TDN Kentucky Derby Top 12 for Mar. 22

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Classic Causeway | SV Photography

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We now enter the demanding segment of the GI Kentucky Derby prep schedule when most of the important stakes stretch to nine furlongs and are worth 100 qualifying points to the winners. This Saturday's GII Louisiana Derby is the focal point of the weekend, and it's also the lone 1 3/16-mile prep in North America.

1) 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: MGSW & GISP, 5-3-1-1, $511,100. Last Start: 1st GII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. Next Start: GI Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 66.

In the aftermath of Classic Causeway's grace-under-pressure wiring of the GII Tampa Bay Derby, there was general consensus that his victory was visually impressive even though it yielded a subpar Beyer Speed Figure of 84 (a four-point regression off his previous stakes win). That juxtaposition makes it difficult to peg whether this Giant's Causeway homebred for Kentucky West Racing and Clarke Cooper is the real deal, Derby-wise, and it also splits his supporters and detractors along the “numbers don't lie” and “figures can't quantify everything” fault line.

I'll argue for the latter point. Factor in a drying-out track, a backstretch headwind, and Classic Causeway's geared-down run to the finish, and you can make a cogent case that quirky conditions contributed to that low number. Take a look at No. 10-ranked Early Voting's write-up below, and you'll see how the Beyer figurators (as they should when offbeat numbers merit a second look) significantly upgraded that colt's preliminary Beyer after taking into account how other horses ran back in their next-out races. Making speed figures is more of an art than a science, and Classic Causeway isn't going to be regarded as a non-threat in the GI Blue Grass S. on the basis of one on-paper blip in his past-performance block. You want a stat that confuses the overall equation even more? Consider that Classic Causeway's final sixteenth in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. in :5.98 still rates as the only sub-six-seconds clocking among the 2021-22 Derby preps at 1 1/16 miles, indicating this frontrunner is capable of finishing as well as he rockets out of the gate.

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,
3-2-1-0, $364,810. Last Start: 2nd GII Risen Star S. Next Start: Uncommitted. KY Derby Points: 30.

As of this past weekend, trainer Kenny McPeek was still on the fence between the GI Curlin Florida Derby Apr. 2 and the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. one week later for 'TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy. Remaining at Gulfstream (where Smile Happy has been training) throws this colt into a fight against three other Top 12 contenders, while opting for Keeneland sets up a highly anticipated showdown against No. 1-rated Classic Causeway. That pairing would be a rematch of their one-two finish in the Nov. 27 GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., when this son of Runhappy ($175,000 KEENOV; $185,000 FTKSEL) unleashed a devastating demonstration of deep-stretch torque to win at will over what has proven to be a deep field of late-season juveniles.

Regardless of where he goes, every handicapper on the planet is going to be factoring in that Smile Happy wasn't fully cranked for his sophomore debut at Fair Grounds, when he rallied belatedly for second in the GII Risen Star S. after suffering momentum losses on the far turn and in upper stretch. Although Smile Happy is light on actual experience (just three races), McPeek for months has been waxing positively about his above-average maturity level, which is backed by a discernible gravitas in the way this colt carries himself and goes about his business.

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-Bob Baffert. 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: N/A.

Beyond 'TDN Rising Star' Messier and the No. 9-ranked Forbidden Kingdom (American Pharoah), all is quiet on the western front of the Derby trial, with no other California-based horses looming as A-list contenders. The GI Santa Anita Derby could shake out as a short-field match-up headlined by those two, and this $470,000 FTKSEL bay by Empire Maker will have his work cut out for him in trying to assert that his 103-Beyer, 15-length trouncing of the weak GIII Robert B. Lewis S. field Feb. 5 was no fluke. Did Messier really improve his fig 20 points off his previous effort, or was that highest Beyer of the year by any 3-year-old male an illusion of his dominance over just four other horses (three fresh out of the maiden ranks)?

