The TDN Derby Top 12 for Feb. 20

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War of Will | Hodges Photography

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We’ve had this year’s first significant shift in the GI Kentucky Derby Top 12 rankings, with a new leader bulling his way to the top of the crop. Expect the thawing trend to continue as the stakes action heats up, with eight high-ranked hopefuls expected to start on either the weekend of Mar. 2 or 9.

1) WAR OF WILL (c, War FrontVisions of Clarity {Ire}, by Sadler’s Wells)
O-Gary Barber. B-Flaxman Holdings Limited (KY). T-Mark Casse. Sales History: $175,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP; €250,000 2yo ’18 ARQMAY. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 7-3-1-1, $491,569.
Last Start: 1st, GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 16
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 19
Next Start: Aiming for GII Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 23
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on War of Will. KY Derby Points: 10.

When War of Will assertively seized the lead three-eighths out in Saturday’s GII Risen Star S., he wrested control of the entire division, vaulting from No. 4 to the top of the totem pole with a well-honed win that showed off his physical prowess and a zeal for reeling in targets. Until last Saturday, the 2019 Derby prep season had been lacking a significant breakout performance; in fact, five of the dozen horses on this week’s list are still awaiting sophomore debuts. But now that we’re approaching March, sharp current form outweighs accomplishments from last autumn, and this €250,000 ARQMAY War Front colt has burst upon the scene with three straight dirt wins after a wide-on-both-turns fifth (beaten only 3 1/2 lengths) in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. In each of those solid dirt victories, War of Will gave the impression that he won with something left in reserve, and even though he needs to be kept to task once he hits the lead, he appears to be learning from each experience. “He’s very professional. He does everything the right way,” jockey Tyler Gaffalione said after Saturday’s 2 1/4-length score. “He gets out of the gate well. He puts himself where he needs to be, and the rest is up to just getting him to relax.” Trainer Mark Casse, not known for hyperbole, said “I’ve been fortunate to train a lot of good horses, and [War of Will] is one of the best. I think he’s a superstar.” The GII Louisiana Derby is probably next. “I like to run, and we don’t really shy away from anybody,” Casse added.

2) GAME WINNER (c, Candy Ride {Arg}Indyan Giving, by A.P. Indy)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Gary & Mary West. B-Summer Wind Equine (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $110,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 4-4-0-0, $1,496,000.
Last Start: 1st, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile , CD, Nov. 2
Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI American Pharoah S., SA, Sept. 29; 1st, GI Del Mar Futurity, DMR, Sept. 3
Next Start: GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 30.

‘TDN Rising Star’ and defending Eclipse Award champ Game Winner remains on the two-prep path to the Derby that has evolved as the hallmark training regimen for Bob Baffert’s A-list sophomores. Will he fire big off the bench in the Mar. 9 San Felipe S.? Has this large-framed, professionally demeanored colt developed across multiple dimensions since we last saw him roughing up the field in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile? Game Winner uncorked a long, relentless “man against boys” type of drive over the Churchill Downs strip to cement championship honors last November. Although the runner-up in that race, Knicks Go (Paynter), has suffered two stinging defeats since, the third-, fifth-, seventh- and twelfth-place finishers in the Juvenile have all come back to eventually add stakes wins to their résumés. Yet an even longer-term stat could prove the most difficult obstacle for this $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt: Only two Juvenile winners from 34 runnings have won the Kentucky Derby (Nyquist and Street Sense).

3) SIGNALMAN (c, General Quarters–Trip South, by Trippi)
O-Tommie M. Lewis, David A. Bernsen, LLC & Magdalena Racing (Sherri McPeek). B-Monticule (KY). T-Kenneth G McPeek. Sales History: $32,000 Ylg ’17 FTKOCT. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 5-2-2-1, $448,990.
Last Start: 1st, GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 24
Accomplishments Include: 3rd, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, CD, Nov. 2; 2nd, GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, KEE, Oct. 6
Next Start: Likely for GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.

Trainer Ken McPeek currently has two horses on the Derby trail that he picked out as yearlings: Signalman, a $32,000 FTKOCT General Quarters colt, has been firmly entrenched near the top of this list since the rankings debuted in December, and Harvey Wallbanger, a $50,000 FTKJUL Congrats colt, gained a berth on the “on the bubble” periphery after his 29-1 GII Holy Bull S. upset Feb. 2. McPeek now has a nice “problem” in terms of keeping the two separated in prep races, but he told TDN last week that Signalman will likely make his 2019 debut in the Mar. 2 GII Fountain of Youth S. while “Harvey” is likely to wait until the Mar. 30 GI Florida Derby. McPeek described Signalman as “a big bull” whose action resembles a “powerful machine,” and that well-channeled aggression was on full display in Signalman’s last start, which featured a long up-the-rail drive against 13 rivals on a sloppy Churchill surface to win the Nov. 24 GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. The betting public though, believes the two McPeek trainees are close together in ability, as both Signalman and Harvey closed at 28-1 odds last week in Pool 2 of the Derby Future Wager.

