TDN Derby Top 12 For Mar. 2: Will March Separate Lions From Lambs

The first Saturday in May is the ultimate goal on the GI Kentucky Derby trail. But the first Saturday in March is often a make-or-break day on the national calendar, with key stakes in Florida, California and New York providing an uptick in intensity.

1) ARABIAN KNIGHT (c, Uncle Mo–Borealis Night, by Astrology) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Zedan Racing Stables, Inc.; B-Corser Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Tim Yakteen. Sales history: $250,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP; $2,300,000 2yo ’22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $544.275 Last start: 1st GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn Park, Jan. 28. KY Derby Points: 0.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Arabian Knight is the kingpin colt among the sophomores who switched out of trainer Bob Baffert’s barn over the past week and into the care of Baffert’s former assistant from two decades ago, Tim Yakteen. The transition was necessitated by a Churchill Downs ban on Baffert trainees that prohibits them from accruing qualifying points or racing in the Derby while under Baffert’s control.

Top-ranked on this list since the outset of the season, this intimidatingly speedy, sales-topping son of Uncle Mo ($250,000 KEESEP, $2.3 million OBSAPR) is being aimed for either the GI Arkansas Derby Apr. 1 or the GI Santa Anita Derby one week later.

Staying home at Santa Anita means being able to race out of his own stall there. But shipping hasn’t adversely affected either of his on-the-road wins, and Arabian Knight showed he can absolutely devour a wet Oaklawn racetrack if that condition arises again.

That last victory was a thorough shellacking of an overmatched field in the GIII Southwest S. in Hot Springs Jan. 28, in which Arabian Knight earned a 96 Beyer Speed Figure while dominating the tempo and not being throttled for maximum output.

Arabian Knight has only had one published workout since that win, a three-furlong move at Santa Anita back on Feb. 13, though there have been no recorded breezes of any variety since Feb. 23 owing to a rare winter storm.

2) FORTE (c, Violence–Queen Caroline, by Blame) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable; B-South Gate Farm (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $80,000 Wlg ’20 KEENOV; $110,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt, MGISW, 5-4-0-0,  $1,595,150. Last start: 1st GI FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by TAA, Nov. 4. KY Derby Points: 40.

Divisional champ Forte ($80,000 KEENOV; $110,000 KEESEP) will have a figurative target on his back in Saturday’s GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream. It’s his 2023 debut off a four-month layoff, and he drew post four as the 7-5 morning line favorite.

Somewhat surprisingly, this ‘TDN Rising Star’ by Violence didn’t go off favored in any of the three Grade I victories that closed out his juvenile campaign, although he was the chalk in both his May 27 debut win at Belmont (7 3/4 lengths) and in start number two, a fourth-place try in the GII Sanford S. at Saratoga.

Yet this colt’s trio of Grade I wins in the Hopeful S., Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity S., and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile each revealed new tactical dimensions, and Forte’s knack of being able to essentially pick his own positioning before reliably firing a big shot off the far turn is a skill that a number of his competitors still haven’t mastered. Watching the leggy, athletic Forte target and reel in horses without flinching from stretch fights whets the appetite for what he might be able to deliver on a two-prep path to Louisville.

But longer-term statistical trends could be stumbling blocks: as for this Saturday, be aware that favorites have lost 12 of the last 16 editions of the Fountain of Youth. Widening the lens to take in 38 years of Breeders’ Cup history, only two colts (Nyquist and Street Sense) have parlayed wins in the Juvenile into a blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May.

3) TAPIT TRICE (c, Tapit–Danzatrice, by Dunkirk) ‘TDN Rising Star’ O-Whisper Hill Farm LLC and Gainesway Stable (Antony Beck); B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds Ltd. (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $1,300,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 3-2-0-1, $100,150. Last start: 1st GP Allowance/Optional Claiming, Feb, 4. KY Derby Points: 0

‘TDN Rising Star’ Tapit Trice is headed for the Mar. 11 GIII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby for start number four.

His Nov. 6 debut at Aqueduct was a better-than-it-looks learning experience based on his fast-closing third. This colt’s Dec. 17 MSW win, also at Aqueduct, rated as an eye-opener because of his unfazed attitude after brushing, bumping and running down a rival in a deep-stretch mud fight. But it was the over-the-top nature of Tapit Trice’s gaudy, eight-length allowance pummeling at Gulfstream on Feb. 4 (92 Beyer) that stamped his Kentucky Derby aspirations as realistic and achievable.

