Division Rankings: Return of a champion featured this week

Division Rankings: Return of a champion featured this week
Photo: Benoit

This weekend's action is highlighted by the return of Swiss Skydiver, the champion 3-year-old filly of 2020, who will begin her 2021 season in Saturday’s Grade 1 Beholder Mile at Santa Anita.

Swiss Skydiver will attempt to accomplish what few before her have been able to do, return at age four and claim another Eclipse.

Before I get into why I believe it will be very difficult for Swiss Skydiver this season, lets take a look at this week's updated rankings.

Older dirt males

1. Charlatan – He ran a superb race in Saudi Arabia, coming up short in the stretch to Mishriff. Make no mistake, the best horse won, but 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. He will skip Dubai and point for a race back here in the United States.

2. Knicks Go – Named Maryland-bred Horse of the Year and champion older male last week, he 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 I hope he returns to the races again after a freshening.

3. Jesus' Team – On schedule for the Dubai World Cup and, believe it or not, he is among the United States' best hopes along with Mystic Guide. 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. Mystic Guide – Certainly a nice effort in his 2021 debut, an easy six-length win the Razorback (G3). Still, I will temper my expectations for now. His 108 Beyer, while certainly nice, was over a very sloppy racetrack where some horses just take to it. Still feel he is a cut below a few others in this division right now. Connections have decided to send him to Dubai for his next start, so he will have his chance to move up.

5. Maxfield – Truth be told, he ran a fine race in the Santa Anita Handicap considering the circumstances. First start beyond 8.5 furlongs, shipped across country, and was beaten by just two lengths finishing third to Idol and Express Train on their home track. He likely got a lot out of this race, and will be better going forward.

Next 5: Idol, Express Train, Happy Saver, By My StandardsTitle Ready.

Older dirt females

1. Monomoy Girl – Got the job done in her 2021 debut, a two-length win in the Bayakoa (G3) at Oaklawn. She improved her remarkable record to 14 wins from 16 starts. Perhaps it was the mud, the layoff or a combination of both, but I felt like the Bayakoa was not her "A" race. This division is more open than many realize. The Apple Blossom in April will probably be here next race.

2. Swiss Skydiver – Returns this weekend in the Beholder Mile (G1), where she faces a tough field. This will be no easy spot with Harvest Moon and Sanenus also entered. Remember, she shipped to Santa Anita last year to win the Santa Anita Oaks. Her 2020 season was historic with her Preakness win, but history shows that she will be hard-pressed to maintain that form at age 4.

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. Keep an eye on the Met Mile against the boys in June as a possible long range target for this gal.

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.

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 – Remains on top where he belongs. Remember, he is the Juvenile Eclipse and Breeders' Cup winner. He was brilliant when getting his 3-year-old campaign underway Oaklawn in the Southwest (G3) and hasn't been defeated. He will have one more start prior to the Kentucky Derby, in either the Arkansas Derby or the Blue Grass at Keeneland.

2. Life Is Good – Impressive winner of the San Felipe (G2) last weekend by eight lengths, unbeaten in three starts. Certainly at the top of many Kentucky Derby lists, except this one. His task in the San Felipe was made much easier when stablemate Medina Spirit was sent extremely wide around the first turn by jockey John Valazquez taking the other main speed in the race, The Great One, with him. Reminiscent of the 2018 Belmont, that move essentially handed an easy lead, and the race to Life is Good. 

3. Greatest Honour – Has to be placed in the top three based off of his exploits so far at age 3, clear-cut wins in the Holy Bull (G3) and Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream. The problem is his recent Fountain of Youth win was among the slowest in the last 40 years, speed figure-wise. I also question who has he really beaten, but still, he got the job done in visually impressive fashion. Will go next in the Florida Derby.

4. Medina Spirit– Not his fault he received a questionable ride in the San Felipe, he still ran well considering the circumstances. Has shown a lot of fight on the track and won the battle for second after being headed in the stretch of the San Felipe. Although he lost by eight, I feel like he is a very real Kentucky Derby contender.

5. Keepmeinmind - Finally returns to the races this weekend in the Rebel at Oaklawn. 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. 

Next 5: Hot Rod Charlie, MandalounMidnight Bourbon, Caddo River, Concert Tour.

3-year-old females

1. Clairiere – Reeled in favored Travel Column to win the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds for her first stakes win. Was previously second to that rival in last fall's Golden Rod (G2) at Churchill Downs. So far she has been the best in this division in 2021.

2. 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. Will likely face her rival next out in the Fair Grounds Oaks.

3. Aunt Pearl – Finally back on the work tab, she is targeting a return on the April 30 Kentucky Oaks undercard in the Edgewood Stakes (G2). 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. 

4. Vequist – We have seen this happen before, good-to-great 2-year-olds return at age 3 but haven't developed as much as others in their division. Her return in the Davona Dale Stakes was abysmal, beaten over 25 lengths where she finished ninth. I will keep her in the top five for now; she has earned one mulligan.

