Go ahead. You have permission. Feel free to create a Kentucky Derby Top 10 list. Today. With less than 20 days until the race it’s reasonably clear who’s in and who’s out. Rank them in order of preference. We’ll help: Number 1 is Tiz the Law. There, now you only need to come up with 9 others. It’s always amusing when prognosticators release Kentucky Derby Top 10 lists in January. I get why they do it; because it’s interesting to read an early opinion regarding the abilities of ‘just turned threes.’ But those lists usually have as little to do with what eventually happens on the first Saturday in May in Louisville as a 30-day weather forecast.
Rumor has it that Nostradamus once posted a Kentucky Derby top 10 list in January. He missed tabbing the winner and only 3 of his 10 runners even made the race! Santa Anita’s morning-line maker and long-time Xpressbet blogger Jon White fared just as well this year with his January 15 Top 10 Derby list. And he’s not even an astrologer or a physician. In fact, White will do Nostradamus one better if heavily favored Tiz the Law arrives home first on Derby Day. Plus, White’s forecast had to keep from January until the first Saturday in September instead of a similar day in May!
Three of White’s original top 10 ranked runners are destined to start in the Kentucky Derby (original ranking in parenthesis): Thousand Words (3), Tiz the Law (5) and Authentic (6). Thousand Words required a Lazarus-like return to form in the Shared Belief at Del Mar to make the big dance. Tiz the Law obviously developed into a monster and Authentic’s blue chip stock dipped in the Santa Anita Derby, but rebounded in the Haskell. Rounding out Juan Blanco’s top 10 were: Storm the Court (1), a possible but unlikely Derby starter; Dennis’ Moment (2); Maxfield (4); Independence Hall (7); Anneau d’Or (8); Untitled (9) and Chance It (10).
While you’re in a list-making mood, you might as well layout Saturday’s Del Mar late Pick 4. The main event in the sequence is the Gr. 1 Pacific Classic starring last year’s Kentucky Derby winner (sort of). You recall what happened with Maximum Security in the Louisville stretch? He was accused and ultimately convicted of molesting several foes. And that wasn’t even the most interesting aspect of his short career!
In 2020, soon after Maximum Security cleared customs, following a gutsy victory in the world’s richest race in Saudi Arabia, his then trainer Jason Servis was arrested and placed under federal indictment for a variety of offenses. In Maximum Security’s first start for trainer Bob Baffert, he outlasted Midcourt by a nose in the Gr. 2 San Diego Handicap. Baffert says he’s learned a lot more about the 3-year-old champ since then and has him breathing fire.
I’ll agree until proven otherwise.
Below is a horse-by-horse analysis of the Pacific Classic and a late Pick 4 analysis and suggested play:
1. Midcourt Shirreffs/V. Espinoza 7/2
This 5-yar-old gelded son of Midnight Lute made the lead in the San Diego Handicap and battled #5 Maximum Security to the finish before losing a desperate nose decision. For fans of weight shifts in this one mile and one-quarter journey Midcout will carry 124 pounds Saturday, two more than he did in the mile and one-sixteenth San Diego. #5 Maximum Security also will carry 124 pounds Saturday. He toted 127 in the San Diego. That means there’s a 5-pound weight shift in Maximum Security’s favor. Midcourt has an excellent record at Del Mar with 2 wins—a first-level allowance win and the Gr. 3 Native Diver at one-mile and one-eighth--and one second in 3 starts. This winner of 5 of 12 lifetime can set the early pace or come from behind, so he’s versatile. From the rail, expect jockey Victor Espinoza to let Midcourt roll away from the gate toward the early lead.
2. Higher Power Sadler/Prat 3-1
A well-beaten third in the San Diego Handicap to #5 Maximum Security and #1 Midcourt last out, this 5-year-old horse will need to find a way to turn the tables on the top pair. He also must endure a 5-pound weight shift in #5 Maximum Security’s favor. Early in the San Diego, Higher Power made an aggressive move to take the fight to #1 Midcourt, but didn’t have enough steam to carry it through. Higher Power has 1 win in 2 Del Mar starts, but it was a big one. He’s the defending Pacific Classic champ as he romped in 2019 by more than 5 lengths. Since then he’s been a non-threatening in the money finisher in 4 Grade 1 events—third in the Awesome Again and BC Classic and second in the Gold Cup. His only dud came in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in January. Expect him to be just behind the early pace and to put in an even finish.
