Back in 1997, after Pulpit won his debut by more than seven lengths at Gulfstream Park and everybody, it seemed, crowded onto his bandwagon, I pointed out that not since Apollo in 1882 had a Kentucky Derby (G1) winner been unraced as a 2-year-old. It was just an observation. But about five months later, after Pulpit finished fourth behind Silver Charm at Churchill Downs, there was suddenly another “rule” about the Kentucky Derby.
If you’ve been following the Derby awhile, you’ve probably heard the “rules,” which are really a set of premises and assumptions for a priori thinking. If a horse didn’t race as a 2-year-old, he can’t win the Derby; if a horse hasn’t raced in the last five weeks, he can’t win the Derby; if a horse didn’t finish fourth or better in his last outing, he can’t win the Derby…. and so the rules went. A gelding couldn’t win the Derby, according to an old rule that disregarded Clyde Van Dusen et. al., until Funny Cide won in 2003. A filly couldn’t win the Derby, never mind Regret, until Genuine Risk won in 1980. A horse returning from a layoff couldn’t win the Derby until Animal Kingdom won in 2011.
Recent years have not been kind to the rules. And when Justify draped himself in roseate glory just 10 weeks after winning his debut at Santa Anita, the last “rule,” or shibboleth, crumbled like a saltine beneath the colt’s heft and talent. But the “rules” weren’t actually rules at all; they were windows through which you could view a horse’s talent and readiness. Regarding the Derby, as it turns out, there are no “rules,” as such, about who can win. A horse from New Mexico (Mine That Bird) or Venezuela (Canonero II) can win; a club-footed horse (Assault) can win; even a maiden (Brokers Tip) can win; and so it goes, may all the rules rest in peace.
It may be coincidental that with the disintegration of the Derby “rules,” horsemen have shed many of the old assumptions and have begun taking a different path to Kentucky, a different approach. Maybe trainers have just become more confident, or maybe they’re listening more than ever to their horses. Whatever the reason, juvenile success has become less predictive of Triple Crown success than ever.
Quick, who was the last Kentucky Derby winner to win a stakes race as a juvenile? You have to turn the page back to Nyquist in 2016 to answer that one. Undefeated in five races at 2, he was the juvenile champion and extraordinarily precocious; but as far as Derby horses go, he was an anomaly. (It’s worth noting that he never won a race after the Derby.) Since then, as 2-year-olds, the last five Kentucky Derby winners (Medina Spirit, Authentic, Country House, Justify, and Always Dreaming) put together a combined record of six starts, two wins, and a second. As 2-year-olds, they never even ran in a stakes race, not one of them.
Anyway, I point that out in part to explain this list of 50 noisemakers. Not too long ago, the list was twice as long. Every year, I would distill the information stored in notes and notebooks down to a list of 100. Some of the horses on the list were obvious and proven, and some, based on pedigree or observation, were projected to excel down the road, but they all had sufficient talent or potential to suggest they might participate in the stakes leading up to the Triple Crown. And some, it was hoped, would participate in the series itself.
But with 2-year-old racing becoming less predictive of 3-year-old success and with the imperative to race as a juvenile having all but disappeared, coming up with 100 noisemakers required a stretch of imagination that approached pure, insupportable, speculation. One or two horses who will be in the starting gate for this year’s Derby probably haven’t even started yet. And so, the list is down to 50, and I will update it from time to time, shrinking it as we approach the Derby.
The list, keep in mind, is based more on potential than accomplishment. Still, Corniche sits solidly on top. A $1.5 million purchase, he’ll certainly be the juvenile champion, but that’s not why he tops the list. He sits up there — very solidly, by the way — because he could also be the sport’s next superstar. His winning time (1:42.50) for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) was solid but unspectacular, much like his performance. But keep watching. By the time, Mike Smith pulled him up, Corniche was a dozen lengths in front, pricking his ears as if having a jolly time. (For the moment, this list will ignore Churchill Downs’ ban of trainer Bob Baffert, who has several top youngsters in his barn.)
Trainer Kenny McPeek has three of the top prospects — Smile Happy, Rattle N Roll, and Tiz the Bomb. Trainer Todd Pletcher has even more — Commandperformance, Emmanuel, Mo Donegal, Major General, etc. Steve Asmussen also has several horses on the list, all with more potential than achievement. But undefeated Echo Zulu is not on the list; she almost certainly will remain with fillies.
They’re all lightly raced, these 50 horses, but they represent grand possibilities. A few of the prospects — Make It Big, Classic Moment, Bye Bye Bobby — will race Friday at Remington Park in Oklahoma City. Epicenter, Cyberknife, and Rocket Dawg are all scheduled to race Dec. 26 at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The list, in other words, is changing almost daily and sometimes dramatically, much like these young horses.
