The TDN Derby Top 12 for March 23

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Hot Rod Charlie lands the fourth spot in the Derby Top 12 | Hodges

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No, the world didn't tilt off its axis last Saturday. But there was a seismic shift within the Top 12 rankings. 'TDN Rising Star' Life Is Good (Into Mischief) was declared off the GI Kentucky Derby trail with a left hind ankle chip, and two other highly rated contenders failed to fire in the GII Louisiana Derby. But new shooters have filled the vacuum–as always. The cadence quickens while the plot thickens inside the six-week mark to Derby 147.

1) GREATEST HONOUR (c, TapitTiffany's Honour, by Street Cry {Ire})
O/B-Courtlandt Farms (KY). T-Claude R. McGaughey III. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 6-3-1-2, $351,940.
Last Start: 1st GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., GP, Feb. 27
Accomplishments: 1st GIII Holy Bull S.
Next Start: GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 27
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 60.

There was plenty of upheaval in the standings behind Greatest Honour over the weekend while the Top 12 kingpin enjoyed a drama-free final tune-up prior to Saturday's GI Curlin Florida Derby. This Tapit-sired Courtlandt Farms homebred is a powerful, long-striding stayer who isn't afraid to face adversity square-on. After starting his career by closing admirably at shorter distances in deep New York MSW races, Greatest Honour dialed in to a winning groove at Gulfstream, pulling off the rare feat of closing to win from well off the tailgate in three straight 1 1/16-mile races (over a short-stretch configuration that tilts the advantage to speedsters). During that streak, Greatest Honour overcame dealing with a loose horse in his allowance win, uncoiled with a devastating stretch kick despite not being fully focused in the GIII Holy Bull S., then re-rallied in the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. (FOY) after getting clipped by a rival and losing momentum on the far turn. Trainer Shug McGaughey has been quietly confident this bay is a “longer-the-better” type of sophomore attempting to follow the same FOY/Florida Derby/Louisville path that McGaughey's only previous Kentucky Derby winner, Orb (Malibu Moon), took while winning all three of those races in 2013. The two main knocks against Greatest Honour are 1) his comparatively low Beyer Speed Figures (career best of 89, twice); and 2) his come-from-behind running style, which can be a hindrance in a 20-horse race like the Derby where closers are at the mercy of traffic.

2) ESSENTIAL QUALITY (c, TapitDelightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
O/B-Godolphin (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt & MGISW, 4-4-0-0, $1,785,144.
Last Start: 1st GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 27
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star', 1st GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity, 1st GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile
Next Start: GII Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 3.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 40.

Tapit-sired 'TDN Rising Star' Essential Quality is Blue Grass bound, and the selection of that Toyota-sponsored Grade II Keeneland stakes was the most logical among the next-race options that were being considered for this Godolphin homebred. This athletic gray with a streak of aggression earned his juvenile championship over that surface when winning the GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity S. and the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile there last autumn; as of this writing, no other Top 12 contenders are committed to that race. Essential Quality holds more than a few Derby aces at this stage of the season: he scores highly in terms of tactical prowess, has posted top-notch speed numbers that keep arcing upward; he's won in the slop and has won at Churchill. Now that Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow), the 94-1 runner-up in the Juvenile, has broken through with a win in the Louisiana Derby (see below), I can no longer keep carping that Essential Quality didn't beat many horses of consequence in the Breeders' Cup (the second, third, and fifth horses have now all won stakes). But it's imperative to respect history, and the fact remains that only two of 36 Juvenile winners (5.5%) have gone on to win the Derby. Even if you widen that metric to include all the 1-2-3 finishers in the entire history of the Juvenile, the Breeders' Cup still rates as a very poor prognosticator of Derby success, with only four Derby winners emerging from those 108 in-the-money Juvenile finishers (3.7%).

3) CONCERT TOUR (c, Street SensePurse Strings, by Tapit)
O/B-Gary & Mary West Stables Inc (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 3-3-0-0, $756,600.
Last Start: 1st GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 13.
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star', 1st GII San Vicente S., SA, Feb. 6
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 10
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50.

