Classic Empire Mark Casse
Pioneerof the Nile—Sambuca Classica, by Cat Thief
Any of the top four horses could have been a legitimate No. 1, but it was decided on the champ because of one of my favorite handicapping tools for a winning horse – a huge gap between second and third in a large classy field, as was the case in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where it was 7 1/2 lengths between the gifted, but ill-fated runner-up Not This Time and dual grade I winner Practical Joke in third. To demonstrate the strength of the race, Classic Empire earned a 102 Beyer speed figure, a 14-point jump from his impressive victory in the Breeders’ Futurity. No Dozing, fourth in the Breeders’ Futurity, beaten four lengths, came back to finish a solid second to Mo Town in the Remsen Stakes. Wild Shot, third in the Breeders’ Futurity, also beaten four lengths, came back to finish second to McCraken, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, beaten 1 1/4 lengths. So the form of his races certainly has held up. What makes him so dangerous is his excellent tactical and high cruising speed, enabling him to be placed anywhere and handle any kind of pace. He looked to be in danger of becoming a problem child after wheeling and dumping his rider at the start of the Hopeful Stakes, but blinkers and maturity have turned him around, and he’s been nothing but professional since.
McCraken Ian Wilkes
Ghostzapper—Ivory Empress, by by Seeking the Gold
If you’re looking for the ultimate horse for course for the Kentucky Derby, you can’t do any better than this colt, who is 3-for-3 at Churchill Downs, winning at 6 1/2 furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/16 miles, all in the manner of a classic horse, complete with a devastating turn of foot. I have yet to find a flaw in him, and he does everything like the quintessential pro and doesn’t require the whip, winning his races under a hand ride. He showed his class from the start, getting trapped behind a wall of horses before patiently easing out for running room. Once clear he took off with an impressive burst of speed and drew clear. In the Street Sense, he was steered 6-wide turning for home and again accelerated away from his foes to win in a sharp 1:35 2/5. In the Kentucky Jockey Club, he was 4-wide on the first turn and then displayed an electrifying turn of foot on the far turn before splitting horses, easing out 5-wide and beating the hard-nosed Wild Shot with authority, having him measured all the way. He possesses a smooth, fluid stride, and Ian Wilkes has been here before with Street Sense. There is absolutely nothing not to like about this colt. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance he may meet Classic Empire in the Holy Bull, and we can only hope they’re both right there at the finish without gutting each other, and both remain the leading contenders. I would have loved to seen at least one of them return in a sprint to serve as a sharpener rather than continue their string of two-turn races.
Mo Town Tony Dutrow
Uncle Mo—Grazi Mille, by Bernardini
The top four horses are extremely difficult to separate; it’s splitting hairs. His maiden victory at a mile at Belmont stamped him as something special and raised expectations for the Remsen Stakes, and he came through brilliantly with an authoritative score, again demonstrating a smooth, efficient stride. Bred to run all day and trained by a terrific horseman in Dutrow, it’ll be hard for Pletcher to snatch John Velazquez away from this colt. I’m not a huge fan of running 2-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles unless you come back at 3 with a sprint sharpener, but that would seem unlikely. A race like the Remsen indicates stamina, but it can also dull a young horse going that long in 1:14 and 1:38 4/5 and then coming back in more two-turn races at 3. Like Classic Empire, he has excellent tactical speed and can maintain it a long way. Right now, I would gladly take any of the top 3 as my future bet; they are that close. Classic Empire has faced better overall quality, but there is a good gauge in No Dozing, who was fourth in the Breeders’ Futurity, beaten four lengths by Classic Empire, and second, beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Mo Town in the Remsen.
Mastery Bob Baffert
Candy Ride—Steady Course, by Old Trieste
Baffert has been extremely high on this unbeaten colt since day one and his 3-for-3 record speaks for itself. He showed extraordinary speed in his debut, winning under a hand ride in 1:09 3/5 and earning a 93 Beyer. Two races later he dominated his foes in the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity, going two turns for the first time, but against only four questionable opponents. He hasn’t faced anything near the quality of the top eastern horses. Pedigree-wise, stamina is not a sure thing as it is the top three, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see him stretch out effectively considering he has the look of stayer and tremendous extension to this stride, which is extremely smooth and efficient. His coat is rich in color and has a brilliant sheen to it. The best part of the Los Al Futurity was the visual aspect of it, and I love the way he was striding out in the stretch, as he did in the Bob Hope Stakes. He possesses sprint speed, but demonstrated his ability to rate just off the pace, even if it was briefly. Right now he is the most accomplished of Baffert’s Derby contenders.
