The TDN Derby Top 12 for Jan. 12

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Life Is Good | Horsephotos

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Next-race plans are starting to solidify for some of the contenders among the Top 12, including a possible No. 1 vs. No. 4 matchup at Oaklawn in February. Farther down the list, Nos. 5 and 9 will clash this Saturday in the GIII Lecomte S. at Fair Grounds.

1) ESSENTIAL QUALITY (c, TapitDelightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
O/B-Godolphin (KY); T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: GISW, 3-3-0-0, $1,335,144.
Last Start: 1st GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6
Accomplishments Include: 1st GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity, 'TDN Rising Star'
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 30.

The connections of 3-for-3 'TDN Rising Star' Essential Quality are mapping out a campaign for the presumptive divisional champ that could end up with the high-energy gray prepping in the GII Louisiana Derby prior to taking aim at the GI Kentucky Derby. But the first race of this Tapit colt's sophomore season is still a moving target. After winning the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, “we didn't give him time off but we backed off on him and he seems to have responded well,” trainer Brad Cox said. “He was really good [in his early January training] and we just need to keep him that way until the middle of February.” Cox said the nine-furlong GII Risen Star S. Feb. 13 at Fair Grounds is “on the table,” as is the 1 1/16 miles GIII Southwest S. Feb. 15 at Oaklawn. “The one thing about the Fair Grounds race is it's a lot more [Derby qualifying] points, so that makes it a little more attractive. But the distance is the question; do we want to go a mile and an eighth off not having a race in three months?” Cox added that even if the Godolphin homebred does ship from New Orleans to race at Hot Springs, “I'm 99% sure that he would go back to Fair Grounds, and the Louisiana Derby would be in play after that.”

2) LIKEABLE (c, Frosted–Dashing Debby, by Medaglia d'Oro)
O-Repole Stable, St. Elias Stable & Stonestreet Stables LLC. B-Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings, LLC (KY). T-Todd Pletcher. Sales History: $350,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 3-1-1-0, $49,050.
Last Start: 13th GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Likeable, a $350,000 KEESEP colt, owns a dazzling 8 1/2-length MSW score at Belmont last September sandwiched by a much-better-than-it-looks runner-up debut at Saratoga and a “too fast to last” effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. If trainer Todd Pletcher can hone this colt's sharp, natural gate speed into a more efficient version of what we saw from Likeable at age two, look out. Dam Dashing Debby (Medaglia d'Oro) won her debut sprinting by 10 1/4 lengths in a Calder stake back in 2009 and was acquired shortly thereafter by Stonestreet Stables, right on the heels of another Medaglia d'Oro filly acquired by Stonestreet–eventual champ Rachel Alexandra. Since then, Dashing Debby has produced two black-type winners–one sprinting on dirt and the other around two turns on grass–plus a yearling colt by Speightstown who hammered for $800,000 at the 2020 KEESEP sale. Likeable's MGISW sire Frosted figures to add depth and bottom to the pedigree equation, and this colt is now breezing up to five furlongs at Palm Beach Downs in prep for his sophomore unveiling.

3) PRIME FACTOR (c, Quality Road–Haylie Brae, by Bernardini)
O-CHC Inc. & WinStar Farm LLC. B-Two Hearts Farm LLC (KY). T-Todd Pletcher. Sales History: $900,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $24,000.
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'
Last Start: 1st Msw, GP, Dec. 12
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

The most authoritative maiden win among the Top 12? That would belong to Prime Factor, a $900,000 KEESEP Quality Road colt who ran roughshod over what looked like a pretty decent crew Dec. 12 at Gulfstream, earning a 'TDN Rising Star' distinction. This Todd Pletcher trainee widened under wraps to bowl home by 8 3/4 lengths in a 1:10.38 clocking (85 Beyer) that went .08 seconds faster than the only other six-furlong race on the card, the GIII Sugar Swirl S. for older female sprinters. The fourth-place finisher from that race, Broadway (Quality Road), a $500,000 FTSAUG buy, won a Tampa MSW route race this past Friday at 4-5 odds, while the second- and third-place runners both came back to run third in their respective races Saturday at Gulfstream. Longer distances appear to be Prime Factor's sweet spot based on his pedigree. He's out of a Bernardini mare, and second dam Dance Swiftly is a full-sister to Canadian Horse of the Year and U.S. Eclipse Award winner Dance Smartly, winner of the 1991 GI Breeders' Cup Distaff.

