The TDN Derby Top 20 For April 13


King Fury | Coady


The long prep season is over, but some jostling for a starting spot remains among the horses on the cusp of the qualifying points cutoff. Please note the rankings below are independent from the “Road to the GI Kentucky Derby” points leaderboard Churchill Downs uses to determine starting berths. That list can be accessed here.

1) ESSENTIAL QUALITY (c, Tapit–Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
O/B-Godolphin (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt & MGISW, 5-5-0-0, $2,265,144.
Last Start: 1st GII Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 3
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star', 1st GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6, 1st GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity, KEE, Oct. 3, 1st GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 27
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 140

With all the prep stakes now in the books, it's safe to say the GII Toyota Blue Grass S. stands out as this year's only true slugfest between two A-list colts who asserted themselves on the front end and kept fighting right through to the finish. While earlier in the season you could have legitimately postulated that 'TDN Rising Star' Essential Quality enjoyed a couple of gift-trip wins without facing stern stretch battles during his five-for-five run, we now know this Tapit-sired Godolphin homebred has both a relentless, high-pressure cruising gear and enough extra torque in deep stretch to determinedly seal the deal. But given the arduous nature of that Keeneland effort–for both Essential Quality and Highly Motivated (Into Mischief)–it's also within reason to ask whether it was almost too taxing a race four weeks out from the Derby (and within the context of both colts only getting two pre-Derby starts at age three). However, should either one (or both) end up thriving off of such a demanding performance to springboard forward in terms of development and confidence, the rest of the division is in serious trouble. This is an aggressive, athletic gray who meshes well with rider Luis Saez to make his own breaks happen within races, and his overall body of work firmly entrenches him as the horse to beat (although maybe not to bet at underlaid odds) in Louisville.

2) 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: 6-3-1-1, $541,700.
Last Start: 1st GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 27
Accomplishments: 3rd GII Remsen S., AQU, Dec. 5
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 102

In recent seasons, trainer Todd Pletcher has generally not been flooded with early-winter Top 12 candidates. But come April every year, he reliably has several Derby threats primed to pounce. Known Agenda is the best of this year's group for Pletcher, and he told the TDN Writers' Room last week that this $135,000 RNA at FTSAUG surprised by running well first time out when finishing second sprinting at Saratoga. Known Agenda then ran to his distance-centric pedigree by beating well-regarded Greatest Honour (Tapit) going nine furlongs in start number two (with the rest of the field 21 lengths behind). Yet this colt was green and left himself too much work to do in both the GII Remsen S. at Aqueduct and the GIII Sam F. Davis S. at Tampa. Blinkers helped to focus him for a breakout allowance romp and then a sharp, rail-running victory in the GI Florida Derby (94 Beyer Speed Figure). “A lot of it's just physical maturity, mental maturity,” Pletcher said. “He's a Curlin. He's bred to be better a little later.”

3) 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 Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 20
Accomplishments: 2nd GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6; 3rd GIII Robert B. Lewis S., SA, Jan. 30. Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 110

Flavien Prat will ride Hot Rod Charlie in the Derby, and the standings-topping Santa Anita rider is picking up a live, versatile mount who has impressed with steady advancement ever since he ran a close second at 94-1 odds behind Essential Quality in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Even though this two-time Fasig-Tipton sales grad ($17,000 FTKFEB; $110,000 FTKOCT) is a half-brother to 2019 sprint champ Mitole, trainer Doug O'Neill was on record as far back as last autumn saying Hot Rod Charlie has the makings of a two-turn horse. This Oxbow colt most recently scored on the front end in the GII Louisiana Derby, but he's a fairly relaxed goer who doesn't appear to be a need-the-lead type of speedster. Hot Rod Charlie also got a good deal of schooling out of his Jan. 30 GIII Robert B. Lewis S. third, in which he was beaten a neck in a three-way photo after stumbling at the break and bumping in deep stretch, and he is beginning to resonate as a seasoned competitor who can handle varying levels of pace pressure and in-race chaos.

4) 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 & MGSP, 5-2-2-1, $320,050.
Last Start: 2nd GII Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 3
Accomplishments: 1st Nyquist S., KEE, Nov. 6, 3rd GIII Gotham S., AQU, Mar. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50

For this $240,000 KEENOV Into Mischief colt to finish second and only a neck behind the undefeated juvenile champ in his first two-turn attempt says a lot for both Highly Motivated and trainer Chad Brown. This colt was two-for-three in progressively better sprints at age two, culminating with an eventual key-race stakes victory on the Breeders' Cup undercard. Brown gave Highly Motivated some extra time after that November win to recover from stiffness; he resurfaced belatedly in the one-turn-mile GIII Gotham S., yet failed to impress with a no-impact third as the favorite. Brown does not usually press horses along on the Derby trail under those circumstances, so it would not have been shocking to see Highly Motivated get rerouted on a different path. But Brown gave him one more chance to prove he belonged in the Blue Grass S., and it was ultra-impressive how he took heat from the top soph in the nation and kept turning back Essential Quality until the final few jumps to the wire (both earned 97 Beyers).

