With the first results in of the top ranked prospects for the Kentucky Derby, it is time to update the list of our top ten, make the necessary changes and look ahead to this Saturday’s G2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. The Rebel is increasingly a key trial and the set-up race for the $1m Arkansas Derby on April 11.
The Rebel was run in divisions last year, but there is no need for the same arrangement this time. What is consistent is the presence of a leading hope for U.S. #2 trainer Bob Baffert. And Baffert fields no ordinary horse, but NADAL, who must make a very bold bid if he is to retain a place in the top three of the Derby rankings.
Last week, his stable companion Authentic threw down a serious marker of his own with victory in the G2 San Felipe Stakes. Like that race, the Rebel is worth 50pts in Derby qualifying, which could be vital to the lightly raced Nadal.
Nadal showed he has the heart of his tennis-playing namesake when emerging from a tough duel with Ginobili to win the G2 San Vicente Stakes (see video below) at Santa Anita on February 9. That race appeared to suggest he isn't a brilliant colt as yet because it was pretty hard work for him all the way, but he gets credit in our rankings for reaching such a high level so soon in his career.
This race will tell us whether he has the potential we are assuming.
An intriguing opponent is Basin, trained by Steve Asmussen. This colt won a G1 on only his third start, when graduating from a maiden to romp home in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga last September. We have not seen him since, however, and there has to be some doubt over the reliability of that form because the track was sloppy.
Asmussen runs two more. It could be tough for the smart Silver Prospector to follow up his G3 Southwest Stakes win with a five-pound penalty, while Excession has to prove himself up to Graded class after a couple of resounding defeats.
The value bet to stuff them all in the backfield could be Three Technique, who has to prove he has the toughness for the trenches after a disappointing second in the listed Smarty Jones but who looked potentially brilliant when hitting paydirt in an Aqueduct allowance the time before - despite the race not being run to suit.
Here is how the rankings stand before the Rebel takes place:
1. TIZ THE LAW
Constitution ex Tizfiz by Tiznow
Tiz The Law earns top spot because he is already a G1 winner (October’s Champagne Stakes at Belmont) plus he has put up the best performance of 2020 so far.
That effort came in the G3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream where he beat a very promising colt in Ete Indiien by three lengths, with nearly 12 back to the remainder.
The time of the Holy Bull was very fast, and the way Tiz The Law finished that 8.5f test confirmed the impression of his pedigree: this is a Derby horse through and through.
Trainer Batclay Tagg and owners Sackatoga Stable combined with the 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide and have another exceptional prospect for the great race on their hands here.
He heads next for the G1 Florida Derby on March 28 back at Gulfstream
2. AUTHENTIC (up from 3)
Into The Mischief ex Flawless by Mr Greeley
The new Derby favourite proved his mettle when dominating the G2 San Felipe Stakes. He remains unbeaten after three starts.
This colt has a similar profile to Nadal in that he is trained by Bob Baffert. He parlayed his maiden-breaker into a G3 Sham Stakes romp over a mile. The fractions were interesting: 23.87 - 24.07 - 24.24 - 12.12 - 13.27. Sure enough, he proved a strong galloper with an extra gear last time, winning by better than two lengths in a falsely-run race that hid his true superiority.
Though by a sire who gets plenty of two-turn runners, there is some reason to pause over 10f as a result of the presence of speed influence Mr Greeley. One thing is for sure: this chap is seriously good.
3. NADAL (from 5)
Blame ex Ascending Angel by Pulpit
Here comes the next Justify? Tennis defeated basketball - Rafael beat Manu - in the G2 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita, when Nadal outgamed Ginobili in the seven-furlong February test.
Like the 2018 Derby winner, Nadal was unraced as a juvenile. He made a stunning debut slightly earlier when winning a maiden in January in a fast time and he remains unbeaten.
Just because Justify proved he could stretch his speed to Classic distance, it does not mean we should take that for granted with this fast horse - he pressed a 21.81 - 22.28 pace last time - but he has the pedigree.
Ranked where he is at present, it is a must-win scenario for Nadal in this Saturday's G2 Rebel Stakes.
