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Derby Dozen: A New Season Begins

Byron King's Top 12 on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

1. Essential Quality 
Trainer/Owner: Brad Cox/Godolphin
Pedigree: Tapit Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality
Breeder: Godolphin (KY)

In a division in which many are unproven in graded company running as far as 1 1/16 miles, he is not. Perfect in three starts, he took the 1 1/16-mile Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) and TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (G1) last fall at Keeneland after a debut sprint win at Churchill Downs. He has maintained a steady workout schedule toward a mid-February return.

2. Fire At Will Click Here!
Mike Maker/Three Diamonds Farm
Declaration of WarFlirt, by Kitten's Joy 
Troy Rankin (KY)
Given his pedigree and grass success at 2, capped by a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Presented by Coolmore America (G1T), he might be considered a surprise No. 2. But he won the off-the-turf With Anticipation Stakes last summer at Saratoga Race Course, and he has worked well on dirt, hinting he might have a grass-to-dirt future such as Kentucky Derby (G1) winners Animal Kingdom (2011) and Barbaro (2006).

3. Life Is Good Click Here!
Bob Baffert/China Horse Club and WinStar Farm
Into Mischief Beach Walk, by Distorted Humor 
Gary and Mary West Stable (KY)
He conjures images of Authentic , another son of Into Mischief who took the Kentucky Derby and Longines Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) last year for six-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. Life Is Good has also shown brilliance but saw his lead dwindle in taking the Jan. 2 Sham Stakes (G3), though jockey Mike Smith never struck him with his crop.

4. Medina Spirit
Bob Baffert/Zedan Racing Stables 
Protonico —Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed
Gail Rice (FL)
A bargain $35,000 2-year-old purchase, he is somewhat reminiscent of the Baffert-trained Real Quiet, a $17,000 buy that won the 1998 Kentucky Derby over his more heralded stablemate, Indian Charlie. Medina Spirit kept coming after Life Is Good to be second in the Sham. He outpaced Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) winner Spielberg in a team drill for Baffert Jan. 22.

5. Prime Factor Click Here!
Todd Pletcher/China Horse Club and WinStar Farm
Quality Road Haylie Brae, by Bernardini 
Two Hearts Farm (KY)
While Life Is Good is the bright star in California for China Horse Club and WinStar Farm, this colt is their shining prospect in Florida with trainer Todd Pletcher. He dazzled in a first-out maiden win Dec. 12 at Gulfstream Park, and videos of recent breezes on XBTV.com further encourage. Plenty of blue sky for this $900,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase.

6. Caddo River
Brad Cox/Shortleaf Stable 
Hard Spun Pangburn, by Congrats 
Shortleaf Stable (KY)
Dark bay colt passed his first two-turn test by taking the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 22 at Oaklawn Park, posting a 99 Equibase Speed Figure. Impressed by both the speed and staying power he displayed, likely an indication he can handle longer races. Even in two defeats sprinting last year, he ran second to promising youngsters Olympiad and Speaker's Corner.

7. Senor Buscador
Todd Fincher/Joe R. Peacock Jr.
Mineshaft Rose's Desert, by Desert God
Joe R. Peacock Sr. and Jr. (KY)
In winning each of his two races, both at Remington Park, he inhaled the opposition with devastating rallies after slow starts. Last of 10 after a half-mile in the Dec. 18 Remington Springboard Mile, he passed the entire field so quickly he was in front at the eighth pole. An unknown is how he will fare without Lasix after using it at 2. 

8. Concert Tour
Bob Baffert/Gary and Mary West 
Street Sense Purse Strings, by Tapit 
Gary and Mary West Stables (KY)
The Baffert trainee came into a Jan. 15 maiden special weight at Santa Anita with a big reputation and delivered. Racing with Lasix, he took the lead about a quarter-mile into the race and cruised with his ears pricked under a confident ride from Joel Rosario. Though his dam scored her only win at six furlongs, she twice placed in races as far as 1 1/16 miles. The colt acts capable of routing.

9. Keepmeinmind
Robertino Diodoro/Cypress Creek and Arnold Bennewith
Laoban Inclination, by Victory Gallop
Southern Equine Stables (KY)
Watching the Nov. 28 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs unfold with a slow pace, with this colt reserved at the back, he seemed an improbable winner. But win he did, passing the entire field in the stretch. His winning Equibase Speed Figure was modest, a 91, but he had run a much faster 100 when third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile when closing behind hot splits.

10. The Great One
Doug O'Neill/ERJ Racing, Train Wreck Al Racing Stables, Niall Brennan, Tom Fritz, and William Straus 
Nyquist Little Ms Protocol, by El Corredor
Coteau Grove Farms (LA)
Of trainer Doug O'Neill's Derby prospects, which include Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Hot Rod Charlie and fast maiden winner Wipe the Slate, this one might have the most upside. He nearly upset Spielberg in the Los Alamitos Futurity as a maiden, and then he upped his game with a 14-length romp with maiden special weight foes Jan. 23. The March 6 San Felipe Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita could be next. 

11. Jackie's Warrior Click Here!
Steve Asmussen/Kirk and Judy Robison 
Maclean's Music Unicorn Girl, by A. P. Five Hundred
J & J Stables (KY)
His speed-oriented pedigree raises distance questions, but few colts, if any, possess more ability. He was perfect in his first four starts at 2, including victories in the Runhappy Hopeful Stakes (G1) and Champagne Stakes (G1), before being beaten for the only time when fourth after chasing demanding splits in the Juvenile. 

12. Highly Motivated Click Here!
Chad Brown/Klaravich Stables
Into Mischief—Strong Incentive, by Warrior's Reward 
Klaravich Stables (KY)
One of the fastest 2-year-olds of 2020, who posted a 101 Equibase Speed Figure in winning the Nov. 6 Nyquist Stakes at Keeneland, he recorded works Jan. 16 and Jan. 23 in South Florida. Brown has not raced him beyond 6 1/2 furlongs in three starts, but the colt finished well in his two victories. Still wonder if he might be more of an off-the-pace sprinter/miler.