By T. D. ThorntonTwo new shooters debut on the Top 12 this week and there was a large leap forward from the previously ranked No. 10 contender all the way up to the No. 2 spot. Four qualifying races on the Road to the GI Kentucky Derby points series are on the docket for the next two weekends. 1) ESSENTIAL QUALITY (c, Tapit–Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality) O/B-Godolphin (Ky); T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: GISW, 3-3-0-0, $1,335,144. Last Start: 1st GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6Accomplishments Include: 1st GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity, 'TDN Rising Star'Next Start: GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13 or GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 15Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 30. 'TDN Rising Star' Essential Quality will likely add an Eclipse Award to his résumé on Thursday as this undefeated colt preps for either the GII Risen Star S. Feb. 13 at Fair Grounds or the GIII Southwest S. Feb. 15 at Oaklawn. Remaining where he is stabled at Fair Grounds means this Godolphin homebred by Tapit doesn't have to ship while competing for five times more Derby qualifying points (50-20-10-5) than what are up for grabs at Oaklawn (10-4-2-1). But the Risen Star is a more arduous nine furlongs as opposed to the Southwest's 1 1/16 miles. Beyond the choice for Essential Quality's 2021 debut, trainer Brad Cox said earlier this month that the GII Louisiana Derby at 1 3/16 miles would be “in play” Mar. 20. At age two, this colt looked comfortable settling into authoritative stalk mode for all three of his victories. But in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he did benefit immensely from a speed setup–the Juvenile's fastest opening quarter mile since 2014 and its fastest half-mile split since 2003. Essential Quality must overcome the historical burden of only two Juvenile winners in 36 years (Nyquist and Street Sense) parlaying a Breeders' Cup win into a blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May. 2) CADDO RIVER (c, Hard Spun–Pangburn, by Congrats)O/B-Shortleaf Stable (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: 4-2-2-0, $166,092. Last Start: 1st Smarty Jones S., OP, Jan. 23.Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'Next Start: Uncommitted.Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 10. I normally wouldn't get too excited about a recent maiden-breaker who looked dominant on paper wiring an ungraded stakes field. In fact, well-bet, wire-to-wire horses have won each of the previous three editions of the Smarty Jones S., but none made an impact as Derby contenders. Caddo River resonates differently, though. This 'TDN Rising Star's 10 1/4-length crushing of the competition on opening day at Oaklawn (92 Beyer Speed Figure) represents the third race in a row this Hard Spun homebred for Shortleaf Stable set or forced the issue while looking relaxed, torqueing out effectively and leaving the impression there was untapped power in reserve. Caddo River broke fluidly, then was subtly cued to quicken from the outermost seven post to make sure he cleared the field and put a length or two of cushion between him and a hard-to-handle 57-1 shot. He loped down the backstretch, then was nudged for more entering the far turn (even though his lead was not in danger). He cruised into a higher gear under light coaxing and was hand-ridden for a solo drive to the wire. Caddo River's emphatic double-digit winning margin came over a short-stretch configuration, meaning he didn't have an extra sixteenth of straightaway late in the race to pad that margin. Owned, bred (and named after) Arkansas connections, Caddo River almost certainly will remain on the Oaklawn prep path to Louisville. 3) LIKEABLE (c, Frosted–Dashing Debby, by Medaglia d'Oro)O-Repole Stable, St. Elias Stable & Stonestreet Stables LLC. B-Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings, LLC (Ky). T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $350,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 3-1-1-0, $49,050.Last Start: 13th GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6Accomplishments: Mdn win, Belmont, Sept. 19Next Start: UncommittedEquineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0. Likeable celebrates his foaling-date birthday Jan. 26 and appears ready to hit the entries now more than a month into his winter training at Palm Beach Downs. This $350,000 KEESEP Frosted colt's race progression so far includes a very useful debut at Saratoga when second despite trip woes; a freewheeling one-turn mile MSW at Belmont that he wired by 8 1/2 lengths, and what amounts to a thrown-to-the-wolves 13th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, in which Likeable pulled, got hooked four wide into the first turn, then contributed to an unsustainably torrid pace that cooked him by the time the field hit the far turn. He's the type of horse who projects to run well at Gulfstream, either in a one-turn mile or at 1 1/16 miles around two, because both configurations favor outright speed. 