Jackson Bend: No. 13 on Steve Haskin's Derby list.

Jackson Bend: No. 13 on Steve Haskin's Derby list.

Jim Lisa Photos

Kentucky Derby Trail: Eight Isn't Enough

Eight horses complete a Top 20 list in what has been a wide-open year.

There are so many top 3-year-olds who still have questions to answer it makes it tough to come up with a list of 12 horses each week that you’re perfectly happy with.


There are always going to be horses you’d love to include who just haven’t done quite enough to warrant supplanting the more accomplished horses. With the 3-year-old action this past weekend limited to several minor stakes and maiden and allowance races, this is a good time to fill out the Top 20 list, adding the final eight, and give recognition to horses that are one race away from surpassing some of those currently in the Top 12.


As for the questions still left unanswered, remember that Lookin At Lucky  will have only two starts before the Derby, and if he goes the San Felipe (gr. II)-Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) route, he’ll go to Louisville as an unknown quantity on dirt, as would Californians Connemara, American Lion , Sidney's Candy, and Dave in Dixie, and any others who remain at Santa Anita.


Noble's Promise  also will have only two starts, and we’ll know more about his ability to handle dirt when he debuts in the March 13 Rebel Stakes (gr. III).


Rule, Conveyance , Super Saver , Discreetly Mine, and Eskendereya all appear to want to be on or close to the lead, and all must still prove they can settle off the pace and be able to close, with the pace in the Derby appearing at this point to be a contentious one.


Perhaps the biggest enigma is Buddy's Saint, who we had to reluctantly drop from the Top 12 after trainer Bruce Levine said he’d likely run next in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) next, giving him not even two races (more like one and a half) this year. Even if he bounces back and runs big in the Wood, can he possibly have enough foundation to make a major impact on the Derby? Levine is in a tough situation and it has to be frustrating for him to have a horse of this quality and see his already tenuous schedule pretty much fall apart. We still feel this is a talented colt, and a decision will have to be made whether to risk pushing him to make a race as grueling and demanding as the Derby. If there is one factor in his favor it’s that he already has a mile and an eighth victory at 2 under his belt, as well as a huge effort at a mile.


With him not running until early April, it’s difficult to know what to do with him, so we’ll put him in limbo until the Wood gets closer and we see how he’s training for it. He was ranked No. 1, so he always has to be in the back of your mind.


Here are the remaining horses who complete our Top 20.


13—Jackson Bend/Nick Zito/Hear No Evil—Sexy Stockings, by Tabasco Cat


He’s as honest as they come and has never finished worse than second in eight career starts. He will win his fair share of major stakes this year. As a Derby horse, however, he always looks strong turning for home, but hasn’t been able to follow through in the final quarter. He ran an excellent race in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III), leaving a great deal of room for improvement, and held on well for second in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth (gr. II) after failing to keep up with Eskendereya. But you just want to see a little more closing punch in the stretch.


14—Interactif/Todd Pletcher/Broken Vow —Broad Pennant, by Broad Brush


Still a big believer in him, especially now that Pletcher has strongly hinted he will point for the SA Derby. He was ridden more like a dirt horse in his two stakes wins, making a big early move to the lead. In his last two, he had to go wide on the first turn and was forced to press the pace. I just want to see what he can do when he takes back and his move is timed right. He’s just a horse I enjoy watching run and want to see return to the dirt. If you run like a dirt horse and are bred like a dirt horse…well, you know the rest. If it doesn’t work out, he’s still one of the top young turf horses in the country.


15—Stay Put/Steve Margolis/Broken Vow —O.K. Mom, by Dixieland Band


He is proving himself to be a consistent closer who puts in his run every  time, and has shown he can win closer to the pace, breaking his maiden in the slop at Fair Grounds racing just behind the leaders. He had little chance in the Risen Star (gr. III) with the sluggish pace and losing a lot of ground turning for home, but still was beaten only 2 3/4 lengths. He’ll be dangerous when he gets a good pace to run at.


16—Connemara/Todd Pletcher/Giant's Causeway —Satin Sunrise, by Mr. Leader


Believe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg with this flashy-looking colt. His :22 3/5 third quarter and :12 2/5 final eighth in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) were impressive. If there was any shot of him trying dirt before the Kentucky Derby he’d likely be in the top 12, but I’m not crazy about him having his final prep for the big race in the March 27 Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II) and going to Churchill with a big question mark hanging over his head. Pletcher has no other recourse, having to try to spread out so many Derby horses.


17—Radiohead/Rick Dutrow/Johannesburg—Security Interest, by Belong to Me


He had no trouble handling a tough allowance field, including Champagne (gr. I) winner Homeboykris, drawing off to a 3 1/4-length victory with a sharp :23 4/5 final quarter. The son of Johannesburg is a group II winner and group I-placed in England, and his race in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) was much better than it looks on paper (see more on that below). There’s not a lot of pure stamina in his immediate tail-female family, but you do have Fappiano and Stage Door Johnny farther back. Distance question marks aside, he does look like an intriguing prospect.


