TDN Derby Top 12: Little Thaw in Early Winter Ranks

We’re still in the early part of the season where the rankings are largely based on juvenile form and a hefty dose of speculation. As we segue into February, the forecast calls for “frost heaves” that will likely shift the balance of power just enough to keep things interesting. But at 15 weeks out, everyone on the GI Kentucky Derby trail is still allowed to dream big.

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: 1-1-0-0, $86,025. Last start: 1st Keeneland Maiden Special Weight, Nov. 5. KY Derby Points: 0.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Arabian Knight (($250,000 KEESEP, $2.3 million OBSAPR sale-topper) is Oaklawn-bound. Trainer Bob Baffert disclosed to Daily Racing Form on Sunday that the

GIII Southwest S. on Saturday will be the 2023 coming-out party for the powerful colt who blitzed to a dominant (7 1/4 lengths with a 97 Beyer Speed Figure) victory on the Breeders’ Cup undercard in his one and only start.

To put this son of Uncle Mo‘s 1:21.98 final clocking from that race into perspective, the only other seven-furlong race on Breeders’ Cup Saturday, the GI Filly and Mare Sprint, which featured older, highly accomplished distaffers, was timed just .37 seconds faster.

“He’s not speed-crazy,” jockey John Velazquez said after that scintillating win. “I put my hands down, he came right back to me. Settled really good on the turn, and when I asked him to go down the stretch, he was there for me.”

At this point we have to insert the usual disclaimer that’s become standard in the Top 12 write-ups the past two years: Churchill Downs has banned Baffert from the Derby related to his under-appeal equine drug DQ from the 2021 Derby, and his trainees are prohibited from earning qualifying points and competing in the Derby itself. But while this issue plays out via litigation and at the racing commission level, the focus here will be on the talents of his horses and not courtroom drama.

Saturday’s Southwest now looms as the most compelling stakes on the Derby trail that we’ve seen so far this year.

 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.

Beyond the gravitas of having won three straight Grade I stakes, including his 100-Beyer score in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Forte stands out among the Top 12 contenders for his ability to break well, settle willingly, and reel in targets.

Those traits were evident in both of his wins at 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland and his neck victory in the GI Breeders’ Futurity S. (with the remainder of the field six lengths behind the top two) was in many ways a more powerful performance than his 1 1/2-length Juvenile tally.

This ‘TDN Rising Star’ was forwardly placed, but edged back to seventh in his Oct. 8 race, attained a nice cruising speed amongst traffic, then methodically worked his way up to a contending spot before being fully unleashed off the far turn to knock back multiple bids from a very game runner-up.

In the Juvenile, Forte again came out running, picked a prime stalking spot, waited patiently, then sliced off the inside while building up serious momentum to collar a wilting favorite before being kept to task through the final sixteenth.

The Mar. 4 GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream is slated as his sophomore debut, with the GI Florida Derby or the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. possibilities after that. An easy three-eighths breeze on Saturday marked his return to the work tab at Palm Beach Downs.

3) 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.

Purely based on the way the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile unfolded, ‘TDN Rising Star’ Cave Rock’s beaten-fave second has a “lost the battle, but it could improve his chances in the overall war” type of flavor to it.

This strapping son of Arrogate got keyed up pre-race and exerted himself trying to fight free from a 70-1 long shot through an opening quarter of :22.90 (second-fastest opening split in the Juvenile since 2014), then had little left to stave off the onrushing Forte.

A bit of growing up so that his temperament matches the talent he displayed in getting off to a 3-for-3 start last summer (including two Grade I wins at Del Mar) will go a long way toward leveling his chances in a rematch–although he and his rival are unlikely to meet until the Derby itself considering Cave Rock is based in SoCal and Forte is wintering in Florida.

If you go by longer-term trends, losing the Juvy might also actually work in Cave Rock’s favor: Since the advent of the Breeders’ Cup, Juvenile winners have accounted for only two Derby wins (Nyquist in 2016 and Street Sense in 2007) from 38 runnings.

Then again, second- and third-place Juvenile finishers haven’t fared much better. Those 76 horses have also accounted for only two Derby wins, by Alysheba in 1987 (third in the 1986 Juvenile) and Spend A Buck in 1985 (third in the 1984 Juvenile).

4) TAPIT TRICE (c, Tapit–Danzatrice, by Dunkirk) 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: 2-1-0-1, $56,950. Last start: 1st Aqueduct Maiden Special Weight, Dec. 17. KY Derby Points: 0.

Tapit Trice was a touch green at the start of his Nov. 6 debut, then split horses capably and finished with interest, justifying 17-10 favoritism in his Dec. 17 maiden-breaking win.

Both races were more visually impressive than their Beyers (73 and 89) suggest, and considering that Tapit Trice’s one-turn-mile score came over a muddy, sealed Aqueduct surface, the suggestion here is to take those speed figures with a figurative grain of salt.

