The TDN Kentucky Derby Top 20 for April 19

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Tawny Port winning Saturday's Lexington, the final Derby points race Coady

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With all the points-earning preps completed, the GI Kentucky Derby picture moves into “microscope mode” as we approach the two-week mark. The rankings below are independent from the “Road to the Derby” leaderboard Churchill Downs uses to determine starting berths. Access that list here.

1) ZANDON (c, Upstart–Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause) O-Jeff Drown. B-Brereton C. Jones (KY). T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $170,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 4-2-1-1, $713,000. Last Start: 1st GI Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 9. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 7. KY Derby Points: 114.

Zandon won sprinting at first asking while never more than two lengths off a rapid tempo. Stretched to nine furlongs in the GII Remsen S., he stalked the pace and was in it to win it right down to the final jump. Then he started rallying from farther back. This $170,000 KEESEP colt broke in the air, got relegated to last, then accelerated widest on the far turn when third in the GII Risen Star S. His GI Blue Grass S. score was accomplished via meticulous last-to-first handling by Flavien Prat. So which running style will Zandon deploy on Derby day? Handicappers considering backing (or betting against) him will want to know, especially in light of the fact that the last eight Derbies have been won by horses either on the lead or not far from it. It's easy to fall in love with closers because of the dramatic nature of their runs. But if you marveled at Prat's deft outside-inside-outside maneuvering through the far turn and upper stretch of the Blue Grass, you can also envision how that same strategy might result in getting boxed or blocked in the heavy traffic of a 20-horse field. That's why speed is so effective in the Derby. The very nature of out-front positioning affords those horses the advantage of leaving chaos behind-where deep closers are more likely to encounter it.

2) EPICENTER (c, Not This Time–Silent Candy, by Candy Ride {Arg}) O-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC. B-Westwind Farms (KY). T-Steven M. Asmussen. Sales History: $260,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 6-4-1-0, $1,010,639. Last Start: 1st GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 164.

Epicenter will have a tactical edge over Zandon on Derby day because he's a more proven commodity who has shown over a larger sample of races that he can consistently attain optimal positioning. This $260,000 KEESEP colt by Not This Time doesn't need to lead the cavalry charge into the first turn. But he does figure to be forcing the issue, and the fact that he's been the leader at the eighth pole in every one of his races (except his maiden sprint debut) suggests he's highly likely to be 1-2-3 turning for home. But you have to wonder if history will be Epicenter's friend as he tries to gut out that final quarter mile. A six-week break between a final prep and the Derby has only yielded two winners on the first Saturday in May since 1929, and only two horses since the 1894 inception of the GII Louisiana Derby have also crossed the finish wire first in the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Steve Asmussen, despite his many accomplishments, is 0-for-23 in the Derby. But that unappealing stat is largely based on his having started so many “just taking a shot” horses over the past two decades who weren't true contenders. Outside of Gun Runner (third in 2016) and Curlin (third in 2007), there are no A-list luminaries among Asmussen's mostly forgettable list of Derby also-rans.

3) MO DONEGAL (c, Uncle Mo–Callingmissbrown, by Pulpit) O-Donegal Racing. B-Ashview Farm & Colts Neck Stables (KY).
T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $250,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 5-3-0-2, $621,800. Last Start:
1st GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 9. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 112.

If Zandon's strong suit is athleticism fused with fighting spirit, and Epicenter's is rock-solid consistency, Mo Donegal rates an edge in terms of late-race torque that is both visually impressive and backed by strong final-eighth times in nine-furlong races. His identical, ground-gaining :12.33 final furlongs in both the GII Remsen S. and the GII Wood Memorial S. are the quickest among all 2021-22 Derby preps at that distance. This $250,000 KEESEP colt by Uncle Mo has never lost ground in the stretch runs of his five career races, and in each of his three wins he had to wrest control from leaders who punched back with purpose. But from a historical perspective, it's been a long time since the path to Louisville ran through New York. Only three horses in the last 58 years-Thunder Gulch, Go for Gin and Pleasant Colony-have parlayed Remsen and Derby wins. It's also been 22 years since the Wood winner went on to capture the Derby (Fusaichi Pegasus). Yet if Mo Donegal were to win the Derby, he'd match Pleasant Colony's rare 1980-81 triple of winning the Remsen, Wood and the Derby.

