Top Billing Shug McGaughey
Curlin—Parade Queen, by A.P. Indy
The truth is, I don’t feel comfortable putting him or anyone at No. 1. Just too many question marks, inactivity, and setbacks regarding the top contenders, and he moved up because he’ll now likely go in the Fountain of the Youth with Honor Code out, and he does appear to have as much potential as any of them, although he still has to prove it against stakes horses. So, although he appears to be the hype horse and hasn’t done enough to really qualify as a true No. 1, I feel his upside is sufficient for the time being, and for reasons stated below, I wasn’t comfortable keeping Cairo Prince there, although his credentials are much stronger at this point. The bottom line is, it is difficult evaluating the leading Derby contenders these days because they simply do not run enough times to be truly evaluated.
Cairo Prince Kiaran McLaughlin
Pioneerof the Nile—Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull
I can understand McLaughlin’s thinking in going straight to the Florida Derby (gr. I), especially with the colt having run 1 1/8 miles at 2, but my old-school thinking just can’t grasp having one race in 14 weeks going into to the Derby, especially when you’re dealing with the No. 1-ranked horse. With nine weeks to his next race, that’s just too much inactivity to occupy the top spot. To his credit, if any trainer can pull this off it is McLaughlin, who did wonders getting Invasor to the Breeders’ Cup Classic straight from the Whitney and almost pulled it off with Closing Argument. I’ll Have Another won the Derby off one race in 12 weeks, but he had much more of a stamina pedigree and his gallops were more like works and his works were more like races, and this is pushing it two weeks longer. Barbaro pulled off the Holy Bull to Florida Derby route, but the Holy Bull was run a week later and he had won the 1 1/8-mile Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 1. And he also was more geared toward stamina than Cairo Prince. As it is, I’m not thrilled about having horses who have had setbacks at No. 3 and 4 and I’m just not willing to keep him No. 1 for nine weeks without running.
Shared Belief Jerry Hollendorfer
Candy Ride—Common Hope, by Storm Cat
One of my biggest problems on this year’s Derby Dozen is filling this spot with anything even remotely informative. Until we learn more about the condition of his foot and any kind of timetable he may be on, there is simply little to say about him. Look, we know his talent level is through the roof and he is one horse on the Derby trail at this point with true star quality, but you know Hollendorfer is not going to push him to make the Derby, and because we know so little about his progress, I’ll keep him floating around up here until we know in which direction he’s going.
Honor Code Shug McGaughey
A.P. Indy—Serena’s Cat, by Storm Cat
The last thing we needed to hear after New Year’s Day and Shared Belief is that he’s missed training with a bruised foot and will pass the Fountain of Youth (gr. II). But he is back jogging, so that’s at least a step in the right direction. The Gotham (gr. III) may be next. He’s only had one 3-furlong breeze, so his setback came pretty much before he even got started. The best thing you can say about him right now is that Cairo Prince flattered his victory in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) even though third-place finisher Wicked Strong finished up the track in the Holy Bull. He still has tremendous potential and Shug doesn’t seem too worried, so, like Shared Belief, we’ll just keep him where he is for now, making the top of the list pretty iffy.
Conquest Titan Mark Casse
Birdstone—Miner’s Secret, by Mineshaft
A week after the Holy Bull, not much to report on him either. From a pedigree standpoint, the first three sires in his male line are all classic winners and the first three sires in his female family are all Horses of the Year. His dam also is inbred to Seattle Slew, so there is plenty of class and stamina in his illustrious pedigree. He’s been highly thought of his entire life. and now that he’s carved out a new running style, there is no reason why we shouldn’t see continued improvement.
Strong Mandate D. Wayne Lukas
Tiznow—Clear Mandate, by Deputy Minister
Followed up his sharp 5 furlongs in 1:00 2/5 with a bullet half in :48 3/5 in the slop, fastest of 52 works. Although several promising 3-year-olds have emerged at Oaklawn recently, I don’t see anyone down there who can match this colt’s brilliance and class. He seems to have it all together, but just needs to show that he can conserve his speed early and settle off the pace, and then finish. His Breeders’ Cup Juvenile defeat was a tremendous effort and an excellent learning experience.