This $1.3-million KEESEP son of Tapit still needs to hone his early-race skills by overcoming lackadaisical breaks from the gate. But as the distances increase and he gains experience against larger fields, those are the types of developmental concerns that seasoning can melt away like the spring thaw.

This year, the Tampa Bay Derby has been downgraded from Grade II to III. Part of that demotion had to do with the race’s recent trend of well-meant favorites being no-shows while the long-shot winners went on to be low-impact factors in subsequent stakes.

Although the 4-5 choice Classic Causeway (Giant’s Causeway) won Tampa’s big race last year, the previous four Tampa Derbies were won by harder-to-figure horses at odds of 15-1, 49-1, 8-1 and 19-1.

4) ROCKET CAN (c, Into Mischief–Tension, by Tapit) O-Frank Fletcher Racing Operations Inc.; B-Woodford Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Bill Mott. Sales history: $245,000 RNA Ylg ’21 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: 5-2-1-0, $249,738. Last Start: 1st GIII Holy Bull S., Feb. 4. KY Derby Points: 20

As the co-fourth choice on the morning line for Saturday’s Fountain of Youth S., Rocket Can isn’t facing the same scrutiny or pressure as race favorite and divisional champ Forte. But this Into Mischief gray ($245,000 FTSAUG RNA) will still be under the gun to prove his GIII Holy Bull S. score was no fluke, and he needs to shrug off the stigma of having relatively low speed figures compared to other top Derby hopefuls.

Rocket Can has plateaued with 82 Beyers in his last two starts on Nov. 26 and Feb. 4. But as discussed in previous editions of this list, his efforts rate considerably higher from a “how he did it” visual perspective. He gave up ground on both turns of the Holy Bull while always within three lengths of the leaders, and when he commandeered the lead off the final turn of that short-stretch configuration, Rocket Can finished focused through the lane while chased home by a tenacious stablemate.

Over the same 1 1/16-mile setup that starts close to the first turn and ends at the sixteenth pole, look for jockey Junior Alvarado to try and execute a follow-the-favorite strategy on Saturday, a tactic that should be a smooth fit for this colt’s capable stalking style.

5) CAVE ROCK (c, Arrogate–Georgie’s Angel, by Bellamy Road) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Michael E. Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman; B-Anne and Ronnie Sheffer Racing LLC (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $210,000 Wlg ’20 KEENOV; $550,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 4-3-1-0, $748,000. Last start: 2nd GI FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by TAA, Nov. 4. KY Derby Points: 0

‘TDN Rising Star’ Cave Rock, who races with his head slung low in a style that evokes his sire still merits a strong foothold within the Top 12 despite the certainty that he’ll be the last colt on this list to make his first sophomore start.

Powerful and promising at age two, this physically imposing dual sales grad ($210,000 KEENOV; $550,000 KEESEP) detonated a 104 Beyer in his two-turn debut, the GI American Pharoah S., while never being fully extended.

But in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he got hot and bothered pre-race, then had trouble settling when trying to clear an irrationally exuberant 70-1 shot through a :22.90 opening quarter. Cave Rock seized the lead a half-mile from home, but Forte had far more in the tank while Cave Rock languished too long on his left lead in the stretch.

Still, the second-place effort was commendable given those less-than-optimal circumstances, and Cave Rock looms as a front-end force when he finally hits the entries.

6) FAUSTIN (c, Curlin–Hard Not to Like, by Hard Spun) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Michael L Petersen; B-DATTT Farm (Ky); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $285,000 RNA yrl ’21 KEESEP; $800,000 2yo ’22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: GSP, 2-1-1-0, $80,200. Last start: 2nd GIII San Vicente S., Jan. 29. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.

Faustin ($285,000 RNA KEESEP; $800,000 OBSAPR) was christened a ‘TDN Rising Star’ upon debut back on opening day at Santa Anita, overcoming multiple examples of trip adversity (some of it self-inflicted) to win first time out.

