Horse racing newsletter: Jon White is back with Derby rankings

Jockey Luis Saez rides Essential Quality to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile horse race at Keeneland Race Course.
Jockey Luis Saez rides Essential Quality to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile horse race at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 6, 2020, in Lexington, Ky.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Hello, my name is John Cherwa and welcome back to our horse racing newsletter as Santa Anita seems to be on the upswing with its revamped racing office.

It seems as if Jon White just finished his Triple Crown previews. But, guess what? He’s back. If you forgot, Jon is one of the foremost historians on horse racing as well as being the morning-line maker at Santa Anita and Del Mar. We don’t expect his contributions to last as long as last year. But, we’ll enjoy them while we march toward Triple Crown races in their regular timeslots. So, here are his Kentucky Derby rankings, brought courtesy of

“The 2021 running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled to be run this year on May 1 as it returns to the first Saturday in May after being delayed to Sept. 5 in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Let’s get right to it. Essential Quality ranks No. 1 in this newsletter’s first rankings of 2021 in a very close call over No. 2 Life Is Good.


“Undefeated in three career starts, Essential Quality overcame a troubled trip to win a six-furlong maiden sprint at Churchill Downs in his debut. The Kentucky-bred Tapit colt went on to win the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a pair of 1 1/16-mile races at Keeneland.

“Essential Quality’s Breeders’ Cup victory was flattered when Keepmeinmind won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill. Keepmeinmind finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“According to trainer Brad Cox, the plan is for Essential Quality to make his first 2021 start in one of two races in February, either the 1 1/16-mile Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 15 or 1 1/8-mile Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots on Feb. 13.

“Cox told Brian Nadeau of the Fair Grounds that one thing that makes the Risen Star attractive is it offers more Kentucky Derby points (50-20-10-5) than the Southwest (10-4-2-1). But Cox also finds the shorter distance of the Southwest to have appeal. ‘Do we want to go a mile and an eighth (in the Risen Star) off not having a race in three months?’ Cox said. ‘We’ll talk it over with the Godolphin team and make a decision probably about the first of February.’

“Meanwhile, Bob Baffert trains the exciting Life Is Good, who races for China Horse Club and WinStar Farm.

“There are a number of similarities between Life Is Good and Authentic. For one thing, they have the same sire, Into Mischief. Authentic sold for $350,000 and Life Is Good for $525,000.

“Authentic kicked off his racing career as a 2-year-old by winning a maiden sprint at Del Mar’s fall meet. Ditto Life Is Good. In Authentic’s second start, he won the one-mile Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park despite racing greenly in the stretch. Ditto Life Is Good.


“Many had their doubts that Authentic could go farther than 1 1/8 miles until he won the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby by 1 1/4 lengths on the first Saturday in September. He subsequently won the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland on Nov. 7 in the final race of his career.

“Life Is Good won the Sham by only three-quarters of a length in contrast to Authentic’s Sham margin of 7 3/4 lengths. But it’s certainly to Life Is Good’s credit that his final time in the Sham of 1:36.63 was quite a bit faster than Authentic’s 1:37.57.

“One reason Life Is Good might not have had more gas in the tank toward the end of the Sham was the race came six days after a sizzling six-furlong workout in 1:10.60.

“Additionally, though Life Is Good won the Sham by less than one length, it appeared that he was far from all out. As Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman noted, ‘Life Is Good galloped out well. He was not at the end of his rope.’

“Privman also put Life Is Good’s Sham victory into perspective in terms of the big picture. ‘This was a means toward an end,’ Privman wrote. “It was only his second start. The [Kentucky] Derby is still four months away. Nothing would have been gained by getting to the bottom of him right now. There’s time for that later.’

“Santa Anita’s 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes on March 6 might be next for Life Is Good. Do you know what race Authentic ran in after he won the Sham? Yep. It was the San Felipe, which Authentic won by 2 1/4 lengths.

“By the way, it appears that when Life Is Good dazzled at Del Mar in his debut, the vanquished were far from a bunch of bums. Wipe the Slate finished a distant second. Roman Centurian finished an even more distant fourth. Wipe the Slate then won a maiden race by 3 1/4 lengths at Santa Anita on Dec. 26. Roman Centurian then won a maiden race by 3 3/4 lengths at Santa Anita last Sunday.


“Another plus for Life Is Good is his trainer has a record-tying six Kentucky Derby victories, the same as Ben Jones.

Todd Pletcher trains Prime Factor, who is No. 3 in the first Kentucky Derby rankings. Pletcher has won the Kentucky Derby twice.

