Texas Red Keith Desormeaux
Afleet Alex—Ramatuelle, by Jeune Homme
He’s been working steadily, with each work an improvement. Pace setup or no pace setup, he was spectacular in the BC Juvenile and had the race won by the quarter pole. Devastating turn of foot; reminds me of Afleet Alex in many ways. Bred to run all day and 3x4 inbreeding to Nureyev suggests tremendous heart capacity. Not only inhaled his opponents in BC he sliced through the field, blowing by eventual runner-up Carpe Diem like he was moving in slow motion. Interesting decision to bring him back in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes. I love it; just like the old school training when every top 2-year-old turned 3 (Triple crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Citation, Whirlaway, Assault, etc) debuted in a sprint just to sharpen them up. Whirlaway in fact ran in five sprints before returning to two-turn races. Keith Desormeaux may be new to the Derby trail but he’s following in some big footsteps. Those trainers had no fear of losing and knew how to use preps as preps; win or lose as long as they helped get you to the Derby in peak form…and sharp. Speed is essential in winning the Derby and the Triple Crown and too many 3-year-olds have their speed dulled with nothing but two-turn races, in which many peak too early.
American Pharoah Bob Baffert
Pioneerof the Nile—Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman
Putting him at No. 2 despite his injury, not scheduled to make his 3-y-o debut until March, and his one-dimensional style of running, all of which leave questions about how he will make the transition from 2 to 3. But superseding all that is the colt’s extraordinary talent and star potential and the subsequent success of the opponents he dominated last year, including Texas Red and Calculator. Haven’t seen Baffert this excited about a young horse in a long time. It’ll be interesting to see if the others have caught up with him come March. If he comes back the same as he was and learns to sit off the pace a little, we could have a bon a fide superstar on our hands. Baffert said he expects him to start breezing by the end of the month.
Calculator Peter Miller
In Summation—Back to Basics, by Alphabet Soup
Although he didn’t beat a stellar field in the Sham, the way he did it was flawless, and it was apparent he’s made great progress from 2 to 3. Overcame a very wide trip, changed leads and leveled off beautifully and was reaching out with authority at the wire, closing last half in a scintillating :47 4/5, while covering the mile in a sharp 1:34 4/5. He simply was outrun by American Pharoah in their two grade I encounters at 2, while still a maiden, although he did duck out 5 paths at the start of the Frontrunner from the far outside post, making his performance more impressive than it may look. He’s definitely on an upward spiral and I don’t believe he’s anywhere remotely close to peaking. Always looking for solid John Nerud breeding, especially through Fappiano, and both his maternal great-grandsires are two of Nerud’s greatest masterpieces, Cozzene and Unbridled, and his tail-female family also traces to the great Blue Hen producer Tamerett.
Dortmund Bob Baffert
Big Brown —Our Josephina, by Tale of the Cat
Undefeated in three starts, it’s difficult to find many flaws in him, although many expected him to win Los Alamitos Futurity more impressively. But he’s a huge long-striding horse who is not suited to those tight turns on a Quarter Horse track and he did not corner as well as he had in the past. So he gets a pass for only winning by a nose over Firing Line and Mr. Z, two very talented horses. Would like to see him drop his head and level off a little better, as he’s doing everything on sheer talent alone. He’s not the lightest horse on his feet, but let’s remember how awesome he looked in his first two starts, including a tour de force over the Churchill Downs surface. There’s no doubt he’s a natural. The Robert Lewis will be a big test for him, and we should see a smoother effort than we did at Los Alamitos.