4) SIMPLIFICATION (c, Not This Time–Simply Confection, by Candy Ride {Arg}) O-Tami Bobo. B-France & Irwin Weiner (FL). T-Antonio Sano. Sales History: $50,000 wlg '19 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 7-3-1-2, $515,350. Last Start: 3rd GI Curlin Florida Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 74.

The road to the Derby is annually littered with horses who appear dominant in Florida's shorter winter preps yet can't carry their winning to 10 furlongs in the spring. Can Simplification jump that gap? The No. 4 spot in this week's rankings is where “raw ability” gives way to “the promise of possibility.” This son of Not This Time ($50,000 RNA at KEENOV) was a starter in all four of Gulfstream's sophomore preps for the Derby-wiring the one-turn-mile Mucho Macho Man S.; botching the break but closing well to get second in the GIII Holy Bull S., then winning the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. with a prolonged bid from three-eighths out. His beaten-fave third in the GI Florida Derby has a legit excuse attached to it, as Simplification sparred with a sacrificial pacemaker, then got immediately hooked into a second duel when jockey Jose Ortiz decided to fully unleash him with 4 1/2 furlongs left in the race. A Derby scenario in which Simplification gets asked for his best run a little later might be better suited to his still-evolving stalking style.

5) EARLY VOTING (c, Gun Runner–Amour d'Ete, by Tiznow) O-Klaravich Stables, Inc. B-Three Chimneys Farm, LLC (KY).
T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $200,000 ylg '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $321,500. Last Start:
2nd GII Wood Memorial S. Next Start: TBD. KY Derby Points: 50.

Early Voting is the highest-ranked horse on this list whose connections have yet to fully commit to a start in the Derby. Trainer Chad Brown his cited Early Voting's light experience (just three races) and a desire to see where this $200,000 KEESEP frontrunner fits in the Derby's projected pace as several reasons for waiting to make a decision. Early Voting set a spirited tempo despite being relatively unpressured in the early stages of the Wood Memorial, and Jose Ortiz wisely chose not to overextend this colt in a late-race stretch skirmish when second against the more experienced Mo Donegal. If Early Voting presses on to the Derby, Ortiz will face a commitment choice, as he also has been riding No. 4-ranked Simplification.

6) SMILE HAPPY (c, Runhappy–Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Lucky Seven Stable. B-Moreau Bloodstock Int'l Inc. & White Bloodstock LLC (KY). T-Kenneth G. McPeek. Sales History: $175,000 wlg '19 KEENOV; $185,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 4-2-2-0, $549,810. Last Start: 2nd GI Toyota Blue Grass S. KY Derby Points: 70.

It's tough to knock Smile Happy's two sophomore starts. But it's also difficult say with confidence this 'TDN Rising Star' has demonstrated significant progression off his 2-for-2 juvenile campaign. That juxtaposition of undefeated form at age two and a winless season so far at age three is likely to get you about 12-1 on Derby day if you're willing to bet trainer Kenny McPeek has, in fact, precisely honed this son of Runhappy ($175,000 KEENOV; $185,000 FTKSEL) to peak over 10 furlongs. Smile Happy was a hard-charging second in the GII Risen Star S. after jockey Corey Lanerie waited too long to uncoil on the far turn, then split horses in upper stretch and ran up on the heels of a tiring rival. In the Blue Grass S., Lanerie's move was timed much better. But after Smile Happy snatched the lead from the pacemaker at Keeneland's quarter pole, Zandon blew by him at the furlong marker. A clean trip in the Derby puts a tighter Smile Happy in the hunt for getting first run at the pacemakers on the far turn.

