TDN Kentucky Derby Top 12 for Mar. 29

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Epicenter | Hodges Photography

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Over the next two weeks, chaos could take root within the GI Kentucky Derby rankings. This will be the first year that all the nine-furlong, points-earning prep races will be in the books a full four weeks out from the Derby (because of the GI Arkansas Derby moving from three weeks out to five). Thus, every horse on this list (with the exception of this past weekend's GII Louisiana Derby winner) will be in action either this coming Saturday or the next.

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 Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Apr. 2. KY Derby Points: 66.

You know it's a wide-open Derby year when the No.-1 ranked contender has his final prep race unexpectedly switched in late March and his new landing spot looks only theoretically softer than the race he opted out of. For a few days last week it appeared as if the racing gods were going to deliver a juicy GI Blue Grass S. rematch of the top-ranked Classic Causeway and 'TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy (Runhappy), with No. 6-ranked Zandon (Upstart) thrown in to thicken the plot. But this homebred for Kentucky West Racing and Clarke Cooper got rerouted over the weekend to Saturday's GI Florida Derby, where his force-the-issue tactics will be put to the test against Nos. 7, 11 and 12 on this list.

Sure, Classic Causeway now doesn't have to ship away from his Florida training base while sidestepping higher-ranked horses. But he now faces the daunting prospect of getting hooked by Gulfstream-loving speedsters White Abarrio (Race Day) and Charge It (Tapit) while the rapidly improving Simplification (Not This Time) aggressively stalks them. This colt has shown both lightning-quick acceleration out of the gate and the ability to finish fast in deep stretch. Now he has to do it against far tougher competition at increasing distances–although longer races appear within the scope of his Giant's Causeway (out of a Thunder Gulch mare) pedigree.

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: GI Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 9. KY Derby Points: 30.

There isn't much separating Classic Causeway and Smile Happy near the top of the totem pole. When they met in late November under the lights at Churchill, both were on the prowl and moving best on the far turn before the field stacked up four across the track at the head of the homestretch. Smile Happy uncorked a “Wow!” gear late in the lane that Classic Causeway couldn't match, enabling him to win decisively. But Classic Causeway has since shown smart progression in two starts at age three, while this this son of Runhappy ($175,000 KEENOV; $185,000 FTKSEL) was held up on the far turn and then ran up on heels in a botched stretch bid in his lone sophomore prep so far.

In fact, the Blue Grass S. now unfolds as a rematch of the two-three finishers out of that Feb. 19 GII Risen Star S., and both had less-than-desirable trips behind subsequent stakes repeater Epicenter (Not This Time). Smile Happy, presumably a tighter fighter, will once again have to tangle with the well-regarded Zandon, who figures to be more of a dangerous pace presence with a cleaner start. There's really no way to quantify the far-turn torque and deep-stretch pop that Smile Happy unleashed in two striking performances at age two. But he's on the cusp of put-up or shut-up time in his final Derby prep, because juvenile form decreases in relevance the closer we edge to May 7.

3) 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.

The final two weekends of preps will likely produce a flashier contender or two, but Epicenter appears to have a lock on the strongest overall body of work after having polished off his prep campaign with a thorough, 102-Beyer dissection of the Louisiana Derby. This $260,000 KEESEP colt has honed a nice balance of power and poise over a six-race learning curve, and there aren't too many questions remaining about whether he's got the mentality to go along with obvious physical attributes. Epicenter has natural speed out of the gate, but doesn't require the lead to run well, can tick off quarter mile after quarter mile of up-tempo splits, fights back when challenged, and has galloped out past the wire with gusto with victories at nine furlongs and 1 3/16 miles. He's only once (and just barely) tasted defeat in the last six months, and will now get six weeks to ease into the swing of things at Churchill Downs, where he will train up to the Derby after already having won over the track there as a juvenile.

4) 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.

Knowing that Messier is now eligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points in the GI Santa Anita Derby because of a transfer out of barred trainer Bob Baffert's barn upgrades his overall chances. But this 'TDN Rising Star,' now trained by Tim Yakteen, has been consistently ranked with the top-tier contenders on this list ever since his 103-Beyer, 15-length pummeling of the anemic GIII Robert B. Lewis S. field Feb. 6, and his overall task hasn't changed one iota: This $470,000 FTKSEL bay by Empire Maker still has to prove his 20-point Beyer spike over three newly graduated maidens and one ungraded turf stakes winner can translate to a professional showing against the well-regarded Forbidden Kingdom (American Pharoah) over nine furlongs.

Messier must accomplish that tall task off an eight-week break, then–providing he runs decently enough to forge ahead to Louisville–will only have two sophomore preps under his belt. Over the last five years, horses with just two Derby preps at age three are a collective 0-for-27. However, that two-at-three template worked well over the previous decade, producing eight Derby winners between 2007 and 2016.

