandini '05).

9) FORBIDDEN KINGDOM (c, American Pharoah–Just Louise, by Five Star Day) O-MyRacehorse & Spendthrift Farm LLC. B-Springhouse Farm (KY). T-Richard E. Mandella. Sales History: $300,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 5-3-1-1, $434,000. Last Start: 1st GII San Felipe S. Next Start: GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 50.

What Saturday's Santa Anita Derby will lack in depth should be more than offset by the headline match-up of Forbidden Kingdom vs. Messier. The race promises to be a classic clash of true California speed horses, although this front-running son of American Pharoah ($300,000 FTKSEL) will probably be asked to tone down his blitzing early pace presence while Messier might be in the process of honing his quickness out of the gate. Messier won their only previous head-to-head (the GIII Bob Hope S. back in November), but Forbidden Kingdom has emerged as a stronger, more intimidating colt at age three with 94- and 98-Beyer wirings in a pair of Grade II stakes.

10) EARLY VOTING (c, Gun Runner–Amour d'Ete, by Tiznow) O-Klaravich Stables, Inc. B-Three Chimneys Farm, LLC (KY). T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $200,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $181,500. Last Start: 1st GIII Withers S. Next Start: GII Wood Memorial, AQU, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 10.

Should Early Voting win Saturday's Wood Memorial, he'd go into the Derby with a 3-for-3 lifetime record, all at Aqueduct. An all-New York Derby campaign is a little offbeat these days, but this $200,000 KEESEP buy has been cautiously handled as a late bloomer who has already wired a nine-furlong stakes. The Wood pace pressure should be torqued up a notch or two, but Early Voting's style so far has been based on sustained intensity, and his MSW win in a one-turn mile showed he can deal with multiple threats on the front end while still having enough power left in reserve to swat away stern stretch bids.

11) CHARGE IT (c, Tapit–I'll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie) 'TDN Rising Star' O/B-Whisper Hill Farm (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Lifetime Record: GISP, 3-1-1-0, $230,400. Last Start: 2nd GI Curlin Florida Derby. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 40.

'TDN Rising Star' Charge It uncorked the type of performance in the Florida Derby that whets the appetite to see what he will do over longer distances with a little more seasoning. The open question is whether his three-race foundation is enough to launch him into contention as a ready-for-prime-time Derby horse.

This Whisper Hill Farm homebred was briefly favored prior to the closing of odds on Saturday, which is saying a lot considering the son of Tapit was making his first two-turn attempt against Grade I company. He definitely got a good schooling out of the experience–bumped out of the gate, learned how to rate while covered up under mild restraint, and ran well in spots through the lane while excusably green. But he really had to be roused by jockey Luis Saez from the far turn all the way to the wire, and he ran up on White Abarrio's heels twice in the final quarter mile while also losing momentum from repeatedly veering in and out. There were some noticeable spurts of interest through the stretch. But when you consider that four other horses had already taken turns on the lead after three consecutive sub-24-second quarter splits and a fourth quarter that devolved to :25.87, Charge It couldn't seal the deal when handed a soft :14.09 final eighth.

12) BARBER ROAD (c, Race Day–Encounter, by Southern Image) O-WSS Racing, LLC. B-Susan Forrester & Judy Curry (KY). T-John Alexander Ortiz. Sales History: $15,000 wlg '19 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: GISP, 8-2-3-1, $650,720. Last Start: 2nd GI Arkansas Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 58.

I'm going to lob a bomb onto the caboose of this week's Top 12 by making a case for hard-charging Barber Road, described by his trainer, John Ortiz, as a “tough little horse.”

This unsung gray by Race Day ($15,000 KEENOV) nearly always outruns his odds despite traffic woes, and his attempted takedown of the shifting and drifting leader in Saturday's GI Arkansas Derby got derailed by Barber Road's running up onto the back end of a tiring pacemaker before refocusing with grit to snatch second from the favorite–all while losing a shoe amid the chaos.

Barber Road has eight races under his belt, has run well at Churchill (a 6 1/4-length win and a second, beaten half a length), and has gained ground and position in the stretch of every race at age three. True, he hasn't won a race since Nov. 10, and then against far lesser company. But longer distances are within the scope of his pedigree, which is anchored on the bottom by damsire Southern Image, who in 2004 at age four won two Grade I routes at Triple Crown distances (the Santa Anita H. and the Pimlico Special H.) before losing by a nose in the nine-furlong GI Stephen Foster H.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Blackadder (Quality Road): An undesirable draw of post 12 scratched this $620,000 KEESEP colt out of the GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway and into Saturday's Blue Grass S. at Keeneland.

Classic Causeway (Giant's Causeway): Homebred for Kentucky West Racing and Clarke Cooper has the points to get into the Derby, but not the positive momentum after his inexplicable caving to last while on the lead in the Florida Derby. Starting status for Louisville TBD.

Cyberknife (Gun Runner): High-energy colt ($400,000 FTKSEL) dislodged jockey in post parade and was four wide through first turn before getting first (and only) run on a tiring pacemaker on the far turn of the Arkansas Derby. One bid behind him fizzled, another got blocked. Veering out late while clear in 92-Beyer score over soft field.

Ethereal Road (Quality Road): D. Wayne Lukas-trained $90,000 KEESEP colt gave up four paths of ground on both turns in the slowly run Rebel S., yet led from the quarter pole until 50 yards before the wire. Because Lukas did not want to run Ethereal Road in the same race as the filly Secret Oath (Arrogate), who was third as the fave in the Arkansas Derby, this colt must travel to a much tougher spot in the Blue Grass S.

In Due Time (Not This Time): Three-time sales grad ($9,500 KEENOV; $35,000 KEESEP; $95,000 OBSAPR) owns 20 qualifying points (ranked 27th) based on second in Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S.

Morello (Classic Empire): Undefeated, 96-Beyer GIII Gotham S. victor ($140,000 KEENOV; $200,000 FTKSEL; $250,000 EASMAY) gets two turns for the first time in Wood Memorial. Will he hook up on the front end with Early Voting?

Tiz the Bomb (Hit It a Bomb): Runner-up in GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (FTKSEL $330,000) and winner of two subsequent Turfway stakes on Tapeta surface was declared a “go” for the Derby by trainer Kenny McPeek on Monday.

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