1. Strong Mandate (Tiznow - Clear Mandate, by Deputy Minister) D.Wayne Lukas - Even though they do nothing in the running of the race but watch, a trainer is every bit as susceptible to the ups and downs of streaks as any athlete. Right now, the old ball coach is firing on all cylinders. Spurred on by the remarkable sophomore seasons of Will Take Charge and Oxbow, Lukas is back in the limelight and looking a lot like the trainer who dominated Triple Crown races twenty years ago. In Strong Mandate, he has a colt better than either of his top three-year-olds of last year, when they were two. And like that pair, he has every reason to get better at three. I'm not sure what happened in the Champagne, but his two wins at Saratoga were powerful, and in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he was tough as nails. Hung out to dry from his outside post position, he pressed fast fractions all the way and looked good coming back at Havana down the lane. We know Lukas knows how to get a horse to the Triple Crown, and this one has the pedigree to stay the trip. He also looks like a type who can win from a variety of different early positions. Look for him to be the horse they all have to beat in the Oaklawn Park preps for the 2014 Kentucky Derby.
2. Honor Code (A.P. Indy - Serena’s Cat, by Storm Cat) Shug McGaughey – The Remsen was slow, but so what? It featured three good horses going at it to the wire, and this is the one that pulled off the victory with a gutsy re-rally on the rail. Highly touted since an electrifying last-to-first eye-popper in his career debut at the Spa, Honor Code proved that promise with strong performances, when second in the Champagne, and his Remsen win. While neither ended in a clear cut victory, this is not a colt who we would expect to be a precocious juvenile. Rather he is one who you would expect to continue to develop and only get better as the distances increase. So far, so good. Shug is bringing him along slowly so far in Florida, with the full intent of having him ready for the Derby and beyond, and as far as I'm concerned, he is right on schedule.
3. Shared Belief (Candy Ride - Common Hope, by Storm Cat) Jerry Hollendorfer – The best juvenile of 2012, bar none. Anyone who saw his career debut at Golden Gate fields, or his first stakes attempt in the Hollywood Prevue, or his grade 1 debut in the CashCall Futurity, know this son of Candy Ride has speed and talent to spare. So why is he not ranked #1 on Down and Derby? Because it's a long way to Louisville, that's why. The recent hoof issue doesn't really bother me, unless it becomes chronic, and I think Jerry Hollendorfer will prepare him well for the Derby, but he has yet to go a distance, nor has he ever run on a traditional dirt surface. It would be easy to see a horse with this much ability be able to handle both with little effort, but the fact remains, he has more question marks, as far as the unknown, than most on this list. I'm excited to see if he can keep his juvenile form going when he returns to the races.
4. Top Billing (Curlin - Parade Queen, by A.P. Indy) Shug McGaughey – Last year's Kentucky Derby winning trainer, Shug McGaughey, looks loaded for bear once again, with a strong group headed by Honor Code and this son of Curlin. I was so impressed with his debut effort at Laurel, that I wrote about him here. No offense to my friends in Maryland, but I'd be willing to bet that it was the only time that I blogged about a maiden at Laurel. That was a sprint, so when he stretched right out to nine in his next start I wondered, if he'd be lacking the same kind of punch. Needless to say, I was further impressed with start number two. He took all the worst of it, both at the break, and then between horses in the stretch, but he still kept coming. Despite losing the result to another good horse in Commissioner, he looked every bit the part of a budding star. His female family is strong, and as a son of Curlin, I believe ten furlongs will be well within his scope.
5. Wicked Strong (Hard Spun - Moyne Abbey, by Charismatic) Jimmy Jerkens – The pace of the Remsen Stakes was puzzling to say the least. You could go years without seeing a slower pace in a graded stakes race on the dirt, and frankly, it did this one no favors. Making up the ground that he did, against the highly regarded pair of Honor Code and Cairo Prince, after such a pedestrian pace, was nothing short of eye-opening. He has since been flattered when the horse he beat in his maiden victory, Cool Samurai came back to win smartly on the West Coast. As high as I have him on the list, I do not need for him to show his best in next week's Holy Bull. Rather, I would like to see him finish with plenty of interest again, building towards the spring. Speaking of building, I love his last stamina building workout of one mile in 1:40.05 at Palm Meadows. Sired by a Derby runner-up, with a Derby winner as his broodmare sire, this should be one colt ready for the distance on the first Saturday in May.
