Bobby Zen

We’re approaching the five-week mark to the GI Kentucky Derby, but not all contenders on this week’s list are aiming for the first Saturday in May. This coming weekend’s nine-furlong stakes at Oaklawn and Gulfstream have the potential to usher in a shake-up within the rankings, which have remained relatively stable as winter edges into spring.

1) MUTH (c, Good Magic–Hoppa, by Uncle Mo) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Zedan Racing Stables Inc; B-Don Alberto Corporation (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $190,000 Ylg ’22 KEESEP; $2,000,000 2yo ’23 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-3-2-0, $716,600. Last start: WON Jan. 6 GII San Vicente S.

With stablemate and fellow ‘TDN Rising Star’ Nysos (Nyquist) out of training for at least 30 days, Muth inherits the top spot on the Sophomore Top 12 despite not having raced since Jan. 6.

This 3-for-5 Good Magic colt drew post seven for Saturday’s GI Arkansas Derby as the 8-5 morning-line favorite.

Muth is ineligible for the Kentucky Derby because of Churchill Downs’s corporate ban on Bob Baffert’s trainees. So it’s possible Baffert is sizing up a subsequent start for him in the GI Preakness S. May 18.

The athletic Muth has a no-drama way of going about his tasks, and that businesslike efficiency appears poised to bloom into substantial class. With four total races at age two that included two routes and a Grade I win in the American Pharoah S., Baffert opted to sharpen this colt’s speed by starting 2024 him in the seven-furlong GIII San Vicente S., a race that Muth commanded by stalking two pacemakers before breaking away at will (90 Beyer Speed Figure).

Baffert has won the Arkansas Derby four times. Favorites crossed the finish wire first in that race for five straight runnings, from 2017 through split divisions in 2020. But the chalk has gone down in defeat in each of the last three editions.

2) SIERRA LEONE (c, Gun Runner–Heavenly Love, by Malibu Moon) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Mrs John Magnier, Michael B Tabor, Derrick Smith Westerberg, Rocket Ship Racing LLC & Peter M Brant; B-Debby M Oxley (KY); T-Chad Brown. Sales history: $2,300,000 Ylg ’22 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $336,750. Last start: WON Feb. 17 GII Risen Star S.

With two wins and a second-place loss by only a nose, plus a locomotive-like ability to close ground when it counts, Sierra Leone’s form doesn’t need much validation from the horses left in his wake.

Still, the win by this ‘TDN Rising Star’ in the Feb. 17 GII Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds now looks even better after Saturday’s one-two finish in the GII Louisiana Derby by the colts who ran third and fifth behind Sierra Leone last month in New Orleans.

This $2.3-million FTSAUG sale-topper will go next in the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland, meaning that if he exits that final Derby prep in decent order, this Chad Brown trainee will have three straight races at nine furlongs prior to attempting 10 furlongs on the first Saturday in May.

That experience over a distance of ground might mitigate concerns about only having four lifetime starts before the Derby.

3) FIERCENESS (c, City of Light–Nonna Bella, by Stay Thirsty) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O/B-Repole Stable (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo, GISW, 4-2-0-1, $1,127,250. Last start: 3rd Feb. 3 GIII Holy Bull S.

You can expect juvenile champ and ‘TDN Rising Star’ Fierceness to go off quite a bit lower than his 8-5 morning-line ranking in Saturday’s GI Curlin Florida Derby. He drew post 10 in an 11-horse field that lured just one other colt currently ranked within TDN‘s Sophomore Top 12.

The GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victor is in regroup mode for start number two of 2024. He drew a very soft field for the Feb. 3 GIII Holy Bull S. Accordingly, the betting public hammered him to 1-5 odds, but Fierceness came up flat.

By way of a possible excuse, trainer Todd Pletcher had referenced bumping at the break that caused jockey John Velazquez to push harder on the colt than they would have liked to in an attempt to obtain good early positioning. But still, a colt of Fierceness’s perceived caliber should have finished up a lot more powerfully considering the lullaby tempo of the Holy Bull’s two opening quarter-miles, which were clocked in :25.03 and :25.50.

A performance on Saturday that resembles anything close to the one uncorked by Fierceness when he trounced the Juvenile field by 6 1/4 lengths en route to a 105 Beyer victory would re-establish his presence as the Kentucky Derby favorite.