The layoff angle presents another conundrum: Baffert has won a record nine Santa Anita Derbies, but every single one of those winners last started in the month of March, making Messier's attempt off an eight-week break an anomaly for a Baffert trainee. Additionally, Messier currently remains ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points because of Baffert's banishment by Churchill Downs, Inc., (although the Hall-of-Fame conditioner has initiated litigation to challenge his Derby starting status).

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.

After a brief lapse in training because of a virus, this Uncle Mo bay was back on the Palm Beach Downs work tab Saturday, breezing a half mile in :49.41 (11/25) on even terms with stablemate and 'TDN Rising Star' Emmanuel (More Than Ready). When this $250,000 KEESEP colt goes next in the GII Wood Memorial, he'll partner with Joel Rosario for the first time, as Irad Ortiz, Jr., who was aboard for Mo Donegal's last three starts, has committed to ride No. 1-ranked Classic Causeway at Keeneland the same afternoon.

Already a nine-furlong winner after annexing the GII Remsen S. in December at Aqueduct, Mo Donegal was the beaten favorite when third and suffering the most brutal trip among top Derby contenders so far this season in the GIII Holy Bull S. in February. Ortiz wasted a lot of lateral movement with his deep closer in that race by going from the rail to the five path on the first turn, then getting blocked when attempting to dive back down to the fence again on the far turn. When redirected back into the clear while widest of all, Mo Donegal spurted to life in deep stretch, digging in with renewed interest and just barely getting pipped for the place photo while finishing fast under a full head of steam. The more speed in front of Mo Donegal in the Wood, the better.

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.

Zandon, who just celebrated his third birthday Mar. 21, occupies a lofty spot within the Top 12 considering he's the only contender yet to win beyond the maiden ranks. But he's probably packed more “street smarts” into his three lifetime races than most colts in this less-is-more era of training Derby contenders. At least that's the working theory. The bandwagon for this $170,000 KEESEP colt was already straining at the axles based on positive impressions from his willingness to fight in the rough-and-tumble stretch run of the GII Remsen S. (second) and again in the GII Risen Star S. after missing the break (third). Last week's naming of Flavien Prat to ride Zandon in his next start at Keeneland could also be viewed as a plus. If the stars align and the racing gods deliver us a Blue Grass that features Classic Causeway, Smile Happy and Zandon, the clash of the Nos. 1, 2 and 5 horses on this list would make that Apr. 9 stakes the meatiest Derby prep the sport has witnessed in years.

6) 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: GSW, 5-3-1-0, $410,639. Last Start: 1st GII Risen Star S. Next Start: GII Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 26. KY Derby Points: 64.

Only two horses have won the GII Louisiana Derby and then the Kentucky Derby–Grindstone in 1996 and Black Gold in 1924. One Louisiana Derby runner-up (Funny Cide in 2003) also wore a blanket of roses in Louisville. But strangely enough, the Louisiana Derby is now on the verge of having two of its also-rans in the past three years recognized as Kentucky Derby winners via disqualification–Country House in '19 (because of an in-race foul by Maximum Security) and Mandaloun in '21 (pending an under-appeal drug DQ of Medina Spirit).

Epicenter, this year's expected favorite, caught a break when only seven could be lured to run against him, with only one of those rivals ranked within the current Top 12. This $260,000 KEESEP son of Not This Time already checks quite a few boxes on the Derby desirability list: Five lifetime races, all with ascending Beyer Speed Figures. Three wins around two turns, and one already at nine furlongs. He breaks adeptly, uses speed as an effective weapon, but does not seem to be a needs-the-lead colt.

Epicenter fights gamely when put to pressure in the stretch, and his only loss in the past six months came after he repulsed multiple attacks before getting nailed at the wire by a pick-up-the-pieces long shot. A win on Saturday isn't crucial. But a gritty showing is imperative in a spot so seemingly favorable for Epicenter that it could loom as a “trap” race masquerading as an obvious win opportunity.

7) 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, 6-3-1-1, $411,350. Last Start: 1st GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. Next Start: GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Apr. 2. KY Derby Points: 54.

