Division Rankings: Top 3-year-olds could meet in season debuts

Division Rankings: Top 3-year-olds could meet in season debuts
Photo: Sophie Shore/Eclipse Sportswire

It’s hard to believe we are less than 90 days away from the 2021 Kentucky Derby, and I am sure most racing fans echo that sentiment. After all, it was just a few months ago that we saw the 2020 Triple Crown completed with the Preakness in early October. 

Heading into this week, my three top-ranked 3-year-old males remain unchanged. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Eclipse award winner, Essential Quality, remains atop the rankings. Jackie’s Warrior sits at No. 2, and Keepmeinmind is No. 3. Of course, there always will be debate over which horse gets ranked where, but these are my top three for now. 

Rarely will you see the top-ranked 3-year-olds tackle one another in their first starts of the season, but the Feb. 15 Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn might be one of those exceptions.

Keepmeinmind, a late-running son of Laoban, closed his 2-year-old campaign with a last-to-first maiden-breaking victory in the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) on Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs. Prior to that winning effort, Keepmeinmind finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) on Nov. 6 and second in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) on Oct. 3; both races were at Keeneland. Keepmeinmind will make his 2021 debut in the Southwest, but this will be no easy spot. 

The connections of Essential Quality are leaning toward the Southwest as well for his first start at age 3. The son of Tapit has been based this winter at Fair Grounds, and the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star (G2) is run at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 13, but the Southwest at 1 1/16 miles could hold more appeal as a comeback race. In addition, stablemate Mandaloun finished a solid third in the Lecomte Stakes and is slated to go next in the Risen Star. Look for trainer Brad Cox to keep these two in separate races. 

Lastly, we have Jackie’s Warrior. The leader of the division prior to his three-length defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where he finished fourth, Jackie’s Warrior was a winner of three graded stakes in 2020, two of which were Grade 1. Don’t discount this guy’s chances in his 3-year-old debut. He attended a quick pace in the Breeders’ Cup in his first attempt around two turns, and he is somewhat forgotten because of his Breeders’ Cup off-the-board performance. 

The 1 1/16-mile Southwest will offer 17 points (10-4-2-1) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby. Should these three enter the starting gate, it would easily be the deepest edition of this race. You would have to go back to 2016 for the last time we had the top ranked 3-year-olds run against one another prior to the Kentucky Derby; that season it was Nyquist taking on Mohaymen in the Florida Derby.

With that, here is a look at this week's Division Rankings.

Older dirt males

1. Knicks Go – Simply ran them off their feet in the Pegasus. With wins in his last four starts, there is only one horse I think who can run with him: Charlatan.

Charlatan – His Malibu win in December was sublime, and now he heads to the Saudi Cup, where an early season showdown with Knicks Go would have the racing world's attention.

3. Jesus' Team – Yes, he belongs here. He deserves this No. 3 ranking. I was not a believer, but now I am. 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 – Unbeaten in four starts, he has trouble staying healthy enough to race but did return from a seven-month layoff in December to win the Tenacious Stakes at Gulfstream. Put in a work last Monday as well, but needs to run to maintain this spot.

5. Happy Saver  – Won the Jockey Club Gold Cup last year at age 3, expected back this season, but still not sure he belongs ahead of the others ranked below.

Next 5: By My StandardsTacitus, Performer, Title Ready, Express Train.

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. Back on the work tab now at age 6, she is scheduled to make her first start at Oaklawn in the Bayakoa (G3) on Feb. 15.

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. Might run in the Saudi Cup.

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 in Chile. 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.

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

3-year-old males

1. Essential Quality – The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner won the Eclipse and is slated to return in the Southwest at Oaklawn on Feb. 15. Has a hold on this spot for now.

2. Jackie's Warrior – He starts the year off here at No. 2 after a stellar juvenile campaign where he did very little wrong. The two turns might have been his undoing in the Breeders' Cup. He had the lead turning for home but yielded in the stretch and finished fourth, beaten a little over three lengths. Will get the chance to prove himself right out of the gate this season as he too is scheduled to run in the Southwest.

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 join the top two in what would be the deepest edition of the Southwest in that race's history.

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 did come back to hold on and win the Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. But still, I am skeptical of him going longer.

5. Greatest Honour – This guy was vastly improved when he broke his maiden in his fourth try in late December and then won last weekend's Holy Bull (G3) with relative ease. Certainly a nice win, but I wonder who he really beat.

Next 5: Medina Spirit, Hot Rod Charlie, Midnight Bourbon, Fire at Will, Highly Motivated.

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. Will start her season at Gulfstream in the Davona Dale on Feb. 27.

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. She too could be headed to the Davona Dale.

3. Girl Daddy – The best of the Midwest heading into last fall's Breeders' Cup, Girl Daddy looked like a contender as they entered the stretch in the Juvenile Fillies but was beaten a nose for the place spot by Dayoutoftheoffice.

4. 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.

5. Travel Column – Third in the Alcibiades (G1), her stakes debut, to Simply Ravishing, she avenged that loss in her last start, a win in the Golden Rod (G2) at Churchill Downs.

Next 5: Malathaat, Varda, Simply Ravishing, Campanelle, Kalypso

Turf males

1. Channel Maker – Love the move by his connections to possibly point him to Saudi Arabia and Dubai for his first two starts of 2021. Back on the work tab now, and he is expected to run next in either the 2,100-meter, $1 million Middle Distance Turf Cup or the Long Distance Turf Handicap, run over 3,000 meters, both in Saudi Arabia next month.

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. Will be back in 2021.

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

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 make his return at the Oaklawn meet.

2. Charlatan – Has to be ranked here for now, but I doubt his connections will keep him sprinting. If they did, he would likely take over the top spot. Was sensational in his last, a win in the 7-furlong Malibu (G1) at Santa Anita in December.

3. 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.

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. Was recently a close second in the Mr. Prospector Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park in late December.

5. 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.

Next 5: Wildman Jack, Sleepy Eyes Todd, Yaupon, Vertical Threat, Empire of Gold.

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 and 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 last week's American Beauty Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

4. 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.

5. Sconsin - Ran well when fourth in last falls Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint; previously won the Grade 2 Eight Belles at Churchill Downs.

Next 5: Amy's Challenge, Wildwood's Beauty, Pacific Gale, Hello Beautiful, Bella Aurora

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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