3. Mirinaque M. Munoz/TJ Pereira 10-1
An invader from Argentina, this 4-year-old colt has 4 wins and 4 seconds out of 9 starts. He finished a close second in the Gr. 1 Carlos Pellegrini International going one mile and one-half on grass; and that’s a prestigious race. Still, it’s extremely difficult for an import to ship from South America to win a Gr. 1 dirt race first out in the United States and his workouts have been acceptable but not overwhelming. Based on his record, he should have no problem with the distance of the race.
4. Dark Vader Eurton/Rispoli 12-1
Fresh off a sharp one-mile allowance win at Del Mar, this 5-year-old horse steps into Gr. 1 company for the first time. Time before that he finished second to highly regarded McKinzie in the Gr. 2 Triple Bend at seven furlongs. Since his allowance tally he’s been doing really well, evidenced by two bullet five-furlong breezes one week apart at the seaside oval. He’s only has 2 starts in the last year, so he’s fresh as a daisy. He’ll need to run the race of his 13-start career to have a say in the Pacific Classic, but he’s fresh and fit.
5. Maximum Security Baffert/Cedillo Even
This is a great horse in the hands of a great trainer, so we should expect nothing but a great effort from him. Since his Gr. 2 San Diego Handicap nose victory, he’s worked 3 times at Del Mar: 5/8 of a mile in 1:01; 6 furlongs in 1:12 4/5 and 7 furlongs in 1:25 2/5. That final workout was more like a mile than 7 furlongs, so you know he’s plenty fit. You won’t find a more determined horse than Maximum Security. In the stretch of the one mile and one-eighth Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Maximum Security was one tired hombre. Still, he battled to the finish, out gaming the extremely talented mare Midnight Bisou. He’s won 9 of 11 races and banked nearly $12 million, despite being disqualified from first and placed 17th in the Kentucky Derby. In 7 of his last 8 races, he’s earned a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure. The only reason it’s not 8-for-8 is that the Saudi Cup wasn’t given a BSF. Maximum Security also has speed, but he can sit off the pace, as he proved again in the San Diego Handicap when he was shuffled back in traffic. Certainly, you don’t need this horseplayer to list Maximum Security’s advantages. However, sometimes it’s nice to revisit them because he really is a special horse.
6. Sharp Samurai Glatt/JJ Hernandez 8-1
This is a Gr. 1 race with a $500k purse and a short field. Why not take a chance with a 6-year-old turf gelding? Sharp Samurai has 8 career wins from 20 starts and 7 of them have come on turf. Most recently, he was a close second to United in the Gr. 2 Eddie Read at one mile and one-eighth on the Del Mar turf. He’s an honest horse, often in the money, but this dirt venture seems a bit out of his lane.
Late Pick 4 Analysis
(Runners graded A, B, C according to preference)
8th Race—Allowance Optional Claiming
This is an interesting one-mile allowance/$62,500 optional claiming race with just 8 runners but a few possible winners. #3 Potantico is fit and fast enough—he was beaten a half-length at this level here last out by Dark Vader, who’s entered in the Pacific Classic. Potantico likes Del Mar--2 wins and a second in 3 tries and he’s 3 for 8 at the distance. The 4-year-old gelding has enough speed to be just off the early pace. He’s the top pick in here. A
#4 Take the One O One is a bit interesting. He could be the only speed, gets come class relief from a pair of Cal-bred stakes, likes Del Mar 2-for-2 and is 1 for 2 at the distance. The majority of his races have been against stakes competition, including the Gr. 1 FrontRunner at 2; the Gr. 2 Del Mar Derby at 3; the Gr. 3 Thunder Road at 5. Toss his grass starts and he’s a solid 4-for-9 on fast dirt and 2-for-3 in fast dirt non-stakes races. B
#5 El Tigre Terrible is a 3-year-old both facing elders and trying a 2-turn dirt race for the first time. He’s trained by Peter Miller and is a sterling 3-for-4 at Del Mar. He may be best as a late-running sprinter, but you probably need to use him defensively. C
#6 Extra Hope enters this off a layoff since November for Hall of Fame trainer Dick Mandella and top jock Flavien Prat. He’s faced graded stakes competition, including Improbable and Mucho Gusto. Last out he was a well-beaten second to Pacific Classic contender Midcourt in the Gr. 3 Native Diver. Despite the lofty connections there are some eyebrow raising stats attached. Mandella is having an unlucky meeting and is just 2-for-29 with 7 seconds. According to Daily Racing Form stats, he’s also just 8% with runners off +180 days. Extra Hope is winless in 4 starts at Del Mar. B
9th Race—Del Mar Oaks
Discussion of this race must begin with #10 Laura’s Light. Trained by Peter Miller, she’s won 5-of-7 races with a win and a second over the Del Mar turf as well as a 1-for-1 record at the distance. She’s got enough speed to be close to the early pace and she comes home with determination. Last out she took the Gr. 2 San Clemente here over #11 Guitty and #4 Warren’s Showtime. The former ran the race of her career and the latter fired one of her usual consistent salvos. Laura’s Light has defeated just about every runner in this race at least once. There are a few new faces in here and that could be where the danger lies. However, the race goes through #10 Laura’s Light, without a doubt. A
#3 Miss Extra is the most interesting of a group of new faces that includes #6 Trickle In, from the east coast, and #8 Neige Blanche from France. #3 Miss Extra was well beaten at 20-1 odds last out in the Group 1 Prix de Diane Longines at Chantilly. That’s usually a very strong race and a 7 ½ length loss is no disgrace. Before that she won the Group 2 Prix de Sandringham, also at Chantilly. Those fillies should be better than what’s lined up here. Turf master Umberto Rispoli will ride the filly that shows no official US workouts. The gamble here is how #3 Miss Extra will adapt to racing around tight turns on a firm US course where speed is dangerous. She mustn’t lose contact with the leaders. Still, her resume is solid, and she must be respected. B
#1 Carpe Vinum has some attraction because she’s improved or equaled Beyer Speed Figures in each race. That’s often a solid sign that more could be coming. She should enjoy a rail-skimming trip in here and with a bit of improvement could step with these. She’ll be price and it’s asking a bit for her to jump up to Gr. 1 competition off a fist-level allowance win, but circumstances seem to be in her favor. B
#2 California Kook finished second in her last two races and missed by a mere half-length to #1 Carpe Vinum in July. If you like one you have to like the other. Peter Miller saddles but Rispoli moves to #3 Miss Extra.
10th Race—Pacific Classic
See above analysis.
11th Race—Allowance Optional Claiming
A full field of allowance/$40k optional claimers line up to close out Pacific Classic day and the late pick 4. This horseplayer couldn’t see a real standout in here, so you may need to spread the net a bit to find the winner. #5 Salvator Mundi finished second at this level last out and appears to be going well right now. The 4-year-old is trained by Phil D’Amato (22%) and is ridden by Umberto Rispoli (25%). Claimed for $40k at Churchill, this gelding makes his third start for D’Amato and Rispoli. A nice :47 4/5 turf blowout adds to the attraction. A
#8 Southern King already has been successful at this level and will start for the $40k tag. Blinkers were added two back and that seems to have helped, producing an immediate victory and a speed and fade job against better going one mile and three eighths. It took this one a while to break through at this level but he seems on track now. A
#2 Tiberius Mercurius is going well for trainer John Sadler. The 4-year-old finished a close third last out as favorite at this level. It took this one a while to break maiden after racing in New York and Florida, but he’s been solid since Sadler took over training two races back. He’s got enough pace to sit just behind the early leaders and an inside post position ought to have him saving ground under Victor Espinoza. B
#4 Shadow Sphinx scored last out in June off an extended layoff that saw him racing downhill at Santa Anita in his previous two starts in January and December of 2019. Flavien Prat returns in the saddle for trainer Richard Baltas and they combine to score at 24%. A solid series of works, including a bullet five-furlong drill on turf in :59 2/5 August 2, suggest this guy is locked and loaded. B
#7 Three Ay Em takes a dip in class off two Cal-bred stakes races. He was just 2 ½ lengths behind the winner in the Cal Dreamin and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith returns in the saddle. Trainer Andrew Lerner is 0-15 at the meeting and the 4-year-old colt is 0-4 at Del Mar, but a repeat of his last fits against these. C
$.50 Pick Four ($40)
Race 8: #3, #4, #5, #6
Race 9: #1, #2, #3, #10
Race 10: #5
Race 11: #2, #4, #5, #7, #8