Upstart Rick Violette
Flatter—Party Silks, by Touch Gold
If you want a visual picture of what a horse should look like making a successful transition from 2 to 3, you only need to look at his physical development and his huge effort in the Holy Bull Stakes. He established his class at the top level at 2 and has propelled it to new heights at 3. A bigger and stronger version of the juvenile who was so impressive in the Champagne and BC Juvenile, he did everything perfectly, showing good tactical speed and running away from a talented colt in Frosted. Actually thought his 105 Beyer might be a little too fast. You don’t want to hit your ceiling this early in the year, unless he’s so good he can move forward off it. But that is a big number first time out. His stride is reminiscent of another son of Flatter -- Flat Out. His third in the BC Juvenile should not go overlooked, as he broke from post 11, was caught 6 wide on the first turn, and was only 1 1/2 lengths off a :45 3/5 pace that killed off everyone else near the front end. He ran on and was just nipped on the wire for second. Grandsires both Belmont Stakes winners and love his inbreeding to Buckpasser and appearance of the gray beast, Drone, in his tail-female family. He’s bred to go long and right now he has to be considered the leading Derby prospect in the east.
Firing Line Simon Callaghan
Line of David—Sister Girl Blues, by Hold For Gold
Hard not to like this colt after his gutsy effort in the Los Alamitos Futurity, stretching out from two sprints and battling head and head every step of the way through rapid fractions and then fighting to the wire between two very good horses, while getting bumped soundly twice by Mr. Z. Smooth-striding colt who runs perfectly straight. Won maiden under wraps and was still so full of run coming back to the winner’s circle, Mike Smith had to grab hold of him to slow him down. Just has a look of class about him. Perhaps selling at public auction as a weanling, yearling, and 2-year-old has toughened him up. Showdown against Dortmund and Bolo in Robert Lewis could be a humdinger, with the winner becoming one of the early Derby favorites.
Bolo Carla Gaines
Temple City—Aspen Mountain, by Chief Seattle
This is my dark horse, and I’m banking on him handling the dirt as well as he’s handled the grass. His stay on the Dozen could be short, as he will face Dortmund and Firing Line in the Feb. 7 Robert Lewis, but if he runs to his dirt works and his pedigree it could be the beginning of a long stay. He just needs to be competitive against this bunch. Could all three of these horses remain on the list? Seems unlikely but you never know. What drew me to this colt was his brilliant turn of foot and smooth powerful strides and his overall appearance that suggests this is a very classy horse. When he’s been challenged nearing the top of the stretch, Mike Smith just moved his hands and he was gone, winning under a hand ride. As for the dirt, in addition to his rapid works, his dam is a half-sister to the dam of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and his broodmare sire, Chief Seattle, was one of the most brilliant 2-year-olds of his generation (finishing a strong second in the Champagne and BC Juvenile) before being sold to Godolphin for $4 million and then suffering a career-ending injury. And this colt reminds me of Chief Seattle, with his “Black Stallion” look. Let’s give him a shot and see if he can earn his way onto the list of leading Derby contenders.
Carpe Diem Todd Pletcher
Giant's Causeway—Rebridled Dreams, by Unbridled’s Song
I love the way this colt strides out in the final furlong and the way he flops his ears around as if he enjoys what he’s doing. His mechanics are as good as any 2-year-old seen last year. He didn’t have the turn of foot to match Texas Red in BC, especially coming from so far back. Bumping incident at the start cost him position and he fell way too far back for a horse with his tactical speed. He then pretty much blew the final turn, sweeping 10 wide, and still closed a ton of ground late to nip Upstart for second before galloping out some 10 lengths ahead of Upstart and eventually catching Texas Red midway on the turn. His first two starts are more indicative of where he wants to be and where he is most effective. In the Breeders’ Futurity he crushed Mr Z (by 6 1/4 lengths), who has come back to finish second by a nose in the Delta Jackpot and was beaten two noses by Dortmund and Firing Line in the Los Alamitos Futurity. Looks to be bred more for 1 1/8 miles, but runs like he wants to go on. The more I watch this colt’s races the more I like him.
