Archive for the ‘Derby Rankings’ Category

2023 Derby Handicapping Analysis

Thursday, May 4th, 2023

Well, it’s finally the end of the road and for all the questions to be answered…we hope. Here is an overview of what has happened since January and who is left from the hundreds of Derby hopefuls. We will conclude with a feeble attempt to explain our wagers, knowing we are all grasping for straws when it comes to the wild and wacky world of the Kentucky Derby. ~ Steve Haskin

Will Forte or the Gray Make Pletcher’s Day?

By Steve Haskin


There is a lot to cover, so no need for any introductions. Let’s just get right to it beginning with some interesting random notes.


The three oldest horses in the Derby field are all trained by Todd Pletcher. It seems a lot of people have jumped off the Forte bandwagon, whether it’s because they weren’t impressed with his Florida Derby victory, he didn’t wow anyone in his workouts, or that his speed figures have not improved since last year, and in fact have regressed. Could it be that by being the second oldest horse in the field, with a February 3 foaling date and shipping to Pletcher on March 25 last year and debuting in brilliant fashion on May 28, he peaked early and has not been able to improve his form from last summer and fall? It sounds strange considering he hasn’t lost since last July while racking up four Grade 1 victories along the way. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see his stablemate Tapit Trice go off as the favorite or close to it. I feel people still like and respect Forte, but not as the 2-1 or 5-2 and are looking elsewhere for value.

On the other hand, that same statistic, along with a few others have made me do a complete 180 on my handicapping the Derby. Two of the first horses I eliminated were Mage and Kingsbarns because of them having only three lifetime starts and not racing at 2. The only horse to overcome that much history (108 years and 141 years) is Justify and he was special enough to win the Triple Crown. So why do I now believe that Kingsbarns has a very good shot to win the Derby? It is because of stats that you won’t find in the past performances. First off, Kingsbarns is the oldest horse in the field and the only horse foaled in January (Jan. 17). So although he’s had only three starts he likely is more physically and mentally mature than the majority of the field. He just had a few minor issues coming out of the 2-year-old that made his connections take their time with him. But his physical and mental maturity may have been evident when Todd Pletcher decided to start off his career going a flat mile at Gulfstream Park, which is a tough distance in which to debut. Not only did Kingsbarns win, he won like a seasoned professional overcoming major traffic problems at the head of the stretch when he was totally boxed in with nowhere to go.

After winning over the quirky Tampa Bay surface for fun, he was given another tough assignment having to go 1 3/16 miles off only two lifetime starts. Many people dismiss his victory, even though it was by a comfortable 3 1/2 lengths, because of the slow fractions he set. But there are several important points that are being overlooked.

In 2017 I raved about Always Dreaming in my Derby Dozen after a 1 1/8-mile allowance victory and ranked him No. 8 before the Florida Derby even though he had never run in a stakes and people knocked his allowance win because of how slow he went (:51 3/5, 1:16 4/5, and 1:53 4/5 for the nine furlongs). But I used that as a positive because of how fast I knew he was, having run :45 and change opening half-miles sprinting. For a horse that fast to be able to turn off that speed and run that slow when asked showed me this was a push-button horse who will run as fast or as slow as you want him to. We all know what happened with Always Dreaming. Well, with Kingsbarns, he had worked a quarter at the Gulfstream Park 2-year-old over a dead racetrack in an insane :20 3/5. His consignor Tom McCrocklin said to work that fast at Gulfstream was “science fiction.” It’s not supposed to happen. So here we have a horse with tremendous speed who is able to slow down the pace in a 1 3/16-mile race, going in :49 3/5 and 1:14 3/5 only because no one else wanted the lead. What also went overlooked was that, even with the slow fractions, Kingsbarns’ final three-sixteenths in :18 1/5 was remarkable considering Preakness winners don’t come home that fast and he did it on the lead.

So the bottom line is perhaps having only three starts isn’t as much of a negative with him as we think it is. And perhaps he has shown us that what he’s done in those three starts only enhances how special a horse he really is and that his early foaling date shows us he is mature far beyond his years. I went back to Week 1 in the Derby Rankings and this is how I began my comment on his debut: “The horse who really caught my eye, but is not quite ready to be ranked in the Top 12, was the Todd Pletcher-trained Kingsbarns, who debuted at a mile at Gulfstream and got so much out of the race it gave him a lot more experience than other horses with only one start.” So there is my 180 turn and I will live with the historical consequences. In short, I have no idea how good this colt really is and how good he may be. If he wins the Derby watch how many times the words Triple Crown will be used.


We no longer have Trakus to help us break down the interior parts of a race, but we do now have GPS, which provides us with the number of strides a horse takes and the varying lengths of his stride. So, did Forte get stronger at the end of the Florida Derby or did Mage get weaker? It’s a combination of both, but there is no doubt Mage was shortening stride. Forte’s maximum stride came in his fourth furlong, reaching a whopping 26 feet, 40 inches. He did shorten it to 24.13 at the eighth pole, but picked it up in that furious final eighth, finishing up at 24.27, which was matched only by Tapit Trice’s 25.39 at the finish of the Blue Grass Stakes and Angel of Empire (25.19) in the Arkansas Derby. The latter is the only horse whose stride got progressively longer in the final three furlongs, which is pretty impressive considering distance had no effect on the length of his stride. As for Mage, his stride got progressively shorter, going down to 21.16 at the end, so he no doubt was tiring in the final furlong. One thing that did impress me about Forte was that 26-foot stride earlier in the race and the fact he was able to lengthen his stride at the wire after it appeared as if he was tiring just before that.


Most of us are aware that Churchill Downs, with its clay base surface, is friendly to horses running on grass and synthetic surfaces. If you are in a quandary about whether Two Phil’s moved way up on Turfway’s Tapeta surface in the Jeff Ruby Steaks or he is simply improving at the right time, it really doesn’t matter. It’s probably a combination of both, but even if he mostly improved because of the synthetic surface, coming off it should help him. Animal Kingdom had never run on dirt going into the Derby. Paddy O’Prado was a grass horse who finished third the Derby. Dullahan excelled on grass and synthetic and also finished third in the Derby. Barbaro was a grass horse, who in his first race over a fast dirt track was all out to beat the distance challenged Sharp Humor by a half-length in the Florida Derby before romping in the Kentucky Derby. And of course last year we had Rich Strike coming off a third in the same Jeff Ruby Steaks. So don’t worry about Two Phil’s, who has already won big in the slop at Churchill Downs and placed twice in graded stakes at Fair Grounds. Even if he isn’t as dynamic as he was at Turfway Park he still has the credentials and the speed figures to win on Saturday and could actually move up coming off the synthetic track.


It has been rare for me to rank a horse coming off a maiden victory, especially if the horse broke his maiden in a photo or in a sprint or on a sloppy track. Times obviously are changing so you have to be more flexible and simply go by what your eyes tell you. Are you seeing a horse with star potential who will excel at classic distances? This year in Week 1 back in January I ranked a horse at No. 12 off a maiden sprint victory, who hadn’t run for 4 1/2 months. He had a lot going against him time-wise, but he showed me enough from his mechanics, raw ability and closing punch to suggest he had a bright future and enough time to get in a couple of two-turn races. But it was going to be very tight and everything would have to work out perfectly. And he still needed to show what he could do going two turns.

A week later I added an even more unusual horse to the Rankings and even had the audacity to rank him at No. 7. I originally put him at No. 5 but figured at the last minute that was going a bit too far so I moved him down two places. What made him unusual was that he only won by a neck coming off one third-place finish and it was on a muddy track. To rank him at all was out of the ordinary, but to rank him that high was insane. However, from a visual standpoint he was outstanding, with a magnificent, fluid stride you rarely see in a young horse. Even in a photo finish there was something dominant about him. So there were these two maiden winners with plenty of question marks taking up two spots in the Rankings in Week 2.

Needless to say there is no way I will not be boxing an exacta of Disarm and Tapit Trice in the Derby, especially after they turned in two of the most impressive works I’ve seen all week. Disarm has looked so strong and focused every day and his two works have been so eye-popping I fear he is now a wise-guy horse who will take a lot of money. All I know is that both horses sure have come a long way.


Here are the horses I feel are on the strongest Thoro-Graph pattern.

Angel of Empire – His first four races were slow, running a career-best 9 1/4 in the Smarty Jones Stakes in his fourth start. Then in the Risen Star Stakes at 13-1 he made a huge leap to a 2 1/4. Many horses will bounce off such a big jump, but he pretty much paired up that number with a 2 in the Arkansas Derby, which means he likely will now make another move forward.

Two Phil’s – Running on all kinds of surfaces at all distances at different racetracks, he was able to remain very consistent with three straight numbers of 7 3/4. When it was time to finally show some improvement he ran a 4 in the LeComte and paired that up with another 4 in the Risen Star. Then came the move to synthetic and he jumped to a 2. That put him in position for another improved performance, and if he is just getting good now he could make a significant jump.

Tapit Trice – His 1 in the Blue Grass Stakes makes him the fastest horse in the field and it followed a 4 1/4 and 4 1/2 pairing, which shows what you can expect when a horse pairs up career-best numbers. The second number validates the first one and then comes the big jump forward.

Verifying – He is on a similar pattern as Tapit Trice, going from a 5 1/2 pairing to a 1 1/2, but is not as sure a thing to improve going another quarter of a mile. If he does he will be dangerous.

Skinner – I love his pattern. Once again we have a horse making a huge leap from a 17 to a 4 1/2 and then pairing up that number to validate it. Although he then finished third in the Santa Anita Derby, his 2 1/4 number was faster than the winner and the runner-up and was another example of a horse making a significant move forward after pairing up career-best number. The extra furlong should help him improve once again.

Derma Sotogake – After the UAE Derby I considered moving him into the Top 3 and then when he was given a 1 1/2 Thoro-Graph number following a 6 1/2 and 6 3/4 pairing to back it up I was tempted to put him No. 2 or even No. 1. His UAE Derby figure, and his projected Beyer, make his stirring victory faster than the Dubai World Cup, and that makes him a serious horse.

I also have to say that the two lightly raced horses, Kingsbarns and Mage, are in very similar steadily improving patterns they still need another jump of about two to three points. Kingsbarns has run a 9 1/2, a 4 1/2, and a 3, due in part to the pace, so who knows how much of an improvement he has in him?


It’s still early but let’s look at the horses who have made the best impression in the morning. There is no doubt that Disarm heads this list with his powerful gallops and two picture-perfect works. This colt has thrived since the unscheduled Lexington Stakes, coming back with a monster work just nine days later following several gallops in which he was really in a zone with his head down into the bit and his neck arched. What stood out in his two works was the way he was extending himself, reaching out with powerful strides, while doing everything on his own. The mile and a quarter should only help him.

Although Confidence Game had a stunning work, just floating over the ground, and is putting a lot of bottom under him with strong gallop-outs, I still can’t ignore the fact he is coming off a 10-week layoff. It just hasn’t been done and I can’t project it happening now. More important, I don’t want it to happen. These horses are too lightly raced already and we really have no idea who they are. I barely remember Confidence Game, it’s been so long since he raced.

Tapit Trice had a simple, but powerful half-mile work, in which he demonstrated how easily he can do things while showing off that big stride of his and how strong he is on the gallop-out. When this horse fully matures he is going to be a beast. Will it happen on Saturday? Post 5 might be a little too far inside for him, as he is more comfortable outside of horses and he is one horse you don’t want to get stopped. He just has no speed out of the gate and doesn’t have the maneuverability of some of the others. But we know he can make more than one run and there is no one I’d rather have on his back than Luis Saez. This horse doesn’t just outrun you, he steamrolls you.

One horse who is constantly improving in everything he does is Angel of Empire. His :36 4/5 final three-eighths and :12 1/5 final eighth in the Arkansas Derby were powerful and he keeps making great strides at the right time. He did everything easily in his half-mile breeze in company with Jace’s Road, even throwing in an :11 flat eighth and then galloping out like a powerhouse, opening up a 10 to 15-length advantage down the backstretch.

Two Phil’s’ five-furlong work in :59 at Hawthorne was a thing of beauty. He did everything so easily with the rider’s elbows extended, but when he moved his hands just a little, the colt dropped down and opened five lengths on his workmate in a flash.

The forgotten horse, who also might be sliding in popularity, is Practical Move. Like Forte, all he does is win, perfect trips or no perfect trips. He also has sneakily been working lights out. In his last work he somehow was able to go five furlongs in :59 even with his rider standing straight up in the saddle trying to keep him from hooking up with another worker in the stretch who was under a drive. Every one of his works has been spot on, going fast under no urging with the rider way up in the saddle.

I loved Derma Sotogake’s last work, the way he settled down and how he was getting over the ground once the rider let up on the reins and gave him his head. This is a horse who wants action.

Two longshots who have looked good working are Hit Show and Sun Thunder. The latter will be getting blinkers, as will Rocket Can. I’m not a fan of equipment changes for the Derby, but both colts seem much more focused with them, and Rocket Can’s last work was exceptional. Hit Show showed great improvement settling in his work compared to his prior headstrong gallops.


This race is way too complicated with too many mysteries to get too creative and go overboard. I am quickly going to mention one of those mysteries and that is pace. Will it be Kingsbarns, Verifying, Jace’s Road, Derma Sotogake? The fact is that Reincarnate has more natural speed than any of them. He doesn’t want to pass horses after sitting just off the pace, but when he’s in front he won’t let horses pass him, so I fully expect John Velazquez to send him and outrun everyone. Even in the Arkansas Derby when he stalked the leader and was passed by Angel of Empire, he dug in and wouldn’t let horses pass him for second until King Russell came flying out in the middle of the track where he couldn’t see him. No one will pay any attention to him on the lead, so don’t be shocked if he and Johnny V pull off another Medina Spirit.

And I must mention the question of Skinner possibly being a hanger who doesn’t finish off his runs. Giacomo, like Skinner, had only one maiden win to his credit and had been a notorious hanger who couldn’t finish off his run. But John Shirreffs uses preps as preps and has his horses learn from each one with the goal being to peak on Derby Day. The truth is horses don’t hang in the Derby. They have too much on their mind in a 20-horse stampede. Giacomo was more intent on finding a hole to get through in the stretch to think about hanging. Once he stormed through his momentum and 150,000 cheering fans got him to the finish line first. You might bring up Zandon last year, who could not get by Epicenter. But he was not hanging, he simply was being outrun by the best 3-year-old in the country. So don’t even give hanging a second thought.

With all that said I feel in the end the Derby could very well come down to the three best horses – Forte, Tapit Trice, and Angel of Empire, with a sprinkling of price horses to back them up. But that’s not why I’m here. If I was a big bettor and looking for value among the favorites I would consider making my big win bet and key my exotics with Angel of Empire on top. While Forte and Tapit Trice have had their moments of concern in their recent races Angel of Empire has done everything perfectly, in the afternoon and morning, and is moving forward faster than anyone. And what you are looking for are horses getting good quickly this time of year. Angel of Empire fits that bill. I don’t know if he can duplicate his Arkansas Derby win against far better horses. My gut feeling is that he will run another big race, but a lot of it will depend on the pace.

Putting everything together and looking for big prices because of my tiny budget I was leaning toward a $1 trifecta box with Two Phil’s, Angel of Empire, Tapit Trice, Skinner, and Disarm. But after my late Kingsbarns revelation I may have to go with a .50 cent six-horse box instead. I hate not using my No. 1 ranked horse, Forte, but I can’t use a horse with such low odds whose Thoro-Graph numbers have remained stagnant for so long.  But it sure wouldn’t surprise me if he won, because that’s what he does.

I definitely will throw in win bets on price horses Two Phil’s, Disarm, and Skinner. And I have to add Derma Sotogake. I would rather bet him and lose than not bet him and have him make history after I was so high on him following the UAE Derby. Maybe the stars are aligning for him. Not only would he make history by winning, how appropriate would it be for him to become the first horse to win the Derby from post 17, the only post that has not produced a Derby winner. This is not your typical Japanese Kentucky Derby horse. This horse has a legitimate shot to win without it being even a mild surprise.

Those are my bets on Wednesday evening. But as we know, things can change, especially after seeing the live odds on Derby Day. Two win bets I have in my back pocket are on bombs Reincarnate and Hit Show if their odds draw me in. I don’t trust Johnny V and Reincarnate not to pull off another theft. And I have had Hit Show ranked high most of the year and won’t hold his Wood Memorial against him. He’d been traveling back and forth from Louisiana to New York and hadn’t run in two months. He is the second youngest horse in the field and won’t even turn 3 until three days after the Derby, and he really got battle-tested after being roughed up from both sides the length of the stretch in the Wood. He has settled in nicely the longer he’s been at Churchill and might be sitting on a big race even from the dreaded rail post. It all depends on his odds.

And finally what to do about Kingsbarns? Again it will all be about his odds at post time and how much I’m willing to bet. Right now I’m content to add him to my trifecta box, but I just may splurge if he keeps growing on me and his price is enticing enough. I am also looking for 12-1 to 15-1 on Practical Move hoping he will be the forgotten horse, as I had him ranked second most of the year, and his mainly unnoticed works stamp him as a serious contender. That’s all I needed was another dilemma. I will let everyone know where I stand with these extra win bets in the comments on Saturday afternoon or as an addition at the end of this column.

So in summation, I have my (now) six-horse trifecta box, three definite win bets, a saver on Derma Sotogake, and of course my Tapit Trice – Disarm exacta box for fun. And I am holding Reinarnate, Hit Show, and especially Kingsbarns in my back pocket until closer to post time. But I doubt I will do much with them if anything. Kingsbarns could turn out to be the smartest play of them all. He will turn out to be either just another three-career-start loser or racing’s next superstar. If it’s the latter you might want to hop on for the ride. But then what do I know?

****LATE BETS AFTER SCRATCHES. My .50 cent six horse trifeicta boxes aee now — Angel of Empire, Disarm, King Russell, Two Phil’s, Kingsbarns, and Reincarnate and another box substituring Angel of Empire with Tapit Trice. Dont want the two favotites in the same box. Win prices are now terrible 60-1 shots are 30-1.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

How to Find a Derby Winner… With Your Eyes

Monday, April 24th, 2023

We have inundated you all year with Thoro-Graph, Beyer, and Brisnet speed ratings, trip handicapping, and all kinds of statistics, such as early and late factions, as well as several pedigree analyses. But now with most of the Derby horses on the grounds comes possibly the most important two weeks of the year. That is when you have to depend on what you see. Based on our 25 years watching Derby horses train, here is some sort of guide to what to look for, with a history lesson and the benefit of several personal experiences over the years. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings Bonus Special!

How to Find a Derby Winner… With Your Eyes

By Steve Haskin

It’s almost Derby week, with everyone glued to their computers watching the Derby horses train. After the field has been drawn, those observations are the final link between your wallet and the mutual windows…or your online account. There are plenty of experts around who know what they’re looking at and share their own observations. My expertise goes way back before computers, cell phones, TVG, and Twitter. Prior to sharing my thoughts on what to watch for when trying to find horses who look physically and mentally ready to win the Derby I thought it best to provide some background material.

In 1956 the Morning Telegraph/Daily Racing Form came up with a new concept on how to report on the Kentucky Derby. Editor Saul Rosen assigned a young reporter named Joe Hirsch to write a daily feature called Derby Doings, beginning weeks before the big race. Each day Joe would write about the workouts from that morning, giving the time and providing quotes from the trainers. Joe would also report on any Derby-related news and which horses were pointing for the race. This had never been done before and proved to be very popular by bringing the readers closer to the Derby.

Joe wrote Derby Doings for the next 38 years until Parkinson’s disease and other maladies finally caught up to him. Although he was able to still write the Derby advance and lead story he was physically unable to continue with the daily grind of Derby Doings.

In 1992 my colleague Ed Fountaine and I had been assigned to do a new feature called The Work Patrol. We would go to Kentucky two weeks before the Derby and write about each morning’s activities. I would do the observations and most of the writing and Ed would do the final editing.

Then one morning in 1994, our editor George Bernet, who also happened to be a friend and mentor, called me into his office and said, “Joe Hirsch just called. He said he was no longer able to do Derby and that I should ‘give it to Steve.’” Needless to say I was overwhelmed and deeply honored.

So I was off to Kentucky to take over a feature that a legend had done for almost four decades. I was a feature writer and not a reporter, so I decided to change the format to suit my style. The biggest change was to describe each work and give my observations, as well as follow the physical progress of all horses and which ones seemed to be thriving, especially monitoring their coats and their energy level from the first week to the second.

Back then there was no way for racing fans and DRF readers to see what was happening each morning and what the Derby horses and workouts looked like. My eyes were the only window to the track and I felt everyone would appreciate what it was like being at Churchill Downs and try to provide a visual connection, while keeping it as light and personal as possible. Of course, I would also get trainer’s quotes after the works, but usually later in the morning.

Once I started that new format it was all about logistics. The barn area was on the backstretch, as was the clocker’s stand. The pressure was to know exactly when each Derby horse would work, get in my car, drive to the far end of the barn area, through the tunnel into the infield, then through another tunnel leading under the grandstand, and up the stairs to the box level and down to the finish line. It was just me, my binoculars, my two stopwatches, and my note pad. Sometimes I got lucky and hitched a ride with a trainer who was working a Derby horse and I would get my quotes immediately after the work. If I missed a work I had no way of writing about it other than to give a time and get some quotes. So there was always pressure to be at the right place at the right time. There was no set time of 7:30 designated just for Derby and Oaks horses as there is now. They would start working as early as 5:30 and would work all through the morning whenever the trainer had them scheduled. But most were after the break at 8:30 following the harrowing of the track.

Then in 2000, a year after I moved on from DRF and began doing my daily feature for the Blood-Horse, the new racing network, TVG, started a new show called “The Works,” that would show every Derby work and replay them at 11 a.m. That relieved a lot of the pressure, being able to go back to my hotel and watch for anything I may have missed, although I did not like the Churchill TV angle from high up, as it did not show off the horse’s action as well or the extension of his stride. Also, back then, not a lot of people were able to get TVG, so many still depended on my reports. Anyway, I did Derby Doings for another 15 years until I left the Blood-Horse on a full-time basis.

Let’s go back to 1993 while I was doing the Work Patrol. I didn’t pay much attention to Sea Hero. Even though he had won the Champagne Stakes at 2 and was trained by the great Mack Miller, his past performances at 3 were not only terrible they were unconventional. Between his poor performances, throwing in a dull grass race, which wasn’t done back then and a mediocre effort in the Blue Grass Stakes there was little to recommend him. Then one morning the second week we were there I noticed Sea Hero walking to the track and I couldn’t believe how his coat gleamed and was full of dapples that weren’t there the previous week. I went over to his barn and talked to Miller’s longtime foreman sitting in a chair outside the barn about how the colt looked. He had been around for many years and pretty much assured me that Sea Hero was going to run a tremendous race. From then on I always made it a point to study a horse’s coat closely, especially from the first week to the second, realizing how much it can change and how important that change can be.

In 2003, Ron Ellis had the horribly named Atswhatimtalknbout in the Derby who had been the top 3-year-old in California before running a dull fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. When I saw him at Churchill he looked horrible, suffering from a bad skin rash all over his body. That was an automatic throwout. Every afternoon, as I always did, I would go to the backstretch to watch the Derby horses graze. That is the best time to observe them, in the quiet of the afternoon when they are under no stress. Each day I noticed Atswhatimtalknbout’s skin rash starting to clear up and looking better than the day before with a few faint dapples starting to appear. Finally, midway through Derby week the rash was gone, and his coat was now bright and dappled all over. I felt we were going to see the colt we had seen earlier in the year. He had a rough trip in the Derby trying to find his way through traffic. He was still 10th at the top of the stretch and had to circle the field some eight-wide. He came flying down the stretch to finish fourth, beaten two heads for second by Empire Maker and Peace Rules and less than two lengths by Funny Cide, closing faster than anyone. With a better trip (and maybe a better name) he might have won that race. That year I learned there is a reason for everything in racing and how important observing is.

If you had seen the way Bluegrass Cat improved physically from week one to week two and was thriving Derby week you could have had a $587 exacta with Barbaro over the 30-1 Bluegrass Cat. Nowadays you have to listen to the experts on Churchill’s morning show, especially Brandon Stauble who is as sharp as they come, to know whose coats are looking great and who is making a big impression. Pay close attention.