'TDN Rising Star' Concert Tour burst into the Top 12 after his 4 1/4-length thrashing of the GII Rebel S. field at Oaklawn Mar. 13. This Street Sense homebred for Gary and Mary West torqued out a convincing score thanks to deft piloting by jockey Joel Rosario. Concert Tour broke running and forced rail-drawn favorite and 'TDN Rising Star' Caddo River (Hard Spun) to concede both the fence and the lead. Concert Tour maintained a margin of a length down the backstretch, then edged away under his own power while a clearly flustered Caddo River was fully driven and eventually cracked. No other closers were in it to win it, and this colt ran up the score while looking strong doing so. Based on the visually impressive nature of the victory, I thought Caddo River's 94 Beyer might have clocked in higher (it matched his last-out GII San Vicente S. win). But the effort was just the third-fastest of four 1 1/16 miles races at Oaklawn that afternoon, slower than two stakes and only 0.19 seconds faster than an allowance (all for older horses). Something to think about down the line: Rosario might have to choose between Concert Tour and Hot Rod Charlie, the other new shooter ranked right behind him at No. 4.

4) HOT ROD CHARLIE (c, Oxbow–Indian Miss, by Indian Charlie)
O-Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing LLC & William Strauss; B-Edward A Cox (KY); T-Doug O'Neill. Sales history: $17,000 Ylg '19 FTKFEB; $110,000 Ylg '19 FTKOCT. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 7-2-1-2, $1,005,700.
Last Start: 1st GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 20
Accomplishments: 2nd GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6; 3rd GIII Robert B. Lewis S., SA, Jan. 30
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 110.

What do you get when you breed the dam of 2019 sprint champ Mitole to the wire-to-wire winner of the 2013 GI Preakness S.? The answer is Hot Rod Charlie, a determined son of Oxbow who solidified his status as a Top 12 contender with a 99-Beyer win in the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby. For everyone who thought his 94-1 near-miss in the Breeders' Cup was a fluke (that would include me), Saturday's gritty win should serve notice that this two-time Fasig-Tipton sales grad ($17,000 FTKFEB; $110,000 FTKOCT) reliably scores higher in tenacity than many of his peers at this point in the Triple Crown chase. Hot Rod Charlie broke running, and when jockey Joel Rosario sensed no other rivals were eager to assume command, he forged to the front with stalker Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow) applying pressure from the outside. Five-sixteenths from the wire, Midnight Bourbon appeared primed to pounce but could not wrest away the lead, and Hot Rod Charlie kept outkicking him under judicious handling by Rosario (guiding home his nation-leading 11th graded stakes winner of 2021). “Working with him in the morning, he relaxes and you don't have to get him in the race,” Rosario said. “He handled the distance very well. Very impressive. With [Midnight Bourbon] coming on his outside, he really fought back. He doesn't have to be on the lead. He can do anything. He can be a little bit off the pace and will run the same way.”

5) SPIELBERG (c, Union RagsMiss Squeal, by Smart Strike)
O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Golconda Stables, Siena Farm LLC, & Robert Masterson. B-G Watts Humphrey Jr (Ky). T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $1,000,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 8-2-3-1, $413,200.
Last Start: 2nd GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 27
Next Start: GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 27.
Accomplishments: 1st GII Los Alamitos Futurity,
2nd GI Runhappy Del Mar Futurity, 3rd GI American Pharoah S.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 17.

