Division Rankings: Can Fire At Will be a Ky. Derby contender?

Division Rankings: Can Fire At Will be a Ky. Derby contender?
Photo: Sue Kawczynski / Eclipse Sportswire

Count me among the skeptics when evaluating the chances of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf hero, Fire At Will, in this weekend's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.

This is a big weekend for the glamour division of racing that will also see the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked 3-year-old males against one another in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn.

Before I get to Fire At Will, lets take a look at this week's rankings.

Older dirt males

1. Charlatan – This guy ran a superb race in Saudi Arabia, coming up short in the stretch to Mishriff. Make no mistake, the best horse won, but I give Charlatan credit. I did not expect him to grab the lead from Knicks Go early and be able to run the race he did. Did the battle between the two Americans cost Charlatan the win? I don't believe so; Mishriff was never more than a length or two off Charlatan.

2. Knicks Go – Was simply outrun in the early part of the of the Saudi Cup, never getting the lead he needed to be able to dictate the pace of the race. Joel Rosario tried his hardest to outrun Charlatan early, even tapping Knicks Go a few times to try to keep up with Charlatan, but he could not. Still believe he is the goods, and hope to see him back stateside with a shot to get back on the winning track.

3. Jesus' Team – Training for the Dubai World Cup and, believe it or not, he could be the United States' best hope. That is quite a statement. His runner-up in the Pegasus was solid, and prior, he was again runner-up to Knicks Go in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

4. Maxfield – Back to the races and still unbeaten. Easy winner of the Mineshaft (G3) at the Fair Grounds, but who did he really beat? If he can stay healthy, we should find out how good he really is.

5. Happy Saver  – Won the Jockey Club Gold Cup last year at age 3, expected back this season, but likely will fall out of the top five after this weekend's stakes action.

Next 5: By My StandardsPerformer, Title Ready, Express Train, Mystic Guide.

Older dirt females

1. Monomoy Girl – A certain Hall of Famer, she won her second Breeders' Cup Distaff. She now has the remarkable record of 13 wins in 15 starts. After having her seasonal debut postponed twice, she will start on Sunday in the Bayakoa Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn.

2. Swiss Skydiver – The Preakness winner over the Horse of the Year Authentic in 2020, she will be back this season. Her 2020 season was historic, but history shows that she will be hard pressed to maintain that form at age 4. She is backing working and is eying a March return, possibly in the Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn.

3. Gamine – Dominant winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, she will be back in the spring. I expect her connections to try to stretch her out once again.

4. Sanenus – This daughter of Scat Daddy was scintillating in the La Cañada (G3) in her first start of 2021. She was bred in Chile, and her first eight starts took place there. She came to the U.S. last summer and has run four times, getting better each time. Now fully acclimated, she could make noise in this division. We have seen several future female stars in this division come from South America before. Should go next in the Beholder Mile (G1) on March 13.

5. Valiance – Won the Spinster last fall, then was a very good runner-up to Monomoy Girl in the Breeders' Cup. She is expected back in 2021.

ext 5:  Shedaresthedevil, Harvest Moon, Letruska, Vexatious, Hard Not to Love.

3-year-old males

1. Essential Quality – The Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Eclipse winner returns this weekend in the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn against a tough field that includes the No. 2 ranked Jackie's Warrior. Doesn't need to win to maintain this spot; it will be interesting to see how he returns.

2. Jackie's Warrior – He deserves this spot based off of a stellar juvenile campaign where he did very little wrong. The two turns might have been his undoing in the Breeders' Cup, but maybe it was the fast pace. He had the lead turning for home but yielded in the stretch and finished fourth, beaten a little over three lengths. Don't be surprised to see him in the winner's circle this weekend.

3. Keepmeinmind - Flattered the top one with his race after his Breeders' Cup Juvenile third-place finish, a win in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in late November. Will skip the Southwest and wait for the Rebel (G2), also at Oaklawn.

4. Life Is Good – Newcomer broke his maiden in late November and then won the season's first test, the one-mile Sham (G3) at Santa Anita. It was a nice race, and the runner-up came back to hold on and win the Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. But I am skeptical of him going longer.