Practical Joke Chad Brown
Into Mischief—Halo Humor, by Distorted Humor
The big question with him is how far he wants to go, as there are several speed influences in his pedigree and nothing that shouts stamina other than being inbred 5x5 to Halo. But I am ranking him this high because of his class and courage under fire, and having won the two most historic 2-year-old stakes in New York, the Hopeful and Champagne, both of which he won on sheer guts. But many feel he won the Hopeful only because Classic Empire self destructed at the break, throwing his rider. He did out-duel the speedy Syndergaard in the Champagne in one of the most exciting races of the year. Although Syndergaard was praised for his courage after battling through fast fractions, Practical Joke did not receive the recognition he deserved, rallying from nine lengths back and beating a brilliant horse after a testing stretch battle in the final furlong. And he ran the mile in a brilliant 1:34 3/5, two-fifths off Devil’s Bag’s stakes record. Although he failed to threaten Classic Empire and Not This Time in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, finishing a distant third, he had to alter course twice when horses drifted in front of him and finished well clear of the fourth horse. And there is no doubt the Champagne took a lot out of him, as it did Syndergaard, who was beaten 13 1/2 lengths in the Juvenile. He just started back working and bears watching, despite the distance question. He still hasn’t won going two turns, and must show he can come home stronger than he did in the BC Juvenile.
Gormley John Shirreffs
Malibu Moon—Race to Urga, by Bernstein
I admit I wasn’t sure what to do with this colt. He did bounce back from his dismal effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with a game victory in the Sham Stakes in a sharp 1:35 4/5 over a sloppy sealed track that had been drenched with rain, But with a grade I victory around two turns at Santa Anita under his belt, should he have had as much trouble as he did with American Anthem, a horse with only one six-furlong maiden race under him, who battled head and a head with him on the lead through a testing half in :45 2/5 and nearly came back to beat him? American Anthem apparently is one of Baffert’s best young horses, and Gormley did rate just off the pace early for the first time in his career before engaging American Anthem on the backstretch. And let’s not forget that he did win the grade 1 Frontrunner Stakes by three lengths coming off a single maiden score at 6 1/2 furlongs. Shirreffs is a master at being patient with horses and he will manage him carefully. There is a good deal of grass in his pedigree, but plenty of class and stamina, tracing to the great mare Estrapade and one of the top stamina influences, Vaguely Noble. He still needs to learn to sit back a little longer and conserve his speed if he wants to carry it 10 furlongs.
American Anthem Bob Baffert
Bodemeister—Indy’s Windy, by A.P. Indy
I didn’t know what to expect from him in the Sham Stakes after winning his debut by a neck going six furlongs, in which he staged a strong rally in the final furlong, despite never changing leads. Breaking from the rail in the Sham, he charged to the lead and dug in gamely when challenged by Gormley, just missing by a head. This time he changed leads on cue and showed tremendous tenacity against a horse who had already been two turns twice, winning a grade 1 and competing in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Both his grandsires are Belmont Stakes winners and his female family has plenty of stamina through Quack, T.V. Lark, and Cloudy Dawn, tracing to Aunt Tilt, a half-sister to Damascus, by English Derby, St. Leger, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth winner Tulyar. Baffert already has Mastery, and if Beach Bum and some of the others progress, he’ll have to do his usual traveling to keep them separated.
Uncontested Wayne Catalano
Tiz Wonderful—Galileo’s Star, by by Lil E. Tee
I normally would be reluctant to bunch three horses together who have yet to prove they are comfortable rating off the pace going two turns, but this colt has such a huge, bounding stride and was in such control of the Smarty Jones Stakes, I have no doubt he will rate behind horses when asked to. From a physical standpoint, he is as visually impressive as any 3-year-old I’ve seen this year, and kind of reminds me of the brilliant Lost Code, with his imposing dark bay frame, braided mane, and free-running style. To see him loping along on the lead nearing the quarter pole of the Smarty Jones while a very talented colt in Petrov was under a full-out drive trying to catch him, but actually losing ground, was extremely impressive. There is nothing about him to suggest he won’t carry his speed long distances -- his paternal grandsire, Tiznow, is a two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, and his maternal grandsire, Lil E. Tee, is a Kentucky Derby winner. He demonstrated his raw speed in his career debut, winning by 6 lengths in a blazing 1:15 4/5 for the 6 1/2 furlongs. He was rushed into the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and had to break on the far outside from the 12-post. He tired late to finish a decent fourth behind McCraken. If he shows he can rate off the pace, even a little, in the Southwest Stakes, were talking serious Derby horse. But even as a speed horse I wouldn’t want to mess with him on the lead or have to chase him. A huge bargain, selling as a yearling for only $20,000.
