TDN Derby Top 12: Front Four Unchanged Inside 75-Day Mark

There’s been a mid-season reshuffling at the back of the pack within this week’s rankings. The next significant target date on the GI Kentucky Derby trail that could shake up the Top 12 leaders will be the trio of preps in Florida, California and New York Mar. 4.

1) ARABIAN KNIGHT (c, Uncle Mo–Borealis Night, by Astrology) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Zedan Racing Stables, Inc.; B-Corser Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Bob Baffert. 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 legitimate kingpin atop the crop as we crest the 75-day mark until the Derby. But a two-race foundation–no matter how wowing those performances were–understandably still seems a touch precarious by conventional Derby-assessment standards.

After ransacking the GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn Jan. 28 in his 2023 coming-out party, this sales-topping son of Uncle Mo wasn’t nominated to the next leg in the Oaklawn series, which is this Saturday’s GII Rebel S. Until his connections disclose details, the date and place of Arabian Knight’s next start remains the most sought-after secret on the Derby trail (both for fans who want to see him race and the connections of contenders who want to avoid him).

Last week’s federal court ruling denying Bob Baffert an injunction to avoid a Churchill Downs ban on his Derby participation is already resulting in some movement of his sophomore contenders to other trainers. But that news, if or when it comes for Arabian Knight, shouldn’t overshadow the fact that this classy colt has sky’s-the-limit potential augmented by a confident demeanor and a blazing natural quickness that doesn’t cross the line into being speed-crazy.

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: 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 is five works into his training for the Mar. 4 GII Fountain of Youth S., and Saturday’s five-eighths breeze at Palm Beach Downs was a bullet in 1:01.41 (1/10). For months, trainer Todd Pletcher has articulated a two-prep path to Louisville, with the second race expected to be either the GI Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream or the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland (site of Forte’s GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile triumph).

Leggy and athletic in the same manner as his sire, Violence, this ‘TDN Rising Star’ stands out because of his ability to carve out ideal tactical positioning to set up a powerful punch off the far turn, and Forte won three Grade I stakes last season from seven furlongs up to 1 1/16 miles.

Pletcher has twice trained a 2-year-old Eclipse Award-winning colt who won the Juvenile. How did they fare in their comebacks?

In January 2013, Shanghai Bobby ran second at even-money in his 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream in the GIII Holy Bull S. In March 2011, Pletcher found a cushy winning spot for the returning Uncle Mo, who was 1-20 in the betting to beat four others in a non-graded $100,000 stakes at Gulfstream.

Regardless of what you think of Forte himself, be aware that historically, the Fountain of Youth has been a notorious trap for high-profile favorites. Although the chalk has won the last two editions, the public’s choice has gone down in defeat in 12 of the last 16 runnings, including one demotion via disqualification.

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

Two weeks to the day since his scintillating one-turn-mile allowance win at Gulfstream, this $1.3-million KEESEP colt returned to the worktab Saturday with an unhurried :50.93 half-mile breeze (27/33) at Palm Beach Downs.

While stablemate Forte, ranked above at No. 2, sports the more accomplished resume, this ‘TDN Rising Star’ is more of the “now” colt considering the two impressive scores he’s racked up since Dec. 17.

His Beyer Speed Figures signal legitimacy with room for improvement, while cresting upward over three races (73-87-92), and Tapit Trice also rates highly from a “how he did it” visual perspective that emphasizes his ability to build serious far-turn momentum.

True, he’ll head into the month of March without a race at two turns. But with a pedigree anchored by sire Tapit and a female family clustered with stayers capable of fast clockings (A.P. Indy, Seattle Slew, Secretariat), this isn’t the type of prospect you’d doubt would be able to sustain his speed over added ground.

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

Rocket Can got bumped and was away last when sprinting seven furlongs in his Saratoga debut Aug. 6, yet he still managed to pick off half the pack to finish fifth for a trainer (Bill Mott) not known for springing first-out winners.

He then ran an uninspiring seventh, beaten 16 lengths on closing weekend at the Spa over the same distance, behind eventual two-time stakes winner Instant Coffee (Bolt d’Oro).

But a transition to two turns Oct. 30 at Churchill brought advancement. This Into Mischief gray broke running from post 10 in the slop, staked out an assertive stalking position, got first run at the two pacemakers a quarter mile from the wire, then held sway in a length-of-stretch showdown.

He almost prevailed next time out in a Nov. 26 first-level allowance, again at 1 1/16 miles, losing by only half a length while engaging in another deep-race tussle, and although he finished second, Rocket Can gave the impression he’s not the type to back down from stretch slugfests.