Mexikoma Rick Mettee
Birdstone—Toccet Over, by Toccet
Continues to train sharply for his debut. Worked 5 furlongs in 1:01 3/5 in company, coming home in fast time, and his gallop-out for 6 furlongs was two-fifths faster than stablemate, Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. IT) third Brujo de Olleros, worked the full 6 furlongs. So, it’s all positive so far with this colt, who appears ready for a breakout performance. He’s in the patient hands of Mettee, who has years of experience training the Godolphin horses.
Midnight Hawk Bob Baffert
Midnight Lute—Miss Wineshine, by Wolf Power
Baffert had him break 6-8 lengths behind a workmate, and he wore him down to finish a half-length in front at the wire in 1:00 3/5. He was caught by a private clocker galloping out 7 furlongs in 1:26 2/5. Next stop the Robert Lewis Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 8. Baffert has been involved with a champion baseball coach and a world-class skier, and now he’s involved with a champion (Black Hawks) hockey coach and former professional football coach. Co-owner Mike Pegram is sitting on a gold mine with Midnight Lute, a son of his Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet. There is a good deal of mile speed in Midnight Hawk’s female family, but his dam’s broodmare sire, Cormorant, did sire Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin and pushed Seattle Slew through some torrid fractions in the Preakness before finishing fourth.
Vicar’s in Trouble Mike Maker
Into Mischief —Vibrant, by Vicar
Turned in a solid half-mile breeze in :49 2/5, his first work since his runaway LeComte score. The farther we get into the season, which isn’t very far, the more impressive he and that performance appear. Stamina a question, but there is some staying power, mainly through Vicar and Tank’s Prospect and that should help to some degree. He still has some learning to do with his lead changes, but sometimes when a horse totally dominates his field there is no need to change leads. However, you don’t want it to become a habit.
Candy Boy John Sadler
Candy Ride—She’s an Eleven, by In Excess
Continues to train sharply for the Robert Lewis, working 6 furlongs in 1:13. This follows a 6-furlong drill in 1:13 2/5 and a 5-furlong move in :59 3/5. Gary Stevens looks like he has a live one, who looks ready to catapult up the list. We know he has a monster middle move, which is good to keep in storage in case you need to pull it out, but for now you want to give him every chance, so watch for Stevens to wait until pulling the trigger.
Commissioner Todd Pletcher
A.P. Indy—Flaming Heart, by Touch Gold
Well, considering I moved Top Billing up to No. 1, it only made sense to move him up a notch as well. He tuned up for the Fountain of Youth with a sharp 5-furlong drill in 1:00 3/5. He hasn’t shown a quick turn of foot, but he sustains his run and keeps coming. From a personal standpoint, it’s great to see one of my all-time favorites, Touch Gold, back in a top-class horse’s pedigree. Perhaps broodmare sire will be more his game. He, like Honor Code, could have the A.P. Indy farewell karma going for him.
Intense Holiday Todd Pletcher
Harlan’s Holiday—Intensify, by Unbridled’s Song
With him, it’s all about steady improvement. I don’t know if he’s fast enough or talented enough to win the Derby, but never underestimate a horse who improves, even a little, with every race. He, like Giacomo, could wind up peaking on Derby Day. I still like to go back to that :46 1/5 half he ran in the body of the Holy Bull and the way he closed into blazing final fractions in the Remsen to finish fourth. Coming along the year after Shanghai Bobby, I can’t help but think of Darby Dan losing the brilliant and exciting Derby favorite Graustark, who broke a bone in the Blue Grass, and coming back the following year to win the roses with a 30-1 closer named Proud Clarion.
Knocking At The Door
It sounds odd saying this, but three of the most impressive 3-year-olds I’ve seen this year have been a California-bred and two New York-breds. I wanted very much to put CALIFORNIA CHROME in the Top 12, but I can’t justify taking someone off this quickly, and I need more space to write about him, so let’s consider him No. 13 for now, and not knocking, but pounding on the door.
I have not seen a 3-year-old this year more impressive than this colt. I watched all his races and loved everything I saw, especially the visual improvement in his last two starts – whether they were against Cal-breds or not. First off, forget about him being a Cal-bred. In the Cal Cup Derby he demolished a top-class horse in Tamarando, who had won a grade I and placed in two others and is one of the most consistent horses in the country and an explosive stretch runner.