5. Dayoutoftheoffice – The Frizette (G1) winner ran her race in the Breeders' Cup, but she couldn't hold off Vequist. Remember, she defeated Vequist in the Frizette, but that was at a mile around one turn. Hasn't worked since the end of January, and will drop from this spot soon unless she runs.

Next 5: Malathaat, Wholebodemeister, Moonlight d'Oro, Will's Secret, Beautiful Gift.

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. 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. He will run next in the Muniz Memorial Stakes (G2) at the Fair Grounds March 20.

3. Hit the Road – This guy was among the favorites back in the 2019 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, but was off the board. Now better than ever at age four, he is 2-for-2 this season after scoring the biggest win of his career in last weekend's Grade 1 Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita.

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: Zulu Alpha, United, Domestic Spending, Laccario, Smooth like Strait.

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 and did win the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup 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.

3. Mucho Unusual - Runner-up last time in the Buena Vista (G2), she previously scored wins in the Megahertz (G3) and Frankel Stakes (G2), both at Santa Anita. 

4. Viadera - Winner of her last three starts, which included the Matriarch (G1) at Del Mar in late November. Still hasn't worked, and will likely drop unless she races soon.

5. Jolie Olimpica – Returned from a six-month layoff to finish runner-up in the Las Cienegas (G3) a few weeks back. Was one of the best in this division in 2020 and is back to the races in this weekend's San Simeon (G3) at Santa Anita.

Next 5: Civil Union, Got Stormy, Blowout, Charmaine's Mia, Micheline.

Male sprinters

1. Whitmore – Sprint champ makes his 2021 debut in this weekend's Hot Springs Stakes at Oaklawn. Now an 8-year-old, can he still compete in Grade 1 company? I wouldn't bet against it. The Hot Springs will also feature the No. 2 C Z Rocket, so Whitmore could drop from this spot.

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. Will get a shot to take over the No. 1 spot this weekend with his race against Whitmore.

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. 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.

5. Brickyard Ride - Ranked too high here? Perhaps. But graded sprint wins this early in the season are few and far between. His win last weekend in the San Carlos (G2) was scintillating, he is two-for-two on the season.

Next 5: Firenze Fire, Sleepy Eyes Todd, Yaupon, Mischevious Alex, Chateau.

Female sprinters

1. Gamine – She has been working towards a return and 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. Kimari - Was super impressive in the Spring Fever Stakes at Oaklawn, her 4-year-old debut last week. Was over four lengths clear of the runner-up, Casual. My knock against her is the lack of races; perhaps she will put together a full season and be an Eclipse contender in this division.

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

Swiss Skydiver had a historic campaign in 2020, her Preakness win over the eventual Horse of the Year, Authentic, was one of the best in that race's storied history.

Besides several equine rivals to contend with in the Eclipse race this season, Swiss Skydivers most formidable rival may very well be history.

Since the advent of the Eclipse Awards in 1971 only four female Eclipse winners at age three went on to win the Eclipse the following season at age four. In fact, outside of the Sprint divisions, this particular back-to-back has been the toughest to accomplish in racing.

For Swiss Skydiver, her case is unique for a few reasons. One, she was historically great in her 3-year-old campaign, like recent standouts Songbird and Rachel Alexandra. These three all accomplished things rarely seen by a 3-year-old filly.

Songbird and Rachel ended their 3-year-old seasons with memorable battles where they left it all on the track. Rachel Alexandra clearly wasn't quite the same at age four after her battles against males at age three.

We will never forget Songbird's battle with Beholder in that 2016 Breeders' Cup Distaff, she didn't get back to the races for seven months, and although she won two of three and her season was cut short because of injury, she wasn't quite the same dominant filly she was the previous season.

Swiss Skydiver also had a memorable battle at the end of her season. Her Preakness win over Authentic cannot be overstated enough.

We saw a 3-year-old filly on the rail battle the Kentucky Derby winner on her outside from the far turn all the way to the finish line.

It was as brave of a performance as you will ever see in this sport we love. 

Now the question is, how will she respond in 2021?

Trainer Kenny McPeek chose the Beholder Mile over Oaklawns Bayakoa run two weeks ago mainly because she gets to return to the racetrack where she won the Santa Anita Oaks (G2) a year ago.

Still, this is an ambitious spot to return. A mile is not her best distance, and she faces some tough customers on their home track in this race, Harvest Moon and Sanenus.

As a fan of this filly, I love the move. There is no ducking races or horses when it comes to Swiss Skydiver and her connections, and for that, I commend them. Doesn't matter where the race is either, they will ship to run, very refreshing to see.

Swiss Skydiver defines what a throwback in this game is, and I think that is part of the reason she has such a wide fan base.

Should things go well for Swiss Skydiver this weekend she will target the La Troienne Stakes (G1) at Churchill Downs on April 30 for her next start. With a six-race campaign planned for his star pupil, McPeek has hinted that he is open to trying males again later this season at 10 furlongs if Swiss Skydiver shows him she is up for the task.

For now, though, the task at hand is Saturday's Beholder Mile. Perhaps Swiss Skydiver will take her fans on another unforgettable ride in 2021.

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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