His Holy Bull S. score Feb. 4 was more impressive than the tepid 82 Beyer it earned, because the relatively low fig is offset by the ground Rocket Can gave up on both bends before unleashing another focused, mentally intent finish. Right now this colt rates as the type of Derby prospect who isn’t likely to dominate or scare away the competition. But his efficiency, resilience, and willingness to mix it up when challenged are all valuable, intangible assets.

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

Cave Rock, the beaten favorite in last November’s GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when second behind Forte, is on target to be the latest-returning Top 12 contender of the 2023 season. He has no publicly declared prep race on his radar, and this ‘TDN Rising Star’ is just two half-mile breezes into training for his sophomore debut.

After starting the season ranked at No. 3, he’s been leapfrogged on this list by colts with more recent form. But the gravitas of what this fullback-sized son of Arrogate accomplished at age two (three straight wins, including two in Grade I stakes and one with a gaudy 104 Beyer) will still merit respect when he finally hits the entries.

Cave Rock has been able to generate an intimidatingly high cruising speed up to 1 1/16 miles. But what most Derby prognosticators will be watching for is whether or not he has outgrown his hot-headed tendencies. This colt’s loss in the Breeders’ Cup was at least partially attributable to him getting visibly keyed-up before the race and then getting sucked into sparring with a 70-1 long shot through an imprudent :22.90 opening quarter.

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: 1-1-1-0, $80,200. Last start:2nd GIII San Vicente S., Jan. 29. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Faustin has now fired two bullet moves at four and five furlongs after being outgunned by a stablemate when second in the GII San Vicente S. Jan. 29.
He was tasked with sprinting seven furlongs in that race (shorter than what his pedigree indicates he’s capable of) and was forced to try and reel in a loose-on-the-lead favorite under less-than-ideal tactical circumstances. Still, he upped his Beyer by two points off a powerful debut win (89 to 91), and that learning experience, combined with his being by Curlin out of a Hard Spun mare, should pave the way for an improvement in a two-turn stakes.
Faustin is a high-energy gray who, in his Dec. 26 debut, was unfazed by a slow start and twice having to switch off heels at the head of the homestretch.
It is a touch concerning, though, that the horses Faustin beat in that MSW have only managed a collective 1-for-7 record in their next outs, indicating he roughed up a subpar bunch.

7) HEJAZI (c, Bernardini–G Note, by Medaglia d’Oro) O-Zedan Racing Stables Inc.; B-Mary & Chester Broman (Ky); T-Bob Baffert. 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 broke his maiden in start number four for trainer Bob Baffert Jan. 15, but over the weekend got transferred to trainer Tim Yakteen as per the nominations list for the one-turn-mile Mar. 4 GIII Gotham S. at Aqueduct.
A $3.55-million EASMAY sale topper, this New York-bred son of Bernardini has the unusual distinction of having run a 100 Beyer Speed Figure in a losing maiden effort (back on Sept. 10 at Del Mar), and he’s never been off the board (including when third as a maiden in the GI American Pharoah S. Oct. 8).
He was able to set the pace under pressure at the rail in his MSW victory over 6 1/2 furlongs after stalking the pace in his first three attempts.

8) VERIFYING (c, Justify–Diva Delite, by Repent) O-Westerberg, Mrs. John Magnier, Jonathan Poulin, Derrick Smith & Michael Table; B-Hunter Valley & Mountmellick Farm (Ky); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $775,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISP, 4-2-1-0, $260,150. Last Start: 1st Opt. Clm at Oaklawn Park Jan. 14. Kentucky Derby Points: 4.
Verifying, a May 11 foal who is a half-brother to 2019 champion older dirt distaffer Midnight Bisou, drew the rail for Saturday’s Rebel S. at Oaklawn. He’s forced the issue in three of his four lifetime races, so that post should play to his advantage by allowing him to secure a forwardly placed ground-saving spot.
This $775,000 KEESEP son of Justify‘s career started with an 85-Beyer sprint win at the Spa, followed by a second in the GI Champagne S., and then a trouble-at-the-start sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Freshened until Jan. 14, Verifying roared back to the winner’s circle with a 97-Beyer, first-level allowance win at Oaklawn. The second- and third-place finishers out of that race have both since come back to win allowance miles in subsequent starts.