5) KING FURY (c, Curlin–Taris, by Flatter)
O-Fern Circle Stables & Three Chimneys Farm LLC; B-Heider Family Stables (KY); T-Ken McPeek. Sales history: $950,000 Ylg '19 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-3-0-0, $262,739. Last Start: 1st GIII Stonestreet Lexington S., KEE, Apr. 10.
Accomplishments: 1st Street Sense S., CD, Oct. 25. Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 20.

King Fury's lofty placement this high up on the list might seem audacious considering he's parked way out at 28th on the qualifying list. But I had him ranked within the Top 12 way back in December and remain bullish on his chances should multiple defections allow him to enter the Derby. This $950,000 FTSAUG yearling is a smooth-striding son of Curlin who had an ample foundation of two-turn experience at age two (five races at 1 1/16 miles) before making his delayed sophomore debut Saturday, splashing home with a 95-Beyer GIII Stonestreet Lexington S. score. King Fury is two-for-two at Churchill, winning the Street Sense S. there last October before wheeling back 12 days later in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile only to get trapped behind a tiring speed horse. The experiment of blinkers and an attempt at setting the pace in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. yielded only a fifth-place effort, but trainer Ken McPeek had this colt finely tuned for an 18-1 upset off the bench in the Lexington. “If he doesn't get in the Derby, he will run in the [GI] Preakness S.,” McPeek said. “He seems like a horse that is ready to do all that.”

6) 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 Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 20.
Accomplishments: 1st GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16, 2nd GIII Iroquois S., CD, Sept. 25, 3rd GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13, 3rd GI Champagne S., BEL, Oct. 10
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 66

Midnight Bourbon's wire-to-wire win in the GIII Lecomte S. back in January represents his only win this year, yet it wasn't his best effort because he controlled a paceless race and coasted home unopposed. But when this $525,000 KEESEP colt by Tiznow stretched out to nine furlongs in the GII Risen Star S., it was a deceptively stronger try considering Midnight Bourbon twice led between calls (on the far turn and at the eighth pole), then galloped out longer and stronger than the top two finishers while finishing third, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths. He tried hard, but was outrun in the Louisiana Derby when chasing the very game Hot Rod Charlie every step of the 1 3/16-mile trip, and you can't quibble with the Beyers this Steve Asmussen trainee has earned as a sophomore (93, 96, 96). Asmussen may be 0-for-21 in the Derby, but two of his four Derby starters who hit the board later ended up getting voted Horse of the Year (Curlin and Gun Runner).

7) DYNAMIC ONE (c, 3, Union Rags–Beat the Drums, by Smart Strike)
O-Repole Stable, Phipps Stable & St Elias Stable; B-Phipps Stable (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $725,000 Ylg '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 5-1-2-0, $194,120.
Last Start: 2nd GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 3
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 40.

This colt might end up as the late-blooming Derby overlay whose potential could exceed long odds over 10 furlongs. Trainer Todd Pletcher told the TDN Writers' Room last week he was “a little disappointed” Dynamic One's first three races didn't match the level of ability he displayed in training. But this $725,000 KEESEP colt had some plausible post-position excuses, and really turned the corner when shipped to Aqueduct for a nine-furlong maiden special weight win followed by a near-miss second in the GII Wood Memorial S. “I think he's still learning how to run, learning how to finish off the race,” Pletcher said, adding that Dynamic One “got a little lost by himself” before being collared at the wire by a last-to-first rival. Last week's sidelining of highly ranked Greatest Honour might have incidentally freed up jockey Jose Ortiz for the Derby mount aboard Dynamic One (he had ridden both colts in their recent stakes starts).

8) SUPER STOCK (c, 3, Dialed In–Super Girlie, by Closing Argument)
O-Erv Woolsey & Keith Asmussen; B-Pedro & P J Gonzalez (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Sales history: $70,000 Ylg '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 8-2-2-2, $804,762.
Last Start: 1st GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 10.
Accomplishments: 2nd Street Sense S., CD, Oct. 25; 3rd
GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity, KEE, Oct. 3; 3rd GIII Iroquois S., CD, Sept. 5
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 109.

