The TDN Derby Top 20 Tapit Classic Empire for April 6

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The first Saturday in April's “power trio” of nine-furlong qualifying preps is in the books. We also learned last week that no Japan-based horse will be accepting the “Road to the GI Kentucky Derby” invitation this year, and that none of the qualifying European horses are nominated, meaning they'd have to supplement $200,000 to get in. So at this time it appears that all 20 starting spots will go to American horses. The rankings below are independent from the “Road to the Derby” points leaderboard Churchill Downs uses to determine starting berths. That list can be accessed here.

1) ESSENTIAL QUALITY (c, TapitDelightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)
O/B-Godolphin (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt & MGISW, 5-5-0-0, $2,265,144.
Last Start: 1st GII Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 3
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star', 1st GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6, 1st GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity, KEE, Oct. 3, 1st GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 27
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 140

'TDN Rising Star' Essential Quality's relentless GII Blue Grass S. win now rates as the divisional measuring stick for accomplishment under sustained intensity. The undefeated juvenile champ didn't have to uncork such a highly torqued display of force in his final Derby prep to sail into Louisville as the favorite. But the scary-good nature of his performance is underpinned by trainer Brad Cox's belief that this Tapit-sired Godolphin homebred is only going to build off such a demanding slugfest. “EQ” veered outward and bumped at the break but quickly righted himself to seize a brief early lead. Jockey Luis Saez then skillfully backed him out of a protracted speed duel with stretch-out pacemaker Highly Motivated (Into Mischief), although EQ was keen to re-engage on the backstretch run. Applying outside pressure about a neck back, Saez edged incrementally closer until EQ ranged up on even terms with his rival 2 1/2 furlongs out, and the cadence quickened with Highly Motivated continually repulsing the champ's threatening surges. They shifted and drifted in lockstep through the lane, and only in the final 50 yards did the determined gray finally edge away, earning a 97 Beyer Speed Figure. The final furlong of the Blue Grass was clocked in :12.53, the fastest in seven editions of that stakes since Keeneland's main track switched from synthetic back to dirt.

2) GREATEST HONOUR (c, TapitTiffany's Honour, by Street Cry {Ire})
O/B-Courtlandt Farms (KY). T-Claude R. McGaughey III. Lifetime Record: MGSW & GISP, 7-3-1-3, $422,440.
Last Start: 3rd GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 27
Accomplishments: 1st GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S., GP, Feb. 27, 1st GIII Holy Bull S., GP. Jan. 30
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 80

Long-striding Greatest Honour ran three visually impressive races at Gulfstream this winter and has always figured to be a “longer-the-better” type of colt who should excel over 10 furlongs. But he can't quite match the tactical toolbox of new No. 1 kingpin Essential Quality, who commands races with speed-oriented pressure instead of launching one prolonged bid from the back of the pack. This Tapit-sired Courtlandt Farms homebred tried to follow the rail-running winner in the Florida Derby, but holes that opened for Known Agenda (Curlin) closed before Greatest Honour could fly through them; that's the inherent risk of being a trip- and pace-dependent stayer. I'm not a “numbers guy,” yet I do have to admit it's concerning this colt has never cracked 89 (and even regressed to an 85 last time out) on the Beyer scale. But trainer Shug McGuaghey's main goal was never about getting Greatest Honour to peak on the final Saturday in March, and you can't quantify in any sort of numerical figuration the value that this patient Hall-of-Fame conditioner brings to the equation in terms of having this colt tighter for May 1.

3) CONCERT TOUR (c, Street SensePurse Strings, by Tapit)
O/B-Gary & Mary West Stables Inc (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 3-3-0-0, $756,600.
Last Start: 1st GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 13.
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star', 1st GII San Vicente S., SA, Feb. 6
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 10
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50

The more I look at Concert Tour's past performances, the more I think he's capable of punching through in a big way in Saturday's GI Arkansas Derby, which could stamp him as a horse to beat on the first Saturday in May. This undefeated 'TDN Rising Star' looms large off a frontrunning GII Rebel S. score that was accomplished professionally and all under his own power. The ultra-confident, can-do-no-wrong way that Joel Rosario has been riding through the first quarter of 2021 adds immeasurably to the overall package, and he is a nice fit for a horse like Concert Tour, who likes to be close to the pace but doesn't absolutely need to be on the lead to fire his best shot. Will history also be on Concert Tour's side? The only horses to pull off the Arkansas/Kentucky Derby double since 1980 have been American Pharoah (2015), Smarty Jones (2004) and Sunny's Halo (1983). But keep an eye on whoever finishes second at Oaklawn: Horses who have been the runner-up in the Arkansas Derby during that same time frame have also won three Kentucky Derbies–Super Saver (2010), Grindstone (1996) and Lil E. Tee (1992).

