Division Rankings: Weekend stakes lure array of stars

Division Rankings: Weekend stakes lure array of stars
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

While the Kentucky Derby is the marquee event of the weekend in the racing world, it’s easy to forget about the 12 other graded stakes races being run at Churchill Downs tomorrow and Saturday.

The rankings below will most certainly take on a different look a week from today with several highly ranked horses running under the Twin Spires this weekend. Before I dive into those - and my Kentucky Derby thoughts - lets take a look at this week’s updated rankings:

Older dirt males

1. Mystic Guide. Solid win in Dubai and is 2-for-2 on the season, but the Dubai World Cup field he defeated was nowhere near what we have come to expect from Dubai World Cup fields. Certainly has done enough to move into the top spot, though I am not sure how long he will stay here. In the states now and working at Keeneland.

2. Silver State. 3-for-3 on the season, his Oaklawn Handicap win stamped him as a legitimate Eclipse contender in this division. He deserves this spot for what he has done in 2021.

3. Charlatan. Skipping his expected start this weekend. We likely won't see him again until Belmont weekend in the Met Mile.

4. Knicks Go. Also back on the work tab, he will be pointed toward the Met Mile as well. Despite his fourth-place finish in the Saudi Cup, which halted a four-race winning streak, I still believe he is the goods.

5. Maxfield. Back in action in this weekend's Alysheba (G2) at Churchill, he should rebound with a win after his third place finish in the Santa Anita Handicap.

Next 5: Idol, Express Train, By My Standards, Rushie, Fearless. 

Older dirt females

1. Letruska. Was simply spectacular in the Apple Blossom, prevailing in an epic stretch dual over a future Hall of Famer in Monomoy Girl. She is 13-for-17 on her career now. A fascinating story, this mare started her career in Mexico City and ran six times, all wins, and was a champion in Mexico for her Mexican connections. She becomes the first horse who started their career in Mexico to win a Grade 1 race in this country. She is deservedly the No. 1 ranked female in this division and will be the leader in the Eclipse race as we near the halfway point of the season.

2. Monomoy Girl. Was gallant to the finish in the Apple Blossom, but came up a nose short. Clearly still on top of her game, something I wondered aloud about heading into this last race, she will stick to running against females for now.

3. Swiss Skydiver. No excuses for last year's Preakness winner, she came up flat in the stretch and finished a well-beaten third, nearly seven lengths back in the Apple Blosson. She probably will be more competitive going longer, but the fact is she is now 0-for-2 against Monomoy Girl.

4. Gamine. An easy win in her seasonal debut, the Las Flores (G3) at Santa Anita, she runs in this weekend's Derby City Distaff (G1). Should she win impressively again, it will be interesting to see where her connections take her after.

5. Shedaresthedevil. Was very much flattered by Letruska's win last weekend as this gal was gritty in her head win in the Azeri (G2) over Letruska in her last start. She is all set for this weekend's La Troienne (G1) at Churchill Downs.

Next 5:  As Time Goes By, Valiance, Vexatious, Bonny South, Ce Ce.

3-year-old males

1. Essential Quality. Will be the clear Kentucky Derby favorite by virtue of his spotless record over the last two seasons. While others search for their Kentucky Derby horse, maybe this guy is just heads and shoulders above the rest? Will try an emulate Nyquist who was the last Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Eclipse winner to win the Run for the Roses.

2. Rock Your World. After his impressive Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner is the second betting choice for the Kentucky Derby. His Santa Anita Derby win was no fluke – 2-for-2 prior, both wins on the grass, he set a legitimate pace and drew off in the stretch. He sports a great pedigree and should run all day, and he doesn't need the lead to fire his best. A very intriguing horse, but I do worry about the turf to dirt second start angle. We often see turf horses run well in their dirt debut only to run poorly on the dirt thereafter. He may be a win or off-the-board horse next weekend.