Stauble also can dissect a work as well as anyone. What I always looked for, and still do, is for a horse to throw in that one big Derby work – doing everything on his own, listening to his rider’s commands (watch the ears), hugging the rail turning for home and galloping out, and running through the wire like they want to keep going. Always watch the rider’s hands and make sure they are motionless, on a bit of a loose rein, letting the horse grab hold of the bit and keep extending his stride. The greatest Derby work I ever saw was turned in by Smarty Jones, who went five-eighths in :58 1/5 with his ears pricked as if he were in a gallop. You don’t need to work fast for it to be a strong work. Don’t get suckered into fast times alone. It’s how they do it. I have had a number of Derby winners based on works. In addition to Smarty Jones, I remember standout works by Fusaichi Pegasus (not a fast work but a long work and visually flawless), Monarchos (powerful from start to finish), Barbaro (amazing gallop-out), Street Sense (showed another gear in the stretch), Animal Kingdom (had never run on dirt but was loving it and came home fast), and the series of powerful open gallops by I’ll Have Another that could pass as works. These works stamped all these horses as Derby winners.

I learned a lot about time in relation to other factors in 1998. Bob Baffert worked his Santa Anita Derby winner Indian Charlie right after the break and as usual he worked very fast. Baffert then worked his second stringer, Santa Anita Derby runner-up Real Quiet, who worked well, but not as fast. But he worked in company and I saw the big burst of speed he showed at the five-sixteenths pole, where most Derbys are won. Also, the newly harrowed track was faster when Indian Charlie had worked. That taught me to pay attention to the small details, and again not go by time alone. I remember being up in the boxes watching Old Trieste work six furlongs in a blistering 1:09 1/5. His trainer Mike Puype, who was a few boxes down, came walking by me after the work and when I asked him about it, all he said was, “I don’t know whether to laugh or throw up.”

Finally, when it comes to training don’t panic over the unknown and listen to people in the know. Although Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby favorite Always Dreaming was a perfect gentleman in the morning at Palm Beach Downs, where it was nice and quiet, he became unglued at Churchill Downs, bucking and throwing his head in the air, and pulling way too hard in his gallops. He basically was uncontrollable and many people were looking to jump ship. But then Todd Pletcher equipped the colt with a set of draw reins, which keeps the head down and gives the rider more control and leverage. It took a little while, but Always Dreaming got used to them and was fine after that. In the Derby he was more than fine. The lesson here is when you see something that looks bad on the track, the trainer sees it, too, so learn what’s going on first before immediately deciding to discard a horse, especially a major contender. Also, when you see something in a work you don’t like, make sure you find out if that is a common occurrence with the horse and that it had had no effect on his past performances. Horses have habits that might look worse than they are, so don’t jump to conclusions. Read all the trainer quotes and listen to all the interviews.

Horses today are generally very lightly raced and we don’t know much about them. You often will learn more about them in the two to three weeks leading up to the Derby than you knew all year… if you keep your eyes and ears open.

On the other hand you should still watch out for horses who keep cocking their head to the side, have a tendency to drift out, get washy on cool mornings, and continuously pull too hard and have the rider trying to strangle them. Horses who get headstrong and pull during that early cavalry charge into the first turn have little or no shot of being anywhere in the Derby. And that is where a jockey is important. You want to ask your horse to get a good position and not get swallowed up in the pack, but often when you ask your horse it’s hard to rein him back in and get him to settle. That is when you want a professional horse with a good mind, and one who is not going to lose it before the race. One last thing to watch for is a horse who bobs his head up and down. Churchill Downs has a tendency to get cuppy and that is a sign that the track is cupping out from under a horse and he’s not getting hold of it. Again, that often happens when a horse first works over it. Many horses will get used to it and Churchill can tighten up one day to the next, especially after a rain. And it’s usually much tighter on Derby Day. So watch out for horses who do that on a day-to-day basis.

The last point to remember, and this is important, is that Churchill Downs is a totally new experience for these horses and an environment they have never seen before. If you see a horse display bad signs his first morning on the track don’t worry about it, just see how he is the second morning, sometimes the third. Many horses take a day or two to get used to the new surroundings. The mornings are for learning, so stay observant.

It sounds simple, but you want to look for a happy horse who is loving what he’s doing and showing good energy, but controlled. You want to see him gallop smoothly with his ears up and listening to his rider’s commands, while keeping his head down into the bit, and you want to see him school like a pro at the gate. Each gallop, each work, and each day should be a step forward. Nothing by itself is going to win the Derby, but doing everything right and keeping a bright healthy coat will go a long way in helping a horse overcome adversity in a 20-horse field and bring out the best in him when the real running begins.

Pedigree Primer

It’s late in the game to start going into pedigrees, as we have a pretty good idea by now who is going to appreciate the mile and a quarter, and I have gone into a number of the pedigrees already in the Derby Rankings.

I always like to start off with interesting pedigree notes more than helpful ones because horses with all kinds of pedigrees have won the Derby, including those who were by confirmed sprinters and milers. It’s the female family that often influences stamina.

One interesting pedigree note this year is a possible exacta box with Forte and Two Phil’s, and this may hit an emotional note more than a scientific one. Forte’s maternal grandsire Blame and Two Phil’s’ maternal great-grandsire Birdstone are both stamina-heavy stallions who probably caused more grief to racing fans than any horses in memory. To this day there still are tens of thousands of fans who refuse to watch Blame’s Breeders’ Cup Classic victory over their beloved Zenyatta, who was only inches from a 20-race undefeated career, and Birdstone’s Belmont Stakes victory over Smarty Jones, one of the most popular horses ever who was only yards away from being an undefeated Triple Crown winner, but was basically ganged up on by the jockeys of his main opponents. This is a totally believable exacta that would finally give these two horses (Birdstone is now actually pensioned) some well-deserved positive press.

Speaking of Two Phil’s, for those who feel his sire Hard Spun might be compromised at 10 furlongs, Hard Spun’s dam is by Turkoman, who ran one of the fastest Marlboro Cups ever and placed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Travers, out of a half-sister to Belmont and Preakness winner Little Current, by English Derby winner Roberto.

One pedigree of a potential longshot that intrigues me is that of Hit Show, whose sire Candy Ride and broodmare sire Tapit need no explanation. But going deeper in the female family, his great-grandsire Milwaukee Brew, while not a big-name stallion, won two runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap, and three of Hit Show’s four great-great grandsires won the Breeders’ Cup Classic – A.P. Indy, Unbridled, and Wild Again. The fourth, the little known Open Forum, is out of the Darby Dan Farm-bred mare Agretta, by the great classic/stamina sire Graustark, by Ribot. Hit Show also is inbred top and bottom to Fappiano, one of the most influential sires of this era.

Ironically, Disarm has the same three maternal great-grandsires as Hit Show, and his only inbreeding is to Fappiano, but in his case he is inbred three times to him, including once through Quiet American, which means he has the great Dr. Fager in his pedigree four times. In perhaps the most obscure but fascinating pedigree note, Disarm’s sixth dam is an Argentine-bred mare named Papila, who won only three of 18 starts in South America. However, Papila also is the sixth dam of Hall of Famer Tiznow.

There is another longshot’s pedigree that makes me realize how unpredictable the science of breeding can be. Blade of Time was a 1938 foal bred by Colonel Bradley who never ran. Bred mainly to Bradley’s dual classic winner and champion sire Bimelech, Blade of Time produced seven foals in her first eight years at stud, including horses who ran 194 times, 100 times, and 98 times. After producing two foals for her new owner Greentree Stud, she inexplicably went nine consecutive years without producing a foal. As a last resort, Greentree bred her to My Babu, and at the age of 20, she produced a filly named Kerala, who was unraced and was sold to the Woodward family. Kerala’s third foal was a Sword Dancer colt named Damascus, who became a Hall of Famer and one of the soundest, most durable horses of his time.  It is noteworthy that Kentucky Derby starter Sun Thunder, runner-up in the Risen Star Stakes and fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes, is a complete outcross other than his dam being inbred 4 x 4 to Damascus through his sons Bailjumper and Desert Wine, who is the broodmare sire of Sun Thunder’s second dam Maryfield, 2007 champion female sprinter. Some pedigree journeys take very odd turns.

Some people are also wondering if Practical Move, who barely hung on to win the Santa Anita Derby over a Japanese import, might have reached his limit being by Practical Joke, who was considered more of a one-turn horse with a good deal of speed in his pedigree. But the question is how far can Practical Move’s broodmare sire Afleet Alex carry him, having romped in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes?

Of course we always have to check on the Secretariat influence in the Derby, and this year, of the top 23 point getters, Secretariat’s name appears in 22 of them, with the only exception being the Japanese-bred Derma Sotogake. Of those 22, his name appears more than once 14 times. Secretariat has three horses not named Weekend Surprise, Terlingua, and Secrettame who can be found in at least Derby horses’ pedigrees. They are Wood Memorial winner Lord Miles (Take Heart), Blue Grass runner-up Verifying (Medaille D’Or), and Sunland Derby winner Wild on Ice (Viva Sec).

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 13

Monday, April 17th, 2023

The Top 20 point leaders finally is in place at least for now, so we’re going to do things a bit differently this week. With so many horses about whom we have little to say, we’re going to do a Top 10 followed by several live longshots with good betting angles. And for the brief Knocking on the Door we’ll list the bubble horses who are too good to be left out and appear to be more interesting and talented than those who are in the starting field. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: April 17, 2023 – Week 13

By Steve Haskin


1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

Now that this ship is finally nearing port after eight months of smooth sailing, some people are jumping off and boarding other ships. Yes, you can use his speed figures against him, but after 11 weeks as No. 1, who really looks that much better than him that would make you jump ship now? Who else has won five graded stakes in a row, including four Grade 1’s? Is it possible that he is simply a horse who runs as fast as he has to, and because many of the horses he’s beaten have been slow, that is reflected in his Beyer figures. Rocket Can had never run faster than an 82 Beyer; four of Cyclone Mischief’s five starts had resulted in a 79 Beyer or lower. Mage had only two starts in his life, an 88 and 89 Beyer, finishing almost seven lengths behind Forte, and he surprised everyone with a powerful performance in the Florida Derby that seemed to catch Forte and Ortiz by surprise. But when Forte ran against a fast horse in Cave Rock last fall he got a 100 Beyer. I admit that his stagnant Thoro-Graph numbers since early September and the slight regression in his final prep to a “3 3/4” are concerning and not typical for a Derby favorite, and I understand trying to beat him as a bettor looking for value. But as for rankings, I just can’t drop him after all this time when all he does is win.


2—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

Meet the new fastest horse in the Derby. After steady progression on Thoro-Graph, he jumped from from a “4 1/2” and “4 1/4″ to a “1” in the Blue Grass Stakes, in which he showed he is tractable enough to make an early move to reach contention, shut it down until it was time to make his final move, and then outgame a dangerous opponent who he very well may not have beaten without making that early move, especially with the runner-up getting a “1 1/2” Thoro-Graph number. In my 24 years doing the Derby Dozen and Derby Rankings I have never ranked a horse as high as No. 7 in Week 2 off a neck maiden victory. I actually had him at No. 5, but felt that was too bold a move. This was strictly a visual move, as I was taken with his overall presence and look of class, the great extension to his stride and how fluid it was, and the grit he showed beating a very gutsy opponent. Now here we are 10 weeks later and he is again winning by a neck after a stretch-long battle. But this time it elevated him right to the top of many Derby rankings. I admit I was tempted to put him at No. 1, especially when the Thoro-Graph numbers came out, but as I mentioned earlier I just couldn’t bring myself to dethrone Forte after being on top since Week 1.


3—Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve) 

There was nothing in the beginning to suggest that this colt would become one of leading Kentucky Derby contenders. Bred in Pennsylvania, and by an unproven freshman sire, he was plucked out of Book 4 of the Keeneland September yearling sale for a mere $70,000 by the Albaugh Family team. They turned him over to Brad Cox, who was starting to have potential Derby horses pouring out of his barn like a broken faucet. So Angel of Empire was sent to Horseshoe Indianapolis Race Course for his debut before being dropped into a 6 1/2-furlong grass race at Kentucky Downs and then returned to Indiana. After more than three months of racing, it became clear that Cox’s rose-colored glasses were looking at other horses and not Angel of Empire. Finally, with 2022 coming to an end, he had no other recourse but to send the colt to Oaklawn Park and join the big boys. With his only two victories in the Hoosier State, he finally opened Cox’s eyes on New Year’s Day when he finished second to one of the trainer’s top 3-year-olds, Victory Formation, in the Smarty Jones Stakes at odds of 18-1. It is 3 1/2 months later, and after victories in the Risen Star Stakes and Arkansas Derby, Angel of Empire is now the head honcho in the Cox barn, as many of the others have fallen by the wayside. His speed figures are on the rise, his Thoro-Graph pattern is as strong as anyone’s, and his scintillating :12 1/5 final eighth in the Arkansas Derby, while blowing away the field, give him a near-flawless resume going into the Derby. I doubt anyone will be underestimating him again.


4—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

In my 24 years doing Derby Dozen and Derby Rankings I cannot recall the two consensus Derby favorites both regressing on Thoro-Graph in their respective final preps. That is the time to be moving forward, not backwards. I tried to provide some possible explanation for Forte, but of the three horses battling down the stretch in the Santa Anita Derby, Practical Move wound up with the third fastest Thoro-Graph number. Some, however, will be more interested in the fact that he ran his second consecutive 100 Beyer figure. So is he one of the fastest, maybe the fastest, 3-year-old or is his mediocre “4 1/2” Thoro-Graph number in the Santa Anita Derby and never having run faster than a “3 3/4” a truer gauge as to how he stacks up among the others? Welcome to the perplexing world of the 2023 Kentucky Derby. One of the main things Thoro-Graph takes into account is that Practical Move has had two of the most ideal ground-saving trips any trainer could hope for. If you continue to support this horse I believe you can expect a far better price than you might have a couple of weeks ago, as he has never really gotten the respect a horse of his accomplishments deserves. How else can you explain him closing at a preposterous 83-1 in the Future Wager on February 12? Like Forte he knows how to win, is extremely tactical and professional, and remains a very dangerous foe.


5—Derma Sotogake (Hidetaki Otonashi, Mind Your Biscuits – Neo Universe, by Sunday Silence)

If you want to know why I lowered him a couple of spots don’t bother to ask, because I have no idea. Perhaps it is because he looks too logical and possibly too good for our horses if that makes any sense. It is looking like the confidence level of bettors and fans for this colt, and even for the Japanese horses in general, is going through the roof. Is Derma Sotogake actually being overhyped based on his impressive victory in the UAE Derby, his “1 1/2” Thoro-Graph number, and the results of previous Japanese invasions around the world in the past few years? I am one of those who got wrapped up in his performances in Japan, Saudi Arabia, and especially Dubai, and how his UAE Derby romp was estimated to be faster than the Dubai World Cup. I don’t really know the quality of the competition at Meydan, but all I know that in the final furlong all you saw were three Japanese hoses with huge gaps between them and not another horse in sight. I also know is that there will be three very good American horses who will not get in the Derby because of this influx of Japanese horses, and whether that is good for the Derby is something Churchill Downs and each individual will have to decide. In the meantime we look forward to seeing Derma Sotogake train and how he flourishes at Churchill Downs. His pedigree is made up mainly of American bloodlines and this could be Japan’s big opportunity to rewrite our most sacred history book with the help of one of our most gifted Derby winners.


6—Two Phil’s (Larry Rivelli, Hard Spun — Mia Torri, by General Quarters)

Imagine you have always been an average “B-minus” student who always passes your exams, but can never get an “A.” Then one day you take a brand new course that that you really love and you ace it with an “A-plus.” Was that a one-shot deal for that one course or does that “A-plus” give you renewed confidence that with harder work you can ace all your exams, especially the big finals coming up? That leaves us with two intriguing questions. Are there now two Phils and you have to keep them separated or is he still one Phil who has found a new lease on life by knocking that latest exam out of the park? That is what we are going to find out on the first Saturday in May. If that is the real Two Phil’s who simply needed a jolt to reach the head of the class, then he is just begging you to believe in him and back him with everything you got. Each of us betting the Derby is going to have to decide whether the Jeff Ruby Steaks was an aberration caused by a switch to a synthetic surface or a new star has been born and this will be our only chance to cash in on it. Looking at the facts, this was as impressive a performance as we’ve seen all year with the speed ratings to prove it. And his Thoro-Graph pattern suggests this was no fluke and we’re about to see another “A-plus” performance. It’s up to you to believe it or not. Yes you can wind up with Tapeta on your face or you can be the hero of your block with Derby bragging rights for a year. If Two Phil’s winds up graduating with honors on May 6 don’t say you weren’t warned.


7—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

With him it’s very simple. Will he be allowed to control the pace, either setting it or stalking it? On paper, there isn’t much speed in the Derby unless the undefeated Kingsbarns pulls a repeat of the Louisiana Derby, but this time with his foot a lot heavier on the accelerator. Sure he can try to dawdle along in 1:14 3/5 again, but you can be sure Verifying is not going to let that happen. He has way too high a cruising speed and can use it on or off the lead. His Beyer speed figure jumped from an 85 in his eventful trip in the Rebel Stakes to a 99 in the Blue Grass, and after having paired up a career-best “5 1/2″ Thoro-Graph number in an allowance race and the Rebel, he jumped to a “1 1/2″ in the Blue Grass, in what was surely a winning effort, finishing almost six lengths ahead of the third horse, who just happened to be Blazing Sevens, the horse who beat him by 3 1/2 lengths in the Champagne Stakes. He not only looks to be a horse on the rise, he possesses dangerous speed, which could prove to be the most potent weapon in this year’s Derby.


8—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

If you liked Hit Show before the Wood Memorial, you can be disappointed by the turn of events that resulted in him getting beat at 8-5 or you can stick by him and feel good about getting a much bigger price in the Kentucky Derby. No you don’t want to see a big favorite like that get beat, especially being in a three-horse photo with a 59-1 shot and a maiden with only two starts. But there are a number of reasons why you don’t want to give up on him. Post 12 going 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct is a killer; going five-wide into and around the first turn makes a bad situation even worse; getting caught in the middle of a roughly run three-horse stretch battle just keeps adding to an already bad situation. He had to withstand numerous bumps from both sides and just when it looked as if he might squeak out a victory anyway he got whacked pretty good by the winner, almost knocking jockey Manny Franco onto the inside horse Dreamlike. As bad as all this was, you have to add that Hit Show hadn’t started in two months and was shipping back to New York from Kentucky after having shipped there from New Orleans in February. All of that is a lot to ask of a horse who won’t even turn 3 until three days after the Kentucky Derby. I’m not saying he is now about to go back to Kentucky and knock off the entire Derby field, I’m just saying don’t be that surprised if he does.


9—Kingsbarns (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Lady Tapit, by Tapit)

Kingsbarns or Mage? Mage or Kingsbarns? Take your pick. Both are coming into the Derby off only three career starts, 94 and 95 Beyer speed figures, and “3” and “3 3/4″ Thoro-Graph numbers. And neither has shown even the slightest sign of being so inexperienced, having encountered and overcome situations that would have been a challenge for many hardened veterans. In short, both have shown on several occasions they are extraordinary young horses. But what is important is whether they can win in a 20-horse field going 1 1/4 miles. The only horse in history to win the Derby with only three lifetime starts and never having raced at 2 was Justify, who won lapped on the leader the whole way in the slop. That is where Kinbgsbarns might get a slight edge, as he is the only one of the two who has shown he has the speed to wire his field if he is able to slow the race to a crawl. And he did it going 1 3/16 miles. There is no pure speed in the Derby and we know he is at least comfortable being on the lead, even though he is not a true speed horse and his connections would prefer seeing him sit off the pace. As powerful as he looked in the Louisiana Derby, if you want to see the real Kingsbarns watch his career debut. What he did winning that race going a flat mile first time out was very impressive. My feelings about winning the Derby with only three lifetime starts are well documented. It would take a remarkable horse to do it, and we at least know this colt has shown he is pretty remarkable.


10—Mage (Gustavo Delgado, Good Magic – Puca, by Big Brown)

Although Kingsbarns has the advantage of being undefeated and a Grade 2 stakes winner he wasn’t running twice against the 2-year-old champion and Kentucky Derby favorite…and nearly beating him. He demonstrated some of the attributes that make him special in his most recent work. Going five furlongs in 1:01 is good, but it’s not going to blow you away. It is how he did it. Right from the start you can see how he gets his head down into the bit and just glides along. His rider then took him well off the rail, indicating they didn’t want him working too fast. After changing leads smoothly, he just coasted down the stretch with his rider never moving his hands. After the wire he again was taken wide galloping out into the turn, but still kept going at a strong clip, with his head still down and into the bit. He is a beautiful horse to watch in action and we saw some of the remarkable things he is capable of in the Florida Derby. This colt’s ceiling is so high now nothing does would be amazing anymore. If he and Kingsbarns had even just one more race under them, preferably a start at 2, we’re not talking about No. 9 and 10 anymore. But a number of the horses ahead of them are seasoned, battle-tested colts with proven class who won’t be as easy to deal with in a 20-horse Derby field. The bottom line is that both he and Kingsbarns are rapidly rising stars and we really have no idea what they are capable of.



I had 11 horses to rank and rather than add one to make it a Derby Dozen, I decided that Skinner, who was originally scheduled to be ranked anywhere from No. 7 to 10, would get more play having his own category, along with two other longshots who would have gotten lost in the Rankings, which are now geared more toward betting and who is going to get in. From this point on the Derby will be affected only by what happens off the racetrack. So here are three longshots with current odds from BetOnline who have enough angles to be at least considered interesting trifecta and superfecta possibilities.



Right now he is my longshot special and a potential monster overlay. This is going to be a totally forgotten horse who just may be sitting on a big effort. It’s easy to look at the Blue Grass and say he was beaten six lengths by Tapit Trice, who pulled away from him in the stretch. But there is so much more to this horse. First off, he showed in the Blue Grass that his Fountain of Youth was a complete throw out race, and that the Blue Grass was in many ways his first start in five months. He closed in the Future Wager at 46-1, which is a big price for a horse who already is a Grade 1 winner, having easily defeated a horse who was beaten a neck the Blue Grass and is one of the true live contenders in the Derby. Blazing Sevens’ career best Beyer was a 93 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. That is one point less than Angel of Empire’s career best; one point less than Mage’s career best; two points less than Forte’s most recent race; and two points less than Kingsbarns’ career best in the Louisiana Derby. On Thoro-Graph, he went from his aberrant “15 1/2″ in the Fountain of Youth to a “3” in the Blue Grass, and he should actually take another step forward considering he already has a “3” to fall back on in his Champagne victory. One of my longtime betting angles is second race blinkers on, which will apply in the Derby. In the Blue Grass he was four-to-five wide the whole way, and after running his third quarter in a quick :23 4/5 trying to keep up with Tapit Trice’s early move, he made another big move leaving the half-mile pole, flying by horses on the turn to pull right up to Tapit Trice’s flank at the top of the stretch and looked like a legitimate danger to the favorite. Although he could not sustain his run, which wasn’t surprising considering his lack of racing all year, he still dug in and held off two closers for third. Whatever price he goes off at in the Derby, they will be too high considering his back class in Grade 1 company and getting back on an upward trend right before the Derby.


SKINNER (33-1)

I am including him even though he is currently on the outside looking in. But at No. 22 I am thinking optimistically. No matter what the number is I am taking the ‘over’ on how many times Skinner is compared to Giacomo. And one of those times is right now. Giacomo went into the Kentucky Derby with one victory in seven starts, compared to Skinner’s one victory in six starts. In Giacomo’s final prep, the Santa Anita Derby, he rallied and then hung in the final eighth, finishing fourth, beaten 2 1/4 lengths. In Skinner’s final prep, the Santa Anita Derby, he rallied and then hung in the final eighth, finishing third, beaten three-quarters of a length. A horse is more likely to hang in a smaller field than in a 20-horse cavalry charge, where he doesn’t have time to think about hanging. Just watch the difference in Giacomo when he was too busy negotiating traffic looking for an opening. Skinner has strong credentials to fall back on, such as having the fastest Thoro-Graph number of the first three Santa Anita Derby finishers, despite finishing third. He was wide the whole way and probably made his move a bit too soon, making it harder to sustain. After pairing up a career-best “4 1/2” and “4 1/4,” Skinner improved to “2 1/4” in the Santa Anita Derby, putting himself in position for another forward move at Churchill Downs. Shirreffs said Skinner and Giacomo are very similar in that both are “level-headed and don’t worry about things.” He added, “They take everything in stride, and on the track they have the ability to cover the ground effortlessly.” Also, both have had bad trips and have been involved in bumping incidents. Shireffs concluded by saying that Skinner “just needs to reach a little deeper like Giacomo.” If anyone can get him to reach that deep it is Shirreffs.