4) IMPROBABLE (c, City ZipRare Event, by A.P. Indy)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club International Ltd. & Starlight Racing. B-St. George Farm LLC & G. Watts Humphrey Jr. (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $110,000 Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $200,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 3-3-0-0, $269,520.
Last Start: 1st, GI Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, LRC, Dec. 8
Accomplishments Include: 1st, Street Sense S., CD, Nov. 2;
Next Start: Possible for GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on Improbable. KY Derby Points: 10.

Will ‘TDN Rising Star’ Improbable start next in the GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn Park on Mar. 16? Although not yet confirmed by trainer Bob Baffert, that’s a logical launching pad for this athletic, light-footed $200,000 KEESEP City Zip colt’s sophomore debut. It’s extremely unlikely that Improbable will square off against stablemate Game Winner at any point on the prep path, and Baffert has shipped to win six of the previous nine Rebels. But he has also saddled the beaten favorite in the last two Rebels, so bettor beware. Improbable was the clear-cut victor in the GI Los Alamitos Futurity last time out, and his company line got boosted recently when runner-up Mucho Gusto (Mucho Macho Man) came back to win the GIII Lewis S. at 3-5 odds Feb. 2 and third-place finisher Extra Hope (Shanghai Bobby) scored in a first-level allowance Jan 31. Baffert has now won the last five Los Al Futurities, but only two of those winners—Dortmund (Big Brown) and Mor Spirit (Eskendereya)—went on to start in the Kentucky Derby.

5) DREAM MAKER (c, Tapit–To Dream About, by Monarchos)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O/B-John C. Oxley (KY). T-Mark Casse. Lifetime Record: 4-2-0-0, $72,850.
Last Start: 1st, Allowance/Optional Claiming, FG, Feb. 9.
Next Start: Possible for GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Dream Maker muscled his way onto the Top 12 with a commanding first-level allowance win at Fair Grounds Feb. 9, but this Tapit-sired John Oxley homebred stamped himself as a potential Derby contender way back on June 7 when he circled the field in a Churchill Downs MSW and won going away to earn ‘TDN Rising Star’ status in his career debut. In the interim, he was fifth (but only beaten 4 3/4 lengths) in the GI Hopeful S. at Saratoga, then lost all chance at the break of the GI Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland when he stumbled and clipped heels as the beaten favorite. Given some time off, Dream Maker bulked up in all the right places, and despite racing three wide on both turns under mild restraint in his 1 1/16 miles return try, he opened up easily under light coaxing, winning by 8 1/2 lengths and galloping out like he wanted more. His stamina-centric pedigree traces to six-time Grade I winner and Eclipse Award winner Beautiful Pleasure, and trainer Mark Casse has indicated that stakes starts in the GII Tampa Bay Derby and GII Blue Grass S. could comprise this colt’s prep path to Louisville.

6) CODE OF HONOR (c, Noble Mission {GB}–Reunited, by Dixie Union)
O/B-W. S. Farish (KY). T-Shug McGaughey. Sales History: $70,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISP, 2-1-1-0, $146,750.
Last Start: 4th, Mucho Macho Man S., GP, Jan. 5
Next Start: GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 4.

In the week before the Breeders’ Cup, I was certain that Code of Honor was going to be the worthy “wiseguy” upset play in the Juvenile based on his adversity-overcoming second at 14-1 in the GI Champagne S. But this Noble Mission (GB) homebred spiked a temperature and scratched the night before the race, setting off a frustrating two months that have clouded this talented colt’s true potential. Trainer Shug McGuaghey backed him out of a planned start in the GII Remsen S. when he was not satisfied with Code of Honor’s energy level, then when the colt failed to fire as the 4-5 beaten fave in the Jan. 5 Mucho Macho Man S., McGuaghey took part of the blame by saying he hadn’t trained him aggressively enough. Code of Honor has had six published works since—three of them bullets—and this chestnut once again looms as a compelling dark horse betting-wise in what is shaping up to be a very deep Fountain of Youth S. Mar. 2 at Gulfstream Park.