No Dozing Arnaud Delacour
Union Rags—Stay Awake, by Pulpit
One can only speculate where this colt would have finished had he not lost tons of ground in both the Breeders’ Futurity and Remsen Stakes, yet he still finished a solid fourth and second, respectively, putting in a strong move on the turn in both races. Prior to that he was impressive in two sprint victories at Delaware and Laurel. In the Breeders’ Futurity he was fanned seven-wide on the first turn before making a strong middle move and then making another run to reach contention. It was no surprise that he was unable to sustain his run, but still on to finish a respectable fourth. In the Remsen, he was pushed out five-wide on the first turn and was wide every step of the way. He again made a big run on the turn and ran on strongly in the stretch, but was unable to match strides with Mo Town, while finishing well clear of 4-5 favorite Takaful in third. Delacour is a rising force as a trainer and maintains a top-class operation at Fair Hill during most of the year. He is inbred to Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew and traces to English Derby, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and 2,000 Guineas winner Nashwan and also to the blue hen producer Toll Booth, Broodmare of the Year and dam of seven stakes winners.
Gunnevera Antonio Sano
Dialed In—Unbridled Rage, by Unbridled
Versatile enough to win from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, winning stakes at Saratoga and Delta Downs and breaking his maiden at Gulfstream. His last to first explosion in the Delta Downs Jackpot was as powerful a move as you’ll see from a 2-year-old. When he was set down nearing the far turn, he quickly leveled off and blew by the entire field before drawing well clear to win by almost 6 lengths. In his Saratoga Special victory he crushed Sonic Mule by almost 19 lengths and Sonic Mule has come back to win three in a row, including the recent Mucho Macho Man Stakes. His pedigree is inundated with stamina top and bottom, and is loaded with champions and classic winners, so there is no question he will continue to stretch out effectively. So far, he looks to be the biggest bargain of the bunch, selling as a yearling at Keeneland for a mere $16,000.
Guest Suite Neil Howard
Quality Road—Guest House, by Ghostzapper
There would be no more popular trainer to win the Derby than Howard, especially for Will Farish, and he’s on the right path with this consistent geldiing, who has won at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and most recently Fair Grounds, where he captured the LeComte Stakes in fine style, handling that long stretch very well after taking the lead nearing the eighth pole. Behind him were a pair of promising colts in Untrapped and Takeoff. We haven’t brought up the Derby gods penchant for rewarding owners and trainers who have paid their dues and put a great deal into the sport for many years. But with Howard and Farish, we’re looking at a Mack Miller—Paul Mellon kind of result, as we saw with Sea Hero. Guest Suite certainly has the credentials, having won at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and Fair Grounds. His only defeat in his last four starts came at the hands of McCraken in the Street Sense Stakes, where he finished a solid third, rallying from fifth in the final furlong. His second dam, Welcome Surprise, is a half-sister to A.P. Indy and Summer Squall, who Howard saddled to win the 1990 Preakness.
El Areeb Cathal Lynch
Exchange Rate—Feathered Diamond, by A.P. Indy
I was torn whether or not to include him in the Top 12. A son of Exchange Rate who debuted at 4 1/2 furlongs at Parx is not exactly the kind of horse I’d put in the Dozen, but his two sprint victories at Laurel were brilliant and he followed that up by stretching out to two turns in the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, romping by 11 1/4 lengths in the mud and doing it with style. So he has rattled off three consecutive dominating performances. What was striking about his Jerome victory was the ease with which he blew by the even-money favorite Takaful, who for whatever reason stopped to a walk on the muddy, sealed track. I also liked the fact that he crushed Win With Pride by more than a dozen lengths, and Win With Pride was coming off a decent fourth in the Remsen Stakes at odds of 40-1. Exchange Rate, however, as solid a sire as he was, never produced a horse who wanted any part of 1 1/4 miles, but some were effective up to 1 1/16 to 1 1/8 miles and he does have a strong female family, with a number of top-class Canadian horses present. So the jury is still out on him.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
Graham Motion has two colts to watch, and as of now it doesn’t look as if he can separate the two. One of them, IRISH WAR CRY, is a horse I was all prepared to put in the Top 12 after being blown away by his sensational maiden victory. Taken back to ninth, 8 lengths off the pace, the son of Curlin put in a spectacular wide run on the turn, blowing by horses one by one before being carried 8-wide turning for home. Despite racing a bit greenly in the stretch, he drew off with ease to win by 4 1/2 lengths in 1:10 3/5, earning an excellent 83 Beyer. With his stamina-oriented pedigree, there was no telling what we were dealing with. He’s the only horse I actually tweeted about after his maiden win. But in his next start, the seven-furlong Marylander Stakes, it was a huge surprise to see him so rank early, charging to the front while fighting his rider and under hard restraint. Even Motion admitted he was surprised. To his credit, he did settle into stride once clear and dug in gamely when headed by the newly blinkered O Dionysus, out-dueling him to the wire to win in a sprightly 1:22 3/5, while coming home his final furlong in a hair under :12 flat. But then O Dionysus was defeated at 2-5 in the Frank Whitelely Stakes at the same distance, which complicated matters even more. So far, we’ve seen two totally different horses, and it’s time to move him up in company and see just who the real Irish War Cry is and whether he can revert back to his maiden race and look more like a classic-type horse. That will come in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay. One would think two turns will help and I expect to see a much more professional horse next time, and that likely will put him in the Dozen.