9) ARTHUR’S RIDE (c, Tapit–Points of Grace, by Point Given) O-Karl & Cathi Glassman; B-Helen & Joseph Barbazon & Tapit Syndicate (Fl); T-William Mott. Sales history: $250,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 3-1-2-0, $93,800. Last Start: 1st Maiden Special Weight at Gulfstream Feb. 11. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
Arthur’s Ride started his career in the same two seven-furlong MSW contests at Saratoga as fellow-gray stablemate Rocket Can ranked above at No. 4, and he finished second on both occasions.
This $250,000 KEESEP colt resurfaced for trainer Bill Mott Feb. 11 at Gulfstream in a one-turn mile, and as the 2-1 second choice he really caught the eye by taking pace pressure at the rail from the 6-5 favorite for most of the race.
He actually lost but clawed back the lead on two occasions through the turn, and then after he dispatched the chalk, Arthur’s Ride ably repulsed what looked like a winning bid from the third choice in the betting.
His damsire Point Given was the beaten fave in the 2001 Derby, but won the GI Preakness S., GI Belmont S. and GI Travers S., while maternal grandsire Thunder Gulch won the 1995 Derby, Belmont, and Travers.

10) 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.
Trainer Brad Cox opted not to aim for this past Saturday’s Risen Star S. with Instant Coffee, saying he will instead point straight to the Mar. 25 GII Louisiana Derby coming off this colt’s last-to-first win in the GIII Lecomte S. Jan. 21.
This son of Bolt d’Oro had been absent from the work tab for four weeks, but he was finally back in action with a moderate :49.80 half-mile breeze (34/109) at Fair Grounds Feb. 18.
That plan of race spacing will leave a nine-week gap for Instant Coffee to try to make the leap from 1 1/16 miles to 1 3/16 miles, and then another six weeks off until the 10-furlong Kentucky Derby. Cox has expressed a belief that this light-on-his-feet colt should relish those longer distances.
But Instant Coffee hasn’t had the most arduous path to victory in either of his two stakes wins, having beaten only one current Top 12 foe in either the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. or the Lecomte, and that makes it tough to project how he’ll fare when faced with more intense competition.

11) RED ROUTE ONE (c, Gun Runner–Red House, by Tapit) O/B-Winchell Thoroughbreds, LLC (Ky); T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: 6-1-1-1, $313,575. Last Start: 2nd in Jan. 21 GIII Lecomte S. at Fair Grounds. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.
This Saturday’s Rebel S. at 1 1/16 miles might not be the spot where Red Route One finally uncorks the “put it all together” type of stretch run he’s shown flashes of being capable of. But with a stout Gun Runner out of a Tapit mare breeding line, he’s looming as a longer-the-better Derby prospect who one of these days is going to catch the right pace setup and a clear enough trip to outrun long odds.
He already has a sturdy foundation of six lifetime races, all at a mile or longer, and this homebred for Winchell Thoroughbreds was most recently a best-of-the-rest second when rallying from last behind No. 1-ranked Arabian Knight in the Southwest S. four weeks ago.
He had significant trip trouble and/or encountered ground loss in all three of his stakes attempts at age two, yet he still managed a couple of decent third- and fourth-place tries.
However, this deep-closing chestnut has still never won on dirt, with his only victory coming over a mile at Kentucky Downs nearly six months ago.

12) GEAUX ROCKET RIDE (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo) O-OXO Equine LLC; B-Pin Oak Stud 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.
Is it too deep into the prep season to tout a sprinter who wired the field at first asking onto the list? By conventional standards, yes. But convention on the Derby trail has long since flown the coop, thanks to the stylishly late-on-the-scene Justify in 2018 (a Feb. 18 debut), and the overall less-is-more mindset in bringing along sophomore prospects.
Yet when Hall-of-Fame conditioner Richard Mandella is the trainer of a flashy winning firster like Geaux Rocket Ride, you pay attention.
This colt is aiming for the Mar. 4 GII San Felipe S. at 1 1/16 miles after administering a full-bore clock-cleaning of a Santa Anita MSW crew over six furlongs Jan. 29. That display of dominance was timed in 1:09.52 and featured a decisive swat-down of the 1-2 favorite before “Geaux” rolled home by 5 3/4 lengths. This $350,000 FTKJUL son of Candy Ride (Arg) earned a 92 Beyer for the effort.
Underscoring that he doesn’t make the trip to Louisville unless he’s confident he has the right horse, Mandella hasn’t had a Kentucky Derby starter since 2004. But in 2019 he was on the cusp of saddling the imposing favorite, Omaha Beach, before having to scratch the colt several days before the Derby because of an entrapped epiglottis.

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