TDN Sophomore Top 12: Getting Ready To March Into Nine-Furlong Proving Grounds

Deterministic | Sarah Andrew

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We're at the two-month mark for the GI Kentucky Derby, and we're on the cusp of the major prep races getting extended to nine furlongs and beyond. Not all of the Triple Crown-caliber horses on this list, however, are pointing for the first Saturday in May.

1) NYSOS (c, Nyquist–Zetta Z, by Bernardini) 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Baoma Corp; B-Susie Atkins (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $130,000 Wlg '21 KEENOV; $150,000 Ylg '22 FTKOCT; $550,000 2yo '23 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 3-3-0-0, $216,600. Last start: WON Feb. 3 GIII Robert F. Lewis S.

On Saturday, trainer Bob Baffert scratched 1-5 morning-line favorite Nysos from Sunday's GII San Felipe S. He told Daily Racing Form's Brad Free that a “gut feeling” was prodding him to give the undefeated 'TDN Rising Star' more time off between races.

“My original plan to was to just wait,” Baffert told DRF, referencing the time since Nysos's 7 1/2-length win in the Feb. 3 GIII Lewis S.

“I don't need to run him [Sunday]. I just might wait for the [Apr. 6 GI] Santa Anita Derby,” Baffert told DRF, adding the colt was physically fine.

This powerful, dynamic son of Nyquist ($130,000 KEENOV, $150,000 FTKOCT, $550,000 OBSAPR) has now won at six, seven and eight furlongs by a combined 26 3/4 lengths while earning Beyer Speed Figures of 96, 97 and 105.

Despite the San Felipe scratch, bettors zealously backed this colt to heavy 5-2 favoritism in the first round of the GI Preakness S. futures pool that closed Saturday.

Churchill Downs has barred Baffert's trainees from participating in the Derby, and the purported wisdom of crowds is banking that his top Derby-skipping sophomore will not only show up in the Preakness, but dominate it.

But Baffert has yet to publicly declare which, if any, of his trainees might be Baltimore-bound 2 1/2 months from now, which makes Nysos's Preakness futures price look like a huge underlay.

2) MUTH (c, Good Magic–Hoppa, by Uncle Mo) 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Zedan Racing Stables Inc; B-Don Alberto Corporation (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $190,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP; $2,000,000 2yo '23 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-3-2-0, $716,600. Last start: WON Jan. 6 GII San Vicente S.

With Nysos likely slotted for the Santa Anita Derby, that leaves stablemate and fellow 'TDN Rising Star' Muth  as the most likely candidate to lead Bob Baffert's traveling team to Oaklawn for the GI Arkansas Derby Mar. 30.

Muth ($190,000 KEESEP, $2 million OBSMAR) had already been pegged to hit the road to Hot Springs this season, for the Feb. 24 GII Rebel S. This son of Good Magic would have been heavily favored in that spot, but after Baffert wasn't satisfied with the way Muth's final workout for the race went, he declined to enter.

Muth has alternated wins and seconds in five lifetime races since breaking his maiden back on June 18. He was second in the GIII Best Pal S., first in the GI American Pharoah S., second in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, then a winner in the GII San Vicente S.

Muth would be facing a nearly three-month layoff in the Arkansas Derby, a stakes that Baffert has won four times.

Favorites crossed the finish wire first in the Arkansas Derby for five straight runnings, from 2017 through split divisions in 2020. But the chalk has lost in each of the last three years.

3) SIERRA LEONE (c, Gun Runner–Heavenly Love, by Malibu Moon) 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Mrs John Magnier, Michael B Tabor, Derrick Smith Westerberg, Rocket Ship Racing LLC & Peter M Brant; B-Debby M Oxley (KY); T-Chad Brown. Sales history: $2,300,000 Ylg '22 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $336,750. Last start: WON Feb. 17 GII Risen Star S.

If he goes next in the GI Blue Grass S. at Keeneland as expected, Sierra Leone will have three straight races at nine furlongs spanning from December to April prior to attempting 10 furlongs in the Kentucky Derby.

That experience over a distance of ground will help, especially considering this $2.3 million FTSAUG sale-topper by Gun Runner is projected to have just four lifetime races prior to heading to Louisville.

Since 1937, only four horses have won the Derby going into the race with four or fewer lifetime starts: Animal Kingdom (four) plus Justify, Big Brown and Mage (three each).

Sierra Leone will also be going up against the grain of another recent hurdle–winning the Derby off of just two starts at age three. That angle produced eight Derby winners between 2007 and 2016. But since then, horses with only two sophomore starts have been a collective 0-for-39 in the Derby.

