by Jon White
March 10, 2022
My Kentucky Derby rankings continue to percolate now that this Saturday’s Grade II Tampa Bay Derby is eight weeks away from the 158th running of the coveted Run for the Roses on May 7.
Still in the top spot this week is Messier, who was scintillating when he won Santa Anita’s Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes by 15 lengths on Feb. 6 for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Messier recorded a 103 Beyer Speed Figure for his Lewis performance. That Beyer was matched last Saturday at Santa Anita by Taiba, the $1.7 million auction purchase who was a dazzling 7 1/2-length maiden winner at first asking. Baffert also trains Taiba, a Kentucky-bred colt by red-hot sire Gun Runner.
The 103 Beyers by Messier and Taiba are the only two triple-digit figures posted so far in 2022 by a 3-year-old.
Below are the Beyer Speed Figures higher than 95 by a 3-year-old in 2022 to date:
BSF Horse (Finish, Race, Track, Date)
103 Taiba (won maiden special weight race, Santa Anita, March 5)
103 Messier (won Robert B. Lewis, Santa Anita, Feb. 6)
98 Forbidden Kingdom (won San Felipe, Santa Anita, March 5)
98 Epicenter (won Risen Star, Fair Grounds, Feb. 19)
97 White Abarrio (won Holy Bull, Gulfstream, Feb. 5)
96 Morello (won Gotham, Aqueduct, March 5)
96 Simplification (won Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, March 5).
After Messier’s blowout triumph in the Lewis, he did not hit the work tab again until stepping four furlongs in :48.60 at Santa Anita on Feb. 28 in company with El Camino Real Derby winner Blackadder, who also was timed in :48.60. The official clockers listed the workout by both Messier and Blackadder as “breezing” rather than “handily.”
At Southern California tracks, a workout is rarely listed as breezing. A breezing designation is given when a horse is considered by the official clockers to have gone considerably easier, without any urging at all, than a horse whose workout is termed handily.
Messier came back and worked four furlongs again in :48.60 at Santa Anita last Sunday. This time the work was listed as “handily.”
XBTV has video of Messier’s Feb. 28 work. But despite every workout these days by Messier leading up to the Santa Anita Derby being important, XBTV does not have video of his drill last Sunday.
The Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 9 is expected to be the next start for Messier, a Canadian-bred Empire Maker colt. Baffert currently is barred by Churchill Downs from running Messier or anyone else in the Kentucky Derby, stemming from last year’s Derby in which Medina Spirit finished first but tested positive for traces of betamethasone, a medication that is legal to use, but not on race day. Horses trained by Baffert also currently are ineligible to earn any qualifying points toward the 2022 Derby.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission announced on Feb. 21 that the three stewards in the stand for the 2021 Kentucky Derby issued a ruling that day stating Medina Spirit “is disqualified and all purse money forfeited” because of the medication violation.
Baffert and his legal team are fighting the disqualification.
1/ST BET analyst and handicapper Jeff Siegel, like yours truly, has Messier in the top spot on his Triple Crown rankings this week.
“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 four weeks prior to the first Saturday,” Siegel wrote. “Even with zero points prior to this race, a win or 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.”
Last Sunday, Siegel 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 Baffert’s one-word answer to Siegel.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is VERY interesting.
Again at No. 2 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week is the filly Secret Oath, who has reeled off three straight wins at Oaklawn Park by a combined 23 lengths. Her most recent victory came in the Grade III Honeybee Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 26 for trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owners Robert and Stacy Mitchell (Briland Farm).
The next start for Secret Oath will be at Oaklawn on April 2 in either the Grade III Fantasy Stakes vs. fillies or the Arkansas Derby against the boys.
Secret Oath already has accumulated sufficient points to get into the May 6 Kentucky Oaks. Interestingly, in a recent BloodHorse video interview with Lukas at his Oaklawn stable office, the trainer noted that if the Mitchells do want to leave open the option of running Secret Oath in the Kentucky Derby instead of the Oaks, the Kentucky-bred daughter of Arrogate will need to run in the Arkansas Derby in order to try and get enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby.
