1. Strong Mandate (Tiznow - Clear Mandate, by Deputy Minister) D.Wayne Lukas - Things are really starting to heat up on the 2014 Kentucky Derby trail, and so it is for my top ranked colt. Working strong deep in the heart of Arkansas for 78-year-old legendary trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, the grade 1 winning son of Tiznow is ready to take the Oaklawn Park route to Kentucky by storm. Proven for class as a juvenile, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third just needs to prove he can harness his early speed when needed to navigate the pitfalls of the intense pressure of the Run for the Roses and beyond. Take another look at that performance at Santa Anita, where he broke from the far outside pace and battled through fractions just too fast to expect success. Still he was able to demonstrate his class, and was actually coming back at Havana in the late stages. Not that he needs to win, but look for him to be tough to beat in Monday’s Southwest Stakes first time out in the new year.
2. Candy Boy (Candy Ride - She’s An Eleven, by In Excess) John Sadler – The last time we saw a fifty something jockey win the Kentucky Derby was nearly three decades ago when the Shoe booted home a Californian horse with a spotty juvenile record. With Saturday’s win in the Robert B. Lewis, Candy Boy, with Gary Stevens in the saddle, is already farther along than Ferdinand was at the same time in his sophomore season. The powerful son of Candy Ride tipped off what he could become with an explosive backstretch move in December’s CashCall Futurity. You have to be a talented horse to make that kind of move against a solid full field, and I liked the way he stayed on after being passed by the 2yo champ, Shared Belief. Armed with a much better knowledge of just how much horse he was sitting on the second time around, Stevens had Candy Boy looking as professional as could be in winning the Lewis. He gives me every indication that the distance will not be a problem. There’s just a lot to like with this one. Look for him to make one more start, the Santa Anita Derby, before heading off to Louisville as one of the main players on the first Saturday in May.
3. Top Billing (Curlin - Parade Queen, by A.P. Indy) Shug McGaughey – His acid test is coming soon enough, as he remains on track for the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Not that he hasn’t already been tested against some pretty good horses in Commissioner and Surfing U S A. I thought he was best in that loss to Commissioner, and I absolutely loved the way he overcame trouble to make it an interesting race. Armed with a better trip last time, he zoomed from way back to a going away winner. Despite starting his career in an out of the norm spot for his Kentucky Derby winning trainer, Shug McGaughey, make no mistake, this son of Curlin is the real deal. He’s also bred for the part of legitimate Kentucky Derby contender. Not only does he have quality on the sire half of his pedigree, but there is even more reason to believe he can go the distance from a strong Will Farish female family. Don’t be surprised to see Shug celebrating back-to-back Derby wins with the colt who wasn’t the talk of the juvenile season.
4. Honor Code (A.P. Indy - Serena’s Cat, by Storm Cat) Shug McGaughey – No workouts since January 18 at Payson Park have Honor Code backers nervously chewing their nails. The good news is that he is just about ready to make it back to the worktab, hopefully meaning that he will still have time to get in two good preps before May rolls around. That’s good news, but the devil’s advocate would warn, one more hiccup and he will not be properly prepared for the Derby. True, but McGaughey is as good as anyone at getting his talented runners back on schedule and primed to fire on the day of a big race. Remember, no juvenile showed more promise as a potential classic runner than this one did. Whether he starts off in Oaklawn’s Rebel in March, or another race, all he needs to do is finish up full of run and move forward to the next stop. If you thought he was going to wind up the best of this crop, there is no reason to give up on him yet.
5. Cairo Prince (Pioneerof The Nile - Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull) Kiaran McLaughlin – It seems like an interesting decision by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin to skip the Fountain of Youth and wait for the Florida Derby at the end of March after the show he put on in the Holy Bull, but maybe it just means that his trainer sees the need to keep him at his best all the way through the Belmont. And why shouldn’t he? Cairo Prince has done nothing but impress in four lifetime starts in New York and Florida. In each, he showed off a decisive burst of speed that has been the trademark of many of the sport’s greatest horses. Still, the question remains ... when the distances pass the nine furlong marker, will this one have what it takes to fight off the late challengers? It’s certainly possible, but I remain skeptical. If he does prove that a classic distance is a little bit outside his scope, I have every reason to believe that he has a big career at middle distances in his future.
6. California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit - Love The Chase by Not For Love) Art Sherman – OK, so after seeing the trouble this one had in the Del Mar Futurity, I was excited to play him in person against the heavily favored Tamarando in the Golden State Juvenile on the Breeders’ Cup undercard. After seeing him not threaten that day, I shrugged and surmised that he was not the horse that I had hoped. Boy, was I wrong. When he destroyed the field in the late season King Glorious, I thought he looked good, but chalked it up to a weak field. After the California Cup Derby, though, I had no choice but to admit that my feelings after the Golden State were incorrect. I know it was against state-breds, but this one was as impressive as any sophomore performance so far this year. To East Coast watchers, I would liken it very much to Cairo Prince’s Holy Bull, only with a better gallop out. Don’t make the mistake I made. Discount this one at your own peril.
