The TDN Derby Top 20 for April 20

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Essential Quality arriving at Churchill Downs | Coady

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We've entered that fun phase of microscopic scrutiny that accompanies the GI Kentucky Derby waiting game. The rankings below are independent from the “Road to the Derby” points leaderboard that Churchill Downs will use 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

When you're the undefeated juvenile champ coming off a gutsy win in the most demanding prep of the season, you'd better expect to have a figurative target on your back in Louisville. This Tapit-sired Godolphin homebred can be a threatening pace presence while still retaining multiple gears for a stretch fight, as evidenced by his 97-Beyer Speed Figure win by a neck in the GII Blue Grass S. after an arduous stretch battle. That's a potent combination of tactics the majority of his foes have yet to demonstrate. The final furlong of this 'TDN Rising Star's Blue Grass was clocked in :12.53, the fastest in seven editions of that stakes since Keeneland switched back from synthetic to dirt. But we're now going on 30 years since the last Blue Grass winner—Strike the Gold in 1991—also won the Derby. In the 21st Century, Street Sense, American Pharoah and Nyquist have been the only 2-year-old Eclipse Award winners to win the Derby. There were no dual Eclipse/Derby winners in the 1980s or '90s. But in the '70s that feat was routine, and the honor roll includes some legendary names: Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Foolish Pleasure, Secretariat and Riva Ridge.

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

A bet on Known Agenda in the Derby is essentially a wager that he's put early-season greenness behind him and will be able to leverage the stamina and speed aspects of his pedigree effectively enough to excel over 10 furlongs. The dam of this athletic chestnut, Byrama, was bred in Great Britain but was exported stateside to earn a Grade I win at nine furlongs over a synthetic surface at Hollywood Park. And Known Agenda himself already has four lifetime attempts at 1 1/8 miles, which leaves him positioned a bit better than many of his competitors. A $135,000 RNA at FTSAUG, this Curlin colt looked impressive gliding up the rail to cuff the field in the GI Florida Derby, his second straight win since adding blinkers. But his 94 Beyer Speed Figure in that race was a 12-point leap off of his career best, and Known Agenda will have to up that number yet again to win in Louisville, where a clear, ground-saving run might not be as achievable in the 20-horse Derby the way it was at Gulfstream.

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 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
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 110

Hot Rod Charlie figures to go off as the third choice in the Derby betting, and at 7-1 or so I can see him offering a hint of value (as opposed to the two horses ranked ahead of him, both of whom figure to be slightly underlaid). If this two-time Fasig-Tipton sales grad ($17,000 FTKFEB; $110,000 FTKOCT) does manage to earn a blanket of roses, it will probably be because he manages to fuse the raw speed of his older half-brother (2019 sprint champ Mitole) with the staying power of his sire (Oxbow, the wire-to-wire winner of the 2013 GI Preakness S.). Known for being relaxed in morning training, Hot Rod Charlie comes across as a horse who is speed-centric but doesn't require the lead, and he's run well in deep stretch under sustained pressure and amid bumping. There is one historical caveat that works against Hot Rod Charlie, though: He ran second at 94-1 in last November's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The 108 horses who have run 1-2-3 in the 36-year history of the Juvenile have only accounted for four Derby wins (3.7%), meaning a good race in the Juvenile has devolved into a negative-slanted metric for projecting success six months later in the Derby.

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

This $240,000 KEENOV Into Mischief colt bulleted a half mile in :47.20 Sunday at Keeneland (1/27) in his first timed workout since giving division leader Essential Quality a serious run for the money in the Blue Grass S. (97 Beyers for both). On Monday Highly Motivated shipped to Churchill, were trainer Chad Brown hopes to hone this bay's tactical speed into an effective weapon over 10 furlongs. Highly Motivated also beat No. 2-ranked Known Agenda in a MSW last season in New York, meaning he's fared the best in head-to-head matchups against the horses at the top of the crop. Over the past three decades, contenders who have lost the Blue Grass have actually performed better in the Derby than the winners of that prep, with Street Sense (2007), Thunder Gulch (1995) and Sea Hero (1993) all tasting defeat in Lexington prior to reversing form in Louisville. But despite the arresting visual nature of Highly Motivated's stretch fight in the Blue Grass, this colt will go to the Derby without having seen the inside of a winner's circle in nearly six months. You have to go back to Super Saver in 2010 to find any Derby winner who did not win a race at age three prior to winning the Derby.

