TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

WinStar TDN Derby Top Twelve for Feb. 21

by T.D. Thornton

As we approach the ten-week mark for the GI Kentucky Derby, it is becoming clear that we have a diverse and deep cast of characters vying for top spots in the rankings. And nearly half of this week’s Top 12 will be in action over the next two weeks, setting up the possibility for considerable reshuffling and realignment within what is already an intriguing pecking order.

1. MCCRAKEN (c, GhostzapperIvory Empress, by Seeking the Gold)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O/B-Whitham Thoroughbreds, LLC (KY). T-Ian R. Wilkes. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 4-4-0-0, $310,848.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 1

Last Start: 1st, GIII Sam F. Davis S., TAM, Feb. 11

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., CD, Nov. 26, 1st, Street Sense S., CD, Oct. 30

Next start: GII Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 11

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 20

McCraken will own the top spot until at least Mar. 11, when he’s expected to make his next start in the Tampa Bay Derby. Two horses in close proximity to him on this list will likely have started by then, but even a big performance by Irish War Cry (Curlin) in the GII Fountain of Youth S. or a strong win by Mo Town (Uncle Mo) in the GII Risen Star S. won’t be enough to leapfrog this ‘TDN Rising Star’–yet. When attempting to assess the strength of a top Derby colt, it’s helpful to find at least a few flaws so you can see where potential points of weakness might be when the pressure gets ramped up. But good luck trying to pick apart McCraken at this point in his progression. He’s demonstrated ever-developing athleticism, acceleration, and self-assurance, and has the makings of a tactically versatile competitor who does not need to be pushed on to make authoritative mid-pack moves. Trainer Wilkes is on record as saying McCraken was not fully cranked for his track-record Davis S. win and that his colt was winded after the race; both are good signs in terms of room being left for further improvement. One ancillary point that will get over-hyped between now and McCraken’s next start is how Wilkes was an assistant trainer to Carl Nafzger when Street Sense (Street Cry) parlayed a win in the 2007 Tampa Derby into a Kentucky Derby victory. It makes for a nice storyline, but the long-term productivity of the Tampa Derby is not encouraging beyond Street Sense’s success: None of the Tampa Derby’s other 34 winners went on to win the Kentucky Derby, and only one other horse who even ran in it–Super Saver (Maria’s Mon), third in 2010–subsequently won the Kentucky Derby.

2. MASTERY (c, Candy Ride (Arg)Steady Course, by Old Trieste)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Cheyenne Stables, LLC. B-Stone Farm (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $425,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 3-3-0-0, $271,200.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 2

Last Start: 1st, GI Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, LRC, Dec. 10

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GIII Bob Hope S., DMR, Nov. 19

Next start: Either GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 11 or GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 18

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Mastery

KY Derby Points: 10

A deluge of wet weather continues to wreak havoc with the training regimens of Southern California-based horses, but trainer Baffert got in key works over dry tracks last week for both his TDN Derby Top 12 contenders. “They’re both really top horses,” Baffert said via phone last Friday of No. 2 Mastery and No. 6 American Anthem (Bodemeister). “There’s not a lot separating them. They’re pretty close. I’m pretty happy with the way they’re doing, moving forward. That’s what you want.” ‘TDN Rising Star’ Mastery bulleted seven furlongs (1/3) in 1:25.40 Feb. 13, coming from about five lengths back to collar a workmate by open lengths while striding out nicely to the wire. The fact that he’ll have three months between starts when he finally makes his 3-year-old debut doesn’t really concern Baffert. “He’s a late [May 3] foal, so I didn’t want to do too much with him. But he’s starting to grow and I see big changes in him, so we’re just letting him develop a little bit. His next two races are going to be tough, but he’ll be coming in as a fresh horse, and he’s already got his two-turn [experience].”

3. MO TOWN (c, Uncle MoGrazie Mille, by Bernardini)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith & Team D. B-John D. Gunther & Eurowest Bloodstock (KY). T-Anthony W. Dutrow. Sales History: $200,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $243,600.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 3

