Derby Top 10: Essential Quality Still No. 1; Life Is Good In Spotlight

Kentucky Derby Top 10 Entries

By Richard Rosenblatt

A Bob Baffert nationwide statement is set to be delivered this weekend from California to New York.

The six-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer will send out three of his five top contenders in Derby-points qualifiers at Santa Anita and Aqueduct. He’s tried to keep his prospects apart until the first Saturday in May, but he’s overloaded with talented 3-year-olds – for now.

Two of his aces — No. 2 Life is Good and No. 4 Medina Spirit in the latest Derby Top 10 – will run in the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita on Saturday. Baffert is a seven-time winner of this Derby prep, including last year’s edition with Authentic.

At Aqueduct in New York, he’ll send out San Vicente runner-up Freedom Fighter in the $300,000 Gotham Stakes (G2). Last week, Spielberg ran a commendable second to Derby Top 10 leader Essential Quality in the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn after a stumble at the start.

Concert Tour, who won the San Vicente but earned no Derby points, is scheduled to run next in the Rebel (G1) at Oaklawn on March 13.

Life is Good, owned by WinStar Farm and CHC Inc., was purchased for $525,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. The son of Into Mischief has done everything right. He broke his maiden in a gate-to-wire, 9 ½-length romp at 6 ½ furlongs on Nov. 22 at Santa Anita, then opened his 3-year-old season with a similar run to victory in the Sham Stakes (G3) on Jan. 2 at 1-mile, but winning by only three-quarters of a length over stablemate Medina Spirit.

Baffert, of course, has high hopes for all his prospects. The two-time Triple Crown winner is looking for his record-setting seventh Derby win – which would break a tie with Ben A. Jones for most Derby victories.

Following a weekend workout, Life Is Good is ready.

“He went well,” said Baffert. “I’m happy; we’re all set.”

For now, Life Is Good sits in the middle of the top 3, second behind fellow unbeaten (4-for-4) Essential Quality, who easily won the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn last week, and just ahead of Greatest Honour, impressive winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream last week.

Eclipse Award winning trainer Brad Cox and his trio of 3-year-olds – Essential Quality, Mandaloun and Caddo River are ranked 1-5-6 this week. Also, Midnight Bourbon checks in at No. 7, replacing stablemate Jackie’s Warrior who faded to fourth in the Southwest and no longer is on the Derby trail.

A few new contenders could come out of the Gotham as well as the $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) on Saturday. Among them are Sam F. Davis (G3) winner Candy Rocket Man in the Tampa Bay Derby and Highly Motivated in the Gotham.

Each of the three Derby preps on Saturday award points of 50-20-10-5 to the first four finishers.

On Tuesday (March 2), Churchill Downs released opening odds for Pool 4 in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (March 5-7).

US Racing Kentucky Derby Top 10

[jockey’s subject to change]:

1 Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Luis Saez)

With a successful 3-year-old debut – finally – in the Southwest over the slop, our top Derby pick is looking at one final prep before the trip to Churchill –either in the Blue Grass or the Arkansas Derby … “We’ll get with the Godolphin team, and come up with a plan,’’ says Cox … 2-year-old male champ, winner of the BC Juvenile and now 4-for-4 … Derby points and ranking: 40 (3rd) … Next start: Blue Grass (G2), Keeneland, April 3, or Arkansas Derby (G1), Oaklawn, April 10 … Derby Future Wager Odds (Pool 4, opening): 7-2.

