1 - Sorry, we’re not about to the concede the 2022 Triple Crown to Epicenter (pictured above) just yet.
His victory in the nine furlong Risen Star S-G2 was virtually assured a sixteenth of a mile out of the gate when the Steve Asmussen-trained colt waltzed to the lead (as many sharp handicappers predicted he would, this writer not among them) and then took advantage of his pristine trip as the controlling speed to dominate a good group of 3-year-olds that included at least two legitimate Derby candidates, Smile Happy and Zandon, both of whom were victimized by the race shape.
This isn’t to say that Epicenter isn’t a very good colt, even one of the best in his crop, but nothing that happened in the Risen Star guarantees that the son of Not This Time will perform anywhere near this well if he isn’t allowed to coast on the lead, or if he’s forced to take dirt in a race in which other front-running types show up in the same race. Only when he has to overcame at least some adversity will we find out what this colt is truly made of.
His assigned speed figure of 98, which was boosted several points due to a subjectively induced split variant by the Beyer boys, may have been a bit higher than it deserved to be, but to his credit Epicenter won without being asked for his best in the final sixteenth of a mile, so perhaps we’re not giving him his just due. In his next start, the Louisiana Derby-G2 on March 26, we suspect he’ll have to work a little harder.
2 - Although he failed to win for the first time in his three race career when finishing second behind Epicenter, Smile Happy lost little in defeat in his seasonal debut that should produce a much sharper, more serious effort next time, wherever that may be. The son of Runhappy was bottled up in traffic until well inside the quarter pole, and by the time he secured room he had little opportunity to worry the winner. Yet, despite being given too much to do, his late rally was admirable and was followed by a strong gallop out. If given a choice between the two right now, we’d still take Smile Happy over Epicenter.
As for Zandon, the third place finisher, he remains a little too one-pace for our liking. After commencing his rally wide into the lane, the Chad Brown-trained colt kept grinding to the wire, though appearing to lose a bit of his steam in the closing stages. He’s the kind of a colt that may be able to win a decent race with a favorable race shape, but his lack of acceleration always will put him at risk in races with big fields and average to moderate early fractions.
3 - The evidence continues to build that the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile S.-G1 was a disturbingly weak affair. Pappacap, the runner-up behind Corniche in the race that decided the Eclipse Award in the 2-year-old division, subsequently finished a no-excuse third to Call Me Midnight and Epicenter in the Lecomte S.-G3 and then wound up eighth of 10 (beaten 14 lengths) despite a perfect stalking trip in the Risen Star. The BC Juvenile’s third place finisher, Giant Game, returned to finish eighth of nine, beaten 24 lengths, in the Holy Bull. Commandperformance, who was fourth, hasn’t raced since and is still a maiden, while Oviatt Class, the BC Juvenile’s fifth place finisher, was a non-threatening third of five in the Sham S.-G3 in January before being stopped on and turned out.
Meanwhile, Corniche remains out of sight and out of mind. The last we heard, he had resumed training at the farm, but, realistically, time has run out for the colt who has no points and no chance to be ready for any Derby prep race or the Derby itself.
4 - Claims for $100,000 or more rarely work out, but trainer Vladimir Cerin apparently struck gold when he haltered Barraza off Bob Baffert for that amount out of a maiden race in April of 2021. At the time, the son of Into Mischief had run three times, the most recent of which being a second place effort (beaten four lengths) to American Pharoah’s highly-regarded (at the time) half-brother Triple Tap, but the colt’s numbers weren’t anything special, so the purchase seemed like a bit of a stretch.
But Barraza won that high-priced main track maiden claiming sprint by more than five lengths, so Cerin had to be happy with the new merchandise.
But rather than wheel him back short, and/or on dirt, the decision was made to stretch out around two turns on grass. Five straight times. None of those races produced a victory, so, finally, apparently, it dawned on Cerin that maybe, just maybe, the colt didn’t want to run long.
Since being returned to a sprint, all Barraza has done is put together a four-race winning streak that included two stakes, most recently the San Simeon S.-G3 last weekend over the Hillside Course at Santa Anita when he unleashed a devastating turn of foot that produced a career top 98 Beyer speed figure. The best news, at least for Barraza, is that thanks to his sire line the graded stakes win guarantees him a chance at stud somewhere in this world.
Now that he’s found his niche as a prototype turf sprinter, what makes Barraza’s current win streak so impressive is this versatility. He has won races both on the lead and from dead last while earning speed figures that have risen in each outing.
“He’s just developing,” explained Cerin after his most recent triumph. “He’ll go two-turns again and I think he’ll do it just as well.”
Okay. But why not just leave well enough alone?
5 - We’re still including the Bob Baffert-trained runners in our rankings, though most experts who publish these lists are not. Keep in mind that horses from the Baffert barn cannot earn qualifying points for the Run for the Roses, but we’re assuming that the connections of such runners will find a replacement trainer for the final significant points-generating events that take place four or five weeks prior to the first Saturday in May. Even with zero points prior to one of these final key prep races, a win or a second place finish will be sufficient to gain entrance to the Derby.