Simplification ($50,000 RNA at KEENOV) wasn't on the radar of most Derby prognosticators when the year started. But this athletic son of Not This Time has earned a spot near the top of the crop with a nice progression arc under the patient handling of trainer Antonio Sano. He flashed blitzing speed to win his maiden by 16 3/4 lengths in 1:09.81 for six furlongs back in October, and has rounded into an adaptable stalker or closer while stretching out in distance, looking comfortable and confident despite having to change his tactics. In the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., Simplification was hooked widest of all off the far turn and finished with purpose over a short-stretch 1 1/16-miles configuration. He now has six races on his résumé and a block of four 90 or better Beyers against increasingly more difficult company. The Florida Derby is next.

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: Possible for GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Apr. 2. KY Derby Points: 5.

This physically robust 'TDN Rising Star' is logical but not definite for the Florida Derby. Regardless of where he starts next, bettors will be factoring in his Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. tour of the track that Trakus clocked as being 229 feet wider than a winner who journeyed six off the fence turning for home. The unknown in Emmanuel's equation has to do with whether or not he will revert to flashing the characteristic early speed that propelled him to a 2-for-2 career start. Emmanuel ran stunningly in his Gulfstream MSW debut in a one-turn mile, then capably peeled off a two-turn allowance win at Tampa while never being fully extended. But in terms of the caliber of competition he dismantled on those afternoons, it is a little concerning to see that the collective next-out records of the horses he beat is only 1-for-12, with the lone victor among that group having to drop into the maiden-claiming ranks to graduate.

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: Possible for GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 50.

Forbidden Kingdom isn't the first (and likely won't be the last) Derby contender this season to miss scheduled training because of a mild fever. But when the same thing happened to Emmanuel in early January and Mo Donegal at the start of March, their connections simply opted for other qualifying-points prep races. That's not a luxury available to trainer Richard Mandella with this speed-centric son of American Pharoah ($300,000 FTKSEL). He'd been aiming his colt for the Apr. 9 Santa Anita Derby, but had to hold him out of a workout last Friday after Forbidden Kingdom spiked a temperature. In recent years, Forbidden Kingdom could have been rerouted to the GI Arkansas Derby, which, with its traditional mid-April spot on the calendar three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, annually attracted late entrants as the lone-remaining nine-furlong, points-awarding prep. But because this year Oaklawn moved its premier stakes back to Apr. 2, an unprecedented four-week gulf now exists between the final 100-points-to-the-winner stakes and the Kentucky Derby itself.

“He has not had another temperature,” Mandella said Saturday morning. “I'm hoping we can still make the Santa Anita Derby…. So far, it looks good. I don't think it's a problem to miss the first work [since a 98-Beyer wiring of the GII San Felipe S.] because we've got time for a couple more. Everything will have to go right, and so far, it is.”

10) EARLY VOTING (c, Gun Runner–Amour d'Ete, by Tiznow) O-Klaravich Stables, Inc. B-Three Chimneys Farm, LLC. 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.

Because Early Voting has only had two well-spaced starts and is still more than two weeks away from his final Derby prep, we have to do a fair amount of dissecting his company lines to size up how good he might be. It's been well publicized that the horses who ran second and fourth behind him in the Feb. 5 GII Withers S. came back to win the GII Rebel S. at 75-1 and finish second in the Tampa Derby at 37-1. In the wake of those results, Early Voting's winning 78 Beyer figure got retooled to a significantly higher 87. But two other also-rans out of the Withers could only manage second and third as the favorites in a three-horse stakes at Parx, and another was up the track in the GIII Gotham S., so it's probably prudent to hold off on hanging the “key race” label on Early Voting's easy Withers win.

The most interesting bit of info out of his two Aqueduct victories is that both occurred on dull winter surfaces that yielded tepid final times. This begs the question of what this colt might be capable of over a tighter track. Early Voting is a speed-oriented threat capable of sustained intensity, and his stock as a Derby contender is high right now as a coveted first-crop son of Gun Runner out of an unraced Tiznow mare who is a half-sister to 2004 sprint champ Speightstown. The Wood Memorial should tell us how much of that valuation is based on reality rather than perception.

