Photo: Eclipse Sportswire - Alex Evers
1. Candy Boy (Candy Ride - She’s An Eleven, by In Excess) John Sadler – The Santa Anita Derby could be a real showdown if we get to see this one against the San Felipe star, California Chrome. The good looking son of Candy Ride continues to blossom since his late-running victory in the Robert B. Lewis, if his recent workouts are any indication. Getting back to that Lewis win, he looked like a Cadillac rolling down the stretch that day in his second start under Gary Stevens. He was professional and powerful. Stevens found all the right buttons to push to find his impressive cruise control. This was exactly what I wanted to see after flashing all kinds of mistimed talent in the CashCall Futurity. I have long thought that this one has the look and physicality of a horse who could run all day, so I suspect that the nine furlongs of the Santa Anita Derby will only help him, and more importantly, so will that tenth furlong of the 2014 Kentucky Derby. All he needs to do in his final prep is show me more of the same from the last one, for me to like his chances as the most likely horse to wear the roses.
2. Intense Holiday (Harlan’s Holiday - Intensify, by Unbridled’s Song) Todd Pletcher– It’s no secret that I prefer a horse for the Derby with a strong closing kick, because of this and more, this one has become the biggest upward mover on this list since the beginning of the year. I love the way his relentless late rally was ultimately rewarded with a narrow victory in the Risen Star. That race was flattered on Saturday, when the fourth place finisher came back to win the Rebel. It’s no surprise that I was a little slow to come around on this one, as he himself is a late bloomer. Clearly he has come a long way since his early days on the Jersey Shore. In fact, he appears to be that three-year-old that we all look for; one getting better with each and every start. I also previously worried about his three consecutive losses to Cairo Prince, but that is not what the Derby is all about. Early success means little compared to having a horse coming to Louisville on the upswing, and one that can truly get the distance. Since his brave win in the Risen Star, he has been working great, and I look forward to seeing what he can do in person in next week’s Louisiana Derby.
3. Strong Mandate (Tiznow - Clear Mandate, by Deputy Minister) D.Wayne Lukas - I feel like the only Strong Mandate supporter left standing. I could no longer in good conscious keep him in the top spot after running fourth on Saturday, but I’m also a long way from giving up on him. His Rebel run was not the best, but it was not bad either. He was beaten a couple of lengths by three very good horses. Going in, I did not want to see him on the lead, and I know that is not where his connections want him moving forward, either. The fact that he was on it Saturday could be directly attributed to how far he fell back in the previous race. He was pressured most of the way and received a Malachi Crunch in the stretch run. I think many will confuse his tiring to fourth to mean that he didn’t want the distance. I believe that thought will disappear as the distances get longer, though. He’s bred to run long, and I’ve seen him be tenacious late in his races. Look for him to relax early in the future, and to be the one pouncing as the field straightens out. Call me as stubborn as a rottweiler puppy with a chew toy, but yep, I still like him.
4. Cairo Prince (Pioneerof The Nile - Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull) Kiaran McLaughlin – Has the time finally come for Sheikh Mo to win our Derby? The recent purchase of this one certainly gives him a reasonable shot. He’s in good hands with McLaughlin, but it seems like a long time since we’ve last seen him. I am almost starting to forget why he is on the top of so many Kentucky Derby lists. Almost, but not completely. Near perfect in four excellent starts, Cairo Prince has a killer move on the turn that effectively ends most races that he is in. It’s a move that many a champion has utilized on the way to their biggest wins. He goes into the Florida Derby as a deserving favorite, and the one to beat. The only reason I do not have him higher on this list is a nagging feeling that his sharp turn of foot will eventually get swallowed up by a few horses who appreciate the 1 ¼ mile distance more than I expect he will.
5. California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit - Love The Chase by Not For Love) Art Sherman – He has been the best American three-year-old to date, but I think this one’s veteran trainer has a big decision to make. After three gigantic wins in a row, it will be interesting to see if he chooses to run in the Santa Anita Derby, or instead wait for the date in early May at Louisville. Either way, I worry. If he decides to pull back and wait, he will go into the Derby off a longer layoff than any Derby winner in my lifetime. Not to mention the not so small fact that he has never run farther than 1 1/16 miles. Because of these reasons, I suspect that Sherman will indeed bring out his shiny chrome toy one more time in California before heading east. That’s good for the fans at Santa Anita on their Derby day, but there might be a point, after so many big races, that this one starts to either plateau, or regress. Because of this, and questions about his ability for success at ten furlongs, I can rate him no higher than 5th at this point.