This Repole Stable homebred had checked a lot of boxes on that first weekend of November by flashing tactical speed while in hand from the gate, willingly pressing a pacemaker, displaying good responsiveness when encouraged to quicken, and fluidly torqueing into a higher gear through the stretch before smoothly galloping out well ahead of everyone else.

Dornoch | Nicole Thomas

4) DORNOCH (c, Good Magic–Puca, by Big Brown) O-West Paces Racing LLC, R A Hill Stable, Belmar Racing and Breeding LLC, Two Eight Racing LLC & Pine Racing Stables; B-Grandview Equine (KY); T-Danny Gargan. Sales history: $325,000 Ylg ’22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 5-3-2-0, $505,400. Last start: WON Mar. 2 GII Coolmore Fountain of Youth S.

The anticipated rematch of Dornoch and Sierra Leone in the Blue Grass S. will end up being the highest-profile rivalry of the Derby prep campaign. In a season that has been hallmarked by shallow qualifying stakes with little horse-vs.-horse intrigue, here’s hoping that showdown ends up being worth the wait.

Those two last met in the Dec. 2 GII Remsen S. at Aqueduct. Racing on a sealed, muddy track that favored early speed, Dornoch outgunned five rivals for the lead, took pressure from a 27-1 shot, swatted back bids from fresh challengers on the far turn, then brushed the rail and re-surged to steal the lead late from Sierra Leone, who had taken the overland route from last against the grain of the bias. Dornoch’s winning margin was a nose.

Each has since had one subsequent start at age three, with Sierra Leone annexing the Risen Star S. as the 5-2 favorite and Dornoch winning at 1-5 odds in a scratch-reduced GII Fountain of Youth S.

That cakewalk win at Gulfstream for this son of Good Magic didn’t tell us much about Dornoch’s forward progression. But trainer Danny Gargan has said he’s liked what he’s seen in two breezes since that race, and in choosing the Blue Grass he is underscoring that he’s not ducking anyone along the way to the Derby in his hometown of Louisville.

5) DETERMINISTIC (c, Liam’s Map–Giulio’s Jewel, by Speightstown) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-St. Elias Stable, Langone, Ken, Duncker, C. Steven and Vicarage Stable; B-Hinkle Farms (KY); T-Christophe Clement. Sales history: $625,000 Ylg ’22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $222,750. Last start: WON Mar. 2 GIII Gotham S.

Despite being one of the lightest-raced among the Top 12 contenders, the 2-for-2 Deterministic rates highly in terms of the anticipatory buzz about his next start and projections about how he might fare as a Triple Crown contender.

After winning at first asking in an Aug. 12 MSW sprint at Saratoga, Deterministic was sidelined with an ankle chip that kept him out of action until the Mar. 2 GIII Gotham S. at Aqueduct.

Trainer Christophe Clement had this $625,000 KEESEP colt primed to fire off the nearly seven-month layoff, and Deterministic stalked willingly under Joel Rosario prior to tipping out and splitting horses with authority in the stretch over a sealed and sloppy one-turn mile.

The visually impressive win garnered a 93 Beyer, a boost of 12 points.

The Apr. 6 GII Wood Memorial S. is next.

6) CONQUEST WARRIOR (c, City of Light–Tea Time, by Pulpit) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Courtlandt Farms (Donald Adam); B-Betz/B&K Canetti/J.Betz/CoCo Equine/D.J. Stables (KY); T-Claude R. McGaughey III. Sales history: $1,000,000 Ylg ’22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 3-2-0-1, $96,000. Last start: WON Mar. 1 Gulfstream AOC.

Although gate nine is not a desirable draw for nine-furlong races at Gulfstream (2-for-105 over the past 15 years according to Daily Racing Form‘s Mike Welsch), the wide post is probably not going to be as big of an issue for ‘TDN Rising Star’ Conquest Warrior, who figures to be backed off the Florida Derby pace with speed threats drawn to his inside and outside.

This stout-framed, long-striding $1-million KEESEP closer will benefit from being able to sit back and zero in on targets. But he’s going to need a less “busy” ride from jockey Jose Ortiz, who in a Mar. 1 allowance at Gulfstream over the same distance rated Conquest Warrior off heels at the seven-furlong pole, sent him back up to re-engage six furlongs out, came through on the inside, then sliced outside for a winning run to reel in a tiring target.

There was a fair amount of lateral and back-and-forth repositioning going on in that race, and Conquest Warrior got away with all that maneuvering because he was 1-5 in the betting against five rivals who weren’t Triple Crown-caliber competition.