Last Start: 1st, GII Remsen S., AQU, Nov. 26

Next start: GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 25

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Mo Town

KY Derby Points: 10

A month ago the relevance of the Risen Star S. was in flux. The Fair Grounds was under a state-mandated quarantine and no horses could ship in or out. Now that the quarantine has been lifted, the race has blossomed into a deep, interesting affair, and whoever wins Saturday’s $400,000 Derby prep will have to earn every penny of it. The first five finishers from the GIII Lecomte S. are back in action, but Mo Town unquestionably headlines in his much-anticipated sophomore unveiling. Trainer Dutrow opted for this spot after initially being on a path to pursue the Mar. 4 Gotham S. at Aqueduct. But the timing of the New Orleans race seemed better and there’s less likelihood of winter weather causing problems. From a purely aesthetic perspective, it’s also nice to see a highly hyped horse being pointed for a significantly tougher spot than the Gotham is shaping up to be. We’ll get to see how Mo Town’s athletic prowess and tactical punch play out in a 14-horse field of relatively talented rivals, and the longer Fair Grounds stretch will give us a strong indication of how his (already highly regarded) level of cardio fitness has progressed from age two to three.

4. IRISH WAR CRY (c, CurlinIrish Sovereign, by Polish Numbers)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O/B-Isabelle de Tomaso (NJ). T-H. G. Motion. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-3-0-0, $295,460.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 4

Last Start: 1st, GII Lambholm South Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 4

Accomplishments: 1st, Marylander S., LRL, Jan. 23

Next Start: Likely for GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 4

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Irish War Cry

KY Derby Points: 10

‘TDN Rising Star’ Irish War Cry will be the favorite with the target on his back in the Fountain of Youth S. on Mar. 4. Trainer Motion has expressed a preference for keeping Irish War Cry racing at Gulfstream, which is not surprising considering how well the kind-to-speed racing surface suited the colt’s front-running style in the Holy Bull S. The GI Florida Derby might also be in play for April, although that prep race choice is not etched in stone. The big question for the moment is, at 3-for-3, with two wins coming at the expense of softer Maryland-based foes, will Irish War Cry once again rise to the challenge of meeting stiffer competition? “What you saw in the Holy Bull was pretty straightforward,” Motion said after that race. “My only instruction to Joel [Rosario] was to make sure he was settled because he was pretty sharp in his previous race and I blame that on myself. He had quite a lot of time between his first and second race and he was pretty sharp that day. My only concern was that he settled and he did that nicely and he won pretty comfortably.”

5. AMERICAN ANTHEM (c, Bodemeister–Indy’s Windy, by A.P. Indy)

O-WinStar Farm, LLC, S F Bloodstock, LLC & China Horse Club. B-WinStar Farm (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $180,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP; $435,000 2yo ‘16 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GSP, 2-1-1-0, $51,200.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 6

Last Start: 2nd, GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 7

Next start: Aiming for either GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 11, or GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 18

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 4

Intriguing similarities between American Anthem and his Baffert-trained sire, Bodemeister (Empire Maker): Both were lightly raced leading into the Derby trail, and after breaking their maidens, each narrowly lost a Santa Anita stakes race by less than a length. In 2012, Bodemeister then shipped to Oaklawn, where with blinkers removed, he dominated the GI Arkansas Derby by nearly ten lengths and subsequently finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness S. American Anthem’s next start could also be at Oaklawn (in the Rebel S.), and in his most recent six-furlong move Feb. 13 (11/21) he also worked without blinkers while chasing, reeling in, and finishing on even terms with the 4-year-old allowance-winning filly Faithfully (Smart Strike). Baffert said via phone after the move that American Anthem “races in blinkers, but I worked him without blinkers because he can be a little bit headstrong early in the work. I’m just trying to get him to relax a little bit. He’s a late foal [May 15], and he’s a real big horse.” Baffert reconfirmed that American Anthem is headed for a two-prep path to the Derby, although it remains to be seen whether he or stablemate Mastery remains in California while the other travels to Hot Springs.

6. EL AREEB (c, Exchange RateFeathered Diamond, by A.P. Indy)

‘TDN Rising Star’ O-M M G Stables, LLC. B-Dixiana Farms, LLC (KY). T-Cathal A. Lynch. Sales History: $100,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP; $340,000 2yo ‘16 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-4-1-0, $334,200.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 7

Last Start: 1st, GIII Withers S., AQU, Feb. 4

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GIII Jerome S., AQU, Jan. 2, 1st, James F. Lewis III S., LRL, Nov. 19

Next start: Uncommitted

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 20

Last week in this space it was discussed how El Areeb might get a break from the Aqueduct schedule of preps after dominating the first two Grade III legs of the series. But if he skipped the Mar. 4 Gotham and waited for the Apr. 8 GII Wood Memorial, that would be a nine-week gap between preps before another four weeks off until the Derby. Trainer Lynch has since revised his thinking by including other options in the mix: “We’ve been going back and forth about the Gotham; that’s still up in the air. I’m leaning toward waiting for the Wood or the Blue Grass or the Florida Derby, which was thrown into the mix the other day. One of those three preps. We’ll give him a chance. He’s going to have to step up and prove that that’s where he belongs, but he’s doing everything right and we’re happy with him. We’ll look at where everyone else is settling down and where they’re all looking to go. With all the good horses you’re going to run into them at some point. So many things go into play. We’ll finalize our plans but the horse will dictate everything. That’s always been our way. It’s the horse first; whatever’s best for the horse.”