7) HIDDEN SCROLL (c, Hard Spun–Sheba Queen, by Empire Maker)
‘TDN Rising Star’ O/B-Juddmonte Farms, Inc. (KY). T-William I. Mott. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $31,800.
Last Start: 1st, Maiden Special Weight, GP, Jan. 26
Next Start: Possible for GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2 Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Even though we’ve now had a few weeks to digest ‘TDN Rising Star’ Hidden Scroll’s otherworldly career debut on the GI Pegasus World Cup undercard, you will be forgiven if you still don’t know what to make of it. It was a freakishly fast one-turn-mile (based on both raw final time and confirmed by several flavors of speed figures) for a first-timer breaking from the one hole in the slop against a deep-on-paper 13-horse field. Judging by the 8-1 odds that day, few prognosticators saw the 14-length, eased-up win coming. Presumably, some of those same bettors saw fit to hammer this Hard Spun-sired Juddmonte homebred to 7-1 in Pool 2 of the Derby Future wager. Even Juddmonte’s U.S. manager, Garrett O’Rourke, admitted to TDN last week that Hidden Scroll’s futures price is “a little bit crazy given that he’s only run one race.” He added that although it’s not “a 100% commitment,” the coming-up-loaded Fountain of Youth S. could be the colt’s next start.

8) VEKOMA (c, Candy Ride {Arg}Mona de Momma, by Speightstown)
O-R. A. Hill Stable & Gatsas Stables. B-Alpha Delta Stables, LLC (KY). T-George Weaver. Sales History: $135,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $151,250.
Last Start: 1st GIII Nashua S., AQU, Nov. 4
Next Start: Possible for GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

This undefeated $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt merits respect based on his 2-for-2 juvenile season that culminated with a win in the GIII Nashua S. last November. But like several other unraced-in-2019 horses who lost positions on this week’s list, he has been leapfrogged in the rankings because it’s been nearly four months since we’ve seen what he can do in afternoon action. Vekoma had his head cocked to the grandstand and was on the wrong lead for a bit in that one-turn mile GIII Nashua S. win. And considering he’s a May 22 foal without two-turn experience, he could be in a bit over his head seasoning-wise if he goes in the Fountain of Youth S., which has three horses ahead of him on this week’s Top 12 (Signalman, Code of Honor, Hidden Scroll) considering that spot. Another option could be the GIII Gotham S. Mar. 9, which would be yet another one-turn mile, but with the advantage that Vekoma has already run well over Aqueduct’s main track.

9) INSTAGRAND (c, Into MischiefAssets of War, by Lawyer Ron)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-OXO Equine LLC. B-Stoneway Farm (KY). T-Jerry Hollendorfer. Sales History: $190,000 Ylg ’17 FTKJUL; $1,200,000 2yo ’18 FTFMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $144,000.
Last Start: 1st, GII Best Pal S., DMR, Aug. 11
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Intrigue has shadowed Instagrand since this $1.2 million FTFMAR co-sales-topping son of Into Mischief was taken out of training by his owner after winning his maiden and the GII Best Pal S. by a combined 20 1/4 lengths. It’s now been six months (and eight published works) since his last start, and no one in this ‘TDN Rising Star’s’ camp has revealed where or when he’ll next surface in the entries. Santa Anita’s stable notes over the weekend mentioned in passing that the San Felipe S. could be a target race, which would set up a “best in the west” showdown between champ Game Winner and this precocious colt, who would have been the likely favorite in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile had he started. Bettors remain bullish about Instagrand’s chances on the first Saturday in May, crunching him to 10-1 in each of the first two Derby Future Wager pools.

10) SUPER STEED (c, Super Saver–Totally Tucker, by Elusive Quality)
‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Michael Pressley & Steed Jackson. B-Mike Pressley (KY). T-Larry Jones. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-2-1-0, $364,500.
Last Start: 1st, GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 18
Next Start: Possible for GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 16
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10

Don’t put too much emphasis on Super Steed’s outlandish $126.60 winning mutuel in Monday’s GIII Southwest S. Granted, this Super Saver homebred deserved to be a double-digit price after a blah seventh at 6-1 on opening day at Oaklawn in the Smarty Jones S. But considering he was a well-heralded ‘TDN Rising Star’ facing five of the same foes from that race while stretching out to a distance that better suits his pedigree, wasn’t a tenfold increase in his odds a bit out of whack? When this colt broke his maiden against an allowance field at Churchill Downs Nov. 24, trainer Larry Jones likened him to the talented Southwest S. winner he conditioned in 2009, Old Fashioned. In the post-race interview on Monday, Jones explained away Super Steed’s loss as the fave in the Dec. 22 Sugar Bowl S. by saying the colt wasn’t quite feeling right, and he attributed the Smarty Jones S. defeat to racing against the grain of a “merry go round” speed bias that hampered this come-from-behinder’s true running style. Moving forward, there’s lots of upside here. Just don’t expect 62-1 again in the near future.