The vagaries of winter racing in New York can sometimes make it difficult to come up with accurate projections and final numbers, and as we saw last season on the Triple Crown trail (when eventual GI Preakness S. winner Early Voting got a winning 78 Beyer from February at Aqueduct retooled months later to a significantly higher 87), all figures are subject to revision when circumstances warrant it.

This gray son of Tapit who hammered for $1.3 million at KEESEP is now at Palm Beach Downs for trainer Todd Pletcher and has been breezing on a weekly basis for his first start against winners.

5) BANISHING (c, Ghostzapper–Dowager, by A.P. Indy) O/B-Godolphin (KY); T-Brendan Walsh. Lifetime Record: 2-1-0-0, $42,000. Last start: 1st Fair Grounds Maiden Special Weight, Dec. 26. KY Derby Points: 0.

Banishing had to scratch out of an allowance/optional claimer at Fair Grounds on Saturday after reportedly getting cast in his stall and scraping a hind leg. The abrasions aren’t considered serious enough to derail him from long-term training.

This Godolphin homebred broke his maiden over 1 1/16 miles  Dec. 26 in New Orleans, edging away on the lead while taking pace pressure before blasting the race open in deep stretch by 8 1/2 lengths (90 Beyer). That MSW route has already yielded one next-out winner, who popped at 18-1 odds on Saturday.

Banishing’s Nov. 13 debut in a one-turn-mile at Churchill was also much better than it appears on paper: He raced in the 10 path early yet contested the pace, then rallied four wide into the turn before almost attaining the lead between calls. After it looked like he was fading from his mid-race efforts, he kicked in again and secured fourth.

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: 1-1-0-0, $40,200. Last start: Maiden win at Santa Anita. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.

Faustin earned ‘TDN Rising Star’ status sprinting in his Dec. 26 debut, but you don’t have to dig too deeply in his pedigree to uncover reliable stamina influences.

At 10 furlongs, sire Curlin ran third in the 2007 Derby and later won the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic, while damsire Hard Spun was Curlin‘s rival that same season, finishing just ahead of him when second in the Derby and right behind him when second in the Classic. Faustin’s dam, Hard Not to Like, was a three-time Grade I grass victress at distances up to nine furlongs. And his second dam on the female side, Like a Gem, scored in three grass routes in Canada, including one at 1 1/4 miles at age three.

Faustin ($285,000 RNA KEESEP; $800,000 OBSAPR after breezing an eighth in :10 flat), a high-energy gray, was unfazed by a slow start, a “busy” ride, and twice having to switch off heels turning for home in his 89-Beyer win.

7) SIGNATOR (c, Tapit–Pension, by Seeking the Gold) TDN Rising Star O-West Point Thoroughbreds, Woodford Racing, Gainesway Stable, Phipps Stable, Ken Langone, Edward Hudson, Jr. and Lane’s End Racing. B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds. T-Claude McGaughey III. Sales history: $1,700,000 2yo ’22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 2-1-1-0, $71,250. Last Start: Maiden win at BAQ Oct. 14. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.

Much like Tapit Trice ranked at No. 4, Signator is another son of Tapit who wasn’t quite ready for prime time in his debut, but nevertheless raced with enough promise despite greenness to win as the deserving favorite in start number two.

And yes, just like it was mentioned in Tapit Trice’s write-up, this could be a case in which the visual resonance of Signator’s races rate higher than the two Beyers he received (73 in each race).

This $1.7 million OBSAPR colt was penciled in for a third start, in the Nov. 6 GIII Nashua S., but trainer Shug McGuaghey had to withdraw him because of a wrenched ankle that has since healed. After a Dec. 31 breeze at Payson Park, Signator was absent from the work tab until Jan. 18, so it looks like he’s going to need a touch more time before we see him in the entries, most likely at either Gulfstream or Tampa.

8) VICTORY FORMATION (c, Tapwrit–Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike) ‘TDN Rising Star O-Spendthrift Farm & Frank Fletcher Racing Operations. B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds Ltd. (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $100,000 wnlg ’20 KEENOV; $150,000 yrl ’21 FTKJUL; $340,000 2yo ’22 FTMMAY. Lifetime Record: SW, 3-3-0-0, $282,285. Last Start: 1st Smarty Jones S., Jan.1 at OP. Kentucky Derby Points: 10.

Even though he’s a 3-for-3 ‘TDN Rising Star,’ Victory Formation flies a touch under the radar within the Top 12. But that’s primarily because his connections have shaped his early-career progression arc without yet attempting a graded stakes.

This son of 2017 GI Belmont S. victor Tapwrit most recently coasted home unopposed by three lengths at 3-5 odds in Oaklawn’s short-stretch Smarty Jones S. at one mile, and even though that field gave off a weak-on-paper vibe, the win still represented a capable, no-nonsense two-turn debut and it capped a trio of escalating Beyers that now reads 81, 85 and 91 without any numerical regression so far.

“He’s a pretty smart horse,” trainer Brad Cox recently told the Oaklawn notes team. “I know I’ve said that several times, but he really is. He’s a horse that doesn’t overdo it. He’s not too hard on himself and I think that’s going to take him a long way and, hopefully, allow him to get more ground.”