Spielberg will go next in the Florida Derby, and that's an unusual move for trainer Bob Baffert. Despite being loaded with talented 3-year-olds every season and often having to shop for non-conflicting stakes to keep them apart, this Grade I prep never seems to be on Baffert's radar screen. In fact, Baffert has only started horses at Gulfstream on four occasions over the last four years, and each was in the GI Pegasus World Cup (two wins, a second, and a seventh). Spielberg, a $1-million KEESEP colt, is by Union Rags, who was a narrowly beaten third at 2-5 odds in the 2012 Florida Derby. Union Rags then ran seventh in the Kentucky Derby, skipped the Preakness, but won the GI Belmont S. by edging out the Baffert-trained Paynter (Awesome Again) by a neck. “He's a great-feeling horse,” Baffert said of Spielberg, who has eight starts worth of experience, but is currently parked at 16th on the qualifying list with 17 points. “He came out of [the GIII Southwest S.] in great shape,” Baffert added, explaining that Spielberg still needs to work on some gate issues. An awkward start in the slop at Oaklawn left this chestnut with far too much work to do, yet he still closed with purpose to get second behind juvenile champ Essential Quality.

6) CADDO RIVER (c, Hard SpunPangburn, by Congrats)
O/B-Shortleaf Stable (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: SW, 5-2-2-0, $196,092. Last Start: 5th GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 13.
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 10
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.

Caddo River looked uncomfortable every step of the trip en route to a subpar fifth at 6-5 odds in the GII Rebel S., but the result was so aberrational that he deserves reconsideration in the GI Arkansas Derby. This 'TDN Rising Star' will need to rebound big-time in that final Kentucky Derby prep because right now he's on the outside looking in, ranked 24th with only 10 qualifying points. Caddo River didn't seize the lead from his inside post and jockey Florent Geroux opted to concede the pacemaking to Concert Tour, which would have been fine except that this Hard Spun homebred for Shortleaf Stable was rank and refused to settle. By the time Geroux finally let him go, Concert Tour had momentum and confidence while Caddo River boiled over as a result of self-inflicted duress three-sixteenths from the wire. Trainer Brad Cox said Caddo River emerged from that meltdown none the worse for wear; in the best-case scenario the colt perhaps got a decent schooling out of it. But it's now an open question as to whether Caddo River can round into a multi-dimensional threat, because the only two races he's won have been the ones in which he led at every call.

7) MIDNIGHT BOURBON (c, Tiznow–Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon)
O-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC; B-Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings LLC (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Sales History: $525,000 Ylg '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 7-2-2-3, $461,420.
Last Start: 2nd GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 20.
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Accomplishments: 3rd GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13; 1st GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16, 3rd
GI Champagne S., 2nd GIII Iroquois S.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 66.

Midnight Bourbon ran hard and ran well when second in Saturday's Louisiana Derby, but his challenges were stoutly repulsed by convincing victor Hot Rod Charlie. Ranked second in qualifying points with 66, this $525,000 KEESEP colt by Tiznow has earned his way into a Derby starting spot, and he will bring some upside to Louisville that could make him an intriguing wiseguy play at odds in the 20-1 range. He is the only 3-year-old in the nation to have run three 93 or better Beyer figures since January (96 in each of his last two efforts), and you can't quibble with his stamina-centric foundation of seven races at a mile or longer. Where the argument in favor of Midnight Bourbon starts to erode, though, is when you consider that he hasn't truly evolved into a horse who can seal the deal under pressure in the stretch. His GIII Lecomte S. score was aided by being able to control a moderate tempo, and he twice had the lead between calls in the GII Risen Star S. but couldn't parlay that optimal positioning into a win.

8) KNOWN AGENDA (c, Curlin–Byrama {GB}, by Byron {GB}) O/B-St Elias Stable (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $135,000 RNA Ylg '19 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: 5-2-1-1, $104,600.
Last Start: 1st GP allowance, Feb. 26.
Next Start: Possible for GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 27
Accomplishments: 3rd GII Remsen S., AQU, Dec. 5
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 2.