A look at 50 noisemakers for the road to the Triple Crown
1. Corniche, 3-3-0-0, Bob Baffert, Quality Road: He galloped out strongly after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and possesses a conspicuously special talent. But how special? That wasn’t a strong field he defeated at Del Mar, and he had a fairly easy trip.
2. Smile Happy, 2-2-0-0, Kenny McPeek, Runhappy: He circled horses to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill in one of the most impressive juvenile performances of the year. Aimed at a Florida return.
3. Rattle N Roll, 4-2-0-1, Kenny McPeek, Connect: He made a dramatic four-wide move around the second turn to win the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, but hasn’t been heard from since then. McPeek has a pair of aces to start the Triple Crown season.
4. Slow Down Andy, 3-2-1-0, Doug O’Neill, Nyquist: After making a wide move, he showed his inexperience as he fit the front in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), but he also showed considerable potential.
5. Messier, 4-2-2-0, Bob Baffert, Empire Maker: He disappointed as the odds-on favorite at Los Alamitos. He’s a grand looking, long-striding colt, but so far, he hasn’t quite run to his looks, but the handsome colt’s potential appears to be very high.
6. Commandperformance, 3-0-2-0, Todd Pletcher, Union Rags: He finished fourth in the Juvenile after racing wide around both turns. Still a maiden, the big gray colt looks as if he could improve dramatically in 2022. He was born to race longer distances.
7. Emmanuel, 1-1-0-0, Todd Pletcher, More Than Ready: At a mile last Saturday at Gulfstream, he was a handy and lonely winner, with jockey Luis Saez looking under his arm for company. The $350,000 yearling has a bright future and will probably be running in stakes before he leaves Florida.
8. Tiz the Bomb, 5-3-1-0, Kenny McPeek, Hit It A Bomb: A multiple stakes winner and Breeders’ Cup runner-up on turf, he scored his maiden victory by more than 14 lengths on the main track. Obviously versatile and talented, he could be one of the most intriguing 3-year-olds of 2022.
9. Classic Causeway, 3-1-1-1, Brian Lynch, Giant’s Causeway: He moved four-wide with Smile Happy in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes but couldn’t sustain his move to the wire; still, he rated comfortably and took a step forward, declaring himself to be a noisemaker on the road to Kentucky.
10. Mo Donegal, 3-2-0-1, Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo: He waited in traffic before swinging to the outside; he waited again, or lost focus, when he hit the front. But he persevered and finished well to win the Remsen (G2) by a nose over Zandon.
11. Jack Christopher, 2-2-0-0, Chad Brown, Munnings: The morning-line favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he was scratched the day before the race and later had surgery so a screw could be placed in his left shin. He could resume training next month. Yes, he’s fast and talented, but when he won the Champagne (G1), he staggered through the final quarter-mile in :26.86. So, he raises many questions, and from here he looks like he could be a miler.
12. Major General, 2-2-0-0, Todd Pletcher, Constitution: He raced five-to-six wide in the first turn, four-wide in the second, exchanged bumps down the lane and won the Iroquois (G3) with style, if not authority. A $420,000 yearling, he has the potential to become Major indeed. After a short break, he’s training at Palm Meadows in Florida.
13. Cyberknife, 2-0-2-0, Brad Cox, Gun Runner: A powerful chestnut with abundant talent, he could make considerable noise if he ever learns how to be a racehorse. In his debut, he moved powerfully to the lead but then ducked in and was disqualified for bumping a rival. In his second outing, he lugged in, ducked in, bumped and finished second. He recently worked a half-mile in :48.80 at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
14. Zandon, 2-1-1-0, Chad Brown, Upstart: A horse for all the Trekkies of the world, he was able to sustain a long drive along the inside and just missed in the Remsen, amid some controversy. But that was a significant step forward for a colt making only his second start.
15. Rocket Dawg, 1-1-0-0, Brad Cox, Classic Empire: In his debut at Churchill, he ran the final three-eighths in :36.69 on his way to a dominant victory and then galloped out powerfully. He recently worked an easy half-mile in :49.00 in New Orleans.
16. Giant Game, 3-1-0-1, Dale Romans, Giant’s Causeway: Moved boldly while five-wide in the second turn only to flatten out at Del Mar and finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. A $500,000 yearling, he’s another whose potential is more conspicuous than his achievement.
17. Pappacap, 5-2-2-0, Mark Casse, Gun Runner: He was a little too eager in the first turn of the Juvenile, but he had the easiest of trips and still couldn’t threaten. He needs to take a big step forward if he’s to be a loud noisemaker, but that wouldn’t be a surprise; his sire improved steadily throughout his career.