If jockey Ricardo Santana Jr.'s instructions for the GI Arkansas Derby were to save ground and make one run at the favored pacemakers, he executed that plan flawlessly. Always in touch behind the dueling duo while stalking in third, this $70,000 KEESEP colt by Dialed In briefly had to switch off the heels of the tiring favorite three-sixteenths from the wire before responding to a rousing stretch ride. His Beyer of 92 translates to a nine-point improvement over his career best. But when you parse the fractions and consider how much Super Stock benefitted from an ideal setup (his winning move was launched into a slow :26.49 fourth-quarter split and there was little resistance from the spent speedsters) the Arkansas Derby doesn't stand out as a particularly overpowering race. On the brighter side, if you look at Super Stock's company lines, he has already beaten two well-regarded 'TDN Rising Stars' ranked within the current Top 12, and he has run a credible third and second, respectively, behind the Nos. 1 and 5 horses on this list.

9) ROCK YOUR WORLD (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
O-Hronis Racing LLC & Talla Racing LLC. B-Ron & Deborah McAnally (KY). T-John Sadler. Sales History: $650,000 Ylg '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 3-3-0-0, $546,600.
Last Start: 1st GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 3
Accomplishments: 1st Pasadena S., SA, Feb. 27
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 100

If someone told you a few months ago that the winner of the 100-Beyer GI Santa Anita Derby would be a 3-for-3 colt who didn't make his first start until January, would you have guessed correctly that colt wasn't trained by Bob Baffert? Rock Your World, a $650,000 KEESEP colt by Candy Ride (Arg), is the product of a nice bit of turf-to-dirt conditioning by John Sadler, who now brings an intriguing wild card to Louisville with stout pedigree underpinnings (Empire Maker, Unbridled and Giant's Causeway all in the recent female family). But while the sky is always the proverbial limit with an undefeated colt, I'm skeptical that the Santa Anita Derby is a reliable measuring metric. Rock Your World didn't have to fight for the lead, got pressed chiefly by a 45-1 no-hoper who cracked without resistance, and every successive quarter-mile split that he set on the front end clocked in slower than the one that preceded it. Rock Your World's triple-digit Beyer represented an 18-point leap from two previous 82 ratings; besting a full field of 20 going 10 furlongs under considerably more strenuous pace pressure will require another tall-ask advancement.

10) CONCERT TOUR (c, Street Sense–Purse Strings, by Tapit)
O/B-Gary & Mary West Stables Inc (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Lifetime Record: MGSW & GISP, 4-3-0-1, $556,600.
Last Start: 3rd GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 10.
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star', 1st GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 13; 1st GII San Vicente S., SA, Feb. 6.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 70

One bad race won't totally derail 'TDN Rising Star' Concert Tour from being an A-list competitor, but his Derby status is in doubt and there was no mistaking the disappointment in trainer Bob Baffert's assessment the day after Concert Tour came up empty in the Arkansas Derby. “We'll see how he works back,” Baffert said. “Churchill, I don't like to run there unless they're going to be really live. We'll see how he comes out of this race and see how he trains forward. I didn't really want a hard race out of it, but we still wanted to win. I've won Derbies off of losses. You learn about your horse and see if there is improvement to be made.” This Street Sense homebred for Gary and Mary West forced the issue as the 3-10 fave at Oaklawn, and although he won the pace battle by the time the field hit the quarter pole, Concert Tour had nothing left to swat away the stretch bid by Super Stock, and he even allowed the front-runner he had already put away to re-rally for second.

11) 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 & GISP, 5-2-3-0, $315,200.
Last Start: 2nd GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 3
Accomplishments: 1st Robert B. Lewis S., SA, Jan. 30, 2nd GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 6, 2nd GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 2
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 74

Medina Spirit started the season ranked quite a bit lower on trainer Bob Baffert's deep sophomore roster, but he'll now head to the Derby as the stable's most reliable contender. This Protonico colt hammered for relatively short money ($1,000 at OBSWIN and  $35,000 OBSOPN), and earlier in the season Baffert likened Medina Spirit to his 1997 Derby winner Silver Charm, who was also not an overly expensive OBS-sold colt ($16,500 OBSAUG yearling, $100,000 OBSAPR). Medina Spirit owns two wins and three seconds from five starts, he's run Beyers within the 94-99 range on four occasions, and he's already beaten No 3-ranked Hot Rod Charlie in a head-to-head matchup. He's a no-nonsense hard trier whose grittiness can't be overlooked if the Derby develops into a free-for-all down the stretch.