I was disappointed in his Arkansas Derby performance, mainly because he had no closing kick after a perfect stalking trip. And right now I have very little confidence he can win the Derby or even be a serious factor. So what is he doing here? He does have two interesting angles and if he can pull one of them off there is a possibility we could see a different story on Derby Day. It seems fairly obvious by now that Reincarnate does not like to pass horses in deep stretch. At least that’s what he’s been showing us. Three times he’s been a length or two back in the stretch and all three times he couldn’t or wouldn’t pass the horse in front. Three times he worked in company with National Treasure and each time Reincarnate, who took back, failed to get his head in front of him. I have found that often with hangers they don’t want to pass horses, but if they are in front they don’t want horses passing them. In Reincarnate’s maiden victory and his Sham Stakes victory he was sent to the front and battled back in the stretch refusing to be passed. We have established there is little speed in the Derby. Kingsbarns has only been on the lead when no one wanted it and he was allowed to crawl out there by himself. He is not a natural frontrunner. And then there is Verifying, who has never been on the lead and is more comfortable sitting just off it. And that’s it. So why not just send Reincarnate, let him settle into that big stride of his and see what he can do when he’s challenged in the stretch? What is there to lose? The only other way he can win is break slowly, drop far back in the pack, and then come flying late as he did in the Rebel Stakes. By the time he gets to the leaders he will have passed so many horses and will be on such a roll, hanging will be the last thing on his mind. So put him on the lead or take him way back. That’s your only two choices.



No one is knocking harder than those sitting just outside the Top 20, and that even includes the aforementioned SKINNER, as well as other legitimate Derby contenders JACE’S ROAD, CYCLONE MISCHIEF, MANDARIN  HERO, and KING RUSSELL, the last three having placed in Grade 1 stakes and Jace’s Road having placed in a Grade 2. At least a couple of these horses should get in, but there is no certainty. And if they don’t this could be a wake-up call to our trainers that if you can’t get in with 40 points because of the foreign road to the Derby, the UAE Derby, and the Japanese now willing to come here in advance, then perhaps our horses are going to have to be raced a bit more aggressively to accumulate as many points as possible. Having only two starts could get kind of dicey.

The one horse who leapfrogged all these horses this past weekend was one of our favorites all year, DISARM, who did so with a fairly lackluster third in the Lexington Stakes. Even if they were just trying for a place or a show without knocking the colt out, he had little or no punch when he was asked for his run. He was, however, dropping back to 1 1/16 miles from 1 3/16 miles and was dealing with a short stretch, so I can neither knock his race nor say anything good about it because I don’t know what was behind it and it did get him in the Derby. Once you race at 1 3/16 miles you’re not supposed to race again before the Derby. So to Asmussen’s credit he had to run him and have him competitive enough to at least finish third while handling the whole situation with kid gloves. A wrong move in one direction and you don’t get in the Derby and a wrong move in the other direction and you take too much out of your horse. So in that sense he nailed it.

Once again, the elusive CONFIDENCE GAME was a teaser for a big race and once again didn’t show up. He obviously is telling Keith Desormeaux he’s good enough to turn in solid works, but he’s not ready mentally for the stress of competition. He has been called hot-headed by his trainer, which does not explain much and does not bode well for the Derby. What makes this all the more strange is that his hot-headed nature did not prevent him from running in July, August, September, October, November, January, and February. So whatever has been bugging him since the Rebel Stakes, he supposedly is going into the Derby off a 10-week layoff and dealing with mental issues. Good luck with that. He is a very nice horse and very talented and whatever his problem is we wish him the very best.

If there is one horse who came close to making the longshot list it is another Rankings staple RAISE CAIN. But he requires a longer look, as his Blue Grass was not all that bad. I just can’t decide yet how I feel about his chances.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 12

Monday, April 10th, 2023

Of the 15 horses ranked last week, seven were entered on Saturday, so you knew there likely would be a major shakeup, either eliminating horses or seeing a drastic change in the order. Now that all the preps are finished with the exception of Saturday’s Lexington Stakes we at least have an idea what the Derby field is going to look like. Right now, however, there are several horses waiting to get in who may be better and more qualified than those already in. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: April 10, 2023 – Week 12

By Steve Haskin

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

For those of you who see Pletcher, Repole, and Viola and go ho hum, no story there, meet Amy Moore. A lawyer for 30 years, she wanted to get out in the country after retiring, so she returned to her roots with horses, having showed them for other people as a teenager, and bought a 126-acre farm in Millwood, Virginia. The first horse she bought was a Blame filly at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $170,000. Amy named her Queen Caroline, who won several stakes at Laurel and Indiana Grand. After retiring her, Amy bred her to Violence and got a floppy-eared colt, who she thought looked comical, like a newborn puppy with its ears bent forward, and with his flashy white markings she nicknamed him Gaudy. One of only two foals on the farm and the first one conceived, he was extremely shy and would always hide behind his mother when someone approached, but after being weaned he became very friendly and loved being around people. He also was inquisitive about everything and once tried to pull the hoodie off Amy’s niece’s head. Amy still cherishes the selfie of the colt with the hoodie in his mouth taken by her niece, who lived on the farm and taught him how to eat carrots. Amy sold both colts as weanlings, but was disappointed in the $80,000 she got for the Violence colt. The following year she watched him sell at the Keeneland yearling sale for $110,000. She was just happy knowing he would be going to such top connections. You know the rest of the story. Not bad for a retired lawyer with only two broodmares and two foals at the time. Oh, yes, Queen Caroline is in foal to Flightline. And so the story grows.


2—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

Although all three preps on Saturday were won in photos there were more good things to say about his victory. He beat a very good horse who ran a winning race after a perfect pace scenario sitting behind an 86-1 shot though moderate to slow factions; he had to adjust by making a big early move down the backstretch, where he made up six lengths quickly while racing five-wide and passing four horses in about two seconds to move into third. It was that move that put him in position to beat Verifying, who would have been near impossible to beat otherwise. They hooked up turning for home, battling head and head, and not only drew almost six lengths clear of the field at the finish, they pulled away from three closers with a final eighth in :12 2/5. He needed to improve his speed figures and jumped 11 points from the Tampa Derby with a 99 Beyer. A short while later, Lord Miles, who Tapit Trice had beaten by 5 3/4 lengths in the Tampa Bay Derby, won the Wood Memorial at odds of 59-1. From a visual standpoint, he once again demonstrated his ability to win from anywhere using those long fluid strides, and for the second time he came out ahead in a stretch-long battle with a good horse. So add all that up and you can see why he is right up there nip and tuck with Forte for the top spot.


3—Derma Sotogake (Hidetaki Otonashi, Mind Your Biscuits – Neo Universe, by Sunday Silence)

After seeing what Mandarin Hero did in the Santa Anita Derby and considering that Derma Sotogake is supposedly in a different class than his countrymate who raced on a smaller circuit, how can you not rank this colt way up near the top? We haven’t seen the Thoro-Graph numbers yet for this past weekend, but going into it he still was the fastest 3-year-old on Thoro-Graph, with his UAE Derby more than two points faster than Forte’s Florida Derby. There will be believers and non-believers regarding his winning the Kentucky Derby, with hard-core racing fans still unable to grasp the idea of a Japanese colt draped in roses. This would create a gigantic crack in the once impenetrable Derby dam, and who knows if the resulting flood can be stopped. Perhaps we should start by producing tougher, faster, and more experienced horses with some mileage under them. Yes, we are getting way ahead of ourselves, and Derma Sotogake still has a very tough assignment ahead of him, having traveled from Japan to Saudi Arabia, then to Dubai before flying to Chicago to be quarantined and finally vanning to Louisville. And this after running six times in Japan last year on dirt and grass and never shorter than 1 1/16 miles. But it doesn’t hurt to be prepared so we are not in a state of shock and perhaps humiliation if it should happen. See our special bonus feature in Knocking on the Door.


4—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

Although I moved him out of his familiar No. 2 spot, I am still a big fan of this colt, but I have no idea what to make of the Santa Anita Derby, mainly not knowing if Mandarin Hero is that good or that the Japanese horses can do no wrong regardless of who they are and where they are running. As far as his performance the important thing is that he showed a lot of grit and refused to let two horses get by him in the final furlong. But with Geaux Rocket Ride scratched he had another ground-saving dream trip, this time sitting right behind a 54-1 shot and a 40-1 shot and able to take over whenever Ramon Vasquez wanted. I actually thought Vasquez waited too long and was still way up in the saddle when the late-closing Skinner came charging up alongside him approaching the quarter pole, with Mandarin Hero looking to get through right behind him. It wasn’t until he looked over and saw Skinner right there that he finally set his horse down. To Practical Move’s credit he did respond and opened up by a length at the eighth pole. But his two challengers kept coming at him. It looked like Mandarin Hero, stuck in the middle, was going to nail him, but Practical Move would not be denied, winning by a nose. The mile in 1:35 3/5 and final time of 1:48 3/5 were solid, with the :12 4/5 final eighth just OK. But he did run his second straight 100 Beyer speed figure. You just don’t like seeing a leading Derby contender be farther in front at the eighth pole than he is at the finish. I’m going to need a little more time to digest this race more thoroughly, but he remains right up there with the top ranked horses.


5—Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

I have not heard anyone even attempt to pick apart any aspect of his Arkansas Derby victory. The only reason he’s not higher is the questionable ability of the horses behind him, who were pretty much spread out across the track and doing little running other than 58-1 shot King Russell who just got up for second. To show how much Angel of Empire has improved, when he finished second in the Smarty Jones Stakes he ran a career-high “9 1/2” on Thoro-Graph. He then leaped to a “2 1/2″ in his victory at 13-1 in the Risen Star Stakes. With a big jump like that you always have to be concerned with a “bounce,” but he came back and ran a “2” in the Arkansas Derby. By virtually pairing up (with a slight improvement) his career best number, there is no reason to believe he won’t take another jump forward in the Kentucky Derby. He totally dominated the race and was the only horse who did any serious running, while sustaining his big run with a powerful :36 3/5 final three-eighths and drawing off with ease. While his female family might not be inundated with big names, it traces to pillars of the Turf Darby Dan Farm, Rokeby Stable, C.V. Whitney, George Widener, Spendthrift Farm, and Lane’s End Farm. The Albaugh Family has had their share of disappointments trying to get to the Derby, but now they have a big shot with perhaps the steal of the year, snatching him out of the Keeneland September yearling sale for $70,000.


6—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

With lots of question marks surrounding the vast majority of the Blue Grass starters and with him looking like the one who would control the pace, either setting it or sitting just off it, it was no surprise to see him go off as the 2-1 second choice and no surprise to see him run such a strong race. If not for a bold but brilliant early move by Luis Saez on Tapit Trice down the backstretch, he very well could have won this race by open lengths after sitting off a slow pace set by an 86-1 shot. Looking way ahead to the Kentucky Derby, there doesn’t appear to be much speed, and this could set him up beautifully to get a similar type of trip or even setting the pace himself. Kingsbarns, the wire-to-wire winner of the Louisiana Derby, doesn’t have this colt’s natural speed, and I’m not sure if Derma Sotogake, who has a good closing kick, wants to go to the front again as he did in Dubai. In short, Verifying ran a winning race, and we know he has the ability and the pedigree to carry his speed a distance of ground. The first thing I did after the Rebel Stakes was put a line through his fourth-place finish after getting caught in heavy traffic at a crucial stage. The Blue Grass appeared perfectly suited for his tactical and high cruising speed and he nearly pulled it off.


7—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

At first glance I didn’t like the fact that he was beaten by a huge longshot who had never run faster than a 79 Beyer figure and that he narrowly got the better of a maiden with two lifetime starts, but I am definitely giving him a pass, as I believe he was the best horse in the race. He was coming off a two-month layoff, he had to overcome a horrible post and was caught four-wide into the first turn, then was bounced around like a three-cushion billiard shot between horses the length of the stretch. I couldn’t help but think of a line from the musical Man of La Mancha that goes, “Whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.” Hit Show was the pitcher, hitting and getting hit by stones from both sides, but he never cracked. I think this race did him a world of good and will bring him into the Derby tougher and more battle-tested than he’s ever been. As for the competition, the winner surely wasn’t disgraced against Tapit Trice in the Tampa Bay Derby in only his fourth career start, and Dreamlike has always been highly touted since selling for $975,000, had decent speed figures in his two starts, and was bet down to 3-1 second choice, so his future appears very bright. Hit Show’s pedigree says he will handle the mile and a quarter with no problem and I believe he is ready to make a big forward move.


8—Two Phil’s (Larry Rivelli, Hard Spun — Mia Torri, by General Quarters)

If you love him now you’re going to love him on Derby Day. If you’re skeptical now you’re going to be skeptical on Derby Day. If you have no idea what to make of him now you’re not going to have any idea what to make of him on Derby Day. It’s all about whether or not he moved up at least five lengths on the synthetic surface or he has improved dramatically into a dynamic type of horse. He was always an honest steady horse, but we had never seen this type of explosiveness. Not only did he blow his field away in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, he didn’t want to stop after the race. He still had his head down into the bit and seemed to resent it when his rider tried to pull him up. Finally, the outrider had to come up alongside and help slow him down. If this is the horse we’re going to see at Churchill Downs then he will be very tough to beat. Two of the most explosive stretch runs we’ve seen in the Derby were by horses, Animal Kingdom and Rich Strike, coming off the Turfway Park synthetic surface. You can’t ignore his 101 Beyer figure, his 107 Brisnet figure, and his interesting and improving Thoro-Graph pattern. After running a “7 3/4“ three races in a row, he improved to a “4” and then paired that up before running a “2” in the Jeff Ruby. If he takes another step forward it would put him in excellent position to win the Derby.


9—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon) 

Although I still would like to see him finish off his races I am anticipating him getting a career-high Thoro-Graph number for the Santa Anita Derby and I did like the acceleration he showed making a strong sweeping move on the far turn to pull on even terms with Practical Move at the head of the stretch. He also took a few solid bumps in deep stretch when Practical Move came out from a left-handed whip and pushed Mandarin Hero into him. This horse seems to be coming into the Kentucky Derby similar to Giacomo in that Shirreffs has moved him forward in baby steps with the intention of peaking on the first Saturday in May. You know he will love the mile and a quarter and just needs a contentious pace to be able to time is move just right. His :36 4/5 final three-eighths in the Santa Anita was certainly good enough to indicate he can sustain him move. He just has to find one more gear late to give him that final surge needed to win the Derby.


10—Kingsbarns (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Lady Tapit, by Tapit)

I believe he is more talented than several of those ranked ahead of him, but it is his lack of experience with only three career starts that is keeping him down here. As I keep saying, he will be trying to do something that has been done only two times in the last 107 years and those by two dominating horses in below average crops. It is highly unlikely he will be able to set the sluggish factions he did in the Louisiana Derby, but I also doubt they even want him on the lead again. He has shown a lot in his three races, all at a mile or longer, has overcome adversity, and will benefit from having a 1 3/16-mile race under his belt. This is the kind of year when any of the top 12 or so horses can win the Derby without it being a surprise, so all we can do is see how the race shapes up and who gets the best trip. He will surely make his presence felt; it’s just a question of whether he can overcome history. He also may lose Flavien Prat if he decides to ride his Arkansas Derby winner Angel of Empire.


11—Mage (Gustavo Delgado, Good Magic – Puca, by Big Brown)

Like Kingsbarns, he would be ranked higher if he had more experience or had at least raced as a 2-year-old. The last horse before Justify to win the Derby without having raced at 2 was Apollo in 1882. Add that to having only three career starts and you have to at least wonder if both Mage and Kingsbarns will be at a historical disadvantage .I’m not naïve enough to believe neither of these two brilliant colts can win the Derby, but I have to give precedence to others, especially with these 3-year-olds so evenly matched. I felt what Mage did in the Florida Derby, especially that explosive move on the far turn, was extraordinary and stamps him as a colt with a bright future, but for now I will cling to history until more horses prove it no longer has any bearing on the Kentucky Derby. That could be Kingsbarns or it could be Mage. Let’s first see how both colts work over the next few weeks and how they came out of their respective performances. His jockey Luis Saez won the Blue Grass on Tapit Trice, so he too could be looking for a new rider.


12—Mandarin Hero (Terunobu Fujita, Shanghai Bobby – Namura Nadeshiko, by Fuji Kaseki)

Based on his huge effort in the Santa Anita Derby and the courage he showed stuck in the middle of a furious three-horse stretch drive, he probably fits more as a top 5 or 6 horse, but the two questions that have him ranked here for the time being are, is he going to make the starting field on points and can he duplicate that remarkable effort in his second start in this country. Often, foreign horses run their best shipping in and then regress in their next start. No one is saying that is going to happen with this colt, but it is worth at least giving it some thought and wait to see how he looks and trains at Churchill Downs. As for the points, his 40 have him listed at No. 24. He should get in the top 20 as several are expected to pass the race or are on the fence. But there will be several in Saturday’s Lexington Stakes who are running strictly for points, and one of them could leapfrog him with a victory. So is he simply a very good horse regardless of the circuit in which he was competing in Japan or are we to use him more as a gauge as to what we should expect from Derma Sotogake and even Continuar? Three Japanese horses in the Kentucky Derby? That may soon become a reality.


13—Disarm (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Easy Tap, by Tapit)

The Asmussen camp has always been very high on this colt and so they will chase those few extra points needed to get in the Kentucky Derby by running him in Saturday’s Lexington Stakes, which could turn out to be the most competitive Lexington in years. This is their last chance to crack the top 20, and it could turn out to be a plus for Disarm, as I have said I wish he had one more start under him. His excellent second in the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby put a good deal of bottom under him and now the 1 1/16-mile Lexington could sharpen him up and give him that one more start I was looking for. I have been high on this horse since last August when he broke his maiden so impressively going seven furlongs and I even ranked him No. 12 earlier in the year based on that race. With 40 points, even a second-place finish should get him in the Derby, and if he should win impressively he likely will move up in the Rankings. So far I have loved both his runner-up performances in which he ran into lone speed horses who had everything their own way on the lead. If he does get in the Derby and has a contentious pace to run at, watch out for him in the stretch.


14—Raise Cain (Ben Colebrook, Violence – Lemon Belle, by Lemon Drop Kid)

They are heading to the Derby with him and I’m all for it. He was stuck back in 10th behind a relatively slow pace in the Blue Grass Stakes after breaking from post 10, having to rally five-wide, and closing well enough for fifth, getting beat only three-quarters of a length for third. I still can’t forget how good he looked crushing his field in the Gotham Stakes despite encountering trouble nearing the top of the stretch. I had him ranked fairly high for over a month and I feel now he could come to Churchill Downs flying well under the radar.


15—Lord Miles (Saffie Joseph Jr., Curlin – Lady Esme, by Majestic Warrior)

This ranking is pretty low for a Wood Memorial winner, but that performance at 59-1 came out of left field and caught everyone by surprise even on a day filled with longshot winners. But he won it fair and square and had to fight off two other horses, including the favored Hit Show. As mentioned earlier he was beaten only 5 3/4 lengths by Tapit Trice in the Tampa Bay Derby, finishing a decent fifth. He sat right behind the pace in the Wood, swung out and out-battled Hit Show and Dreamlike for the nose victory while taking his share of bumps in the stretch. While I respect what he did I still see him as a big longshot in the Kentucky Derby.



BLAZING SEVENS had been ranked pretty high earlier in the year before his bust in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. But he did rebound with a solid third in the Blue Grass Stakes, making a good run on the far turn to reach contention before flattening out a bit in the final three sixteenths. He is a Champagne Stakes winner and finished a respectable fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile so he does have back class and looks to be back on track after that dismal performance in his 3-year-old debut.

KING RUSSELL, who had run five straight double-digit Thoro-Graph numbers, jumped to a “5” in his fast-closing second in the Arkansas Derby and looks like a horse who is improving at the right time. The only reason he isn’t ranked is because he is No. 25 on the points list, so he will need some help getting in the starting gate. The colt’s owner and breeder, Airdrie Stud, which has never owned a Kentucky Derby starter, hadn’t given the Derby trail a second thought following King Russell’s neck maiden victory, but trainer Ron Moquett asked Airdrie’s Bret Jones, “What do you think about entering in the Arkansas Derby?” Jones felt “if Ron is that happy with him we trust his judgment.” That good judgment just may get him into the Kentucky Derby with a little luck.

ROCKET CAN, who again was a bit too one-paced when fifth in the Arkansas Derby, arrived at Churchill Downs and is still under consideration for the Kentucky Derby, as is JACE’S ROAD, third in the Louisiana Derby, who breezed a half in :49 3/5 at Churchill Downs and is sitting with 45 points. Sunland Derby winner WILD ON ICE vanned to Southern California and was scheduled to fly to Louisville. CYCLONE MISCHIEF is No. 22 on the points list after his third to Forte in the Florida Derby. It’s just a question of how far he wants to go. Kenny McPeek said no decision has been made whether to point to the Derby with SUN THUNDER, fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes.

CONFIDENCE GAME, who has been listed as a possible starter for several stakes and not running in any of them, is now listed as a possible starter for the Lexington Stakes. We can’t recall a Derby horse taking longer to recover from a race than the Rebel Stakes winner, yet he keeps working well, with his latest move a five-furlong drill in 1:00 2/5 at Churchill Downs. Good luck trying to figure out what going on with this colt. Is he going to go straight into the Derby? One horse looking for enough points to get in the Derby is INSTANT COFFEE, who will give it one last try in the Lexington following his poor effort in the Louisiana Derby. The once highly regarded VICTORY FORMATION, impressive winner of the Smarty Jones Stakes before running terribly in the Risen Star Stakes, also is listed as possible for the Lexington, and also worked five furlongs on 1:00 2/5 at Churchill Downs.

If you want to know the evolution of Japanese racing and breeding, here is an extended bonus feature.

A long long time ago there was a great race in America called the Washington D.C. International, which attracted horses from all over the world. Although two of them, Speed Symboli and Takeshiba-O, boasted excellent records in their country no one paid much attention to them. That’s because they were from Japan, whose horses were light years away from those in North and South America, Europe, Australia, South Africa, and even Russia, which boasted a top-class international campaigner named Aniline. The Japanese were in the infantile stages of building a breeding industry.

In the 1970s, the Japanese started buying stallions and mares from the United States, much as the U.S. did with Europe, importing horses like Nasrullah, Princequillo, Ribot, Mahmoud, Sir Gallahad, Turn-To, and Sea-Bird. From these stallions came Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle, Slew, and Affirmed, as well as Spectacular Bid and Forego and many other great champions and sires.

They began to hit home runs with Brian’s Time and Sunday Silence, who both dominated the racing and breeding industry in Japan. Over the years, many U.S. classic winners and champions followed. In 1996, Japan sent a horse named Taiki Blizzard to Woodbine for the Breeders’ Cup Classic against the great Cigar. The colt got an enormous amount of publicity, including a daily “Blizzard Report,” in the Daily Racing Form, written by yours truly. But not much had changed in Japan, as Taiki Blizzard finished last.

Then in 2005 came the first horse to open our eyes to what was happening in Japan when they sent a powerhouse of a filly named Cesario, winner of the Japanese Oaks, to Hollywood Park for the American Oaks. Not only did she run off before the race she crushed the field in one of the most breathtaking performances of the year. Cesario was by a son of Sunday Silence, out of a mare by the U.S.-bred Sadler’s Wells. The tide was about to turn.

Three years later, the Japanese sent over a half-brother to the previous two Belmont Stakes winners Jazil and Rags to Riches named Casino Drive, by Mineshaft, out of the Deputy Minister mare Better Than Honour to try to make it three straight Belmont victories for the mare. The Japanese were growing in confidence that their horses could compete with anyone and had no fear of the undefeated Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. Casino Drive solidified the belief that these were no longer the Japanese horses of old when he won the Peter Pan Stakes by almost six lengths in a swift 1:47 4/5 for the mile and an eighth. Unfortunately, he suffered a minor injury Belmont week and had to be withdrawn.

What the Americans noticed about the Japanese, who were now ahead of us in technology, was that they kept their horses out of the barn for over an hour each morning, walking them long distances throughout the backstretch to and from the track. You never knew where you would run into them. The horses seemed to love it and thrive on it.

In 1981, the Japanese had inaugurated the rich Japan Cup, which drew top-class international fields, including the best from the U.S. and Europe, but starting with their big superstar Deep Impact in 1996, the Japanese became so invincible on their home turf, winning the last 17 runnings, the foreign horses stopped coming. Two magnificent fillies, Gentildonna and Almond Eye, each won two Japan Cups and went to Dubai and captured the Dubai Sheema Classic and Dubai Turf, respectively

In 2012, Orfevre, winner of Japan’s Triple Crown the year before, looked a sure winner of the Pix de l’Arc de Triomphe, opening a clear lead in deep stretch, only to suddenly veer in sharply and was beaten a neck in the final stride, while finishing seven lengths ahead of the third horse.

While three attempts at the Kentucky Derby failed, these were far from their best 3-year-olds. Meanwhile, Japan’s world dominance continued to grow, capped off with two Breeders’ Cup victories in 2021 and countless stakes wins on the last two Dubai World Cup and Saudi Cup cards, including both the Dubai World Cup and Saudi Cup in 2023 and the past two runnings of the UAE Derby and Dubai Sheema Classic, in which the winner Equinox broke the course record.