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.

Last week King Fury was parked way out at No. 28 on the qualifying list, but seven defections have tightened up the field to the point where he now only needs one other horse to opt out to make the starting cutoff. This $950,000 FTSAUG Curlin colt isn't ideally prepped for the Derby with just one start at age three, but trainer Ken McPeek no doubt can build off of King Fury's meaningful base of six lifetime starts at 1 1/16 miles and a punch-through 95-Beyer win over the slop in the GIII Lexington S. on Apr. 10. We are certainly in an era when A-list prospects race only sparingly, but to give you an idea of the hurdle that King Fury must overcome to win the Derby, consider this: Since 1937, horses with just one sophomore start prior to the Derby are a collective 0-for-24 (and no horse has even attempted that feat since 2013). Yet in this case, I'm willing to go against convention if the price is right, pari-mutuelly speaking. This is a “live” Derby horse if he sneaks in.

6) 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: GSP, 5-1-2-0, $194,120
Last Start: 2nd GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 3
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 40

Few bettors are going to back Dynamic One in the Derby based on his speed numbers alone. He was nipped at the wire by a 72-1 stablemate in the slowest running ever of the GII Wood Memorial (89 Beyer), and his maiden win by 5 1/4 lengths was achieved by pressing a 42-1 pacemaker through soft splits in a nine-furlong race clocked in 1:55.21 (79 Beyer). But trainer Todd Pletcher's initially high aspirations for this $725,000 KEESEP colt are starting to coalesce into discernible improvement, as Dynamic One is cultivating the look of an effective stayer who is just now learning how to finish. Earlier in his career, this Union Raags colt drew some undesirable posts and he had trouble leaving the gate in three starts. But in the Wood he rated patiently four wide on both turns, then wrested control of a six-way go from the quarter pole home before losing in the final jump to Bourbonic (Bernardini). Sired by a GI Belmont S. winner and with a female pedigree that resonates with Phipps-homebred stamina influences, Dynamic One's lofty ranking at No. 7 is not so much an assessment of where he stands now, but a prognostication of what he might be capable of orchestrating at long odds on May 1.

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.
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

Jockey Mike Smith will be the new rider for this $525,000 KEESEP colt from Steve Asmussen's barn. Smith is 2-for-26 in the Derby, and it's interesting to juxtapose the odds of his two winners, Giacomo (50-1 in 2005) and Justify (the 2018 fave who went on to win the Triple Crown). But Smith's luck in the last two Derbies hasn't been so hot: In 2019, he was the rider of morning-line fave Omaha Beach, who got injured and scratched days before the race; he instead picked up the ride on 24-1 Cutting Humor, who ran tenth. Last summer, Smith opted off of eventual Derby winner Authentic to instead ride Honor A.P., who finished fourth. Smith doesn't often ride for Asmussen (they race on different circuits except for big racing days), but he won with the last two mounts the trainer offered him at Churchill last June 27. Smith's task with Midnight Bourbon will involve teaching this capable (three 93+ Beyers this year) stalker how to seal the deal, because this Tiznow bay has had trouble putting away opponents under pressure. Midnight Bourbon has never been off the board in seven lifetime starts, a nice foundation that has yet to be capped with a breakthrough effort.