The nine-furlong Feb. 18 GII Risen Star S. at Victory Formation’s Fair Grounds training base could be next, with the following Saturday’s 1 1/16-miles GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn a possible backup option.

9) HEJAZI (c, 3, Bernardini–G Note, by Medaglia d’Oro) O-Zedan Racing Stables, Inc. B-Chester & Mary Broman (NY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $3,550,000 2yo ’22 EASMAY. Lifetime Record: GISP, 4-1-2-1, $108,200. Last Start: Maiden win at SA Jan. 15. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.

With the exception of his sale-topping $3.55-million EASMAY price tag, Hejazi doesn’t fit the mold of many of Bob Baffert’s trainees who embark upon the Derby trail.

For starters, this colt is a New York-bred. His three older siblings own an aggregate record of 3-for-35, competing largely at the low end of the claiming echelon. Hejazi also required four starts to break his maiden.

But the experience he compiled at age two includes two runner-up tries (one behind a track-record winning stablemate at 5 1/2 furlongs), plus a third-place effort in a Grade I route when up against No. 3-ranked phenom Cave Rock.

“We gave him some time, gave him a chance to reboot,” said Baffert after this colt’s 97-Beyer win as a first-time Lasix user going 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita Jan. 15. “We wanted to get some weight back on him. We put him through a pretty ambitious [juvenile campaign].”

Sent for speed from post one, always under pressure, and shrugging off his two closest pursuers with aplomb inside the final sixteenth, Hejazi’s “worth-the-wait” effort was athletically impressive enough to land him a berth within the Top 12.

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: GSW, 3-2-0-0, $322,815. Last Start: Won Jan. 21 GIII Lecomte S. Kentucky Derby Points: 32.

Instant Coffee has now taken the overland route from off the pace to win two consecutive graded stakes at 1 1/16 miles after his 92-Beyer score in the GIII Lecomte S. on Saturday.

There were six races at that distance Jan. 21 at Fair Grounds, and this son of Bolt d’Oro posted the fastest final clocking, running .19 seconds quicker than older Grade III stakes horses in the Louisiana S. a half-hour earlier.

When compared to his sophomore peers however, Instant Coffee’s final times for the Lecomte and his win in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. represent the sixth- and seventh-slowest among the eight points-awarding Derby qualifying races run so far at 1 1/16 miles in 2022-23.

Trainer Brad Cox said Sunday that Instant Coffee is likely to keep racing in New Orleans, but he’s undecided if the remainder of his prep campaign will include both the Risen Star S. and the GII Louisiana Derby, or just the Louisiana Derby itself.

11) JACE’S ROAD (c, Quality Road–Out Post, by Silver Deputy) TDN Rising Star O-West Point Thoroughbreds & Albaugh Family Stables LLC. B-Colts Neck Stables (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $510,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: SW & GSP, 4-2-0-1, $126,800. Last Start: Won Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds Dec. 26. Kentucky Derby Points: 13

‘TDN Rising Star’ Jace’s Road already has run three two-turn stakes. Even though one of them is a complete “put a line through it” type of race, the important thing is this $510,000 KEESEP son of Quality Road rebounded capably to win right back off what trainer Brad Cox described as a “meltdown” performance.

In the GIII Street Sense S .at Churchill Oct. 30, favorite Jace’s Road dislodged his jockey at the gate, jogged off for a furlong, was remounted, then ran a lackluster eighth over a sealed, sloppy surface.

We’ll still probably have to guess as to whether he’ll be able handle another off track. But his rebound race in the Dec. 26 Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds was a 90-Beyer wiring that underscored this colt’s ability to put his head down, find the front, and take pressure while seeming unfazed by it en route to the winner’s circle.

Jace’s Road was projected to be the early favorite for Saturday’s Southwest S. before word broke that No. 1-ranked Arabian Knight would be crashing the party.

12) DETERMINEDLY (c, Cairo Prince–Bailzee, by Grand Slam) O-John Oxley. B-Bedouin Bloodstock (Ky). T-Mark Casse. Sales history: $80,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 8-2-2-1, $188,950. Last Start: AOC victory at Fair Grounds Jan. 21. Kentucky Derby Points: 3.

Determinedly, an $80,000 KEESEP gray by Cairo Prince, already has made eight starts. That’s not a huge number by historical standards, but in this less-is-more era of prepping Derby prospects, his experience stands out.

True, it took him six tries to find the winner’s circle. But he did race respectably against grass stakes company at Saratoga last summer while still a maiden, and his transition back to dirt has resulted in a maiden win, a trip-troubled third in the Gun Runner S., and a score on Saturday in an allowance/optional claimer (the one that No. 5-ranked Banishing scratched out of).

He shook free on the front end through moderate splits and did tire a bit late, but the effort bears watching as a stepping-stone type of race considering he showed a new dimension in seizing the lead.

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