In start number two, he ran a credible second despite being tactically disadvantaged behind a one-turn-specialist stablemate Havnameltdown (Uncaptured) in the GII San Vicente S. going seven furlongs. The latter returned to just miss in last weekend’s G3 Saudi Derby Cup over a stamina-stretching mile.

Additional ground along the Derby trail (next start not yet disclosed) should aid Faustin’s development arc, because 10 furlongs is well within the scope of his pedigree. His damsire and sire, Hard Spun and Curlin, finished second and third, respectively, in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Half a year later, Curlin and Hard Spun ran one-two in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic.

7) HEJAZI (c, Bernardini–G Note, by Medaglia d’Oro) O-Zedan Racing Stables Inc.; B-Mary & Chester Broman (Ky); T-Tim Yakteen. Sales history: $3,550,000 2yo ’22 FTMMAY. Lifetime Record: GISP, 4-1-2-1, $108,200. Last Start: 1st SA Maiden Special Weight, Jan. 15. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.

Hejazi, a New York-bred, $3.55-million EASMAY sale topper, is among the headliners in Saturday’s 11-horse GII San Felipe S. at Santa Anita. He has four races of experience, but only one try around two turns, which came last October while still a maiden and attempting winners (third in the GI American Pharoah S.).

He drew post seven for the San Felipe, and coming off a 6 1/2-furlong MSW score in which he led the field through early fractions of :21.97 and :44.28, Hejazi projects to be a forward factor on the stretch-out.

This will be his second start off a freshening (and his first for trainer Tim Yakteen on a transfer from Bob Baffert), and Hejazi merits respect based on the 97 Beyer he earned and the authoritative way he swatted back two deep-stretch challengers inside the final 100 yards.

A concern, though, is that four of the horses he beat on Jan. 15 have already raced again, and the best finish among them was a third-place try.

8) INSTANT COFFEE (c, Bolt d’Oro–Follow No One, by Uncle Mo) O-Gold Square LLC; B-Sagamore Farm (Ky); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $200,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 4-3-0-0, $442,815. Last Start: Won Jan. 21 GIII Lecomte S. at Fair Grounds. Kentucky Derby Points: 32.

Instant Coffee’s company lines got a boost when the third- and fourth-place finishers out of his Jan. 21 GIII Lecomte S. tally came back to win their next starts. Confidence Game (Candy Ride {Arg}) scored in last Saturday’s GII Rebel S. at 18-1 odds and Denington (Gun Runner) popped at 8-1 in a Feb. 18 first-level allowance route at Fair Grounds.

This son of Bolt d’Oro ($200,000 KEESEP) is three-for-four lifetime, with his only loss coming when fourth in a key renewal of the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last October.

He is, however, the type of colt you’d like to see more of before deciding if he’s a true 10-furlong horse.

That’s not going to happen under trainer Brad Cox’s current two-prep sophomore plan. With the Mar. 25 GII Louisiana Derby projected as his next race, Instant Coffee is going to have nine weeks between starts trying to make the jump from 1 1/16 miles to 1 3/16 miles, then another six weeks until the 10-furlong Kentucky Derby.

He’s currently two breezes into training since his last race.

9) RED ROUTE ONE (c, Gun Runner–Red House, by Tapit) O/B-Winchell Thoroughbreds, LLC (Ky); T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: GISP, 7-1-2-1, $492,575. Last Start: 2nd in Feb. 25 GII Rebel S. Kentucky Derby Points: 33.

Red Route One is a longer-the-better type who isn’t going to head to Louisville as a Derby standout. Yet he has the staying power and pedigree to be a dangerous threat; the type of double-digit longshot who will sit far back, make one sustained run, and if the trip and pace scenarios shake out in his favor–look out.

This son of Gun Runner out of a full-sister to Eclipse Award and GI Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable (Tapit) is a Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred who rallied from far off the tailgate and splashed into the homestretch of the GII Rebel S. with abandon, avoiding the crowding that was going on closer to the rail but not still shying from outer-path roughhousing in upper stretch before accelerating with a separate, deep-race burst in the run to the wire (92 Beyer for second).

True, he’s never won on dirt. But Red Route One’s past-performance block consists of seven route races on turf and dirt, and a wet racetrack hasn’t been a problem on the three occasions he’s encountered slop (twice second, once fifth).

