by Jeremy Plonk
March 8, 2022
1 - Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but it seems that the most impressive performance in a race for 3-year-olds over the weekend was not Simplification in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2, or Forbidden Kingdom in the San Felipe S.-G2, or Morello in the Gotham S.-G3 or Tiz the Bomb in the John Battaglia Memorial S.
No, as expected, it was a first-time starting maiden trained by Bob Baffert.
Taiba, purchased for $1.7 million at the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old in training sale last year, finally got around to making an afternoon appearance Saturday at Santa Anita and ran to his works, his reputation, and his sales price when winning his debit by seven and one-half widening lengths and earning a Beyer speed figure of 103, making him the co-fastest colt on speed figures (along with stable mate Messier) in the sophomore class of 2022.
In doing so, the son of Gun Runner brought back memories of the Baffert-trained Charlatan, who was a late-developing 3-year-old two years ago when he captured his debut in similar style in February. Two races later he wired the field in the Arkansas Derby-G1 but then missed the Spring Classics and most of the remainder of the year due to injury. Charlatan returned to win the Malibu S.-G1 the following winter, finished second to Mishriff in the Saudi World Cup, then was injured again and retired.
Of course, there will be no Kentucky Derby for Taiba. Even a colt as good Charlatan made his next start in a non-winners of two and as of now, for reasons we’re all aware of, no Baffert-trained colt is eligible to run in the Derby, anyway. But the initial impression this colt made scored higher on the goose-bump scale than any other first-timer we’ve seen from this crop.
2 - Those who witnessed Taiba’s race on track were concerned that jockey John Velazquez eased him up quickly on the gallop out and then slowly walked him back to the winner’s circle, invoking memories of the Baffert-trained Mastery winning the 2017 San Felipe. That colt, an undefeated son of Candy Ride, pulled up abruptly galloping out to the seven furlong pole, never got his picture taken, and never raced again.
Fortunately, this wasn’t that.
We were allowed to inspect the Taiba Sunday morning – yeah, he’s magnificent, looking very much like what a $1.7 million colt should - and spoke to Baffert about the fallout from Taiba’s post-race situation.
“Johnny thought he felt something funny behind, so he pulled him up. By the time he got back to the winner’s circle, the colt was fine. I don’t know if he was put on the vet’s list, but it was nothing.”
3 - A couple of hours after Taiba’s performance, the San Felipe S.-G2 showcased a somewhat underwhelming group of California-based 3-year-olds, with Forbidden Kingdom (even money) deservedly getting most of the attention in his first try around two turns. A convincing gate-to-wire winner over subsequent Saudi Derby winnerPinehurst in the seven furlong San Vicente S.-G2 in late January, he had been trained in the morning by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella to break off behind his workmate and then finish up, but the speedy colt would have none of it, and when he failed to catch a maiden workmate in a seven furlong drill nine days before the race, any plan to employ rating strategy was appropriately abandoned.
Instead, Forbidden Kingdom was permitted to utilize his best weapon in the San Felipe – his early speed – and after taking control quickly and setting sprinter’s fractions, he simply ran his rivals into the ground and was never threatened on his way to a nearly six length victory that produced a thoroughly acceptable 98 Beyer speed figure.
But while Forbidden Kingdom surely will receive a big boost up the ladder from the Derby Rankings gang, he, as a one-dimensional speed type, still has much to prove. After navigating the final sixteenth of a mile in the San Felipe in 07.09 seconds, can he handle the extra 110 yards in the Santa Anita Derby with Messier stalking him, not Doppelganger? And, even if he passes that test, what about his chances at a classic distance of a mile and one quarter?
In 1995, Mandella trained a terrific 3-year-old, Afternoon Deelites, who was odds-on to win the Santa Anita Derby-G1, but the Private Terms colt hit a wall in the final yards and was tagged by the nondescript Larry the Legend. His distance limitations were exposed, but Afternoon Deelites was sent to Kentucky anyway and wound up eighth. The following winter, he won Malibu S.-G1. At seven furlongs.
We’ll see if Forbidden Kingdom can carry his brilliance a little farther. We’re skeptical, but that’s why they run the races.
