TDN Kentucky Derby Top 20 For Apr. 12

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Zandon | Coady

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All the nine-furlong preps for the GI Kentucky Derby are in the books, but Saturday's GIII Lexington S. still offers 20 points to the winner, so there could be some shakeout in the bottom tier of the Top 20. The rankings below are independent from the “Road to the Derby” points leaderboard Churchill Downs uses to determine starting berths. Access that list here.

 1) 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: GISW, 4-2-1-1, $713,000. Last Start: 1st GI Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 9. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 7. KY Derby Points: 114.

This beautifully balanced, nearly black colt vaulted to No. 1 based on his assertive, last-to-first score in the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland. Although still light in terms of having just four races, it wouldn't be a stretch to say this $170,000 KEESEP son of Upstart has packed an outsized share of “street smarts” experience into his preps, which include the unusual sequence of three consecutive nine-furlong stakes. He was into the bit, but not anxious through the first turn of the Blue Grass, and jockey Flavien Prat allowed Zandon to drift back to last by the half-mile pole while hemmed in by also-rans. Still well behind three-eighths out, Zandon clicked into “chase” mode with an outside bid and quickly had the first flight within his sights. Prat then had to make a quick positioning decision that put Zandon back down toward the rail, yet that path tightened up at the head of the lane. Zandon boldly shouldered his way back outside three-sixteenths from home, then took dead aim on favorite and 'TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy (Runhappy) before swatting away that rival with purpose en route to a 98 Beyer Speed Figure score. We'll let this well-earned victory sink in, but in next week's rankings, we'll dissect whether Zandon's recent switch to off-the-pace closing is a tactical disadvantage in a race like the Derby, which has had a speed-centric winning profile for most of the past decade.

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.

I spent a good chunk of Sunday and Monday flip-flopping the top two in these rankings before finally settling on Zandon at No. 1 and Epicenter at No. 2. Although Epicenter has the preferred pace-centric running style that matches more favorably with the last eight Derby winners, and he has also compiled the broader, stronger base of overall work, Zandon's against-adversity Blue Grass win was delivered with an intimidating panache that suggests he's capable of ratcheting up the level of competition beyond what Epicenter has experienced through most of his New Orleans campaign. Yes, this $260,000 KEESEP colt by Not This Time did beat Zandon in their lone head-to-head showdown in the GII Risen Star S., but Epicenter coasted home on the front end while Zandon was compromised by a bad break; some 2 1/2 months between that matchup and Derby day could result in a different outcome. Still, enough intangibles remain in Epicenter's favor: he fires off fraction after fraction of up-tempo splits, fights back when challenged in the stretch, and has galloped out with authority in victories at nine furlongs and 1 3/16 miles.

3) 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: MGSW, 5-3-0-2, $621,800. Last Start: 1st GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 9. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 112.

Mo Donegal is capable of sitting back and uncorking one sustained bid, like he did from 4 1/2 furlongs out when winning Saturday's GII Wood Memorial S. But rather than blowing by the field with one big, swooping move like a lot of closers, he smolders with sustained intensity and coerces rivals into submission with relentless late-race focus. This $250,000 KEESEP colt by Uncle Mo has twice accelerated through final furlongs timed in exactly :12.33 in 1 1/8-mile races, with those GII Remsen S. and Wood wins representing the fastest closing eighths at that distance among all 2021-22 preps. Despite that obvious plus, it appears as if Mo Donegal will be un-partnering with jockey Joel Rosario. Dave Grening of DRF reported Sunday that Irad Ortiz, Jr., will likely regain the mount (he's been aboard three times previously) because Rosario is expected to remain tethered to Epicenter.

4) 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.

It might appear as if Simplification regressed a touch when third and failing to deliver as the fave in the Florida Derby. Don't buy into that line of reasoning. The farther the Florida Derby gets in his rear-view mirror, the more potential there is for Simplification to head to Louisville as a “wiseguy” horse perceived as capable of doing damage in the 15-1 range. He's an energetic stalker who attended an honest pace and was prompted to crack the main speed in that Grade I try at Gulfstream, but engaging so soon (4 1/2 furlongs out) only resulted in Simplification getting hooked into a mid-race melee that continued through an unsustainable tempo. When confronted by a fresh challenge from the eventual winner, Simplification didn't come unglued, and he stayed on commendably without being hammered on. Every race he's run at a mile or longer has resulted in a 90+ Beyer, and there appears to be a firm enough foundation for an improved effort May 7.

