TDN Sophomore Top 12: 'Rising Stars' Anchor Top Three Spots

Nysos | Benoit

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You may have noticed a change in the title of this column, from “Derby Top 12” to “Sophomore Top 12.”

Churchill Downs, Inc., has barred trainer Bob Baffert from competing in the GI Kentucky Derby, and that left us in a quandary over how to assess the nation's best 3-year-old prospects.

It didn't seem right to dismiss the accomplishments of elite-level sophomores, regardless of whether they were eligible for the Derby or not. Nor did it seem proper to ignore the benchmarks their performances provide to help establish the overall pecking order.

So we're including Baffert's trainees in the Sophomore Top 12–along with horses from any other stable–so long as those horses are Triple Crown aspirants.

Once all the major preps have been run in April, we'll still expand the Top 12 to the Top 20 like we do each year.

And in the week leading up to each Triple Crown race, these rankings will again focus on race-specific, horse-by-horse analysis for the Derby, GI Preakness S., and GI Belmont S.

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.

The 3-for-3 'TDN Rising Star' Nysos has plenty of sophomore prowess in his pedigree. Sire Nyquist won the 2016 Kentucky Derby. Damsire Bernardini took the 2006 Preakness. Grand-damsire A.P. Indy won the 1992 Belmont, and his sire, Seattle Slew, swept the 1977 Triple Crown. All three female-side of those sires were crowned 3-year-old champions, and the latter two were also voted Horse of the Year at age three.

Nysos won't be Derby-bound because of the ban imposed upon trainer Bob Baffert. But this colt will have other opportunities to tee it up against Grade I competition, with a possible Santa Anita Derby/Preakness combo looming on his calendar.

That schedule is pure speculation, because Baffert generally does not disclose advance stakes engagements for his horses. In the long run it might be futile to try and guess the projected paths of Baffert's top-tier sophomores. But right now in the dead of winter it's an interesting exercise considering the legitimate hype surrounding Nysos.

This nimble but powerful colt 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.

Two other items stand out in Nysos's past performance block: 1) How did a colt this talented ever go off at 6-1 odds in his debut? 2) Given his apparent mental maturity, it's a bit of a surprise to see Nysos was a comparatively late May 8 foal.

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.

'TDN Rising Star' Muth had been expected to start as the favorite in Saturday's GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn, but trainer Bob Baffert wasn't satisfied with how a Feb. 18 workout at Santa Anita unfolded and declined to enter him.

Muth was clocked in :47.40 (10/128) while covering a half-mile “handily” to the inside of a workmate. But DRF.com's Steve Andersen reported that the move came during a time in morning training when another horse had been pulled up in the stretch with a fatal injury and the warning siren was blaring to alert other riders to pull up and get out of the way.

“He's not going to Arkansas,” Baffert told DRF. “He didn't get a proper work.”

Plan B was not disclosed.

Muth has already shipped cross-country and been scratched on the morning of a race, when Baffert backed the Good Magic colt out of the GI Hopeful S. at Saratoga on Labor Day, citing a “salty” field and a desire to try two turns at a later date.

That secondary option turned out to be the GI American Pharoah S. at Santa Anita Oct. 7, in which Muth manhandled an overmatched field at 2-5 odds.

Muth then ran second in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile and started off his 3-year-old season with an assertive, 90-Beyer win in the GII San Vicente S. over seven furlongs.

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.

It can be hazardous to your bankroll to fall in love with deep closers in a 20-horse field and the list of Derby also-rans is littered with stout-hearted stayers who came up short because they either ran into traffic or ran out of real estate after circling wide to avoid trouble.

Speed-centric horses racing either on the front end or just off it have won eight of the last 10 Derbies, with Rich Strike in 2022 and Mage in 2023 the off-the-pace exceptions.

But it's difficult not to take a shine toward 'TDN Rising Star' Sierra Leone after seeing this locomotive-like Gun Runner colt overcome both a slow pace and a sloppy, sealed racetrack when inhaling No. 4-ranked Track Phantom (Quality Road) in the GII Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds.