8) 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

Although Rock Your World's record stands at a perfect 3-for-3, trainer John Sadler told TDN last week that it took a lot of behind-the-scenes prep to make the leap from winning a MSW turf sprint and a $100,000 grass stakes to wiring a Grade I field with a 100 Beyer in this colt's first dirt try. “After the Pasadena [S.], we went to work a little bit harder on things that weren't working for him. We took him to the gate three times before the Santa Anita Derby, we did extra schooling in the paddock,” Sadler said. “I also wanted to start on the grass because I thought it would be easier. He's a big horse [and I] wanted to give him time to develop, grow up, mature into himself. He's done that…. Does whatever you want. Willing worker. Pretty nice horse to train. Good energy.” Despite a pedigree with some convincing stamina influences (by Candy Ride [Arg] out of an Empire Maker mare), Rock Your World may still be in for a class shock in Louisville. His Santa Anita Derby was soft in terms of quality, with only one stakes winner among the eight horses he beat by 4 1/4 lengths.

9) 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

Super Stock might be a late arrival on the Derby scene, but wind the clock back to last autumn to recall this $70,000 KEESEP colt by Dialed In finished just 4 3/4 lengths behind Essential Quality in a Grade I stakes at Keeneland, then was bet down to 9-10 favoritism when second in a black-type stakes at Churchill. This Steve Asmussen trainee then didn't race for nearly five months, but apparently got more out of his 40-1 fourth in the GII Rebel S. than was evident on paper, rebounding to win the GI Arkansas Derby with a well-executed, ground-saving surge into a tiring speed setup. On the plus side, this is a horse who consistently advances his position in the stretch and could be on the cusp of getting good at the right time. On the minus side, the subpar performances of the two 'TDN Rising Stars' he passed in the stretch at Oaklawn were so iffy that the connections of Concert Tour (Street Sense) have already opted out of the Derby and those of Caddo River (Hard Spun) are still on the fence.

10) 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

When the subject of trainer Bob Baffert's Derby prowess gets brought up, it isn't long before someone chimes in that it's not surprising he's won six Derbies considering the depth of his well-stocked stable that annually gets replenished with fashionably bred, high-priced colts. But if Medina Spirit–Baffert's lone remaining Derby candidate this year–delivers win number seven, no one is going to say this low-budget bargain ($1,000 at OBSWIN and $35,000 OBSOPN) was out of the reach for everyone else at the sales ring. This Protonico colt's 2-3-0 record from five starts (with a Grade II stakes win and Beyers routinely in the mid-90s) is all the more impressive considering Medina Spirit was discovered to have had an entrapped epiglottis after the Mar. 6 GII San Felipe S. He had surgery to correct it, missing practically no training, and was a best-of-the-rest second behind Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby the first time he raced after the operation.

11) MANDALOUN (c, Into Mischief–Brooch, by Empire Maker)
O/B-Juddmonte Farms Inc. (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-3-0-1, $361,252.
Last Start: 6th GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 20
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star', 1st GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13, 3rd GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 52

If you can avert your eyes from Mandaloun's no-punch sixth as the beaten fave in the Louisiana Derby, the overall past performance block for this 'TDN Rising Star' isn't badly tarnished. This Juddmonte homebred by Into Mischief kept credible company in his first four starts, registering improving Beyers in each of those races. He's a stalker with some seasoning and a speed-over-stamina pedigree, and he won his only start at Churchill. But beware of this red flag: Trainer Brad Cox has started a total of 10 horses on dirt at 1 1/4 miles or longer over the last five years. None have won, and only one managed to hit the board.

12) SOUP AND SANDWICH (c, Into Mischief–Souper Scoop, by Tapit)
O-Live Oak Plantation; B-Live Oak Stud (FL); T-Mark Casse. Lifetime Record: GISP, 3-2-1-0, $203,875.
Last Start: 2nd GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 27
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 40

I don't rank him as an overt win threat, I generally respect any young horse that trainer Mark Casse thinks is ready to attempt a sizable step up in class and distance. This gray didn't debut until Jan. 28 in a restricted sprint for Florida-breds, then only had to beat two other starters in a two-turn Tampa allowance. But this Live Oak homebred shouldered the pace burden on the front end of the Florida Derby and still had something remaining to punch back at Known Agenda in upper stretch, earning second despite finishing on his left lead through the lane.