12) CADDO RIVER (c, Hard Spun–Pangburn, by Congrats)
O/B-Shortleaf Stable (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: SW & GISP, 6-2-3-0, $396,092.
Last Start: 2nd GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 10.
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star', 1st Smarty Jones S., OP, Jan. 22
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50

'TDN Rising Star' Caddo River was hounded until the top of the stretch by 3-10 favorite Concert Tour in the Arkansas Derby, and although this Hard Spun homebred for Shortleaf Stable managed to claw back second late in the lane, that re-rally was largely the product of Concert Tour throwing in the towel rather than Caddo River being exceptionally resurgent. Perhaps a return to Churchill Downs–where Caddo River first sparked to life with a 9 1/2-length MSW clock-cleaning last November–will yield a turnaround in time for the first Saturday in May. Caddo River has now been given two top-tier chances to prove he's more than a one-dimensional speed threat, and while he hasn't advanced to that level yet, his first four races showed enough promise that I'm reluctant to abandon him entirely.

Potentially rounding out the starting gate…

13) Mandaloun (Into Mischief): This 'TDN Rising Star' bulleted five-eighths in :58.80 (1/28) at Churchill on Saturday as he seeks to shrug off a no-excuse, beaten-fave sixth in the Louisiana Derby. A Juddmonte homebred, Mandaloun already owns an allowance win over the Kentucky Derby surface (sprinting last autumn) and trainer Brad Cox is banking on the colt being able to rebound to the full potential of his speed-over-stamina pedigree (by Into Mischief out of an Empire Maker mare) over 10 furlongs.

14) Soup and Sandwich (Into Mischief): There is value-oriented upside in the two-for-thrree Soup and Sandwich, a Live Oak homebred out of a Tapit mare. This Mark Casse-trained gray is a pace presence, and the race that stands out for him was his Florida Derby second, in which he forced the issue and was only one to give Known Agenda a tussle down the stretch despite being on his left lead. “He has a big stride on him and really got over the track well,” assistant trainer David Carroll said Sunday after Soup and Sandwich breezed a half mile in :48.80 (8/17) at Churchill.

15) Helium (Ironicus): The three-for-three winner of the GII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby shipped from Florida to Louisville last week and on Saturday breezed five-eighths in :59.20 (4/28), besting in-company maiden mate Ghost of the Mambo (Ghostzapper) by two fifths of a second before galloping out six furlongs in 1:12 under jockey Julien Leparoux. This $55,000 FTKOCT colt out of a mare by 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch is attempting the Derby off an eight-week break. Only two horses have won the Derby off at least that long a layoff; both were more than 100 years ago.

16) Bourbonic (Bernardini): Calumet races its homebreds relatively frequently and it's an outfit with some pricey upsets on the Triple Crown trail over the last decade, like Oxbow's 15-1 Preakness win in 2013, Bravazo's 21-1 Risen Star S. score in 2018, and Everfast's 29-1 near-miss second in the 2019 Preakness. Bourbonic's 72-1 last-to-first thriller in the Wood Memorial tops them all for bombastic odds, but he's a difficult horse to see repeating in the Derby. His final time was the slowest in the history of the Wood, and he won by a bob after closing into pedestrian quarters of :24.88, :25.30, :24.80, :25.78 and a final eighth of :13.73.

17) Rombauer (Twirling Candy): The last-to-first winner of the El Camino Real Derby is on the outside looking in, points-wise, but several higher-ranking horses no longer appear to be Derby-bound, so it looks as if he'll make the cut. This Fradkin homebred was not in the same league as Essential Quality and Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass S., yet was still 4 1/2 lengths clear of everyone else when third. Rombauer has won over both turf and Tapeta, but never on dirt.

18) Sainthood (Mshawish) This 1-for-3 Todd Pletcher trainee led early in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, then conceded the lead and rated from midpack. Sainthood ($100,000 KEEJAN, $90,000 KEESEP RNA, $62,000 OBSOCT) came off the inside for the stretch drive only to get pinballed in heavy traffic, but once clear he was the only one making up ground on the winner, finishing second. Sire Mshawish was a globe-trotting, multi-surface victor with a sweet spot between eight and nine furlongs; damsire Lemon Drop Kid won the 1999 GI Belmont S.

19) Panadol (Flatter): Only three races on this $180,000 OBSAPR colt's Meydan resume, which is not so unusual these days for a Derby aspirant. But what is out of the ordinary is that two of them were at 1 3/16 miles, perhaps giving this New York-bred a seasoning edge beyond those limited starts. He has been forwardly placed in all three tries and Panadol's only loss was a second in the UAE Derby when he was run down by open-lengths winner Rebel's Romance (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}) who is bypassing Louisville and waiting for the GI Belmont S. instead.

20) Like the King (Palace Malice): This rangy chestnut ($28,000 KEENOV, $170,000 OBSOCT) set or forced the pace in four 2-year-old races after starting his career at Belterra Park. He transitioned effectively to stalking, then rating, in two Turfway stakes, and he's moving in the right direction. Yet Like the King was beaten a combined 19 3/4 lengths in his only two dirt tries and is soft in the numbers department, with a career-best Beyer of 86.

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