TDN Derby Top 12: The Strong Get Stronger
By T. D. Thornton
Several contenders at the top of this week’s rankings solidified their status, but one new shooter debuted at No. 4 to add some intrigue as we edge past the 90-day mark to the GI Kentucky Derby.
1) ARABIAN KNIGHT (c, Uncle Mo–Borealis Night, by Astrology) ‘TDN Rising Star‘. O-Zedan Racing Stables, Inc.; B-Corser Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $250,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP; $2,300,000 2yo ’22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $544.275 Last start: 1st GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn Park, Jan. 28. KY Derby Points: 0.
Arabian Knight’s thorough ransacking of the GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn Jan. 28 effectively slammed the door on any early-season debate about whether or not this ‘TDN Rising Star’ would live up to the outsized hype heaped upon him after just a single sprint win three months ago.
This speed-centric, sales-topping son of Uncle Mo ($250,000 KEESEP, $2.3 million OBSAPR) not only wired the field with aplomb, but he checked a lot of boxes on the Derby intangibles list, including shipping away from his home base, handling both a sloppy racing surface and two turns, and showing that being confronted with multiple tactical in-race challenges didn’t faze him in the least.
Arabian Knight broke fluidly and willingly, then effortlessly cleared the pesky 46-1 Frosted Departure (Frosted), who had inside position. Splashing onto the backstretch, Arabian Knight was looking around “a lot” according to jockey John Velazquez, who moved him off the rail to relax, maintaining a steady leading margin of 1 1/2 lengths into the far turn. The second and third favorites launched one-punch bids that soon flattened out, but the overachieving Frosted Departure was still gamely shadowing the 2-5 fave, having whittled down the lead to half a length at the head of the homestretch.
Velazquez then got after his colt, but Arabian Knight only needed two cracks of the crop and some mild hand-urging to mesh into an unmatchable deep-stretch gear that surely did not come close to scraping the bottom of his stamina reserves. “Going to the wire I was like, ‘Okay, that’s what I wanted to see,” Velazquez said post-win.
It’s tough to tease out any “cons” to go along with all these gushing “pros” about Arabian Knight’s sophomore unveiling. If there is one, it might be a very mild quibble about the Beyer Speed Figure he earned (96), which marked a slight regression from his 97 debut in a MSW on the Breeders’ Cup undercard back in November
2) FORTE (c, Violence–Queen Caroline, by Blame) ‘TDN Rising Star‘. O-Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable; B-South Gate Farm (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $80,000 Wlg ’20 KEENOV; $110,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 5-4-0-0, $1,595,150. Last start: 1st GI FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by TAA, Nov. 4. KY Derby Points: 40.
Divisional champ Forte (Violence) is three workouts into his training for the Mar. 4 GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream. Even though this ‘TDN Rising Star’ ($80,000 KEENOV; $110,000 KEESEP) capped his 2-year-old season with a definitive win in the Breeders’ Cup, proponents of key races have long since locked in on Forte’s other Grade I route victory, the Oct. 8 Breeders’ Futurity S., as the defining stakes race on the Derby trail so far.
In addition to Forte’s next-out tally in the GI Juvenile, that Keeneland race also yielded back-to-back next-out Grade II and III stakes winner Instant Coffee (Bolt d’Oro); the next-out Grade III winner Two Phil’s (Hard Spun); the eventual Grade III winner and ‘TDN Rising Star’ Newgate (Into Mischief); one other next-out listed stakes winner, and a next-out allowance winner. In addition, the runner-up in that race, the highly acclaimed Loggins (Ghostzapper), who has yet to have a published workout in 2023, rates highly on many “wiseguy” lists as the juvenile who ran the best losing effort in a Grade I stakes last season.
There have now been 11 Kentucky Derby qualifying points races run at 1 1/16 miles. No Derby prospect since has eclipsed Forte’s 100 Beyer from that race (although two have tied it), and his closing final-sixteenth fraction of :6.19 in the stretch run of the Juvenile is still fastest among the 1 1/16-mile preps.
3) TAPIT TRICE (c, Tapit–Danzatrice, by Dunkirk) ‘TDN Rising Star‘ O-Whisper Hill Farm LLC and Gainesway Stable (Antony Beck); B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds Ltd. (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $1,300,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 3-2-0-1, $100,150. Last start: 1st GP Allowance/Optional Claiming, Feb, 4. KY Derby Points: 0
Trainer Todd Pletcher has been known to make judicious use of Florida allowance races in prepping his Derby prospects, and Saturday’s eight-length blowout in a one-turn mile at Gulfstream left the impression this $1.3-million KEESEP colt by Tapit has the athleticism and confidence to be a major player when assigned a two-turn stakes task.