“Like Life Is Good, Prime Factor is owned by China Horse Club and WinStar Farm.

“In Prime Factor’s only start, the Kentucky-bred Quality Road colt vied for the early lead, then drew off in the stretch and won a six-furlong maiden race by 8 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 12.

“A $900,000 auction acquisition, Prime Factor needs to prove he can do well going farther than six furlongs. But the way he drew away from his foes at first asking in a sprint suggests he quite likely will do just fine when asked to race around two turns.

“No. 4 Hot Rod Charlie is in the hands of trainer Doug O’Neill, who has won the Kentucky Derby twice.

“Hot Rod Charlie lost his first three starts, then improved with blinkers to win a maiden race at Santa Anita on Oct. 2. He finished a bang-up second at the gigantic odds of 94-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“A $110,000 auction purchase, Hot Rod Charlie is by 2013 Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow. Hot Rod Charlie is a half-brother to 2019 male sprint champion Mitole.

“Hot Rod Charlie had his first recorded workout since the Breeders’ Cup last Saturday at Santa Anita when he stepped four furlongs in :48.00.


“No. 5 Keepmeinmind ran well as a maiden when second to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Futurity and third behind Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“Even though Keepmeinmind had yet to win a race, he was sent away as the 2-1 favorite in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 28. The Kentucky-bred Laoban colt rallied from ninth to prevail by three-quarters of a length for trainer Robertino Diodoro.

“Keepmeinmind had his first recorded workout since his Nov. 28 triumph when he was timed in :50.20 on Wednesday at Oaklawn Park. He is expected to make his next start in the Southwest or Risen Star Stakes.

“No. 6 Medina Spirit, another from the powerful Baffert barn, won a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race by three lengths when unveiled at Los Alamitos on Dec. 11. That was followed by his splendid runner-up effort in the Sham in which he finished 13 lengths clear of Parnelli in third.

“A $35,000 auction purchase, Medina Spirit seems to have much upside. Based on his fine try in the Sham, it looks like the Kentucky-bred Protonico colt could make a lot of noise on the Kentucky Derby trail.

“No. 7 Senor Buscador is two for two. He came from 10 lengths off the pace to win a 5 1/2-furlong maiden sprint by 2 1/2 lengths at Remington Park on Nov. 6. He then unleashed a furious rally after being 10th early to win Remington’s Springboard Mile by an emphatic 5 3/4 lengths on Dec. 18.

“Trained by Todd Fincher, Senor Buscador worked three furlongs in :37.60 last Saturday at Sam Houston Race Park. According to Fincher, the Kentucky-bred Mineshaft colt will make his next start in a stakes race either at Oaklawn Park or the Fair Grounds.


“Senor Buscador is a half-brother to Runaway Ghost, who won the 2018 Sunland Derby in New Mexico for Fincher.

“No. 8 Jackie’s Warrior was backed down to 9-10 favoritism in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after winning his first four races around one turn in dominant fashion. He went into the Breeders’ Cup off a 5 1/2-length win in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. But after chasing a fast early pace in the Juvenile, he weakened in the final furlong and finished fourth in his first race around two turns.

“Does Jackie’s Warrior have the stamina to win a 1 1/4-mile race? Perhaps not, especially inasmuch as his sire is Maclean’s Music. Maclean’s Music won a six-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita by 7 1/4 lengths in a rapid 1:07.44 in his only career start. But keep in mind a son of Maclean’s Music by the name of Cloud Computing did possess the stamina to win the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes in 2017.

“Jackie’s Warrior was too impressive in his first four races to completely write him off vis-a-vis the Kentucky Derby off only a single defeat, which is why the $95,000 auction purchase is included in these rankings but not higher than No. 8.

“No. 9 Mutasaabeq won last Saturday’s one-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths as the 11-10 favorite at Gulfstream Park.

“A $425,000 auction purchase trained by Pletcher, Mutasaabeq has experienced an up-and-down career so far. Prior to his first race, the Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt had two of the faster gate works ever at Saratoga by a 2-year-old trained by Pletcher. Mutasaabeq then won at first asking there by 4 1/2 lengths on Aug. 8.


“Mutasaabeq went on to finish third, 12 1/2 lengths behind Jackie’s Warrior, in Saratoga’s Hopeful Stakes on Sept. 7. Mutasaabeq switched to the turf and won Keeneland’s Bourbon Stakes on Oct. 4, but then he ended up 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Keeneland on Nov. 6, before returning to the dirt in the Mucho Macho Man.

“Pletcher has indicated that Gulfstream’s Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 30 is likely next for Mutasaabeq.