We have no idea how the three Japanese horses will do in the Kentucky Derby, but we do know that one of them, Derma Sotogake, looks to be the most talented one they’ve sent and should be taken very seriously. It’s been a long road, but the Japanese have arrived and we better be prepared, even in the Kentucky Derby.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 11

Monday, April 3rd, 2023

Well, we have two more 100 pointers in the book and we’re starting to get some clarity. After this week’s three big races everything will come into focus and we will know who the top 20 point getters are and who might still have a chance of getting in through the back door. And we learned last year that even the back door can lead to the winner’s circle. And of course we have to keep a close eye on Japan’s rising sons. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: April 3, 2023 – Week 11

By Steve Haskin

Photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

On paper, the Florida Derby looked like the most uninspiring Derby prep in memory and Forte the most lopsided favorite, even with the 11 post. Well, it didn’t go quite as scripted. Forte, who was a bit wet before the race and antsy in the gate, had to go four-wide into the first turn. He then uncharacteristically let the lightly raced Mage blow by him on the far turn and appeared to be going nowhere, even after swinging 5 to 6-wide turning for home. The upset of the year looked imminent. But we’re not sure what happened after that. Either Forte turned back into Forte and found yet another way to win or Mage, with only two career starts and making a huge early move, simply got tired inside the final sixteenth. Whatever the reason, Forte came steamrolling down the stretch to catch both Mage and Cyclone Mischief. So what did we learn from the Florida Derby? Basically it was that Forte keeps finding new ways to win and is never out of a race even when his engine appears to be conking out on him. On the other hand, for the first time in his career he showed no acceleration on the turn and then was life and death to run down a horse with only two lifetime starts who he had beaten by almost seven lengths in his last start and another horse he had beaten by almost six lengths? A lot will be made of his readjusted Beyer speed figure of 95, but we’ll see what he gets on Thoro-Graph. He may have given his Derby opponents a ray of hope that he can be beaten, but when a proven winning machine like Forte is running the worst race of his career and still pulls out a victory you can never lose confidence in him regardless of the circumstances.


2—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

Some may look at his past performances and see that he failed to finish first in his first four starts, chasing a slew of Bob Baffert horses, but the only statistic that is important is that he is undefeated (3-for-3) in two-turn races. He continues to turn in one strong work after another and move forward with every race and work. Having paired up a career-high “3 3/4” in his last two starts one would expect him to improve off that in the Santa Anita Derby. And he will have to assuming Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner, who chased him home in the San Felipe, will also improve and are sitting on career-high numbers. But most of all he will have to contend with the brilliant Cave Rock, who will be using the Santa Anita Derby as a prep for the Preakness. That is one horse you don’t want to see loose on the lead. And who knows how good the Japanese invader Mandarin Hero is? So this should provide Practical Move with some tough competition and if he passes the test we should have an intriguing East vs. West showdown at Churchill Downs.

3—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

He has a lot to live up to in the Pletcher barn with his two stablemates already passing their final test and cementing their role as major players in the Kentucky Derby. Who knows, if he wins the Blue Grass Stakes impressively and Practical Joke gets beat in the Santa Anita Derby Pletcher could have no worse than three of the top four favorites at Churchill Downs. Right now he has the three favorites in the Future Wager. And let’s see if he has another Bourbonic in the Wood Memorial, with three longshots listed as possible starters. So what are we looking from Tapit Trice in the Blue Grass? First off we need to see him break well and not wind up at the back of the pack again. One race is OK, two becomes a habit, and this long-striding powerhouse of a colt is not the type you want having to weave his way through traffic in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. He won’t be facing Classic Car Wash and Classic Legacy. Like Forte he has shown he can beat you in many ways, whether sitting just off the pace, out-dueling you in a furious stretch battle, or coming from far back. He will get a good test in the Blue Grass, having never faced horses of this caliber.

4—Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

I have to admit I totally underestimated this horse and saw nothing to indicate he could run as big a race as he did in the Arkansas Derby. He had never broken an 89 Beyer speed figure and since his career debut he had never run a Brisnet late pace figure over 89. But to show how inconclusive his speed figures have been, he somehow was able to jump from a career-high “9 1/4” Thoro-Graph number in the Smarty Jones Stakes to a “2 1/2” in his Risen Star Stakes victory at 13-1. Even after the Risen Star third-place finisher Two Phil’s ran a monster race in last weekend’s Jeff Ruby Steaks, Angel of Empire still went off as the fourth choice in the Arkansas Derby. This is a horse who has never gotten any respect. A Pennsylvania-bred, he was a $32,000 RNA as a weanling and was snatched out of the Keeneland September yearling sale for a meager $70,000; quite a steal by the Albaugh family.  He hasn’t been able to keep a jockey, having five different riders in his six starts. Even Luis Saez, who won the Risen Star on him, stayed in Florida to ride Mage against Forte in the Florida Derby. It was not a shock that he won, especially with a 58-1 shot finishing second, it was the way he won, making a big sweeping run on the far turn, taking the lead after turning for home, and then simply pouring it on with a :12 flat final eighth and :36 3/5 final three-eighths to win by a widening 4 1/4 lengths in 1:49 3/5. The bottom line is that his record on dirt is now five starts with four wins and a second. Maybe this is a really good horse after all.

5—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

He tuned up for his likely start in the Wood Memorial with a sharp five-furlong work in :59 2/5 at Keeneland in company with Blue Grass starter Verifying. He hasn’t run in two months, but is coming off a very strong race in the 1 1/8-mile Withers Stakes, where he ran a career-high Thoro-Graph number of “2” over a deep and tiring track, so it certainly made sense to give him some time to recover from that race, especially going that far so early in the year. There is a long range forecast of a possible shower for Saturday and he has never run on an off track, but he should have no trouble handling it. Todd Pletcher could run his highly touted maiden Dreamlike, a $975,000 yearling purchase who has finished second in both his starts, and two other horses. With the hard-nosed Arctic Arrogance and Slip Mahoney in there this shouldn’t be quite as easy as his Withers score. He is going to have to run a big race to leap back over his stablemate Angel of Empire in the Rankings, and we have no idea how high his ceiling is based on a single stakes victory in the Withers. But in his three victories he has drawn off and won by open lengths each time. Now let’s see if he can do it again against better horses.

6—Derma Sotogake (Hidetaki Otonashi, Mind Your Biscuits – Neo Universe, by Sunday Silence)

The deeper we’ve gotten into the Derby trail the more pronounced it’s become that we have not had a horse run faster than a “2” on Thoro-Graph. Even the Beyer and Brisnet figures have been uninspiring. Well, we finally have a horse who has broken and “2” and his name is Derma Sotogake, who got a “1 1/2” in the UAE Derby. You knew it was going to be fast when compared to the Dubai World Cup. Derma Sotogake could actually have won that race based on final time. We obviously don’t have the numbers yet from this past weekend, but as of April 3 the fastest 3-year-old on the Derby trail is from Japan. Is this further enlightenment regarding the amazing impact the Japanese have made in international competition or could this be our worst nightmare having a Japanese horse make a mockery of our best 3-year-olds on America’s biggest stage? Perhaps it would be a wake-up call if it does happen. If you’re looking for a horse with a strong foundation, Derma Sotogake has already run twice at a mile, once at 1 1/16 miles, four times at 1 1/8 miles, and once at 1 3/16 miles. And he seems to be getting stronger and faster. He still has to get on a plane and fly here, so let’s see if everything goes according plan.


7—Disarm (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Easy Tap, by Tapit)

As high as I have always been on this horse, actually ranking him in the Top 12 off a seven-furlong maiden victory at 2, there might be one concern. With him being sidelined for 6 1/2 months between his first two starts and last two starts he may need one more start before peaking, especially considering he hasn’t had a fast or contentious pace to run at and hasn’t gotten within 3 1/2 lengths of the winner despite closing in fast fractions. This can be reflected in his speed figures. Although he has improved to a 90 on Beyer and improved to a “5” on Thoro-Graph, he still has quite a bit of improving to do to reach Derby-winning figures. That is where one more start would help in getting within range. He just hasn’t had a chance to win either of his two races. With that said, I still am ranking him high because I believe he is extremely talented and who knows how much he can improve with the right kind pace and setup. Asmussen normally does not work his horses long and fast but he gave him a strong six-furlong work in 1:13 1/5, galloping out a mile before the Louisiana Derby just to put that extra bottom into him. He is already at Churchill Downs and we’ll see if he gets another lung opener before the Kentucky Derby. 

8—Kingsbarns (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Lady Tapit, by Tapit)

With three talented horses likely heading to the Derby having only three lifetime starts I wouldn’t have any idea who to rank higher, but I just can’t bring myself to rank any of them higher than this with so much history against them. I guess I’m still a bit too old school. For now here a little background story on this colt. Mark Toothaker and Tom McCrocklin were friends at Louisiana Tech and have remained close friends ever since. Back then they had to scrape and claw to get $5 for a pack of bologna. Both went into horse racing and when Tom became a trainer and opened a string at Rockingham Park in the mid ‘80s, Mark left his job as assistant to Wayne Lukas to join him as an assistant. In the winter Tom took the better horses to Florida and left the others with Mark. One day he called Mark and said he was staying in Florida and the horses at Rockingham were now Mark’s. Tom eventually got his own place in Ocala and began breaking yearlings and preparing 2-year-olds for the sales while Mark became the Stallion Sales Manager at Spendthrift Farm. In 2021, Tom bought an Uncle Mo yearling for $250,000 with the intention of pinhooking him the following year. It didn’t take him long to realize the colt could be special. His breezes were so phenomenal he had to take him out of the group because he was too much horse for his peers. When Tom put him in the 2-year-old at Gulfstream he turned in a sensational quarter-mile breeze in :20 3/5, and it takes a lot of horse to work that fast at Gulfstream. At the sale, the colt was sold to Spendthrift Farm for $800,000 and named Kingsbarns. After all those years Mark and Tom have been brought together once again and their long journey has them on the threshold of the Kentucky Derby.


9—Two Phil’s (Larry Rivelli, Hard Spun — Mia Torri, by General Quarters) 

If his last start wasn’t on a synthetic surface you could make a case for ranking him in the top 3 or 4 based on numbers alone. First on Thoro-Graph he paired up career best “4’s” in the LeComte and Risen Star and then jumped to a “2,” in the Jeff Ruby, equaling the fastest number by a 3-year-old in this country. Not only was his Brisnet speed figure of 107 in the Jeff Ruby the fastest of any 3-year-old, his late pace figure was an excellent 106 and he did it coming off a middle pace figure of 102. That combined figure of 208 again is the highest of any 3-year-old and shows that he has a huge middle move and can sustain it and still come home fast. Remember, it is the final three-eighths in the Derby that is most important, not the final quarter or eighth. If you look at this third- and second-place finishes in the Risen Star and LeComte, he put in huge middle pace figures of 113 and 109 and couldn’t sustain it, getting caught in the final furlong each time. So was it the synthetic surface that allowed him to keep going or is just learning how to pace himself better? With his Jeff Ruby score, he now has a Brisnet Prime Power number ranked second only to Forte. He has won his four races by an average margin of 5 1/2 lengths, on dirt, slop, and synthetic, and has done it from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. If he can replicate that big three-eighths of a mile move at Churchill Downs he is going to be very tough in the Derby.


10—Mage (Gustavo Delgado, Good Magic – Puca, by Big Brown)

Here is the second three-race wonder who was bet way down in the Florida Derby and ran a huge race, putting a big scare in Forte after dropping far back and then blowing right by the 1-5 favorite on the far turn with a big sweeping move. He then opened up in the stretch and looked like a sure winner before he either got tired or Forte found another gear and caught him in the final strides. So he improved almost six lengths off his fourth to Forte in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Can he make another move forward in his fourth career start in a 20-horse field? I have no idea; I’m just along for the ride like everyone else. I do know this horse is for real and has unlimited potential. Ironically it was his broodmare sire Big Brown who became the first horse in 93 years to win the Derby off only three lifetime starts. I know times are changing and I guess I’m going to have to change with them and acknowledge the fact that more and more horses are going to run in the Derby with so few starts and we’re going to have another winner in the near future, which could very well be this year, especially if Geaux Rocket Ride joins Kingsbarns and Mage with a huge race in the Santa Anita Derby. That’s three possible contenders this year with three starts and I have no idea what to do with them. I refused to put Justify on top and look where that got me.


11—Raise Cain (Ben Colebrook, Violence – Lemon Belle, by Lemon Drop Kid)

He most likely will stay at home and run in the Blue Grass Stakes, but Colebrook still has the option of heading back up to New York for the Wood Memorial depending on who shows up where. As of now the Blue Grass looks to be the deeper and tougher of the two with several serious Derby contenders. But he would get to run out of his own barn, so it looks like that is where he is running. Many handicappers dismiss the Gotham because of the pace meltdown, setting it up for three deep closers to finish in the money. While there is no denying that, you still have to remember that he was forced to check while making his big run and he still won the race by 7 1/2 lengths, so he not only crushed all the speed horses who were close to the torrid pace, he also crushed the closers who were rallying from far back. And his Thoro-Graph number for the Gotham was a “2,” which still makes him one of the fastest 3-year-olds in the country. He still is a bit of an unknown considering his Gotham was so powerful and he had never shown that kind of explosiveness before other than his impressive maiden victory going seven furlongs at 2. So his next start will tell us a lot about him.


12—Slip Mahoney (Brad Cox, Arrogate – Got Lucky, by A.P. Indy)

Churchill Downs finally came to its senses and put him in the final Future Wager field. And you still could have gotten him at 99-1. Chad Summers, who owned and trained Derma Sotogake’s sire Mind Your Biscuits, picked out Slip Mahoney along with Joe Hardoon at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $150,000, which from his pedigree alone looks like a steal. But he was on the small side, and the hope was that he would grow, being by the imposing Arrogate out of a good sized mare. When they asked Hill n Dale’s John Sikura about his reserve he said $150,000 because no one seemed to like him, and that’s what they got him for. He was always a feisty little guy, and he sure hasn’t lost that feistiness on the racetrack. Summers said he had a great attitude about himself and possesses the heart of a lion, likening it to a ”Napoleon complex,” which is defined as a “domineering or aggressive attitude perceived as a form of overcompensation for being physically small or short.” We know he likes a good fight and made Tapit Trice run his guts out to beat him, but now that he has learned how to close from off the pace and having to go nine or 10 wide it would be to his benefit not to hook Arctic Arrogance, another scrapper, too early in the Wood Memorial. Every time Summers and Hardoon have seen him they have liked him more and more, and after Saturday don’t be surprised if everyone likes him.

13—Geaux Rocket Ride (Dick Mandella, Candy Ride – Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo)

We already have the Louisiana Derby winner and the Florida Derby runner-up with only three career starts. Are we going to add this guy after the Santa Anita Derby? Is this year’s muddled Kentucky Derby picture providing us with a look into the future where horses we hardly know and never heard of at the start of the year become overnight Derby contenders? Before we get too enamored with these late-blooming newcomers just remember that only two of them with three lifetime starts, Justify and Big Brown, have won the Derby in over a century, and Justify is the only one who did not race at 2. Also both were extraordinarily talented horses who came along in a poor crop. As for Geaux Rocket Ride, he has shown a professionalism beyond his years and there is no telling how good this colt is. And if we are witnessing the beginning of a new era in racing when it comes to experience, then he would have to be taken very seriously with another big effort in the Santa Anita Derby. If you saw his last six-furlong work in 1:13 and how strong he was after the wire you would have to think he is going tough to beat despite having only two lifetime starts. So we could have three lightly raced horses bucking history and I can’t separate them at all.


14—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

With Practical Move and Geaux Rocket Ride getting most of the headlines and the Japanese invader Mandarin Hero also getting a good deal of press, Skinner quietly moves closer to his moment of truth in the Santa Anita Derby. I don’t know if he’s good enough or fast enough to beat these horses, but at least with Cave Rock and Geaux Rocket Ride in there he will get a good pace to run at. Shirreffs knows he has to be sharp to run with these horses and worked him five furlongs in :59 1/5, second fastest of 64 works at the distance, No one wants to lose any of these big Grade 1 preps, but if I were strategizing with a horse like this I wouldn’t bust a gut trying to win it with a mile and a quarter horse when all I need is a second or third to get in the Derby and then let it all loose going a more favorable distance with hopefully a contentious pace. His strength is the final furlong, so if the Santa Anita Derby should fall into his lap then by all means go for it. He may be sharp enough now to win this race, but it’s the next race that he needs to get to.


15—National Treasure (Tim Yakteen, Quality Road – Treasure, by Medaglia d’Oro)

For the third time he worked in company with Reincarnate, going five furlongs in :59 4/5 last week, and for the third time he just got the better of him. He came back on Sunday with a six-furlong work in 1:12 3/5. Despite the minor injury that forced him to miss the San Felipe Stakes he has come back extremely sharp and let’s not forget the company he’s been keeping in his races. He has already shipped to Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, finishing a respectable third behind Forte and Cave Rock, so we know he can handle the track and top-class competition, and he should be razor-sharp for his return in Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes. Remember, his “6 1/4” Thoro-Graph number in his career debut is the slowest number he’s ever run, so unlike most of these horses he has never run a slow race. This could be a hidden treasure


There are too many good horses running this weekend to rank them all, so you’re just going to have to figure this one out for yourself, although I did include a few of them who have been ranked for a while. One horse I would look out for in the Blue Grass is VERIFYING, who was ranked last week and should run big with a better trip than he had in the Rebel Stakes.

This past weekend we saw the emergence of KING RUSSELL, who came off a nose maiden victory to close for second in the Arkansas Derby at 58-1. I must admit I knew little about this horse until I heard Chad Summers, for whom I have tremendous respect and is someone who knows how to recognize a good horse when he sees one, basically guarantee this horse was going to run a monster race on his YouTube handicapping show. I went and watched his races and could see what he was talking about. So it wasn’t a surprise when he came flying late out in the middle of the track to finish second. I don’t believe this was a fluke and that this is a colt to keep an eye on. I just couldn’t find a spot for him in the Rankings, but that could very well change next week.

We also have to acknowledge the big race CYCLONE MISCHIEF ran to be third in the Florida Derby. It’s just a question of whether he can improve going a mile and a quarter. I hated losing REINCARNATE from the Rankings. He did dig in gamely once again and refused to let horses get by him, but that was for third and after having a perfect stalking trip, so I just don’t know where he fits now. He is one who needs to be re-evaluated before deciding if he is ready for the Derby.

If you’re looking for a big Kentucky Derby contender to come out of the Santa Anita Derby, you, and most of all Churchill Downs, could very well come away disappointed if CAVE ROCK, lurking in the shadows, returns even close to the horse we saw last year. You can imagine how Bob Baffert would feel throwing the Derby picture into even more turmoil after being banned from the event and having to give up a good deal of his 3-year-olds. If Cave Rock is the same horse and gets loose on the lead good luck trying to catch him. And after that good luck to the Kentucky Derby winner trying to beat him in the Preakness. He remains sharp while building a foundation, working six furlongs in 1:12 3/5.

CLEAR THE AIR, who has not had the best of trips in his last two races, including a troubled fifth in the Gotham Stakes, will try again in Saturday’s Wood Memorial. The son of Ransom the Moon, a son of Malibu Moon, has plenty of stamina and should appreciate stretching out to two turns for the first time. His third dam is Champion Older Mare Hidden Lake, a three-time Grade 1 winner and earner of almost $1 million, and he is inbred to Hail to Reason through his stamina influence sons Halo and Roberto. He is a May 5 foal, so he should still be improving.

Although ARCTIC ARROGANCE has finished second in his last three starts, two of them in hard-fought stretch battles, he is not one to be overlooked in the Wood Memorial. The son of Frosted is a fighter and might not have cared for the addition of blinkers in the Withers. He has turned in two strong six-furlong works since in 1:12 3/5 and 1:13 1/5 and looks to be sitting on a big race. Those are excellent works over the Belmont training track. If the track does come up wet he has shown he handles it just as well as a fast track. At 99-1 in the Future Wager you should get a run for your money. As of now Todd Pletcher has three possible starters for the Wood, the aforementioned DREAMLIKE, as well as CLASSIC CATCH and CRUPI.

If you’re in a forgiving mood and were a fan of BLAZING SEVENS, you can always throw out his Fountain of Youth debacle and hope you get the same horse who was a Grade 1 winner and one of the top 2-year-olds in the Blue Grass Stakes. He has been turning in sharp works over the deep Payson Park surface, the latest being a half in :48 4/5, and the fact that Chad Brown is giving him another shot makes him an interesting bounce back candidate. Remember, once he started working this year he was moved up to No. 5 in the Rankings. Two potential bombs that bear watching in the Blue Grass are MENDELSSOHNS MARCH and SCOOBIE QUANDO. Kenny McPeek has always been high on the former, who is just coming into his own, and we’ll see if Ben Colebook runs Scoobie Quando against Raise Cain after his fast-closing second in the John Battaglia.

The enigmatic CONFIDENCE GAME is not listed as a probable or possible starter for the Blue Grass, so who knows what’s going on with him. People still have faith in him betting him down to 25-1 in the Future Wager in spite of his lack of activity and possibly going into the Kentucky Derby without a race since February 25. If he should pop up in the Blue Grass at least we’ll have some idea what to do with him.

INSTANT COFFEE probably deserves another chance after his disappointing performance in the Louisiana Derby. He might have been short coming off a two-month layoff and was victimized by the extremely slow pace set by the winner, being so far back early. Brad Cox said he is going to see how he trains before deciding whether or not run him in the Lexington Stakes to pick up some important points.

We don’t know how MANDARIN HERO will run in the Santa Anita Derby, but we do know the Japanese are sending two other horses for the Derby, both of them proven in top-class company. In addition to Derma Sotogake they will also be represented by CONTINUAR, a son of Drefong. Yes, he was third, beaten 10 lengths by Derma Sotogake in the UAE Derby, but he did win the one-mile Cattleya Stakes, which is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, and he was beaten only a nose by Derma Sotogake last November going 1 1/8 miles and finished only three-quarters of a length behind him in the Saudi Derby. Both horses will leave Dubai this week and fly to Chicago, where they will be in quarantine before vanning to Churchill Downs on April 8.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 10

Monday, March 27th, 2023

With a lot of action over the weekend, some big performances, and new exciting faces added to the Derby picture we are expanding the Rankings this week to 20. Saturday’s Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby should be pretty formful, so it doesn’t seem too likely we’re going to get any major surprises.~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: March 27, 2023 – Week 10

By Steve Haskin

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

In some odd way the pressure will be on in the Florida Derby, as he towers over his 11 opponents and nothing short of a victory would be acceptable unless something unforeseen happens in the race, even breaking from the 11 post and the addition of the former Baffert horse Fort Bragg, who was scratched out of Sunday’s Sunland Derby. You never want to put the whammy on a horse, but on paper this looks like a pretty easy spot despite the size of the field and the post, especially with Fountain of Youth runner-up Rocket Can passing the race and heading to the Arkansas Derby. Yes, he could get caught wide going into the first turn, but Irad Ortiz will know where to put him and he is good enough to overcome a wide trip. Better that than running into traffic problems stuck down on the inside. What to watch out for is the speed of Cyclone Mischief, the vast improvement of the lightly raced Mage, and whether Remsen winner Dubyuhnell can bounce back off a terrible performance and breaking from post 12. But those three and Fort Bragg are not in the same class as Forte.


2—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

Could Practical Move vs. Forte be racing’s next rivalry? No one is bred for it more than Practical Move. His sire traces to Affirmed and his dam traces to Alydar. His sire traces to Damascus and his dam traces to Dr. Fager. His sire traces to Swaps and his dam traces to Nashua. If you’re looking for the perfect blend of speed on top and stamina on the bottom, his sire won Grade 1 stakes at seven furlongs and a one-turn mile and his broodmare sire won the Belmont Stakes by seven lengths. If you’re looking for improving speed figures, his last four Beyers have been 73, 82, 88, and 100 and his late closing Brisnet figures have gone from 75 to 79 to 84 to 94 to 107. Also his 105 Brisnet speed figure in the Los Alamitos Futurity is the highest of any 3-year-old. With his new stablemates Reincarnate and National Treasure headed out of town as is Fort Bragg, he’ll be on his own in the Santa Anita Derby, which unlike the Florida Derby with Forte, should provide a pretty stiff test for him, especially if Mandarin Hero turns out to another of those deadly Japanese invaders. So far he has been the quintessential pro, handling everything thrown at him at all distances, and that should be beneficial when he gets to Churchill Downs. He turned in another strong work, going five furlongs in :59 1/5.


