Arrogate's son Affable Monarch impressed in his debut (Bill Denver/Equi-Photo)
Has the 2022 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner even run in a race yet? That indecipherable question just highlights the task, in September, of trying to pinpoint juveniles who could develop into elite Derby contenders by next spring.
In that spirit, I’m most interested in the two-year-olds who are eligible to prosper when the distances increase. Hence, the flashiest Saratoga debut winners – Jack Christopher and My Prankster – aren’t on my initial list, given the likelihood that they’ll ultimately turn out to be one-turn specialists. It would be no surprise if they force their way into the top 10 through major stakes performances. But as long as we’re talking about maiden winners, I’d rather highlight those with classic pedigrees.
That personal preference also leads me to prioritize a few maiden winners over the established stakes horses seen thus far. Not that those can’t progress as well, but chances are that the division’s most talented have yet to tackle stakes company.
So here’s my idiosyncratic stab at 10 juveniles to follow on the Derby trail:
The most captivating two-year-old colt I’ve seen is Affable Monarch, from the first crop of champion Arrogate
. On pedigree, the Colts Neck Stables homebred is entitled to need time and distance to reach his peak. Not only was Arrogate a late-maturing type, but so was Affable Monarch’s dam, the Dynaformer mare Social Queen, who became a multiple Grade 3 winner on turf. So was Social Queen’s best foal so far, 2015 Belmont Derby (G1) hero Force the Pass.
Thus on paper, Affable Monarch was anything but the type to win at first asking, as a juvenile on Labor Day, let alone in a six-furlong sprint at Monmouth Park. Yet the Jorge Duarte trainee evoked memories of his sire as he exploded from off the pace. Affable Monarch made the move of a serious racehorse, cutting the corner like a seasoned pro and drawing off to score by a widening 6 1/2 lengths.
As a son of Tapit and a Medaglia d’Oro mare, Stellar Tap showed more early zip than might have been expected in his seven-furlong premiere at Saratoga. But there was no doubt about his stamina kicking in down the lane. The gray put away his pace rival and rolled to a resounding 5 1/4-length victory. In the process, Stellar Tap gave Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen his North American record-breaking 9,446th career win
. Now he’ll try to follow up in Saturday’s Iroquois S. (G3)
Fellow Asmussen trainee Guntown has strong claims himself in the Iroquois. A half-brother to champion Untapable and Grade 1 winner Paddy O’Prado, who was third in the 2010 Kentucky Derby, Guntown is from the outstanding first crop of Gun Runner
, the 2017 Horse of the Year. After a troubled third in his debut at Ellis Park, Guntown thrived with a smoother trip, and an extra furlong, to dominate a mile maiden at the same track. He could be the next headliner produced by Broodmare of the Year Fun House.
Although Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has his usual arsenal of juvenile firepower, Corniche is perhaps the most intriguing of his winners at this stage. The $1.5 million son of Quality Road and Grade 2 turfiste Wasted Tears set fast fractions in his 5 1/2-furlong debut at Del Mar, but appeared to be merely breezing. Corniche responded readily when jockey Mike Smith asked, and he racked up a 99 Brisnet Speed rating without urgency.
Pinehurst had to work harder to beat stablemate Enbarr on debut than he did to hand Baffert his 15th victory in the Del Mar Futurity
(G1). Yet the well-bred son of Twirling Candy ran better than appears in that first win, for he broke poorly on the rail before rushing up to contest the pace. It spoke very well of Pinehurst that he could overcome such a rookie mistake. That experience, plus a more straightforward trip in the Del Mar Futurity, added up to a 4 1/4-length romp. Baffert sounded more perturbed by the flop of favorite Murray than excited by Pinehurst, but the unbeaten colt warrants respect.
While a War Front colt wouldn’t ordinarily steam onto the Derby radar after a turf debut, Annapolis has the pedigree to act on dirt. His dam, the Unbridled’s Song mare My Miss Sophia, crushed the 2014 Gazelle (G2) and placed second in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) before eventually switching to turf. My Miss Sophia is also a half-sister to Materiality, the 2015 Florida Derby (G1) winner. Like Materiality and My Miss Sophia (at the beginning of her career), Annapolis is trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher. Only time will tell if he can transfer his game to the main track, especially since he quickened from behind a dawdling pace at the Spa. But Annapolis outclassed his turf foes by a commanding 4 1/2 lengths.
Pletcher’s most accomplished two-year-old at this writing is Wit. The conqueror of his first two – a Belmont maiden and the Sanford (G3) – by a combined margin of 14 lengths, he was a game second in the Hopeful (G1) after stumbling badly at the start. If he hadn’t grabbed the quarters in both front feet, Wit might well have had more left for the stretch drive. Wit is by promising freshman sire Practical Joke, who had stamina limitations himself, and half-brother Barkley (by the speedy Munnings) was a sprinter-miler. On the other hand, Wit's dam is by Medaglia d’Oro, and his closing style offers a chance of staying further.
Hopeful hero Gunite, another advertisement for Gun Runner
, has improved over the course of the summer. Thus I might be underestimating the Asmussen pupil, who took three tries to break his maiden. Runner-up to the now-sidelined High Oak (who otherwise would have made the top 10) in the Saratoga Special (G2), Gunite carried his speed effectively in the Hopeful. His speed-oriented female line might come into play as the races get longer, but Gun Runner’s influence could offset it.
Overlooked at 13.60-1 in his premiere at Saratoga, Classic Causeway blitzed a seven-furlong maiden in a sharp 1:22.67. His 6 1/2-length margin wasn’t as gaudy as the aforementioned Jack Christopher or My Prankster, who starred in slightly shorter maidens. But their pedigrees are geared toward such aptitude, while Classic Causeway’s is wider-ranging. The Brian Lynch trainee is by “Iron Horse” Giant’s Causeway. His dam, Private World, was a multiple stakes-winning sprinter, despite being a daughter of 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont (G1) champion Thunder Gulch. Classic Causeway could inherit the best of both, the speed of his dam and the stamina of his sire.
H P Moon
We’d have a better gauge on H P Moon if he’d debuted as intended at Saratoga. A gate scratch due to the horse identifier’s uncertainty about his markings, however, dashed that plan. Trainer Lacey Gaudet rerouted him to Pimlico, where H P Moon put on a show in a six-furlong maiden. By Malibu Moon and out of a Distorted Humor half-sister to Travers (G1)-winning champion West Coast, H P Moon reeled off rapid splits while displaying a beautiful action. He crossed the wire a 9 3/4-length winner, renewing the what-might-have-been at the Spa.