4) KNOWN AGENDA (c, Curlin–Byrama {GB}, by Byron {GB})
O/B-St Elias Stable (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales History: $135,000 RNA Ylg '19 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: 6-3-1-1, $541,700.
Last Start: 1st GI Curlin Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 27
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Accomplishments: 3rd GII Remsen S., AQU, Dec. 5
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 102

Known Agenda now has three wins at nine furlongs and has beaten No. 2-ranked Greatest Honour twice, but what was most impressive about his 94-Beyer Florida Derby victory was how he settled at the rail and came through inside of horses to launch into contention off the final turn. The addition of blinkers two starts back has noticeably increased this Curlin colt's comfort level with racing in tight quarters, and he generally seems to be focused in his stretch runs (beyond some excusable drifting under left-handed stick work in his final prep at Gulfstream). But in no races at age three has this $135,000 RNA at FTSAUG faced a really stern challenge through the final two furlongs of his races. His Feb. 26 allowance win by 11 lengths at 1-2 odds more or less equated to a public workout, and in the Florida Derby the only rival he had to nail in deep stretch was a 12-1 shot who had been softened up by forcing the pace. Having said that, momentum is definitely on Known Agenda's side, which is always a plus heading to Louisville.

5) HIGHLY MOTIVATED (c, Into MischiefStrong Incentive, by Warrior's Reward)
O/B-Klaravich Stables, Inc (KY). T-Chad Brown. Sales History: $240,000 wlg '18 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: SW & MGSP, 5-2-2-1, $320,050.
Last Start: 2nd GII Toyota Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 3
Accomplishments: 1st Nyquist S., KEE, Nov. 6, 3rd GIII Gotham S., AQU, Mar. 6
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50

This $240,000 KEENOV Into Mischief colt could very well end up heading to the Derby with the best runner-up performance in any 2021 prep race. Losing only by a neck in the Blue Grass S., his admirable tenacity on the lead while attempting two turns for the first time and being ceaselessly hounded by undefeated juvenile champ Essential Quality cannot be understated. Only time will tell if such a taxing effort toughens or saps both colts for the Derby; if either one manages to springboard forward off that demanding race, look out. Highly Motivated led through an opening quarter of :23.83, then Javier Castellano toned down the second quarter to :24.58. The third and fourth quarters were nearly identical in :23.87 and :23.89, and as noted above in Essential Quality's write-up, the final eighth was the fastest for this stakes in seven runnings on dirt over Keeneland's current nine-furlong configuration. Highly Motivated beat No. 4-ranked Known Agenda in their lone MSW matchup last season in New York, and his track-record, key-race stakes core on the Breeders' Cup undercard last November reinforces the idea that he is more than capable against upper-crust company.

6) HOT ROD CHARLIE (c, Oxbow–Indian Miss, by Indian Charlie)
O-Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing LLC & William Strauss; B-Edward A Cox (KY); T-Doug O'Neill. Sales history: $17,000 Ylg '19 FTKFEB; $110,000 Ylg '19 FTKOCT. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 7-2-1-2, $1,005,700.
Last Start: 1st GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 20
Accomplishments: 2nd GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6; 3rd GIII Robert B. Lewis S., SA, Jan. 30
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 110

The one-two horses from last year's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile are now the one-two horses on the Derby points qualifying list after both Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie have completed their final preps. This half-brother to 2019 sprint champ Mitole (Eskendereya) is demonstrating improvement both visually and by the numbers (every lifetime Beyer faster than previous through seven lifetime starts), and jockey Joel Rosario has previously noted how this colt's ability to relax during morning training translates to him being responsive in the afternoons under varying pace scenarios and levels of pressure. Only two horses have won the Louisiana Derby and then the Kentucky Derby–Grindstone in 1996 and Black Gold in 1924. This two-time Fasig-Tipton sales grad ($17,000 FTKFEB; $110,000 FTKOCT) celebrates his third birthday Apr. 11.

7) CADDO RIVER (c, Hard SpunPangburn, by Congrats)
O/B-Shortleaf Stable (KY). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: SW, 5-2-2-0, $196,092.
Last Start: 5th GII Rebel S., OP, Mar. 13.
Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star', 1st Smarty Jones S., OP, Jan. 22
Next Start: GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 10
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 10

Trainer Brad Cox said last week to expect a “more aggressive” Caddo River in Saturday's Arkansas Derby. “We're not going to sit on him quite as much as we did last time,” he added, referencing the refusal-to-rate meltdown that this 'TDN Rising Star' imposed upon himself when he conceded the lead to Concert Tour then fought the rider in the Rebel S. last time out. This Hard Spun homebred for Shortleaf Stable acted much more poised and professional in two New York MSW placings last autumn, then commanded the pace and won allowance and stakes starts at Churchill and Oaklawn by a combined 19 1/2 lengths. Cox said last month that Caddo River is the fastest (based on breezing) among his three Derby candidates. But it remains to be seen if that speed can be harnessed into a multi-dimensional tactical weapon that will allow Caddo River to control the flow of a race over 10 furlongs.

