TDN Sophomore Top 20: Separating Contenders From Pretenders

Sierra Leone | Coady

By

All the nine-furlong prep races have been run, and the Triple Crown-caliber players have stepped forward and established themselves. We're three weeks away from a campaign's worth of enjoyable chaos sorting itself into some semblance of order, which means there's still plenty of time before you have to lock in your GI Kentucky Derby horse. Or maybe you'd prefer to wait for the GI Preakness S., like several top sophomores might end up doing.

1) 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: MGISW, 6-4-2-0, $1,504,100. Last start: WON Mar. 30 GI Arkansas Derby.

On Apr. 2, three days after Muth's two-length score in the GI Arkansas Derby, trainer Bob Baffert confirmed that this 4-for-6 'TDN Rising Star' is Baltimore-bound for the May 18 GI Preakness S.

“My plan's always been, if he ran well [in Arkansas], we're just pointing him for the Preakness,” Baffert told the Oaklawn media team.

Then the very next day, Muth's owner, Zedan Racing Stables, filed a lawsuit in a Kentucky court with the aim of overturning Churchill Downs's corporate ban of Baffert so that Muth (and possibly other horses trained by Baffert) could run in the Kentucky Derby.

We'll leave the ongoing debate about Baffert's Derby eligibility to the judge for the purposes of this writeup.

The assessment still stands that this son of Good Magic ($190,000 KEESEP, $2 million OBSMAR) is the most consistent and reliable contender at the top of the crop, and he looms as a major threat to blossom into a dominant divisional force. Muth's chief attribute is speed-oriented athleticism fused with a straightforward way of doing whatever has to be done to win.

Baffert said Muth's trip from Santa Anita to Oaklawn “was good for him. First time shipping was important. He ran well. Everything went smoothly for him. He looked great in the stretch. Distance is not going to be a problem for him, so that was very encouraging. A mile and an eighth, I've always felt, really starts to separate them. It was a very tough, competitive race.”

2) 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: GISW, 4-3-1-0, $918,000. Last start: WON Apr. 6 GI Blue Grass S.

In Saturday's GI Blue Grass S., 'TDN Rising Star' Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) built up serious momentum with one of his customary off-the-tailgate runs to mow down the competition.

Although he's still not the most polished version of the racehorse his potential and pedigree suggest he will be, this $2.3 million FTSAUG sale-topper has enough raw, off-pace power to establish his status as the top-ranked closer in his class.

After being reluctant to load into the outermost post in front of a lively Keeneland crowd that caught his attention, this Chad Brown trainee broke without incident and was dropped down next to the fence at the back of the pack by Tyler Gaffalione. With stablemate Top Conor (Twirling Candy) establishing an ambitious tempo up front, Sierra Leone waited patiently at the rear, settling unto a rhythmic stride before beginning to unfurl five furlongs out.

Gaffalione sliced him between two rivals nearing the far turn, then popped outside to pick off the mid-pack stragglers. Although still exhibiting a tendency to lean in during his stretch runs like he's shown since age two, Sierra Leone did respond to being roused, and you get the feeling he would have easily shouldered aside any rival who dared get in his way. He won by 1 1/2 lengths and finished up the final sixteenth with his ears pricked forward, indicating he was eager for more.

Sierra Leone's 98 Beyer was a tricky fig to make considering there was only one other main-track route race at Keeneland that afternoon.

Despite being visually arresting, the timing of Sierra Leone's finish was on the tepid side. While the early part of the Blue Grass featured revved-up opening quarter-mile splits of :23.15 and :23.33, Sierra Leone closed ground through a final furlong clocked in :13.43. That's the slowest last eighth among all nine points-awarding Derby preps run at 1 1/8 miles in 2023-24.

3) FOREVER YOUNG (JPN) (c, Reel Steel {Jpn}–Forever Darling, by Congrats). O-Susumu Fujita; B-Northern Racing; T-Yoshito Yahagi. Sales History: ¥98,000,000 Ylg '22 JRHAJUL. Lifetime Record: 5-5-0-0, $2,049,451. Last start: WON Mar. 30 G2 UAE Derby.

The 5-for-5 Forever Young (Jpn) (Real Steel {Jpn}) raced outermost to win the Feb. 24 one-turn mile G3 Saudi Derby with a long, well-timed drive. He was then parked in the four path on both turns to prevail in the G2 UAE Derby over 1900 meters Mar. 30.

For the most part, those ground-conceding tactics have been by design to keep Forever Young from being pelted by kickback from horses in front of him. His connections are on record as saying that the colt dislikes the dirt spray, and he was equipped with a sort of facemask (like blinkers without the cups) in his last race at Meydan.