Equipped with blinkers and ridden by Tyler Gaffalione (both first-time changes), Sierra Leone got bet down to 5-2 favoritism off an 11-week break after running second in the GII Remsen S. at Aqueduct.

He settled mid-pack, then uncorked a prolonged far-turn rally during which Gaffalione sat chilly before setting down his colt in the nine path for the drive.

Sierra Leone had his work cut out for him while still four lengths behind the pacemaker at the eighth pole, but steadily eroded the gap between him and the hard-trying Track Phantom.

The margin got sliced to two lengths inside the sixteenth marker, and even though Sierra Leone lugged in a bit–a habit carried over from his first two races–within a few strides it was evident that Gaffalione had timed his move perfectly, reeling in his target 50 yards from the wire while Sierra Leone extended his powerful finishing pop into the gallop-out.

Next up is the Apr. 6 GI Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland.

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's Feb. 17 birthday didn't end with a party in the Fair Grounds winner's circle. But his runner-up effort behind Sierra Leone in the Risen Star S. didn't diminish his reputation as a straightforward speed horse who is capable of outrunning rivals for the lead, dictating the tempo, and then refusing to fold in the stretch. He was neither tiring nor quitting. He simply got collared by an A-list closer.

“He ran a great race but ended up just being second best,” said jockey Joel Rosario. “He tries hard every time and keeps getting better.”

This $500,000 KEESEP colt by Quality Road now has a foundation of six lifetime races, all at a mile or longer. In each of his last three two-turn starts, he has drawn either the outermost post (in fields of six and seven) or gate 11 of 12 (on Saturday). Yet Track Phantom has ably swatted back inside challengers by clearing them on the first turn.

With wins over the New Orleans track in both the Gun Runner S. and the GIII Lecomte S., plus his second-place finish over nine furlongs in the Risen Star, it's no surprise trainer Steve Asmussen has circled the Mar. 23 GII Louisiana Derby at 1 3/16 miles for Track Phantom's next start.

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.

Since the advent of the Eclipse Awards, no 2-year-old champion colt has ever lost his first race back at age three and then won the Kentucky Derby.

After running a punchless third at 1-5 odds in the GIII Holy Bull S., wearing a blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May might now seem too tall an order for juvenile champ Fierceness, especially considering trainer Todd Pletcher's plan all along was to have just one other pre-Derby start.

But all is not lost in terms of Derby aspirations for this 'TDN Rising Star.'

For starters, we're now firmly entrenched in the “less is more” era of prepping 3-year-olds to run 10 furlongs and Fierceness could easily cycle back to being a hot commodity with a big nine-furlong effort in the Mar. 30 GI Florida Derby.

Fierceness, based on his five-race career arc, hasn't yet shown an ability to deliver back-to-back strong performances. Nor has he checked the “overcomes adversity” box.

But his two victories in his Saratoga debut and in the Breeders' Cup have both been delivered with enough of a “Wow!” factor to signal that this Repole Stable homebred has what it takes to assert himself at the top of the crop if he ever gets into a groove.

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: GSW, 4-2-2-0, $257,400. Last start: WON Dec. 2 GII Remsen S.

Dornoch hammered for $325,000 at KEESEP in 2022, a price that now looks like a bargain considering his older brother, Mage, at the time was an unknown colt four months away from winning his career debut and nine months away from soaring home first at 15-1 in the Kentucky Derby.

By way of comparison, four months after Mage's career-defining Derby victory, the next foal out of the mare Puca, a colt by McKinzie, sold for $1.2 million at the 2023 edition of KEESEP.

Trainer Danny Gargan has spent the better part of his winter at Palm Meadows trying to get Dornoch to maintain focus. Gargan doesn't want a repeat of the antics that Dornoch displayed when winning the Remsen S.