Lukas also has an Arkansas Derby candidate in Ethereal Road. As I mentioned last week, Lukas has never been afraid of running more than one horse in an important stakes race, even once starting five in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Many have presumed that the Arkansas Derby is where Ethereal Road is going next after he finished second to Un Ojo in Oaklawn’s Grade II Rebel Stakes on Feb. 26. But Lukas noted in the BloodHorse video that is not necessarily set in stone.
“Obviously, the Arkansas Derby is first on his radar, but he is nominated to the Blue Grass,” Lukas said of Aaron Sones’ Kentucky-bred Quality Road colt.
Referring to what could be next for Ethereal Road and Secret Oath, Lukas said “there’s a chance we split those two off and take a look at the Blue Grass, too.”
Keeneland’s Grade I Blue Grass Stakes will be contested on April 9.
Simplification vaults all the way up to No. 3 after being No. 10 last week in the wake of his sparkling win in last Saturday’s Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park for trainer Antonio Sano.
This was a remarkably similar story to what occurred with Gunnevera and Sano five years ago.
Gunnevera finished a troubled second in Gulfstream’s Grade III Holy Bull Stakes, then won the Fountain of Youth by 5 3/4 lengths.
Simplification finished a troubled second in the Holy Bull, then won the Fountain of Youth by 3 1/2 lengths.
Gunnevera went on to finish third in the Grade I Florida Derby, seventh in the Grade I Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Grade I Preakness Stakes.
In all likelihood, the next assignment for Simplification is to try and do better than Gunnevera did in the Florida Derby.
Simplification was a clear-cut winner of the Fountain of Youth despite not having a comfortable trip when in heavy traffic to the far turn, then being parked out about six wide at the quarter pole while rallying.
Poking his head in front at the top of the lane, Simplification led by a half-length at the eighth pole, then drew away while racing on his left lead. The Kentucky-bred Not This Time colt completed the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:44.04.
Would it have been better if Simplification had raced on his right lead in the stretch? Yes, that would be preferred. But to me, it actually makes his win by such a margin all the more impressive that he did it while racing on the so-called “wrong lead” in the final furlong.
Remember Alydar, who no doubt would have been a Triple Crown winner in 1978 if for not having the misfortune to be born the same year as Affirmed? Despite coming down the stretch on his left lead, Alydar finished second to the Laz Barrrera-trained Affirmed in all three Triple Crown events. Alydar lost the Kentucky Derby by 1 1/2 lengths, then the Preakness by a neck, then an epic renewal of the Belmont Stakes by a head for owner Calumet Farm and trainer John Veitch.
“If there was a chink in Alydar’s armor, it was the fact that he would never change lead legs, preferring to stick to his left,” Jay Hovdey wrote for the Daily Racing Form in 2018.
Veitch said: “That winter at Hialeah, I would take him back to the three-eighths chute and we would do figure-eights,” describing a graceful drill designed to encourage lead changes, as Hovdey put it. “He looked like Baryshnikov, so pretty doing it. But when he ran, under the intensity of the race, he would never change leads.
“I had seemingly hundreds of people call me up to make recommendations,” Veitch added with a laugh. “From changing his shoes, to putting his saddle on differently, or telling the jockey how to shift his weight. It made no difference.”
Hovdey posed the following question to Veitch: With a short head deciding the Belmont, would a fresh lead have changed history?
“It’s impossible to know,” Veitch said. “What it came down to was that he was so comfortable with the way he ran. Alydar was Alydar.”
Veitch took the narrow loss in the Belmont especially hard. Calumet had not won the Belmont since the great Citation completed his Triple Crown sweep in 1948.
For Veitch, winning the Belmont with Alydar was “a gift he badly wanted to give the farm’s matriarch, Lucille Markey,” wrote Hovdey, who then passed along the following tidbit that I enjoyed reading, as I think you will.
“After the Belmont I was disappointed,” Veitch told Hovdey. “Crushed is a better word.”