Is Forever Young's aversion to kickback a reason to discount his chances in the Kentucky Derby? Probably not if you otherwise like his chances. In any given 20-horse Derby, we end up hearing plenty of post-race comments from the trainers of also-rans stating how their horses just couldn't handle the kickback. Some horses persevere through it, some don't and some are race-to-race about how they handle it.

Plus, it isn't like Forever Young, who sold for the equivalent of $720,603 at the JRHA Select Yearling and Foal sale, has never dealt with dirt before. He won three times in Japan at age two despite being in spots where he was forced to take at least some kickback.

In his Oct. 14 maiden win, Forever Young was buried behind the first-flight wall of horses before bursting through near the inside rail. Against stakes company Nov. 3, he was covered up toward the rear for most of the trip before tipping outside to win going away. And on Dec. 13, Forever Young raced just off the heels of the pacemaker before punching past on the far turn to romp by seven lengths.

4) 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, MGISW, 5-3-0-1, $1,703,850. Last start: WON Mar. 30 GI Curlin Florida Derby.

With this past weekend's final nine-furlong prep races yielding wins by two stalkers and one closer, Fierceness's stock upticked because he now looms as the most legitimate speed threat among horses pointing for the Derby.

But bettors in the latest pool for the Kentucky Derby Future Wager–which closed Saturday prior to any of those stakes being run–apparently didn't need to know that bit of pace information before staunchly backing Fierceness. He was established as the 5-2 favorite, a pre-race price that could end up being lower than the 2-year-old champ's actual mutuel odds 3 1/2 weeks from now on Derby Day.

This Repole Stable homebred by City of Light heads to Louisville off a hammer-dropping, 13 1/4-length pasting of an underwhelming GI Curlin Florida Derby field. The impressive 110 Beyer Speed Figure he earned is five points faster than any other number put up by a sophomore so far this year.

But realists will legitimately question the figure's face value considering Fierceness established an all-his-own-way cadence without having to fight hard for the lead or repulse any serious stretch bids.

Eight of the last 10 horses to cross the finish wire first in the Derby have raced on or near the lead. If Fierceness can establish control early, he avoids a lot of potential trouble simply by being out ahead of the first-turn scrum that is an inherent risk in any 20-horse Derby.

Fierceness | Benoit

5) TRACK PHANTOM (c, Quality Road–Miss Sunset, by Into Mischief) O-L and N Racing LLC, Clark Brewster, Jerry Caroom & Breeze Easy LLC; B-Breeze Easy (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Sales history: $500,000 yrl '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-3-2-1, $405,000. Last start: 4th in Mar. 23 GII Louisiana Derby.

Track Phantom has been sporting blinkers in the mornings at Churchill Downs in preparation for wearing them for the first time in the Kentucky Derby.

Trainer Steve Asmussen told Daily Racing Form's Marcus Hersch last week that “The blinkers are for what he did from the quarter pole to the wire last time, not what he does in the morning.”

Asmussen was referring to this $500,000 KEESEP son of Quality Road setting a moderate pace in the GII Louisiana Derby, then fading to fourth in deep stretch.

Track Phantom has won three of seven starts, all at a mile or longer, and he consistently breaks well enough to lead the pack, despite often getting disadvantaged by outside draws. He has experience in fighting off rivals in the stretch, and even though this colt isn't always on the winning end, he has gained valuable experience.

According to DRF's Formulator tool, Asmussen's win percentage with all starters over the past five years is 18%. His 205 trainees adding blinkers for the first time during that time frame won 15% of the time. On five occasions in the past five years, Asmussen has tried first-time blinkers on a Grade I starter. None have won, with the best finish among them a second by Disarm (Gun Runner) in the 2023 GI Travers S.

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, 6-3-2-0, $552,275. Last start: 4th in the GI Blue Grass S. Apr. 6

Dornoch's punchless fourth in the Blue Grass S. is a little easier to make sense of moving forward knowing his connections weren't satisfied with the experiment of rating him off the pace, and that trainer Danny Gargan plans on changing tactics back to letting this colt freewheel on the front end in the Derby.

This $325,000 KEESEP son of Good Magic, who is a full brother to 2023 Derby winner Mage, broke running from post four, but Luis Saez had a handful trying to keep his colt under wraps around the first turn. Dornoch was pegged down at the rail in fourth for most of his trip and had only a mild response when asked to pick it up around the far bend. He briefly ran up on the heels of a rival in front of him three-sixteenths from home, then drifted out towards the onrushing Sierra Leone, who blew by Dornoch in upper stretch with zero resistance.