6. Havana (Dunkirk - Missy Turtle, by Kyle’s Our Man) Todd Pletcher - He's been pure class in his three juvenile starts, including a victory over Honor Code in the Grade 1 Champagne, and a game second place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he finished ahead of the top one on this list. I do worry, though, that he will need to relax a bit better in the early stages to have success after the demanding first six furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. If he tries to do what he did in his first two stakes tries, I think he will be swimming upstream in the Churchill Downs stretch. His breeding has a good mix of speed and stamina, and his sire did prove a game foe in the twelve furlongs of the 2009 Belmont Stakes. He has yet to record a work in Florida, but reports are that he looks fit and strong. He'll need to hustle to be ready for ten furlongs in May, if his seasonal debut does not come until March's seven furlong Swale Stakes.
7. Gold Hawk (Empire Maker - Caressing, by Honour and Glory) Steve Asmussen – With only a maiden and allowance under his belt, clearly this impressive looking, late-running son of Empire Maker still needs to be put under the acid test. My prediction is that he will pass with flying colors, starting tomorrow in the Lecomte Stakes. In both a maiden sprint at Churchill, and a two-turn allowance at Fair Grounds, he displayed a strong late kick. Still looking like a horse who has more in the tank, he won both races going away. Things will only get tougher from here, and actually even the Lecomte will not prove too much, but I believe this regally bred $450,000 yearling purchase is a colt poised to make a lot of noise this spring. Hopefully, I will not made to look foolish this time tomorrow.
8. Cairo Prince (Pioneerof The Nile - Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull) Kiaran McLaughlin – He has done nothing but impress in three lifetime starts so far in New York. In each, victories in a maiden, and the Nashua Stakes, and a narrow loss to Honor Code in the Remsen, he demonstrated a sharp turn of foot to burst to the lead. I'm sure this knockout punch should serve him well in his career, but the question remains whether losing the lead late is a sign of things to come when true stamina is called for. While I like the prospects of Pioneerof The Nile offspring around two-turns, this one does have plenty of speed influence on his female side. Having said that, I fully expect him to continue to flaunt his ability in the shorter races, including next time in the Holy Bull Stakes. He has been working well at Palm Meadows and should be the one to beat in the first real deep Derby prep of the year.
9. Commissioner (A.P. Indy - Flaming Heart, by Touch Gold) Todd Pletcher – Well, if I like Top Billing as much as I do, it follows that I must like this one, as well. I do, just not quite as much as that one. Having said that, more than anyone on this list he is proven going a distance, with two wins already at nine furlongs. Interestingly, the first one came back in August at Saratoga, so the return win off the layoff was impressive. Pletcher usually has them ready to roll, though, and this one took full advantage of the trouble that Top Billing had during the allowance affair. He has not yet run in a stakes race, but that bothers me little, as I see that last race as better than many of the stakes races run so far by this crop. He has plenty of stamina within his pedigree, and I liked the tenacity he demonstrated late stretch to fight off Top Billing. He should be a real threat against whomever he faces in either the Fountain of Youth, or another stakes race chosen by his ubiquitous conditioner.
10. Almost Famous (Unbridled’s Song – Wild Gams, by Forest Wildcat) Pat Byrne – We should learn a lot more about this good looking son of Unbridled’s Song next week in the Holy Bull Stakes, when he takes on a number of interesting Derby candidates. He looked as good as you could want in both his debut and his latest performance, an allowance heat at Churchill Downs. He did, unfortunately, fail in his only stakes attempt in between, when Coastline was able to reverse the maiden outcome, and this one backed out to fourth. Too early to hold the loss too much against him, but some horses just always look great against lesser, but then pack it in against tougher competition. He has been turning heads in South Florida, so he should be tough in the Holy Bull. Obviously talented, I wonder if his pedigree has enough on the female side to get the ten furlongs, though.