4) JACKIE'S WARRIOR (c, Maclean's MusicUnicorn Girl, by A. P. Five Hundred)
O-J Kirk & Judy Robison. B-J & J Stables (KY). T-Steve Asmussen. Sales History: $95,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 5-4-0-0, $502,564.
Last Start: 4th GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6
Accomplishments: 1st GII Saratoga Special, 1st GI Runhappy Hopeful S., 1st GI Champagne S.
Next Start: Possible for GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 15
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 12.

With blowout speed and an aura of being in a different league than his overmatched foes, Jackie's Warrior dominated the division last summer through early autumn. This $95,000 KEESEP Maclean's Music colt appeared primed to pounce in the Breeders' Cup, yet even though he carved out a no-excuse stalking trip behind the Juvenile's fastest opening quarter since 2014 and its fastest half-mile split since 2003 and got first run at the wilting leaders a quarter mile from the short-stretch finish, “Jackie” couldn't sustain his bid in deep stretch. He's now two breezes into his return, but even though he's based at Fair Grounds, trainer Steve Asmussen told the Blood-Horse last week that the Oaklawn preps might be this colt's path to Louisville, based on the lucrative purses, qualifying points, and “pace being as effective as it is at Oaklawn.” The connections of No. 1-ranked Essential Quality are also considering the Feb. 15 Southwest S. for that colt's 2021 debut, potentially setting up an early season showdown of two of the division's heaviest hitters.

5) PROXY (c, Tapit–Panty Raid, by Include)
O/B-Godolphin (KY). T-Michael Stidham. Lifetime Record: 3-2-1-0, $67,700.
Last Start: 1st Alw, FG, Dec. 19
Next Start: GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Proxy should be a pace component in Saturday's GIII Lecomte S., and this Tapit homebred for Godolphin has the unique advantage of already having won twice around two turns at this Fair Grounds meet. Even though his Dec. 19 N2L allowance win came only against three other rivals and earned a so-so 76 Beyer, Proxy was tag-team pressured by every horse in the race at some point and appeared emboldened when mixing it up in close quarters in his stretch fight. Jockey Angel Suarez recently suffered a broken femur, so he's off Proxy in favor of Mitchell Murrill, whose only lifetime graded stakes victory was at this distance over this track. Proxy will also be going back off Lasix (he raced on Lasix for both of his Fair Grounds wins, but not in his runner-up Monmouth debut in October, in which he was beaten only by a neck). “He's like a big, immature kid who is still learning with racing,” trainer Michael Stidham said. “Last time when he won, he was a little green about switching leads coming down the lane, but once he leveled off, he drew away at the end, so we were pleased with that.”

6) LIFE IS GOOD (c, Into MischiefBeach Walk, by Distorted Humor)
O-CHC Inc & WinStar Farm LLC. B-Gary & Mary West Stable (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $525,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $94,200.
Last Start: 1st GIII Sham S., Jan. 2, Santa Anita
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.

'TDN Rising Star' Life Is Good won the Jan. 2 GII Sham S. in wire-to-wire fashion, ticking the two-turn box on his progression checklist. This $525,000 KEESEP colt by Into Mischief earned a 101 Beyer for clocking a mile in 1:36.63, pulsing around the track largely unopposed though quarter-mile splits of :23.56, :23.11, :23.99 and :25.97. The 1-5 fave broke inward at the start and bumped mildly with a rival, then cleared the field from the outermost five hole while giving up four paths of real estate on the turn, bounding along by his lonesome onto the backstretch. Life Is Good remained hand-ridden until deep stretch when 9-1 stablemate Medina Spirit (Protonico) closed the gap while under a vigorous drive, and Life Is Good drifted out while asked for a more by Mike Smith, who showed (but did not utilize) the whip. “I always tell Mike to try and save something,” Baffert said post-race. “Life Is Good wasn't as tired as I thought he could have been. He needs to learn to relax a little bit better, but he will.” Look for him in about two months, most likely in the Mar. 6 GII San Felipe S. at Santa Anita.