“He got in there behind,” Gargan said. “It's his first time really getting a lot of dirt like that, he resented it a little bit early, Luis said. He said he kind of ran away from the horses. [Dornoch was] a little bit stuck in there. Next time, we'll break him out of [the gate on the lead] and keep his face clean, and he'll run better next time. There's no pressure now. We're going to go over [to Gargan's hometown of Louisville] and have fun.”

7) IMAGINATION (c, Into Mischief–Magical Feeling, by Empire Maker) O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Stonestreet Stables LLC, Dianne Bashor, Robert Masterson, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine Donovan & Tom Ryan; B-Peter Blum Thoroughbreds (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $1,050,000 yrl '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-2-3-0, $406,800. Last start: 2nd in the GI Santa Anita Derby Apr. 6.

Imagination was a narrowly-beaten second in Saturday's GI Santa Anita Derby. The fact that he forced the issue through a quick opening quarter (:22.72), went after the leader on the far turn, then held the lead for most of the stretch while taking constant pressure from eventual winner Stronghold (Ghostzapper) gives his effort an edge in terms of performance under duress–even though he didn't come out on the winning end of the photo.

In fact, it's now three straight route races in which this $1.05-million KEESEP colt by Into Mischief has hooked up in prolonged late-race fights. One was a win in the Grade II San Felipe S., the two others were neck losses.

“We jumped good and we had a good pace,” said jockey Franke Dettori, noting that pressure from an outside rival turning onto the backstretch meant he pushed Imagination “a little bit earlier than I wanted to.

“In the stretch I was vulnerable for a closer,” Dettori said. “When [Stronghold] passed us, my horse kept fighting back. We were head and head, and he was too strong for me down the line.”

Imagination is now 2-4-0 from six lifetime starts. Trainer Bob Baffert has not publicly declared next-race plans.

8) Just a Touch (c, Justify-Touching Beauty, by Tapit) O-Qatar Racing LLC, Resolute Racing & Marc Detampel; B-Don Alberto Corp. (KY); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $170,000 RNA '22 KEESEP; $125,000 yrl '22 FTKOCT; $300,000 2yo '23 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 3-1-2-0, $281,700. Last start: 2nd in GI Blue Grass S. Apr. 6

The second-place effort by Just a Touch in Saturday's Blue Grass S. was commendable on several levels.

This son of Justify ($170,000 RNA KEESEP, $125,000 FTKOCT, $300,000 OBSAPR) gets credit for attending a fast pace, then wresting control of the lead from the three-sixteenths marker until just before the sixteenth pole. When Sierra Leone torqued by him, Just A Touch was tiring but not folding, and he galloped out more or less on even terms with the winner.

That performance rates additional credibility considering it was only the third lifetime start and first race around two turns for Just a Touch. And this is a colt who also won't hit his third birthday until the day after the Kentucky Derby.

“The pace was a bit quicker than I thought it would be,” said jockey Florent Geroux. “Turning for home, I thought I had it, but was just taken down by Sierra Leone. My horse had a good finish to be second. He ran a good race against really good horses.”

Trainer Brad Cox explained that Just a Touch is “going to have to move forward in the next four weeks. Colts can do that. If he moves forward, he will be able to compete in the Derby.”

9) RESILIENCE (c, Into Mischief-Meadowsweet, by Smart Strike) O-Emily Bushnell & Ric Waldman; B-Pam & Martin Wygod (KY); T-Bill Mott. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-2-1-1, $494,630. Last start: WON Apr. 6 GI Wood Memorial S.

Resilience, an Into Mischief colt out of a Smart Strike mare, leapfrogged into Derby relevance with a 2 1/4-length stalking victory (90 Beyer) in Saturday's GII Wood Memorial S. at Aqueduct.

Off at 9-2 odds and adding blinkers for the first time, this Bill Mott trainee broke fluidly from the rail under John Velazquez, then conceded the lead while in a touch tight at the fence through the clubhouse turn.

Resilience enjoyed a no-excuse, ground-saving trip behind sparring 52-1 and 80-1 shots on the front end. Velazquez edged him off the rail 4 1/2 furlongs out, then commenced to chipping away at the leaders' margin through the far bend before collaring those spent rivals at the quarter pole.

There was a spill in upper stretch behind Resilience, but it did not appear to hamper any serious threats to his lead. This colt willingly stayed on late to outfinish 106-1 and 38-1 long shots.

“We broke really well, which was what we wanted to do,” Velazquez said. “He got a little bit aggressive, more than I wanted to in the first part. Then I put him out and he kind of relaxed better on the outside of horses. The reason we put blinkers on is because he's kind of hesitant in passing the horses. So, I kind of engaged him a little bit early to see if he'd pass horses and he passed them. Then I was like, 'Oh, man I might've broken a little too soon.' Then he just kept me busy down the lane.”