8) MIDNIGHT BOURBON (c, Tiznow–Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon)
O-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC; B-Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings LLC (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Sales History: $525,000 Ylg '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 7-2-2-3, $461,420.
Last Start: 2nd GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 20.
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Accomplishments: 1st GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16, 2nd GIII Iroquois S., CD, Sept. 25, 3rd GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13, 3rd GI Champagne S., BEL, Oct. 10
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 66

There is some upside to Midnight Bourbon when you look at his entire body of work, but the caveat is you'd be backing him in the Derby coming off of two so-so performances and no wins since mid-January. This $525,000 KEESEP colt by Tiznow boasts a seven-race foundation of races at a mile or longer, five appearances in graded stakes, no off-the-board finishes, and Beyers of 93, 96 and 96 in three sophomore starts. It will be tough to leave this Steve Asmussen trainee out of Derby exotics, but building your entire betting strategy around him seems iffy. He hasn't yet learned how to seal the deal, and when he hooked up with Hot Rod Charlie for the final 2 1/2 furlongs of the Louisiana Derby, Midnight Bourbon was trying hard but clearly got outkicked after enjoying a sweet stalking trip that should have set him up nicely for a powerful finish. He closed at 26-1 in the Derby future pool right after his GIII Lecomte win three months ago and was 27-1 in the most recent version of that bet at the end of March.

9) ROCK YOUR WORLD (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)
O-Hronis Racing LLC & Talla Racing LLC. B-Ron & Deborah McAnally (KY). T-John Sadler. Sales History: $650,000 ylg '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 3-3-0-0, $546,600.
Last Start: 1st GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 3
Accomplishments: 1st Pasadena S., SA, Feb. 27
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 100

This two-time grass winner (at six furlongs and a mile) stretched out to nine furlongs on dirt and really caught the eye with a 100-Beyer wire job in the GI Santa Anita Derby. That breakout performance earned this unbeaten $650,000 KEESEP colt by Candy Ride (Arg) a berth in the gate in Louisville, but the shallow-on-paper nature of this year's Santa Anita Derby–no other stakes winners besides this colt and beaten fave Medina Spirit (Protonico)–leaves Rock Your World's standing among Kentucky Derby peers kind of hazy. He was prominently placed from the outset and took control seven-eighths out when no one else seemed eager to do so. Tracked by a 45-1 presser, Rock Your World clicked off consecutive quarters of :22.42, :23.69, :24.53 and :25.63, progressively slowing the splits yet opening up on the far turn because no rivals were seriously firing. He finished up 4 1/4 lengths the best through a capable final eighth of :12.90, but he still strikes me as a wild card who's difficult to place in the pecking order. On the plus side, there is some 10-furlong pedigree promise with Empire Maker as his damsire, and Rock Your World doesn't figure strictly as a needs-the-lead threat based on two previous stalking wins on the turf.

10) MEDINA SPIRIT (c, Protonico–Mongolian Changa, by Briliant Speed)
O-Zedan Racing Stables. B-Gail Rice (FL). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $1,000 ylg '19 OBSWIN; $35,000 2yo '20 OBSOPN. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 5-2-3-0, $315,200.
Last Start: 2nd GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 3
Accomplishments: 1st Robert B. Lewis S., SA, Jan. 30, 2nd GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 6, 2nd GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 2
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 74

Medina Spirit is bound for Louisville off a best-of-the-rest second against a soft crew in the Santa Anita Derby as the 9-10 fave. His upside has always been that he's a hard trier who was a bargain buy ($1,000 OBSWIN and $35,000 OBSOPN), and this Protonico colt also stacks up numbers-wise as a Kentucky Derby candidate (four separate Beyers at 94+ as a 3-year-old). “He ran a game race like he always does,” trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday. “The winner was very impressive, but our horse showed up, he ran his race, he came out of it well and we've got four weeks to sharpen him up.”

11) REBEL'S ROMANCE (IRE) (Dubawi {Ire}–Minidress {GB}, by Street Cry {Ire})
O/B-Godolphin (IRE). T-Charles Appleby. Lifetime Record: GSW-UAE, 5-4-0-0, $549,879.
Last Starts: 1st G2 UAE Derby, MEY, Mar. 27
Next Start: Possible for GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 100

This Godolphin homebred by Dubawi (Ire) is a slow breaker, but once this large-framed gelding ramps up to cruising speed, his appeal is evident. He circled the field to paste an okay group in the UAE Derby by open lengths, has won under both 131 and 135 pounds as a 2-year-old, and he does have dirt experience. Since 2000, 11 winners of the UAE Derby have gone on to compete in the Kentucky Derby, and the best finish among them was sixth (along with two DNF's and a 20th-place try).

