This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve are not quite as strong as they were a few weeks ago.
In this edition, the focus is the 3-year-old stakes races that have taken place since the first edition of this blog on Jan. 12. With the action on the Derby trail heating up, this column will now appear regularly to analyze to biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard
1. White Abarrio
I was impressed with White Abarrio’s victory in the Holy Bull Stakes Feb. 5 at Gulfstream Park, and his lone competition for the top spot here was Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Messier. Because that one is not accumulating Kentucky Derby qualifying points since his trainer, Bob Baffert, is barred from competing in the race for two years following Medina’s Spirit’s medication violation after finishing first in 2021, slotting White Abarrio here was an easy call. He improved his top Equibase Speed Figure by seven points from 95 to 102 with his 4 ½-length win in the Holy Bull and his Beyer Speed Figure by 16 points from a previous top of 81 to a 97. Likewise, he earned a career-best 97 Brisnet speed rating and an eye-catching 8 ½ on the Ragozin sheets. A couple of things I liked about the Holy Bull win were White Abarrio’s ability to track a solid pace and still finish fast (final sixteenth of a mile in 6.35 seconds) and the improvement he made in his first start as a 3-year-old. He’s been terrific in three of his four career starts and he had a reasonable excuse in his lone defeat when a troubled third in his stakes debut in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Nov. 27 at Churchill Downs. His pedigree is not fashionable, but that might elevate his value in future races on the 2022 Derby trail, so I’m buying stock in this flashy gray colt by Race Day.
2. Call Me Midnight
I profiled Call Me Midnight two weeks ago after his fast-closing head victory in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes Jan. 22 at Fair Grounds, and I’m cautiously optimistic he can be a significant player on the 2022 Kentucky Derby trail. I respect the two horses who finished second and third in the Lecomte, runner-up Epicenter and Pappacap, and he improved significantly in his first race at 3. He boosted his career-best Equibase Speed Figure six points to a 98 and his Beyer Speed Figure by 14 points to a new top of 88. He also earned a career best 94 Brisnet speed rating while his 10 ½ on the Ragozin sheets was reason for optimism. I definitely feel confident in horse trained by Keith Desormeaux that steadily improves – I think he’s a patient trainer and a true horseman – and the pedigree has a sneaky amount of stamina. He did not come home especially fast in the Lecomte, however, and he still has ground to make up from a speed-figure angle, so I’m taking more of a watch-and-wait approach with Call Me Midnight.
3. Forbidden Kingdom
Although he did not earn any Kentucky Derby qualifying points for his victory in the San Vicente Stakes Jan. 29 at Santa Anita Park, Forbidden Kingdom showed me something in a front-running 2 ¼-length win over a couple of ballyhooed Bob Baffert trainees in Pinehurst and Doppelganger. Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said after the win that the tentative plan is to stretch out in distance with the colt by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to test him on the Derby trail. The San Felipe Stakes could be next on March 5 at Santa Anita for Forbidden Kingdom, for who speed figures paint a promising profile. He improved his Equibase Speed Figure 14 points to a 106 and his Brisnet speed rating five points to a 95, while also earning a solid 94 Beyer Speed Figure and 9 on the Ragozin sheets. The time off seemed to do him well since his runner-up finish to Messier in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes, but I have to admit I have reservations about distance with Forbidden Kingdom, who was produced by stakes-winning sprinter Just Louise, by Five Star Day.
Honorable Mention: I have not considered horses trained by Bob Baffert for the top three spots thus far because he is not eligible to run horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby and therefore his 3-year-olds are not earning qualifying points. But his 3-year-olds, including Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Messier and Southwest Stakes winner Newgrange since the last edition, could change hands and target the run for the roses so they warrant a mention at least. I don’t believe Messier beat a whole lot in terms of competition in running away to a 15-length score in the Lewis Feb. 6, but he ran another fast race and is now 3-for-3 in races away from Los Alamitos, a track that appears to be his Kryptonite. Baffert took the blinkers off for the Lewis and the result was spectacular as he earned a career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure and 104 Brisnet rating, while his 103 Beyer Speed Figure surpassed White Abarrio’s 97 from the day before as the fastest by a 3-year-old this year. His 8 ½ on the Ragozin sheets was also very strong. … I’ve been less optimistic about Newgrange, primarily because I don’t think he wants any part of 1 ¼ miles, but he did impress me more in winning the Southwest Stakes Jan. 29 than he did winning the Sham Stakes on Jan. 1. He overcame some adversity to win the Southwest, but I’m still somewhat skeptical that he’s fast enough or has the stamina to be a serious Kentucky Derby contender. … For his second start stepping up into graded stakes competition on the Derby trail, Early Voting handled himself nicely in a 4 ½-length victory Feb. 5 at Aqueduct in the Withers Stakes. But make no mistake, this was a slow race and he will need to be much, MUCH faster as the competition improves. He’s a lightly raced colt by promising young sire Gun Runner in the capable hands of Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, so that is a very possible outcome. There is also reason to dream based upon pedigree as his dam (mother) is a full-sister to 2017 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap and a half-sister (same dam, different sire) to champion sprinter and influential sire Speightsown. … Also wanted to give a quick mention to a 3-year-old colt colleague Patrick Reed directed me to: Emmanuel. He’s won his two races to date by a combined margin of 11 ¼ lengths with solid speed figures for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. He’s one to keep tabs on in the virtual stable.
1. Tiz the Bomb
You can’t fault his connections for taking a shot on the main track – he’s a proven multiple stakes winner on turf who ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and had a win on the main track in 2021 – but the Holy Bull Stakes Feb. 5 did not go well for him as he finished seventh, beaten by more than 20 lengths. It was worth finding out of Tiz the Bomb was a serious player for the Kentucky Derby trail, but I would expect him to transition back to the grass after a poor effort on the main track in his 3-year-old bow. The talent remains elite.
2. Dash Attack
The Smarty Jones Stakes winner just never really fired Jan. 29 in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, where he had won his first two starts. Dash Attack never posed a serious threat in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest and finished fifth, beaten by 7 ¾ lengths, after passing a couple of horses late. I was waiting to see how the Munnings colt ran on a fast, dry track before I considered climbing aboard his bandwagon since his two previous wins came on good then sloppy main tracks. Still, I expected better than he showed on the fast track at Oaklawn for the Southwest. He’s worth giving another chance in his next start, but he clearly took a step back in the Southwest.
In the first edition of Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for the 2022 Derby trail, I expressed skepticism in Courvoisier after he won a lackluster edition of the Jerome Stakes. He needed to prove me wrong in the Withers Stakes Feb. 5 at Aqueduct, but he was no match for runaway winner Early Voting and finished 14 ¾ lengths back while seventh. He earned the lowest Equibase Speed Figure (58) of his six-race career. In fact, the Jerome runners finished sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th in the 11-horse field for the Withers, which also was not a fast race. At this point, I haven’t seen any 3-year-olds that I view as serious Kentucky Derby contenders from the New York Triple Crown prep races.
Of note: I was extremely optimistic about Giant Game entering the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes Feb. 5 at Gulfstream Park, so I was disappointed to see last year’s TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance third-place finisher headed the wrong way approaching the stretch. He faded to finish eighth of nine, beaten by 24 lengths, but we subsequently learned that he had displaced (or flipped) his soft palate in the race, which obstructs the airway. Giant Game had surgery to correct the issue and should be back in business fairly quickly, so hopefully we’ll see a return to form in his next start.