“Obviously, we’re anxious for the races to go farther,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. “Not positive we won’t wheel him back in the Louisiana Derby, a mile and three-sixteenths. Quit messing around and get him on out there.”

10) GEAUX ROCKET RIDE (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo) O-Pin Oak Stud LLC; B-OXO Equine LLC (Ky); T-Richard Mandella. Sales history: $350,000 yrl ’21 FTKJUL. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $40,200. Last Start: Won Maiden Special Weight at Santa Anita Jan. 29. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.

This colt’s 92-Beyer, 5 3/4-length, smash-and-grab score in a six-furlong Santa Anita MSW sprint was encouraging enough for the generally conservative trainer Richard Mandella to declare him a “geaux” for two-turn stakes company, and he’ll start from post eight in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe S. on Saturday.

Geaux Rocket Ride’s form was flattered when the runner-up from that Jan. 29 win, Sonoran (Ride on Curlin), returned Feb. 20 to break his maiden by 7 1/4 lengths as a 3-5 favorite.

This $350,000 FTKJUL son of Candy Ride (Arg) retains the services of jockey Flavien Prat for this weekend’s engagement.

But, like six other entrants in the San Felipe, he’ll have to come off the medication Lasix as he advances into stakes territory. That many horses making the off-Lasix switch lends an accentuated a wild-card flavor to what already looms as a tough 11-horse race to handicap.

11) CONFIDENCE GAME (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Eblouissante, by Bernardini) O-Don’t Tell My Wife Stables; B-Summer Wind Equine, LLC (Ky); T-J K Desormeaux. Sales history: $25,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-3-1-2, $785,525. Last Start:  Won Feb. 25 GII Rebel S. at OP. Kentucky Derby Points: 57.

Confidence Game is a plucky, adaptable overachiever ($25,000 KEESEP) with some racing royalty in his bloodlines: his dam, former ‘TDN Rising Star’ Eblouissante, is a Bernardini half-sister to the mighty Zenyatta.

Trainer Keith Desormeaux said this son of Candy Ride (Arg) “sort of lost his mind in the paddock” prior to his 94-Beyer winning effort in the sloppy Rebel S. last Saturday. But jockey James Graham was able to settle down Confidence Game during his warm-up, and the colt got a sweet mid-pack trip while fifth behind two longshot speedsters and two stalking favorites who never truly fired despite no-excuse trips.

Responding to far-turn rousing, Confidence Game got third run at the wilting leaders while widest off the turn, then largely avoided inside traffic with a work-in-progress kind of stretch run that included some outward wandering late (94 Beyer).

“He’s really come into his own,” Desormeaux said. “He started off pretty immature. But as the races went on [seven total, five of them routes], he has improved things mentally and physically.”

12) LITIGATE (c, Blame–Salsa Diavola, by Mineshaft) O-Centennial Farms; B-Nursery Place, Donaldson & Broadbent (Ky); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $370,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $182,590. Last Start: Won Feb. 11 GIII Sam F. Davis S. Kentucky Derby Points: 20.

Litigate, a $370,000 KEESEP colt by Blame, will be on trainer Todd Pletcher’s traveling team with an expected next start in the Louisiana Derby. He most recently scored a 1 1/4-length win in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. at Tampa.

Note that even though the track is listed as ‘fast’ on the Equibase chart, that Feb. 11 race was run in a downpour, which might be a contributing factor to Litigate’s tepid 77 Beyer and the race’s lethargic closing fractions.

Sent to clear the field from post 10 by Luis Saez, Litigate ably rated back to fifth on the backstretch. He uncorked a decent move between the five-sixteenths pole and the quarter pole, then had to be ridden hard through the lane to put away a 21-1 shot and a 12-1 shot, finishing through driving rain in a sluggish final sixteenth clocked in :7.05.

His two previous tries showed promise, and they could prove to be useful building blocks as this colt attempts longer races more suited to his distance-centric pedigree: sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs at Aqueduct Nov. 19, Litigate stalked with purpose behind a three-way battle for the lead, patiently took the overland route through the turn, then drew away respectably. Tasked with a one-turn mile allowance at Gulfstream Jan. 8, he nailed second by a nose behind a daylight winner.

He’s worth consideration in New Orleans if you think the long Fair Grounds stretch will be his friend.

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