5) 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, 3-2-1-0, $321,500. Last Start: 2nd GII Wood Memorial S. Next Start: TBD. KY Derby Points: 50.

Had Early Voting been on the winning side of the neck photo in the Wood Memorial, he'd likely be ranked within the top three contenders. But this $200,000 KEESEP colt is still an intriguing work-in-progress who'll go off in the 12-1 range in the Derby, and if you liked him before Saturday's near-miss, what you saw should embolden you to consider this Chad Brown trainee a very legitimate pace presence in Louisville. When favored Morello (Classic Empire) hit the gate at the break and couldn't effectively pressure Early Voting, Jose Ortiz didn't let this colt dawdle on the lead. Early Voting's high cruising gear enabled him to rattle off consecutive quarters of :23.86, :23.89, :23.84 and :24.04, and he held well against the more experienced Mo Donegal in a deep-stretch grind-down without being tapped dry. Poke around in his pedigree and you'll find more reasons than not to like him at 10 furlongs.

6) 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 & GISP,
4-2-2-0, $549,810. Last Start: 2nd GI Toyota Blue Grass S. KY Derby Points: 70.

'TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy got hooked five and three wide on the turns as the beaten fave in the Blue Grass S. while pressing a moderate tempo from post 10 over a heavy-ish, drying-out track. This  powerful son of Runhappy ($175,000 KEENOV; $185,000 FTKSEL) got first run on the wilting pacemaker at the quarter pole and led until the furlong marker while offering only token resistance to Zandon. While the effort wasn't poor, it didn't put an exclamation point on his two sophomore preps, which were both runner-up tries that lacked the true spark of his open-lengths juvenile victories. You have to go back to Super Saver in 2010 to find any horse who crossed the finish wire first in the Derby who did not win a sophomore race prior to the first Saturday in May.

7) TIZ THE BOMB (c, Hit It a Bomb–Tiz the Key, by Tiznow) O-Magdalena Racing, Lessee. B-Spendthrift Farm LLC (KY). T-Kenneth McPeek. Sales History: $330,000 Ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 8-5-1-0, $1,044,401. Last Start: 1st GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks, TP, Apr. 2. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 110.

Over the next four weeks, you can expect talk about Tiz the Bomb to be dominated by the “Will he handle dirt?” question. That's the commanding narrative, but it probably isn't as crucial an angle as Derby prognosticators will make it out to be. Sure, it's natural to ask that question considering this $330,000 FTKSEL colt by Hit It a Bomb is a two-time stakes winner on both Tapeta and grass (while also finishing second in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf). But both of his dirt races–a gaudy 14 1/4-length MSW win at Ellis Park and a 20 1/4-length drubbing in the GIII Holy Bull S. at Gulfstream–are too aberrational to use as a measuring stick for what will happen when the dirt flies in the Derby. Let's face it: every year there are plenty of otherwise-capable dirt horses who can't tolerate the crowding and jamming in the Derby's notorious traffic. At least with Tiz the Bomb, we know he can confidently negotiate a crowd, because his five best races came in fields of 10, 12, 12, 13 and 14. Ignore him at your own pari-mutuel peril.

8) 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: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 40.

Lightly raced 'TDN Rising Star' Charge It, a Whisper Hill Farm homebred by Tapit, closed gamely enough in the Florida Derby to make it difficult to pass up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the Derby offers. Did Charge It falter when running greenly through the stretch and failing to seal the deal despite several chances when second in that prep? Absolutely. But most horses making their third lifetime starts don't have a winning edge honed at that stage of their careers, and for Charge It, you have to consider he was making his two-turn debut and first try against winners in a Grade I stakes at the demanding distance of nine furlongs. Even though he's gray, he's a definite dark horse for Louisville.