Conquest Warrior’s previous race, a one-turn-mile maiden win Jan. 13, was also a bit of an adventure. He got sandwiched at the break, shuffled to last, then repeatedly ran into traffic before bursting through for a dramatic half-length score under Ortiz.

Trainer Shug McGuaghey will send out the second-favorite for the Florida Derby knowing Conquest Warrior is 2-for-2 over the Gulfstream surface, that he’s already won at 1 1/8 miles, and that he should get honest fractions in front of him while he unwinds from midpack or farther back.

7) MAYMUN (c, Frosted–Handwoven, by Indian Charlie) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Zedan Racing Stables, Inc.; B-Vision Racing & Sales LLC (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $50,000 Ylg ’22 KEESEP; $900,000 2yo ’23 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $79,200. Last start: WON Feb. 11 Santa Anita AOC.

The 2-for-2 ‘TDN Rising Star’ Maymun will start next in the Apr. 6 GI Santa Anita Derby, according to a confirmation by trainer Bob Baffert first published by Horse Racing Nation on Friday.

Maymun blitzed home first by 7 1/2 lengths in his Jan. 20 debut over 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita (93 Beyer), then scored a one-mile allowance victory (89 Beyer) there Feb. 11 despite sideswiping a stablemate on the first turn.

After both colts recovered without incident, Maymun launched a spirited bid three-eighths from the wire in tandem with Imagination (Into Mischief). But he had to exert quite a bit of effort in putting away his stubborn stablemate, who seized the lead three times from the quarter to the sixteenth poles before Maymun clawed back a half-length deficit inside the final 100 yards.

Imagination came back to win the Mar. 3 GII San Felipe S. with a 96 Beyer.

8) TIMBERLAKE (c, Into Mischief–Pin Up (Ire), by Lookin At Lucky) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Siena Farm LLC and WinStar Farm LLC; B-St. Elias Stables, LLC (KY); T-Brad H. Cox. Sales history: $350,000 Ylg ’22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 6-3-1-0, $1,094,350. Last start: WON Feb. 24 GII Rebel S.

Trainer Brad Cox has won the Arkansas Derby with non-favorites in each of the last two runnings, with Cyberknife at 5-1 odds in 2022 and Angel of Empire at 9-2 last season.

This year, he’s got ‘TDN Rising Star’ Timberlake who will start from post two as the 9-5 second choice on the morning line behind the favored Muth.

Timberlake has plateaued 93 Beyers in three straight starts spanning nearly six months. Those races were a one-turn-mile win in the sloppy-surfaced GI Champagne S., a rank-on-the-first-turn fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, then a much more settled win in the Feb. 24 GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn.

His stretch run in the Rebel wasn’t flawless–Timberlake stalled momentarily, but re-engaged once roused. It was a decent enough launch point to show how he has the potential to be a legit divisional threat with some polishing.

“I like the timing,” Cox said of the Oaklawn race. “Obviously, he has the experience there now, that one run under him. I kind of thought the Rebel was the spot when we were getting started. At the beginning of the winter, we thought the Rebel was the spot. It worked out.”

Catching Freedom | Hodges Photography

9) CATCHING FREEDOM (c, Constitution-Catch My Drift, by Pioneerof the Nile) O-Albaugh Family Stables LLC; B-WinStar Farm (KY); T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-3-0-1, $877,350. Last start: WON Mar. 23 GII Louisiana Derby.

Catching Freedom won’t be heading to Louisville as one of the favorites. But his last-to-first win in Saturday’s GII Louisiana Derby stamped him as a capable stayer. He’ll be the type of colt who doesn’t rank as an A-list powerhouse, but you’ll probably end up agonizing over whether to include him in your exotic wagers, because he figures to be firing from off the tailgate.

At Fair Grounds, Flavien Prat waited patiently at the rear of the field until 2 1/2 furlongs out behind a moderate tempo, and because he didn’t want to slow this Constitution colt’s momentum, he let Catching Freedom fan 12 wide into the lane.

This $575,000 KEESEP grad chugged home in straight, grind-down fashion, executing his job willingly. But for the most part, he was passing horses who had already taken their best cracks at the leader.

Catching Freedom’s 97 Beyer came back a little higher than I might have guessed based on the visual impression of the race. He gained ground in the stretch through a final furlong and a half timed in :18.78. In the five runnings since the Louisiana Derby got elongated to 1 3/16 miles, that’s the second slowest fraction for the final three-sixteenths of the race.