After the frustratingly narrow loss by Alydar in the Belmont, Veitch was walking through the grandstand tunnel. Veitch recalled a “guy leaning over the rail with a huge beer, calling out, ‘Hey, Veitch-o!’ I’d been in New York a long time, so I knew what the fans were like. Usually you just walk on by, but I was thinking, well, maybe he’s sympathetic.”
Veitch paused, and the fan took the cue, Hovdey wrote.
“Hey, Veitch-o, you know what Alydar needs?”
“No,” the trainer replied.
TWO NEWCOMERS ON THIS WEEK’S TOP 10
Morello, undefeated in three career starts following his facile 4 1/2-length win in Aqueduct’s Grade III Gotham Stakes last Saturday, debuts on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week at No. 6. Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen trains the Kentucky-bred colt by 2016 Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male champion Classic Empire.
Next for Morello is Aqueduct’s Grade II Wood Memorial at 1 1/8 miles on April 9.
Classic Empire won the Grade I BC Juvenile at Santa Anita in 2016 at odds of 9-2. He had a two-length lead a furlong out and prevailed by a neck when fending off a late charge by Not This Time, future sire of Fountain of Youth one-two finishers Simplification and In Due Time.
That 2016 BC Juvenile sure was a bad beat for yours truly. Not This Time was sent away as the 5-2 favorite. Weeks earlier, when I saw him listed at 20-1 in a BC Juvenile future book, I put $100 on him. When he could not quite catch Classic Empire, I was left muttering “not this time” with my golden opportunity to make $2,000 in the BC Juvenile.
As for Morello, I like him a lot. In fact, I have a chance to make considerably more money with him than I did with his sire in the BC Juvenile. I have an $80 Kentucky Derby future bet on Morello in Las Vegas at 125-1.
Not only has Morello won all three of his races going away without being all out, his ability to stalk early could prove key in a Kentucky Derby that could include a pair of speedsters in Forbidden Kingdom and Epicenter.
Speaking of Forbidden Kingdom, he also debuts on my Top 10 this week. Trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, the Kentucky-bred colt by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah won last Saturday’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
Opening a sizable seven-length advantage after the opening half-mile, Forbidden Kingdom proved uncatchable. He reached the finish 5 3/4 lengths in front. Forbidden Kingdom went into the San Felipe off a front-running victory in Santa Anita’s Grade II San Vicente Stakes. The San Felipe was his first race beyond seven furlongs and around two turns.
The Santa Anita Derby is next for Forbidden Kingdom, who is scheduled to have a rematch with Messier in that 1 1/8-mile affair. When Messier won Del Mar’s Grade III Bob Hope Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths at seven furlongs last Nov. 14, Forbidden Kingdom finished second. But Forbidden Kingdom was thrown off his game when he stumbled at the start that day.
Even without racing last week, the Saffie Joseph Jr.-trained White Abarrio moves up three notches on this week’s Top 10 to No. 5. Why? White Abarrio’s daylight win in the Holy Bull over Simplification in the Holy Bull was flattered by what happed in the Fountain of Youth.
“I’m a big believer in form lines as far as horses that you beat come back and run well, so to see Sano’s horse [Simplification] come back and run like that was big for us,” Joseph said to Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch.
Considering White Abarrio outran Simplification by 4 1/2 lengths in the Holy Bull, you might wonder why I have Simplification ranked higher than White Abarrio on my Kentucky Derby Top 10. That’s a good question. The answer is that I actually was more impressed by Simplification finishing second after his bad start in the Holy Bull than by the winner. But I also now recognize that perhaps I was not giving White Abarrio enough credit for winning the race.
White Abarrio and Simplification are slated to face each other again in the Florida Derby. White Abarrio, a Kentucky-bred Race Day colt, had a sharp four-furlong workout in :47.12 last Sunday at Gulfstream.
I gave consideration to dropping Emmanuel off my Top 10 this week. But I think doing so would be an overreaction to his finishing fourth in the Fountain of Youth.
It was asking a lot of Emmanuel to make his stakes debut last Saturday with just two easy wins under his belt. While he had been a pace factor in his first two starts, that certainly was not the case in the Fountain of Youth.