Breaking from the rail as a first-time Lasix user Feb. 4, Tapit Trice (again) was a touch slow leaving the gate. Luis Saez swooped him out to the five path, and this assertive gray picked off half the pack to carve out a sweet stalking spot, gaining incrementally down the long backstraight run. Tapit Trice built up serious momentum by the five-sixteenths pole, and when he accosted his favored stablemate for the lead, he managed to dispatch him without serious tussle.
Slicing into the home stretch with no rivals left to conquer, Tapit Trice got to gawking a bit, but Saez refocused him with one stern right-handed swat nearing the furlong marker before finishing under a moderate drive.
The 92-Beyer win generated no shortage of speculation about how Tapit Trice might have prevailed had he instead been entered in the GIII Holy Bull S. over 1 1/16 miles that same afternoon. But his first-level allowance win will prove useful in the long run considering this colt still needs to work on alertness out of the gate, a minor issue that up to this point has been overcome by raw ability and prime positioning in one-turn miles.
4) ROCKET CAN (c, Into Mischief–Tension, by Tapit) O-Frank Fletcher Racing Operations Inc.; B-Woodford Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Bill Mott. Sales history: $245,000 RNA Ylg ’21 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: 5-2-1-0, $249,738. Last Start: 1st GIII Holy Bull S., Feb. 4. KY Derby Points: 20.
Rocket Can, a $245,000 FTSAUG RNA, is a good example of a Derby prospect whose visual impressions rate quite a bit higher than the speed numbers he’s earned in those races.
The 82-Beyer victor of Saturday’s Holy Bull S. gave up considerable ground on both turns while always being within three lengths of striking distance from the leaders. Urged five-sixteenths out by Junior Alvarado, Rocket Can responded on cue, seizing the lead off the turn and remaining mentally intent through the stretch, maintaining a three-quarter length winning margin with a bearing-down stablemate hot on his heels.
Starting with a switch to routes in his third start, trainer Bill Mott has developed an efficient gray who now comes out running to establish key positioning, knows how to pounce off the far turn, and without hesitation throws himself headlong into deep-stretch showdowns.
Rocket Can’s mid-pack tactics in the Holy Bull were also against the grain of Gulfstream’s short-stretch track layout for 1 1/16 miles, which had him starting from the outermost post very close to the first turn in a race that ends at the sixteenth pole. And he did his job while overcoming a moderate tempo that did no pace favors to aid his stalking style.
5) BANISHING (c, Ghostzapper–Dowager, by A.P. Indy) O/B-Godolphin (KY); T-Brendan Walsh. Lifetime Record: 2-1-0-0, $42,000. Last start: 1st Fair Grounds Maiden Special Weight, Dec. 26. KY Derby Points: 0.
Banishing has resumed training after getting cast in his stall Jan. 20, requiring sutures to close a hind-leg cut.
Trainer Brendan Walsh told Daily Racing Form last week that “nothing has been ruled out or ruled in” as far as the next race for this Godolphin homebred. He had been slated to start favored in allowance/optional claimer at Fair Grounds the day after his accident, but had to scratch.
With a pedigree that looks more tantalizing the closer we get to 10 furlongs on the first Saturday in May (by Ghostzapper out of an A.P. Indy mare), this chestnut with a distinctive white blaze won at second asking on Dec. 26 over 1 1/16 miles in New Orleans, bounding home by 8 1/2 lengths and earning a 90 Beyer for the effort.
He was a front-running force in that race, displaying measured speed while edging away under pressure before cracking open the race late. His final time of 1:44.80 was .05 seconds faster than the same-distance Gun Runner S. for more experienced juveniles four races later on that card.
6) CAVE ROCK (c, Arrogate–Georgie’s Angel, by Bellamy Road) ‘TDN Rising Star‘. O-Michael E. Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman; B-Anne and Ronnie Sheffer Racing LLC (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $210,000 Wlg ’20 KEENOV; $550,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 4-3-1-0, $748,000. Last start: 2nd GI FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by TAA, Nov. 4. KY Derby Points: 0.
It’s rare when you encounter a pedigree with a breeding line that features a sire (Arrogate at 122) and damsire (Bellamy Road at 120) who both posted stratospheric Beyer figures of at least 120 during their racing careers.