3. Life Is Good. Joins a long list of horses from previous seasons that impressed on the Kentucky Derby trail only to be injured and forced to miss the Triple Crown events. Impressive winner of the San Felipe (G2) by eight lengths and unbeaten in three starts, he is now off the Kentucky Derby trail because of a hind-end injury. If we see him run again, it will not be until late summer or the fall at the earliest.

4. Hot Rod Charlie. This guy is a serious Kentucky Derby contender who has knocked heads with Essential Quality before, coming up up just short with his runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He really handed it to the “house” horses last out at the Fair Grounds in the Louisiana Derby (G2), proving much the best in the 1 3/16-mile test. That is key: The 1 3/16 is just short of the 1 1/4 Derby distance, so we know he will be fine with the 10 furlongs. The last Louisiana Derby winner to win a Kentucky Derby? Grindstone in 1996.

5. Medina Spirit. Flying below the radar now after his somewhat disappointing Santa Anita Derby runner-up finish, I still believe he is in with a chance this weekend. Plenty of Kentucky Derby winners exited their previous races with a loss or losses. My dark horse in the Run for the Roses.

Next 5: Known Agenda, Super Stock, Highly Motivated, Concert Tour, Greatest Honour.

3-year-old females

1. Travel Column. Was much the best in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), beating the previous No. 1, Clairiere. These two have quite the rivalry going as they have faced one another in three straight races, trading wins and running one-two in all three. Could still end up favorite a wide-open Kentucky Oaks.

2. Clairiere. Had too much to do in the stretch of the Fair Grounds Oaks but ran on well to finish a clear second to Travel Column. The nine furlongs of the Kentucky Oaks might be in her favor next week.

3. Malathaat. I was very impressed with her win in the Ashland (G1) at Keeneland, so much so that I contemplated moving her to No. 1. Although she won by only a head, she gave the impression that she was always going to get there. And seeing how that was her first start this season, she should be much better for the Kentucky Oaks. Will relish going longer and is the morning line favorite in the Kentucky Oaks.

4. Search Results. Unbeaten filly will take some money in the Kentucky Oaks, and perhaps she is the real deal. Last out she was an easy winner of the Gazelle (G2) at Aqueduct. Trainer Chad Brown has himself a serious contender.

5. Crazy Beautiful. Impressive winner of her last start, the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), this gal knocked heads with the best last year as she was Grade 1 placed. Has run at Churchill Downs once before, a runner-up finish in the Pocahantas (G3) last fall.

Next 5:  Wholebodemeister, Pass the Champagne, Soothsay, Pauline's Pearl, Will's Secret.

Turf males

1. Colonel Liam. Certainly ran well in the recent Muniz Memorial Stakes (G2), where he scored a workmanlike win by two lengths, but I still question who he has beaten. The runner-up in the Muniz, Two Emmys, never had run in a stakes and was coming off of seven straight races in the optional claiming ranks. Will run again this weekend at Churchill Downs in the Turf Classic.

2. Channel Maker. He simply didn't run his best race in Dubai, where he finished eighth, beaten six lengths in the Sheema Classic (G1). Previously, he ran a gallant race to finish second in the Neom Turf Cup In Saudi Arabia. He drops to No. 2 and will be back racing in New York this summer.

3. Raging Bull. Certainly an impressive win in the Maker's Mark Mile (G1), his first start of 2021. Moves up to this spot for now, but I can't help but remember last season when he was impressive in first start of 2020 in Santa Anita's Shoemaker Mile, also a Grade 1 win. He then went winless for the remainder of the season. In other words, I am skeptical he can string together wins.

4. Hit the Road. Simply didn't have it in the stretch of the Maker's Mark, fading to fifth, beaten a little less than four lengths. Previously he scored in the Kilroe Mile (G1) at Santa Anita. Will point next to the Shoemaker Mile (G1) on May 31 at Santa Anita.

5. UnitedWon his 2021 debut with a solid win in the San Luis Rey (G3) at Santa Anita. Up next, his connections will point the 6-year-old to the Charles Whittingham Stakes (G2) at 1 1/4 miles on May 29.