5. Medina Spirit– Winner of the Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, he was previously runner-up to Life Is Good in the Sham. Held off Hot Rod Charlie in the Lewis; not sure he will like longer but he deserves this spot for now.

Next 5: Greatest Honour, Hot Rod Charlie, MandalounMidnight Bourbon, Caddo River.

3-year-old females

1. Vequist – The two turns and 8 1/2 furlongs of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies is exactly what this gal needed as she was two lengths clear of Dayoutoftheoffice for the win. She finished her 2020 season with two Grade 1 wins. Returns to the races this weekend in the Davona Dale at Gulfstream.

2. Dayoutoftheoffice – The Frizette (G1) winner ran her race in the Breeders' Cup, but she couldn't hold off Vequist this time around.  Remember, she defeated Vequist in the Frizette, but that was at a mile around one turn.

3. Clairiere – Reeled in favored Travel Column to win the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds last weekend for her first stakes win. Was previously second to that rival in last fall's Golden Rod (G2) at Churchill Downs.

4. Travel Column – The Golden Rod winner from last fall returned a close runner-up to her rival Clairiere in the Rachel Alexandra. Certainly will have room for improvement in her next start. Could face her rival next out in the Fair Grounds Oaks.

5. Aunt Pearl – Three grass starts and three daylight wins. Her win last out in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf came at the expense of 13 others, five of whom were from overseas. Look for her to run overseas this season.

Next 5: 
Girl Daddy, Moonlight d'Oro, Malathaat, Varda, Simply Ravishing.

Turf males

1. Channel Maker – Really ran a gallant race to finish second in Neom Turf Cup In Saudi Arabia. He is clearly now in the best form of his career at the ripe old age of 7. Now he heads to Dubai in search of another big payday.

2. Zulu Alpha – Missed the Breeders' Cup with an injury but was one of the best in this division in 2020. Will return in 2021.

3. Colonel Liam – Rolled late to win the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) by a neck. Prior to that, he won the ungraded Tropical Park Derby. The win in the Pegasus came over an extremely weak field, as Grade 1 events go.

4. Ivar – The winner of the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) last season, he came running at the end of the Breeders' Cup Mile but was too late as he finished fourth, beaten less than two lengths. Back in training now so look for him to return in the spring.

5. Mo Forza – Was brilliant in a short two-race, injury-shortened campaign in 2020. Has a difficult time staying healthy and likely will fall out of these rankings again as he is now sidelined until the summer because of another physical setback.

Next 5: Arklow, United, Domestic Spending, Laccario, Largent.

Turf females

1. Mean Mary -
 Occupied this spot for a few weeks in 2020, she starts off 2021 at No. 1 based on her stellar campaign from last year. If she runs like she did in 2020, she is the favorite for the Eclipse in this division.

Harvey's Lil Goil – She almost won the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf last season at age 3. She is back in 2021 and will be a player in this division.

Viadera - Winner of her last three starts, which included the Matriarch (G1) at Del Mar in late November.

4. Mucho Unusual - Now in the best form of her 19-race career, she has won two graded stakes in the last month. Won the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive last fall as well.

Jolie Olimpica – Returned from a six-month layoff to finish runner-up in the Las Cienegas (G3) a couple weeks back. Was one of the best in this division in 2020.

Next 5: Blowout, Civil Union, Quick, Magic Attitude, Charmaine's Mia.

Male sprinters

1. Whitmore – Nearly four and a half years after his 19th-place finish to Nyquist in the 2016 Kentucky Derby, this guy wins the biggest race of his career, the Breeders' Cup Sprint, last fall. Now an 8-year-old, can he still compete in Grade 1 company? I wouldn't bet against it. Will likely return in the Hot Springs Stakes at Oaklawn on March 13.

2. C Z Rocket – His five-race win streak came to end in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but only Whitmore beat him first to the wire. Won the Pat O'Brien last August and the Santa Anita Sprint Championship in his prior two starts. He is set to make his 2021 debut at Oaklawn, perhaps against Whitmore in the Hot Springs.