4. MODERNIST (from 6)
Uncle Mo ex Symbolic Gesture by Bernardini
Winner of a division of the G2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, Modernist could improve a good deal and join the upper echelons of this list. He is doubtless going the right way.
The Bill Mott-trained colt took three starts to get off the mark - not untypical for his trainer at all. That debut win came in a maiden at Aqueduct run on a typicaly slow surface (the time of 1:54.24 was not bad considering this).
On the face of it, winning by a length and a neck in the Risen Star is not enough to promote this colt as a potential Derby winner, but we probably haven't seen what he can really do yet.
5. ETE INDIEN (from #8)
Summer Front ex East India by Mizzen Mast
Ete Indien makes the list on the back of his running-on second to #1 Tiz The Law in the G3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream. He was miles clear of the rest and is a good horse in the making. He has since confirmed that in tremendous style with victory in the G2 Fountain of Youth.
The problem for him may be the step up to a mile and a quarter. Prior to the Holy Bull, he ran 1:35 for a one-mile allowance at the same track, bang on a 22:92 - 22.63 pace early.
Trainer Patrick Biancone has cemented his return to the big time with this fellow. He deserves huge respect because of his deep ability, but we need to see him at 9f before he can rank higher.
6. MAXFIELD (from 8)
Street Sense ex Velvety by Bernardini
The G1 Breeders’ Futurity winner would be much higher ranked than this had we seen him since his stunning triumph at Keeneland last October. He has had surgery for ankle chips and could be out soon.
Trained by Brendan Walsh - the handler of last year's G2 UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait - the Godolphin-owned colt was very impressive, sweeping round the field around the second turn and storming clear.
Race times on the deeper tracks of the East are usually not so impressive than the harder surfaces out West, but Maxfield's closing strength means he has nothing to fear from a stronger pace.
When he proves his wellbeing, this colt will go flying up the rankings.
7. KING GUILLERMO (new)
Uncle Mo ex Slow Sand by Dixieland Band
The G2 Tampa Bay Derby winner was so impressive - and there was no fluke about it. Earlier in his career, he had started favourite to beat Sole Volante in a turf race, but this time he turned the tables in emphatic style, swooping around the final turn like a wild horse and and thumping his old rival by nearly five lengths in a fast time.
Obviously, we will need to see confirmation of that effort, given the colt's uneven profile, but he looked seriously talented there and has nothing to fear from the mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs.
8. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS (from 10)
Constitution ex Addison Run by Unbridled's Song
Odds on for the G1 Breeders' Futurity when thrashed by Maxfield, Gouverneor Morris nevertheless stuck on well for second and was not disgraced. He has since won a minor event.
Why was the son of Constitution (sire of Tiz The Law and Independence Hall) such a warm order at Keeneland? He had won on 5.5f Saratoga maiden on a sloppy track by nine lengths in sensational style and had been touted heavily ever since that September affair. Is he a Derby horse? It remains to be seen. But, he is already G1-placed and has tons of talent.
9. HONOR A. P (new)
Honor Code ex Hollywood Story by Wild Rush
The John Shirreffs-trained colt makes the list because of the quality of his second to G2 San Felipe Stakes winner Authentic. He was coming back from a break on his 3-year-old debut and could strip fitter in future.
Turning out of the back, Honor A. P. was the only runner who could make smooth progress in the backwash of Authentic, and that kind of middle move could make him a formidable runner if he can sustain it longer with a run under his belt.
10. MISCHIEVIOUS ALEX (new)
Into Mischief ex White Pants Night by Speightstown
We have grave stamina reservations of this colt, but he has now banked 50 qualifying points and stands joint third in the process. He has been impressive in the G3 Swale Stakes (7f) and G3 Gotham Stakes (1m) and has a ton of speed - surely too much - but we need to rank him because he has achieved a lot more than other horses we might put in his place.
At Gulfstream, Mischevious Alex pressed a 22.41 - 22.61 pace and ran 1:22.83 while geared down. Wow. That is a seriously impressive effort, and if the John Servis-trained colt can stretch his speed, he might have a shot to emulate the stable's 2004 Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones. It is a big 'if' at this stage, but you have to give this runner respect.