After being shuffled back the initial strides, Emmanuel found himself eighth early in the field of 11. He rallied to loom menacingly on the far turn, but did not have the needed late punch.
Because Emmanuel had received so much hype, he seemed to rub a number of people the wrong way when he did not come home better than he did. But quite possibly contributing to that was his extremely wide journey. At one point on the backstretch, he was way out there in about the seven path.
Emmanuel lost by 5 1/4 lengths, but he traveled 38 feet (about four lengths) farther than the victorious Simplification, according to Trakus.
Emmanuel finished 1 3/4 lengths behind runner-up In Due Time. Again per Trakus data, Emmanuel traveled a whopping 61 feet farther (about 6 1/2 lengths) farther than In Due Time.
All of which is to say that, under the circumstances, Emmanuel’s effort last Saturday really might not have been as bad as it seemed in the immediate aftermath of his first career loss.
Emmanuel recorded just an 87 Beyer Speed Figure in the Fountain of Youth. His lack of a Beyer higher than 89 to this point is one of the reasons I nearly took him off my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week.
Though Emmanuel emerged from the Fountain of Youth with his perfect record no longer intact, there is no denying that he did get a ton of experience out of this race, which figures to make him much more battle tested going forward.
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher has a very high opinion of Emmanuel. This counts for a lot with me. I, for one, will not be surprised if the Kentucky-bred More Than Ready colt runs a biggie in the Florida Derby or the Grade I Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 9. One of those two races is likely next for Emmanuel, according to Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch.
Dropping off my Top 10 this week are Rattle N Roll and Early Voting.
Rattle N Roll finished 7 1/4 lengths behind Simplification in the Fountain of Youth. It might be fair to give Rattle N Roll a mulligan for this loss due to it being his first race since winning the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last Oct. 9. Still, his layoff notwithstanding, I would have preferred to see more from Rattle N Roll last Saturday. Hence, he leaves my Top 10 this week. But Rattle N Roll certainly can earn his way back onto the Top 10 if he rebounds in his next race, which is expected to be the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 26.
I really hated to take Early Voting off this week’s Top 10. What has he done wrong? Nothing, other than to sport rather weak Beyers in his only two starts to date. Early Voting received a 76 Beyer in his Dec. 18 maiden win at Aqueduct, then a 78 when he won the Grade III Withers Stakes by 4 1/2 lengths at the Big A on Feb. 5.
Early Voting sat out the Gotham. But his Withers win got something of a boost when runner-up Un Ojo subsequently won Oaklawn’s Grade II Rebel Stakes.
Nevertheless, when push came to shove, Forbidden Kingdom got the nod for the final spot on my Top 10 this week. The main reason is because his two recent Beyers of 94 and 98 are so superior to Early Voting’s 76 and 78.
My Kentucky Derby Top 10 for this week is below:
2. Secret Oath
4. Classic Causeway
5. White Abarrio
6. Morello (new)
7. Smile Happy
10. Forbidden Kingdom (new)
Jeff Siegel’s “main players” this week in his Triple Crown rankings are: 1. Messier, 2. Smile Happy, 3. Simplification, 4. Classic Causeway, 5. White Abarrio, 6. Epicenter, 7. Secret Oath, 8. Forbidden Kingdom, 9. Early Voting, 10. Emmanuel, 11. Morello, 12. Zozos, 13. Charge It, 14. Zandon, 15. Mo Donegal, 16. In Due Time.
THORO-GRAPH’S VALUE PROVEN YET AGAIN
I consider Beyer Speed Figures to be a useful tool for horseplayers. As I have stated previously, if I didn’t believe that, I would not refer to those figures as frequently as I do.
But I also have stated previously that I am of the opinion Thoro-Graph numbers are superior to the Beyers. That’s because Thoro-Graph takes more factors into account than the Beyers. According to Thoro-Graph, “each number on a sheet represents a performance rating arrived at by using time of the race, beaten lengths, ground lost or saved on the turns, weight carried, and any effects wind conditions had on the time of the race.”