9) TAIBA (c, Gun Runner–Needmore Flattery, by Flatter)
'TDN Rising Star' O-Zedan Racing Stables Inc. B-Bruce C Ryan (KY). T-Tim Yakteen. Sales History: $140,000 Ylg '20 FTKOCT; $1,700,000 2yo '21 FTFMAR. Lifetime Record: GISW, 2-2-0-0, $490,200. Last Start: 1st GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 9. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby.

Taiba, who will turn three on Apr. 13, is this year's out-of-nowhere party crasher who burst onto the Derby scene with a 103-Beyer MSW win Mar. 5 followed by an unlikely takedown of the GI Santa Anita Derby in start number two. This 'TDN Rising Star' stacked up three across the track through the first turn behind the two favorites on Saturday, then Mike Smith backed him off through quarter-mile segments in :23.23, :23.43 and :24.27. When highly regarded stablemate Messier (Empire Maker) cracked Forbidden Kingdom (American Pharoah) at the quarter pole, Taiba was into the bridle and almost immediately alongside at the head of the stretch. Messier initially kicked away, but this Gun Runner colt wouldn't quit, and even though Messier was shortening stride in the run to the wire (fourth quarter in :25.04 and final eighth in :12.70), Taiba kept on extending fluidly, driving clear to win by 2 1/4 lengths (102 Beyer). He'll be getting tossed into the very deep end of the Derby pool with only two lifetime starts to his name. But Taiba could be capable of making a bigger splash than conventional wisdom suggests.

10) 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: GSW & GISP, 6-3-3-0, $435,600. Last Start: 2nd GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 40.

'TDN Rising Star' Messier's record of three wins and three seconds from six starts looks strong on paper. But from a visual standpoint, his failure to slam the door when races were his for the taking in both the GII Los Alamitos Futurity and the Santa Anita Derby is troubling. Which son of Empire Maker ($470,000 FTKSEL) will show up at Churchill? The one who blew out the GIII Lewis S. field by 15 lengths with a 103 Beyer or the one who got manhandled by a just-graduated maiden in the Santa Anita Derby? Messier's connections have stressed all campaign long that he's a robust, well-balanced athlete with the mental prowess to match. But we've seen only glimpses of that in the afternoons, and he's never faced more than five rivals in a race while winning only once around two turns.

11) 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.

It's too early to start formulating Derby betting strategies, but Barber Road has started to loom on my periphery as an “uh-oh” contender who could derail Derby exotics. He'll go off in the 60-1 range and doesn't project to be an obvious win threat. But he has the pedigree to handle 10 furlongs (via grandsires Tapit and Southern Image), knows how to kick late, and shows a willingness to bull his way through trouble. He has an eight-race foundation and two good showings at Churchill (a 6 1/4-length win and a second, beaten half a length), yet Barber Road figures to be completely off the radar of the general public because of subpar speed figures (best Beyer 88) and having gone nearly a half-year (since Nov. 10) without winning.

12) WHITE ABARRIO (c, Race Day–Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief) O-C2 Racing Stable LLC & 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.

You could make a case for the scrappy, athletic White Abarrio based on his overachieving style relative to his $7,500 OBSWIN and $40,000 OBSMAR auction pricing. You might also foresee a scenario in which this Race Day gray's nimble way of going and tactical speed afford him an advantage in the chaotic, 20-horse scramble for Derby positioning. But you also have to legitimately wonder if White Abarrio peaked in the Florida Derby, and if the combination of that 96-Beyer victory and this colt's having spiked a fever in the week leading up to that race took more out of him than might seem evident. Did you know that 33 consecutive grays have gone to post and lost the Derby since the last gray, Giacomo, roared home at 50-1 in 2005?

Potentially rounding out the starting gate…

13) Zozos (Munnings): A decent small-sample body of work for this 'TDN Rising Star', whose 40 qualifying points based on finishing second behind Epicenter in the Louisiana Derby currently rank 17th on the cutoff list. He was on his left lead through the stretch of his MSW win, unleashed a deft turn of foot at the quarter pole of his allowance victory, then led for as long as he could through the long Fair Grounds stretch over 1 3/16 miles before Epicenter picked him off in the Louisiana Derby. Homebred for Barry and Joni Butzow has a 70-92-98 Beyer pattern, but the overall grade is “incomplete” based on just three starts compacted into two months of racing experience and now a six-week gap into the Derby.