In that nine-furlong stakes, Dornoch outgunned five rivals for the lead, took mid-race pace pressure, repulsed fresh challengers on the far bend, then got to “goofing off” in the stretch according to Gargan, brushing the inside rail before re-surging to snatch back the lead from No. 3-ranked Sierra Leone.

Although Dornoch has raced on or near the front in all four of his races, Gargan said after the Remsen that a change in tactics might be a worthwhile experiment. He believes that by coming from a bit farther off the pace, Dornoch will see other horses and remain more mentally locked in on his task.

We'll find out in the GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Mar. 2.

7) 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's one-mile allowance victory at 3-10 odds at Santa Anita didn't vault him any higher in these rankings. But the effort did maintain his perfect record while posing an open question about what this colt might do when tasked with tougher competition after being unveiled with a flourish in a 'TDN Rising Star' sprint romp back on Jan. 20.

Breaking from the rail in his second lifetime start Feb. 11, this son of Frosted brushed a foe at the break, then sideswiped stablemate and second-favorite Imagination (Into Mischief) when bearing out into the first turn.

Flavien Prat settled Maymun into a slower second-quarter split down the backstretch. The real running started three-eighths out when Imagination engaged Maymun from the outside and the pace ratcheted up into a more spirited cadence while the two Bob Baffert trainees peeled off from the pack.

Imagination (previous Beyers 70, 78, 78) clearly attained the lead on three distinct occasions from the quarter to the sixteenth poles while never quite putting away Maymun for good.

But Maymun clawed back a half-length deficit inside the final 100 yards, winning by a neck through a final eighth in :12.83 while 10 1/2 lengths clear of the three remaining stragglers.

Maymun's winning time of 1:36.65 equated to an 89 Beyer, a four-point haircut off his 93-Beyer debut.

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: 2-1-0-1, $52,200. Last start: WON Jan. 13 Gulfstream MSW.

Conquest Warrior, dubbed a 'TDN Rising Star' off an adversity-overcoming maiden win going a mile through traffic in his second lifetime race Jan. 13 at Gulfstream, will make his next start there for trainer Shug McGaughey in either an allowance/optional claimer at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 29 or in the Fountain of Youth S. at 1 1/16 miles two days later.

“Ideally, the allowance race goes and we get that next little step into him without quite going into the deep end,” Ernie Retamoza, the manager for owner Courtlandt Farms, told TDN's Steve Sherack last week. “But with the way that he ran and the way he's trained since, I think Shug feels like if the allowance doesn't go, we're sure not gonna sit around and wait on another one. We're gonna go ahead and get him going and see if he can take us there.”

The stout-framed $1-million KEESEP colt has breezed four times since his last start, including two “bullet” clockings at four and five furlongs at Payson Park.

“He's trained really well and came out of that race in great order,” Retamoza said. “He's had some [fast] workouts, really atypical of Shug's horses. Shug doesn't fire bullets all the time, but that colt kind of does. Hopefully, that's a good indicator of what kind of horse he is and where we're headed. Those good horses work fast, that's just the way it is.”

9) 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, 5-2-1-0, $475,600. Last start: 4th Nov. 3 GI FanDuel Breeders' Cup Juvenile S.

This son of Into Mischief started his career in three sprints, and while his best races have been at seven furlongs and a one-turn mile, it's noteworthy that his dam's only two wins in Great Britain came over 1 1/2 miles and 1 3/4 miles.

This 'TDN Rising Star' was installed as the 6-5 morning line favorite for Saturday's Rebel S. at Oaklawn, and trainer Brad Cox is hoping the 1 1/16-miles distance will be a launch pad for Timberlake to earn Derby qualifying points in his sophomore debut.

Timberlake's fourth-place try as the 3-1 third choice in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was essentially over before the first turn when he resisted efforts to settle and never fired when called upon for run.

But go two starts back in his past performances, and that emphatic sloppy-track pasting of a GI Champagne S. field that included eventual champ Fierceness could be the race that is the more useful benchmark for prognosticating Timberlake's future.