3—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

One of the great mysteries in racing is why no Blue Grass Stakes winner has won the Kentucky Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991. To save you the time, that was 32 years ago. The last Derby winner to even come out of the Blue Grass was Street Sense and that was when it was run on Polytrack. Even the Jeff Ruby Steaks, or whatever it was called at the time, and the Sunland Park Derby have produced more Derby winners than the Blue Grass in the past 16 years. With Tapit Trice trying to break that ignominious streak we do have a legitimate shot of having a historic edition of the race and making the Lexington bluebloods proud. There is an excellent chance we could have stablemates going into the Derby as the top headliners if Tapit Trice and Forte both win their final preps, making them the most potent one-two punch since American Pharoah and Dortmund in 2015. Add Kingsbarns now and Pletcher is totally loaded. As of now Tapit Trice’s main foes could be Gotham winner Raise Cain, National Treasure, Rebel winner Confidence Game, and he is iffy, and Verifying. For Tapit Trice it will all be about how he breaks, especially if he draws an outside post. With a good break and a clean trip I believe he can beat anyone. But he still has to prove it against far better horses than he beat in the Tampa Derby.


4—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

He wasn’t entered in the Arkansas Derby so it’s a return to New York for the Wood Memorial where he will be the likely favorite. He demonstrated his sharpness with a six-furlong work in 1:12 3/5, so he looks ready to take on anyone. It just means another trip back up north with the hope for good weather. He is proven at 1 1/8 miles and should be even better than he was in the Withers. What I love from a speed figure standpoint is that he made a huge leap on Thoro-Graph from a 12 1/4 to 4 3/4 two races back, but instead of “bouncing” he took another big move forward with a 2 in the Withers. As we have mentioned he is a May 9 foal and has always had a wonderful disposition, so he should take another step forward in the Wood and still have plenty left in the tank to peak on the first Saturday in May. Some may claim the Wood has not had any success in recent years when it comes to the Derby, but it is still the same track and distance that produced Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Foolish Pleasure, Easy Goer, Empire Maker, Funny Cide, Monarchos, Pleasant Colony, Bold Forbes, Fusaichi Pegasus, Vino Rosso, Frosted, and Mo Donegal. It’s not the race, it’s who the trainers send there. And I believe Cox is sending two good ones this year headed by this guy.


5—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy) 

If you ask me what single moment stands out on the Derby trail this year from a visual standpoint I would have to say it was the sight of Reincarnate powering down the stretch with that great extension and fluid stride to finish third in the Rebel after having just about everything go wrong for him in the race, which was his first on a sloppy track, first outside California, and first in a new barn. You don’t have to win to show what you are, and although I was impressed with his courage and tenacity in winning the Sham Stakes after battling on the lead the whole way, I was even more impressed with him in the Rebel coming from ninth, a dozen lengths off the pace. This horse even looks tough from a physical standpoint with his powerful fame, charcoal gray coat and white splotches. His former trainer Bob Baffert, not a man of many words when texting, summed him up in only three words back on February 4: “Strong colt. Tough.”  That strength and toughness should have him in the fight down the stretch of the Kentucky Derby.  But first he has to take care of business in his second trip back to Oaklawn against some pretty good horses.


6—Derma Sotogake (Hidetaki Otonashi, Mind Your Biscuits – Neo Universe, by Sunday Silence)

We all know by now how formidable the Japanese horses have been all over the world, becoming more and more dominant, and this is a very serious horse who is more than capable of winning the Kentucky Derby after his brilliant performance in the UA Derby. Make of this what you wish, but if he crawled home another sixteenth in :07 1/5 he would have won the Dubai World Cup. We saw his versatility when he went right to the front despite being a confirmed come from behind horse with a powerful late kick. Once he was able to put it in cruise control flicking his ears around you knew he was going to be very tough to catch. But he absolutely crushed his rivals and did it mostly all on his own as he strung out the field in the stretch in his first start over a mile, while striding out beautifully in the final furlong. Yes he is by a top-class sprinter who had a good deal of stamina in his pedigree, but he really gets his stamina from his dam, whose two grandsires are Sunday Silence, winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Tony Bin, winner of the Arc de Triomphe. His third dam is by the rarely seen Dike, winner of the Gotham and Wood Memorial and a close third in the Kentucky Derby behind Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters. Derma Sotogake actually bears a close resemblance to the flashy chestnut Dike, who ironically also deviated from his late-running style to set the pace in the Belmont Stakes before finishing third. Dike is by major stamina influence Herbager and Derma Sotogake is inbred top and bottom to the class and stamina influence Hail to Reason.


7—Disarm (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Easy Tap, by Tapit)

I gave him the slightest edge over Kingsbarns because I thought so highly of him early on I actually had him ranked No. 12 in Week 1 as a maiden sprint winner. He has done nothing this year to alter that opinion. He just has got to find a better neighborhood in which to hang out, because every time he goes out he gets robbed. That’s twice now he’s had a race stolen right out from under him, and both times the thief took off so fast at the end there was no way he could catch them. First it was Two Eagles River, who set an easy pace and flew home, and now it was Kingsbarns, who was allowed to crawl a half in :49 3/5 and three-quarters in a sluggish 1:14 3/5 in the Louisiana Derby. Disarm, meanwhile, was busy ducking in at the break and bumping with Sun Thunder and then ducking in again, almost into the rail, soon after. He was down on the rail the whole race, and could only watch Kingsbarns open up and come home his final three-sixteenths in a sensational :18 1/5, while he might have even closed a tick faster than that. And he kept going after the wire, galloping out strongly. He has now had two races this year and no chance to win either one while closing strongly each time to get second. But he got a lot out of both of them after being sidelined for six months. With the way he’s come back at 3 and his pedigree, along with getting his much-needed 40 points, I think it’s safe to say he is now ready to peak in the Kentucky Derby, having a strong mile and a 1 3/16-mile race under him. He should be a good price in the next Future Wager, and that is the time to bet him and get a potential huge overlay.


8—Kingsbarns (Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo – Lady Tapit, by Tapit)

The bad news is that he will go into the Kentucky Derby off only three career starts, the last of which he was able to steal with a lackadaisical three-quarters in 1:14 3/5, which is trotting horse time. The good news is that he gets extra credit for all the work he put in in his troubled career debut (see the very first Knocking on the Door), and by closing his final three-sixteenths in the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby in :18 1/5 he put himself in a position where he was virtually impossible to catch, drawing off to a 3 1/2-length victory. Good luck finding a Preakness in which they came home faster than that. Spendthrift Farm paid $800,000 for him at the OBS 2-year-old sale. He was a big beautiful colt with a great pedigree who breezed fast and did it easily. He came out of the sale with a few minor issues so they took their time with him. Spendthrift general manager Ned Toffey always likes to quote the farm’s late owner B. Wayne Hughes, who used to say he liked horses who had excuses to get beat, but still won anyway. He would have loved Kingsbarns after his first race, because most horses would have gotten beat, but he found a way to win, and that was going one mile, a tough distance to start a career. So although he’s had only three starts he could very well have the necessary experience and is as battle-tested as horses with more than three starts. Who knows, he could be the most talented of Pletcher’s three stars.


9—Raise Cain (Ben Colebrook, Violence – Lemon Belle, by Lemon Drop Kid)

He still has to make believers out of the skeptics who have never known what to make of him, and he has a tough road ahead going against Tapit Trice, National Treasure, Verifying, and possibly Confidence Game in the Blue Grass Stakes. He has finished first and second at odds of 23-1, so he has already surprised a lot of people. He also has won by margins of 5 1/4 and 7 1/2 lengths, the latter in the Gotham Stakes, so he knows how to finish his opponents off. He has also come from third, fourth, fifth, ninth, and 10th in his races, so we know he can be running anywhere on the racetrack. And his six starts have been at five different distances. So do we really know who this horse is and what to expect from him? If his Gotham performance was who he is then we should expect more fireworks from him, especially when he stretches out in distance in what looks to be a tough Arkansas Derby field. The only time he’s been 1 1/16 miles he finished a strong second to a loose on the lead Jace’s Road in the Gun Runner Stakes. Let’s remember, it’s not easy for a horse to put in a big rally from the back of the pack in a 14-horse field, be forced to check when another horse came in on him, and then not only get going again and continuing his rally, but win by 7 1/2 lengths. It might not be wise to underestimate this colt.


10—Two Phil’s (Larry Rivelli, Hard Spun – Mia Torri, by General Quarters)

If there is one thing I’ve learned on the Derby trail it is to respect horses coming off a synthetic surface, especially when they are already proven dirt horses. Two Phil’s has been a trainer’s dream, having run at six tracks and finishing in the money at five of them, four in stakes, including a powerful victory in Saturday’s Jeff Ruby Steaks in his first start over a synthetic surface and defeating a number of proven stakes horses. He has now won or placed in stakes at Turfway Park, Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds, and Canterbury Downs. Not only did he defeat stakes winners on synthetic or grass Funtastic Again, Congruent, and Major Dude and an undefeated synthetic horse Wadsworth, he mowed them down like he’d been running on synthetic all his life, drawing off to a 5 1/4-length victory in 1:49 flat and coming home his final three-eighths in a sensational :36 2/5 (:24 1/5 and :12 1/5). He now has now won stakes at six furlongs and 1 1/16 miles on dirt and 1 1/8 miles on synthetic, and now heads back to dirt, just as Rich Strike did last year. His breeder withdrew him from a sale as a weanling, had to buy him back when he failed to meet is reserve as a yearling, and withdrew him again from a sale as a 2-year-old, finally having to keep him and race him. We should all be so unlucky being forced to keep a horse who has already earned almost $700,000 and is heading to the Kentucky Derby.


11—Geaux Rocket Ride (Dick Mandella, Candy Ride – Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo)

If you’re looking for a good back story, in 2021, Matt Wiseman of Equine Analysis Systems met Jim and Dana Bernhard at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky yearling sale. The Bernhards had never owned a Thoroughbred and Jim wanted to buy one for Dana for her birthday, so he asked Wiseman to find him one. He and his team, as they always do, used their technology and data to measure physiology along with traditional horsemanship. One horse in particular came up with a high statistical likelihood of success, so they bought him for the Bernhards for $350,000. They had high hopes for the colt, and it was confirmed the following year when Wiseman went to see him at Keith Asmussen’s training center in Laredo, Texas where he was being broke. The colt had grown and filled out into a beautiful physical specimen and Wiseman began thinking they might have something special. Even the conservative Dick Mandella raved about him after he began training him. In October of 2022 The Bernhards bought the historic Pin Oak Stud, owned by the late Josephine Abercrombie. They now have started a full-fledged breeding and racing operation, and it all started with the first horse Jim ever bought as a birthday present for his wife. That horse, named Geaux Rocket Ride, is now one of the favorites for the Santa Anita Derby. Now that’s what I call an introduction to racing.


12—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

Now that several of the 100-point races have been run and we’ve had some solid additions to the probable Derby hopefuls list, and with two more big races this weekend,  it is time for him and others in Southern California to turn up their A game and pick up the necessary points in the Santa Anita Derby. There will be some formidable opponents standing in his way, including the brilliant non-Derby participant Cave Rock, and of course Practical Move. He should get the lively pace he needs with Geaux Rocket Ride in there as well, so if he can get the right setup and a good trip he should be able to earn his way into the Kentucky Derby with another strong closing effort. He is one horse who has really matured over the winter and developed into a professional racehorse. Now we just have to see how he handles a field of fast and classy horses. There is no urgency to win; just close well enough to pick up second and possibly even third, although the latter would make it too close for comfort.


13—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

We all have seen what a powerful closer this horse is, and perhaps we have asked ourselves what is a son of Gun Runner doing coming from so far back when the vast majority of his offspring have shown good early speed just as he did? Well, the answer might be as simple as looking at his past performances and seeing that in seven career starts he has never sprinted. In his career debut going 1 1/16 miles on grass at Saratoga, he was running sixth in a seven-horse field through sluggish fractions of :50 4/5 and 1:16. He was closer to the pace in his next start, also on grass, at tricky Kentucky Downs, but that was over an extremely deep course and they went the three-quarters in 1:15. So when they put him on dirt for the first time there is a good chance that whatever speed he might have had was taken away from him and it’s often hard to put it back. We keep forgetting how beneficial sprints can be to put speed into a horse. With all that said, he has developed into a dangerous stretch runner, but he has to depend on the speed of others to be most effective.


14—National Treasure (Tim Yakteen, Quality Road – Treasure, by Medaglia d’Oro)

He continued his string of brilliant works with a six-furlong drill in 1:12 1/5. You never want to see a Derby campaign interrupted, especially by a physical setback, so when he missed the San Felipe with a minor foot bruise that put a big question mark over his head. Fortunately he was able to get back to the work tab and with a flourish after being turned over to Yakteen and now looks to be back on track to make the Run for the Roses following some eye-popping works. So instead of following the Santa Anita path he gets an extra week and will head to Keeneland to face Tapit Trice in the Blue Grass Stakes, and there is no reason to think he won’t come back with a strong effort. He has already picked up points in his stakes placings and he just needs to turn in one of his typical solid performances to continue on to Churchill Downs.


15—Slip Mahoney (Brad Cox, Arrogate – Got Lucky, by A.P. Indy)

In his four races, here is where he’s been at the half-mile call: 2nd by a head, 2nd by a half-length, 9th by 5 1/2 lengths, and 13th by 11 lengths. The last two were after breaking slowly. The impressive part is that he ran a big race in all of them, so in some sense it doesn’t matter where he is. Does that sound a bit like his sire Arrogate, who won the Travers in a track-record romp on the front end, the Breeders’ Cup Classic laying just off the pace, and the Dubai World Cup coming from far back in last after breaking slowly? No one is comparing him to Arrogate, but there does seem to be a similar pattern there, so perhaps in some ways he is his father’s son in that he can adjust to anything and still run his race. Looking at his pedigree, we know all about Arrogate, but his dam, by A.P. Indy, won the grade 1 Spinster Stakes and his third dam Get Lucky was a grade 3 winner bred by Ogden Phipps and is a full-sister to Travers winner and 2-year-old champion Rhythm. Get Lucky’s dam Dance Number, a daughter of Hall of Famer Numbered Account, won the grade 1 Beldame Stakes and is a half sister to multiple grade 1 winner Private Account, sire of the great Personal Ensign. Good luck trying to find a better female line than that. He is still one of my top two or three sleepers for the Kentucky Derby.


16—Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

Saturday’s Arkansas Derby will determine if he is the real deal and that his victory in the Risen Star Stakes was just the first step in becoming one of the leading Kentucky Derby contenders. For Cox the Louisiana Derby didn’t go quite as he planned, so a lot of his hopes are now pinned to this guy. His speed figures are all over the place, depending on whether you believe in his Beyers, which say he is too slow right now, or his Brisnet and Thoro-Graph numbers, which say he is right up the with the fastest 3-year-olds. What I do find interesting about him is that in his five starts he’s been ridden by four different jockeys. Take away his one poor effort going 6 1/2 furlongs on grass at Kentucky Downs in his second career start and he has three victories and a second in four starts, all at a mile or 1 1/8 miles. I have never ranked him very high because the Risen Star did not look like a strong race visually, but I’m starting to believe that maybe we’ve only scratched the surface with him and there is still a lot of improvement there. We’ll find out on Saturday when he faces far more talented horses.


17—Rocket Can (Bill Mott, Into Mischief – Tension, by Tapit)

Bill Mott had to pick his poison and he chose a deep, wide-open Arkansas Derby for Rocket Can over crossing paths with Forte again. He had a great shot to finish second again in the Florida Derby and pick up big points, and while he likely has a better shot to win the Arkansas Derby, he also has a better shot to finish out of the money and come away with nothing facing the likes of Reincarnate, Angel of Empire, Red Route One, Two Eagles River, and several up and comers. It all depends on how much improvement he’s made since his well-beaten second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and how he handles the move to Oaklawn. If he takes another significant step forward and gets a good trip in a big field he could be right there. This is a tougher spot overall, but you have respect Mott’s decision to go for broke and try for the win.


18—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

I expect to move him higher following this weekend’s races. Following his stunning six-furlong work in 1:12 4/5 at Fair Grounds I am looking forward to seeing him go up against Tapit Trice in the Blue Grass Stakes following his unlucky trip in the Rebel Stakes. He will also be facing the runaway Gotham winner Raise Cain and possibly the Rebel winner Confidence Game, who could go straight to the Derby. So with or without Confidence Game this is shaping up as an intriguing race. I gave him a pass in the Rebel after being hampered by traffic at a crucial point in the race and still managing to finish fourth. I am more inclined to look at his 5 1/4-length allowance victory over Gun Pilot and Two Eagles River and his second-place finish in the Champagne Stakes coming off one six-furlong maiden score. With all the strong Derby contenders Cox had at one point, he could be one of the strongest by the first Saturday in May with a big effort in the Blue Grass.


19—Two Eagles River (Chris Hartman, Cloud Computing – Majestic Island, by Majestic Warrior)

The more I watch his allowance victory over Disarm the more impressed I am from a visual standpoint and by how fast he closed. I decided to put him in the rankings after seeing how fast Disarm came home once again in the Louisiana Derby. This is a horse who got a monster 104 Brisnet speed figure in his career debut going five furlongs in the slop and then ran back-to-back figures of 95. After a regression stretching out to a mile he went back up to a 96 in his last start with a 103 late pace figure. I can’t say this is a Kentucky Derby horse and I don’t know if he can carry is speed a mile and a quarter, as he does have several speed influences in his female family, but I can see him taking the Arkansas Derby field a long way, depending on how Reincarnate breaks and what his strategy will be.


20—Cyclone Mischief (Dale Romans, Into Mischief – Areyoucominghere, by Bernardini)

With the exception of Forte, the Florida Derby has come up a weak race, and there is no reason to believe he won’t take them farther than he did when third in the Fountain of Youth, which was a big bounce back race after his dismal performance in the Holy Bull Stakes. You can bet if he picks up enough points Romans will run him in the Kentucky Derby. His only two victories have come in a maiden and an allowance race, but he was right there at the eighth pole in the Fountain and only gave way late when Forte pulled away from him. He could go right to the front again on Saturday if no one challenges him, but he is more than capable of sitting just off the pace, as he did in his 5 3/4-length allowance victory.



If you want to know how difficult it was to close from off the pace in the Louisiana Derby after those extremely slow fractions just watch the way INSTANT COFFEE picked off horses on the far turn like he was going to blow by everyone only to have his big move stopped abruptly once they turned for home. Remember, he had been off a long time and could very well have been a bit short coming back at 1 3/16 miles. Now I don’t know where he stands. I would keep him at the bottom of the Rankings, feeling he needed the race, but with only 32 points and a number of big races still to be run, there is a major question of whether he will make the cut. That is the drawback when you skip a race with a seemingly healthy horse and then have to lay everything on the line in one race off a layoff and stretching out that far in distance. We’ll just have to monitor how the leader board shapes up in the weeks to come.

I debated long and hard what to do with CONFIDENCE GAME, who I admit deserves to be ranked off his record. But I honestly don’t know what’s going on with him mentally that forced Keith Desormeaux to skip both the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbys and even contemplate going straight to the Kentucky Derby off a 10-week layoff. If the reason is mental that doesn’t bode well for the Derby anyway. So the final option is running in the Blue Grass Stakes, which is going to be a tough race. But if he runs he definitely will return to the Rankings, and if he doesn’t I just can’t see him being a factor off such a long layoff and the reason for it.

The unknown factor for the Florida Derby will be California invader FORT BRAGG, who was scratched from the Sunland Derby by new trainer Tim Yakteen and re-routed to Gulfstream to take on Forte. The son of Tapit was third in the Los Alamitos Futurity and most recently finished fifth in the San Felipe.

The isn’t much to say about Sunday’s Sunland Derby won by 35-1 shot WILD ON ICE, who was beaten more than 20 lengths in both the Riley Allison Derby and Mine The Bird Derby. But this time he tracked the two big favorites, HARD TO FIGURE and HENRY Q and went on to outduel LOW EXPECTATIONS while they both tired.

Here is this week’s trivia quiz. What do these 3-year-old stakes horses have in common? Fountain of Youth winner Forte, Rebel winner Confidence Game, Risen Star winner Angel of Empire, Gotham winner Raise Cain, Gotham runner-up Slip Mahoney, and Mine That Bird Derby winner Henry Q? Answer: All sold at the world’s most exclusive yearling sale, Keeneland September, for under $200,000. Angel of Empire sold for $70,000 and Confidence Game fo $25,000. Even the Kentucky Derby favorite Forte sold for only $110,000. It’s fine if people want to spend millions for yearlings in Book 1 and 2 of the sale, but you can find a top horse way down in the late books if you know what you’re looking at and have a bit of luck. So far this year the Derby trail has been dominated by Keeneland’s Bargain Basement Babies.

ARCTIC ARROGANCE continues to build up his stamina for the Wood Memorial, working six furlongs in a quick 1:13 1/5. This is a tough, hard-trying horse with a strong foundation who has been in his share of battles and you can bet he will make his presence felt in the Wood as he always does. Watch for him to possibly make the Rankings next week, depending what happens on Saturday.

Earlier I mentioned MAGE as a horse who should show big improvement in the Florida Derby after being competitive and giving way grudgingly against Forte in the Fountain of Youth. He was right there going eyeball to eyeball with him turning for home. He had a strange work this week, breezing six furlongs in 1:16 2/5. If that is what trainer Gustavo Delgado was looking for perhaps he is trying to take some of his speed away from him. This is a horse who won his debut going seven furlongs in 1:22 2/5.

The consistent and hard-knocking CLASSIC CAR WASH, second in the Tampa Bay Derby and third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes after impressive victories in a maiden and allowance race, breezed a half in :49 4/5 for trainer Mark Casse. This is another horse who is improving at the right time.

With one serious Japanese horse already to consider, we might want to throw in a couple more possibilities. We have already mentioned MANDARIN HERO who runs in the Santa Anita Derby, and now we have MITONO O, who captured the 1 1/8-mile Fukuryu Stakes, the final race on Japan’s road to the Kentucky Derby.  The son of Japanese-bred Logotype was able to score a wire-to-wire 2 1/2-length victory over the right-handed track at Nakayama. Runner-up MOKKU MOKKU closed fast and late from far back and way out in the middle of the track to cut the winner’s margin down from five to six lengths while never threatening.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 9

Monday, March 20th, 2023

We are in the mid-March eye of the storm where we have a brief lull before the second and more powerful blast hits us. Until then we take a deep breath, get through the eerie stillness, and prepare for the second wave, which will hit first in New Orleans. In addition to analyzing the Louisiana Derby we made a few changes in the Rankings order due to timing and added one new horse. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: March 20, 2023 – Week 9

By Steve Haskin

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

All we’re waiting for now is the Florida Derby to see if he is still the solid favorite for the Kentucky Derby after the race. To be frank, I don’t see anyone in Florida who looks good enough to beat him; certainly not the horses he handled so easily in the Fountain of Youth or anyone from the Holy Bull. In this game you hate to be so bold as to say he looks to have a free pass, as some young horses do make rapid improvement this time of year, but this has been a slow bunch and no one has given any indication that they are going to make such a sudden leap forward they can beat this colt, although the lightly raced Mage should improve big-time off his fourth in the Fountain of Youth. Granted, Forte’s speed figures have not exactly been though the roof and he’s been running the same Thoro-Graph numbers he ran last fall. But all he has to do is maintain those numbers to beat these horses. Then we’ll see how they stack up with the others in the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps an out-of-town horse needing points and wanting to avoid a large contentious field will ship in trying to at least pick up second-place points. Forte had an easy half-mile breeze in :50 3/5 on Sunday.


2—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

He remains sharp with a half-mile breeze in :47 3/5 for the Santa Anita Derby. Earlier in the year it looked as if the Southern California contingent was the thinnest, with Bob Baffert horses, many of whom wouldn’t be heading to the Derby, dominating the group. But they have sorted themselves out with several improving colts bursting on the scene. As a result, Practical Move, the clear-cut leader of the pack, looks to be facing stiffer competition in his final prep than Forte. Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner should both improve off the San Felipe and National Treasure is back and working lights out. There is also the unknown factor, Mandarin Hero from Japan. And let’s not forget that Baffert is still around and dangerous with his non-Derby horse Cave Rock, who is training brilliantly. Yakteen has to decide the best way of getting Practical Move, his main priority, having developed the colt, to the Kentucky Derby while also doing what’s right for National Treasure and Reincarnate, who have been entrusted in his care. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s going to take good planning and some luck to not have any of these horses facing each other before the Derby. Practical Move has really found his niche and has developed into a sound, dependable, and professional racehorse who definitely should improve off the San Felipe.