“I didn’t know what to make of it early on, being so far back and with not much pace,” said trainer Brad Cox. “But Flavien did a great job of letting him inch up. He needed pretty much the entire stretch to get there and I am very proud of the effort.”

10) MYSTIK DAN (c, Goldencents–Ma’am, by Colonel John) O/B-Lance Gasaway, Daniel Hamby & 4G Racing, LLC (KY); T-Kenneth G. McPeek. Lifetime Record: SW, 5-2-1-0, $510,110. Last start: WON Feb. 3 GIII Southwest S.

Mystik Dan improved his Beyer by a whopping 19 points and was geared down late while leading the way home through a final sixteenth clocked in a zippy :5.93 when he won the Feb. 3  GIII Southwest S. at 11-1 odds.

Are his 101 Beyer and the distinction of having run the fastest closing half-furlong among all 18 of this season’s Derby points-awarding stakes at 1 1/16 miles the real deal? Or were those impressive metrics simply artifacts of Mystik Dan relishing a muddy, sealed Oaklawn surface that was playing quirkily?

We’ll find out in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, where this homebred son of Goldencents for owners Lance Gasaway, Daniel Hamby and 4G Racing faces the difficult task of trying to outmuscle both the No. 1-ranked Muth and No. 8 Timberlake.

Trainer Kenny McPeek has expressed confidence all winter long about how this keen-minded colt has learned how to rate off the pace without the transition blunting Mystik Dan’s natural speed.

Besides the Southwest romp by eight lengths, Mystik Dan’s only other victory from five starts was a 5 1/2-furlong MSW win at Churchill back on Nov. 12 in which he wired the field by 7 3/4 lengths.

11) TRACK PHANTOM (c, Quality Road-Miss Sunset, by Into Mischief) O-L and N Racing LLC, Clark Brewster, Jerry Caroom & Breeze Easy LLC; B-Breeze Easy (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-3-2-1, $405,000. Last start: 4th in Mar. 23 GII Louisiana Derby

Track Phantom didn’t have to be rushed from post 11 and he was allowed to dictate a moderate tempo in the Louisiana Derby. So in that respect, it’s a bit disappointing that he faded to fourth in the stretch as the beaten 2-1 favorite and won’t be heading to the Kentucky Derby with positive forward momentum.

But that doesn’t mean he gets voted off the Top 12 island, either. Especially because this is a year that is shaping up as a Derby without too many established, credible early blazers to force or set the pace. With a little honing of his established speed-centric form in two-turn races, trainer Steve Asmussen could fine-tune this $500,000 KEESEP son of Quality Road into the type of dangerous Derby prospect who gets bold on the lead.

Also, consider that Track Phantom looked almost certain to be swallowed up by no fewer than five contenders ganging up behind him at the head of the lane on Saturday. I can’t say for certain whether he definitively swatted them all back or if their bids just never materialized. But give this colt some credit for not ceding the lead until the sixteenth pole despite tiring under duress.

Asmussen told Daily Racing Form Sunday that after talking to jockey Joel Rosario, “we thought there was a little more there, and we’re going to try a little French cup blinker.” He added that Track Phantom exited the race fine and will point for the Derby.

12) IMAGINATION (c, Into Mischief–Magical Feeling, by Empire Maker) O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Stonestreet Stables LLC, Dianne Bashor, Robert Masterson, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine Donovan & Tom Ryan; B-Peter Blum Thoroughbreds (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-2-3-0, $256,800. Last start: WON Mar. 3 San Felipe S.

Imagination got clipped from behind on the clubhouse turn of the GII San Felipe S., then rushed up to engage stablemate Wine Me Up (Vino Rosso). The two battled around the far turn and into the home straight, with Imagination prevailing by a head.

Since breaking his maiden in start number three on Jan. 1, this Bob Baffert trainee has now put together two sharp back-to-back routes races in which he has been knocked off balance early, then got locked into a prolonged tussle on the front end without backing down. Even when he lost by a neck to Maymun back on Feb. 11, that second-place try resonated as a punching-above-his-weight type of performance.

This $1.05-million KEESEP colt could resurface in the Santa Anita Derby, where Baffert is expected to have “at least two starters and potentially three,” as per Sunday’s Santa Anita press notes.

The post TDN Sophomore Top 12: Five Contenders in Action This Saturday appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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