14) Morello (Classic Empire): He has the points to get into the Derby, but his connections are going to wait to see how he trains at Churchill before making a commitment. Morello ($140,000 KEENOV; $200,000 FTKSEL; $250,000 EASMAY) took enough money to go off as the undefeated favorite in the Wood Memorial, but his two-turn debut got derailed before it even started when he slammed the side of the gate at the break.

15) Crown Pride (Jpn) (Reach the Crown {Jpn}): He's 3-for-4 on dirt with all three victories at nine furlongs or greater and a trouble-line excuse for his sixth-place try when only beaten 3 1/2 lengths. Got solidly bumped at the break of the G2 UAE Derby then uncoiled with a long drive on his incorrect lead in deep stretch to reel in the pacemaker on a track that was favorable to speed.

16) In Due Time (Not This Time): Three-time sales grad ($9,500 KEENOV; $35,000 KEESEP; $95,000 OBSAPR) will try for both a confidence-building and points-garnering boost in Saturday's GIII Lexington S. at Keeneland. That final qualifying stakes on the Derby prep schedule awards 20 points to the winner, and a victory would put this colt at 40 points, which is the current cutoff mark to get into the Derby (defections and some earnings tiebreakers will change things over the next 3 1/2 weeks).

17) Summer Is Tomorrow (Summer Front): This late supplement to the Triple Crown and three-time auction entrant ($25,000 KEENOV; $14,000 RNA at KEESEP; $169,743 ARQDEA) has a 2-3-0 record from seven starts in Dubai, and he showed a willingness to forge to the front in the UAE Derby. He got collared in the final strides, but was not drubbed in defeat and his ability to engage over 1 3/16 miles stands him in good stead for a crack at 10 furlongs in Louisville. But realistically, you'd have to bank on him running the race of his life while a number of highly heralded contenders falter in order to envision this colt wearing a blanket of roses come May 7.

18) Cyberknife (Gun Runner): Prior to winning the GI Arkansas Derby, trainer Brad Cox described Cyberknife as a “tough horse to deal with-he always has been.” That may be an understatement. This $400,000 FTKSEL colt was DQ'd in his first start, veered through the stretch in start number two, got caught wide on both bends in his stakes debut, dropped his jockey in the post parade of the Arkansas Derby, then weaved home erratically while other contenders found trouble behind him. But he's starting to win races at the right time of year, and Cyberknife has now paired 87 and 92 Beyer scores since Cox removed blinkers. His damsire, Flower Alley, was also a late bloomer who won the 10-furlong GI Travers S. in 2005 and was beaten only a length at that same distance in that year's GI Breeders' Cup Classic.

19) Un Ojo (Laoban): Every Kentucky Derby needs an against-all-odds longshot to spice up the story line, and this gelding certainly qualifies with his 75-1 rain-soaked shocker in the GII Rebel S. But this son of Laoban lacks sight in his left eye (he lost it in an accident as a yearling, and Un Ojo means “one eye” in Spanish), and considering the ordeal he endured in the Arkansas Derby, you have to wonder if negotiating a crowded 20-horse field is going to be a dicey proposition for him. “He was sawed-off and bounced off the fence twice,” trainer Ricky Courville told the BloodHorse last week, adding that Un Ojo required surgical staples to close flesh wounds on his blind-side shoulder. “He kept hitting the rail and Ramon [Vazquez] had to check him out of there and he said the horse panicked and tried to jump the fence,… He's had some stiffness and we'll give him some time to get over it, We're still going to the Kentucky Derby so far.”

20) Slow Down Andy (Nyquist): When winning with blinkers on in the GIII Sunland Derby, Slow Down Andy withstood legit pace pressure as the 6-5 favorite, which was a plus. But the blinkers were supposed to add focus to his stretch runs, which have been erratic in the past, with the Los Alamitos Futurity a prime example. But Slow Down Andy again took to shifting and drifting in that weak-on-paper New Mexico stakes, this time while swishing his tail late in the lane. Right now the most favorable Derby angle for Slow Down Andy is rooted in history: his sire won the 2016 Derby, and this homebred was owned and trained by these same connections (Reddam Racing and Doug O'Neill).

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