Still, beyond those historical trends, it's tough to knock this 'TDN Rising Star' on the basis of his on-track performance.

He won his one-turn-mile debut Nov. 4 at Aqueduct despite repeated trip trouble, and that race produced two next-out winners, one a fellow 'Rising Star'.

Sierra Leone then rallied seven wide from last in the mud against a stern speed bias in the GII Remsen S., but had to settle for second after losing the lead late.

His 3-year-old debut featured another resolute rally over a wet track when he shot home from the back of the pack over the long Fair Grounds stretch in the Feb. 17 GII Risen Star S.

Sierra Leone's Beyer arc now stands at 71-91-90.

4) TRACK PHANTOM (c, Quality Road–Miss Sunset, by Into Mischief) O-L & N Racing LLC, Clark O Brewster, Jerry Caroom & Breeze Easy LLC; B-Breeze Easy LLC (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Sales history: $500,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-3-2-1, $365,000. Last start: 2nd in Feb. 17 GII Risen Star S.

Track Phantom isn't a shock-and-awe type of colt, but he rates near the top of the crop in terms of steadiness and reliability over six races.

Since trainer Steve Asmussen stretched out this $500,000 KEESEP son of Quality Road in lifetime start number three, Track Phantom has responded with three speed-centric wins and one half-length loss that was a decent try, with Beyers trending 88-89-90-89 in two-turn races.

He's handled different types of pace pressure despite being drawn in or near the outside stall in his last three races, has routinely had to engage in stretch battles, and has capably handled two different types of wet tracks at Fair Grounds and Churchill.

After getting outrun in the deep stages of the Risen Star S. by No. 3-ranked Sierra Leone, Track Phantom remains on target for the GII Louisiana Derby at 1 3/16 miles.

5) FIERCENESS (c, City of Light–Nonna Bella, by Stay Thirsty) 'TDN Rising Star'. O/B-Repole Stable (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo, GISW, 4-2-0-1, $1,127,250. Last start: 3rd Feb. 3 GIII Holy Bull S.

With a bullet half-mile breeze Feb. 23 and a third-best, in-company morning move over the same distance Mar. 1 that featured a strong gallop-out, trainer Todd Pletcher expressed confidence from Palm Beach Downs that 2-year-old champ Fierceness is making progress for the GI Florida Derby.

Back on Feb. 3, the Repole Stable homebred and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner ran a punchless third at 1-5 odds when making his 3-year-old debut.

Pletcher explained that this 'TDN Rising Star' by City of Light had been training well leading up to that subpar performance in the GIII Holy Bull S., and he's still a little perplexed as to why Fierceness didn't truly fire.

“I don't think he needed a race. I think our expectations were so high for him that maybe we're not looking at it realistically. If you watch the start of the race, he got slammed pretty hard from both sides. Johnny [Velazquez], in order to execute the game plan, had to use him pretty hard to get to the first turn in the position we wanted to,” Pletcher said.

“He could have been a little rusty off the layoff, even though he was training great. He was top weight. [There are] a lot of subtle excuses that, for an ordinary horse, you would try to justify it. In his case, he trained so well and we expected so much of him, sometimes you think he can overcome everything.”

6) DORNOCH (c, Good Magic–Puca, by Big Brown) O-West Paces Racing LLC, R A Hill Stable, Belmar Racing and Breeding LLC, Two Eight Racing LLC & Pine Racing Stables; B-Grandview Equine (KY); T-Danny Gargan. Sales history: $325,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 5-3-2-0, $505,400. Last start: WON Mar. 2 GII Coolmore Fountain of Youth S.

There's a lot to be said for simply showing up, and that adage was especially true for this $325,000 KEESEP son of Good Magic in Saturday's GII Fountain of Youth S. That race was decimated by four scratches, and Dornoch ended up towering over four rivals at 1-5 in the betting while administering a straightforward wiring that earned him an 88 Beyer, a three-point dip off his most recent victory in the GII Remsen S. back on Dec. 2.

Trainer Danny Gargan had outlined prior to the Fountain of Youth S. that he wanted Dornoch to get some schooling by rating slightly behind the pace. But the scratches changed the way the race shaped up on paper, and Gargan called a last-minute audible, telling jockey Luis Saez to instead head straight to the front.

“We didn't want to be on the lead [because] he gets out there and he kind of plays around,” Gargan said. “You can see him with his ears kind of goofing off. I told Luis, 'Just go ahead and go.' We had no choice. We really wanted to stalk, it just didn't work out that way. He won fine enough. Surely it won't be his fastest race. We didn't expect to win. It just kind of played out that way. I don't think he ran very hard.”