18. Doppelganger, 1-1-0-0, Bob Baffert, Into Mischief: After a little trouble, he cruised in his debut, winning in hand after three-quarters in 1:09.21. He could be any kind, as the hardboots are fond of saying about a colt with enormous potential.
19. Ben Diesel, 2-1-0-0, Dallas Stewart, Will Take Charge: He ran with determination to finish fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes after pressing the pace; it was impressive for a colt making only his second start. He worked a half-mile Sunday at Oaklawn Park in :49.80.
19. High Oak, 3-2-0-0, Bill Mott, Gormley: He rallied strongly while three-wide to win the Saratoga Special, but then regressed in the Hopeful, finishing fourth. In the hands of a Hall of Famer, he could step forward significantly as a 3-year-old.
20. Forbidden Kingdom, 3-1-1-1, Richard Mandella, American Pharoah: Bobbling away from the gate, he became rank and then, given his head, scorched the opening half-mile of the Bob Hope (G3) Stakes in :43.23; finally, and quite predictably, he capitulated to Messier. Still, Forbidden Kingdom held on for second. And with a little Mandella magic, he could learn to control his speed. If not, he could develop into a top sprinter.
21. Rockefeller, 3-2-0-0, Bob Baffert, Medaglia d’Oro: After a perfect trip, he appeared to be fully extended to win the Nashua Stakes (G3) in New York. A $750,000 yearling, he has held his own while working with Corniche.
22. Costa Terra, 3-1-0-1, Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner: He raced wide but rallied from last to finish fifth in the Breeders’ Futurity, suggesting he has a chance to develop into a boisterous noisemaker as he improves and the distances stretch out. He worked a half-mile in New Orleans last week.
23. Zatip, 2-1-0-0, Graham Motion, Tapit: By a truly great sire and out of a mare, Zaftig, who won the 2008 Acorn (G1), Zatip has a pedigree that screams potential. In October, he drew clear to win by more than four lengths at Keeneland in a relatively slow, but nevertheless promising, performance. He’s training at Fair Hill in Maryland for his return.
24. Stellar Tap, 3-1-0-0, Steve Asmussen, Tapit: After winning his debut with style at Saratoga, he disappointed in the Iroquois and the Breeders’ Futurity. His Hall of Fame trainer will find the key to unlock this colt’s talent.
25. Pinehurst, 3-2-0-0, Bob Baffert, Twirling Candy: The Del Mar Futurity (G1) winner chased Corniche in the Breeders’ Cup before faltering in the lane. Saturday at Santa Anita, he worked a half-mile in :49.40. Longer distances could be a challenge for him, but he’ll be a player whenever he avoids his stablemate.
26. Epicenter, 2-1-0-0, Steve Asmussen, Not This Time: He improved significantly in his second start, winning at a mile and then galloping out strongly beyond the wire. On Sunday, in the company of an accomplished older horse, Halo Again, he worked an easy five-eighths of a mile in 1:01.60 at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He’ll make his stakes debut Dec. 26 in the Gun Runner.
27. Varatti, 1-1-0-0, Todd Pletcher, Into Mischief: Flashed talent and potential at Belmont in September while winning his debut by more than for lengths and defeating Mo Donegal. He recently arrived in Florida, where Pletcher said this colt always has trained as if he could stretch out.
28. Howling Time, 3-2-0-0, Dale Romans, Not This Time: Won the Street Sense Stakes by rallying from a couple lengths off the early lead, but then faltered in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when he set the pace.
29. Nakatomi, 5-2-1-1, Wesley Ward, Firing Line: He charged down the lane to run down My Prankster in the Bowman Mill Stakes at Keeneland. His sire, of course, ran second to American Pharoah in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, and so the pedigree strongly suggests Nakatomi could be more than a sprinter.
30. American Xperiment, 2-1-0-1, Steve Asmussen, Nyquist: After an impressive debut at Saratoga, he finished third in the Del Mar Futurity, racing wide on a day when every winner but one raced near the inner rail. He has “a lot of talent,” according to his trainer. Sunday, he worked an easy half-mile in New Orleans.
31. Finneus, 7-2-3-1, Walter Solis, Stay Thirsty: Second in the both the Del Mar Futurity and the Best Pal Stakes (G2), he looks as if he’s going appreciate the longer distances down the road.
32. Wit, 4-2-1-1, Todd Pletcher, Practical Joke: The $570,000 yearling won the Sanford (G3) but was a distant third in the Champagne (G1). He’ll make some noise on the Triple Crown road, but his effectiveness will probably diminish as the distances stretch out. From here, he looks like a miler.