7) TIZ THE BOMB (c, Hit It a Bomb–Tiz the Key, by Tiznow) O-Magdalena Racing, Lessee. B-Spendthrift Farm LLC (KY). T-Kenneth McPeek. Sales History: $330,000 Ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: MGSW & GISP, 8-5-1-0, $1,044,401. Last Start: 1st GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks, TP, Apr. 2. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 110.

Tiz the Bomb has eight races of experience, with seven starts at a mile or longer. He's won over dirt, over both “good” and “firm” turf, over the undulating Kentucky Downs lawn, and over Turfway's Tapeta. His past performances show the most experience in large fields-he won a 14-horse Grade II stakes at age two, and has three other times finished first or second in races with 12 and 13 starters. Yet despite this broad base of experience, this $330,000 FTKSEL colt by Hit It a Bomb figures to be “on sale” in the Derby mutuels simply because he ran one poor, kickback-eating dirt race off a three-month layoff (the Feb. 5 GIII Holy Bull S., from which the first three finishers all returned to win graded stakes). Based on that one aberrational performance, bettors are likely to deduce that Tiz the Bomb will be averse to the dirt at Churchill. And he just might be-you never know until the gates open. But you'll be getting an overlaid 25-1 or so to find out of his multi-surface staying power works on the Louisville dirt, as opposed to the 15-1 price that more realistically corresponds to Tiz the Bomb's chances.

8) CHARGE IT (c, Tapit–I'll Take Charge, by Indian Charlie) 'TDN Rising Star' O/B-Whisper Hill Farm (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Lifetime Record: GISP, 3-1-1-0, $230,400. Last Start: 2nd GI Curlin Florida Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 40.

A bet on 'TDN Rising Star' Charge It in the Derby will require a leap of faith that he has matured significantly through the month of April and into the first week of May. You can see the raw makings of a really nice racehorse based on just three starts. And Charge It's pedigree (by Tapit and anchored by distance-loving second dam Take Charge Lady) definitely has longer-the-better underpinnings. But while his second in the GI Florida Derby was commendable considering it was his initial two-turn try and first race against winners, Charge it was not fully focused through the lane, and the Florida Derby's blah final furlong in :14.09 was the second-slowest final eighth among all nine-furlong preps this season (behind only the muddy GIII Withers S. in :14.15). In addition, 13 horses have now run back out of Charge It's two MSW races, and not a single one of those rivals won their next start, raising legit quality-of-competition questions.

9) TAIBA (c, Gun Runner–Needmore Flattery, by Flatter) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Zedan Racing Stables Inc. B-Bruce C Ryan (KY). T-Tim Yakteen. Sales History: $140,000 Ylg '20 FTKOCT; $1,700,000 2yo '21 FTFMAR. Lifetime Record: GISW, 2-2-0-0, $490,200. Last Start: 1st GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 9. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby.

We have owner Amr Zedan diplomatically asserting he's not out to avenge his under-appeal Derby DQ of now-deceased Medina Spirit–even after having gone against the advice of his trainer by insisting on a Santa Anita Derby start so Taiba could earn last-chance Kentucky Derby qualifying points. We also have Hall-of-Fame jockey Mike Smith, who's about to be asked ceaselessly over the next 2 1/2 weeks to compare this precocious 'TDN Rising Star' to Justify, the dazzling Triple Crown winner he rode in 2018. So what will be the result when the narrative of redemption gets coupled in mainstream media with the sky's-the-limit appeal of a flashy, undefeated prospect? Probably the most overbet Derby phenom in a long time. Yes, this son of Gun Runner ($140,000 FTKOCT; $1.7 million FTFMAR) is worthy of superlatives after posting back-to-back triple-digit Beyers in both a MSW sprint and the Santa Anita Derby, a race in which this colt sparred the entire length of the lane against a more seasoned stablemate. But Taiba would truly have to be a once-in-a-generation outlier to thrive against top-of-the-crop competition at 10 furlongs in lifetime start number three, all while shipping for the first time and experiencing a field far larger and far more talented than anything he's faced in limited SoCal action. Too much too soon is the verdict here-although admittedly, it would be pretty neat to witness Taiba shatter conventional wisdom.