4 - It’s one thing to get loose on the lead in a race with no effective late runners and look good winning, but it’s another when you pulverize you opposition despite racing in heavy traffic and in a box much of the way while taking serious dirt and then rallying widest of all with an impressive display turn of foot to win going away and with something left.
That’s what Simplification did in the Fountain of Youth, and while his 96 Beyer speed doesn’t quite yet make him the Kentucky Derby winner, it was a career top performance that required a considerable amount of moxie that need-the-lead types aren’t ever asked to produce.
As a son of the young, promising Giant’s Causeway stallion Not This Time and out of a stakes-placed daughter of Candy Ride from the family of champion Ashado, Simplification has the pedigree to handle whatever distance he’s asked to negotiate. He began his career looking very much like a wannabe sprinter, but that’s not what he’s become. His next stop is the Florida Derby-G1 and unless something pops out of the woodwork, he’s very likely to win that, too.
There is an area of concern, though. For all of his apparent quality and ability, Simplification has yet to master the art of changing leads. It hasn’t cost him yet, but if the Antonio Sano-trained colt doesn’t learn to switch over at the appropriate time, it may ultimately prove to be his undoing, perhaps not in the Florida Derby but when it really matters, on the first Saturday in May.
5 - There were adjustments that needed to be made after last weekend’s results in two key Kentucky Derby-G1 prep races, but there he stands, still on top, the Baffert-trained Messier, despite a complete lack of evidence that the colt’s connections are planning to find a replacement trainer for the final significant points-generating event, most likely in his case the Santa Anita Derby-G1 four weeks prior to the first Saturday in May, on April 9. Even with zero points prior to this race, a win or a second place finish will be sufficient to gain entrance to the Triple Crown’s first jewel, but not if Baffert remains the listed trainer of record.
Remember, these rankings are based on potential and projection, not resume.
The Main Players:
1 – Messier (B. Baffert) – On Sunday, we asked Baffert point blank, “Should we remove this colt from the top of our list because everybody believes he won’t be eligible to run if you’re still the trainer?” “No,” was the one-word answer. Okay, maybe he knows something we don’t. Or maybe he doesn’t. But according to the speed figure earned in the Robert B. Lewis S.-G3, the son of Empire Maker is currently the fastest 3-year-old on the Triple Crown trail. A half mile workout in :48 3/5 on Monday, March 7, indicates he’s sound and fit, with the Santa Anita Derby-G1 scheduled next.
2 – Smile Happy (K. McPeek) – He lost little when suffering his first career defeat in a better-than-looked runner-up effort behind “loose-on-the-lead” Epicenter in the Risen Star S.-G2 at Fair Grounds. The Runhappy colt was caught in traffic and then finished with purpose against the grain after getting clear too late. He’ll have one more race – yet undisclosed – before his Derby run.
3 - Simplification (A. Sano) – Rarely do you see a Derby prospect effectively change his style in the middle of the Triple Crown prep season but that’s exactly what this son of Not This Time has done. Once a devoted front runner/pace presser, the Antonio Sano-trained colt has learned to settle and produce a late kick, and his victory in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 not only produced a career top speed figure but was accomplished with a far less-than-ideal trip. We’ll assume the Florida Derby-G1 is next.
4 - Classic Causeway (B. Lynch) – Verified the promise shown during his juvenile campaign when cutting out legit fractions and continuing with authority to win the Sam F. Davis S.-G3 in his sophomore debut. Returns in the Tampa Bay Derby-G2 March 12 and deserves to be a strong favorite when once again facing a moderate field.
5 – White Abarrio (S. Joseph, Jr.) – His only defeat came when third to Smile Happy in the KJC S.-G2 last fall. He remained unbeaten in three starts at Gulfstream Park with his victory in the Holy Bull S.-G3 compliments of a perfect stalking trip that made his task easier than it should have been. He’s likely to be seen next in the Florida Derby-G1 April 2, when he’ll either verify this performance or be found out.
6 – Epicenter (S. Asmussen) - Happily accepted his role as the controlling speed in the Risen Star S.-G2 at Fair Grounds and made the most of the opportunity in his gate-to-wire triumph that produced a career top 98 Beyer speed figure. He has never taken a backward move in four starts, but what happens when early pressure is applied, or when he is forced to take dirt? Maybe we’ll find out in the Louisiana Derby-G2 March 26.