5) 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.

Like Messier above, the two-preps-at-three angle applies to Mo Donegal. He paired 90 Beyers in both his final juvenile start (a slugfest from the eighth pole home in the GII Remsen S.) and his lone sophomore try (an excuse-laden third in the GIII Holy Bull S.). He might have had another early March prep thrown into the mix, but the combination of a wide post and a virus necessitated a scratch out of the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. This $250,000 KEESEP bay by Uncle Mo will go next in the GII Wood Memorial S., and Mo Donegal has an edge in that he is a known commodity when it comes to his willingness to dig in and fight in deep stretch.

While that trait is admirable, you also have to wonder if he's the type of colt who “finds” the trouble he's compelled to overcome. And given the fact that the last eight Kentucky Derbies have been won by horses either on the lead or not far from it, there are concerns about Mo Donegal being a closer who has had gate trouble comments in his charts for each of his four lifetime starts. A clean break and an emphatic performance while stalking closer to the action in the Wood (the effort need not be a victory) would go a long way toward bolstering his chances in Louisville.

6) 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, a sizable good-looker with a nearly black coat, has been favorably compared by trainer Chad Brown to his 2017 GI Preakness S. winner Cloud Computing (both won their MSW debuts going short even though neither was cut out to be a sprinter). This Upstart colt ($170,000 KEESEP) remains on target for the Blue Grass at Keeneland. The last four times Brown has had a starter in that stakes, the outcomes have been one win and three close seconds.

Zandon, however, is one of only two currently ranked horses within the Top 12 not to have won beyond the maiden ranks (Charge It is the other). But based on adversity-overcoming rallies in both the Remsen S. and the Risen Star S., supporters have piled on based on the logic that Zandon is a won't-back-down colt with a lot of fight in him. Regardless of how his Blue Grass turns out, so long as he accrues enough points to make the cut (right now he only has 14, which puts him outside looking in), it's worth noting that he'd head into the Derby off three consecutive nine-furlong efforts, which is a touch unusual (and to his benefit) considering the modern-day prep calendar.

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.

We won't know until Wednesday who's in or what the post draw looks like, but the late addition of No. 1-ranked Classic Causeway to the Florida Derby field could paradoxically end up benefitting Simplification rather than hurting his chances. This son of Not This Time ($50,000 RNA at KEENOV) is looking increasingly confident settling into his newfound role as a closer, yet he also has enough tactical speed to carve out menacing stalking trips. It's not too difficult to picture a scenario unfolding on Saturday in which Classic Causeway, White Abarrio and Charge It (or at least two of those three) engage in a pace battle that compromises their overall chances, and Simplification figures to be primed to pounce if that happens.

He worked five-eighths in :59.91 Saturday at Gulfstream (2/31), after which trainer Antonio Sano said, “He breezed faster than I thought he would… The jockey told me he was easy to handle. The gallop-out after the finish was very, very good–better than last week.”

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.

After a relentless 78-Beyer MSW wire job in a one-turn Gulfstream mile, this 'TDN Rising Star' and $350,000 KEESEP son of More Than Ready coasted home in an 89-Beyer allowance over a mile and 40 yards at Tampa. He then endured a circuitous journey (229 feet wider than six-off-the-fence winner Simplification) in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., a race in which Emmanuel was favored until the final flash. Right now he's parked way down on the south side of the Derby leaderboard at No. 38 (five points), so a Blue Grass rebound is imperative to his chances of earning a starting berth for the first Saturday in May.

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 is back breezing after a mid-March blip because of a slight fever. Trainer Richard Mandella doesn't think his colt has lost any edge by missing one scheduled workout, and he projects to be favored over No.-4 ranked Messier when the two clash in the Santa Anita Derby.

This speed-centric son of American Pharoah ($300,000 FTKSEL) possesses a nice balance of raw power and a classy demeanor, but he brings an offbeat past-performance block into his nine-furlong debut. It's unusual to see a Derby contender entering April with five races whose distances, first start to last, are 5 1/2, 5, 7 and 7 furlongs followed by just one go around two turns at 1 1/16 miles.

Messier handed Forbidden Kingdom one of his two defeats, besting him while geared down in the late stages of the GIII Bob Hope S. back in November. But Messier's form has been up and down in two starts since that victory (no-punch second as the beaten fave in the GII Los Alamitos Futurity followed by a 103-Beyer blowout victory), while Forbidden Kingdom has been an authoritative winner in his two starts at age three, with his stock soaring based on 94- and 97-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.