Resilience | Sarah Andrew

10) CATCHING FREEDOM (c, Constitution–Catch My Drift, by Pioneerof the Nile) O-Albaugh Family Stables LLC; B-WinStar Farm (KY); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $575,000 yrl '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-3-0-1, $877,350. Last start: WON Mar. 23 GII Louisiana Derby.

This Constitution colt ($575,000 KEESEP) is now one breeze into a series of four planned workouts before starting in the Derby, where he's likely to be mid-priced in the betting and expected to close from off the pace.

“He's settled in nicely since we shipped him back to Churchill from Fair Grounds,” trainer Brad Cox said after training on Friday. “He was impressive [winning] from that far back in the Louisiana Derby and I think the longer stretch at Churchill, plus the mile-and-a-quarter, should only help him in the Derby.”

Catching Freedom is a medium-framed stayer, and ever since he got on the Derby radar with a grind-'em-down win in the Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn Jan. 1, Cox has reiterated that this colt won't be wowing anyone with his morning workouts.

So the key to figuring out whether you want to back him or beat him in the Derby is going to have to rely more or race-to-race assessment rather than how Catching Freedom trains over the next 3 1/2 weeks. His Beyer progression has been 72-77-87-87-97.

11) JUST STEEL (c, Justify–Irish Lights {Aus}, by Fastnet Rock {Aus}). O-BC Stables, LLC; B-Summerhill Farm (KY); T-D. Wayne Lukas. Sales History: $500,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISP, 11-2-4-1, $724,545. Last start: 2nd Mar. 30 GI Arkansas Derby.

Even though he's an outlier likely to go off north of 30-1, you don't have to squint too hard at Just Steel's past performances to make a case for this D. Wayne Lukas trainee.

This $500,000 KEESEP son of 2018 Triple Crown champ Justify has a bedrock (by today's standards) foundation of 11 starts leading up to Louisville. On three occasions at age three, he's finished second around two turns in points-awarding prep stakes, and the one time he didn't, Just Steel was five wide round both turns at Oaklawn.

His final Kentucky Derby tune-up in the Arkansas Derby was also better than it might seem on paper: Just Steel raced close to the pace despite getting hooked four wide on the first turn, and he sustained his run through the lane in workmanlike fashion without tossing in the towel, finishing only two lengths behind No. 1-ranked Muth.

12) STRONGHOLD (c, Ghostzapper-Spectator, by Jimmy Creed)  O/B-Eric M. and Sharon Waller (KY); T-Philip D'Amato. Lifetime Record: GISW, 6-3-3-0, $827,200. Last start: WON Apr. 6 GI Santa Anita Derby

This Ghostzapper-sired homebred for Rick and Sharon Waller is Kentucky-bound after winning the stretch slugfest in the Santa Anita Derby at 2.2-1 odds. His Beyer of 89 matches the figure he earned when victorious in the GIII Sunland Derby Feb. 18.

Of the nine 1 1/8-miles prep stakes on the Kentucky Derby qualifying calendar this season, the Santa Anita Derby holds the distinction of featuring the fastest opening quarter-mile (:22.72) and the slowest fourth-quarter split (:25.98).

Stronghold broke for the lead straight out of the gate, then was rated back to fourth by Antonio Fresu. After stalking the pacemakers, Stronghold shadowed Imagination on the far turn, split horses in upper stretch, then took over at the eighth pole. For the second straight race, he lost but recaptured the lead in the stretch, prevailing in the final 50 yards with admirable tenacity.

“Stronghold is a horse that just continues to improve, and I think it's the farther the better with him,” trainer Phil D'Amato said.  “He does just enough. He's shown the will to win, but those are usually the kinds of horses that stretch out well because they don't use themselves too much early and drain the gas tank. They have something left. I'm happy where we're at with him right now.”

 

Potentially rounding out the Derby starting gate…

13) Endlessly (Oscar Performance)

After Endlessly won the Mar. 23 GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks S. to run his record to 5-for-6, with all wins on turf or Tapeta, trainer Michael McCarthy said that this Amerman Racing homebred would be pointed for the GII American Turf S. on the Kentucky Derby undercard instead of using the colt's eligibility points to get into the Derby itself.

Endlessly's connections have since caught Derby fever–or at least a whiff of it.

“After the Jeff Ruby, Mr. Amerman and I talked and we're going to leave all of our options open,” McCarthy said after Endlessly breezed an easy four furlongs in :49.60 (78/111) over the Churchill dirt Saturday morning. “We still have a few weeks to train here and have some time to make a final decision as to what we do next.”