7. CLASSIC EMPIRE (c, Pioneerof the NileSambuca Classica, by Cat Thief)

O-John C. Oxley. B-Steven & Brandi Nicholson (KY). T-Mark E. Casse. Sales History: $475,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt, MGISW, 6-4-0-1, $1,520,220.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 5

Last Start: 3rd, GII Lambholm South Holy Bull S., GP, Feb. 4

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, SA, Nov. 5, 1st, GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, KEE, Oct. 8; 1st, GIII Bashford Manor S., CD, July 2.

Next start: Uncommitted

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Classic Empire

KY Derby Points: 32

In one sense, the pressure is off–the juvenile champ lost his heavily favored comeback try, and it was discovered that a foot abscess, and not something more dire, was the medical excuse for his faltering in the Holy Bull S. But in another sense, the stress has inched up a notch or two, because now Classic Empire is behind schedule on the Derby path, and he’s going to have to be managed differently to get him to his peak level of fitness and proficiency. It was disclosed over the weekend that he’ll miss the Mar. 4 Fountain of Youth S. to give the abscess more time to heal, and now the Mar. 11 Tampa Bay Derby could be in play. But even before that decision was made, owner John Oxley said last week in a TDN podcast, “we also are looking at all other options. He ran so well in California, in the Breeders’ Cup. You know flying’s not a big issue today, so [a prep race at Santa Anita], that’s another option.”

8. GORMLEY (c, Malibu MoonRace to Urga, by Bernstein)

O-Mr. & Mrs. Jerome Moss. B-Castleton Lyons & Kilboy Estate (KY). T-John A. Shirreffs. Sales History: $150,000 RNA Ylg ’15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 4-3-0-0, $296,000.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 8

Last Start: 1st, GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 7.

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI FrontRunner S., SA, Oct. 6

Next start: Either GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 11, or GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 18

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs, Caulfield on Gormley

KY Derby Points: 20

This spot belongs strictly to Gormley, although now that trainer Shirreffs has two top Derby contenders for the same owners–“On the Bubble” Grade III winner Royal Mo (Uncle Mo) is the other Jerry and Ann Moss colorbearer–it’s difficult to speak with Shirreffs without asking him to compare and contrast the two. “Gormley, what everybody says that’s been on him, is that he’s very light on his feet and he doesn’t feel like he hits the ground. And from the trainer’s standpoint, he always has a lot of energy, so he’s very energetic, always happy to go out and work,” Shirreffs said via phone last Friday. “Royal Mo, he’s a bigger horse. He’s probably a little less mature than Gormley in the sense that he has to grow into his size a bit more.” Much like Bob Baffert’s plans with Mastery and American Anthem, the idea for Gormley and Royal Mo is to send one to Oaklawn for the Rebel S. while keeping the other at home for the San Felipe S. a week earlier. “No, those are the two,” Shirreffs confirmed when asked if he might be considering alternate preps. As for subsequent starts and what he thinks might be an ideal number of prep races before the Derby, Shirreffs didn’t want to commit. “That’s too far ahead, we’re just thinking about the next steps here. Fortunately, they’ve both had a number of races, so I think they’re okay there, they’ve both had enough experience.”

9. PRACTICAL JOKE (c, Into MischiefHalo Humor, by Distorted Humor)

O-Klaravich Stables, Inc. & William H. Lawrence. B-Whispering Oaks (KY). T-Chad C. Brown. Sales History: $135,000 Ylg ‘15 KEEJAN; $240,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 4-3-0-1, $739,800.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 9

Last Start: 3rd, GI Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, SA, Nov. 5.

Accomplishments Include: 1st, GI Hopeful S., SAR, Sept. 5; 1st, GI Champagne S., BEL, Oct. 8.

Next start: GII Gotham S., AQU, Mar. 4 or GII Fountain of Youth S., GP, Mar. 4

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 14

Two of his last three workouts have been bullet moves at Palm Meadows, and at this stage of the season, Practical Joke is one of only four horses (out of 11) from last year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile actively pursuing the Derby preps. He’s a two-time Grade I winner (Hopeful and Champagne S.) but lacks proven two-turn ability, and absolutely needs a victory in whichever Mar. 4 prep race his trainer chooses to remain relevant on this list. “Right now his workouts have been stronger than ever. I’m happy to see that at age three he’s gotten a lot stronger,” trainer Brown said via phone last Friday. “He’s training very well right now, and I’m 50/50 to run in either the Fountain of Youth or the Gotham. The decision will depend on the weather, who’s running where.” Since No. 4 Irish War Cry and other heavy hitters are probable for that next Gulfstream prep, and considering that No. 3 Mo Town and No. 6 El Areeb have both recently swerved away from committing to run next in New York, the Gotham looks like the softer spot, provided Mother Nature cooperates.

10. GUEST SUITE (g, Quality RoadGuest House, by Ghostzapper)

O-W. S. Farish & Lora Jean Kilroy. B-W. S. Farish & Kilroy Thoroughbred Partnership (KY). T-Neil Howard. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-3-0-2, $203,840.

Feb. 14 TDN Top 12 Rank: 11

Last Start: 1st, GIII LeComte S., FG, Jan. 21

Next start: GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 25

Thoro-Graph sheet, Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 10

In a counter-intuitive way, the presence of higher-ranked Mo Town in this Saturday’s Risen Star S., could benefit Guest Suite, who would otherwise start solidly favored. Mo Town’s stalking presence and potential for a far-turn takeover will be the move all the other jockeys will be waiting for, and that could allow Guest Suite to back off a beat and bide his time for a long stretch battle after numerous others in the 14-horse field have attempted attacks on Mo Town. This gelding’s winning Lecomte S. rally—advancing at will on the far turn and leveling off fluidly when set down for the drive to crack perfect-trip stalker Takeoff (Arch)—was even more impressive when you factor in how deftly Guest Suite swatted away a fresh challenge from eventual runner-up Untrapped (Trappe Shot). He gets style points for resiliency and reliability at a time of the season when most Derby aspirants are still trying to figure out if they even possess one of those attributes.

11. ONE LINER (c, Into MischiefCayala, by Cherokee Run)

O-WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club & SF Racing, LLC. B-Kingswood Farm (KY). T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $150,000 Ylg ‘15 KEEJAN. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-3-0-0, $373,800.

Feb. 21 TDN Top 12 Rank: 11

Last Start: 1st, GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 20

Next start: Uncommitted.

Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 10

One Liner took a fair amount of late action in the betting for Monday’s Southwest S. and the wiseguy money wasn’t wrong. Although jockey John Velazquez had to keep after the colt at multiple points in the race to remain engaged, One Liner kept responding to the urging, which is what earns him a berth within the Top 12. Favored pacemaker Uncontested (Tiz Wonderful) was freewheeling on the lead until he hit a wall at the top of the stretch, and once Petrov (Flatter) got first run on the tiring leader, One Liner locked in and was emboldened when Petrov fought back. One Liner did wander a bit in deep stretch, but his greenness can be dismissed considering it was only his second outing of the year and first try going two turns against stakes company. “Once he got to the first turn he relaxed and was kind of pricking the ears, not even paying attention,” Velazquez said. “I wasn’t worried so much, other than getting his attention to get to the horses in front of him. By the three-eighths pole I had to get a little aggressive with him and let him know that he had to get busy. Once he got closer to those two horses in front, then he got aggressive and competitive.”

12. ILIAD (r, GhostzapperLittle Swoon, by You and I)

O-Kaleem Shah, Inc. B-Sungyeoun Lim (KY). T-Doug F. O’Neill. Sales history: $50,000 Wlg ‘14 KEENOV; $80,000 Ylg ‘15 KEESEP; $285,000 2yo ‘16 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-0-0, $147,345.

Feb. 7 TDN Top 12 Rank: N/A

Last Start: 1st, GII San Vicente S., SA, Feb. 12

Next Start: Likely for GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 11

Equineline PPs

KY Derby Points: 0

Iliad is the only horse to crack the Top 12 without two-turn experience, but he commanded intense pace pressure admirably in his seven-furlong San Vicente S. win, and both his pedigree and the way he carries himself suggest he’ll be adaptable to going longer. This ridgling will likely opt for the California path to Kentucky on the first Saturday in May, with a tentative prep-race schedule of the San Felipe S. on Mar. 11 followed by the GI Santa Anita Derby on Apr. 8.

On the Bubble: Saturday’s GIII El Camino Real Derby is unlikely to yield any breadcrumbs that might be of use figuring out the Triple Crown trail. The $99 winner Zakarov (Slew’s Tiznow) is an example of the longest shot on the board getting the cleanest trip in a messy race, and even-money favorite Ann Arbor Eddie (Square Eddie) botched a nice ground-saving try by lugging out late in the lane, resulting in a disqualification from second. A late bloomer to watch might be Golden Gate-based More Power To Him (Slew’s Tiznow), who crossed the wire third but got moved up a spot via the DQ. He fought the jockey while unsettled for the first five furlongs, then, when relegated to last, came roaring off the turn to close determinedly and gallop out past the winner … Not that undefeated Irish War Cry’s form needs further flattering, but O Dionysus (Bodemeister), the horse that he nosed out in the Dec. 31 Marylander S., rebounded to win the $75,000 Miracle Wood S. at Laurel last Saturday … Locally based horses swept the first five finish positions in Saturday’s $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby while the two heavy ship-in faves from Golden Gate and Santa Anita were both up the track.

He’ll be a mid-level price in the betting, but the determined ridgling So Conflated (Eskendereya) enters this Saturday’s Risen Star S. with a better chance than his races on paper might indicate. The fact that he drew the far outside 14 post might also add a point or two to his price, but the wide draw doesn’t faze trainer Doug O’Neill. “I like the long stretch for So Conflated and with 3-year-olds,” he said. “I don’t mind being on the outside with him. He’s doing well.”

Tapwrit (Tapit), beaten only 1 1/2 lengths by McCraken despite a difficult trip in the track-record Davis S., is likely for the Tampa Bay Derby trainer Todd Pletcher said on “At the Races with Steve Byk.” Pletcher commented on how the $ 1.2-million yearling needs to be shown things two or three times before he catches on, but the colt is spirited and full of himself in the mornings, and the more that is asked of him the stronger and better he is getting. Pletcher added that 2-for-2 stablemate Malagacy (Shackleford), a ‘TDN Rising Star,’ might be better suited to remaining a sprinter, but if the colt trains well coming out of his allowance/optional claiming win Feb. 12, he might consider stretching him out in a race like the Rebel S. at Oaklawn. Fellow ‘Rising Star’ Theory (Gemologist), who has not run since finishing tenth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is back on the comeback trail after getting sick and missing training earlier this winter. “I’m happy with him, but I don’t think he will be quite ready for the Fountain of Youth,” Pletcher said. “We might wait for the [$75,000] Spectacular Bid” at 6 ½ furlongs at Gulfstream Mar. 25.

Jockey Javier Castellano tried to engage Gunnevera (Dialed In) closer to the pace in the Holy Bull S., and even though they ended up second behind an undefeated winner, the colt really was never in his element being that close to the front vanguard. “To me, it was a winning race,” trainer Antonio Sano said. “On the last turn my horse was bumped and it broke the action of my horse.”

Baffert discussed tentative plans for other sophomores deeper down his depth chart: “Reach the World (Tapit), he’s doing well. He’s catching up with the rest of them. He’s a big horse that’s still growing into himself. I really don’t have anything long-range. I would say he’s going to go in one of those big races right before the Derby, either three weeks out or whatever. He’ll show up somewhere. Dabster (Curlin), same with him. He’s another one I’m just waiting on. Just growing, coming into his own. He had some back-to-back races there [disqualified from a Dec. 26 maiden win, then won maiden outright Jan. 16], so I don’t want to run him back again right away.”

It’s getting to that point on the Derby trail where new maiden-breakers might be arriving too late to be considered true Derby contenders from a seasoning standpoint, but the Feb. 18 Fair Grounds debut by ‘TDN Rising Star’ Souper Tapit (Tapit) deserves a mention. A month prior to his debut, trainer Mark Casse told TDN he thought this colt was “something special,” and Souper Tapit ran to expectations going a mile and seventy yards first time out. Favored and in no hurry leaving the gate, the chestnut launched a solid back-of-the-pack move a half mile out, then looped the leaders five wide before digging in responsively to duel the second favorite into a neck defeat, with the rest of the field 7 1/4 lengths in their wake.

 

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