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Jeff Siegel: Five Takeaways | From the Week Concluding March 20, 2022

by Jeff Siegel

March 22, 2022

1 - Entries were drawn this past weekend for the terrific Fair Grounds closing day Saturday card that showcases the Louisiana Derby-G2, the Fair Grounds Oak-G2 (featuring the sophomore debut of undefeated champion Echo Zulu), plus seven other stakes events on the 12-race program. The week-in-advanced draw provides horse players with more than sufficient time to do the proper research required for a serious opportunity to make a score.

Though we doubt he’ll leave at anywhere close to his morning line of 8-1, Zozos presents such a chance. This is not to say that Epicenter, the morning line choice at 7/5, isn’t deserving of his strong favorite’s role, but based on the projected race flow Zozos should have every opportunity to stalk and pounce from his favorable inside draw and perhaps register a victory that vaults him into the Kentucky Derby conversation.

We’ve had him listed in our Triple Crown rankings for several weeks – he’s number 12 at the present time – whereas he is nowhere to be found on most of the other reputable Derby top 20 lists.

The Brad Cox-trained colt won his debut sprinting by a half-length in a game but certainly not eye-catching performance at Fair Grounds in January, but it was his next start, a 10-length allowance romp at Oaklawn Park around two turns that triggered our interest. His Beyer number took a 22 point jump to 92, and if he can produce another (even moderate) forward move on Saturday, the son of Munnings will be a legitimate threat to pull off a surprise.

2 - We’re always on the lookout this time of the year for any late-developing 3-year-old that isn’t seasoned enough for the Spring Classics but might have the type of talent that can make some serious noise in the sophomore division later on down the road.

Something like, say, Arrogate.

We’re not sure if the aptly-named Bright Future will turn out to be that good, but we’re not sure he won’t either, based on his massively impressive debut performance over a one-turn mile last Friday at Gulfstream Park. The Todd Pletcher-trained sophomore broke smoothly to settle in the third position while well in hand, went after the leaders when given his cue after the opening half, drove to the front when ready and lengthened easily to register a nearly five length win in a sparkling 1:35 flat. The clocking was hand-timed, but we can verify its accuracy, and the assigned Beyer Speed Figure of 91 makes him a likely stakes winner down the road even without the improvement that is sure to come with experience, distance, and development.

Bright Future is the second foal of the Maryland stakes winner Sophia’s Song from the family of champion sprinter Housebuster, and his bottom line, though very much high class, contains mostly one corner runners.

But as a son of Curlin, we suspect this colt will run as far as he’s asked to. His “future” may already be upon us.

3 - Remember when Nashville was all the rage a couple of years ago, specifically when winning his first three starts in the second half of his 3-year-old season including the listed Perryville S. at Keeneland on Breeders’ Cup day? He should have been in the B.C. Sprint later on that program because he would have won it, or at least that’s what many media types were saying, writing, or posting at the time.

Nashville did get his chance to legitimize that opinion in his next start, the 2020 Malibu S.-G1 at Santa Anita two months later, but after clearing the field in that seven furlong event, the son of Speightstown was challenged on the turn and then blown away by Charlatan, eventually winding up fourth, beaten eighth lengths. It took him 50 weeks to get over it, and when he did make it back to the races for trainer Steve Asmusssen, he didn’t look like the same colt, first finishing a no-excuse second at 20 cents on the dollar in an Oaklawn Park allowance race and then beating one horse after pressing the early pace in the King Cotton S. the following month.

Last Friday, the good version of Nashville reappeared at Fair Grounds when he crushed an overnight field by nearly five lengths while costing home in 1:08 3/5 for six furlongs, a final clocking that translated to 102 Beyer speed figure, one point below his career top.

But is he really back? Could it be that he’s the type of sprinter that only gets performs if he can clear his rivals early, as he did last week when, according to the chart, he was more than six lengths in front after the opening quarter? Quite frankly, he may not be one to trust. Sure, get him in a field where he can cruise to the front and remain in hand and he’ll probably keep on rolling. But until he’s taken out of his comfort zone by getting pressure from the bell – and there are lots of stakes quality sprinters who can do that – we really won’t how genuine he is.

4 - Here’s a horse to jot down on your “bet-everything-you-have-because-she-can’t-lose-next-time” list. Barrister’s Ride, given an easy run when sixth (beaten seven lengths) last month in her racing debut sprinting on grass at Santa Anita, figured to be much more serious stretching out in a one-mile turf event for state-bred 3-year-olds in the Sunday opener. As such, her closing price of 7/2 seemed too good to be true, which it was, but through no fault of her own.