You wouldn't blame them for taking a shot. Endlessly has six starts, all at a mile or longer, and has already twice won over nine furlongs. His four-length, complete-control win with a big outside move in that Turfway stake completely outclassed the field.

14) Mystik Dan (Goldencents)

Mystik Dan was carried out wide entering the backstretch of the Arkansas Derby and took the second turn in the four path. But he stalled when called upon for run and ended up third, beaten 6 1/2 lengths, in his nine-furlong debut.

He currently makes the Kentucky Derby qualifying cutoff with 46 points and will be in “regroup” mode for trainer Kenny McPeek, who hopes a little extra distance will allow this homebred son of Goldencents for owners Lance Gasaway, Daniel Hamby and 4G Racing to get back to his 101-Beyer winning form from the GIII Southwest S.

15) Domestic Product (Practical Joke)

Domestic Product, a Chad Brown-trained homebred for Klaravich Stables, won the GIII Tampa Bay Derby with an 82 Beyer Speed Figure, a five-point regression off his 87-Beyer second in the GIII Holy Bull S.

The Tampa Derby was run as a non-wagering race because of bet-processing problems that caused a delay of more than half an hour past scheduled post.

Domestic Product was a midpack fifth behind a dawdling pace before being shaken up for run and surviving a three-way bob for the win.

For the second straight race, Domestic Product closed into unusually slow fractions. The first two quarter-mile splits in the Holy Bull were :25.03 and :25.50. The Tampa Derby's three opening quarters were clocked in :25.25, :25.89 and :25.07.

16) Honor Marie (Honor Code)

Honor Marie, a modest-framed $40,000 KEESEP colt by Honor Code who turns three on Derby Day, won the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. at Churchill back on Nov. 25 by rating from last after five horses dueled early and two others took late-race runs at the lead.

In two starts in 2024, this Whit Beckman trainee was fifth in the GII Risen Star S., a key race that notably produced next-out, nine-furlong graded stakes winners Sierra Leone, Catching Freedom and Resilience. Honor Marie was second in his next outing, a 96-Beyer deep-closing try in the Louisiana Derby.

17) Society Man (Good Magic)

Now trainer Danny Gargan will have not one, but two Good Magic colts aiming for the Derby. Society Man's runner-up effort at 106-1 odds in the Wood Memorial secured the points berth to make the qualifying cutoff.

This $85,000 KEESEP yearling does have three races worth of experience at nine furlongs, although his only win was an on-Lasix score over a muddy, one-turn mile at Aqueduct Mar. 9.

“His mother won going a mile and an eighth and he's getting better,” Gargan said.

That win by dam You Cheated was her only dirt-track score from four wins, and it came at Churchill Downs in the slop in 2018.

18) West Saratoga (Exaggerator)

West Saratoga, an $11,000 KEESEP colt, is currently 11th on the Derby qualifying list with 67 points. He closed at 121-1 in this past weekend's Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

West Saratoga won the very first points-awarding prep stakes of the campaign, the GIII Iroquois  S. back on Sept. 16 at Churchill. He sat fourth behind a breakaway pacemaker, then came with a long, lumbering run to score at 12-1 odds.

This gray hasn't won since. At age three, he's been second, third, then second in the Pasco S., GIII Davis S. and Jeff Ruby S.

19) Catalytic (Catalina Cruiser)

Catalytic ($70,000 KEENOV, $125,000 FTSAUG) hit the side of the starting gate then got fanned four wide into the clubhouse turn of the Florida Derby. He was no match for runaway winner Fierceness, but held second in a best-of-the-rest performance that earned 50 qualifying points to get into the Kentucky Derby.

In his only other two starts, this son of Catalina Cruiser (out of a Distorted Humor mare) broke his maiden sprinting at Gulfstream last October, then finished second as the beaten favorite in an optional claimer/allowance sprint at Tampa Mar. 8.

20) T O Password (Jpn) (Copano Rickey {Jpn})

The connections of the 2-for-2 T O Password (Jpn) have accepted an invitation to compete in the Derby for accruing 40 points in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby series.

This is a forward-running colt whose two victories have come against lesser company than that kept by fellow Japanese contender Forever Young.

In the Mar. 23 1,800-meter Fukuryu S., this 13-1 Daisuke Takayanagi trainee went straight to the lead but had to be saved by the wire after losing a four-length cushion in the final half a furlong.

Woodbine's leading rider last year, Kazushi Kimura, has been booked to ride in the Derby.

T O Password won't hit his third birthday until May 20.

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