Photo: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography
The first ever Pegasus World Cup ... check. What's next on the racing schedule? All those wonderful prep races leading up to Kentucky
Derby 2017, that's what. With just a hair over three months to go until the one race that everybody wants to win, it's time for America's best three-year-olds to start revving up their engines, in hopes of being at their absolute best on the first Saturday in May. Note that in these rankings, I did not include any fillies, because right now, my guess is that none will be in the Derby. However, if I did believe that the Derby was on their radar, there are one or two that would make the list.
1) Classic Empire (Pioneerof The
Nile—Sambuca Classica, by Cat Thief) Mark Casse (5-4-0-0)
Since my last rankings came out, he's collected an Eclipse Award as the Champion 2yo of 2016. Clearly the honor was well deserved. Save an unfortunate display of wildness in the opening yards of the Hopeful Stakes, this son of a Triple Crown producing sire did absolutely nothing wrong in 2016, culminating with an impressive victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. With the class, pedigree, running style, and connections to go far, it's only a matter of his maturing, and transition from two to three, that stands in his way of arriving to Louisville as one of the main players in the Run for the Roses. Early reports from South Florida have been nothing but positive, as he prepares for his seasonal debut in Saturday's Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. No reason for him to be fully cranked up, but a good performance is expected.
2) McCraken (Ghostzapper—Ivory
Empress, by Seeking the Gold) Ian Wilkes (3-3-0-0)
A son of the brilliant Horse of the Year, Ghostzapper, this Ian Wilkes charge has yet to run anywhere other than Churchill Downs to date. That's both good news and bad news. Of course, already proven at the host of the Derby cannot be a bad thing, but he will also need to prove his ability away from Louisville, as well. It looks like he will get his chance to do just that when he makes his sophomore debut in the February 11 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. A track know for building a foundation for young horses. With strong a female side of his bloodlines, I have every reason to believe that he will only improve at three, and while his speed ratings were not off the charts at two, he clearly ran by some nice horses to win each start.
3) Mastery (Candy Ride—Steady Course, by Old Trieste) Bob Baffert (3-3-0-0)
After the Pegasus, and for that matter, the last few years, it's reasonable to wonder if Bob Baffert can do anything wrong right now. Of course, it is the horse that must do the real heavy lifting, and in three starts, this always well regarded son of Candy Ride has looked the part of something potentially very good. The only reason I still use the word potential with him, is that I really do not know what he has beaten as of yet, despite already collecting a pair of graded stakes wins. That won't be a problem for too much longer, though, as he prepares to embark on his derby trail as the current King of Southern California. My guess right now is that he is in great shape to retain that title as we move through the Kentucky Derby preps. The talent is most definitely there.
4) Mo Town (Uncle Mo—Grazie Mille, by Bernardini) Tony Dutrow (3-2-1-0)
It's seems like this strong winner of the Remsen is not getting the ink that a few other big names on the trail are receiving. I think that is probably a mistake. A son of the hottest young sire on the planet, Uncle Mo, this one has looked good in all three starts, and progressively better to boot. It's interesting to note that he's already run at three different distances, and at three different tracks in his brief career. Gearing up again in South Florida, I am hard pressed to find any reasons why this one would not arrive to Louisville as one of the horses to beat. The Coolmore runner has nice tactical speed, and I believe he also has the class and talent to compete with any on this list.
5) Saint's Fan (Tale of Ekati—Boy Crazy, by Sky Mesa) Dallas Stewart (2-2-0-0)
Scratched out of the muddy Lecomte due to a bad post, it is nice to see that trainer Dallas Stewart is taking his time with this talented son of Tale of Ekati. Yes, I know that the Louisiana-bred has only sprinted so far, and has yet to face top level competition, but I absolutely loved what I saw in those first two races. In the hands of a horseman who clearly knows how to get a horse ready for the first Saturday in May, I am only expecting improvement for the horse with the breeding to enjoy two-turns. One more positive on his side is the fact that he looked great in his debut at Churchill Downs. I am really looking forward to his next race, as he remains under the radar of most.
6) Gunnevera (Dialed In—Unbridled Rage, by Unbridled) Antonio Sano (6-3-1-0)
The hero of both the Saratoga Special and the rich Delta Downs Jackpot brings an exciting closing kick to this year's Derby trail. It's not always going to get the job done, but on his best, and with plenty of pace in front of him, it can be a scary proposition for his competition. As much as any horse on this list, he has been working well for his 3yo debut, which should come on Saturday against Classic Empire in the Holy Bull. it will be his second try against the champ, so it will be interesting to see if he can move forward off that disappointing result at Keeneland. As the works suggest, he should be ready for it. I'm not sure that Gulfstream is the ideal place for his running style, so as long as he finishes well, that should be enough to keep him chugging towards Louisville.
7) American Anthem (Bodemeister—Indy's Windy, by A.P. Indy) Bob Baffert (2-1-1-0)
It might seem odd to have him higher than the horse that just beat him in the Sham Stakes, but of course these rankings are all about potential to win the Kentucky Derby. I actually loved his performance last time, considering it was only his second lifetime start. In both of his races, he showed real grit down the stretch. The breeding is nothing but strong on both sides, and obviously he is in good hands. Looking at his progression in his first two starts, it's impossible not to expect improvement moving forward with experience and maturity. Right now, I believe only his stablemate rates a better chance of the Southern California crew, as we approach the nitty-gritty of the prep season.
8) Uncontested (Tiz Wonderful—Chili Cat, by
Lil E. Tee) Wayne Catalano (3-2-0-0)
What to make of the sloppy Smarty Jones? My opinion is that the winner is the real deal. Thrown to the wolves, and from an outside post to boot, in his second career start, I thought he accounted himself well that evening, and only improved upon it in his third start. Obviously, the Oaklawn result will need to be proven in far different circumstances moving forward, as far as track condition, distance, and class of competition, but everything I have seen from this colt so far, tells my experienced eyes that he is an outstanding talent. You can see it in his stride, and the way he carries himself. Hopefully, he will get more of a test in his upcoming preps.
9) Gormley (Malibu Moon—Pull Dancer, by Bernstein) John Shirreffs (4-3-0-0)
From the same connections that brought us Zenyatta, it's exciting to see what this son of a Kentucky Derby producing sire has been able to do in three of his four starts. Of course, then you have a very disappointing effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. It does make me wonder if he is in the same league as the horse who sits atop this list, but you cannot help but like how he bounced back while edging American Anthem in the Sham. It was a hard-fought and gritty win which should only help him in the future. While I do think the horse whom he beat may have more upside, I know it would be a mistake to discount the winner too much. A rematch between the two would be a welcome test.
10) No Dozing (Union Rags—Stay Awake, by Pulpit) Arnaud Delacour (4-2-1-0)
The winner of his first two starts, his performances against some of the best juveniles in the country after that were good enough to have high hopes for this son of a Belmont Stakes winner. He also gave every indication of a horse who would relish the ten furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. Now stabled at Tampa Bay Downs, the Arnaud Delacour-trained colt looks to be working well for his seasonal debut, which will likely come in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, where he will likely find McCraken. With classic bloodlines throughout his pedigree, a smooth prep season should find him in Kentucky with a real shot to become Lael Stables' second winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Honorable Mention Ten (in alphabetical order)
Irish War Cry
Lookin at Lee