10) MESSIER (c, Empire Maker–Checkered Past, by Smart Strike) 'TDN Rising Star' O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert E. Masterson, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine M. Donovan, Golconda Stable & Siena Farm LLC. B-Sam-Son Farm (ON). T-Tim Yakteen. Sales History: $470,000 ylg '20 FTKSEL. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 6-3-3-0, $435,600. Last Start: 2nd GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 40.

I'm attempting to take a more forgiving look at Messier's Santa Anita Derby second, a race I initially described as a “failure to slam the door.” After all, this $470,000 FTKSEL 'TDN Rising Star' forced a favored pacemaker through robust fractions, then, somewhat unexpectedly, had to work hard to try and swat away a more-resilient-than-expected Taiba (Messier initially put away that stablemate in upper stretch, but Taiba re-engaged and powered past). Considering the Santa Anita Derby was the first outing in eight weeks for this Empire Maker colt-and taking into account that Messier was unlikely to have been fully cranked for the effort-the try wasn't half bad (99 Beyer). But the sticking point I can't quite overcome is Messier's penchant for losing at low odds. He's twice been beaten at fifty cents on the dollar, including a no-excuse letdown in the GII Los Alamitos Futurity when he was one-paced after getting a strong second run on the spent speed.

11) BARBER ROAD (c, Race Day–Encounter, by Southern Image) O-WSS Racing, LLC. B-Susan Forrester & Judy Curry (KY). T-John Alexander Ortiz. Sales History: $15,000 wlg '19 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: GISP, 8-2-3-1, $650,720. Last Start: 2nd GI Arkansas Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 58.

Barber Road ($15,000 KEENOV) isn't going to wow anybody in the Derby. But this gritty Race Day gray might be capable of hammering past a good portion of the field with his usual late-race determination, and he figures to be picking off horses when distanced-challenged contenders are bailing out. Of all the entrants who'll start north of 40-1 in this year's Derby, I respect this John Ortiz trainee the most. He lost a shoe at some point in the Arkansas Derby, then lost momentum a furlong from the finish when he ran up on the heels of a caving pacemaker. But Barber Road was keen to re-rally, and he prevailed in the “race within the race” by nailing the favorite in a tight place photo. This is all pretty good no-pressure Derby mojo for a colt who's already bankrolled more than 36 times his auction price.

12) WHITE ABARRIO (c, Race Day–Catching Diamonds, by Into Mischief) O-C2 Racing Stable LLC & La Milagrosa Stable, LLC.
B-Spendthrift Farm LLC (KY). T-Saffie A. Joseph, Jr. Sales History: $7,500 ylg '20 OBSWIN; $40,000 2yo '21 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-4-0-1, $823,650. Last Start: 1st GI Curlin Florida Derby. Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby. KY Derby Points: 112.

The Florida Derby has produced more Kentucky Derby winners (24) than any other stakes, and the winners of that Gulfstream prep are usually well backed in Louisville. But this year White Abarrio ($7,500 OBSWIN; $40,000 OBSMAR) figures to be the first Florida Derby winner since Materiality in 2015 to go off at 10-1 or higher in the wagering. This athletically nimble Race Day gray has some “punch above his weight” appeal, and we've already seen him beat such well-regarded contenders as Simplification (twice), Mo Donegal, Charge It and Tiz the Bomb. But this Gulfstream specialist (4-for-4) benefitted from ideal circumstances in both of this graded stakes victories, making you wonder if he can improve further under the duress of 10 furlongs. In the traffic-snarled Holy Bull S., White Abarrio enjoyed clear sailing up front while four of his main foes encountered trip woes. And in the Florida Derby, three of White Abarrio's rivals were casualties of poorly executed pace decisions that led to two separate, self-immolating speed duels before the field hit the far turn.