Next 5: Ivar, Mo Forza, Zulu Alpha, Domestic Spending, Laccario.

Turf females

1. Mean Mary.
 Will finally make her return to the races on June 4 in the New York Stakes (G2) at Belmont Park. Although she may drop from this spot before then, she was No. 1 for a few weeks in 2020 and 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 was third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf last season at age 3 and won the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland last fall. She is back in 2021 and will be a player in this division. Has been off the board only once in nine starts.

Viadera. Winner of her last three starts, which included the Matriarch (G1) at Del Mar in late November. Still hasn't worked and likely will drop soon, but she is expected to be back racing later this season.

4. Juliet Foxtrot
. We finally saw a Grade 1 stakes for this division, and this gal came out on top a few weeks ago in the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland. She previously had placed in four Grade 1 events, but this was her first win at the top level. Last season she was 1-for-5, with her lone win coming in the Gallorette (G3) at Pimlico.

5. Charmaine's Mia. With her win in the Royal Heroine (G2) at Santa Anita, she ran her record to 3-for-3 on the year. All three of her wins have come in graded stakes, the most of any horse in her division thus far.

Next 5: Mucho Unusual, Civil Union, Got Stormy, Jolie Olimpica, Blowout.

Male sprinters

1. C Z Rocket. Cemented his position here at the top with another win over Whitmore, this time in the Count Fleet Sprint (G3). He has quietly won seven of his last eight and is leading the Eclipse race as we enter the spring.

2. Mischevious Alex. Won his first Grade 1 race a few weeks ago in the Carter at Aqueduct in impressive fashion. Previously he scored in the Gulfstream Park Sprint (G3) in impressive fashion. He is the real deal this year, and his speed figures are on par or better than anyone else in this division. He could run in the Met Mile next.

3. Whitmore. Again runner-up to C Z Rocket, he ran well again and was clearly best of the rest. Shows no signs of slowing down at the ripe old age of 8.

4. Wildman Jack. Was fourth last out in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), certainly not a bad effort. Previously, he easily won the Palos Verdes (G3). This resume is good enough to move him to No. 4 here for now, considering graded stakes sprint wins are few and far between this early in the season.

5. Cezanne. Certainly a visually impressive win in the Kona Gold (G3) at Santa Anita, where he won by over nine lengths, but pump the brakes before you hand him the Eclipse. He beat only three other horses as he was able to lay far off a blazing early pace set by the race favorite, Brickyard Ride. In other words, I need to see a lot more before he moves up.

Next 5: Brickyard Ride, Empire of Gold, Firenze Fire, Extravagant Kid, Flagstaff, Chateau.

Female sprinters

1. Gamine. Dominant in the Las Flores (G3) over six furlongs at Santa Anita for her 2021 debut, she is set to run again in this weekend's Derby City Distaff (G1) at Churchill Downs. She may be the best sprinter, male or female, in the country. Perhaps she will be tested by Bell's the One this weekend.

2. Kimari. In her first graded stakes race on the dirt she didn't disappoint, edging away in the stretch for a 3/4-length win over Bell's the One in the Madison (G1) at Keeneland. 

3. Bell's the One. Somewhat of a disappointment when dead-heating for the runner-up spot in the Madison (G1), but it was her first start since last fall's Breeders' Cup. She will take on Gamine in the Derby City Distaff on the Kentucky Derby undercard.

4. Edgeway. Defeated Frank's Rockette in the Carousel at Oaklawn last weekend and is 2-for-2 on the season. Connections are not sure where she will go next, but they have stated that her long-range goal is the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Del Mar, with her prep for that race coming in the Rancho Bernardo Handicap (G3) on Aug. 20.

5. Merneith. Won the Santa Monica (G2) last out and previously was third in the La Brea (G1) in December. Looks like she is finally realizing her potential for trainer Bob Baffert. In light training, she is not expected back until at least May.