3—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

The biggest action this week is still trying to figure out what we think of Tapit Trice after his polarizing victory in the Tampa Bay Derby. We’ve heard it all. He showed how special he is by coming from so far back and mowing down the field in the stretch…His slow start and lack of pushbutton acceleration are going to hurt him in a 20-horse field…Once he gets rolling he is a runaway bulldozer and you don’t want to get in his way…His Beyer regression to a mediocre 88 shows he is too slow to win the Derby…He finds a way to win, whether it’s a gut-wrenching stretch battle to the wire, an eight-length romp stalking the pace, or coming from dead-last to win going away…He still has a lot to learn and only one race to get his act together. All we can add this week is that his Thoro-Graph number, after improving two points in every race, only went from a 4 1/2 to a 4 1/4, and he would need a far bigger improvement than that in his next start. Fortunately, no one has run faster than a 2 this year, so he is not dealing with a particularly fast bunch of 3-year-olds up to this point. That could change after the final preps. Bottom line is I thought he was special when I ranked him No. 7 off a neck maiden win, which I never do, and my opinion of him hasn’t changed. He still has two months to smooth out any rough edges.


4—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

Brad Cox’s “hit show” will be at Fair Grounds this weekend when he fires some of his heavy ammo in the Louisiana Derby and then sets off another round the following week in the Arkansas Derby. But his real hit show may turn out to be in the Wood Memorial on April 9 when he will run either this colt to try to duplicate his powerful victory in the Withers Stakes, which would send him into the Kentucky Derby off back-to-back mile and an eighth races, or Gotham runner-up Slip Mahoney or both. The latter is there and looks certain to run. Hit Show is back working steadily at Fair Grounds, so who knows if he’ll ship back up north or go to the Blue Grass Stakes. Just as a reminder he will not turn 3 until three days after the Kentucky Derby so he has been a late bloomer who has improved with every work and every race since he was a baby. And his speed figures have also improved with every race to the point where his Thoro-Graph number in the Withers has not been topped by any 3-year-old. Because of his May 9 foaling date, for him to break his maiden in a romp in his career debut in October of his 2-year-old campaign is impressive as is winning a 1 1/8-mile stakes on February 11 at 3. What will help him in the Derby is that he has always been very laid back and just a smart, straight-forward colt. He still has to face better quality horses, but other than that he has shown he has all the qualities to be a top Derby contender.


5—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

He turned in a strong six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5 in company. As of now it looks like he will return to Oaklawn Park for the Arkansas Derby, with Yakteen having Practical Move as the top dog in Southern California. So, what do we know about this colt? We know he is a fighter and hard to get by in the stretch. We know he can battle through adversity and adapt to different situations, such as a breaking slowly and having to deviate from his normal running style and then overcoming a mugging in the stretch and still closing strongly to get third. It’s good to know you can be confident no matter where he is in the race and what problems he may face. We also know he is an imposing physical specimen with fluid action and he has as solid a foundation as any of them, having run six times, all at a mile or farther. He also has finished first or second on fast and sloppy tracks and on grass. So at this young stage of his life he boasts quite a resume. Now he just has to pick it up a notch and keep moving forward. If you look at his distinctive charcoal gray coat with the white splotches, there is a resemblance (with far fewer splotches) to the great Irish-bred stallion The Tetrarch, also known as “The Spotted Wonder,” to whom he traces back through grays Holy Bull, The Axe, and Mahmoud, who is a great-grandson of The Tetrarch.


6—Raise Cain (Ben Colebrook, Violence – Lemon Belle, by Lemon Drop Kid

Barry Eisaman, who broke him, said he was an ideal horse to be around who had no bad habits and took everything new in stride. No matter what he was introduced to he immediately handled it like a pro. As Eisaman put it he was like a college kid in high school. When looking at the early stages of a potential Derby horse this is what you want to see. Pedigree-wise, many have forgotten Lemon Drop Kid, who only won the Belmont, Travers, Whitney, Woodward, Suburban and Brooklyn. Raise Cain’s second dam is by Pacific Classic and Woodward winner and Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Bertando, who is by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Skywalker. His tail-female family traces to Man o’ War through his son, Triple Crown winner War Admiral. His huge Thoro-Graph leap from a 12 1/4 to a 2 in the Gotham would suggest a possible regression in his next start, whether the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass, but if he doesn’t, watch out. I think the 2 is for real, as he has a 7 3/4 and a 6 1/4 to fall back on and a 2 would be a natural progression from those figures. The 12 1/4 I believe was an outlier as a result of it being his first start on a synthetic surface, which he apparently did not care for. So if you eliminate that race he is on a better pattern than his figures might suggest.


7—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

With Angel of Fire, Confidence Game, and Red Route One all passing the Louisiana Derby, it does make his job a lot easier, as he is now by far the class of the race. In a 12-horse field devoid of speed he at least should have a ground-saving trip breaking from post 2. But with two months off he could be fresh enough to stay closer to the pace than usual. His big advantage now is that a number of his potential threats, such as Disarm, Kingsbarns, Shopper’s Revenge, and Cagliostro are all lightly raced horses with no stakes experience. And two of the proven stakes horses, Curly Jack and Jace’s Road, are coming off bad races. So, although he hasn’t run in a while, he should be able to handle these horses unless one of the lightly raced horses, especially Disarm and Kingsbarns, is a major star in the making, his stablemate Jace’s Road can steal the race as the only horse with speed, or he comes up short after the long layoff. He had his final work Saturday, breezing five furlongs in a solid 1:01. Instant Coffee really needs to run and get a 1 3/16-mile race under him because of the six-week gap to the Kentucky Derby. With the way this race came up, even if he beats these horses we still won’t know how good he really is. But he definitely has to be respected because he knows how to win and will have three graded stakes victories to his credit.


8—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

Some may feel he was hanging a bit through the stretch in the San Felipe, but he is still a work in progress and is just now figuring it all out. He runs like a horse who is going to keep improving as the distances stretch out, but from a pedigree standpoint he is still a bit of an enigma. Although Curlin and Malibu Moon are stamina influences hIs dam was a sprinter and a full-sister to a grade 2-winning sprinter and is second dam was a sprinter. So it’s hard to guess how far he wants to go. Right now we can only go by how he’s run in his two races this year and knowing he has a patient trainer who knows how to get into the mind of his horses and get the most out of them. And Shirreffs and the colt’s exercise rider have been working with him over the winter, and he sure looks like a different horse this year, as evidenced by his Brisnet figures climbing to a 96 and 98 and his Beyers from in the 60s and 70s to a 95 and 94. So whatever Shirreffs has done with him appears to be working.


9—National Treasure (Tim Yakteen, Quality Road – Treasure, by Medaglia d’Oro)

Although he’s lost his last three starts and hasn’t run since early January I am going to add him for his consistency in top-class company and for the way he returned to the work tab after not having worked for almost a month. Earlier this year he twice worked in company with Reincarnate and was put on the lead and refused to let Reincarnate get his head in front at the wire and in the gallop-out. He returned after being scratched in the San Felipe due to a foot bruise with a brilliant six-furlong work in 1:11 4/5, which is a heckuva first work back. He followed that up with a five-furlong drill in 1:00 flat so he should be ready for a big comeback effort. This colt has been second to Cave Rock in the grade 1 American Pharoah and third to Forte and Cave Rock in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He has run four times and has not gotten a Brisnet figure of under 90, with a 101 in the American Pharoah. And that 90 was in his career debut; he has not gotten under a 96 since. On Thoro-Graph his slowest number has been a 6 1/4 in his career debut and he got a 2 3/4 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. So there is a lot to recommend him and now that he is back with a series of strong works and is with Yakteen he has to be considered a legitimate contender. While the Santa Anita Derby looks to be the most convenient spot for his return, it would make more sense to keep them all separated. He is nominated to the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass looks like a great spot for him unless he starts tearing the barn down before then.


10—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

All systems are go for the Arkansas Derby. He worked five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 on March 13 and is scheduled to have one more work. You normally wouldn’t get overly excited about a horse who is one-for-seven, but I keep watching his races and I’m still impressed with what I see despite the record. In his seven starts, six of them have been at 1 1/16 miles and the other at one mile, so you can’t ask for a better foundation. He handles fast and sloppy tracks and grass and has run at five different racetracks. And in his last three races I still believe he would have won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes had he not been completely shut off in the stretch while making what looked like a winning move; then he came from far back to finish second to the brilliant Arabian Knight in the Southwest Stakes; and in his last start he closed from almost 20 lengths back in the Rebel Stakes to finish second, beaten a length despite finishing on his wrong lead. And before that he rallied late to snatch third behind Forte in the Breeders’ Futurity, nipping Instant Coffee on the wire. Of course he is totally pace dependent and can’t afford to be as far back as he was in the Rebel, but let’s see what he does returning to a fast track. 


11—Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

Even though he won the Risen Star it makes sense that Cox doesn’t want to pit his two most accomplished colts against each other at Fair Grounds, so he will wait for the following week’s Arkansas Derby. I really have no idea how good this colt is, and in many ways neither do is connections, who are excited to see him go 1 1/4 miles. Despite coming off a win and a second in stakes he still has not reached a 90 Beyer figure. But his Brisnet figures have shown a big jump every race ending with an excellent 97 in the Risen Star, while his Thoro-Graph numbers leaped from a 9 1/4 to a 2 1/2, so he can probably use the extra week. He has fallen through the cracks since he was a baby, partly because he is a Pennsylvania-bred and was by a freshman sire. His dam is by Honor and Serve, his second dam is by Carson City, his third dam is by Metfield, and his fourth dam is by Whitesburg, so there aren’t any real glamour names there. First he was a $32,000 RNA as a weanling at the Keeneland November mixed sale and then the following year the Albaugh family snatched him out of the depths of the Keeneland September yearling sale for a meager $70,000. According to the Albaughs’ racing manager Jason Loutsch, “He went through all our hoops.” Now that he has turned into a tiger he has one more hoop to go through before he takes his “no one wanted me” story to Churchill Downs.


12—Geaux Rocket Ride (Dick Mandella, Candy Ride – Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo)

I have to admit I have no idea where to rank this horse, so I will keep him down here until the Louisiana, Florida, and Arkansas Derby horses sort themselves out. The more I watch the San Felipe Stakes the more impressed I am, especially the professionalism he showed with only one sprint under him and how strongly he was striding out in the stretch, pulling clear of Hejazi and holding Skinner at bay after cutting to the inside turning for home. If he had one more start and didn’t have to go into the Kentucky Derby off only three lifetime starts and none at 2 I would have him ranked in the top six. He is such a beautiful mover and has such a strong pedigree I believe he has stardom written all over him. But I just can’t get past his lack of racing, as crazy as that may seem in this new era of lightly raced horses. He’ll have his work cut out for him in the Santa Anita Derby, but he has as much right to improve big-time as anyone. And if he should beat Practical Move and the others then I’m going to have to start thinking less about the three starts and more about how gifted he is. I learned that lesson the hard way with Justify. In the meantime, as far as being ranked No. 12, think of him being in a holding pattern until some of the smoke clears over the next two weeks.


13—Rocket Can (Bill Mott, Into Mischief – Tension, by Tapit)

Although he still has many question marks I can’t get him out of my mind because every time I think of him I start hearing Elton John and substituting his name. That nonsense aside there is really nothing to add about him other than he is improving, but it seems too slowly to be considered a major threat to Forte in the Florida Derby if that is where Mott winds up running him. While he could easily get second again he might seem more suited to a race like the Blue Grass even though that likely will have a larger and much deeper field. But by then he may have improved even more, and if so could even have a shot to win. If points were still an issue then going for second again in the Florida Derby might be the smart way to go, but it is not an issue so Mott will just have to decide the best way of getting to the Kentucky Derby and being competitive. This colt does have a bright future; I’m just not sure if it’s going to be on the first Saturday in May. If you are looking for a bright spot he did turn in a bullet half-mile work in :48 3/5, fastest of 19 works at the distance. That is a very quick work at Payson Park, so maybe he is sharper and closer to peaking than one might think.


14—Slip Mahoney (Brad Cox, Arrogate – Get Lucky, by A.P. Indy)

He breezed a half in :49 at Belmont. By him remaining in New York all winter he no doubt is headed for the Wood Memorial. Whether Hit Show returns and joins him is still up in the air. It’s just too bad no one got an opportunity to bet on him in the latest Kentucky Derby Future Wager despite a number of horses with far less credentials being put in the field of 39. I still believe this is a legitimate Derby contender, and like Geaux Rocket Ride, he has only been lowered until we get some clarity over the next three weeks. Last week I said this was my Derby sleeper and based on the lack of respect he received from Churchill Downs I still believe that. He is a proven fighter, made Tapit Trice run is guts out to beat him a neck, and, like Reincarnate, showed he can shrug off a slow start, adjust to having to come from far back for the first time, and still rally to finish in the money. In his case he had to go nine to 10-wide at the top of the stretch to do it. To say he has a strong pedigree would be a gross understatement. We’ll go into that in detail next week. Until he proves otherwise, I believe he is a serious horse.


15—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

He breezed a strong five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 for the Arkansas Derby, where I am looking for a huge move forward off his troubled fourth in the Rebel Stakes. He is one of many Derby prospects who have had their progress stopped or slowed down abruptly either by bad trips, track condition, or other reasons not reported by their connections, such as bleeding, lung infections or whatever. His progress was only slightly hampered because we all saw the traffic problems he had, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t get back on track with a clean trip in the Arkansas Derby. Let’s not forget this is a horse who was able to finish second in the Champagne Stakes off one six-furlong maiden race. He just has to show some consistency and prove that race was for real, even if it was on a sloppy track. We also have to remember that two races back he finished eight lengths ahead of Two Eagles River, who came back to win an allowance race by four lengths over Disarm.



Although we mentioned some of them already, several Louisiana Derby horses were out for their final works at Fair Grounds on Saturday, including INSTANT COFFEE (5f in 1:01), SUN THUNDER (1:01 1/5), and TAPIT’S CONQUEST (1:02 1/5), along with Arkansas Derby hopefuls VERIFYING (1:01 1/5) and CONFIDENCE GAIN (:50). We’re putting Confidence Game on hold for now until we see how he’s doing over the next week or so.

At Palm Beach Downs, KINGSBARNS, who is making quite a leap to 1 3/16 miles in the Louisiana Derby, breezed a half in :49 3/5. Todd Pletcher must think a lot of this colt to run him in this spot off only two lifetime races. But both were extremely impressive, and he got so much schooling in his troubled career debut that his lack of racing might be deceptive. I think he could be a very special horse. Spendthrift Farm surely thought a lot of him when they paid $800,000 for him at the Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale. They and Pletcher both feel it’s worth the shot to find out just what they have before the Kentucky Derby, especially considering what they have could be a lot.

DISARM, who will also be trying to pick up enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby in the Louisiana Derby, despite having only one mile allowance race in almost eight months, turned in a solid six-furlong work in 1:13. There is no question this colt has the talent and has always been highly thought of. It’s just a question of whether he is ready to take on 11 opponents, including several experienced stakes horses off that one second place allowance finish. But that was actually a stronger race than you might think with the front-running winner coming home so fast and him matching strides with him in the final furlong. He also was caught looking around at the start and broke a few steps slowly, but they have been working on that. Now he gets Joel Rosario. I happen to think he and Kingsbarns are very serious horses who should run big despite their inexperience.

While on the subject of lightly raced, but talented horses, SHOPPER’S REVENGE is another to keep an eye on after an impressive 5 1/4-length maiden win at Oaklawn and a strong second in an allowance race rallying on the far outside after having to go six-wide at the head of the stretch. He is one who definitely will appreciate the extra distance and I know Steve Asmussen is very high on him.

The big question with all these horses will be the pace, as there looks to be only one serious speed horse and that is the Gun Runner Stakes winner JACE’S ROAD, who has to bounce back off his dismal showing in the Southwest Stakes. But his only two poor races have come in the slop so it will be interesting to see how far he will take them on a fast track. If he gets loose on the lead watch out. This horse on his best day is more than capable of wiring this field. On a fast track he has a 6 1/4-length maiden win and a 5 1/2-length wire-to-wire score in the Gun Runner Stakes over eventual runaway Gotham winner Raise Cain. And his other race on a fast track was a close third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by Curly Jack, in the Iroquois Stakes coming off his maiden win.

The horse that beat Shopper’s Revenge, AIRTIME, who got through along the rail, had been claimed the race before for $50,000 by Robertino Diodoro while winning by 10 1/4 lengths, something we’ve been seeing a lot in the past few years. He worked five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 Saturday at Oaklawn and could run back in the Arkansas Derby, which is now shaping up as a very strong race.

Not too many are paying much attention to Saturday’s Jeff Ruby Steaks, despite its 100 points, but it is shaping up as an excellent race with several promising horses who will still have to make the transition to dirt. The main contenders are the Battaglia winner CONGRUENT and the Leonatus winner FUNTASTIC AGAIN, who has back-to-back runaway victories at Turfway Park. One horse to keep an eye on at a price is SCOOBIE QUANDO, who has a win and two seconds at Turfway, has a good turn of foot, and ran a big race rallying for second in the Battaglia. The son of Uncle Mo has the same connections as Gotham winner Raise Cain.

Because he was spread real thin, Doug O’Neill decided to send his recent maiden winner HENRY Q, a son of Blame, to Todd Fincher at Sunland Park to run in the Mine That Bird Derby and Sunland Derby, after which he would be returned to him. Although he didn’t beat much in the former, Henry Q suddenly found himself on the Derby trail by scoring a 14 3/4-length victory in a snappy 1:41 2/5 for the 1 1/16 miles and at this point looks to be the horse to beat in the Sunland Derby. Another O’Neill 3-year-old who found himself on the Derby trail out of nowhere was last weekend’s maiden winner I DON’T GET IT, whose three-quarter-length victory may have propelled him into the big Derby preps, with his next target possibly the Wood Memorial or Santa Anita Derby, according to O’Neill. He and the colt’s owner Paul Reddam are fearless when it comes to running horses in races that seem to be way over their head.  But they have won two Kentucky Derbys together, so they have earned free passes to do whatever they want.

Also in Sunday’s Sunland Derby, Bob Baffert has entered HARD TO FIGURE, who is coming off a second, beaten a neck, in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and has turned in two sensational works since, going six furlongs in 1:12 flat and then working five furlongs in a bullet :58 4/5, fastest of 69 works at the distance, in company with Arabian Lion.

With two horses in both the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbys, Kenny McPeek was able to send HAYES STRIKE to Laurel for this past Saturday’s Private Terms Stakes, and the son of Connect drew off to a 1 3/4-length victory at 8-1 over 8-5 favorite Coffeewithchris. Although he had only one victory, a second and a third in eight career starts, he was a fast-closing third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and was second to Two Phil’s in the Street Sense Stakes and fourth in the Iroquois Stakes, all at Churchill Downs. From a Kentucky historic standpoint he is owned and bred by Dixiana Farms, which has been around since 1877.

A sleeper to watch in the Arkansas Derby is TWO EAGLES RIVER, who really seems to be coming into his own for trainer Chris Hartman with an impressive front-running victory over Disarm in a one-mile allowance race and then turning in brilliant works of :47 flat for a half and :59 flat for five-furlongs. What I loved most about his allowance score was his action in the stretch and the way he was striding out, as well as his fast closing fractions. I’m not sure how far he wants to go, as there is a lot of speed in the bottom of his pedigree, but the way he won that allowance race it looks like he should be dangerous up to at least 1 1/8 miles and we’ll take it from there after that.

Looking ahead to the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Terunobu Fujita is excited about running MANDARIN HERO, who is coming off a fast-closing second in a 1 1/8-mile stakes on February 23. Fujita has always dreamed of running a horse in the Santa Anita Derby, having visited the track. He says the colt’s big weapon is his acceleration in the stretch and how he loves to “chase down other horses.” He is scheduled to arrive at LAX on March 29.

But if Baffert is planning on running CAVE ROCK for his first start of the year, the trainers with Derby horses better beware. Last year’s California sensation, who I believe has more natural talent than any of them, has been tearing up the track in the morning with a pair of :58 and change works and now an outstanding  seven-furlong drill in 1:25 1/5. Layoff or no layoff, if he runs in the Santa Anita Derby he could dash a lot of Derby hopes. And no matter who wins the Kentucky Derby I wouldn’t want to face him in the Preakness.

In the forgotten horse department, we have ARCTIC ARROGANCE, second in the Remsen, Jerome, and Withers, the last with blinkers added. This is one tough horse who has battled for the lead in his last five starts and already has two 1 1/8-mile races under his belt. Whether Linda Rice takes the blinkers off for the Wood Memorial we will see. Also forgotten is the horse who beat him in the Remsen, DUBYUHNELL, who ran terribly in the Sam F. Davis Stakes after steadying early. But he has been working at Palm Meadows, with a recent half-mile breeze in :48 2/5.

I haven’t been able to find out what happened to BLAZING SEVENS in the Fountain of Youth, but the good sign is that he returned to the work tab with a half-mile breeze in :49 1/5 at Payson Park. At Gulfstream Park, CYCLONE MISCHIEF, third in the Fountain of Youth, worked a half in :48 2/5 for a likely start in the Florida Derby.

I doubt that last Wednesday’s Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes at Kempton in England had any bearing on the Derby, as the winner, BRAVE EMPEROR, won by only a head, but it at least must be pointed out that the Irish-bred gelding by Scat Daddy’s son Sioux Nation has now won six straight and was coming off a listed victory in France.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 8

Monday, March 13th, 2023

In addition to our take on the Tampa Bay Derby we have a number of changes to the rankings order with a focus this week on the various speed ratings to get an idea of how fast…or slow these horses are. Next week we will have to somehow plow though the annual dead March weekend with no stakes before the main attractions begin with the Louisiana Derby, the first of the 100-point races. In the meantime enjoy “Big Red’s March to the Derby,” my column on Secretariat’s winter and early spring races of 1973, and my first of several columns to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Big Red’s Triple Crown campaign. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: March 13, 2023 – Week 8

By Steve Haskin


1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

Let’s start as always start with the Thoro-Graph figures, and Forte’s numbers may be very revealing in their lack of movement. In his final three races last year he got in order a 3 3/4, 2 3/4, and 2 1/2, which for a 2-year-old are consistently fast. Having only two starts before the Derby, there isn’t much time to get into the Derby-winning numbers you want to see. So Forte in the Fountain of Youth got another 2 1/2, which indicates he hasn’t shown any improvement numbers-wise from 2 to 3. While that may be true, let’s first take into account that we haven’t had any fast numbers from this crop and all Forte has to do is improve about a point in his final prep to put him in a good position to win the Derby, maybe not even that much. The same goes for his Beyer figs, which went from a 100 in the Breeders’ Cup to a 98, which doesn’t make him any faster than many of the others. However, his Brisnet figure for the Fountain of Youth improved from a 100 to a 103. He is the only 3-year-old to post three triple-digit Brisnet figures and his 103 is the fastest this year by a 3-year-old. If you are looking to beat him, the second and third-place finishers of the Fountain of Youth had slow Thoro-Graph numbers going into the race. All you want to see in his final prep is improve his speed figures just a bit and beat faster horses than he beat in the Fountain of Youth.


2—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

This colt’s big strength as a Derby horse is his mind. Barry Eisaman, who broke him and prepared him for the sale, said he never once made a mistake and was always a “quiet, sensible horse with a wonderful stride.” As for the chaos of the Derby, Eisaman said, “He couldn’t care less. You could drop him in the crowded paddock from a helicopter and he wouldn’t turn a hair.” So that’s one thing his connections won’t have to worry about. Like Forte, we have a top horse pairing up his career-high Thoro-Graph number in his first start at 3. Practical Move’s number was not as fast as Forte with a 3 3/4, which was his number in the Los Alamitos Futurity in his final start at 2. His improvement has been gradual with an 8 1/2 being the slowest he has ever run. He was far more advanced and battle-tested than the horses who finished second, third, and fourth in the San Felipe, so like Forte he should face tougher opponents in his final prep, likely the Santa Anita Derby. But are there tougher opponents in Southern California? He is the only 3-year-old with triple-digit numbers last out in both Beyer and Brisnet and also the only 3-year-old along with Forte with back-to-back triple-digit figures in his last two starts. In the San Felipe he was able to increase his Brisnet late pace figure from a career-high 94 to a lofty 107. So he does have a strong closing kick. 


3—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

There certainly will be mixed feelings about his two-length victory in the Tampa Bay Derby as the 1-2 favorite, with most everyone expecting a blowout score over what looked to be a pretty weak field. And his 88 Beyer figure will surely be frowned upon by many. What he showed is that he is extremely talented and a powerhouse of a horse who still hasn’t figured it all out. He has a powerful engine, but it needs more torque to accelerate quicker from the start. He kept looking back and forth in the gate and when they broke he really did nothing wrong, breaking cleanly, but he lacked that pushbutton acceleration and before he and Luis Saez knew it they were dead last in the 12-horse field and dropping far back. Down the backstretch he was still last and you had to wonder if he was handling the track, which some horses don’t. He started to make a move between horses but then actually lost a little ground and his backers had to be in panic mode. He finally was able to find his best stride on the turn and began closing the gap, but still had a lot of ground to make up. He swung eight or nine wide and with his engine now fully revved up you knew there was no stopping him now. He came charging down the middle of the track picking off horses one by one and quickly drew clear. He has now won three straight, all in completely different ways. I still believe he is special, but he is fortunate there weren’t any top horses in this race. He still has a lot to learn and has one more race to be Derby ready.