By late March, you're hoping that your Derby contender already has his “learning curve” races behind him, and if that's the case for Known Agenda in the Florida Derby, look out. Discount this colt's third-place try (beaten nine lengths) in the sloppy GII Remsen S. and overlook his twilight-zone Tampa fifth in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. (double-digit lengths off the pace for the first time) and what do you see? How about a Curlin colt who beat No. 1 kingpin Greatest Honour in a New York MSW back in November and was later an 11-length Gulfstream winner Feb. 26 over the same track and distance as Saturday's Florida Derby? Now things could get interesting for this Todd Pletcher-trained $135,000 RNA at FTSAUG, who just celebrated his third birthday Mar. 22. The blinkers that Known Agenda added for last month's allowance-optional claiming blowout will stay, but the Lasix this colt got for the first time in that much-improved race won't be allowed in the Florida Derby because of new phase-out drug rules being implemented in Triple Crown prep races this spring.

 9) PREVALENCE (c, Medaglia d'OroEnrichment, by Ghostzapper)
O/B-Godolphin (KY); T-Brendan Walsh. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $52,800.
Last Start: 1st Allowance/Opt. Clm., GP, Mar. 11
Next Start: Uncommitted
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 0.

'TDN Rising Star' Prevalence was the easiest kind of winner at 1-10 odds when gliding home under light encouragement in a Mar. 11 allowance-optional claimer over a one-turn mile at Gulfstream. This Godolphin homebred broke fluidly, conceded the lead while pressing the pace, engaged the leader on the far turn, then took over at the quarter pole and had no anxious moments in the stretch. From a progression standpoint the effort should serve as a useful tightener for a looming stakes engagement. Prevalence had spiked a fever and missed some February training, so he's on the prowl for qualifying points in order to earn a berth in Louisville. But questions remain as to whether the timing is right for a run for the roses: Prevalence may be 2-for-2, but he's yet to attempt two turns and will need to come off Lasix in order to face stakes company. It's also worth noting that he ran a slower Beyer number against winners than he did in his debut, regressing from an 87 to an 83.

 10) HELIUM (c, 3, IronicusThundering Emilia, by Thunder Gulch) O-D J Stable LLC; B-Teneri Farm Inc &
Bernardo Alvarez Calderon (KY); T-Mark Casse. Sales history: $55,000 Ylg '19 FTKOCT. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-3-0-0, $287,763.
Last Start: 1st GII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, TAM,
Mar. 6. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Accomplishments: 1st Display S., WO, Oct. 18.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50.

Helium's connections are forging an unconventional route to Louisville that won't include another prep race. That will leave an eight-week gap between this colt's 84-Beyer victory at 15-1 odds in the GII Tampa Bay Derby and the first Saturday in May. Jon Green, the manager of DJ Stable, told TDN the plan will be to train this $55,000 FTKOCT (and subsequently privately purchased) first-crop Ironicus colt at Palm Meadows, then ship to Churchill three weeks out from the Derby. “Is it perfect? It's not perfect. Are there risks? Yes. But we feel what's best for the horse is to give him the time and slowly peak him into the Kentucky Derby,” Green said. He added that the riding assignment for the 3-for-3 colt has yet to be decided (Tampa-based Jose Ferrer was Helium's most recent jockey while Emma-Jayne Wilson rode in the two Woodbine victories). “Jose did a great job on him,” said Green. But, “for the same reason riding Jose at Tampa Bay made sense, you have to have somebody who has the experience in big races and the experience at Churchill Downs. That's no disrespect to Jose, but I would think we would need to explore other opportunities.”

 11) RISK TAKING (c, 3, Medaglia d'OroRun a Risk, by Distorted Humor) O-Klaravich Stables Inc; B-G Watts Humphrey Jr (KY); T-Chad Brown. Sales history: $240,000 Ylg '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 4-2-0-0, $182,530
Last Start: 1st GIII Withers S., AQU, Feb. 6.
Next Start: GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 3.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10.