Next 5: Frank's Rockette, Pacific Gale, Venetian Harbor, Estilo Talentoso, Sanenus

The 3-year-old fillies star in tomorrow’s Kentucky Oaks where no less than eight of the top 10 ranked above will run. A contentious field of 14 will go to post, with the No. 3 ranked Malathaat the lukewarm favorite. This division is wide open right now, but the Oaks could offer some clarity. I lean towards Malathaat and Search Results in this spot, with Pass the Champagne and Crazy Beautiful as viable longshot plays. 

Elsewhere on tomorrows card, we have the No. 5 ranked Older Dirt Male, Maxfield, running in the Grade 2 Alysheba at 1 1/16 on the dirt. Running for the first time since his trip to California that resulted in a third place finish, he is 4-5 for reason, and over a track he is 2-for-2 over, he should get back to his winning ways. 

One race later the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner,  Aunt Pearl, makes her 2021 debut in the Grade 2 Edgewood at 1 1/16 on the grass. She was ranked in the top five until she was dropped last week due to inactivity. She too is 4-5, but unlike Maxfield is not a sure thing. We all know that strong 2-year-old form doesn’t equate to the same at age three. Remember the star 2-year-old grass filly Newspaperofrecord? She also won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and made the Edgewood her 3-year-old debut, but she lost when 1-5 on the tote board. Play Aunt Pearl cautiously. 

Outside of the 3-year-old male stars we will see in the Kentucky Derby, the horse most are looking forward to seeing is the star sprinter, Gamine. Ranked No. 1 in the Female Sprint division, she will run in the Grade 1 Derby City Distaff run at 7 furlongs on the dirt. Her chief rival should be the No. 3 ranked Bell’s the One, who is also entered. It is hard for me to envision Gamine losing this race. I feel that this is the best sprinter on the dirt in the country - male or female. 

The No. 3 ranked male sprinter, Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Whitmore, will try and get back to his winning ways after a pair of runner-up efforts to the current No. 1, C Z Rocket. He won’t have to deal with C Z Rocket this time around in the Grade 1 Churchill Downs Stakes run at 7 furlongs, but he does face a solid group of 12 veteran sprinters. This is tough race where could I could see any one of several winning. 

One race before the Derby we get to see the No. 1 ranked male turf horse in action Colonel Liam. I'm still not convinced he is for real, but win in this spot over the best field he has seen this season will go a long way. Ivar, ranked No. 6, makes his seasonal debut, and No. 9 Domestic Spending also returns for the first time in 2021. The Chad Brown trained Domestic Spending could be tough here along with another he has entered, the unranked Digital Age. 

Lastly we have the Kentucky Derby. Seven of the top 10 ranked 3-year-old males are entered in the Run for the Roses. The No. 1 ranked Essential Quality will be favored when they leave the gate, and should he win, he will cement his place at the top at stay unbeaten. 

Some brief personal thoughts: 

If Medina Spirit breaks clean he may very well be sent to the lead. I find it hard to envision jockey John Velazquez letting the other speed to his outside cross over. Further, trainer Bob Baffert knows this and knows his horse loves a fight. Figure-wise he compares favorably with the others here, is battle tested, and the 10 furlongs certainly doesn’t hurt. In other words, don’t sleep on Medina Spirit. 

In my opinion this is a very top heavy Derby with several viable winners. Besides Medina Spirit, I will use Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Hot Rod Charlie, and King Fury on top of tickets. Longshots for me are King Fury and Sainthood. I will toss the Wood Memorial, Florida Derby, and Arkansas Derby horses. Others I will use underneath are Highly Motivated, Midnight Bourbon and Keepmeinmind. 

You can look at this Derby one of two ways, easy to handicap with Essential Quality the likely winner, much like Nyquist in 2016. Then play the other contenders underneath with sort of chalky trifecta as happened in 2016 and 2015. Or, wide-open with any one of six to eight horses with a chance to win and a couple bombs rounding out the trifecta and/or superfecta. I chose the latter. Good luck to all.

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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