“No. 10 Mandaloun, yet another Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt, is two for two. Another Cox trainee, Mandaloun got the job done in a six-furlong maiden race on a wet track Oct. 24 at Keeneland, then won a seven-furlong allowance/optional claiming race Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs.

“In a Fair Grounds workout last Saturday, Mandaloun was timed in 1:00.60. Thoroughbred Daily News reported that Mandoloun is targeting Fair Grounds’ Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 16 for his 2020 debut.

“Here are this week’s Kentucky Derby rankings, courtesy of Xpressbet:

1. Essential Quality

2. Life Is Good

3. Prime Factor

4. Hot Rod Charlie

5. Keepmeinmind

6. Medina Spirit

7. Senor Buscador

8. Jackie’s Warrior

9. Mutasaabeq

10. Mandaloun”

Enjoying this newsletter?

Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.

Santa Anita preview

On its face, Santa Anita has an unremarkable nine-race card starting at 12:30 p.m. But, looking at the size of the fields, you have to believe the transformation of the racing office under Chris Merz seems well underway. There seems to be a genuine understanding of the horse population and what kind of races need to be written. There are four races restricted to 3-year-olds, two of them for Cal-breds. Santa Anita is also building its brand as a turf track, as it’s the third straight day there have been more grass races than dirt ones. There are five on Friday’s card.


The feature is an allowance/optional claimer for horses going a mile on the turf. The favorite, at 7-2, is Frontier Market for trainer John Sadler and jockey Jose Valdivia, Jr. He has won three-of-14 lifetime with an amazing seven second-place finishes. This gelding was formerly trained by Chad Brown before moving to Sadler’s barn. His last win was in an allowance/optional claimer at Saratoga on Aug. 24, 2019.

There are three horses listed as second favorites at 4-1: Murad Khan (Doug O’Neill/Abel Cedillo), Salvator Mundi (Phil D’Amato/Umberto Rispoli), Border Town (Richard Mandella/Flavien Prat). Post is scheduled for around 3:32 p.m.

Here are the field sizes, in order: 9, 7, 10, 8, 8, 9, 10, 8, 10 (4 also eligible).

Ciaran Thornton’s SA pick

FIFTH RACE: No. 4 Crossword (12-1)

Crossword is 12-1 with Joel Rosario riding for John Sadler and Hronis Racing. Even on this jump in class I doubt we get this great morning-line price. First-time Lasix after winning last out when trying turf going shorter for the first time. This is a wide-open spread as deep as you can race for Pick 5 bets.

Sunday’s result: Minoso broke poorly from the 11 post and, with a gate-to-wire strategy, that was the end of it. Racing wide throughout and six-wide into the turn was too much. I would play this horse again, though.

Ciaran Thornton is the handicapper for, which offers daily full card picks, longshots of the day, best bets of the day.

Los Alamitos weekend preview

Los Alamitos is the only game in town at night. So, let’s turn things over to marketing and media guru Orlando Gutierrez. Orlando, the floor is yours.

“Trainer Jesus Uranga is off to a flying start two weeks into the new racing season at Los Alamitos. Uranga will begin the week as the meet’s overall leading trainer with four wins and three seconds from his first nine starters. Uranga was at the top of his game right away, as each of his first six starters either won or ran second.

“The trainer has several opportunities on Friday night, as he saddles the hard-knocking runner Cioppino Pasadino as well as the returning Sensorrey in the second race. He’ll also saddle Glitter Gulch in the fourth and Peter Alan in the fifth. Uranga finished the 2020 racing season as the top trainer in the mixed-breed standings with 14 wins and fifth in the thoroughbred standings with 15 wins.


“Also on Friday, Check My Cartel returns in the seventh race after a three-month layoff. The son of Favorite Cartel won the Sophomore Claiming Stakes on California Breeders Champions Night last year. The card will also see seven sprinters led by Bad Likker facing off in an $13,200 allowance event.

“Owner Martha Wells had a memorable campaign in 2020 led by her brilliant colt Tell Cartel, a three-time derby winner and runner-up in the Grade 1 Champion of Champions. It wasn’t just the derby standout for Wells last year, highlighted by her barn’s performance in the El Primero Del Año Derby when her runners swept the top three spots with Tell Cartel winning ahead of runner-up Old School Icon and third place finisher Fire By Night.

“While Tell Cartel is now headed to stud at Fales Ranch in Coolidge, Ariz., Wells will still have a strong group of runners that include stakes placed Fashin Icon, an Arizona-bred 4-year-old mare by Texas Icon. Fashin Icon will make her 2021 debut in Saturday’s eighth race for high-level claimers at 300 yards. She finished second to Los Alamitos Oaks winner Dreams Divine in the AB What A Runner Handicap last year and competed in the La Pacifica Handicap and Vandy’s Flash Handicap.