4) PRIME FACTOR (c, Quality Road–Haylie Brae, by Bernardini)O-CHC Inc. & WinStar Farm LLC. B-Two Hearts Farm LLC (Ky). T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $900,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $24,000.Last Start: Mdn win, Gulfstream, Dec. 12Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'Next Start: Uncommitted.Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0. 'TDN Rising Star' Prime Factor closed at 21-1 odds in last weekend's Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. It's likely that his prep path toward the Derby will look similar to that of his sire, Quality Road, who used victories in both the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. and the GI Florida Derby to propel him toward Kentucky Derby favoritism before quarter cracks derailed Quality Road's chances of starting in the Triple Crown. I wrote in the last installment of the Top 12 how this $900,000 KEESEP colt's MSW romp Dec. 12 at Gulfstream was the most authoritative maiden win among the Derby candidates, but Saturday's wowza performance by Prevalence (Medaglia d'Oro) has given Prime Factor a run for the money for that distinction (read more below at No. 7). Still, let's not allow any form of recency bias to erase how convincingly this Todd Pletcher trainee widened under wraps to blast home by 8 3/4 lengths in an 85 Beyer effort that clocked 0.08 seconds faster than the GIII Sugar Swirl S. for established older distaffers on the same card. 5) JACKIE'S WARRIOR (c, Maclean's Music–Unicorn Girl, by A. P. Five Hundred)O-J Kirk & Judy Robison. B-J & J Stables (Ky). T-Steve Asmussen. Sales history: $95,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 5-4-0-0, $502,564.Last Start: 4th GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile, KEE, Nov. 6Accomplishments: 1st GII Saratoga Special, 1st GI Runhappy Hopeful S., 1st GI Champagne S.Next Start: Possible for GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 15.Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 12. Although I'm sure the connections of Jackie's Warrior would have much rather finished first in the Juvenile to cap what would have been a five-for-five season, the fact that this $95,000 KEESEP Maclean's Music colt was only 3 1/4 lengths behind Essential Quality in the most important race of the year for 2-year-olds now means “Jackie” doesn't have to prep for his 2021 debut under a figurative microscope. The pressure of being an undefeated champ comes with the difficult task of being a target for the rest of the division, and for some developing colts, that's too much. Right now, Jackie is projected to start in the Southwest S., raising the tantalizing possibility of an early-season rematch with Essential Quality (who has not committed either way). Speculating which colt might have the upper hand is a fun mental exercise three weeks out from that race. Right now, I'd give the head-to-head edge to Jackie, based on his dominant ability to control the pace. But that assessment might not hold for longer races deeper into the spring, when stamina questions are likely to swirl. 6) LIFE IS GOOD (c, Into Mischief–Beach Walk, by Distorted Humor)O-CHC Inc & WinStar Farm LLC. B-Gary & Mary West Stable (Ky). T-Bob Baffert. Sales history: $525,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $94,200.Last Start: 1st GIII Sham S., SA, Jan. 2Next Start: Possible for GII San Felipe S., SA, Mar. 6Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 10. This $525,000 KEESEP Into Mischief bay is on a similar prep-race trajectory as trainer Bob Baffert's 2020 Derby winner Authentic, who used the GIII Sham S. and GII San Felipe S. as his early-season springboard until the Derby got rescheduled for September. Baffert has noted similarities between the two colts, who, beyond sharing a sire, are hallmarked by a speed-centric, headstrong, aggressive way of going. 'TDN Rising Star' Life Is Good won the Jan. 2 Sham in wire-to-wire fashion, racking up an eye-catching 101 Beyer in the process (Authentic earned a 90 Beyer for his Sham). But, like Authentic in January last year, Life Is Good still comes across as more of a raw-talent work in progress, and it's difficult to gauge just how sharp a crew Life Is Good roughed up in that strung-out five-horse stakes. Baffert has now won seven editions of the Sham, but Authentic was the only one of his six Derby champs to have won that prep race. In fact, Baffert's only other Sham winner to even run in the Derby was Bob and John (17th in 2006). 