Florent Geroux won't be aboard on Saturday for the first time in Timberlake's five-race career. He's booked to ride Saudi Crown (Always Dreaming) for Cox in the $20-million G1 Saudi Cup. Christian Torres will pick up the mount.

10) LOCKED (c, Gun Runner–Luna Rosa, by Malibu Moon) 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners & Walmac Farm; B-Rosa Colasanti (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $425,000 yrl '22 KEESEP). Lifetime Record: GISW, 4-2-0-2, $608,400. Last start: 3rd Nov. 3 GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

'TDN Rising Star' Locked was the beaten favorite when third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and his sophomore season was delayed when he had to miss the Feb. 10 GIII Davis S. at Tampa after spiking a fever.

But bettors haven't forgotten that this $425,000 KEESEP colt put up mid-90s Beyer numbers three times at age two, and his win in the Oct. 7 GI Breeders' Futurity S. at Keeneland was punctuated by Locked twice re-seizing the lead inside the eighth pole.

As such, he was installed as a 16-1 choice in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool that closed Sunday, the same price as 2-year-old champ and stablemate Fierceness.

Trainer Todd Pletcher plans to start Locked in the Fountain of Youth S., which could end up luring three Top 12 contenders.

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: GSW, 5-2-1-0, $510,110. Last start: WON Feb. 3 GIII Southwest S.

Last fall, trainer Kenny McPeek started this Goldencents colt's career by running twice in sprints and three times within a 33-day span. He now believes Mystik Dan's future will be in longer races with more time between starts.

After Mystik Dan's eight-length, 101-Beyer GIII Southwest S. score, McPeek told the TDN Writers' Room podcast that, “This horse is really fast. He has been from the beginning. Initially, I ran him twice in sprint races and after I did that, I kind of regretted it a little bit because we had to retool him a little bit. He's so quick that you had to kind of re-teach him and he needed to learn how to go longer.”

McPeek explained that this homebred for Lance Gasaway, Daniel Hamby, and 4G Racing made that learning process straightforward because of Mystik Dan's capacity to absorb and repeat what he has been schooled to do.

“This is the kind of mind that you need for these high-level races,” McPeek said.

After running up the score on a sealed, muddy track that he clearly relished, it remains to be seen whether Mystik Dan can repeat his gaudy Southwest performance on a dry surface going longer against a deeper field, with the Mar. 30 GI Arkansas Derby as his target.

12) SPEAK EASY (c, Constitution–Fun, by Harlan's Holiday) O-Siena Farm LLC & WinStar Farm LLC; B-WinStar Farm LLC (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $42,000. Last Start: WON Jan. 27 Gulfstream MSW.

In the last five years, trainer Todd Pletcher has started 185 firsters at odds of 8-1 or higher. Of the 11 who won, according to DRF's Formulator, Speak Easy, who earned a 100 Beyer, is the only one to have run a figure greater than 90. That means this Constitution colt gets serious consideration for this list, even if it is getting a touch too deep into the season to have Derby aspirations for sophomores who've only started once.

This WinStar Farm homebred who races in partnership with Siena Farm broke from the one post in his Jan. 27 Gulfstream debut, sluiced through a four-way early duel to latch on to the 3-2 favorite, then relentlessly ran down that rival in a seven-furlong clocking that was :01.08 seconds faster than older fillies and mares ran in a Grade II stakes later that afternoon.

“We had him going pretty well last summer and was getting close to a race when he had a minor setback, so we gave him some time,” Pletcher said after that win. “The fact that he had a pretty good foundation last summer I think helped in preparing him for his debut. He'd always trained really well, but I think that performance even exceeded our expectations.

“If we get the opportunity to run in an allowance race, that could be an option,” Pletcher continued. “I guess running as fast as he did, if he had to go into a stakes, I suppose you could make an argument for that as well.”

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