6. Samraat (Noble Causeway - Little Indian Girl, by Indian Charlie) Rick Violette – Undefeated in five starts, I am having a harder and harder time keeping this Rick Violette trained winner down. Clearly, he has done everything very right up until this point, and I am beginning to believe that the trend may continue. He does not need the early lead, but he possesses the natural speed to find a good position in the early part of the race, and then he follows that up with the tenacity and talent to get to the wire ahead of the rest. I do not have his rival, Uncle Sigh, on this list, but if the Derby were nine furlongs or less, I definitely would. That one is a fast horse, and Samraat has tore his heart out in successive races. Upon further review, I not only see a little more hope for him to get the distance within his pedigree, but the Gotham was also more impressive than I originally thought, considering his trip compared to the other two, throughout the entire race.
7. Conquest Titan (Birdstone – Miner’s Secret, by Mineshaft) Mark Casse – This one may be a bit of a leap of faith on my part, but I am willing to give him another shot after his disappointing 4th place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby. I just didn’t like the way he was stuck down on the rail the whole way. He made a nice move on the backstretch, but wasn’t able to sustain it in the stretch, and just stayed where he was. He looked to me, like a horse frustrated that he never had real room to roll. The three horses that beat him that day are all good, not great, but I choose to draw a line through it. Let’s not forget the wide rally he made in the Holy Bull to split the highly regarded Cairo Prince and Intense Holiday in his previous race. He also beat the horse just below him on this list at Churchill Downs impressively late last fall. I am predicting big improvement for him next time, be it in the Arkansas Derby or elsewhere.
8. General a Rod (Roman Ruler - Dynamite Eyes, by Dynaformer) Michael Maker - Another Kentucky Derby contender that I am liking more and more with every passing day. He’s run awfully well in each of his four starts, starting with a debut win, and most recently in his second excellent battle with Wildcat Red. While I suspect that one is probably born for shorter distances at Gulfstream Park, I think the Good General may well be doing all this on class. His quick last work of :59 2/5 shows that he is no worse for wear from the Fountain of Youth slobberknocker. Look for him to show a little less speed in the Florida Derby, simply because he will not need to be the one pressuring Wildcat Red this time. That could not only pay dividends on March 29, but more importantly, the ability to relax early should give him a better chance over a track that he’s already performed well on at Churchill Downs. I’m not overly concerned about Roman Ruler’s ability to sire distance horses, considering he has Dynaformer blood coursing through his veins. If he continues his upward trend, he could move even higher on this list by Derby week.
9. Hoppertunity (Any Given Saturday - Refugee, by Unaccounted For) Bob Baffert – I was expecting a big effort from him in the Rebel, after an unlucky run in the Risen Star, and he definitely delivered. Mike Smith was able to keep him within striking distance on the wet Oaklawn track, and he had plenty of horse to pounce on the leaders on the turn for home. For a lightly raced colt, he showed plenty of courage and toughness to not let Tapiture walk all over him, and in the end he showed a good finishing kick to best his rivals to the wire. I wonder if this kind of race will take something out of him, given how far he has already come in such a short amount of time, or will it only serve to make him even tougher for what lies ahead. He comes from a successful Kentucky Derby sire line, and his female side has plenty of class. The Apollo curse has to end some time, and this might just be the hoss to get it done.
10. Tapiture (Tapit - Free Spin, by Olympio) Steve Asmussen – If you are going to tell me that Tapiture was the best horse in the Rebel, I will be happy to agree with you. He lacked room at a key juncture in the race, and he showed strong determination in trying to create a hole when there was none. It was an effort right on par with his previous big win in the Southwest Stakes. Now for the bad news ... of the top four of the Rebel, I believe he may be the least likely to stretch out another furlong and a half. Yes, I know he was closing well, but that does not mean he will do the same over the longer trip. I see distance question marks on both sides of his pedigree. He has already fired two big shots in 2014, but the winner of the Derby is more often than not, the one who can peak at the right time. Arguably, he has run as well as anyone this year, save perhaps California Chrome, but it will only get tougher from here.