7) PREVALENCE (c, Medaglia d'Oro—Enrichment, by Ghostzapper)O/B-Godolphin (KY); T-Brendan Walsh. Lifetime Record: 1-1-0-0, $25,800.Last Start: 1st GP maiden, Jan. 23Next Start: UncommittedAccomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'Equineline PPs. Ky Derby points: 0. The seven-furlong MSW on the Pegasus undercard at Gulfstream Saturday had the look of a “loaded” race as soon as the overnight was drawn, and the only real surprise was that one of the talented colts would manage to win it by 8 1/2 geared-down lengths. Prevalence broke inward and brushed with a rival, then righted himself to prowl through the pack and secure the rail in a spirited five-way fight for the lead. One by one his rivals peeled away, and at the entrance to the turn Prevalence had wrested a half-length lead under pressure. He opened up incrementally while still hand-ridden, and by the head of the lane was as good as gone while some pretty nice colts behind him were under full-out drives. Left in his wake were the runner-up Stage Raider (Pioneerof the Nile), a half-brother to 2018 Triple Crown champ Justify, and third-place Ghazaaly (Curlin), a $1.05-million KEESEP buy. The 89-Beyer performance earned Prevalence 'TDN Rising Star' status while also giving Godolphin no fewer than three homebreds (for three different trainers) in the current Top 12. 8) MIDNIGHT BOURBON (c, Tiznow–Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon)O-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC; B-Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings LLC (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Sales history: $525,000 Ylg '19 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 5-2-1-2, $221,420.Last Start: 1st GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16Next Start: Aiming for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13Accomplishments: 3rd GI Champagne S., 2nd GIII Iroquois S.Equineline PPs. Ky Derby points: 16. Midnight Bourbon, who hit his third birthdate Jan. 25, made a positive impression with a wire-to-wire win in the GIII Lecomte S. The question he'll need to answer is how much he relied on an ideal pace scenario to propel him to that victory. The Lecomte drew flush with early speed, but after three scratches and a stutter-step start by the remaining main pace threat in the race, this $525,000 KEESEP colt was handed the lead from post one, and was allowed to dictate a moderate enough tempo (:24.68 and :48.99) that left him with plenty of energy to flick away two far-turn bids from the Nos. 9 and 11 contenders on this list. But Midnight Bourbon did finish up professionally while being kept to task, and his 91 Beyer for the effort is respectable for a 3-year-old who hadn't raced since Oct. 10. Seeing two-time GI Breeders' Cup Classic champ Tiznow anchor the top line in this colt's pedigree is heartening from a stamina standpoint, and trainer Steve Asmussen confirmed he would be pointed toward the GII Risen Star S. and GII Louisiana Derby. 9) PROXY (c, Tapit–Panty Raid, by Include)O/B-Godolphin (Ky). T-Michael Stidham. Lifetime Record: 4-2-2-0, $107,700.Last Start: 2nd GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16Next Start: Possible for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 4. Proxy got first run at Midnight Bourbon in the Lecomte S., and although this Tapit homebred for Godolphin couldn't seal the deal to reel in that solo pacemaker, he did glean a useful lesson in how to claw back his position when headed in the stretch by 4-5 favorite and 'TDN Rising Star' Mandaloun as they battled for second. Although the soft internal splits worked to the advantage of Midnight Bourbon, Proxy was only a length behind at the wire, and the 1:44.41 final time for 1 1/16 miles was only 0.14 seconds shy of the same-distance clocking set by older horses in the GIII Louisiana S. earlier on the card. The Lecomte also marked Proxy's return to Lasix-free racing (he's now won twice on it and finished second twice without it), which is a must this year for sophomores competing on the Lasix-free Triple Crown trail. “The way he dug in and held off the favorite in the end, and was getting to the winner, I couldn't have been happier,” said trainer Michael Stidham. “I think the farther the better.” 10) HIGHLY MOTIVATED (c, Into Mischief–Strong Incentive, by Warrior's Reward)O/B-Klaravich Stables, Inc (Ky). T-Chad Brown. Sales history: $240,000 wnlg '18 KEENOV. Lifetime Record: 3-2-1-0, $124,050.Last Start: 1st Nyquist S., Kee, Nov. 6Next Start: Uncommitted.Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 0. Highly Motivated is now two half-mile breezes into his Palm Meadows training for a 2021 debut, meaning the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. (FOY) could be in play. Thus far he's a 2-for-3 sprint specialist, but this $240,000 KEENOV Into Mischief colt's stalking 6 1/2-furlong Nyquist S. score was a track-record-setting key race that kicked off the Breeders' Cup undercard, having produced three next-out winners (in the Sugar Bowl S. at Fair Grounds, a Churchill open allowance, and a Louisiana-bred stakes at Fair Grounds). Jockey Javier Castellano, who has been out since after the Breeders' Cup to heal from scheduled hip surgery, made it a point earlier this winter to say he'd like to be back in time for the FOY, which is key for this colt, because he was Highly Motivated's rider every time out last season. 