As for Dornoch's next start, Gargan said “we could run in the Florida Derby or the Blue Grass. We're lucky enough now where we can pick our spot. Sixty [Kentucky Derby qualifying] points usually gets you in, so now we're on cruise control. We'll figure out where we want to go next and try to enjoy this for a minute.”

Dornoch | Ryan Thompson

7) DETERMINISTIC (c, Liam's Map–Giulio's Jewel, by Speightstown) 'TDN Rising Star'. O-St. Elias Stable, Langone, Ken, Duncker, C. Steven and Vicarage Stable; B-Hinkle Farms (KY); T-Christophe Clement. Sales history: $625,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $222,750. Last start: WON Mar. 2 GIII Gotham S.

Deterministic (Liam's Map) is an intriguing new shooter within the Top 12, anchoring his status with a hard-charging, 93-Beyer win off a seven-month layoff in Saturday's GIII Gotham S. over a sealed and sloppy one-turn mile at Aqueduct for trainer Christophe Clement.

Clement himself is part of the appeal, because if he does end up sending this $625,000 KEESEP colt on a prep path that leads to Louisville, you can have confidence knowing that the well-respected veteran conditioner believes the colt truly belongs. Clement has never saddled a horse in the Kentucky Derby, although he did win the GI Belmont S. with Tonalist in 2014.

“To [just] run [in the Derby], no,” Clement told the Aqueduct notes team, underscoring that he's not interested in entering Triple Crown races just to take a shot. “To win, yes,” he added with a laugh.

But if Deterministic ends up running big in a race like the Florida Derby or GII Wood Memorial, where he'd be sure to get wiseguy betting attention based on Clement's impeccable reputation for proper placement of his horses, the Kentucky Derby could be a “go.”

Clement said Deterministic would be nominated to a number of Derby points-awarding preps.

“No decision whatsoever made for the next start,” Clement said. “At the moment, the only worry is the well-being of the horse and we'll go from there. We'll get him to a work and the work will tell us what to do with him.

“I had a long talk with Joel [Rosario] and he was delighted with the horse,” Clement said, alluding to that jockey also being aboard for Deterministic's maiden debut win at Saratoga last August. “He thought that he was a lot more mature yesterday than what he was in his first race.”

8) CONQUEST WARRIOR (c, City of Light–Tea Time, by Pulpit) 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Courtlandt Farms (Donald Adam); B-Betz/B&K Canetti/J.Betz/CoCo Equine/D.J. Stables (KY); T-Claude R. McGaughey III. Sales history: $1,000,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 3-2-0-1, $96,000. Last start: WON Mar. 1 Gulfstream AOC.

You got the feeling trainer Shug McGuaghey wanted not just a win, but a good learning experience for 'TDN Rising Star' Conquest Warrior (City of Light) out of last Friday's nine-furlong allowance try at Gulfstream. The Hall-of-Fame trainer ended up getting both, and now has the luxury of choosing among several different prep stakes for this long-striding $1 million KEESEP colt.

Exiting an adversity-overcoming maiden win going a mile, Conquest Warrior got bet down to 3-5 favoritism against five rivals Mar. 1. He initially tried to resist Jose Ortiz's rating hold through the first turn, but Ortiz chose not to fight him, and Conquest Warrior adeptly settled into a more rhythmic cadence once Ortiz guided him off heels and away from outer cover seven-eighths out.

But by the six-furlong pole, Ortiz was already on the prowl to re-engage, and he chose an inside passage for Conquest Warrior, who ate some kickback but methodically picked off two backstretch targets before slicing outside of the tiring leader on the far turn.

By upper stretch this son of City of Light had attained the lead without coming anywhere close to being fully unleashed, and with no new threats emerging from behind, Ortiz put Conquest Warrior under cruise control for the final sixteenth. The 1:50.52 clocking translated to an 84 Beyer, the same figure the colt earned when breaking his maiden.

The Florida Derby, Blue Grass S., and GII Wood Memorial are all options.

9) MAYMUN (c, Frosted–Handwoven, by Indian Charlie) 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Zedan Racing Stables, Inc.; B-Vision Racing & Sales LLC (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $50,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP; $900,000 2yo '23 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $79,200. Last start: WON Feb. 11 Santa Anita AOC.

Maymun ($50,000 KEESEP, $900,000 OBSAPR) owns a 2-for-2 record for trainer Bob Baffert, but next-race plans for this 'TDN Rising Star' have yet to be publicly disclosed.