11. Tamarando (Bertrando - Tamarack Bay, by Dehere) Jerry Hollendorfer – Unlike many horses of today, this one prepares for a race with a solid seven furlong workout. It fits right along with his iron horse ways. He should get a good test from a large Spiral field Saturday at Turfway Park, including the impressive Spiral winner, Solitary Ranger, but it is a test that he should be ready for. The son of Bertrando continues to run good races no matter wherever he runs, and whatever he runs on. Despite all of his wins coming on synthetic surfaces, I like the races he was able to run over the speed favoring surface of Santa Anita. His sire was a tough Cal-bred too, but unlike his sire, this one likes to make one late run, which bodes well for his chances of passing a lot of horses in the Kentucky Derby stretch run. Whether or not he is good enough to pass 19 or not, remains a big question, but I have every reason to believe that he will run another good race on Saturday, and then again six weeks later.
12. Mexikoma (Birdstone – Toccet Over, by Toccet) Rick Mettee – This has been a colt that I’ve been high on since his maiden win at Delaware Park last September, and I really did like his seasonal debut when he fought the track bias to finish a fast closing third to good horses in South Florida. Unfortunately, he has since been slowed by a lung infection. It was not good timing for a Derby hopeful, but he is back galloping, so hopefully he will be ready for one good run at a Derby prep in April. Not only will that race need to demonstrate to his connections that he is fit and ready for the big test, but he needs points just to qualify. I believe that if all goes perfectly for him in the next six weeks, he is a horse with the talent, pedigree, and running style to make some serious noise in Louisville, but as of today, there are too many questions to have him too high on the list.
13. In Trouble (Tiz Wonderful - Ballpark Butterfly, by Grand Slam) Anthony Dutrow – I liked him in the Gotham and he could only finish third, but how resolute was he on the rail after the two talented New York-breds collared him at the top of the Aqueduct lane? He had every reason to be a little short in what was his first start after having a knee chip removed, and a subsequent sizable layoff, but he demonstrated that he fits with quality horses as a three-year-old. By fighting back strongly from the rail, I believe he also proved that he is more than the good sprinter he showed us at two. As a grandson of Tiznow, this should come as no surprise. If indeed the three main players from the Gotham do all come back to take the stage in the Wood Memorial, it would be easy to see this one reversing his fortune, which should set him up very well for a Kentucky Derby run.
14. Honor Code (A.P. Indy - Serena’s Cat, by Storm Cat) Shug McGaughey – We are all left to wonder if time is running short for the colt that looked like such a prime Derby horse last fall. The drubbing he received at the hands of Social Inclusion was a bit of a shock to the senses, but remember, it came with everything under the Florida sun against him. Therefore, I am more than willing to give him a pass on that effort, but a little more troubling to me, was the fact that his body language pre-race was not good. So, where does that leave the January 1 favorite for the Derby? Between a rock and a hard place, in my estimation. Shug will not only be pressing to get enough into him to be strong in the final quarter mile at Churchill Downs, but I am not so sure he has a horse that is really ready to want to do the work necessary. I respect everything we all liked last fall, but even with a good prep next time, I fear we may be looking at a short horse on the first Saturday in May.
15. Bobby’s Kitten (Kitten’s Joy - Celestial Woods, by Forestry) Chad Brown – Arguably America’s best juvenile turf horse in 2013, this Kitten came back to purr with a facile score in a Gulfstream Park allowance on March 8. It was a good start to the season, and it reaffirmed his strong form from last year. It was on turf, though, meaning he has yet to run on anything but the grass. That is reported to be about to change in his next start, as Keeneland’s Blue Grass is likely on his dance card. A good performance there would provide him the points he needs, and at least show that he can run well on a surface other than turf. We already know he fits with his class, there is every reason to believe that he would be able to handle the stretchout in distance, and you just know that Ramsey will not shy away from giving him the shot. One last parting thought on this one; I consider the Churchill Downs main track to be as friendly to turf runners as any dirt course in the United States.
16. Albano (Istan - Pocho’s Dream Girl, by Fortunate Prospect) Larry Jones – The first thing I want to say about this one is that his breeding does not scream distance. Having said that, what his pedigree does have is some immediate class. He’s a grandson of top sire, Gone West, and his three-quarter brother, Mark Valeski, was of high quality. Looking back at his Risen Star, I see a lot of good signs. He did not tire, but rather Intense Holiday had to go and get him. It also continued a steady progression of improving with every start. Now heading to the Louisiana Derby for his sixth career start, he should have a solid foundation that several above him on this list do not have. The Risen Star also was his second start at a distance, and he demonstrated a big step up. I’m not sure if 1 ¼ miles will be his thing, but in the hands of a master horseman, and with another strong performance on the long stretch drive at Fair Grounds, I consider him at least worth a long look.