11) MANDALOUN (c, Into Mischief–Brooch, by Empire Maker)O/B-Juddmonte Farms Inc. (Ky). T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $91,252.Last Start: 3rd GIII Lecomte S., FG, Jan. 16Next Start: Possible for GII Risen Star S., FG, Feb. 13Accomplishments: 'TDN Rising Star'Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 2. 'TDN Rising Star' Mandaloun was tactically disadvantaged by being three wide on both turns behind a tepid pace in the Lecomte S., and this Juddmonte homebred by Into Mischief also lost the race within the race by letting Proxy come back to beat him for second after Mandaloun looked him in the eye but couldn't clear him. Still, in the larger picture, one subpar effort in January shouldn't derail this colt from Derby aspirations. He bulled through heavy traffic to break his maiden and then convincingly won an allowance, both at Churchill, and his 89 Beyer in the Lecomte still represents an upward arc in Mandaloun's numbers progression. “I think we are going to add blinkers,” Cox said the day after the Lecomte. “I talked it over with the Juddmonte team and Florent [jockey Geroux]. We kind of thought that ever since his first race.” 12) KEEPMEINMIND (c, Laoban–Inclination, by Victory Gallop)O-Cypress Creek LLC & Arnold Bennewith. B-Southern Equine Stables, LLC (Ky). T-Robertino Diodoro. Lifetime Record: GSW & MGISP, 4-1-2-1, $394,320.Last Start: 1st GII Kentucky Jockey Club S.Accomplishments: 2nd GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity,3rd GI TVG Breeders' Cup JuvenileNext Start: Aiming for the GIII Southwest S., OP, Feb. 15.Equineline PPs. Ky Derby Points: 18. Although Keepmeinmind didn't break his maiden until he won the Nov. 29 GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., jockey David Cohen said it was the deep closer's first career start Sept. 2 that stamped him as a Classic-caliber colt. “When we made that first start at a mile, which is very hard the first time out, we came out of the [second-outermost post], and he made it down to the rail, squeezed through a tight spot, had a tough time for a first start. But he showed a lot of heart,” Cohen told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette last week. As an off-the-pace specialist, the Laoban colt might be against the grain of both the 1 1/16 miles distance and the speed-rewarding nature of the Oaklawn surface in the Southwest S. But so long as Keepmeinmind continues to accumulate qualifying points, the more sneaky-good his Derby chances look. This probably isn't the type of colt who will get to the first Saturday in May by racking up multiple wins in prep races. But as a maternal grandson of Victory Gallop, he'd be tough to leave out of Derby exotics with a running style that suggests he's capable of passing multiple horses in the stretch of a 20-horse race over 10 furlongs. On the Bubble (in alphabetical order): Bezos (Empire Maker): Baffert trainee closed at 26-1 in Pool 2 of the Derby Future Wager on Sunday-a remarkable price because this $190,000 KEENOV and $400,000 KEESEP colt has yet to start in a race. Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow): Half to 2019 sprint champ Mitole makes 2021 debut in Saturday's GIII Robert B. Lewis S. at Santa Anita. This two-time Fasig-Tipton sales grad ($17,000 FTKFEB; $110,000 FTKOCT) was a 94-1 second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. King Fury (Curlin): This $950,000 FTSAUG colt was previously ranked at No. 12 on this list, but workout inactivity so far this year has caused him to be leapfrogged by others who are a bit farther along the Derby trail. Nova Rags (Union Rags): Favored Bill Mott-trained colt looped group five-sixteenths out and was kept to task despite no challengers late in 75-Beyer Pasco S. tally at Tampa Jan. 16. Santa Cruiser (Dialed In): Figured as main pace threat in Lecomte off tenacious MSW mile win but got shuffled to last at break and really never ran his race. Closed well enough from far back to manage a better-than-looks fourth. Speaker's Corner (Street Sense): Formerly rated at No. 7, this Godolphin homebred trained by Mott owns a key-race MSW win at Belmont back on Oct. 11, but workout inactivity this year has triggered relegation out of the Top 12. The Great One (Nyquist): Runner-up as a maiden in the Dec. 19 GII Los Alamitos Futurity returned on Saturday to win a Santa Anita MSW by 14 1/2 lengths in a four-horse field. Trainer Doug O'Neill said the San Felipe S. is the next logical spot.
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