33. Make It Big, 2-2-0-0, Saffie Joseph, Neolithic: He angled out and finished with a rush to win a minor stakes at Gulfstream and will try two turns for the first time Friday in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park in Oklahoma City.
34. H. P. Moon, 1-1-0-0, Lacey Gaudet, Malibu Moon: After being scratched at the gate at Saratoga because of some identification confusion, he went home to Maryland and could not have been more impressive in his debut at Pimlico, winning by nearly 10 lengths while in hand and just cruising. A $385,000 purchase, he’s hugely talented, but hasn’t been heard from since August.
35. Key Point, 1-1-0-0, Chad Brown, Into Mischief: In August, despite racing wide and drifting out in the stretch, he won his debut at Saratoga and then galloped out beyond the wire like a monster. He hasn’t been heard from since, but the potential here is huge.
36. Newgrange, 1-1-0-0, Bob Baffert, Violence: He made an auspicious debut at Del Mar, stopping the teletimer at 1:10.25 after three-quarters of a mile. He worked a half-mile in :49 Sunday at Santa Anita.
37. Classic Moment, 2-1-0-1, Steve Asmussen, Classic Empire: Speedy and tractable, he’ll also make his two-turn debut Friday in the Springboard Mile.
38. Chasing Time, 3-1-1-0, Steve Asmussen, Not This Time: Forced his way through a narrow opening and ran the final three-eighths of a mile in :36.81 in his maiden victory at Churchill, and then he galloped out powerfully beyond the wire. On Sunday at Oaklawn, he worked a half-mile in :49.80.
39. Oviatt Class, 5-1-0-2, Keith Desormeaux, Bernardini: Swung to the outside, he rallied to finish fifth at Del Mar in the Juvenile. Can he improve enough to have an impact on the road to the Triple Crown? Maybe. He’s in the hands of an excellent horseman with a long history of getting the most out of these types.
40. Sir London, 3-1-2-0, Simon Callaghan, Malibu Moon: He flew business class — which is to say he had the most comfortable journey imaginable — when he scored by 10 lengths at Los Alamitos. The good-looking colt has plenty of room to improve.
41. Bye Bye Bobby, 1-1-0-0, Todd Fincher, Quality Road: An $870,000 yearling, he might be the most intriguing horse on this list. Making a wide sweeping move and running somewhat erratically through the lane, he won the Zia Park Juvenile Stakes in his debut, completing the three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.30. He’ll get tested Friday at Remington, in the Springboard Mile.
42. Trafalgar, 3-2-1-0, Al Stall, Jr., Lord Nelson: The perfectly named colt held on at 3-5 to win recently over 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds. He responded when challenged and galloped out strongly, suggesting there could be more in the tank.
43. Octane, 4-3-2-1, Carlos David, Brethren: A winner of two stakes for Florida-breds, he could be good enough to compete in open company. He has been quiet, though, since September.
44. Double Thunder, 6-3-1-0, Todd Pletcher, Super Saver: Winner of the Bashford Manor (G3) at Churchill, he ran with some of the best of his generation, but then flattened out at Del Mar in the Juvenile. He’s a blue-collar type who’ll probably make some noise and build up a thick bankroll in minor stakes; but he’ll need to improve considerably if he’s to threaten the best of his generation.
45. My Prankster, 4-2-1-0, Todd Pletcher, Into Mischief: A recent winner at Gulfstream Park in 1:09.02 for three-quarters of a mile, he’ll stay with sprinting, at least for the immediate future. And he looks as if he could become a top sprinter; he’s aimed at the Swale (G3) on Feb. 5.
46. Gunite, 6-2-2-1, Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner: The Hopeful (G1) winner set the pace and burned himself out in the Champagne. He’s another whose future will probably be sprinting.
47. Dean’s List, 1-1-0-0, Todd Pletcher, Speightstown: Another debut winner for Pletcher, the speedster shot through an opening half-mile in :44.36 and drew clear without switching strides in the lane. He very talented but might turn out to be a sprinter.
48. Kavod, 9-3-1-0, Chris Hartman, Lea: In his first start for Hartman, who claimed the colt for $50,000, Kavod won the Advent Stakes on opening day at Oaklawn Park.
49. Kupuna, 2-0-1-1, Bret Calhoun, Hard Spun: After a slow start, he rallied six-wide and ran the final three-eighths of a mile in :36.86 when second in his most recent outing, and then he galloped out well beyond the winner, Surfer Dude. He worked a slow half-mile Monday at Oaklawn Park and won’t be a maiden for long.
50. Shipsational, 4-3-0-0, Edward Baker, Midshipman: He has won two stakes against New York-breds and looks capable of making some noise in open company.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.