11. Midnight Hawk (Midnight Lute - Miss Wineshine, by Wolf Power) Bob Baffert – A four horse field in the Sham? Really? I'm trying to not hold that sorry state of affairs against him, but it's hard to know what you got when you beat only three others. Luckily, I do believe that runner-up, Kristo, is a nice enough horse, so there is at least a little class to this colt who runs for an interesting trio of owners. He's 2-for-2, and showed a fair amount of immaturity in both. On the one hand, you could say that he has plenty of room for improvement, but frankly, with less than four months to the Derby, I don't see it as a great sign that he does not have it all together mentally. His pedigree could go either way as far as the distance goes. Still the talent is undeniable, and perhaps his experienced trainer will have him on ready come May.
12. Noble Moon (Malibu Moon - Mambo Bell, by Kingmambo) Leah Gyarmati – Of his three performances, I like his lone losing one the best. Sent off as a long shot in his second start, the Nashua Stakes, he had no chance to flash any speed, as he was bumped solidly at the start. Employing completely different tactics than his other two races, he stormed from last to just miss the place spot, despite a wide run around the final turn. He never threatened the winner, Cairo Prince, but it’s easy to imagine that things could have been very different with a better trip. As for his two victories, a maiden, and the recent Jerome Stakes, he basically did what he had to do for the win. I thought he could have shown more in the Jerome, but a win is a win, and although inbred to Mr. Prospector, he does have enough stamina influence to believe he can improve as things get more serious this spring. It looks like trainer, Leah Gyarmati, will keep him in New York on the way to Louisville.
13. Bond Holder (Mineshaft - Cielo Girl, by Conquistador Cielo) Doug O’Neill – Still very much a work in progress for Kentucky Derby winning trainer, Doug O’Neill, you might ask why he is on the list over the two others to beat him in the Hollywood Futurity, Candy Boy and Tamarando. My answer is simple, I believe he has a better chance to develop into a Kentucky Derby winner than the other two fine three-year-olds. After running a good second to New Year’s Day in his first non-sprint, he finally broke his maiden in the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes, with a big late rush. It is that late finish that I could see uncoiling powerfully in the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby. His BC Juvenile was solid enough, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt to not hold too much stock in his 4th place finish on the Hollywood synthetic main track. Hopefully that consistent late run of his will combine with real improvement as he matures to create a formidable contender on the first Saturday in May. He's already had a pair of strong six furlong works at Santa Anita in 2014.
14. Tapiture (Tapit - Free Spin, by Olympio) Steve Asmussen – The second from the Winchell/Asmussen team to make this list, this son of Tapit, out of a very talented stakes winning mare proved that all of his potential would not go unfulfilled with a rousing romp in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club to close out his juvenile season. The victory came as a maiden after three starts in which he tangled against good horses, including Strong Mandate. The stakes victory might prove to come up a bit weak in the quality of competition scale, but he absolutely did it the right way. Like his stablemate, he is down in New Orleans working solidly for his season debut. Not sure if the extended distance of the Derby will prove to be his thing, but his talent and his good experience over the Churchill strip demand a spot on this list.
15. Mexikoma (Birdstone – Toccet Over, by Toccet) Rick Mettee – This one has plenty in his pedigree to suggest the ten furlongs of the Derby will be right up his alley. After doing nothing to speak of in a turf debut at Saratoga, this son of a Belmont winner, came back to dismantle a maiden field at Delaware Park. That win, and his good looks, prompted Team Valor to purchase him privately. Turned over to Rick Mettee, they shipped him out west for a quick return on the investment in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but things did not pan out. Way back early, he did show plenty of interest in the stretch, though, and was actually not far from hitting the board. All and all, it was a good performance. He's been working in Florida this winter, and his last workout at Palm Meadows of 4 furlongs in :48.70 suggests that he'll be sharp for his three-year-old debut.