Knowing the Players
by Tom Carley
January 24, 2021
The time has come for us to jump into the pool with both feet. This week we will look at some of the leading barns and do an early analysis on their Derby prospects. Like any good story the characters will develop over the next four months. This exercise will be repeated every 6 weeks until May.
The nominations for the Triple Crown are not due until January 24, but the leading contenders are beginning to assert themselves. Please note that in recent years, some horses that were not nominated during the early nomination period became leading Kentucky Derby contenders by mid-April. Do not quickly write off a horse that is not nominated in the early nomination period. Let’s group some of them by trainers:
Bob Baffert He has won this race more times than any other trainer in history. He seems to win the races in bunches and has won the Derby 3 in the last 5 years after going over 15 years without a Derby win.
Life is Good Considered by many the leading Derby contender. Undefeated in two career starts. Did win the Sham Stakes (Grade 2) last out and proved that he could win at two turns. Is the betting favorite in Kentucky Derby Futures Pool #2. https://wtop.com/sports/2021/01/life-is-good-gives-baffert-record-7th-win-in-sham/
Medina Spirit Closed to run 2nd in the Sham Stakes. What was eye catching is the way in which he closed on his barn mate. Watch this horse’s effort in that race: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=medina+spirit+yhorse+youtube+wins+sham&&view=detail&mid=A229584577C9C5791C3DA229584577C9C5791C3D&&FORM=VRDGAR&ru=%2Fvideos%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Dmedina%2520spirit%2520yhorse%2520youtube%2520wins%2520sham%26qs%3Dn%26form%3DQBVR%26sp%3D-1%26pq%3Dmedina%2520spirit%2520yhorse%2520youtube%2520wins%2520sham%26sc%3D0-38%26sk%3D%26cvid%3D498566954EEA4B429AF45E7005D516D2
Will probably be sent to the Arkansas prep races in order to avoid his stablemates.
Spielberg This hard luck horse has only won 2 times in 6 career starts. However, in his last race he won impressively in the Los Alamitos Futurity. This race is one of the leading West Coast races for 2-year-olds. When you combine that effort with his 2nd place finish in the Del Mar Futurity, there is reason to believe he has the foundation (rare for a Baffert horse this time of year) to go the 1¼ miles in the Derby.
Concert Tour Broke his maiden in a low level maiden race on January 15. What got this one attention was his high Brisnet speed figure of 94. Still has yet to run two turns so the jury is out on this one.
Brad Cox An up and coming trainer who has appears to have a barn full of promising three year olds. Has never had a Derby entrant, but won three races on Breeder’s Cup weekend last November.
Essential Quality My favorite horse in this year’s 3-year-old group. Owned by Godolphin, who has tried to win this race for the last 25 years. He is a perfect 3 for 3 in his career. Broke his maiden at Churchill Downs (where they run the Derby). Then won the Breeder’s Futurity at Keeneland in convincing fashion. Then captured the 2-year-old division title by winning the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile in November. Training well in New Orleans and will make his 3-year-old debut in mid-February.
Caddo River Won the Smarty Jones Stakes last week at Oaklawn by 10 lengths. He proved that two turns was not a problem. He did break his maiden at Churchill Downs.
Mandaloun Hard luck loser in the LeCompte to start his 3-year-old season. Was plagued by a wide trip in a race that looked much worse visually than it appeared on paper. Had won his two previous career starts with a 7-furlong win at Churchill Downs to follow up the 6-furlong maiden win at Keeneland.
Prate This Juddmonte Farms owned horse broke his maiden in his only career start December 19 at the Fairgrounds. He earned a Brisnet Speed Figure of 93. Expect continued improvement.
Steve Asmussen Has won a lot of this sport’s best races including the other two Triple Crown races. His horses typical develop later in the season, so he will have horses enter this list the next time it is compiled.
Jackie’s Warrior Was thought to be a “once in a generation” horse as recently as last October. Showed some distance limitations in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile and finished off the board at even money odds. Was announced last week that this horse would skip the early Derby preps and go to Saudi Arabia and run in a $1.5 million race that provides no Derby points. I read into that development that the barn is looking elsewhere for its Derby horse.
Midnight Bourbon Finally broke through and won the LeCompte Stakes in early January. Before that he had run in his barn mate’s shadow running 3rd (losing by 10 lengths) in the Champagne Stakes. Did run a strong 2nd at Churchill Downs in the Iroquois. Will need to progress but appears to have the potential to develop and also can handle the 10 furlongs Derby distance.
Cowan Had a bad trip in the Smarty Jones Stakes, clipping heels with a speed horse. Before that had established himself as a turf horse running 2nd in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Turf. Has ran second 4 times in 7 races, only wining once.
Todd Pletcher A two time winner of the Derby. While his barn is not as strong as in past years, he has a proven record of using the Gulfstream Park meeting to develop 3-year-olds into Derby horses.
Mutasaabeq Pletcher has developed this one and last out he won the Mucho Man Stakes for his first major dirt victory. Had previously won the Bourbon Stakes on turf. He did not embarrass himself on dirt as a 2-year-old running 3rd in the Hopeful Stakes behind Jackie’s Warrior.
Prime Factor Owned by Winstar, this one won at 6 furlongs at Gulfstream. In that race, he opened eyes with a 94 Brisnet Speed Figure.
Other Horses to Watch
Highly Motivated (Chad Brown trainer) Has 2 wins. The maiden win was a visually impressive win. Opened my eyes winning the Nyquist Stakes on the Breeder’s Cup undercard going 6½ furlongs. Has continued to work well.
Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neil trainer) Took 5 wins to get his only win. Then came back and ran 2nd in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile at odds of 94 to 1. I will watch to see how he progresses off this race. Also, it will be interesting if O’Neil races him in California against the Baffert horses or keeps him East or possibly sends him to Dubai as he did a few years ago.
Keepmeinmind (Roberto Diodoro trainer) Could be the surprise horse of this group come May. Won the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill in November. This followed up his 3rd place finish in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile and 2nd place finish behind Essential Quality in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile.
The above is a summary of the leading 3-year-old contenders. Because it is difficult for an individual trainer to win this race, I grouped the horses and concentrated my focus on the larger barns. There will be plenty of time before May to focus on the individual horses that will emerge in the prep races.
Keep this article somewhere that you can revisit it as we get closer to the First Saturday in May.
So, my top 5 Derby horses as of January 24:
- Essential Quality
- Highly Motivated
- Midnight Bourbon
- Life is Good