11) 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: GSW, 4-3-0-1, $240,850. Last Start: 1st GIII Holy Bull S. Next Start: GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Apr. 2. KY Derby Points: 12.

This Race Day gray owns three open-length wins at Gulfstream, and his only loss was a pugnacious third at Churchill behind the Nos. 1 and 2 colts on this list. The Florida Derby is next.

“Two weeks out, so far, so good,” said trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr., on Sunday after White Abarrio breezed five furlongs in company in 1:00.42 (4/17) under jockey Tyler Gaffalione. The move was the colt's fourth workout since seizing the Holy Bull S. in February. Joseph said the workout “was more of an easier breeze with a good finish and a good gallop-out. Everything went to plan. He sat off a workmate. He relaxed well. I had his last quarter in :23, so it was a good finish.”

White Abarrio's last-win Beyer of 97 rates fourth-best this year among all 3-year-old males. But that big fig (earned under ideal trip circumstances) also represented a sizable jump off his first three Beyers (81, 81 and 80), and it will be a big ask for him to replicate or even improve upon that pattern while stepping up into Grade I company and trying nine furlongs for the first time.

12) RATTLE N ROLL (c, Connect–Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg) O-Lucky Seven Stable. B-St. Simon Place (KY). T-Kenneth G. McPeek. Sales History: $55,000 wlg '19 KEENOV; $210,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-2-0-1, $383,460. Last Start: 6th GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. Next Start: GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 26. KY Derby Points: 10.

Timing and circumstances haven't been on the side of this huge-striding grinder. At Saratoga last summer, he got caught in a quarantine barn after other horses came down with a herpes virus. Then this son of Connect ($55,000 KEENOV; $210,000 KEESEP) bolted on the turn when making a potentially winning move. After winning back-to-back Kentucky races in the fall (a MSW and a Grade I stakes), a foot abscess caused Rattle N Roll to miss the Breeders' Cup, where he would have been among the favorites for the GI Juvenile. Coming off a five-month layoff, he ran like a not-ready-for-prime-time colt (sixth in the Tampa Derby), and trainer Kenny McPeek had signaled before that race that we might get a glimpse of the true Rattle N Roll three weeks later when he stretched him out to 1 3/16 miles in the Louisiana Derby. That opportunity now presents itself, and there are only two other stakes winners lurking in the field of eight. Saturday's race in New Orleans doesn't rate as a “big easy.” But it's lacking enough sophomore star power to make it a now-or-never proposition for Rattle N Roll to stamp himself as a legit contender in Louisville.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Blackadder (Quality Road): This $620,000 KEESEP Baffert trainee could be on the traveling team to Oaklawn, where he's nominated to the Arkansas Derby.

Charge It (Tapit): Whisper Hill Farm homebred and 'TDN Rising Star' for trainer Todd Pletcher appears on target for Florida Derby.

Ethereal Road (Quality Road): Rebel S. runner-up will be rerouted to Blue Grass S. in an effort to keep this D. Wayne Lukas trainee separated from filly stablemate Secret Oath (Arrogate), who will take on the boys in the Arkansas Derby.

In Due Time (Not This Time): Three-time sales grad ($9,500 KEENOV; $35,000 KEESEP; $95,000 OBSAPR) bankrolled 20 qualifying points with second in Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., his first two-turn try for trainer Kelly Breen.

Morello (Classic Empire): Undefeated, 96-Beyer GIII Gotham S. victor ($140,000 KEENOV; $200,000 FTKSEL; $250,000 EASMAY) should contribute to lively pace in Wood Memorial.

Tiz the Bomb (Hit It a Bomb): Bullet breeze at Keeneland last Friday for this $330,000 FTKSEL colt in first work back since Battaglia S. win over Tapeta at Turfway.

Un Ojo (Laoban): Every Derby season needs an outlandish overachiever to keep things interesting. This one-eyed New York-bred gelding, with his 75-1 rain-soaked shocker in the Rebel S., is that horse for 2022. He might not have universal respect, but Un Ojo owns 54 qualifying points, with only two contenders ahead of him on the leaderboard. Next up, the Arkansas Derby.

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