18—Uptowncharlybrown /Alan Seewald/Limehouse —La Iluminada, by Langfuhr 


Still not quite sure how far he wants to go or how he’ll stack up against the better 3-year-olds, but his final sixteenth of the Sam F. Davis (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs suggests there is more improvement to come. Would like to see a bit more turn of foot on the turn, but all in all he looks to have a bright future, and he’s definitely one of the feel-good stories on this year’s Derby trail.


19—Nextdoorneighbor/Mike Machowsky/LidoPalace—Fencelineneighbor, by Wild Rush


Machowsky wasn’t happy about the week’s delay of the Sham Stakes (gr. III), but at least he gets another shot at the draw after originally having the 10-post. He hasn’t been tested for class, but has always been highly regarded and looked good breaking his maiden. He’s been turning in some eye-popping works and should be just as dangerous coming back a week later. He needs graded earnings and likely will have two races to get them. With stablemate Caracortado headed for the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby, his final Derby prep likely will be on dirt in one of the major stakes back east.


20—Soaring Empire /Cam Gambolati/Empire Maker —Flying Passage, by A.P. Indy


Featured him extensively several weeks ago and he is my big sleeper, returning with an impressive allowance score at Gulfstream, overcoming heavy traffic to pull out a victory in the final furlong. He probably is still a race behind and hasn’t been two turns, and that could hurt him for the Derby, but we definitely should be hearing more from this colt.


Sitting right behind this bunch, one big race away from vaulting into the Top 12, are Drosselmeyer, Mission Impazible , Miner's Reserve, Uh Oh Bango, Ice Box , Ron the Greek, Cardiff Giant, Sidney's Candy, Aikenite , Tempted to Tapit, Northern Giant, Tiz Chrome, Fly Down, First Dude , Setsuko, Game On Dude, Backtalk  (who overcame a nightmare trip to win the Sportsman’s Paradise at Delta Downs), Awesome Act, Schoolyard Dreams, Kettle River, Make Music For Me, and a bit farther down, Doubles Partner, Lentenor , Day of Destiny, Unbridled Fury, Peppi Knows, Afleet Again, and Hotep.


I’m sure there are promising horses I neglected to mention, but that’s how wide-open the Derby trail looks right now.


Despite four minor stakes last weekend, the attention was on the two one-mile maiden races and mile allowance race run in succession at Gulfstream Park Feb. 27. All three winners were  impressive, but two of them are so far behind the others they would likely have to go into the Derby off only three career starts (only one of them around two turns).


After his 5 1/2-length maiden victory Saturday, if Miner’s Reserve had one more start he could actually have made the Top 12, his performance was that impressive. He turned in the fastest mile time of the five classy mile races run that day, and I loved the fact  the runner-up finished 5 3/4 lengths ahead of the third horse, who was coming off a half-length defeat to the highly regarded Odysseus. This was a dominating performance over a talented bunch. His pedigree is as good as it gets and he has as much upside as any of them. But he’s really up against it with only two career starts; none at 2 and none around two turns. Two other Zito horses–Ice Box and Fly Down–also bear watching.


Although the other division, won by Game On Dude, was almost a full second slower than Miner’s Reserve, the winner won in hand in a dominating performance. The son of Awesome Again  also is bred to run all day, but like Miner’s Reserve, this was only his second start, with none at a 2 and none around two turns. It’s a lot to ask of him to make the Derby, and his connections will have to decide if it’s in their colt’s best interest to push him. The Florida Derby has been mentioned as his next start, so they apparently are heading on that course.


Getting back to Radiohead’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile performance, he broke from post 11, showed good speed, but was bumped from the inside going into the turn, caroming off Lookin At Lucky and getting shuffled back to 11th. He made a big move on the turn inside William's Kitten, but fanned extremely wide, carrying William’s Kitten out with him. He was stuck on his left lead when William’s Kitten forced him back in behind horses. He kept coming, however, and although he finished seventh in the turf-like stretch run, he did out-close William’s Kitten and was beaten only four lengths.


Another horse who ran a much better race in the Breeders’ Cup than it appears is Awesome Act, but his was in the Juvenile Turf. If you watch that race and see how wide he is turning for home and how far out in the middle of the track he is through the stretch as he rallies to finish fourth, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths, you definitely will want to watch him in Saturday’s Gotham Stakes (gr. III). He’s bred for the dirt and has run well on Polytrack in England, so he could be dangerous in here, despite the inner track’s penchant for speed. If he can close ground and even pick up a piece of it just a day after stepping off the plane from England, he will have to be considered a live horse April 3 for the Wood Memorial (gr. I).


The most impressive of the stakes performers over the weekend was Backtalk , who had so much trouble in a four-horse he was ripe for defeat, and looked like a beaten horse turning for home. After being mugged every step of the way by longshot Target Flash into the first turn, he dropped back to last, as 6-5 second choice Royal Express got loose on an easy lead, crawling the opening three-quarters in 1:14.10. Backtalk was unable to negotiate the tight turn and took himself extremely wide at the head of the stretch. Royal Express still led by three lengths at the eighth pole and appeared home free, but Backtalk kicked into high gear, helped by a slow final quarter, and got up in the final strides to win by a half-length. This race should set him up well for the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and Fair Grounds’ long stretch.