The 2-for-2 Early Voting has been lightly handled to date, but he'll get a baptism into the deeper end of the Derby prep pool in the Wood Memorial, where the undefeated Morello (Classic Empire) seems sure to provide upgraded pace punch and likely favorite Mo Donegal looms as a proven closer. This $200,000 KEESEP colt by Gun Runner is difficult to get a true read on because his scant form is skewed by retroactively upgraded Beyer figures and the dull nature of the Aqueduct winter surface on the two days he raced there.

Having said that, Early Voting's two starts both stood out as positive visual impressions. His MSW score in a one-turn mile saw him effectively pressuring two rivals from the outside in a three-way spar, then still having enough oomph late to repel a serious late-race challenge. And his GIII Withers S. wiring gave the impression of a colt powering away at will with untapped energy remaining. You don't have to delve too deeply into Early Voting's pedigree to see obvious stamina influences. But will those distance-capable attributes be ready to bloom May 7 given his relatively shallow base of in-race experience?

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.

White Abarrio forced the issue in the most talent-laden juvenile stakes last year, the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., and even though he eventually regressed to fifth, he re-sparked late to claw back third behind heavy hitters Smile Happy and Classic Causeway. This Race Day gray ($7,500 OBSWIN; $40,000 OBSMAR) has only had one race since then, and although it was a winning effort in the Holy Bull, the victory was earned under favorable front-running circumstances while contenders behind him encountered all sorts of trip trouble. Yet he did earn a higher-than-expected 97 Beyer in that try, and such a fig–if replicated on Saturday–puts this athletic gray into the mix once again as a knows-his-job overachiever who's 3-for-3 over the Gulfstream main track.

White Abarrio will target the Florida Derby off an eight-week layoff. Over the last five years, trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr., has won at a 24% clip with 326 starters freshened between seven and nine weeks. When you drill down and include only graded stakes starters within that parameter, his strike rate is a still-respectable 16% (5-for-31).

12) 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: 2-1-1-0, $42,400. Last Start: 1st Gulfstream MSW. Next Start:  GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Apr. 2. KY Derby Points: 0.

Athletic, smooth-striding 'TDN Rising Star' Charge It debuts within the Top 12 in advance of his first stakes foray in Saturday's Florida Derby. He's had two very different MSW mile races at Gulfstream. The first, even though it was a loss, might have told us more about his competitive character. It was a Jan. 8 prolonged duel while pegged down at the fence as the fave, and this Tapit gray barely lost a ding-dong battle to the wire against the next-out third-place finisher in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. while the two strode home 12 1/2 lengths clear of the rest of the field (83 Beyer).

Next time out, Feb. 12, was a proverbial cakewalk for this 1-5 chalk, and the 93-Beyer effort was best summed up by announcer Pete Aiello, who noted that Charge It was “never out of second gear” at any point during his 8 1/2-length shellacking.    His grand-dam is MGISW route victress and blue-hen mare Take Charge Lady, whose progeny include the 2013 GI Travers S. winner and 3-year-old champ Will Take Charge.

Charge It | Ryan Thompson

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Blackadder (Quality Road): This $620,000 KEESEP winner of the El Camino Real Derby is likely for Saturday's Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway, with next week's Blue Grass  at Keeneland the backup option.

In Due Time (Not This Time): After emerging “a little tired” from runner-up try in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., this three-time sales grad ($9,500 KEENOV; $35,000 KEESEP; $95,000 OBSAPR) is under consideration for the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, or even the GIII Lexington S., as per trainer Kelly Breen via DRF.

Morello (Classic Empire): Undefeated, 96-Beyer GIII Gotham S. winner ($140,000 KEENOV; $200,000 FTKSEL; $250,000 EASMAY) will get a stern two-turn test for the first time in the Wood Memorial.

Pappacap (Gun Runner): Homebred for Rustlewood Farm started the season ranked No. 1 within the Top 12, but plummeted off the charts with a dull no-show in the Risen Star S. Could he rebound in the Florida Derby? Keep in mind the big turnaround trainer Mark Casse orchestrated in the final prep for 2-year-old champ Classic Empire after setbacks during that colt's 2017 sophomore campaign.

Secret Oath (Arrogate): Briland Farm homebred and D. Wayne Lukas-trained filly seeking to beat boys in Arkansas Derby. She got some help at entry time, as subpar crew awaits on Saturday (no Top 12 horses in Oaklawn's premier stakes).

Slow Down Andy (Nyquist): Reddam homebred makes the cut for the Derby with 60 qualifying points after GIII Sunland Derby score. Blinkers-on effort yielded 86 Beyer. He withstood pressured pace but once again came unfocused through the lane with tail-swishing, erratic run over soft competition.

Un Ojo (Laoban): One-eyed New York-bred gelding has already amassed 54 qualifying points and will try to pad that cushion in Saturday's Arkansas Derby. Considering his 75-1 GII Rebel S. upset occurred in steady rain, a 30% chance of thunderstorms in the advance forecast could end up being his best buddy.

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