4—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

Nothing to do now but wait for the Wood Memorial on April 9 where he will try to win back-to-back 1 1/8-mile stakes. His Beyer and Brisnet speed figures are not going to blow you away with a career-high 91 Beyer and a solid career-high 96 Brisnet, but is Thoro-Graph pattern is arguably the strongest of any 3-year-old, going from a 12 3/4 to a 4 3/4 to a 2. Any expected “bounce” after such a gigantic jump not only didn’t happen he moved forward again with the 2, which is still the fastest number this year. While he is on a strong upward trajectory it does tell you something about this year’s crop of 3-year-olds when not a single colt has run faster than a 2 in the middle of March. With him, though, it is just where you want him, and he should appreciate the two-month layoff after running such a good number going a mile and an eighth. He has plenty of foundation and has proven he can run well at any distance and on any racetrack, having competed at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Oaklawn Park, and Aqueduct. As for his stamina, he sure gets that from his sire and broodmare sire; his second dam is by two-time Santa Anita Handicap winner Milwaukee Brew; and of his dam’s four third generation sires, three of them won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.


5—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

We have a tale of two horses with this colt or two tales of a horse, however you want to look at it. The first tale is about his speed figures, which may turn some people off, as they regressed all around in the Rebel Stakes. His Thoro-Graph number regressed from a 2 3/4 to a 4, his Beyer from a 95 to a 90, and his Brisnet from a 98 to a 92. The other tale is all about visuals and no horse has impressed me more visually than this colt. First let’s remember that he had no business finishing third in the Rebel considering to horrible trip he had and all he had to overcome. That he was able to shrug it all off and was running powerfully at the end says a lot about him. Remember that Verifying, the other horse who had trouble in the Rebel, also saw his speed figures regress. When Reincarnate had a good trip in the Sham his speed figures were as fast as any of them. Getting back to the visuals, this colt has such powerful strides, yet is so smooth he is a pleasure to watch. I loved his last work, a half in :47 4/5, and that Yakteen had him work by himself. The rider, not wanting to go too fast, kept looking down at his watch and was practically standing up in the saddle. He displayed that beautiful action in the final furlong and was really reaching out at the end. So forget the Rebel figures; this colt has all the tools.


6—Raise Cain (Ben Colebrook, Violence – Lemon Belle, by Lemon Drop Kid

I’ve gotten to really like this colt. He is an enigma considering how dominant he was in the Gotham Stakes at odds of 23-1 and having an up and down career before that race, but as we explained last week his races from a visual standpoint were much better than they looked in his past performances and his so-called downs were his career debut and two races on a synthetic track. To demonstrate those up and downs, on Thoro-Graph he jumped from a 21 to 7 3/4, then regressed badly to an 11 1/2, then jumped again to a 6 1/4, then regressed badly again to 12 1/4. So you would naturally expect another jump in the Gotham, despite the size of the field and facing much better horses. But his 7 1/2-length romp rallying from 11th far exceeded expectations with a monstrous jump to a 2, faster than Forte and Practical Joke and as fast as any 3-year-old this year. His Brisnet Late Pace figure also skyrocketed from an 86 to a 106. And he did that having a loose horse on his outside down the backstretch, having to check hard nearing the quarter pole, not changing leads until the sixteenth pole, and having the loose horse on his inside, running with him in the final furlong. His Beyer and Brisnet speed figures show the same extreme up and down pattern, and while his 90 in the Gotham on both figures is nowhere near as fast as his Thoro-Graph number he did jump 20 and 10 points, respectively, from his previous race.


7—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

Although he basically paired up his career-high Thoro-Graph number with a 4 1/2 in his maiden win and a 4 1/4 in the San Felipe, he had made an enormous leap from a 17 in his final start at 2, so pairing up such a huge jump was good. But with only one more start he would probably need about a two-point improvement to put himself in a position to have a legitimate shot at winning the Derby. Shirreffs said one of the major factors in the colt’s improvement was his new exercise rider’s ability to develop gears in the horse, which takes good hands; also to change his habit of grabbing the bit and pulling , which they are taught early, to not pulling and keeping his head down. His new rider also was able to keep his hands down on the colt and be able to hold him from running off. So it seems obvious that Skinner has passed Shirreffs 101 and has developed into a more tractable, professional horse over the winter, as we’ve seen in his two races this year.


8—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

I know all horses are individuals and each one has their strengths and weaknesses, but looking at the Fair Grounds-based horses, most of them residing in the barn of Brad Cox, and the races they have run, I have to admit I find it difficult telling them apart. It seems as if Instant Coffee, Angel of Empire, Sun Thunder, Confidence Game, Tapit’s Conquest, and several others have become interchangeable. I won’t go so far as to use the word boring, but I’m waiting for some of these horses to do something exciting. As far as Instant Coffee in concerned, to be honest I can’t remember that much about him, not having seen him for so long. I know he is a closer and has run some big races following a cavalry charge of horses down the stretch, but he certainly is not considered brilliant by any means. When I see him I kinda see Angel of Empire, although he is a bit more accomplished. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying this colt can’t win the Derby, even with his lack of racing in February and March; I just can’t get a feel for who he is and how good he is. It’s just been too long.  He did work a solid five furlongs in 1:01, so at least he is progressing nicely for the Louisiana Derby, where hopefully he will tell us more about himself.


9—Geaux Rocket Ride (Dick Mandella, Candy Ride – Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo)

As I have said many times I don’t like horses going into the Derby with only three lifetime starts, but in a year like this there is no reason not to move him up considering how strong he was in the San Felipe Stakes against the No. 2 ranked horse. That race wasn’t extremely fast on Thoro-Graph, but he at least improved from a 6 1/2 in his career debut to a 4 1/2, and he now has only one more race to take another step forward. However, his Beyer went from a 92 to a very respectable 96 and his Brisnet from a 97 to a 99, putting him right up there with the leaders. What I loved the most was that his Brisnet late pace figure went from a 93 to a 100 and his middle pace figures remained strong at 100 and 95, indicating he has a very high cruising speed and can maintain it throughout the race. Any horse can close fast running middle pace figures in the 70s, but when you’re putting in triple-digit closing figures off equally fast middle figs it means we’re talking about a serious horse who should keep improving as the distances stretch out. Mandella said he’s a very smart horse and that should help him overcome his lack of experience. You could see the maturity in the San Felipe when he ran like a seasoned pro in his first two-turn race.


10—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

He breezed an easy half in :51 for the Louisiana Derby, which should draw a large field of horses whose trainers believe they are geared toward stamina and will appreciate the 1 3/16-mile distance. This colt definitely is one of those with his strong pedigree and powerful late kick. Of course a horse like him who comes from way out of it will need a lot of luck. His Thoro-Graph numbers improved from a 6 1/2 to a 3 3/4 in the Rebel and he just looks like a horse who is now coming into his own. Being by Gun Runner you would think he’d have more early speed, but he just is more comfortable laying back and making that one big run. I like that his Brisnet speed figures have progressed from a 72 to 82 to 90 to 94, and now he needs another move forward. What is interesting is that his best late pace figure of 104 came in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, the race I have been saying he would have won had he not gotten stopped in the stretch making a big run. With it all he still only got beat 1 1/2 lengths. If he can get a decent trip in the Louisiana Derby not be almost 20 lengths back as he was in the Rebel, I believe he will be charging down that long stretch.


11—Slip Mahoney (Brad Cox, Arrogate – Get Lucky, by A.P. Indy)

So let’s get this straight, Churchill Downs puts the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 9th-place finishers of the Fountain of Youth and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-place finishers of the San Felipe in the Future Wager field, but leaves out the 2nd-place finisher of the Gotham, despite being a speed-type horse who broke slowly, dropped back to last of 13, a dozen lengths off the lead, and then rallied 10-wide to get second. What their reasoning was to leave him off a list that contains a number of highly questionable horses who have done nothing in stakes races is beyond me. What makes this all the more confusing is that not only did they leave him off they actually took him off after having him in the previous Future Wager despite having only a head maiden victory to his credit. Granted his Beyer speed figure was nothing to rave about in the Gotham, but because he was that far back and had to rally so far out in the middle of the track I wouldn’t take his slow Beyer figure too seriously. He did after all get a strong 3 on Thoro-Gaph when he broke his maiden in his previous start and made Tapit Trice run his guts out the race before, and his 5 Thoro-Graph number in the Gotham was actually pretty solid considering the horrible trip he had. It makes sense to expect a significant improvement in his next start with a decent trip and stretching out to two turns, which he should relish.


12—Confidence Game (Keith Desormeaux, Candy Ride – Eblouissante, by Bernardini)

I’m still waiting for him to work, as he hasn’t been seen since the Rebel Stakes. Like many of the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn 3-year-olds I simply can’t separate them because they haven’t stood out in any way and haven’t left much of an impression so far. He won the Rebel despite not changing leads, and what was the most impressive aspect of his race was that after five slow races on Thoro-Graph he improved to a 7 and then catapulted all the way to a 2. No 3-year-old has run faster this year, so maybe he is improving rapidly. Like with Instant Coffee he could be a very nice colt who is just coming into his own, but I need to see him again in one of the big preps and we’ll see if he can duplicate his Rebel victory on a fast track or even move forward off it. I actually was more impressed with the runner-up and third-place finisher, but I am keeping an open mind with him because he does have several things going for him. Right now I just want to see him work so we can at least tell how he came out of the Rebel.


13—Rocket Can (Bill Mott, Into Mischief – Tension, by Tapit)

One of the reasons I felt this colt was too slow to be considered a major Derby contender were his three straight Thoro-Graph numbers of 8, so not only wasn’t he improving he wasn’t improving off slow  numbers. But his 4 in the Fountain of Youth brought a ray of hope that perhaps he has turned the corner and finally is getting within striking distance of the top horses. This was backed up by his Beyer and Thoro-Graph figures improving as well. Now the question is can he take another step forward in his final Derby prep. Yes, he was second to Forte in the Fountain of Youth, but there were no heavy hitters behind him. In fact, the third-place finisher was coming off a dreadful performance and the fourth-place finisher was coming off only one seven-furlong maiden race. So while he is moving in the right direction we will see if he has made enough progress to make an impact on his next race against a field that likely will be much deeper in talent.


14Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

Yes, I know I probably have him way too low, but after the top five horses I admit I don’t have a clue where to rank these horses, so I keep shuffling them around depending on where my mindset is at the time and who has impressed me. I’m just looking for horses that excite me, and while you can’t knock his victory in the Risen Star Stakes, this was another five-horse cavalry charge to the wire, in which he emerged at the end to win by a length. I could have just as easily put the runner-up Sun Thunder on here. The Thoro-Graph numbers for that race were more impressive than the race looked visually. Anyway, all these horses will sort themselves out in the Louisiana Derby and we’ll know a lot more about them. He did have an easy half-mile breeze in :50 1/5.


15—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

This was a colt who looked to be on his way to big things until he was stopped, or at least slowed down, by a traffic jam in the upper stretch of the Rebel Stakes after tracking a very fast pace in the slop that killed off the speed and set it up for horses coming from the back of the pack. So while the first three finishers were storming home he was weaving inside and outside looking for an opening that came way too late. What was interesting was that despite his fourth-place finish as the 3-2 favorite, his 5 1/2 Thoro-Graph number was the same as he got winning a strong allowance race by 5 1/4 lengths the race before. He has now become a forgotten horse, even in his own barn, and you could have gotten him at an enticing 50-1 in the Future Wager. All we can do now is wait to see if he can get back on track in the Arkansas Derby.



It came as no surprise to hear ARABIAN KNIGHT is off the Derby trail. Things never felt right with him getting to the Derby with a big shot to win off only three spread out races. His campaign had too many holes in it and periods of inactivity when he should have been running or at least in serious training. As everyone knows by now he has been taken off the Derby trail by Tim Yakteen, who wasn’t happy with his last work. With some time off to regroup he hopefully will be back again and ready to resume what has been a very brief, but brilliant career.

The first of the 100-point stakes, the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby on March 25 is shaping up as the deepest, most wide-open race of the year with the likes of Instant Coffee, Angel of Empire, Litigate, Red Route One, Kingsbarns, Sun Thunder, Curly Jack, Shopper’s Revenge, Tapit’s Conquest, and Denington among others heading in that direction. Brad Cox has an amazing six possible starters, but two of them, Jace’s Road and Victory Formation, both looking to bounce back from poor efforts, could join stablemate Verifying in the Arkansas Derby. One thing is for sure, this race will eliminate a lot of pretenders. Right now we really can’t tell the pretenders from the contenders. Any one of the above horses could win and it wouldn’t be a surprise.

The same day, the UAE Derby could have two or three foreign entrants with designs on the Kentucky Derby. DERMA SOTOGAKE, who has defeated Perriere and was a fast-closing third in the Saudi Derby, and Hyacinth Stakes winner PERRIERE, both from Japan, are very dangerous considering how successful the Japanese horses have been worldwide. Another strong Japanese colt, MANDARIN HERO, winner of four of his five career starts is pointing to the Santa Anita Derby, where he could really upset the proverbial apple cart in California with a victory. I’m wondering how Churchill Downs will really embrace a Japanese horse coming here and possibly embarrassing the best 3-year-olds in America. It’s probably going to happen one year.

While on the subject of foreign horses, Aidan O’Brien could have a live one in CAIRO, a son of Quality Road, who won the one-mile Patton Stakes over the all-weather track at Dundalk by two lengths, following up his equally impressive victory in a group 3 race at Leopardstown on the grass. Stay tuned on Wednesday for the Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes at Kempton in England where the first five finishers will be awarded Derby points with 20 points to the winner.

Although CAVE ROCK is not Derby bound and is remaining with Baffert to point for the Preakness, he could be a major thorn in the side of the Derby horses he meets along the way, as indicated by the blistering works he’s been turning in, the latest being a bullet :58 2/5 drill, which followed a :58 4/5 work the week before. Hell hath no fury like a Baffert scorned.

TWO PHIL’S, second in the LeComte Stakes and third in the Risen Star Stakes, will bid farewell to New Orleans and head to the synthetic surface in the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park.

There is still a slim chance for a two-turn maiden winner to bounce back with a big effort in a major prep, and we had a parade of maiden races on Saturday. At Tampa Bay, the Shug McGaughey-trained PERFORM, a son of Good Magic, put in a powerful run to win going away by 2 1/2 lengths under a hand ride, covering the mile and 40 yards in a solid 1:40 1/5, with Todd Pletcher horses finishing second and third. At Gulfstream Park the 23-1 first-time starter EMPIRESTRIKESFAST, trained by Bill Mott, came again at the head of the stretch to upset the 1-5 favorite DREAMLIKE by three-quarters of a length in 1:44 flat for the 1 1/16 miles. Dreamlike, trained by Pletcher, finished 8 1/4 lengths ahead of the third horse.

At Oaklawn, in the first division going a mile, Wayne Lukas sent out MAJOR BLUE to a wire-to-wire victory leading every step of the way to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:39 as the 2-1 favorite. But if you were looking for something explosive I doubt you’ve seen a more explosive victory than the one turned in by 12-1 shot INTERLOCK EMPIRE, a gray son of Classic Empire who came from 10th, 13 lengths back, and unleashed a devastating turn of foot, blowing by horses on the turn to be right up with the leaders at the head of the stretch. He quickly drew off to five-length victory for Kenny McPeek without changing leads until midstretch. McPeek isn’t wasting any time with this colt and will run him next in the Arkansas Derby, where he will join stablemate MENDELSSOHN MARCH, one of the more fascinating prospects we’ve seen this year. In his debut at Fair Grounds over the grass he led most of the race and then dug deep when several horses came charging up to him in the stretch. He battled one of them to the wire, and although he fell a nose short, the winner came in on him sharply and he was put up on a disqualification. He then went to Oaklawn for a 1 1/16-mile allowance race in the slop. Trapped behind horses the whole way he finally got though along the rail in midstretch when the leader came in on him, causing him to either brush the rail or come close to it. That really set him off and he squeezed through, surging to the front, and then drew clear to win by 1 1/2-lengths while drifting as far away from the rail as he could get. This colt is bred to run all day and if he handles a fast track like he did the grass and slop who knows what he’s capable of.

Finally, at Santa Anita, Doug O’Neill sent out I DON’T GET IT to score a three-quarters of a length victory as the even-money favorite in a game performance. He has improved with every race and in his previous start he ran a decent fourth behind Skinner after stumbling very badly at the start. Give him credit for rebounding off that and breaking cleanly before going on to victory.

At Fair Grounds, SUN THUNDER, who we had ranked two weeks ago, turned in a five-furlong work in 1:01 1/5 for the Louisiana Derby. He is one horse I regret having dropped from the rankings, but I am still hopeful he will run a strong race and take another big step forward, as he did in the Risen Star. I just wish he could have sustained his run a little farther, but was just one-paced in the final furlong after a ground-saving trip. At 92-1 in the Future Wager I would take a shot and put a few bucks on him because I have no idea what is ceiling is, but I feel there is more improvement in him.

Also at Fair Grounds, the promising DISARM turned in a sharp five-furlong work in 1:01 in preparation for the Arkansas Derby, unless he gets re-routed to the Blue Grass Stakes. I still really like this colt and he should move way forward off his return race following a long layoff. It’s just a question of whether he has enough time to be a force in the Derby. If he had one more race he definitely would be a horse to watch on the first Saturday in May. We’ll just have to see how much progress he makes in his next start against more seasoned and quality horses. He did take some late money in the Future Wager, going from 99-1 to 79-1; still a potential overlay if he is the horse we always thought he was.

The steady NATIONAL TREASURE has returned to light training after missing the San Felipe with a foot bruise. He does have a good foundation under him and the hope is they can get a final prep in him before the Derby. Tim Yakteen said he won’t commit to any plans until the colt works.

Shug McGaughy said Swale Stakes winner GENERAL JIM will return to the track Monday after being scratched from the Fountain of Youth Stakes with a cough and will now be kept at one turn with the Pat Day Mile a possible target.

Remember the highly promising Godolphin colt BANISHING, who fired a dud at even money in a February 18 allowance race following a stunning 8 1/2-length maiden victory? Well, he has finally returned to the work tab, and in a big way, drilling a half in :47 4/5. The Derby obviously is out, so we’ll see where he winds up.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 7

Monday, March 6th, 2023

We finally got the kind of results we’ve been looking for as Forte and Practical Move established themselves as the two top horses, and we had several horses who were defeated that put their names in the mix with brighter things to come. Now it’s on to the Tampa Bay Derby. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: March 6, 2023 – Week 7

By Steve Haskin

No. 1 ranked Forte, photo courtesy of Coglianese Photos/Lauren King


1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

I will repeat what I have asked before, is there anything this colt can’t do? And I will add, does he have any weaknesses? So far, the only answer I can come up with on both questions is no. You never know how a horse is going to make the transition from 2 to 3, but Forte showed he is at worst the same horse he was last year. Coming off a four-month layoff, he always looked to be in command even being stuck down on the rail. We knew he was sharp coming off the layoff from the way he broke, but he settled nicely behind horses, patiently waiting for running room. All the while you knew once Irad Ortiz was able to pull the trigger the race was over. He finally was able to get him out in the clear four-wide and the race indeed was over. He quickly drew off with a :24 2/5 quarter and final sixteenth in :06 1/5, geared down in the final sixteenth, to win by 4 1/2 lengths. As I mentioned earlier, whether he’s inside or outside it doesn’t matter. Simply put, he knows how to get the job done. Finally, we have some clarity in the Derby picture, which for now revolves around Forte.


2—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

Could it be we now will have a fascinating East vs. West showdown to look forward to on the first Saturday in May? Practical Move’s victory in the San Felipe mirrored Forte’s score in the Fountain of Youth in a number of ways. Both were coming off layoffs, both were down on the inside for most of the running, patiently biding their time, and both ran like seasoned professionals who didn’t miss a beat despite the time off. Unlike Forte, who got to the outside, Practical Move waited for the rail to open up, and when the pacesetting Hijazi obliged, he shot through and methodically drew off a 2 1/2-length victory over the highly touted maiden winner Geaux Rocket Ride. Practical Move came home in almost identical closing fractions as Forte (:24 3/5 and :06 1/5) before galloping out some eight lengths clear of the others, looking like he wanted to around again. Yakteen and Practical Move have now beaten six Bob Baffert horses in their last two races, even if Yakteen was listed as the trainer of the three horses in the San Felipe. So we now have two emphatic leaders on both coasts who appear to be extremely talented and professional colts, who keep improving with every start. By the way, do you think he looks like a bargain now at 83-1 in the latest Future Wager? What in the world were people thinking? And he goes off as fourth choice in the San Felipe.


3—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

Yes, Pletcher does have another potential star who could make it a Big 3 if he wins Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby as impressively as he won an allowance race in his last start. This is another colt who appears to have all the tools and can beat you by a nose in a dogfight or leave you far behind. The horse he outdueled in his maiden score, Slip Mahoney, actually ran a good second in the Gotham Stakes after breaking poorly and dropping way out of it in last. Tapit Trice had his final work for his stakes debut, breezing a half in :49 1/5 in company with the promising Dreamlike. Breaking off a length behind his workmate he collared him on the turn, and as Pletcher horses always do, they finished up together with Tapit Trice edging a half-length in front at the wire and then galloping out extremely strongly, again getting the better of Dreamlike, who had the advantage of being on the inside. One horse who could test him is the Swale Stakes winner General Jim if he recovers from the cough that kept him out of the Fountain of Youth Stakes. This colt has unlimited potential and will be the highlight of Saturday’s races on the Derby trail, as we near that mid-March lull before the big 100 point races begin on March 25


4—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

All we need now is a big powerhouse from New York to give the Derby trail a true regional scope just like we used to have, and this would be the horse to accomplish that if he can land back-to-back mile and an eighth graded stakes wins at the Big A in the Wood Memorial, if Brad Cox decides to send him back there after his decisive victory in the Withers Stakes. But we still have a long wait for that race, so all we can do is hope he stays healthy and look back at how he has progressed with every start, having run four times at four different distances at four different tracks. He did break his maiden impressively at Keeneland in his career debut, so you can’t rule out the Blue Grass Stakes the same day as the Wood  if Cox decides to go that route. Either way he will have two months between races and he might just need it after going nine furlongs on that deep tiring Aqueduct surface. In the meantime he had a solid five-furlong work in 1:01 3/5 at Fair Grounds.


5—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

It seems after the first five or six spots there is a gap to the rest of the horses, not regarding pure talent as much as accomplishments, foundation, proven class, and being a sure thing to handle the mile and a quarter. We do have several talented horses who have questions concerning experience, but this guy is not one of them, with six career starts all at a mile or longer and on fast and sloppy tracks and grass. We all saw what he did in the Rebel Stakes with a new trainer, traveling cross-country for the first time, running in the slop for the first time, and overcoming a poor start that left him far back in the 11-horse field after being on or just off the lead in all his previous starts. And on top of that he had his run stopped in the upper stretch when two horses put the squeeze on him forcing him to steady, recover, and then put in a big run to finish third. What was most impressive was how he was striding out in the final furlong with great extension despite all he had gone through earlier. He is a tough, gutsy colt who generates a lot of power and should be a major force from now on.


6—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

It’s not that I still don’t have concerns about his lack of racing, skipping the Risen Star Stakes, and having only one race in 14 weeks going into the Kentucky Derby. It’s just that I can’t think of anyone else to put here who is as proven as he is and who has two graded stakes victories to his credit. As I mentioned before, he was once considered slow, but his huge Thoro-Graph leap in the LeComte may have necessitated a change of plans to give him more time rather than risk a “bounce.” He also beat Confidence Game by almost eight lengths in the LeComte and that colt came back to win the Rebel Stakes at odds of 18-1. He hasn’t shown that wow factor yet, but he has a strong sustained stretch kick and knows how to win. 


7—Rocket Can (Bill Mott, Into Mischief – Tension, by Tapit)

He is another I have not ranked high despite being a graded stakes winner because he has been too slow, beat a poor field in the Holy Bull Stakes, and hasn’t done anything to get you excited. But I have to admit he did show big improvement running second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes to Forte, and was beaten only a half-length by Confidence Game in an allowance race two starts back. So he definitely appears to be moving forward, and with Bill Mott you often have to have patience and expect his horses to keep improving. He is a complete outcross though five generations, his second dam Tough Tiz’s Sis, a daughter of Tiznow, was a multiple grade 1 winner, he has all three Triple Crown winners from the ‘70s – Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed — in his pedigree, in his dam’s second and third generations are the winners of four Breeders’ Cup Classics, and his fifth dam is inbred to Man o’ War. He is an attractive son of Into Mischief and you can expect another move forward in his speed figures.