Competitive Edge Todd Pletcher
Super Saver—Magdalena’s Chase, by Cape Town
Just because this handsome colt has been out of sight, out of mind since Labor Day, let’s not forget just how impressive he was breaking his maiden and romping in the Hopeful Stakes. He has everything you look for in a young horse – speed, class, looks, and pedigree, and does everything like a seasoned pro. Only concerns might be his :13 4/5 final eighth in the Hopeful, and although he doesn’t need the whip, John Velasquez has given him a pretty vigorous hand ride in his two races, despite his huge winning margins. You have to wonder if he gets a bit lazy once in front and needs to be kept after. Unlike stablemate Blofeld, he’s back on the worktab and is more than capable of shooting up the list once he returns.
Imperia Kiaran McLaughlin
Medaglia D'Oro—Cocoa Beach, by Doneraile Court
McLaughlin has a strong Godolphin package in this colt and Frosted. He gets the nod, even though he didn’t look quite as powerful visually in the Kentucky Jockey Club as he did in his grass races, despite his rally coming up only a nose short. But there is still plenty of room for improvement. He appeared to have El Kabeir measured and couldn’t gain on him until the closing strides when El Kabeir began to tire a bit. But for his dirt debut it was a very good effort and suggests a bright future on the dirt as well as grass. In his grass races he was relentless, building up power with each stride. Throw out the BC Juvenile Turf, as he was slammed into at the start and dropped way out of it, then was pretty much stopped twice down on the inside in the stretch and still was beaten less than four lengths. Awesome pedigree on both sides. Stablemate Frosted ran well enough in the Holy Bull, considering he was bumped at the start and didn’t seem suited to that pedestrian pace and short stretch. He’s been second in three of his last four starts and needs to show he can outrun classy horses in the stretch. Both colts have tremendous upside and should start moving forward.
Daredevil Todd Pletcher
More Than Ready—Chasethewildwind, by Forty Niner
Before we even get to the Derby, this horse could be a lock for the Wood Memorial. His trainer won the Wood, his jockey won the Wood, both his owners won the Wood, and his breeder won the Wood. With him, it’s simple; throw out the BC Juvenile and you have a heckuva good horse. Any horse who gets carried as wide as this colt did in the Juvenile has zero chance to win or even be around at the finish. And by wide I mean hung out to dry in the middle of the track for the first three-quarters of a mile. Put a line through that race and focus more on the ridiculous ease in which he won the Champagne Stakes over Upstart. The freshening he got after the BC looks to have done him a world of good. More Than Ready has yet to prove he can sire a classic-distance horse, but I really love his 3x4 inbreeding to Halo and Halo’s sire Hail to Reason. And his broodmare sire narrowly lost the Derby and won the Travers and his maternal great-grandsire won the Derby, so there is plenty there to suggest he can stretch out.
Ocho Ocho Ocho James Cassidy
Street Sense– Winner, by Horse Chestnut
Putting him in Top 12 in spite of his un-Derby-like name. I just can’t help but focus on his three extremely impressive victories. He has brilliant sprint speed, but can use it at any point in the race and is actually bred to run all day. That is a combination that’s difficult to overlook. He can blow you away as he did at Santa Anita, going in :43 4/5 and 1:08 1/5 and winning in 1:14 2/5 for 6 1/2 furlongs or he can look you in the eye and out-battle you, as he did against Mr. Z in the 1 1/16-mile Delta Jackpot after breaking awkwardly from the far outside, cutting across the track, making a big early move along the inside from fourth to the lead, then losing the lead to Mr Z and finally battling on tenaciously despite not changing leads. Second and third finishers from that race have come back to run big in stakes. Not concerned about the leads as he switched perfectly in his previous race; Corners beautifully, but still has a touch of greenness in him, although he’s is getting better with every race. Broodmare sire won the South African Triple Crown, and they don’t come much tougher than South Africans. Maternal great-granddam is the legendary Personal Ensign.
Knocking At The Door
Where to begin? First I have to say that I had originally intended to put the undefeated BLOFELD high on the list, possibly above the other Pletcher horses, but as we head into the last week of January and with still no works, I decided to put him on the back-burner and wait to see if there is any chance at all he can still be ready for the Derby. There simply are too many good horses to use up a space on a horse who hasn’t even worked yet. So, until he returns to the worktab, there is the Spectre of injury hanging over his head. But who knows, he could wind up as No. 1 before the first Saturday in May.