Potentially rounding out the starting gate…

13) Zozos (Munnings): It was interesting that Zozos got bet down to 5-2 second choice behind even-money Epicenter in the Louisiana Derby. That was both his stakes debut and first non-Lasix race after winning his maiden and an allowance, and Zozos had never led the field in the early stages of either of those first two victories. But this 'TDN Rising Star' and homebred for Barry and Joni Butzow forged straight to the front and held well after setting legit splits under two-pronged pressure from a hounding 15-1 long shot and the more intimidating Epicenter, who eventually powered past for the win. Right now Zozos is a true wild card for the Derby. Is he a piece of the pace? A capable presser on the improve? His sire, grandsire, and damsire (Munnings, Speightstown, Forestry) all made their marks sprinting, so there's not much distance-centric foundation in his immediate family.

14) Morello (Classic Empire): A points qualifier who remains uncommitted, Morello ($140,000 KEENOV; $200,000 FTKSEL; $250,000 EASMAY) went off as the undefeated favorite in the Wood Memorial, but he hit the side of the gate at the break and never really recovered. He's 3-for-3 in one-turn races, but untested in terms of both distance and his ability to handle elite-level competition.

15) Crown Pride (Jpn) (Reach the Crown {Jpn}): He won't truly turn three until May 5, but the GII UAE Derby victor is 3-for-4 on dirt with all three victories at nine furlongs or greater. Since the 2000 inception of the UAE Derby, 11 of its winners have gone on to compete in the Kentucky Derby. The best finish among them was sixth, along with two DNF's and a 20th-place try.

16) Tawny Port (Pioneerof the Nile): This $430,000 KEESEP colt has some likeable attributes, but not enough to elevate him to a serious Derby threat. He started his career with two Tapeta wins; was not disgraced when a 24-1 fifth, beaten 7 3/4 lengths on the dirt against Epicenter, Smile Happy and Zandon, then chased Tiz the Bomb home when second at Turfway. He closed capably on Saturday to win the GIII Lexington S. over 1 1/16 miles, cornering four wide on both turns. Originally with the pace, Tawny Port backed off, then sprang a late run with his head cocked toward the stands while the only one gaining ground on a tiring leader. This colt finished well, but he faced no daunting late-race competition over Keeneland's short-stretch configuration.

17) Cyberknife (Gun Runner): In the Arkansas Derby, jockey Florent Geroux sensed Cyberknife was keen early. So he opted out of dueling through a first quarter in an unsustainable :22.11, then barreled through three successively slower quarter-mile splits and a final eighth in a so-so :13.18 to win going away while shifting and drifting through the lane. Not exactly a work of art for this $400,000 FTKSEL colt, but that initial Grade I impression won't matter much if Cyberknife keeps winning and his Beyers remain on an upward arc (last three: 72, 87, 92).

18) Un Ojo (Laoban): The 75-1 winner of the GII Rebel S. has only one functioning eye because of an unfortunate run-in with a tree branch as a yearling. The last time there was a right-eye-only horse in the Derby was in 2017, when Patch ran an admirable 14th despite drawing outermost gate 20. Because his “overcoming adversity” story kept getting repeated, Patch went off way, way underlaid in the betting at 14-1. Will similar support be bestowed upon Un Ojo? We know he can save ground and make one chug-home run. Rain would also be a plus-his two best races occurred on a muddy track (second in the Withers) and on an Oaklawn surface listed as “fast” when the Rebel commenced in a just-starting downpour.

19) Summer Is Tomorrow (Summer Front): Seven races in Dubai at Meydan and Jebel Ali since Dec. 2, with the first six of them at seven furlongs or shorter (two wins). Three-time auction entrant ($25,000 KEENOV; $14,000 RNA at KEESEP; $169,743 ARQDEA) sought the lead in the UAE Derby and held well until the deep end of the Meydan stretch. Trainer Bhupat Seemar has never started a horse in North America under his own license, but he worked for five years under Bob Baffert two decades ago, including when that stable won the 2002 Derby with War Emblem.

20) Happy Jack (Oxbow): He's winless beyond the maiden ranks from five starts and has never been closer than 10 1/2 lengths to the winner in any of his three Santa Anita stakes against short fields. Best Beyer is 83. Yet he currently holds the final Derby qualifying position based on his accrued 30 points.

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