Cave Rock himself ($210,000 KEENOV; $550,000 KEESEP) uncorked a 101 Beyer in his 6 1/2-furlong sprint debut last summer at Del Mar, and he upped the ante to 104 with a dominant win in the GI American Pharoah S. at Santa Anita.
He was then a beaten favorite with reasonable excuses in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (hot and bothered pre-race, worked too hard through quick opening quarter).
But those imposing stats all start to fade in relevancy the longer this ‘TDN Rising Star’ remains without a published workout. As of Monday morning, he’s the only Top 12 contender yet to hit the worktab this year, and trainer Bob Baffert now faces a race against the clock to launch a campaign that includes at least one prep race between now and May 6.
7) FAUSTIN (c, Curlin–Hard Not to Like, by Hard Spun) ‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Michael L Petersen. B-DATTT Farm (Ky). T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $285,000 RNA yrl ’21 KEESEP; $800,000 2yo ’22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 1-1-1-0, $80,200. Last start: 2nd GIII San Vicente S., Jan. 29. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
On the face of it, ‘TDN Rising Star’ Faustin’s second-place finish in the four-horse, seven-furlong Jan. 29 GII San Vicente S. was only a so-so effort. But from a longer-term developmental perspective, the race could still end up being a useful stepping-stone.
The winner was his stablemate, Havnameltdown (Uncaptured), who looks, acts, and performs like a true one-turn stakes colt. Havnameltdown also had everything his own way on the front end, and while Faustin did show some flashes of interest–like diving into an opening at the rail when jockey Ramon Vazquez shook the reins to cue him three-eighths out–this son of Curlin (out of a Hard Spun mare) clearly needs more real estate to uncoil effectively.
Trainer Bob Baffert said post-race that Havnameltdown “will stay one turn. Faustin, he was kind of a grinding slow, he wants to go longer. [But] you try to get outs into them so they’ll learn and you’ll figure [them out]. The problem is that if you break your maiden first time out, you have to run in stakes. It is that way all over the country. Just getting these races into them it is important. Faustin, you can tell he is not there yet. [But] once he goes two turns, you’ll see a big difference in him. He wat trying to get there, but he was running against a top-class sprinter.”
8) SIGNATOR (c, Tapit–Pension, by Seeking the Gold) ‘TDN Rising Star‘ O-West Point Thoroughbreds, Woodford Racing, Gainesway Stable, Phipps Stable, Ken Langone, Edward Hudson, Jr. and Lane’s End Racing. B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds. T-Claude McGaughey III. Sales history: $1,700,000 2yo ’22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 2-1-1-0, $71,250. Last Start: Maiden win at BAQ Oct. 14. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
Signator, a $1.7-million OBSAPR son of Tapit, is gearing up for his 2023 campaign after being sidelined late last fall with a wrenched ankle.
His professional, stalking score while driving through at the rail in an Oct. 14 MSW mile at Aqueduct was eye-catching enough to earn ‘TDN Rising Star’ status, and he’s now three breezes into his work pattern at Payson Park.
“I haven’t really picked out a place to run him yet, but it won’t be long,” trainer Shug McGuaghey said on Friday, adding that Gulfstream or Tampa are the two likely comeback spots. “He’s grown, gotten bigger, and filled out the way we want him to.”
McGuaghey is quite familiar with the female side of Signator’s pedigree, having trained the dam (Pension), the second dam (Furlough), and great-grandsire Easy Goer.
“Signator is a lot different than Pension. She was very high-strung, and just broke her maiden. But some of the others were fairly nice,” he added with understatement.
9) VICTORY FORMATION (c, Tapwrit–Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike) ‘TDN Rising Star‘ O-Spendthrift Farm & Frank Fletcher Racing Operations. B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds Ltd. (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $100,000 wnlg ’20 KEENOV; $150,000 yrl ’21 FTKJUL; $340,000 2yo ’22 FTMMAY. Lifetime Record: SW, 3-3-0-0, $282,285. Last Start: 1st Smarty Jones S., Jan.1 at OP. Kentucky Derby Points: 10.
This son of son of 2017 Belmont S. victor Tapwrit ($100,00 KEENOV; $150,000 FTKJUL; EASMAY $340,000) has compiled a 3-for-3 record, but he’ll be due for a dive into the graded end of the stakes pool in his next outing, which is likely to come at either Fair Grounds or Oaklawn.