7) SPEAKER'S CORNER (c, Street Sense–Tyburn Brook, by Bernardini)
O/B-Godolphin (KY). T-William Mott. Lifetime Record: 2-1-0-1, $43,290.
Last Start: 1st Mdn, Belmont, Oct. 11
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

Speaker's Corner, a Godolphin homebred by Street Sense out of a Bernardini mare (same cross as Godolphin's highly-rated Maxfield) competed in two of the stronger MSWs at Saratoga and Belmont last season. This colt's debut on closing day at the Spa was a green third, but both Speaker's Corner and the runner-up came back to win. And this colt's maiden-breaking tally despite minor trip trouble over seven furlongs at Belmont also has the makings of a key race, featuring sharp splits and a reeling in of a next-out winner–Caddo River (Hard Spun)–who earned 'TDN Rising Star' status upon his own graduation (the eighth-place finisher from that MSW also came back to win). With a sire who won the 2007 Derby and a second dam who scored in the 2006 GI Breeders' Cup Distaff, the colt's pedigree has a longer-the-better-slant.

8) HIGHLY MOTIVATED (c, Into Mischief–Strong Incentive, by Warrior's Reward)
O/B-Klaravich Stables, Inc (KY). T-Chad Brown. Sales history: $240,000 wlg '18 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: SW, 3-2-1-0, $124,050.
Last Start: 1st Nyquist S., KEE, Nov. 6
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0.

Every year there's an undercard 2-year-old winner from Breeders' Cup weekend whose buzz carries over, and this season Highly Motivated qualifies as that colt. This Into Mischief bay won the Nyquist S. to run his record to 2-for-3 (all sprints), and three rivals who finished behind him have since come back to win. Klaravich Stable bred Highly Motivated after racing his Chad Brown-trained dam, the seven-furlong black-type stakes winner Strong Incentive. But this colt went through the auction ring for $240,000 at KEENOV because Klaravich was buying out a partner who co-owned the weanling. Authentic's decisive wins in the Derby and GI Breeders' Cup Classic last season certainly helped to answer questions about the ability for Into Mischief's progeny to carry speed up to 10 furlongs. But this colt's dam-sire, Warrior's Reward, made his mark as a sprinter, registering his lone stakes win at seven furlongs in the 2010 GI Carter H.

9) MANDALOUN (c, Into Mischief–Brooch, by Empire Maker)
O/B-Juddmonte Farms Inc. (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $91,252.
Last Start: 1st Alw, CD, Nov. 28
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'
Next Start: GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

'TDN Rising Star' Mandaloun will start favored in Saturday's Lecomte S. at Fair Grounds. That will be the route debut for this Juddmonte homebred by Into Mischief out of an Empire Maker mare. “We've always felt he was cut out to be a two-turn horse based on his physical makeup and how he trains,” trainer Brad Cox said. “It shows how much talent he's got to be able to win his first two races at sprint distances, and now we're going to do what we've thought he's wanted to do all along, and that's go long.” Mandaloun drew post 10 with no shortage of speed to his inside, which could end up being a tactical advantage if he seeks a stalking trip like in his previous two wins. Mandaloun needed (and responded to) a rousing ride from the five-sixteenths pole home in his 82-Beyer Churchill allowance score.

10) CADDO RIVER (c, Hard Spun–Pangburn, by Congrats)
O/B-Shortleaf Stable (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: 3-1-2-0, $76,092.
Last Start: 1st Msw, CD, Nov. 15
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'
Next Start: Smarty Jones S., OP, Jan. 22
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

Cox confirmed Thursday that 'TDN Rising Star' Caddo River will make his debut at two turns in Oaklawn's Smarty Jones S., the track's Jan. 22 opening-day feature. This Hard Spun colt demonstrated ability to withstand serious pace pressure while forcing the issue on or near the lead against top-notch maiden fields at Saratoga and Belmont prior to punching through in a Churchill MSW that he commandeered by 9 1/2 lengths. Even though Caddo River has already won at the eight-furlong distance of the Smarty Jones, he'll have to adapt from the one-turn mile configuration that he relished at Churchill to a short-stretch finish around two bends at Oaklawn, where mile races start and end at the sixteenth pole. Well-bet, wire-to-wire horses have won each of the last three editions of the Smarty Jones–but none of them went on to make an impact on the Derby trail. Caddo River's speed should stand him in good stead at Oaklawn. But he's a rangy, leggy colt, and short-stretch route races are often won by horses built more like compact cruisers (taller, lankier striders don't have that extra sixteenth in the straight to fully uncoil).