Potentially rounding out the starting gate…

13) Caddo River (Hard Spun): The Derby status of 'TDN Rising Star' Caddo River was in limbo up until deadline for this column on Monday, and it could remain undecided until later in the week. This Hard Spun homebred for Shortleaf Stable is expected to be a key pace component if he does start in the Derby, but he appeared out of his comfort zone in each of his last two stakes preps at Oaklawn, when he was rank while stalking in the GII Rebel S. (fading to fifth) and when he got dueled into defeat in the Arkansas Derby (regaining second but not authoritatively so). Caddo River does own an impressive 9 ½-length victory at Churchill, which could be of benefit if he goes in the Derby.

14) Hidden Stash (Constitution): Deep closer Hidden Stash's two in-the-money Tampa stakes attempts were sneaky-good efforts, particularly his runner-up try in the GII Tampa Bay Derby. But he didn't advance when outclassed in the Blue Grass, checking in as a one-paced fourth with a slight Beyer regression. This $50,000 KEESEP does own a win over the Churchill main track and Hidden Stash figures to be passing horses late in the lane, making him a potential inclusion for underneath spots in exotics.

15) Helium (Ironicus): After Helium won the GII Tampa Bay Derby, trainer Mark Casse said what impressed him most was how this 3-for-3, $55,000 FTKOCT colt closed from midpack even though the pre-race strategy was to have this Ironicus colt sitting closer to the early pace. Such versatility can be a virtue in a mad-scramble race like the Kentucky Derby, which Helium will attempt off an eight-week gap. But his 84 Beyer for that effort rates on the low end for prep-race speed figures, and the nine horses that have run back out of the Tampa Derby have combined for only one next-out win and one third (both requiring class drops).

16) Bourbonic (Bernardini): This Calumet homebred required a drop into maiden-claiming company to register his first win back in December, and he subsequently failed to deliver when second in a Parx allowance two months later. Let go at 72-1 odds in the slowly run Wood Memorial, he looped the group from far back under an impeccably timed ride by Kendrick Carmouche. There is some logic in thinking that this is a horse (whose Beyers have been on an upward arc for four straight races) who is sure to get a quicker cadence to set the table for him in the Derby, so maybe lightning will strike twice.

17) Sainthood (Mshawish): Sainthood ($100,000 KEEJAN, $90,000 KEESEP RNA, $62,000 OBSOCT) was the only horse gaining on the winner when second (84 Beyer) in the GIII Jeff Ruby S. at Turfway. But that race as a whole looks aberrational considering the favorite got wiped out at the break and there was a logjam of traffic that impeded several late runners in the stretch. As a May 15 foal, Sainthood won't truly turn three before Derby day.

18) O Besos (Orb): Son of the 2013 Derby victor was most recently third, beaten just two lengths, in the Louisiana Derby. Beyers have ascended in all five starts for this homebred colt, although habit of slow starts and giving up real estate when wide into the first turns of route races could be costly in the Derby.

19) Like the King (Palace Malice): His sire won the 12-furlong Belmont S. in 2013 and his damsire (Corinthian) was a high-torque miler who won both the GI Metropolitan H. and the inaugural Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in 2007. This rangy chestnut ($28,000 KEENOV, $170,000 OBSOCT) has never been off the board in six lifetime tries, but his only three wins have been over turf (once at Belterra) and Tapeta (twice at Turfway).

20) Dream Shake (Twirling Candy): Debuted in a big way at 20-1 odds Feb. 7, earning 'TDN Rising Star' status when coasting home by 4 ¾ lengths (96 Beyer) over a decent field (two next-out winners). But since coming off Lasix and stepping up to graded stakes, this colt has twice run no-impact thirds, beaten an aggregate 16 ¾ lengths. He bulleted five-eighths in :59.20 (1/72) on Saturday at Santa Anita.

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