Bob Baffert will have a chance to get Texas Red’s 3-year-old campaign off on the wrong foot when he sends Peppers Pride’s son PUNCTUATE against him in the seven-furlong San Vicente next weekend. Although he’s made only one career start, Punctuate demonstrated an explosive stretch run sprinting, so perhaps he can match Texas Red’s closing kick, and sprinting certainly is not the BC Juvenile winner’s strong point.
If you’re looking for a dark horse from the Baffert barn, he hasn’t been saying much about Peachtree Stable’s LORD NELSON, but this colt really intrigues me. A son of Pulpit, out of a Seeking the Gold mare, he rallied in the final furlong to break his maiden first time out going five furlongs at Del Mar and then was thrown right into the grade I Frontrunner Stakes against American Pharoah, Calculator, and Texas Red going 1 1/16 miles and he still inished a solid fourth, two lengths behind Texas Red. He then dropped back to six furlongs and romped by 6 3/4 lengths in the Speakeasy Stakes at Santa Anita in 1:09 1/5. Baffert then shipped him to Churchill Downs for the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where he was the 7-5 favorite, but had a horrible trip, stumbling at the start, dropping far back and then being swung four-wide into the first turn. He turned in a huge sustained run on the turn, passing horses quickly and looking like he was going to be right there. But he got fanned seven wide and simply had little left in the stretch, finishing fifth of 11. He’s working well, he’s bred for stamina, and he’s shown excellent sprinting speed, but needs to have some luck go his way in the big two-turn races. An interesting horse to keep an eye on. He could be Baffert’s out-of-towner this spring.
Rick Violette has managed to get Upstart firmly planted on the Derby trail, but if only he could have gotten LEHIGH FIVE started earlier. Owned by My Meadowview Farm, who sent Samraat to the Derby last year, this colt looks like the real deal after crushing a maiden field at Aqueduct by 10 3/4 lengths going six furlongs. The Derby is quite a reach, but if you have a horse trying for the Triple Crown this year, you do not want to face “The Spoiler” in the Belmont Stakes. Lehigh Five’s sire, Birdstone, and broodmare sire, Touch Gold, both quashed the Triple Crown dreams of two of the most popular horses in the last quarter century – Smarty Jones and Silver Charm.
Speaking of Birdstone, Marylou Whitney looks to have a runner in GORGEOUS BIRD, a seven-length allowance/optional claimer winner on the Gulfstream Saturday card. The son of Unbridled’s Song is a beautiful moving horse with great extension to his stride and appears to be very light on his feet. He threw his head around at the start and dropped back to the back of the pack, but settled into stride nicely, then commenced his rally between horses before swinging to the outside, racing four-wide on the turn. He just coasted to the lead turning for home, changed leads on cue and kept increasing his lead with every stride, and then was under wraps in the closing stages. There is a lot to like about this colt, especially the way he moves so effortlessly. He just has to get faster if he’s going to be competitive against the top contenders. His second dam, Bird Town, was the champion 3-year-old filly and winner of the grade I Kentucky Oaks and Acorn Stakes, and is a half-sister to Birdstone.
In the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes, BARBADOS turned in a game effort, but he would have to show big improvement going two turns to be considered a Derby horse. His time was three-fifths of a second slower than Todd Pletcher’s $1 million first-time starter KHOZAN earlier on the card. Khozan is a half-brother to champion Royal Delta, but may have just a bit too much catching up to do. Also playing catch-up from the Pletcher barn is impressive maiden winner MATERIALITY, who won his debut going six furlongs. The one horse on Pletcher’s bench who is not quite playing catch-up is Starlight Stable’s ITSAKNOCKOUT, undefeated in two starts going seven furlongs and one mile, the latter a 5 1/4-length romp in a sharp 1:35 flat at Gulfstream. This came after a gutsy nose victory in which he hung on tenaciously. He gets stamina from sire Lemon Drop Kid and is inbred 4x5 to Buckpasser. He could be one race away from moving into Pletcher’s first tier.