8—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

At first glance you would have expected him to go on with his run in the stretch after making a big move instead of appearing to be hanging just a bit and content with finishing fourth. But there was more to take out of his performance, such as coming back in only 20 days since breaking his maiden where he ran career high speed figures and then not being able to train up to this race as he normally would have because of the bad weather and having his final work nine days before the race. The track was, as Shirreffs put it, very unforgiving, and he did put in a powerful five-wide move on the far turn, running a swift :23 1/5 quarter before evening out in the stretch, perhaps due to the missed training and coming back off a big effort in only three weeks. Give him credit for continuing to persevere in the final furlong to get up for third though a fast final sixteenth. With it all he was beaten 3 3/4 lengths by one of the most accomplished 3-year-olds in the country. He no doubt has made big improvement from 2 to 3 and has finally figured how to be a professional racehorse. If you’re looking for classic bloodlines, his sire sired a Belmont winner and his two grandsires sired a Kentucky Derby winner and a Preakness winner.


9—Confidence Game (Keith Desormeaux, Candy Ride – Eblouissante, by Bernardini)

As you can see from previous comments he has been running big races against some pretty good horses and seems to be improving to where he has to be considered a legitimate Derby contender. And he’s been consistent, having finished in the money in six of his seven starts. He has the pedigree and the running style and Desormeaux knows what to do with a good horse. With a career-high Beyer figure of only 83 he jumped to a 94 in the Rebel Stakes and did it running on his wrong lead in the stretch. Also his Thoro-Graph number catapulted from a 7 to a 2, which puts him right up there among the fastest 3-year-olds. So either he freaked in the slop or he has emerged as a horse to watch from now on. As you are well aware by now he is going to have a huge fan base with his dam being a half-sister to Zenyatta,


10—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

He is another who ran a monster race in the Rebel Stakes coming from more than 19 lengths back to finish a strong second. Although he has won only one of his seven starts he has turned in strong stretch runs in six of them. He is the type of horse who is going to need racing luck, and I am still convinced he would have won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes had he not gotten stopped in the stretch. And you sure can’t fault him for his second to Arabian Knight in the Southwest Stakes and third to Forte in the Breeders’ Futurity. In the Rebel his Thoro-Graph number improved from a 6 1/2 to a 3 3/4, so he is moving up the proverbial ladder to where he should be competitive against anybody. Being by Gun Runner, out of a Tapit mare, is pedigree is made up of two of the hottest sires in the country. I don’t think we have seen him anywhere near his best.


11—Geaux Rocket Ride (Dick Mandella, Candy Ride – Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo) 

As you may know by now I don’t like horses going into the Kentucky Derby with only three career starts, but it is becoming more and more of a reality with horses jumping into graded starts off one maiden sprint and running big. We saw it with Arabian Knight in the Southwest Stakes, we saw it in the Fountain of Youth Stakes with Mage, who had a troubled trip, and we saw it with this guy, who ran like a seasoned pro to finish second to Practical Move in the San Felipe Stakes. Coming off a six-furlong maiden score in 1:09 2/5, he tracked the pace, was floated a bit wide by Hejazi turning for home, cut back to the inside, and finished strongly, striding out beautifully in the final furlong. He certainly has thee pedigree to keep stretching out, and the only reason I am putting him ahead of Arabian Knight is that he is on a better schedule with better spacing between races. I don’t know whether they will face each other in the Santa Anita Derby, but I would expect another big move forward from Geaux Rocket Ride. After that he has to contend with history.


12—Arabian Knight (Tim Yakteen, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

At least we finally saw him back on the work tab, as he turned in a strong five-furlong drill in :59 1/5. As I mentioned I am still concerned about his unexplained break and lack of works and now having to wait a long time to have his final prep before going into the Kentucky Derby with one race in 14 weeks. With Practical Move winning the San Felipe impressively and likely headed to the Santa Anita Derby I’m not sure if Yakteen wants to run both colts against each other when Arabian Knight has already won impressively at Oaklawn Park and could return there for the Arkansas Derby where he might have a better shot at picking up much needed Derby points. Yes, he no doubt is a very talented colt, but he has a long road ahead to get to the Kentucky Derby with a legitimate shot to win. What he needs now is more sharp works like the one he just had.


13—Raise Cain (Ben Colebrook, Violence – Lemon Belle, by Lemon Drop Kid

I know the Gotham Stakes was set up for him with the fast early pace and the first three finishers coming from 11th, 13th, and 12th, respectively, but looking back at this colt’s races trying to figure out how he could not only win this race at 23-1, but crush his field by 7 1/2 lengths despite having to check while making a big run nearing the top of the stretch, I came to the conclusion he is a better horse than his record might indicate. First, throw out his first and last starts, both on a synthetic surface. He was brilliant breaking his maiden by 5 1/4 lengths going seven furlongs at Keeneland. Dropping back to six furlongs in the Bowmans Mill Stakes at Keeneland, he pressed the pace, then for no apparent reason he quickly dropped back to last and appeared to be out of the race completely. But he regrouped and came on again to finish third. He then finally stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds, something he’d been crying out for with his stamina-laden pedigree. He showed good tactical speed, and despite racing a bit greenly in the stretch, shying from the whip, he still kept coming and was able to nose out a good horse in Determinedly for second behind the promising Jace’s Road, while boosting his Beyer figure from a 60 to an 81. Put back on a synthetic surface in the Leonatus Stakes, he was four to five wide on the first turn and was wide throughout before dropping back to fifth. Coming off the synthetic surface, he was a tiger in the Gotham, just as he was coming off the synthetic and romping in his maiden race.


14—Slip Mahoney (Brad Cox, Arrogate – Get Lucky, by A.P. Indy)

This is my big monster longshot Derby sleeper who I feel is going to be extremely tough in his next race. I have always been a big fan of this colt watching his back-to-back gutsy stretch battles, the first one a neck defeat to Tapit Trice. In both races he was battling for the lead throughout and would not back down. This was a fighter in the true sense of the word. But in the Gotham Stakes, his first race against winners, he was looking around at the break, getting off slowly, and quickly found himself dead-last in the 13-horse field, more than a dozen lengths off the lead and well behind the next to last horse. When he was asked for his run, he took off and was flying by horses out in the middle of the track. While the winner was able to save ground rallying along the inside, he was forced nine, possibly 10-wide turning for home. Never asked to do anything like this before, he still came charging down the middle of the track to get second, while the winner got through in the upper stretch and was long gone. I am still convinced this is a very good horse who will be heard from.


15Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

The quality of the Risen Star field is still in question, but he did win it and the runner-up Sun Thunder could turn out to be a nice horse who was ranked last week. Cox, despite some of is Derby horses running poorly, still has a boatload of them all over the place. This colt has won two one-mile races and a 1 1/8-mile race and was second in the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes, so he has a lot of mileage under him and is as dead-fit as any of them. He just needs to get faster according to his 89 career-high Beyer figure. But his 2 1/2 Thoro-Graph number in the Risen Star was pretty fast and a huge jump from his previous race, so maybe he’s not as slow as some of his other figures might indicate. He did turn in a sharp half-mile drill in :48 3/5 over the weekend. Like many of the Fair Grounds horses he still has a lot to prove in his next start, likely the Louisiana Derby, against better quality horses.



Because of all the activity this weekend had to put some former ranked horses like VERIFYING and SUN THUNDER on hold for now. But I don’t think any the less of them and expect both of them to be right back in the picture in their next start. The latter turned in a sharp half-mile work in :48 2/5.

With FUNTASTIC AGAIN skipping the John Battaglia Memorial, the race was won in explosive fashion by the 16-1 shot CONGRUENT, who came from dead-last in the 12-horse field to blow the race open in the stretch, winning by 3 1/2 lengths. The son of Tapit had done little in his previous four starts, the last three on the grass. That makes two impressive longshot stakes winners this past weekend who came off grass or synthetic. His biggest effort had been a 2 1/4-length victory in the off-the-grass Laurel Futurity run on a sloppy track.

Earlier in the week we had a monster performance from HENRY Q, who was coming off a three-quarters of a length maiden victory for Doug O’Neill and then was turned over to Todd Fincher, who saddled him to a 14 3/4-length romp in the Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park. We’ll see what they do next with the son of Blame.

Earlier I mentioned the fast early pace of the Gotham Stakes, in which they went in :22 2/5 and :45 2/5. That scorching pace took its toll on RECRUITER, CARMEL ROAD, and RADIO RED, who were battling up front before fading badly, beaten from 18 to 24 lengths, So what does that make the undefeated EYEING CLOVER, coming off two six-furlong races who was right in the thick of that battle and wound up finishing fourth? Yes, he was beaten nine lengths when the winner drew off to his big score, but Eyeing Clover was only a length back at the eighth pole and was beaten a nose for third by the late-running GENERAL BANKER and 1 1/2 lengths by Slip Mahoney for second. Yet another Brad Cox colt, keep an eye out for this son of Lookin At Lucky. He is another who is going to be extremely dangerous in his next start.

Earlier I mentioned MAGE, who was thrown into the Fountain of Youth Stakes against Forte and company off one seven-furlong maiden victory, which he won by almost four lengths in a sharp 1:22 2/5. The son of Good Magic ran a huge race on Saturday after a troubled trip to finish fourth and was right there with Forte turning for home. He never gave an inch and was battling to the end, beaten 2 1/4 lengths for second. We also have to acknowledge the big bounce-back performance by CYCLONE MISCHIEF following his dismal effort in the Holy Bull Stakes as the 6-5 favorite. The son of Into Mischief set all the pace and hung in there gamely to finish third at odds of 15-1.

The big disappointment over the weekend was the surprising no-show performance by BLAZING SEVENS, who never ran a lick.

It was good to see VICTORY FORMATION back on the work tab, going a half in :48 following his disappointing performance in the Risen Star Stakes. Also on the wok tab this week was the unbeaten KINGSBARNS, who went a half in :49 1/5 for the Louisiana Derby, where he will be joined by stablemate LITIGATE, winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Both colts are trained by Todd Pletcher, who sent out maiden winner CLASSIC CATCH to score a workmanlike victory in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.

2023 Derby Rankings – Week 6

Monday, February 27th, 2023

With one uninspiring Derby prep after another it’s finally time to get some clarity regarding this year’s Derby trail as we await Saturday’s big tripleheader that features the long-awaited debuts of 2-year-old champ Forte in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, top California colt Practical Move in the San Felipe, and a wide-open contentious Gotham Stakes that could produce a new star. So sit back this week and wait for the first real fireworks of the year…we hope. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 27, 2023 – Week 6

By Steve Haskin

1—Forte (Todd Pletcher, Violence – Queen Caroline, by Blame)

Finally makes his 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Normally, a good second or third would be encouraging enough, but he has a big class edge, with only a few stakes horses entered, and he should win. I cannot find any flaws in his record, running style, attitude, and pedigree. He’s got it all. What is most interesting about those opening comments is that they were written 10 years ago in Derby Dozen about Forte’s sire Violence, who also was ranked No 1 right from week one. if Forte even comes close to being the horse we saw last year he should be right there at the finish on Saturday. Although Pletcher has several promising 3-year-olds he has decided to go solo with Forte and point the others elsewhere. Usually with a come from behind horse who is much the best like Forte the most obvious way of beating him is to steal the race on the front end and hope he is still a little short coming off a layoff. But he is too versatile to let that happen, having been fairly close to :45 and change opening half-miles, so he does have tactical speed. In fact, he has never been farther back than five lengths at any point in his races whether it’s five furlongs or 1 1/16 miles. He had his final work, going five furlongs in 1:01 4/5.


2—Tapit Trice (Todd Pletcher, Tapit – Danzatrice, by Dunkirk)

Although Litigate would be the most logical Pletcher horse to run in the Tampa Bay Derby, having won the Sam F. Davis Stakes over the track, I believe Pletcher thinks too highly of Tapit Trice to run another horse against him, and this certainly looks like the best spot for him. No trainer has taken advantage of Tampa Bay’s 3-year-old program, including maiden and allowance races, more than Pletcher, so why ship this lightly raced colt out of town when the March 11 Tampa Derby gives him the best timing to fit two stakes in before the Kentucky Derby, with four weeks between races. We have seen Tapit Trice outgame a very gutsy horse in Slip Mahoney and we have seen him crush his promising stablemate Shesterkin, putting eight lengths between them in the final furlong. So, he is a fighter who can battle you to the wire and he has the explosive power to leave you far behind in a matter of seconds. As of now we haven’t seen a 3-year-old in Florida with his ability or physical prowess, certainly no one from the Sam Davis Stakes or Holy Bull Stakes. He had a nice useful half-mile breeze in :49 2/5.


3—Practical Move (Tim Yakteen, Practical Joke – Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex)

The prolonged wet weather in Southern California has played havoc with not only racing, but training, as Santa Anita shut down the track completely. So the San Felipe horses could do nothing but wait for the track to open for training. Two weeks ago Yakteen had only one Derby horse, and with the exodus from the Baffert barn he now several more to occupy his time. But make no mistake, Practical Move is the horse he developed into a major Derby contender and he will remain number one in the barn. It seems every time I have watched the replay of one of Baffert’s stakes horses I keep running into this guy, and he was the only one to prevent them from going to the winner’s circle. I have mentioned his improvement on the Thoro-Graph numbers and it will be interesting to see if he can take another step forward and become the top California Derby contender. He does have other former Baffert horses, including Hejazi and the steady National Treasure, trying to beat Practical Move in the San Felipe, which has to put him and Practical Move’s owners in a weird position, but the big mystery horses in the field will be the recent impressive maiden winners Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner.


4—Hit Show (Brad Cox, Candy Ride – Actress, by Tapit)

One aspect of his victory in the Withers Stakes that adds to his resume is that he was able to come off a big score with first-time Lasix and win even more impressively without Lasix. He has checked off a lot of boxes and this is just another one that may have gone unnoticed. Another stat that is worth repeating is that in four career starts he has won at four different distances at four different racetracks in three different states. What I also love about him is that in his three victories, by margins by 5 1/4 lengths, 3 1/2 lengths, and 5 1/2 lengths, he rallied from fifth and sixth, but had the lead at the eighth pole and then drew off to win with complete authority. Remember, the vast majority of Derby winners had the lead at the eighth pole. So you want to see a come from behind horse be right there with a furlong out and then pull away from the field. He also has run almost identical races at seven furlongs and 1 1/8 miles, making him the quintessential professional. Jorge Villagomez, who broke him, said he was always very laid back and smart and added, “He seemed to improve with every breeze here for me.” Just as he has improved with every start for Cox.


5—Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

That’s all we needed on this year’s Derby Trail was another inconclusive race, with a bad track, bad trips and a longshot winner. The biggest take from the Rebel Stakes was the terrific race this colt ran. This is a horse who was racing for a new trainer, traveling cross-country for the first time, and running in the slop for the first time. Despite having been on or just off the lead in all his races, he broke a step slowly and then had Giant Mischief cross over right in his path forcing him to drop near the back of the 11-horse field. So here was a horse who had never been farther back than third at any point of his races and had set the pace in his last starts now racing back in ninth, 11 lengths off the lead after a quarter mile and still in ninth after a half. He was still in ninth and stuck down on the inside heading into the far turn and all the way to the quarter pole. He eased out turning for home and just as he found a seam, with seven horses still in front of him, Bourbon Bash drifted out right into him and Red Route One, rallying on his outside, came in on him, putting the squeeze on him, forcing him to turn his head out and steady out of there just as he was making his run. He quickly got back in stride and was moving powerfully in the finally sixteenth, reaching out with great extension to finish third, beaten 2 1/2 lengths and making up three lengths in the final furlong. This horse has now run big on fast and sloppy tracks and on grass. We know he has front-running speed, setting a :45 2/5 half in the Sham Stakes, and we know he’s a strong, tough colt who can rally from far back and overcome trouble. I wasn’t sure how good this horse is, but I am sure now.


6—Blazing Sevens (Chad Brown, Good Magic – Trophy Girl, by Warrior’s Reward)

Brown could have waited a week and run in the Tampa Bay Derby and avoid a confrontation with Forte, but to his credit he felt this is the best spot for the colt and has enough confidence in him to run him where he belongs, even having to face the champ. Although Forte is expected to win, all you want to see from Blazing Sevens is to be coming on strongly in the final furlong. He didn’t have the best of trips in the Breeders’ Cup and I just want to see what he can do with a clean trip and a clear run, and a solid pace wouldn’t hurt. He turned in a strong final work, going five furlongs in 1:01 3/5, which is a good work over the deeper Payson Park surface. So it looks as if Brown has him just where he wants him. He hasn’t been talked about much, but his 27-1 Future Wager odds are just about what they should, so the public is still giving him some respect. He really hasn’t done anything to give you the impression he is not a serious Derby contender.


7—Verifying (Brad Cox, Justify – Diva Delite, by Repent)

He gets a pass for his fourth-place finish in the Rebel Stakes, as he’s already proven he’s a good horse who was never given a chance to run until it was way too late. Breaking from the rail he was able to get a good stalking position behind two longshots, who set a testing half in :46 flat. Unfortunately he was never able to get out, as his stablemate Giant Mischief kept him hemmed in all the way around the turn. Straightening into the stretch, he started to go inside Frosted Departure, but Florent Geroux quickly decided not to risk it and took him out looking for room. Just as he did, Bourbon Bash drifted out badly right in his path and he had to alter course back to the inside where he finally found room. But by then Confidence Game, who had a clean trip the whole way, had gotten the jump on him and was sailing for home with a clear lead, as Red Route One and Reincarnate were rolling out in the middle of track. He closed well enough, but with a final sixteenth in :06 2/5 he was unable to make up any ground and was beaten five lengths. You had to assume he would have been a lot closer if he had room to run at any point. I have no idea how to separate the Rebel horses or have a clue if this race enlightened us in any way considering the track condition and several bad trips.


8—Red Route One (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner – Red House, by Tapit)

I have liked this colt all along and realize he wants to come from behind with a big late run, but over 19 lengths back is overdoing it quite a bit. Yet he still made up 18 of those 19 lengths, even winding up on his wrong lead in the stretch and altering course in the final furlong. To show how fast a pace this was, he likes to run his opening halfs in :49 to :50 and he actually was right in the ballpark being almost 20 lengths back off that :46 half-mile fraction. But before we brand him with being a plodder who comes from the clouds he was only two lengths back at the half in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when they were crawling along in :50. You never want to see a horse as far back as he was in the Rebel, but give him a lot of credit for making up that much ground. He is another who has run big on dirt, slop, and grass. The only time he has finished off the board in seven career starts was when he had a rough trip in the Street Sense Stakes in the slop and wound up fifth. With his running style he would need a lot of luck in the Derby in much the same way Street Sense, Mine That Bird, and Rich Strike had dream trips coming from the back of the pack. He doesn’t have the ideal running style to win the Derby, but a number of horses have finished in the money from that far back, and occasionally you’ll get a winner.


9—Instant Coffee (Brad Cox, Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One, by Uncle Mo)

I have mentioned my concerns about his path to the Derby, but he sure was flattered by the Rebel result, having beaten Confidence Game by almost eight lengths in the LeComte Stakes. He continues to work forwardly with an easy half in :50 2/5, but obviously is in no hurry with the Louisiana Derby still a long ways off. So there really isn’t much more to say about him, especially his lightly raced 3-year-old campaign, which will send him into the Kentucky Derby with only one race in 14 weeks. I like that Fair Grounds increased the distance of the Louisiana Derby a few years ago because of the six weeks to the Kentucky Derby and you would think that some trainers might want to have a fresher horse, having to go 1`3/16 miles. But the last two years we saw Mandaloun, trained by Cox, and Epicenter, trained by Steve Asmussen, run in all three of Fair Grounds’ Derby preps and run huge at Churchill Downs. This year Cox has elected to pass the Risen Star and give him two months between races and we’ll see how that works out. I do want to repeat that the reason may have been Instant Coffee’s big Thoro-Graph numbers jump from an 8 1/2 to a 2 1/2 in the LeComte. But that is pure speculation. Instant Coffee has the right running style and a good mixture of stamina and speed, and if you feel he is going to be battled tested enough going into the Derby then he looks like a solid contender. He isn’t flashy, but he is steady and always puts in a strong stretch run. Like with so many 3-year-olds this year I am having a hard time getting a strong feel for how good he really is.

10—Confidence Game (Keith Desormeaux, Candy Ride – Eblouissante, by Bernardini)

Yes, I have three horses he defeated ahead of him, but they are all proven stakes horses who didn’t have good trips and I can’t define these four horses based on one eventful race in the slop when he had the best trip of anyone. For now I am going to take a wait and see approach until I get a feel of just who this horse is and how much he has improved. Going into the Rebel Stakes, all we knew about him was that his six races were pretty much up and down. In some races he sat back in fifth, in another he scored a gutsy wire-to-wire victory. Both his wins came at Churchill Downs, he was beaten a total of 18 lengths in his two stakes appearances, he had never run on a sloppy track, and he could win going six furlongs or 1 1/16 miles. We also knew that his best Beyer speed figure was an 83 and his best Thoro-Graph number was a “7,” both mediocre at best. In short we knew very little about him. So, of course in a year like this he makes a big wide run in the Rebel, a horse comes out and brushes him just enough to prevent him from changing leads, and he draws off anyway to win by a length at 18-1. So did this race make him a legitimate Derby contender? I have no idea. His pedigree says he will get better the farther he goes. His dam Eblouissante is a half-sister to the great Zenyatta and in her first five generations there are 12 classic winners who won a total of 21 classics, including three Triple Crown winners, as well as a Handicap Triple Crown winner. What I did like was that he was holding everyone off at the finish and actually re-broke when Red Route One pulled up alongside him on the gallop-out, so perhaps this was his breakout race.


11—Arabian Knight (Tim Yakteen, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

Well, they waited long enough, but the L.A. Times finally reported on Sunday that he has been moved to Tim Yakteen’s barn through the Kentucky Derby and will point for the either the Santa Anita Derby or Arkansas Derby. I had taken him off the Rankings until we found out the plans and I’m putting him back this low for now until he returns to the work tab and we can all digest the fact that he will go into the Kentucky Derby with only three lifetime starts, will have two months between the Southwest Stakes and his next start, and only one race in 14 weeks going into the Derby. And remember, he’s has only three-furlong blowout in the past four weeks, so that is very little activity for a horse with only two lifetime starts. Yes, Justify won the Derby with only three career starts, but he was able to cram his three races into a much shorter time period. I won’t say he can’t do it because he is a very talented colt, but it’s a very perplexing situation trying to figure him out. Whether he can win with this crazy schedule and set of circumstances is another matter. Once he starts working regularly and gets some foundation under him he could move back up in the Rankings.


12—General Jim (Shug McGaughey, Into Mischief – Inspired by Grace, by Curlin)

I thought he might go for the one-turn mile in the Gotham, but McGaughey decided to keep him home and stretch him out to two turns against far better horses, which will tell him exactly what he has as far as a Derby caliber horse. Let’s remember he’s already been two turns, winning both his starts on the grass, and he does have a female family inundated with stamina. I’m not crazy about him drawing the rail coming off a sprint, but hopefully he can work out a trip sitting off horses and getting out in the clear at some point just so we can see if he is comfortable negotiating the two turns against some very classy horses, including the champ and the Champagne winner. I loved his race in the Swale and was impressed with everything I saw, so let’s see if he can take the next big step.


13—Angel of Empire (Brad Cox, Classic Empire – Armony’s Empire, by To Honor and Serve)

As blasé as everyone, myself included, has been about the Risen Star Stakes, the race for some reason I can’t explain actually got pretty strong Thoro-Graph numbers, with Angel of Empire going from a 19 to 11 1/4 to 9 1/4 to a stunning 2 1/2, just as Instant Coffee made a huge leap in the LeComte. His came as a big surprise considering how mundane the race looked visually. Even those behind him made big jumps in their Thoro-Graph numbers. So I have no idea now what to make of the race. What else is new? I just cannot figure out this crop of 3-year-olds, mainly deciding who is good and who is not. Will he “bounce” or regress in the Louisiana Derby or maybe they will wait two more weeks to run in his final prep. All we can hope for right now is this weekend’s stakes adding some sanity to the Derby picture.


14—Sun Thunder (Kenny McPeek, Into Mischief – Greenfield d’Oro, by Medaglia d’Oro)

Like Angel of Fever, his Thoro-Graph number in the Risen Star took off, going from an 11 1/4 to a 10 1/2 to an 8 to a 3 1/2. So, two horses both made monster leaps? