Cairo Prince Kiaran McLaughlin
Pioneerof the Nile—Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull
The key formula for selecting a No. 1 horse is running style plus temperament plus pedigree plus class at 2 and showing improvement at 3. Based on that, I have little choice but to put this colt on top right now after what we saw in the Holy Bull and the number of good horses he not only beat but dominated. His action isn’t the smoothest, but he runs perfectly straight and is extremely professional and although there isn’t great extension to his stride he still generates a lot of power. One can say the Holy Bull did more to flatter Honor Code, who is a striking individual on all fronts, but Honor Code is just back breezing now while Cairo Prince is already proven at 3. And Honor Code was getting six pounds from Cairo Prince in the Remsen, and that’s a lot going 1 1/8 miles; certainly enough in a finish that close. He also was giving the runner-up six pounds in the Holy Bull. All in all he’s a solid choice, he’s improving, but doesn’t have much more to improve, and it’s about time for the Derby gods to smile down on McLaughlin.
Top Billing Shug McGaughey
Curlin—Parade Queen, by A.P. Indy
I toyed with the idea of putting him No. 1, because I feel he’s the most promising 10-furlong horse I’ve seen this year and I cannot find a single fault in him. He has all the tools, his allowance score Saturday was flawless, and the best is yet to come. He won going away, and his final time was less than a second off the track record after going five wide. In all three of his races he’s shown a devastating turn of foot, and has taken both the outside and inside routes. He’s won in the slop and on a fast track, from 6 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles. In his second-place finish at 1 1/8 miles, beaten a half-length, he was coming off only one 6-furlong race in the slop at Laurel, while the winner had already won at 1 1/8 miles and put him in a tight squeeze twice in the stretch. By Curlin, his female family includes two Triple Crown winners, three Belmont winners, two English Derby winners, and a CCA Oaks winner. And his sire and broodmare sire are Breeders’ Cup Classic winners and Horses of the Year. He still has to step up into stakes company, and that’s probably the only thing preventing him from being No. 1. It’s a photo with Cairo Prince and he could displace him at any time.
Shared Belief Jerry Hollendorfer
Candy Ride—Common Hope, by Storm Cat
Really in a dilemma what to do with him. Talent-wise, he’s No. 1 by far, but foot abscess isn’t healing as quickly as hoped and forced him to miss his 3-year-old debut. Still plenty of time to have him ready, but this isn’t the way you want to start off. We do know he has a world of talent, and no one has come even remotely close to beating him, but have no idea what’s going on with him. Not much coming from his camp, so we’ll assume he’ll be fine for the San Felipe. He appears to have all the tools -- looks, pedigree, running style, and explosive acceleration, and who better to promote the game than Jim Rome. From the side, you have to love the way he drops his shoulder and covers ground down the stretch, exploding away from his opponents. But he does paddle his left front leg, which could mean absolutely nothing in the long run, but considering he hasn’t run on dirt yet and has already missed two works and a race, I figured I’d start him off at No. 3 and see how and where he goes from here. He was an easy choice for the top spot until the setback.
Honor Code Shug McGaughey
A.P. Indy—Serena’s Cat, by Storm Cat
The first time I laid eyes on this colt, in the paddock at Saratoga, I was awestruck by his appearance, and then awestruck again by his performance. Great story if he can get the now pensioned A.P. Indy that elusive Derby winner. After another breathtaking stretch run in the Champagne that came up just short, he showed his versatility and courage, sitting just off a sloth-like pace in the Remsen and then battling back after seemingly beaten to snatch victory over a top-class colt in Cairo Prince. If he has a fault I haven’t seen it yet, but he still has to make the all-important transition from 2 to 3 and we won’t likely see him until the Fountain of Youth, as he just started breezing, although he hasn’t worked since his Jan. 18 breeze. We hope to see him on the work tab in the next day or two. He and Top Billing give McGaughey quite a 1-2 punch, with the latter more likely to ship to either Tampa or out of state.
Conquest Titan Mark Casse
Birdstone—Miner’s Secret, by Mineshaft
This was my big sleeper going into the Holy Bull, and he’s now a sleeper no longer. With back-to-back big efforts using his new style of running he is the real deal. He has an awesome pedigree and push-button acceleration that he can sustain a long way. Throw out his earlier speed-crazy races. This is a new horse, as he’s shown how adaptable he is by switching his style so dramatically. He merely plays with older stakes horses in workouts, and Shaun Bridgmohan said he may be the best 2-year-old he’s ever ridden. Casse says he trains as good as any horse he’s ever had. He had no shot to win in the Holy Bull, giving the winner too big an advantage, but he ran like he was crying out for more distance. If you’re looking for a solid Future Wager horse at a decent price, this is the one you want to latch on to now.
Strong Mandate D. Wayne Lukas
Tiznow—Clear Mandate, by Deputy Minister
He has a world of ability, but needs to learn to settle early. His Hopeful victory was spectacular, and to me he ran the best losing race of anyone in the Breeders’ Cup. His third in the Juvenile was amazing after getting caught up in a sizzling pace. Breaking from post 13, he was rushed to the lead entering the backstretch through torrid fractions, looked like he was going to finish up the track when Havana ran right by him at the head of the stretch, but never quit and fought back to finish third, beaten only two lengths. He has the pedigree to go long and I like the way Lukas has been giving him fast and slow works, the latest being a sharp 5-furlong breeze in 1:00 2/5, fastest of 57 works at the distance. It won’t take much more to have him ready. If he’s progressed from 2 to 3, I haven’t seen anyone at Oaklawn yet that can warm him up.
Mexikoma Rick Mettee
Birdstone—Toccet Over, by Toccet
This colt could be a real sleeper. His race in the Breeders’ Cup was much better than it looks on paper and he’s only going to get stronger the farther he goes. He consistently flies home in his works, and in his mile maiden romp, he came home in about :24 flat, despite winning easily by almost 15 lengths. Loved the way he looked drawing off in the stretch. When Team Valor buys them, there’s usually something there. And when you have a horse who never gets tired, that’s a step in the right direction. He had to come from dead-last in the BC Juvenile, and when he swung out off the rail, he had nowhere to go and had his momentum stopped at a crucial point. Once he got clear and found his best stride, he closed powerfully and kept building up steam to the wire. There is no doubt he will relish longer distances. He could wind up in the Future Wager mutuel field, so there’s no bargain there. Vegas is the way to go if you can get down.
Midnight Hawk Bob Baffert
Midnight Lute—Miss Wineshine, by Wolf Power
Boy, has he taken abuse for his :13 2/5 final eighth in the Sham Stakes. Although coming home fast normally is a prerequisite for being a legitimate Derby horse, don’t be too alarmed, as this turned into a match race with Kristo in a four-horse field, and he was battling most of the way with the one horse he had to beat through some pretty stiff fractions. He did run his next-to-last eighth in :12 2/5 while putting Kristo away and then raced a bit greenly the rest of the way, easing in toward the rail. So, the belief here is that it was the race scenario more than anything that attributed to the slow final eighth, as well as it being only his second career start. Give him credit for beating a good horse who had a lot more bottom under him, having had three starts, breaking his maiden at 1 1/16 miles. One late note, I can’t remember the last time I saw a Baffert horse work 5f in 1:03 1/5.
Vicar’s in Trouble Mike Maker
Into Mischief —Vibrant, by Vicar
A Spendthrift Farm Louisiana-bred taking Fair Grounds by storm? As legendary British racecaller Peter O’Sullevan used to say following an extraordinary performance, “What manner of horse is this?” This colt’s runaway score in the LeComte was brilliant, and confirmed his demolition of state-breds by 13 lengths in his previous start. He was up against some talented colts like Albano and Gold Hawk in the LeComte, but blew them away, despite swerving out a bit and switching back to his left lead in the final sixteenth. We have no idea how good this horse is or how far he wants to go, but it’s going to be fun finding out. Looks like Rosie Napravnik has herself a real runner.
Candy Boy John Sadler
Candy Ride—She’s an Eleven, by In Excess
Really looking forward to his 3-year-old debut, especially the way he’s been working. He put in a spectacular middle move in the CashCall Futurity, which was way too early, and he was inhaled by Shared Belief, which is no disgrace. He still ran on well to finish second, ahead of some pretty classy horses. You can bet Gary Stevens knows him a lot better now. He’s been improving with every start, and was impressive blowing away the field in his 8 1/4-length maiden score going 1 1/16 miles. No worries about stamina, so distance will not pose a problem. All in all, a solid colt with great promise who should return in top form in the Robert Lewis Stakes Feb. 8.
Intense Holiday Todd Pletcher
Harlan’s Holiday—Intensify, by Unbridled’s Song
This colt’s career so far is a perfect example of having patience and letting a horse develop at his own pace. He never showed a lot of speed, but kept slowly moving forward, and here he is finishing a strong third in the Holy Bull Stakes. He’s now been on the board in the Holy Bull, Remsen, and Nashua, and looks like the type that is always going to give you that good solid run down the stretch. Reminds me of a Giacomo type. The best part about his Holy Bull was the big run he made on the far turn. He wasn’t able to sustain that strong a run and was no match for the winner, but I believe the reason he couldn’t sustain it was the :22 4/5 third quarter he ran making that run, and that came after a :23 2/5 quarter. When you run a :46 1/5 half in the body of a race, it’s not easy to sustain it. If he keeps progressing like he has, he should give Starlight a legitimate Derby starter after their disappointment last year with Shanghai Bobby.
Commissioner Todd Pletcher
A.P. Indy—Flaming Heart, by Touch Gold
If you’re wondering why Top Billing is No. 2 and he’s No. 12 after beating him, it’s because of the reasons stated above – he had a big edge in fitness and experience and was getting four pounds. But there is very little separating 2 and 12. He’s by a Belmont winner, out of a dam by a Belmont winner, so distance will not be a problem, especially having already won two 1 1/8-mile races. Perhaps that is why he didn’t work for over three weeks after his last race, while Top Billing came back and ran three weeks later. But he did have his first work Sunday and looks to be back in business. He appears to be more of a grinder who is hard-ridden a long way out, but can just keep coming. Now that’s he’s worked, he very likely will move up the list in the weeks to come.
Knocking At The Door
Conspicuous by his absence, for now at least, is HAVANA, and the only reason for that is the fact he hasn’t worked since the BC Juvenile. But once he does hit the work tab, he will immediately jump into the Top 12.
He really didn’t get the recognition he deserved for his brief, but brilliant, 2-year-old campaign. Because of his blazing speed going 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:02 3/5 and almost blowing a big lead in the Champagne after a :45 2/5 half, many feel he won’t stretch out to classic distances, but I was a big fan of his sire, Dunkirk, who did battle back to finish second in the Belmont Stakes, and his broodmare sire is from a strong Darby Dan family. Although he was caught in the BC Juvenile, he blew by Strong Mandate after pressing a :45 1/5 and 1:09 3/5 pace and still held well for second. If he can harness that speed, he has the raw talent to be any kind. Keep watching that work tab.
In addition to Havana, Intense Holiday, and Commissioner, Pletcher has several lightly raced horses who could be any kind, including HARTFORD, HARPOON, MATTERHORN, and CONSTITUTION. It wouldn’t surprise me if one or more of these colts develop into major stars; that’s how impressive they looked in their maiden wins.
I also had a tough time keeping the Bob Baffert colt INDIANAPOLIS off the list after his impressive score in the San Pedro. But he hasn’t been past six furlongs and he beat only three horses, and two of them had nothing to recommend them. So we’ll wait for him to stretch out against top horses and see just how good he is. Certainly the potential is there, and his tail-female family traces to the immortal Gallorette. I’m also anxious to see Baffert’s once heralded TAPIT IT RICH debut after his ugly debacle in the CashCall Futurity, in which he totally self-destructed. Baffert also is playing catch-up with impressive maiden winner BAYERN, who really caught the eye going seven furlongs in his career debut.
Another colt I’m keeping a close eye on, and who almost made the Top 12, is the nine-furlong maiden winner TONALIST, a rare Derby trail horse from the barn of Chris Clement. I loved his last race at Gulfstream, especially the wide sweeping move he made on the turn and the way he kept getting stronger, drawing off in the final furlong. He has a super pedigree and definitely is one to watch.
An intriguing horse in Cal Cup Derby winner CALIFORNIA CHROME, who, visually, has looked very impressive in his last starts, but his two worst races have come in open company, so he still has to show he can beat horses other than Cal-breds. He did soundly defeat the top-class TAMARANDO, who had won or placed in three grade I stakes, so there is something there.
Also sitting within striking range of the Top 12 are RISE UP, RIDE ON CURLIN, BOND HOLDER, NOBLE CORNERSTONE, NOBLE MOON, TAPITURE and a pair of exciting New York-breds, SAMRAAT and UNCLE SIGH, slated to meet in Saturday’s Withers Stakes, where something’s got to give between these two knockout artists.