7. Shared Belief (Candy Ride - Common Hope, by Storm Cat) Jerry Hollendorfer – The second son of Candy Ride on this list, I believe he has more in common with Honor Code than Candy Boy, in that he is now squarely behind the eight ball, as far as timing goes. The best two-year-old in the country in 2013, he was nothing short of brilliant last year, highlighted by his romping win over the #2 horse on the list in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity. Talent only goes so far, however, and for a horse who had serious questions about dirt and distance going into the year, he now has his biggest question of all in attempting to overcome more than a month of missed training at an inopportune time. Best case scenario, he does make it back to training within the week, and Hollendorfer has him ready for the San Felipe on March 8. That’s less than four weeks away, so like I said, he is seeriously behind the eight ball.
8. Commissioner (A.P. Indy - Flaming Heart, by Touch Gold) Todd Pletcher – Are you looking forward to Top Billing-Commissioner Part II? I am. The first one, even though it was only an allowance, was terrific. Given that I like Top Billing as much as I do, it follows that I must like this one as well, and I do. The second son of A.P. Indy on this list, his broodmare sire, Touch Gold, was also a Belmont winner, so it should come as no surprise that Commissioner can get the distance. As a matter of fact, he is the only three-year-old in the nation with two wins at nine furlongs on the dirt. The first one having come back in August at Saratoga, so the win over Top Billing was impressive considering the long layoff. He’ll get his first taste of stakes racing in the Fountain of Youth, but my guess is that if he can beat the same horse he did last time, he’s likely to find himself in the winner’s circle once again.
9. Mexikoma (Birdstone – Toccet Over, by Toccet) Rick Mettee – He has not turned up in a starting gate yet this year, but he has been working very well for his seasonal debut, which is likely to be a Florida allowance race in the next few weeks. This one has plenty in his pedigree to suggest that he will only get better as the races get longer. 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 Juvenile, 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. Like the one just above him, distance will not be a problem.
10. Conquest Titan (Birdstone – Miner’s Secret, by Mineshaft) Mark Casse – Another one pointing for the Fountain of Youth on February 22, I’m still not sure what to completely make of him. He shows flashes of major potential, but at the same time he does just enough poorly to doubt him. Come to think of it, that sounds a little bit like his sire, who as you know, became a major winner in June and August of his three-year-old season. He may have been no match for Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull, but the late, wide rally to get second does bode well for the longer races of the spring. As far as his inconsistency, sometimes horses just need time to get the mental, emotional, and physical all in tune. Definitely one horse with the potential to jump up on this list in a hurry.
11. Schoolofhardrocks (Rock Hard Ten - Royal Chapin, by Royal Academy) David Hofman – If you didn’t happen to see a maiden special weight at Del Mar back in August then you’ve never seen this son of Rock Hard Ten run. The good news is that the impressive win that day, at a flat mile, was good enough to have his connections point him for the Grade 1 FrontRunner for his second start. A physical setback did not allow that to happen, but now the good looking colt is back and working at Santa Anita. In fact, he has had four works back already, and they look good. Like a few others on this list, he has no more time for errors from here out if he wants to make the Derby. Obviously I liked what I saw in his lone race last year, and believe in his potential, so don’t be surprised if he becomes a breakout horse in the coming weeks.
12. Bond Holder (Mineshaft - Cielo Girl, by Conquistador Cielo) Doug O’Neill – There is something about remembering Mineshaft run at ten furlongs that makes me believe that one of his sons can become a real Kentucky Derby contender. A promising juvenile, Bond Holder has thrown down a series of steady and solid six-furlong works since his last race when fourth in the CashCall Futurity for Kentucky Derby winning trainer, Doug O'Neill. It looks like all those works should have him ready and rarin to go when he heads east to New Orleans for the Risen Star Stakes on February 22. He’ll need to be at his best if he is to defeat the speedy Vicar’s In Trouble and others first time out, but he just seems like a horse who might not be peaking until a little later in this year. Hopefully he has it all together by the time the first Saturday in May rolls around.
13. Commanding Curve (Master Command - Mother, by Lion Hearted) Dallas Stewart – New to my list, this grandson of A.P. Indy comes from Dallas Stewart, the same trainer who had longshot Golden Soul rally for second in last year’s Derby. He also trains the #1 filly on my Oaks’ list, Unbridled Forever. As for this one, he finished off his juvenile season well with a nice win going 1 1/16 miles under the twin spires in November, and like the one above him, he has been working like clockwork this year in advance of his season debut for the well known partnership, West Point Thoroughbreds. That season opener will also come in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, and just like I believe with Bond Holder, it’s less important that he wins that, and more important that he finishes with good energy, with the idea of peaking in about 2 ½ months.
14. Tonalist (Tapit - Settling Mist, by Pleasant Colony) Christophe Clement - Only a maiden winner to date, you had to like what you saw in that lone victory. After running fourth in a key maiden race in New York in his career debut, this son of Tapit came back at Gulfstream to rally impressively while wide and roll home an easy winner over a good looking field. While Tapit is far from my favorite ten furlong sire, I love the Pleasant Colony/His Majesty blood on his female side. It will be interesting to see how cautious Clement plays his hand, because points will become a premium soon. It’s looking like an allowance race is next, with stakes racing still another start away.
15. Tapiture (Tapit - Free Spin, by Olympio) Steve Asmussen – If anyone can slow down Strong Mandate in Monday’s Southwest Stakes, look for it to either be Walt or this one. Sired by the ubiquitous Tapit, and out of a very talented stakes winning mare, may have taken a while to break his maiden, but when he did, he did it in style The rousing romp in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs closed out his juvenile season. Like the top horse on these rankings, he has turned in a steady stream of solid works and should be ready for the Southwest test. I’m not completely 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.