7 - Secret Oath (D. Wayne Lukas) - Was only moderate-to-good in a three-race campaign as a 2-year-old but is vastly improved, winning all three of her starts at Oaklawn Park in 2022, each win more impressive than the previous. Logically, she would make her next start in the Fantasy S-G3 next month, but trainer Wayne Lukas is considering taking on the colts in the Arkansas Derby-G1. We hope that’s the decision he’ll make, because we suspect she is good enough to win it.
8 – Forbidden Kingdom (R. Mandella) – In his first start around two-turns, the son of American Pharoah blasted to the front and ran his foes into the ground in a pleasing performance that produced a legitimate 98 Beyer speed figure. But winning in such a manner at a mile and one-sixteenth isn’t the same as doing so at the Derby’s classic distance of a mile and one-quarter. We’re not even sure if he can stay nine furlongs against Messier in his next start, the Santa Anita Derby-G1 April 9.
9 – Early Voting (C. Brown) – Undefeated in two starts, a maiden win and a dominating score in the nine-furlong Withers over the deeper-than-quicksand main track at Aqueduct. The number came up weak, but the runner-up returned to win the Risen Star S.-G2, so there’s hope that the race was stronger than originally rated.
10 – Emmanuel (T. Pletcher) – Was a well-backed second choice at 5/2 (behind Simplification) in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 but wound up fourth, beaten just over five lengths, after a sluggish start that contributed to an extremely wide journey every step of the way. Bad trip and all, we expected a bit better. Deserves another chance in one of the 100-point prep races to prove he’s as good as we originally thought he was.
11 - Morello (S. Asmussen) - Produced a workmanlike performance to remain unbeaten in three starts when winning the Gotham S.-G3 at the Big A over a one-turn mile with a perfect, pace-stalking trip. He’s a nice colt with good tactical speed but is largely unproven to this point. Here’s the good news: his Beyer numbers have gone from 72 to 84 to 96, a consistent leap of 12 points per outing. If he can continue that race-by-race level of improvement (easier said than done), he’ll win the Wood Memorial S.-G2.
12 – Zozos (B. Cox) – Undefeated in two starts, a game maiden sprint win at Fair Grounds in January and then a middle distance allowance pace-stalking score by more than 10 lengths at Oaklawn Park that produced an 88 Beyer speed figure. The son of Munnings has been visually very impressive, but with no points and time running out he needs to make his next race count. There are plenty of options.
13 – Charge It (T. Pletcher) – Missed by a neck in his debut in January over a one-turn mile and then annihilated maidens at that same trip by more than eight lengths while never taking a deep breath and earning a 93 Beyer speed figure. Time is short leading up to the Kentucky Derby, but the talent and upside are there. His next race will tell us what we need to know.
14 – Zandon (C. Brown) – Won his debut sprinting, was unlucky when nosed out in the 9F Remsen S.-G2, and then was victimized by a wide trip and a lack of pace when third in the Risen Star S.-G2 in his sophomore debut. He’s a grinder but will run all day and may eventually be best suited as a Belmont Stakes-type. The Blue Grass S.-G1 is next.
15 – Mo Donegal (T. Pletcher) – Didn’t get the best of runs when rallying too late to be third in the Holy Bull S.-G3. Lacks a great turn of foot but has no distance limitations and has plenty of room to develop with additional experience. Was entered as the 5/2 morning like favorite in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 (March 5) but drew a poor post, came up with a temperature, and had to scratched, leaving the Wood Memorial S.-G2 April 9 as a last chance option.
16 - In Due Time (K. Breen) - finished second in the Fountain of Youth, but other than being the culprit that caused a two-runner spill thanks to the carelessness of jockey Paco Lopez (our opinion, not the stewards), the son of Not This Time did nothing noteworthy with a perfect, ground-saving trip other that allowed him to clunk up without worrying the winner. It was an okay effort, nothing more.
Knocking on the Door:
17 – Call Me Midnight
18 – Major General
19 – Un Ojo
20 - Rattle N Roll