Remember, this list is based on potential and projection, not resume.
The Main Players:
1 – Messier (B. Baffert) – According to the speed figure he earned in the Robert B. Lewis S.-G3, he is currently the fastest 3-year-old on the Triple Crown trail. He has no Derby points, but we’re operating under the assumption that he’ll get them when he needs them, with a temporary trainer change the obvious last-resort solution. He hasn’t worked since his race February 6 but we’re expecting he’ll make the tab sometime this week.
2 – Emmanuel (T. Pletcher) – A strong, powerful son of More Than Ready that has yet to be extended after two very impressive victories, he surely will get tested in his next start, expected to be the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 at Gulfstream Park March 5.
3 – Smile Happy (K. McPeek) – Lost little when suffering his first career defeat in a better-than-looked runner-up effort behind “loose-on-the-lead” Epicenter in the Risen Star S.-G2 at Fair Grounds. The Runhappy colt was caught in traffic and then finished with purpose against the grain when clear too late in an excellent performance. He’ll have one more race – yet undisclosed – before his Derby run.
4 – White Abarrio (S. Joseph, Jr.) – His only defeat came when third to Smile Happy in the KJC S.-G2 last fall. Remained unbeaten in three starts at Gulfstream Park with his perfect-trip victory in the Holy Bull S.-G3 that made his task easier than it should have been. Likely to be seen next in the Florida Derby-G1 April 2, when he’ll either verify this performance or be found out.
5 – Rattle N Roll (K. McPeek – Concluded his juvenile campaign with a smart maiden win followed by a dominating score in the Breeders’ Futurity, both from off the pace. A sharp :59 3/5 five furlong drill at Gulfstream Park Feb. 19 indicates he should be primed and ready for the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 March 5.
6 - Classic Causeway (B. Lynch) – Verified the promise shown during his juvenile campaign when cutting out legit fractions and continuing with authority to win the Sam F. Davis S.-G3 in his sophomore debut. Likely to return in the Tampa Bay Derby-G2 March 12.
7 – Epicenter happily accepted his role as the controlling speed in the Risen Star S.-G2 at Fair Grounds and made the most of the opportunity in his gate-to-wire triumph that produced a career top 98 Beyer speed figure. He has never taken a backward move in four starts, but what happens when early pressure is applied, or when he is forced to take dirt? Maybe we’ll find out in the Louisiana Derby-G2 March 26.
8 – Newgrange (B. Baffert) – Violence colt is three-for-three over three different tracks and at three different distances. Numbers pale in comparison with stable mate Messier but they’re competitive with most of the others. He returns to Oaklawn Park for this Saturday’s Rebel S.-G2 and is certain to be favored again.
9 – Zozos (B. Cox) – Undefeated in two starts, a game maiden sprint win at Fair Grounds in January and then a middle distance allowance pace-stalking score by more than 10 lengths at Oaklawn Park that produced an 88 Beyer speed figure. The son of Munnings was visually very impressive.
10 – Charge It (T. Pletcher) – Gulfstream Park-based Tapit colt missed by a neck in his sprint debut in January over a one-turn mile and then annihilated maidens at that same trip by more than eight lengths while never taking a deep breath and earning a 93 Beyer speed figure.
11 – Early Voting (C. Brown) – Undefeated in two starts, a maiden win and a dominating score in the nine-furlong Withers over the deeper-than-quicksand main track at Aqueduct. We suspect he is much better than his modest figures indicate. He’d better be.
12 – Forbidden Kingdom (R. Mandella) – If there is a colt out West that is quicker and can get in front of Messier over a distance of ground, it’s him. Loved his San Vicente S.-G2 score over seven furlongs. The question is, how far can this son of American Pharoah run?
13 – Zandon (C. Brown) – Won his debut sprinting, was unlucky when nosed out in the 9F Remsen S.-G2, and then was victimized by a wide trip and a lack of pace when third in the Risen Star S.-G2 in his sophomore debut. He’s a grinder but will run all day and may eventually be best suited as a Belmont Stakes-type. The Blue Grass S.-G1 is next.
14 – Mo Donegal (T. Pletcher) – Didn’t get the best of runs when rallying too late to be third in the Holy Bull S.-G3. Lacks a great turn of foot but has no distance limitations.
15 – Major General (T. Pletcher) – Two-for-two as a juvenile, including the Iroquois S.-G3 at Churchill Downs. How much progress has he made over the winter? A solid, steady workout pattern at Palm Beach Downs should have him fit enough by now.
Knocking on the Door:
16 – Call Me Midnight (K. Desormeaux)
17 – Simplification (A. Sano)
18 – In Due Time (K. Breen)
19 - Chasing Time (S. Asmussen)
20 – Blackadder (B. Baffert)