“The field will include Calida, a PCQHRA Breeders Derby finalist and recent allowance winner, and 2019 Snowbound Superstar Handicap winner JB Gray Dawn, a top runner at 870 yards who is also very competitive in shorter distances. Cartel Rocks and Flyen High will join this field.

“Last Sunday’s program featured the debut of the track’s new $10,000 Pick 6 promo. Since there was no carryover going into the card, Los Alamitos seeded the Pick 6 pool with $10,000. Horse players responded by wagering more than $62,251 into Sunday’s Pick 6, making the total pool $72,251, or about three times more than what the exotic would have likely handled without the seed money. The Los Alamitos promotion will continue on Sundays in January whenever there is not already a carryover going into the program.”

Chris Wade’s LA pick

THIRD RACE: No. 7 Question Authority (4-1)

He has earned a solid figure in three-of-four career starts over different surfaces and varying distances that are very competitive in this event Friday. In his most recent effort 20 days ago over the daytime oval, this gelding showed a good amount of speed down the back-stretch to garner the second spot, after breaking a tad slow and encountering some trouble into the clubhouse turn. With an overall decent journey in his holster on that day, the 4-year-old tired down the longest stretch in America to finish an even fourth against a solid cast of rivals for the level. The number earned from effort, if repeated Friday, should put Question Authority close up early and right there late at the wire.


A final thought

I love getting new readers of this newsletter, and you certainly can’t beat the price. If you like it, tell someone. If you don’t like it, you’re probably not reading this.

Either way, send this along to a friend, and just have them click here to sign up. Remember, it’s free, and all we need is your email address, nothing more.

Any thoughts, you can reach me at You can also feed my ego by following me on Twitter @jcherwa.

Now the stars of the show, Friday’s entries.

Santa Anita Entries for Friday, January 8.

Santa Anita, Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, California. 7th day of a 81-day meet.


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $61,000. Maiden Special Weight. 3 year olds. State bred.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1The HenriettaFrancisco Amparan124Duff Shidaker50-1
2Blue StarJoel Rosario124Doug F. O'Neill5-1
3Big FlintTiago Pereira124Peter Eurton9-5
4Big TalkerFlavien Prat124Tim Yakteen4-1
5Whiskey VisionAbel Cedillo124Howard L. Zucker12-1
6BrochachoAlexis Centeno117Martin Valenzuela, III20-1
7Discretionary DayMike Smith124Jeff Bonde5-2
8CircleofchampionsUmberto Rispoli124Carla Gaines6-1
9Pedro PerezHeriberto Figueroa124Edwin Alvarez30-1


6 Furlongs. Purse: $24,000. Claiming. Fillies and Mares. 4 year olds and up. Claiming Prices $16,000-$12,500.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Happy TrailsJuan Hernandez124Howard L. Zucker8-116,000
2PasitoRuben Fuentes124Steve Knapp15-116,000
3You Wanna Ear RipJose Valdivia, Jr.122Andreas Psarras6-114,250
4Full EclipseTyler Baze124John E. Cortez6-116,000
5VangogoRicardo Gonzalez124Jonathan Wong7-216,000
6Plum WildJoel Rosario124Ed Moger, Jr.5-216,000
7Enriched by DebAlexis Centeno117Richard Baltas2-116,000


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $61,000. Maiden Special Weight. 3 year olds. State bred.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1BukayoTyler Baze124Carla Gaines12-1
2Mr. TripledoubleTiago Pereira124Neil French15-1
3Gordy's BoyDrayden Van Dyke124Alexis Barba4-1
4Big WellRicardo Gonzalez124Tim Yakteen12-1
5J C ExpressJessica Pyfer117Peter Eurton6-1
6Hail FreedomJoel Rosario124Doug F. O'Neill3-1
7He Be DangerousKent Desormeaux124Richard Baltas20-1
8Careless KittenJose Valdivia, Jr.124Howard L. Zucker30-1
9Big Frank Da TankFlavien Prat124Adam Kitchingman6-1
10That CoreyMario Gutierrez124Ben D. A. Cecil5-2


1 Mile. Purse: $61,000. Maiden Special Weight. Fillies. 3 year olds.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Sweetest AngelDrayden Van Dyke124George Papaprodromou6-1
2LunaticRicardo Gonzalez124Peter Miller4-1
3MorazUmberto Rispoli124Michael W. McCarthy5-1
4A Real HeroFlavien Prat124Michael W. McCarthy6-1
5AgreetodisagreeMario Gutierrez124Peter Eurton4-1
6I'm All the JediJuan Hernandez124Ian Kruljac20-1
7Whistler's StyleJoel Rosario124Ian Kruljac12-1
8Peachtree RoadMike Smith124Richard E. Mandella2-1


