Although a new year was going to prompt an overhaul of my Kentucky Derby (G1) Top 10 list, a couple of sensational maiden winners made it imperative. They’re certainly not the only promising graduates of late, but both captured my imagination – perhaps too much!
By overcoming an unfavorable pace scenario in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), Keepmeinmind did more than just score his first career win. The Robertino Diodoro trainee validated his prior placings in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). It remains to be seen how well the Kentucky Jockey Club stacks up, after fourth-placer Swill was well beaten by Capo Kane in the Jerome. And as a closer, Keepmeinmind continues to be vulnerable to sharper rivals who get the jump on him, but he’s going the right way. The son of hot young sire Laoban (by Uncle Mo) posted his first work back at Oaklawn Park Jan. 6.
Hidden Stash also turned in an eye-catching victory on the same “Stars of Tomorrow II” card at Churchill Downs, at the same 1 1/16-mile trip, involving an even slower pace. A Constitution colt from a deep family, he ran down even-money favorite Scarred, who had everything his own way on the front end. Hidden Stash was following up on his three-length maiden win at Keeneland. Now 2-for-2 since stretching out to two turns, the Vicky Oliver pupil is slated to winter at Payson Park.
As the runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Hot Rod Charlie deserves a spot in the rankings. But his near-upset at odds of 94-1 was a quantum leap from his preceding efforts. And his Santa Anita maiden win over Parnelli doesn’t look so great after that rival has since been drubbed in the Sham (G3). On the plus side, Hot Rod Charlie is eligible to keep progressing for two-time Derby winner Doug O’Neill. Sire Oxbow and half-brother Mitole both improved as they matured. Hot Rod Charlie is gearing up for the Jan. 30 Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita.
My ambivalence about the undefeated Sham hero is expressed by placing him smack dab in the middle of the Top 10. Life Is Good could not have looked any better in his tour de force debut at Del Mar, and he was in his own zone for most of the Sham. Yet his slow final furlong in that first attempt at a mile, giving stablemate Medina Spirit a chance to make it close, leaves a question mark about his appetite for longer distances. On the other hand, the well-bred son of Into Mischief is trained by six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert – like Authentic, who made a mockery of my similar hesitation about him in 2020.
Although Jackie’s Warrior also has a distance question to answer after his fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the Steve Asmussen colt has more of an excuse – the unsustainable pace that set it up for closers. Even so, he kept on doggedly in his first loss, much better than the early leaders who retreated completely out of it. With a more realistic pace, Jackie’s Warrior likely would have been a tougher foe to pass. After all, he drew off by 5 1/2 lengths in the one-mile Champagne (G1), proving he could measure out his speed rather than wing it as in the Saratoga Special (G2) and Hopeful (G1). We’ll test this hypothesis when the son of Maclean’s Music returns in the Feb. 15 Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn.
No surprise that Cox’s presumptive champion 2-year-old male gets the top ranking, but it’s more than a pro tem honorific. The Godolphin homebred compiled a perfect season by prevailing in three different scenarios: overcoming trouble in his sprint debut that would have foiled a lesser horse, changing to a more 'forward running style to land the Breeders’ Futurity, and reverting to off-the-pace tactics to swoop in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Essential Quality’s ability to roll with the punches, and place himself in the right spot, mark him out as special. And as a Tapit colt out of a mare related to Smarty Jones, the gray has scope to be even stronger as a 3-year-old. Cox has mentioned the Southwest as a possible kickoff. The Feb. 13 Risen Star (G2) at his Fair Grounds base is another option, although 1 1/8 miles might be a bit long for a first start back on the trail.
Thus my idiosyncratic Top 10 stands at the moment, sure to be revised over and over again building to the first Saturday in May. That’s the fun of the Derby trail though, trying to find diamonds in the rough!