This son of Frosted romped by 7 1/2 lengths in his Jan. 20 unveiling over 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita (93 Beyer), then registered a one-mile allowance victory Feb. 11 despite racing rambunctiously on the first turn (89 Beyer).

Maymun's stablemate, Imagination (Into Mischief), was the second-place finisher in that allowance race. That colt returned Mar. 3 to win the San Felipe S. by a head with a 96 Beyer.

10) TIMBERLAKE (c, Into Mischief–Pin Up (Ire), by Lookin At Lucky) 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Siena Farm LLC and WinStar Farm LLC; B-St. Elias Stables, LLC (KY); T-Brad H. Cox. Sales history: $350,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 6-3-1-0, $1,094,350. Last start: WON Feb. 24 GII Rebel S.

'TDN Rising Star' Timberlake was a 93-Beyer winner in his sophomore debut, and while the speed figure he earned in that Rebel S. was only good enough to match the last two numbers he posted at age two when capturing the GI Champagne S. and running fourth in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, there was improvement in the “how he did it” category.

That's because in the Juvenile, this $350,000 KEESEP son of Into Mischief resisted efforts to settle among horses on the clubhouse turn, and it cost him the race.

Nearly four months later at Oaklawn, Timberlake was tasked with essentially the same assignment, and this time he handled it capably, rating between horses before advancing into contention on the far turn.

Roused for run three-eighths out, Timberlake loomed five wide into the lane. Charging hard while widest and always under a drive, he put away three wilting pacemakers but had a touch more difficulty dispatching a 28-1 shot who had slipped through at the rail.

Timberlake momentarily stalled and shifted outward at the eighth pole, narrowly losing the lead for several strides. But after jockey Christian Torres re-engaged his interest, Timberlake drew off under encouragement to win by two lengths with no serious closers firing from the back of the pack.

A final prep race prior to the Kentucky Derby is in the cards, with trainer Brad Cox indicating that the preference will be a Grade I race, with the Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass S. the likeliest landing spots.

11) MYSTIK DAN (c, Goldencents–Ma'am, by Colonel John) O/B-Lance Gasaway, Daniel Hamby & 4G Racing, LLC (KY); T-Kenneth G. McPeek. Lifetime Record: SW, 5-2-1-0, $510,110. Last start: WON Feb. 3 GIII Southwest S.

Mystik Dan, who celebrated a birthday Mar. 4, is training at Fair Grounds for a repeat trip to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby.

Last time out at Oaklawn, this son of Goldencents unleashed an eight-length, 101-Beyer romp in the GIII Southwest S.

Considering Mystik Dan was let go at 11-1 in the betting, and taking into account that he might have relished a muddy, sealed surface that other horses didn't handle, it remains an open question as to whether this homebred for Lance Gasaway, Daniel Hamby, and 4G Racing can conjure up a similar effort against tougher competition going a longer distance over a dry surface.

The Southwest hasn't shaken out to be a productive stakes. The horses who ran second, fifth, seventh and tenth behind Mystik Dan in the Southwest came back to run seventh, second, sixth and tenth, respectively, in the Rebel S. The fourth-place Southwest horse dropped into an allowance race and again ran fourth. A ninth-place maiden out of the Southwest ran a next-out third in a MSW route.

Still, McPeek has pointed to intangibles when sizing up Mystik Dan's potential, explaining that he believes the colt has a good mind and an easygoing attitude, both of which are helping to adapt this his ample natural speed to two-turn pacing.

Encino | Coady

12) ENCINO (c, Nyquist–Glittering Jewel, by Bernardini) O/B-Godolphin, LLC (KY); T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $141,971. Last start: WON Mar. 2 John Battaglia Memorial S.

Encino (Nyquist) is an under-the-radar but quietly improving colt from trainer Brad Cox's barn. Over the weekend he upped his record to 2-for-3 in Tapeta routes at Turfway by winning the John Battaglia Memorial S. over 1 1/16 miles by one length with an 89 Beyer.

This Godolphin homebred's only loss was by a neck when second in his mile debut. He then wired the field at odds-on in start number two, and overcame post 11 in the Battaglia S. despite giving up four paths of real estate on both turns and running up on the heels of the favorite at the three-sixteenths pole. After regaining his momentum, Encino refocused to reel in that more experienced, stakes-winning foe.

Encino's connections now must decide whether to keep him on a Tapeta surface they know he can handle by targeting the Mar. 23 GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks S. at Turfway, or if he's ready for a transition to a dirt surface against what would likely be more difficult competition.

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