3. Nashville - Might be a bit high in this spot, but I will forgive his last-out loss to Charlatan in the Malibu and give him another chance. He was sensational in three prior starts sprinting.

4. Firenze Fire - Now a 6-year-old, he continues to fire in almost every race. A winner of three graded stakes last season, he finished a good third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Last seen, he was a close second to Sleepy Eyes Todd in the Mr. Prospector Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park in late December.

5. Wildman Jack - Easily Won the Palos Verdes (G3) last out, and that is good enough to move him to No. 5 here for now considering graded stakes sprint wins are few and far between this early in the season.

Next 5: Sleepy Eyes Todd, Yaupon, Vertical Threat, Mischevious Alex, Share the Ride.

Female sprinters

1. Gamine – Simply put, she is the best sprinter, male or female, in the country. Should be back in the spring, but connections may try to stretch her out again.

2. Bell's the One – Was last seen running third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint last fall. Now back in training for a 2021 campaign, her first planned race this year is the Madison (G1) at Keeneland on April 3.

3. Frank's Rockette – Winner of three graded stakes last season, she started 2021 off with a win in the American Beauty Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Will likely run next in the Carousel at Oaklawn on April 10.

4. Merneith Won the Santa Monica (G2) last out and was previously third in the La Brea (G1) in December. Looks like she is finally realizing her potential for trainer Bob Baffert.

5. Venetian Harbor - A winner of two Grade 2 stakes last year, the Las Virgenes (G2) at Santa Anita and the Raven Run (G2) at Keeneland, she is eying a spring return to the races.

Next 5: Sconsin, Amy's Challenge, Wildwood's Beauty, Pacific Gale, Kimari.

As it stands now, the second choice (7-2) on the morning line in this weekend’s Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, Fire At Will, is nowhere to be found in the above rankings. Perhaps he could be in the bottom half of the top 10 in his division, but I felt others were more deserving. He certainly can’t be ranked in the turf male division with so many older, more experienced runners.

Proven on the grass at age 2, Fire At Will’s connections have chosen to start his 3-year-old campaign on the dirt in an attempt to carve out a path to the Kentucky Derby.

Skeptics such as myself will point to his pedigree, with heavy turf influence on both sides. But, as I have written many times in the past, you are only age 3 one time, and this is a gamble worth taking for his connections. It’s really a no-lose situation. A win or a good showing propels Fire At Will to the next step and keeps him on the Kentucky Derby path. A loss, and it’s back to the grass. Fire At Will is at least being given a shot by his connections to see whether he can hang with some of the better dirt runners of his generation, and for that I commend them.

Fire At Will has run on the dirt once before, albeit a sloppy track that often brings out the best in grass runners. So don’t read too much into that one “dirt” effort, which came in last September’s off-the-turf With Anticipation Stakes over three other horses, none of whom have done anything of significance since then. Off at 30-1 in the Breeders’ Cup, he won by a rather easy three lengths. It was a nice effort for sure, but the jury is still out on that field, a field I rate a cut below average as Juvenile Turf’s go.

So here we are, Fire At Will’s future could change dramatically should he run well this weekend, but if he finds the dirt not to his liking, he looks to at least have a bright future on the grass.

Meet Chip Gehrke

Chip Gehrke has been with Horse Racing Nation since 2015 and currently serves as a Featured Writer. Based outside of Chicago, Chip can be found in the press box many weekends during the Arlington Park meet. The On The Air With Dr. Derby name originates from his local sports radio show appearances as an on-air racing expert. Now also a weekly contributor on FOX Sports radio's "The Fast Track," Chip can be heard giving his thoughts on the racing world every weekend.

In 2017, Chip was chosen to be a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association. As a part of the NTWAB, Chip became a voter for the year-end Eclipse Awards, something he takes very seriously. Some of Chip's favorite writings from the last couple of years is the best way to get to know him, along with following him on Twitter at @doctorderby.

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