The other colt Motion is high on is PAINTER’S RAGS, a son of Union Rags who was impressive breaking his maiden at a mile in his career debut in the mud. He’s had one solid work at Palm Meadows and Motion will look for an allowance race at Gulfstream Park.
One horse I was tempted to put in the first Dozen, but just didn’t have the room, is the Smarty Jones runner-up PETROV. I was very impressed with his maiden victory at Churchill Downs in his career debut, when he launched a powerful move in the stretch to make up a 4 1/2-length deficit at the eighth pole. He rallied again in his next start, but ran like a horse who wanted two turns. In the Smarty Jones, he had the unenviable task of chasing Uncontested every step of the way, and did make a good move on the turn, pinning his ears and getting down and dirty. I love how hard he tried, and although he was no match for Uncontested, he finished 4 1/2 lengths ahead of the third horse. I believe this is a promising colt who you’ll be hearing from this winter and spring.
Another horse to watch at Fair Grounds, who should love the long stretch, is the late-closing LOOKIN AT LEE, winner of the Ellis Park Juvenile and a fast-closing second in the Iroquois and Breeders’ Futurity, beaten by Not This Time and Classic Empire, respectively. He is another who came close to making the Top 12. He concluded his 2-year-old campaign with a fourth, beaten 12 lengths, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The son of Lookin at Lucky has a classic pedigree top and bottom. We’ll see if he can stay a bit closer in his races. He’s had four works at Fair Grounds, including a pair of solid 5-furlong breezes at Fair and should be a factor in the Risen Star Stakes.
Still another right thee knocking on the door is Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up and Breeders’ Futurity third-place finisher WILD SHOT, who has been working steadily at Payson Park for trainer Rusty Arnold. The son of Trappe Shot, who broke his maiden sprinting at Churchill Downs, hung tough in both those stakes races against Classic Empire and McCraken. I’m not quite sure how much farther he wants to go, but he is a hard-running colt who gives his all every race.
Shug McGaughey got an early start on the Tampa Bay Derby path by sending out Stuart Janney III’s PROFITEER to an allowance victory at Tampa Bay going 1 1/16 miles on January 4. The neck score marked the son of War Front’s second straight score. McGaughey is stabled at Payson Park.
This time of year, the temptation is always strong to fall head over heels with some sensational maiden winner, especially trained by Todd Pletcher, whose horses always seem to run their butts off in January or thereabouts. But I have decided all these hot shot maiden winners, regardless of the trainer, are going to have to show me they can beat winners first, regardless of how spectacular they looked in January. These lightly raced horses are always playing catch-up, and like many others I fell for Pletcher horses such as Stradivari, who didn’t make it past June; Zulu, who didn’t make it past April (but is back now at 4), Outwork, who didn’t make it past May; Materiality, who didn’t make it past June; and Constitution, who didn’t make it past March (but came back at 4).