11) MUCHO GUSTO (c, Mucho Macho ManItsagiantscauseway, by Giant’s Causeway)
‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Michael Lund Petersen. B-Teneri Farm Inc. & Bernardo Alvarez Calderon (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $14,000 Ylg ’17 KEEJAN; $95,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP; $55,000 RNA 2yo ’18 OBSMAR; $625,000 2yo ’18 EASMAY. Lifetime Record: MGSW & GISP, 4-3-1-0, $234,000.
Last Start: 1st, GIII Robert B. Lewis S., SA, Feb. 2
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 14.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Mucho Gusto gets lost in the shuffle within Bob Baffert’s deep stable of Derby contenders, but he’s won three of four lifetime starts and his only defeat was to odds-on stablemate Improbable in the Los Al Futurity. This tall, still-growing $625,000 EASMAY two-time stakes winner from the first Mucho Macho Man crop is progressing more rapidly than his sire, who didn’t register his first stakes win until start number seven (eight years ago last week in the Risen Star S.) prior to running third in the 2011 Kentucky Derby and competing in all three Triple Crown races. Mucho Gusto’s 4 3/4-length, geared-down win in the slop over only four other rivals in the GIII Lewis S. doesn’t provide many face-value handicapping clues to help judge his true Derby chances, but his connections have indicated that they are pleased with how he’s learning to relax off the pace, making Mucho Gust a work in progress who could turn out to be a sneaky-good sort if he peaks at the right time this spring.

12) MIND CONTROL (c, Stay Thirsty–Feel That Fire, by Lightning N Thunder)
O-Red Oak Stable (Brunetti) & Madaket Stables LLC. B-Red Oak Stable. T-Gregory Sacco. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-3-1-0, $323,400.
Last Start: 1st, Jerome S., AQU, Jan. 1
Next race: GIII Gotham S., AQU, Mar. 9
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.

Mind Control remains on target for his next expected assignment, the Mar. 9 Gotham S. With three wins from five starts, the only poor showing in his past performance block is a trip-troubled seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which was also his only two-turn attempt. Because the Gotham is a one-turn mile, it’s unlikely to provide major evidence as to whether this homebred Stay Thirsty colt will be up for the task of ten furlongs on the first Saturday in May. His sire won the 2011 version of the Gotham (run over 1 1/16 miles on the former inner track), and although Stay Thirsty ran twelfth in the Derby, he subsequently finished second in the GI Belmont S., won both the GII Jim Dandy S. and the GI Travers S., and ran third in the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup. Mind Control’s dam—also a Red Oak homebred trained by Greg Sacco—was a listed stakes victress who won three times from eight lifetime starts, all at six furlongs. “We’re happy where he is with his training and where he’s at physically,” Sacco said Friday. “The two months [off] is beneficial and we’re coming in with a fresh, strong horse for the Gotham.”

On the bubble (alphabetical order):
Avie’s Flatter (Flatter): Six Palm Meadows works for presumptive Canadian juvenile champ aiming for Tampa Bay Derby.
Bourbon War (Tapit): Possible for the deep Fountain of Youth S. after closing at 31-1 in Derby Future Wager Pool 2.
Country House (Lookin At Lucky): Green but game when closing late behind War of Will in Risen Star S.
Galilean (Uncle Mo): On to a graded stakes start after roughing up state-breds in California Cup Derby.
Global Campaign (Curlin): 2-for-2 half to MGISW Bolt d’Oro (Medaglia d’Oro) could try Tampa Bay Derby next.
Growth Engine (Tapit): Feb. 10 two-turn MSW winner at Gulfstream merits a shot against tougher competition.
Gunmetal Gray (Exchange Rate): Deep-closing SoCal hopeful currently ranked sixth on Derby points leaderboard.
Harvey Wallbanger (Congrats): Last-to-first upset winner of Holy Bull S. likely to aim for GI Florida Derby at nine furlongs.
Knicks Go (Paynter): Dropped out of the Top 12 rankings after no-excuse fifth in GIII Davis S.
Mihos (Cairo Prince): ‘TDN Rising Star’ back breezing at Palm Meadows with possible eye on Florida Derby or GII Wood Memorial.
Nolo Contesto (Pioneerof the Nile): Recent Santa Anita maiden winner awaits a stakes start.
Sueno (Atreides): Only horse gaining on winner when second in Monday’s Southwest S.
Tax (Arch): Prevailed in three-horse Withers S. photo and likely to await 9f Wood Memorial.
Well Defined (With Distinction): Won Tampa’s Davis S. at 7-1 in mild upset to become fourth also-ran out of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to win a subsequent stakes.
Win Win Win (Hat Trick {Jpn}): Likely to stretch out in Tampa Bay Derby off track-record score over seven furlongs in Pasco S.

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