In that race, California Chrome was caught looking to his left at the break and stumbled slightly, breaking awkwardly and bearing out and bumping with the outside horse. After going a bit wide into the first turn, he settled beautifully in third, and then at the five-sixteenths pole he unleashed an impressive turn of foot all on his own without being asked even slightly. He inhaled the leaders in a flash and cruised to the lead with Victor Espinoza already looking back several times, then changed leads smoothly and on cue and drew off on his own. This horse is so smooth and has such a long fluid stride and levels off so beautifully he is a joy to watch. Tamarando made his typical late run, drawing 3 1/4 lengths clear of the pack, but could not make a dent in California Chrome’s lead. C.C. covered his fourth quarter, going from two lengths back to 5 1/2 in front in :24 1/5 before cruising home, throwing his ears around, in :06 2/5.
In his previous start, the King Glorious, you couldn’t have asked a horse to run any straighter down the stretch. He accelerates on his own at the right time, nearing the head of the stretch, and for a long-striding horse his lead changes are so smooth you can barely see him do it.
As for his two prior defeats, in the Del Mar Futurity he got shuffled back around the turn and was stuck in traffic with nowhere to go, losing valuable ground. In the stretch, he again was in tight quarters and the way he threw his head out so abruptly, he had to have gotten hit across the face with the whip of the jock inside him. He still was beaten only two lengths by Tamarando.
In the Golden State Juvenile, he broke from the rail and leaped in the air at the start, dropping back to last. He then got very rank and quickly passed horses, getting as close as third. He had his head up in the air turning for home and never really leveled off until it was way too late. This time, he was beaten three lengths.
Earlier on, in his last race before getting Lasix, the 5 1/2-furlong Willard Proctor Memorial at Hollywood Park, he got caught up in a three-horse speed duel through a torrid opening quarter in :22 flat and that is not his style at all.
This horse has already won at 4 1/2 furlongs, 5 1/2 furlongs, seven furlongs, and 1 1/16 miles and runs like he’s just getting started. His sire, Lucky Pulpit, is by Pulpit, out of a Cozzene mare, and what I love the most about his pedigree is that his dam is inbred (Rasmussen Factor) to the great Numbered Account (a daughter of Buckpasser) through her daughter Dance Number and son Polish Numbers. And his third dam is by English Derby and Washington D.C. International winner Sir Ivor.
I may be getting too high on this colt, and am drawn to him because he’s run eight times already and is trained by an old-school trainer in Art Sherman, but I do love everything about him and can’t wait to see him face many of California’s top Derby contenders in the San Felipe.
And I certainly wouldn’t give up on TAMARANDO as a serious Derby horse. He is dependent on pace and will win his share and lose his share, but he fires every time. By Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Bertando, he has a ton of top-class stamina in his female family.
Next we come to those battling New York-breds, and because of space I will go into more detail on them next week. But there is no doubt that SAMRAAT and UNCLE SIGH, who staged the duel of the year so far, have a great deal of quality, brilliance, and most of all courage. And all you have to remember for now is that they made their debuts against open company in a graded stakes and finished 10 1/4 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher. The time has come where it is pointless referring to these two as New York-breds. They are simply two talented horses, period.
I don’t know what to make of the Sam F. Davis, with the first four so close together at the wire. VINCEREMOS looks like the type who is never going to wow you, but just keeps running well enough to win. He’ll need to take another big step forward. HARPOON looks to have a ton of ability, but he’s still green and needs to get it all together in a hurry. What bodes well for him is that he makes mistakes and still wins or is right there.
Other horses to watch who are ready to make some noise are TONALIST, RIDE ON CURLIN, BOURBONIZE, MOSLER, BARATTI, and COOL SAMURAI. Proven stakes horses who have been working for their return are RISE UP and LOUIES FLOWER. Casiguapo is a bombs away sleeper who has knocked heads with a number of good horses and who recently turned in a bullet 5-furlong work in 1:01 2/5 at Calder.
HAVANA finally had his first work, breezing three furlongs in :37 3/5. By having to miss the Fountain of Youth and point instead to the seven-furlong Swale Stakes (gr. II) March 1, he would have to go into the Derby off only one two-turn race and only two starts. That is a tall order no matter who you are.
Doug O’Neill is still a believer in BOND HOLDER and is expecting big things from the son of Mineshaft in the Risen Star Stakes.