The winner of a race will never get a lower Beyer Speed Figure than the horse who finished second, the horse who finished second will never get a lower Beyer than the horse who finished third, and so on down through the order of finish.
In the case of the Thoro-Graph numbers, a horse who finished second, or even lower, can get a better number than the winner. This is one of the things I love about Thoro-Graph. I consider a Thoro-Graph number to be a much truer reflection of a horse’s performance than a Beyer. Thoro-Graph’s approach reflects the reality that the winner is not necessarily the horse who ran the best race.
Morello and Simplification had an excellent Thoro-Graph number to their credit going into last Saturday. They validated those excellent numbers by taking the Gotham and Fountain of Youth.
When Morello won Aqueduct’s Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 6, he received a 1 1/2 Thoro-Graph number. And when Simplification won Gulfstream’s Mucho Macho Man, he got a 2 1/2.
In Due Time, competing in a stakes race for the first time, finished second in the Fountain of Youth. An indication that In Due Time might give a good account of himself last Saturday was his strong Thoro-Graph number of 3 when he won an allowance/optional claimer by 5 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream on Feb. 4.
BUBBLING UNDER MY TOP 10 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Call Me Midnight
In Due Time
Pioneer of Medina
Rattle N Roll
Slow Down Andy
We the People
TAMPA BAY DERBY SELECTIONS
Classic Causeway, who ranks No. 4 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10, is my top choice in this Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby, which has lured a field of 12 to do battle at 1 1/16 miles on what might well turn out to be a wet track.
Trained by Brian Lynch, Classic Causeway was very impressive, I thought, when a 3 3/4-length winner of the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 12 at Tampa Bay Downs. As evidenced by where I have him ranked, I consider Classic Causeway to be a Kentucky Derby contender at this time.
Money Supply proved a punctual 2-1 favorite when unveiled in a six-furlong maiden race at Tampa on Feb. 12. Eighth early, he came on to win by two lengths and received a 91 Beyer Speed Figure. That is a bigger Beyer than Classic Causeway has recorded. Classic Causeway’s top Beyer is a 90.
Major General, who hails from the powerful Pletcher barn, returns following a long layoff. The Kentucky-bred Constitution colt has not raced since winning the Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs last Sept. 18. He is two for two.
Shipsational has won three of five lifetime starts. He rallied to finish second behind Classic Causeway in the Davis. Eddie Barker trains the New York-bred Midshipman colt.
Belgrade is someone who just might have a big say in the TB Derby at a good price in the betting. He, like Major General, is two for two. Belgrade’s Daily Racing Form past performances show him selling for $45,000 as a yearling. But that’s not the most recent time that he has gone through the auction ring. Carl and Yurie Pascarella shelled out $700,000 to acquire the Kentucky-bred Hard Spun colt at Keeneland this year on Jan. 12.
Formerly conditioned by Brendan Walsh, Belgrade now is being trained by Graham Motion. After kicking off his racing career with a six-length win in a Fair Grounds maiden race at six furlongs on Dec. 18, Belgrade won a seven-furlong allowance/optional claiming race at Tampa on Feb. 19 after stumbling at the start. I think there might be much upside with this colt.
My selections for the Tampa Bay Derby are below:
1. Classic Causeway
2. Money Supply
3. Major General
NTRA TOP THROUGHBRED POLL
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 354 Life Is Good (33)
2. 268 Letruska (1)
3. 206 Colonel Liam
4. 204 Express Train (1)
5. 203 Hot Rod Charlie
5. 154 Flightline (1)
7. 94 Mandaloun
8. 73 Speaker’s Corner
9. 79 Midnight Bourbon
10. 75 Country Grammer
NTRA TOP 3-YEAR-OLD POLL
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 295 Epicenter (0)
2. 281 Forbidden Kingdom (8)
3. 220 Simplification
3. 203 Messier (12)
5. 174 Smile Happy (3)
6. 161 Classic Causeway
7. 129 White Abarrio
7. 103 Morello
9. 88 Secret Oath (3)
10. 63 Zandon (1)