Chad Brown has LEAVE THE LIGHT ON training lights out. Because he took advantage of a speed-favoring track in the Remsen Stakes, not many are mentioning him, but he did run a very gutsy race and is now two-for-two going two turns. I have him sitting just off the Top 12 and feel he’s a better horse than people give him credit for.
Also on Saturday, Fox Hill Farms’ EXODUS, who broke his maiden by 8 1/4 lengths at Fair Grounds going six furlongs, wound up at Sam Houston Saturday for the six-furlong Allen’s Landing Stakes. Although he wasn’t as dominant this time, winning on the front end by 2 1/4 lengths, coming home his last eighth in :13 4/5, he did beat a really good horse in Waging War, also a Fair Grounds winner, and it was 14 lengths back to the third horse. We’ll have to see if trainer Larry Jones stretches him out or keeps him sprinting. If he does stretch out and ever makes the Future Wager field, how about an exacta of Exodus and American Pharoah?
The Cal Cup Derby had more interest than usual this year because of California Chrome, but instead of seeing a Chrome-like romp we saw a gutsy battle through the stretch between MISCHIEF CLEM and PULMARACK, with the former coming again three times to eke out a nose victory. He’ll likely get his chance to advance on the Derby trail in the San Felipe Stakes.
Also knocking on the door are two of this year’s major stakes winners, Smarty Jones winner FAR RIGHT and LeComte winner INTERNATIONAL STAR. Both turned in solid efforts, but nothing head-turning, so we’ll have to wait until they move up to the next step before assessing them as major Derby contenders. Far Right confirmed his hard-luck third in the Delta Jackpot, in which he got stopped on the turn. He turned in a good rally up the rail in the Smarty Jones to win going away, but they came home in :26 3/5 and the race was pretty much given away by the even-money favorite MR Z, who ducked out badly in the stretch after appearing a sure winner, and kept bearing out while throwing his head up and basically losing his action. You can’t hold that against Far Right, who did what he had to, and he is capable of becoming a force on the Oaklawn Derby trail with continued progress. He’s run seven times in his career and hasn’t been worse than fourth.
You also have to watch EL KABEIR now that the son of Scat Daddy showed in the Jerome that he can win from off the pace. Others who have performed well in stakes this year are WAR STORY and TIZNOW RJ, second and third, respectively, in the Lecomte; Smarty Jones runner-up BAYERD; and Jerome runner-up NASA, a son of Smarty Jones owned by Smarty’s owner Pat Chapman. Out at Golden Gate on the Tapeta surface, the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained CROSS THE LINE turned in a solid effort to win the California Derby. If Kiaran McLaughlin has a good third-stringer right now it could be OCEAN KNIGHT, a son of Curlin who has won his only start in New York in December. Curlin also has CURLINO, who broke his maiden going two turns at Churchill Downs.
MADEFROMLUCKY came off a 4 1/2-month layoff last December to break his maiden in style by 4 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream stretching out to 1 1/16 miles. The son of Lookin At Lucky has had three nice works at Palm Beach Downs for John Mazza. If you’re looking for a vastly improved horse, the Tapit colt BLUFF came off two poor efforts to break his maiden by 5 3/4 lengths at Fair Grounds last week for Larry Jones and Fox Hill Farm. The same can be said for the Wayne Catalano-trained INSTANT REPLAY, who staged a strong stretch rally to win an Oaklawn allowance/optional claimer going 1 1/16 miles at odds of 12-1.
Looking ahead, Pasco Stakes winner CATALINA RED will try to make it three straight at Tampa when he runs in Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes. This will be the first two-turn test for the son of the speedy Munnings.