Maneuvered by jockey Ricky Gonzalez to what appeared to be an ideal stalking position in the second flight while saving ground with cover and ready to pounce when given her cue, the daughter of Clubhouse Ride simply got buried with nowhere to go from the top of the lane until well inside the furlong pole stretch, losing all momentum and whatever chance she may have had. Yet, once clear, she finished with purpose to miss by a diminishing half length behind Abhita and then galloped out full of run and many, many lengths in front rounding the clubhouse turn.

No, you won’t get 7/2 next time. But you’ll cash a ticket.

5 - These newly updated rankings (as of March 22) are based on potential and projection, not resume. The critical final key prep races are upon us, beginning with the Louisiana Derby-G2 this week on Saturday.

The Main Players:

1Messier (B. Baffert) {pictured above} – Breezed an easy half mile on March 20 in :48 3/5 while remaining on schedule for the Santa Anita Derby-G1 April 9. Looked terrific, as always. According to the speed figure he 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, with better expected as he matures and develops. His eligibility for the Kentucky Derby, which is dependent upon his performance in his next start and the status of trainer Bob Baffert, has yet to be solidified.

2Smile Happy (K. McPeek) – 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 race-shape after getting clear too late. After breezing a sharp five furlongs March 21 at Gulfstream Park in :58 4/5 in company with stable mate Rattle N Rolle, it was disclosed that he would prep for the Kentucky Derby in the Blue Grass S.-G2 April 9.

3 - Simplification (A. Sano) –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. He breezed an official five furlongs in 1:01.4 at Gulfstream Park March 21, but according to DRF’s Mike Welsh he galloped out superbly and pulled up after a mile in a spectacular 1:38.2. The Florida Derby-G1 April 2 is next.

4Epicenter (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? We might not find out until the first Saturday in May, because based on the entries that were drawn last weekend, he’s most likely going to be cruising on the lead once again in the Louisiana Derby-G2 March 26.

5White 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 due in no small part to a perfect stalking trip that made his task easier than it should have been. He breezed five furlongs March 20 at Gulfstream Park in 1:00 2/5, with the Florida Derby-G1 April 2 his next objective.

6 - Classic Causeway (B. Lynch) – Produced the same type of victory in the Tampa Bay Derby-G2 as he did in the Sam F. Davis S.-G3, this time strolling on the lead through soft fractions and then proving uncatchable. Given his pristine trip as the controlling speed. the Beyer number should have been much stronger than the assigned 84, so while he was visually pleasing, massive improvement – at least according to the speed figure guys – will be required. The Blue Grass S.-G2 April 9 likely will be used as a final prep.

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 victory more impressive than the previous. Trainer Wayne Lukas now will test her against the boys in the Arkansas Derby-G1, and a first or second place finish will earn her enough points to make the gate in Kentucky. She remained on edge with a :59 2/5 five furlong breeze March 17.

8Forbidden 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. He missed a scheduled breeze last week due to a slight temperature but was back galloping on the main track on Monday and is expected to work later this week, with the Santa Anita Derby-G2 April 9 his next scheduled start.

9Early Voting (C. Brown) – He’s undefeated in two starts, a maiden win and a dominating score in the nine-furlong Withers S.-G3 over the deeper-than-quicksand main track at Aqueduct. The assigned Beyer number originally was a weak 78, but then a month later was arbitrarily raised nine points to 87, information that would have been useful BEFORE runner-up Un Ojo returned to win the Risen Star S.-G2 at 75-1. Breezed an easy half mile at Belmont Park in :48 2/5 on March 18.

10Emmanuel (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. Breezed a half mile in :49 2/5 at Palm Beach Downs March 19.

11 - Morello - 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. 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. Breezed five furlongs in 1:01 flat at Belmont Park March 21.

12Zozos (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 a 92 Beyer speed figure. The son of Munnings has been visually very impressive – his egg-beater action notwithstanding - but with no points he needs to make his appearance in the Louisiana Derby March 26 count. Recent workouts indicate he’s ready to step forward again in a big way.

13Charge 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. Breezed five furlongs in 1:00 flat at Palm Beach Downs March 19.

14Zandon (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. Breezed a half mile at Payson Park March 19 in :48 4/5.

15Mo 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. Breezed a half mile in :49 2/5 at Palm Beach Downs May 19.

16 - In Due Time (K. Breen) - finished second in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2. But other than being the culprit that caused a two-runner spill due to the carelessness of jockey Paco Lopez, the son of Not This Time did nothing noteworthy with a perfect, ground-saving trip that allowed him to clunk up without worrying the winner. It was an okay effort, nothing more. As of Monday (March 21, he has not worked since the race.

Knocking on the Door:

17 – Call Me Midnight

18 – Un Ojo

19 - Rattle N Roll

20 – Blackadder