6 Furlongs Turf. Purse: $63,000. Allowance Optional Claiming. 3 year olds. Claiming Price $100,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Teton ValleyAbel Cedillo124Ryan Hanson20-1
2Minsky Tyler Baze124Mark Glatt5-1
3Windy City RedJose Valdivia, Jr.124Jonathan Wong3-1
4CrosswordJoel Rosario124John W. Sadler12-1
5ExhaltingJuan Hernandez124Doug F. O'Neill3-1100,000
6Gator ShiningRicardo Gonzalez124Richard Baltas5-1
7Superman ShaqFlavien Prat124Peter Miller5-2
8Mac Daddy TooUmberto Rispoli122Doug F. O'Neill12-1100,000


6 Furlongs. Purse: $22,000. Claiming. Fillies and Mares. 4 year olds and up. Claiming Price $10,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1All Tea All ShadeEswan Flores122Jorge Periban12-110,000
2Untouched EleganceJessica Pyfer117Richard Baltas5-110,000
3RolingaAbel Cedillo122Aggie Ordonez4-110,000
4ZillindaEdwin Maldonado122Bruce Headley15-110,000
5Takes a VillageGeovanni Franco122Reed Saldana15-110,000
6SherilindaRuben Fuentes122George Papaprodromou6-110,000
7Billy KEmily Ellingwood112Ryan Hanson4-110,000
8Sybil's KittyTyler Baze122Kristin Mulhall7-210,000
9Wandering PatrolMario Gutierrez122Ben D. A. Cecil2-110,000


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $65,000. Allowance Optional Claiming. 4 year olds and up. Claiming Price $62,500.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Frontier MarketJose Valdivia, Jr.124John W. Sadler7-262,500
2Murad Khan Abel Cedillo124Doug F. O'Neill4-162,500
3Salvator MundiUmberto Rispoli122Philip D'Amato4-1
4LymebyrdMario Gutierrez124Angelo Tekos, Jr.15-162,500
5Border TownFlavien Prat122Richard E. Mandella4-1
6King TheoDrayden Van Dyke122Carlo Vaccarezza20-1
7Kazan Ricardo Gonzalez122Doug F. O'Neill10-1
8Our Silver OakMike Smith124Jonathan Wong12-1
9Award WinnerJuan Hernandez122David E. Hofmans15-1
10Fivestar Lynch Joel Rosario122Richard Baltas6-1


1 Mile. Purse: $42,000. Starter Optional Claiming. 4 year olds and up. Claiming Prices $40,000-$35,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1ZestfulEdwin Maldonado126Mark Glatt5-2
2Two Thirty FiveAbel Cedillo126Richard Baltas3-140,000
3Tobacco RoadKent Desormeaux118Paul G. Aguirre30-135,000
4Truth SeekerMario Gutierrez122Steven Miyadi6-1
5Unbroken StarJoel Rosario126Mike Puype5-140,000
6HeartfullofstarsTiago Pereira122Edwin Alvarez15-1
7SynthesisTyler Baze126George Papaprodromou8-1
8Pubilius SyrusJuan Hernandez122Vladimir Cerin3-1


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $36,000. Claiming. 4 year olds and up. Claiming Prices $25,000-$22,500.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1New YearEdwin Maldonado122Juan Andres Rodriguez30-125,000
2ForayTyler Baze120John W. Sadler4-122,500
3Of Good ReportAlexis Centeno115Doug F. O'Neill8-125,000
4SlyDrayden Van Dyke122Richard E. Mandella4-125,000
5Dr. TroutmanJose Valdivia, Jr.122George Papaprodromou12-125,000
6Worthy TurkJoel Rosario120Peter Miller5-122,500
7Fly to MarsFlavien Prat122Peter Miller3-125,000
8Move Over Juan Hernandez122Hector O. Palma15-125,000
9Camino de EstrellaAbel Cedillo122William Spawr10-125,000
10Southern KingGeovanni Franco122Brian J. Koriner8-125,000
Also Eligible
11MithqaalRicardo Gonzalez122Jonathan Wong5-125,000
12Liberal Umberto Rispoli122Patrick Gallagher10-125,000
13Justin's QuestUmberto Rispoli122Richard Baltas4-125,000
14French GetawayMike Smith122Robert B. Hess, Jr.5-125,000