11) KEEPMEINMIND (c, LaobanInclination, by Victory Gallop)
O-Cypress Creek LLC & Arnold Bennewith. B-Southern Equine Stables, LLC (KY). T-Robertino Diodoro. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 4-1-2-1, $394,320.
Last Start: 1st GII Kentucky Jockey Club S.
Accomplishments: 2nd GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity, 3rd GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile
Next Start: Possible for GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 15
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 18.

Keepmeinmind worked a half-mile in :50.20 Wednesday at Oaklawn (39/94) under regular rider David Cohen, his first breeze since rallying from last to win the GII Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes as a maiden Nov. 28. “Very easy half, with a nice long gallop out,” Cohen said post-work. “He seemed to have matured since his last race.” Breaking a maiden in a stakes must run in the family: His sire, Laoban, wired the 2016 GII Jim Dandy S. at 27-1 odds for his only career win. Prior to his first career victory, Keepmeinmind ran second then third behind No. 1-ranked Essential Quality in the GI Breeders' Futurity S. and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, beaten only 5 1/4 combined lengths. You've heard that stat about the 36 winners of the Juvenile scoring in only two Kentucky Derbies? Second- and third-place Juvenile horses don't fare any better. Those 72 placings have accounted for only one Derby win, with Spend A Buck (third in the inaugural Juvenile back in 1984) the lone exception.

12) KING FURY (c, Curlin–Taris, by Flatter)
O-Fern Circle Stables & Three Chimneys Farm, LLC. B-Heider Family Stables LLC (Ky). T-Ken McPeek. Sales history: $950,000 yrl '19 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: SW, 5-2-0-0, $142,739.
Last Start: 5th GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 28
Accomplishments: 1st Street Sense S.
Next Start: Uncommitted
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

With a foaling date of Jan. 12, King Fury is the only member of the Top 12 to reach his actual third birthdate. This $950,000 FTSAUG yearling by Curlin is a smooth mover with an ample (five races at 1 1/16 miles) foundation of two-turn experience. His form, on paper at least, lost a bit of shine with off-the-board finishes in the Juvenile and Kentucky Jockey Club S. But he had minor trip trouble when wheeling back into the Breeders' Cup on just 12 days between starts and his blinkers-on experiment as a frontrunner under the lights Nov. 28 might have been a tactical aberration. Still plenty of upside here, and a 2-for-3 record at Churchill won't hurt as the first Saturday in May comes more clearly into focus.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Brooklyn Strong (Wicked Strong): This 5,000 OBSAPR gelding upset the GII Remsen S. over nine furlongs and will aim for repeat at same distance in the Feb 6 GIII Withers S.

Capo Kane (Street Sense): Speed in hand to top of stretch then responded when roused (although a touch green) in his 84-Beyer Jerome S. score. Now aims for Withers S.

Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow): Half to 2019 sprint champ Mitole ($17,000 FTKFEB; $110,000 FTKOCT) pointed toward GIII Lewis S. Jan. 30 off 94-1 second behind Essential Quality in the Juvenile.

Manor House (Upstart): Saturday's Lecomte is glutted with speed, but this colt's debut wiring of a Laurel MSW by 12 ¼ lengths still stands out in the past performances (76 Beyer; fourth-place horse from that race came back to win). This colt is cross-entered in a 1x/optional claimer earlier on Saturday's Fair Grounds card and could opt for that spot instead.

Mutasaabeq (Into Mischief): Rallied from long way last to win GII Bourbon S. on turf, then no-impact 10th in GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Change of surface and tactics when winning the Jan. 2 Mucho Macho Man S. earns this colt another likely stakes date on dirt.

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