Risk Taking was beaten nearly 10 lengths in each of his first two career tries, but his pedigree (by Medaglia d'Oro out of a Distorted Humor mare) suggested that neither six furlongs on the dirt nor yielding turf at 1 1/16 miles were going to be his sweet spot anyway. This $240,000 KEESEP bay woke up at 5-1 odds when tasked with nine furlongs on the main track at Aqueduct, then followed that win with another smart 1 1/8 mile-score in the GIII Withers S. That victory earned an 89 Beyer, and Risk Taking caught the eye by cruising along comfortably in stalk mode before quickening when cued to reel in a tiring pacemaker. He'll go two months between starts when attempting the GII Wood Memorial S. to decide if he's Derby-bound, but trying to get a read on this colt by scrutinizing his company lines doesn't yield much insight: nine rivals out of his two Aqueduct wins have now come back to make subsequent starts, and they've collectively managed only two next-out victories.

12) MEDINA SPIRIT (c, Protonico–Mongolian Changa, by Briliant Speed)
O-Zedan Racing Stables. B-Gail Rice (FL). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $1,000 ylg '19 OBSWIN; $35,000 2yo '20 OBSOPN. Lifetime Record: GSW, 4-2-2-0, $165,200.
Last Start: 2nd GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 6
Next Start: GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 3
Accomplishments: 2nd GIII Sham S.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 14.

Every Top 12 list should include at least one Cinderella-type horse, and this Protonico colt who hammered for relatively short money ($1,000 at OBSWIN and  $35,000 OBSOPN) is it. This Bob Baffert-trained overachiever owns two wins and also twice ran second behind now-injured Life Is Good, and he's been a very capable workmate in the mornings for some of the better-bred and more expensive sophomores in Baffert's deep stable. Baffert earlier this year likened Medina Spirit to his 1997 Derby winner Silver Charm, who was similarly not an overly expensive OBS-sold colt ($16,500 OBSAUG yearling, $100,000 OBSAPR). Baffert also expressed a belief that this colt is more effective pressing the pace rather than setting it, so look for that strategy in the Apr. 3 GI Santa Anita Derby.

On the Bubble (in alphabetical order):

Collaborate (Into Mischief): This $600,000 FTSAUG 'TDN Rising Star' just turned three Mar. 22 and will aim to cap his birthday week with an upset in Saturday's Florida Derby. A geared-down 12 1/2-length MSW blowout win going a one-turn mile Feb. 27 (90 Beyer) signals this tall, athletic, fluid mover could make the jump in class.

Defunded (Dialed In): Here's your Santa Anita Derby sleeper. Impressive, easy win (83 Beyer) in MSW sprint right after the GI Santa Anita Derby; with stablemate Life Is Good out, he could get tossed into the deep end of the pool by Baffert.

Hidden Stash (Constitution): Only one gaining in the stretch of two Tampa stakes; mildly intriguing for a potential wake-up if he goes in the Blue Grass and gets a hot pace to chase.

Mandaloun (Into Mischief): Trainer Cox said “We couldn't come up with any reasons for the dull performance” after this 'TDN Rising Star' was a beaten-fave no-show in the Louisiana Derby. “Right now I'll probably nominate him to the [Apr. 10 GIII Stonestreet] Lexington [S. at Keeneland] and we'll see. He was done at the half-mile pole, so I don't think the distance was the reason. He ran out of horse fairly quickly.”

Roman Centurian (Empire Maker): Second in three-way photo in GIII Lewis; 'TDN Rising Star' listed last week as “probable” for Wood Memorial.

Rombauer (Twirling Candy): Last-to-first winner of the El Camino Real Derby was initially aiming for the Wood in New York, but defection of Life Is Good means he'll now stay in SoCal to contest Santa Anita Derby.

Triple Tap (Tapit): 'TDN Rising Star' and half-bro to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah owns an eye-catching MSW score sprinting. Baffert said post-race that he didn't want to rush this colt, but now that soph star Life Is Good is out of Derby consideration, this potential phenom  might advance on the depth chart.

Weyburn (Pioneerof the Nile): It's not often that you see a 46-1 shot earn a 95 Beyer against stakes company like this colt did in the one-turn-mile GII Gotham S. A stretch-out to nine furlongs in the Wood will test his mettle.

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