12) HELIUM (c, 3, Ironicus–Thundering Emilia, by Thunder Gulch)
O-D J Stable LLC; B-Teneri Farm Inc & Bernardo Alvarez Calderon (KY); T-Mark Casse. Sales History: $55,000 Ylg '19 FTKOCT. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-3-0-0, $287,763.
Last Start: 1st GII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, TAM, Mar. 6
Accomplishments: 1st Display S., WO, Oct. 18
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 1
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50

The 3-for-3 winner of the Tampa Bay Derby will attempt to go 56 days between starts to win the Kentucky Derby. How unconventional is that? Regret won the 1915 Derby off a 259-day break. Sir Barton won the 1919 Derby off a 238-day rest. Since 1929 (the advent of more complete records), the longest winning layoff for a regularly scheduled Derby was 42 days, equaled by Needles in 1956 and Animal Kingdom in 2011. And last year, when the pandemic forced the Derby to September, Authentic won it off a 49-day break. Trainer Mark Casse is generally known as a savvy layoff conditioner, and over the last five years he's won with layoffs of 31-60 days at a 17% clip. But when you drill down that stat to look at Casse's layoffs during that same time-away frame for starters at 10 furlongs or greater, the strike rate plummets to 1-for-56. Although this $55,000 FTKOCT colt by Ironicus is up against the grain of historical convention, the fact that he is tactically versatile and not locked into a certain running style (he's won on the lead, stalking, and closing) should stand him in good stead in a 20-horse race. Julien Leparoux will ride in the Derby.

Potentially rounding out the starting gate…

13) Mandaloun (Into Mischief): After starting his career with some spark at 3-for-4, this 'TDN Rising Star' was a punchless sixth as the beaten favorite in his final prep race. “We're going to press forward straight to the Kentucky Derby,” trainer Brad Cox said last week. “He's a good colt, and I really don't know what to make of his Louisiana Derby.” Cox added that Mandaloun came out of the race in good order, and he has confidence this Juddmonte homebred's stout pedigree will rise to the occasion going 10 furlongs.

14) Soup and Sandwich (Into Mischief): Live Oak homebred took heat on the lead in the Florida Derby then stuck around late in the lane, running second behind Known Agenda. “I was very pleased, especially if he ever learns what he's doing,” trainer Mark Casse said post-race. “[Jockey] Johnny [Velazquez] said he had to fight with him a little. He stayed on his left lead all the way down the stretch. He's like that in the morning, too.”

15) Dynamic One (Into Mischief): His runner-up try in the GII Wood Memorial S. might have represented a better run than the winner's considering it was just the first start outside the maiden ranks for this $725,000 KEESEP colt. He was wide on both turns and just got pipped at the wire, earning the same 89 Beyer as the horse who beat him by a head.

16) Bourbonic (Bernardini): This Calumet homebred lobbed a 72-1 bomb into the Derby mix with a perfectly timed last-to-first move to steal the Wood Memorial in the final jump. But the final clocking of 1:54.49 was the slowest in the race's history and also the slowest of three consecutive nine-furlong races run Saturday at Aqueduct.

17) Hidden Stash (Constitution): This $50,000 KEESEP colt is currently on the outside looking in points-wise (No. 23 on the qualifying list), and his connections were non-committal about a Derby start after his Blue Grass fourth. I do like the fact that he was the only one gaining in the stretch of his two Tampa stakes; he's also won and has run third in two starts at Churchill. Hidden Stash is weak in the numbers category though, with an 83 Beyer twice being his lifetime best.

18) Rombauer (Twirling Candy): Fradkin homebred is currently 21st in qualifying points, so he's right on the cusp. Got bumped by the winner out of the gate in the Blue Grass, but it didn't really hamper his trip. He's run a faster Beyer in every consecutive start over six races, but would enter the Derby never having won on dirt (turf and Tapeta victories only).

19) Hosier (Pioneerof the Nile): Baffert-trained $625,000 FTSAUG colt goes in this weekend's Arkansas Derby. He owns a 1-for-3 lifetime record, with both losses at the hands of No. 3-ranked Concert Tour. Will face his stablemate again on Saturday in search of points and momentum to punch his ticket to Louisville.

20) Like the King (Palace Malice): Big, rangy colt ($28,000 KEENOV, $170,000 OBSOCT) has never been off the board in six lifetime tries but has been beaten by large margins in only two dirt attempts.

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