A ‘TDN Rising Star,’ Victory Formation sports a decent MSW-allowance-ungraded stakes progression, with ascending winning Beyer figures of 81-85-91.
Trainer Brad Cox has described him as an intelligent colt who “doesn’t overdo it,” which he believes will only be a plus as the distances increase along with the demands of tougher competition.
Victory Formation’s current company lines could use some beefing up: The three horses who ran 3-4-5 behind him in the Jan. 1, short-stretch Smarty Jones S. all failed to win in next-out stakes, with all three of them regressing on the Beyer scale.
10) HEJAZI (c, Bernardini–G Note, by Medaglia d’Oro) O-Zedan Racing Stables Inc.; B-Chester Broman & Mary R. Broman (Ky); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $3,550,000 2yo ’22 EASMAY. Lifetime Record: 4-1-1-0, $108,200. Last Start: 1st SA Maiden Special Weight, Jan. 15. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
When a Bob Baffert-trained colt requires four starts to break his maiden, that usually relegates him to the “B” list within a stable of sophomores that annually fields a pretty deep bench.
I wouldn’t count Hejazi out of the mix based on that profile, though. The $3.55-million EASMAY sale topper, this New York-bred son of Bernardini ran better in his trio of defeats than those races might seem on paper.
A step slow out of the gate in his Aug. 20 Del Mar sprint debut, Hejazi rushed up to lead between calls, backed off, then fired again to land second behind an eventual grass stakes winner.
Start No. 2 saw Hejazi drawn way out in post 10 sprinting 5 ½ furlongs, and he flashed wide speed behind wire-to-wire stablemate Speed Boat Beach (Bayern), who established a track-record clocking and has subsequently gone on to win two turf stakes.
Start No. 3 was an ambitious push to try and get Hejazi to the Breeders’ Cup, and as a maiden against winners in the American Pharoah S. he managed third behind stablemate Cave Rock, the eventual favorite and runner-up in the Juvenile.
A three-month freshening did Hejazi a world of good, and he finally hit the winner’s circle going 6 ½ furlongs at Santa Anita Jan. 15, swatting away two challengers inside the final half a furlong (97 Beyer).
11) INSTANT COFFEE (c, Bolt d’Oro–Follow No One, by Uncle Mo) O-Gold Square LLC. B-Sagamore Farm (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $200,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-0-0, $322,815. Last Start: Won Jan. 21 GIII Lecomte S. Kentucky Derby Points: 32.
Instant Coffee, who just hit his third birthday Feb. 6, was a surprising sort straight out of the gate, winning over seven furlongs in his Sept. 3 Saratoga debut at 14-1 odds.
In three 1 1/16 miles since then, he’s overachieved without being overwhelming, winning the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. on Nov. 26 and the GIII Lecomte S. on Jan. 21 by rallying off the tailgate with wide, steady drives.
The only loss to date for this $200,000 KEESEP grad came in start No. 2, and considering Instant Coffee was making the jump straight into Grade I company while going around two turns for the first time in the key-race Breeders’ Futurity S., he actually managed a decent fourth behind eventual divisional champ Forte.
Instant Coffee’s race spacing and foundation both leave room for continued improvement, with trainer Brad Cox indicating that one or two additional stakes in the Fair Grounds prep series are on his radar.
12) DISARM (c, Gun Runner–Easy Tap, by Tapit) ‘TDN Rising Star‘ O/B-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC (Ky); T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: 2-1-1-0, $69,750. Last Start: Won Sar Maiden Special Weight, Aug. 8. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
It’s now been half a year since Disarm has been in the entries. This ‘TDN Rising Star’ (based on his 6 ¼-length, 86-Beyer Saratoga sprint score Aug. 6) has been breezing somewhat under the radar at Fair Grounds, but he’s now four works in and up to five furlongs.
“He’s training with anticipation of him making it back to the Derby trail,” owner/breeder Ron Winchell texted to TDN over the weekend. As for a target race, Winchell wrote that he and trainer Steve Asmussen “will know more after his next work.”
Last summer, Asmussen said he had “high expectations” for Disarm, adding that in a June 19 third-place debut at Churchill, the colt “didn’t do much correctly first time out, just because he’s a big boy. Looks like he’s gonna stretch out beautifully. We will definitely get to dream with him for a while.”
Disarm was shelved in September for undisclosed reasons, and at the time, Asmussen predicted a return sometime during the New Orleans winter/spring meet.