This year, Pletcher is back with several spectacular maiden winners, most notably BATTALION RUNNER, FAJA, and MALAGACY, who all look to have a bright future, but once again are behind and playing catch-up. Faja, a son of Bodemeister, broke his maiden by almost 9 lengths going a mile in December, so he is not playing catch-up as much as the others. That race should give him plenty of bottom and he definitely is one to watch. Pletcher also had an impressive maiden winner in ALUM, but he came back to finish ninth, beaten 11 lengths, in a seven-furlong allowance race. While Malagacy’s only start was a 15-length romp going 5 1/2 furlongs in a snappy 1:03 3/5 on Jan. 4, it was his career debut and he really has a lot of catching up to do. But Battalion Runner has two starts, both excellent performances, including an 8 3/4-length laugher in 1:22 4/5, under his belt, and there is nothing not to like about him. He also ran a big second in his career debut after having to check badly at the start, breaking well behind the field. He is an attractive son of Unbridled’s Song, out of a full-sister (by Tapit) to Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Tapizar. The question with him is whether he wants to go 1 1/4 miles, but he has all the tools. He’s a very handsome colt with a great hind end, but we'll see if he continues to stretch out effectively. He intrigues me, because I think he’s extremely gifted, and I loved his last work, but, again, I need to see him beat winners, which I believe he will do with no problem.
Pletcher does have a live one in FACT FINDING, a son of The Factor who is undefeated in three starts for Coolmore and Stonestreet, and winner of the Smooth Air Stakes by 7 lengths in the slop back in December. He’s been working great, recently turning in a bullet 5-furong breeze in 1:01, fastest of 21 works at the distance. Another who is on a three-race winning streak for Pletcher is SONIC MULE, winner of the Mucho Macho Man Stakes by a head over the Mark Casse-trained STATE OF HONOR, who was making his dirt debut. MASTER PLAN, an $850,000 2-year-old purchase was impressive winning Tuesday's OBS Championship. He previously had only raced on grass or slop, so this was his fast track debut. As for the aforementioned SYNDERGAARD, he has not worked since the Breeders’ Cup.
Speaking of impressive maiden winners, Bob Baffert has a runner in BEACH BUM, who looked great breaking his maiden by 5 1/4 lengths in November, but the son of Arch hasn’t worked since December 27, so as of now he would be hard-pressed to make the Derby. Also hard-pressed to make the Derby is AQUAMARINE, who was very professional breaking his maiden going 5 1/2 furlongs, but he likely would have only three starts before the Derby and not even having raced farther than 5 1/2 furlongs in mid-January. It would be a huge rush to get him there. Former Baffert horse, ILIAD, threw in a clunker in career debut against American Anthem last December, but rebounded only 15 days later with an impressive maiden score at Los Alamitos. Another Kaleem Shah-owned 3-year-old with whom Baffert had to part is Del Mar Futurity winner KLIMT, who ran terribly in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and hasn’t worked since December 28. He is now in the barn of Art Sherman. Baffert did have a recent winner in DABSTER, but that was a four-horse blanket finish in slow time over the deep Santa Anita surface, so there isn’t much to say about him.
The most recent brilliant maiden winner was BATTLE OF MIDWAY, a son of Smart Strike who won his career debut impressively this past Saturday for Jerry Hollendorfer and Rick Porter. But, with the colt on course to have only three career starts before the Derby, I would doubt they will rush him to make the race.
If you haven't watched HENCE's amazing maiden victory at Oaklawn yet, deinitely check it out. More on this colt and that race next week.
One horse I had hoped to put fairly high on the Top 12 since the Breeders’ Cup was the grass horse GOOD SAMARITAN, who not only has a strong dirt pedigree, he has a ton of class and is just a beautiful-looking colt. Although the eventual plan is to try him on dirt, he is getting a very late start and is nowhere near a work, so they are really behind the 8-ball with him and there is virtually no shot of making the Derby.
I have no idea what happened to HEMSWORTH in the Mucho Macho Man, in which the Godolphin colt was eased. This followed a stunning 9 1/2-length romp in the Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct while still a maiden. The good news is that the son of Bernardini returned to the work tab January 19, breezing a half in :49 2/5 at Palm Meadows.
Dallas Stewart was forced to scratch unbeaten Louisiana Juvenile Stakes winner SAINT’S FAN from the LeComte after the colt drew post 12 on the far outside. Stewart also owns the son of Tale of Ekati, and feels the Louisiana-bred has a bight future.
Remington Springboard Mile winner COOL ARROW returned to the work tab January 14, breezing a half in :50 1/5, after moving from Fair Grounds to the Evangeline Downs training center.
, the Florida-bred sensation who swept the Florida Stallion Series with three dominating victories before faltering in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, has been tearing up the Gulfstream track in the mornings, breezing 5 furlongs in :58 4/5 on January 14 and then coming back with a :58 3/5 breeze on January 21. Before heading to Santa Anita, the son of Gone Astray won his five starts at Gulfstream by an average margin of 6 lengths, including a 10-length romp in the In Reality Stakes, the final race of the series.