2 Life Is Good (Bob Baffert, Mike Smith)

Last seen winning the Sham (G3), 2-for-2 colt coming into next start in good form after a 5-furlong, 59.00-second work on Feb. 21 followed a week later by a 6-furlong, 1:20.20 breeze, both at Santa Anita … “I’m happy. We’re all set,’’ says Baffert … Takes on stablemate Medina Spirit, along with a few other Derby prospects in San Felipe … Derby points and ranking: 10 (20th) … Next start: San Felipe (G2), Santa Anita, March 6 … Derby Future Wager Odds (Pool 4, opening): 4-1

3 Greatest Honour (Shug McGaughey, Jose Ortiz)

Best of the bunch by far in rolling to victory in the Fountain of Youth (G2) on Feb. 27 … Now sits atop Derby points leaderboard with 60 … Came out of the race in fine order and is on schedule for one more prep before trying to win a second Derby for Hall of Fame trainer …. Derby points and ranking: 60 (1st) … Next start: Florida Derby (G1), Gulfstream, March 27 … Derby Future Wager Odds (Pool 4, opening): 6-1

4 Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, John Velazquez)

Johnny V picks up the mount for San Felipe [he won it aboard Baffert’s Authentic in 2020] … Won Robert B. Lewis (G3) by a neck following a strong second to Life is Good in the Sham … Worked 6 furlongs in 1:11.20 at Santa Anita on Feb. 27 … Derby points and ranking: 14 (10th) … Next start: San Felipe (G2), Saturday, Santa Anita … Derby Future Wager Odds (Pool 4, opening): 30-1.

5 Mandaloun (Brad Cox, Florent Geroux)

Risen Star winner still looking in good form after 4-furlong work in 50.00 at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 27 … A winner of three races in four career starts and earnings of more than $350,000 … Derby points and ranking 52 (2nd) … Next start: Louisiana Derby (G2), Fair Grounds, March 20 … Derby Future Wager Odds (Pool 4, opening): 15-1.

6 Caddo River (Brad Cox, Florent Geroux)

Record-setting winner of Smarty Jones [by 10 1 /4 lengths on Jan. 22] takes two-race win streak into next start … Worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.60 on Feb. 27 at the Fair Grounds … Two more preps for him

before the Derby [Rebel, Arkansas Derby] … “He needs to run a race with some [points],’’ says Cox. The Rebel offers points of 50-20-10-5 … Derby points and ranking: 10 (18th) … Next start: Rebel (G2), Oaklawn, March 13 … Derby Future Wager Odds (pool 4, opening): 15-1.

7 Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Joe Talamo)

Now that we know trainer’s Jackie’s Warrior is distance limited, we’ll try this colt as Asmussen’s quest for his first Derby winner continues … Winner of the Lecomte (G3) and third in the Risen Star (G2), son of Tiznow has never missed the board in six starts – 6-2-1-3 — for Winchell Thoroughbreds … Worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.60 at the Fair Grounds on March 1 … Derby points and ranking: 26 (4th) … Next start: Louisiana Derby (G2), Fair Grounds, March 20 … Derby Future Wager Odds (Pool 4, opening): 30-1

8 Risk Taking (Chad Brown, Eric Cancel)

Won 1 1/16-mile Withers (G3) by 3 ¾ lengths after seizing control at the sixteenth pole … Trainer has another Derby contender worth watching, Highly Motivated, running in the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct on Saturday … Derby points and ranking: 10 (16th) … Next start: Wood Memorial (G2), Aqueduct, April 3 … Derby Future Wager Odds (Pool 4, opening): 30-1

9 Keepmeinmind (Robertino Diodoro, David Cohen)

Unable to make 3-year-old debut due to frigid weather at Oaklawn, the Rebel is up next for the winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) back in November … Worked 5 furlongs in 1:03.20 at Oaklawn on Feb. 26, his seventh workout in 2021 at the track … In two previous starts, he ran second to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and third in the BC Juvenile … Derby points and ranking: 18 (6th) … Next start: Rebel (G2), Oaklawn, March 13 … Derby Future Wager Odds (Pool 4, opening): 30-1.

10 The Great One (Doug O’Neill, Abel Cedillo)

Facing two of Baffert’s Derby contenders in his next race should determine how great this colt is … Broke his maiden by 14 lengths in his fifth career start … Trainer is a two-time Derby winner, with I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist in 2016 … Worked 6 furlongs 1:12.40 on Feb. 27 at Santa Anita … Derby points and ranking: 4 (28th) … Next start: San Felipe (G2), Santa Anita, Saturday … Derby Future Wager Odds (Pool 4, opening): 50-1.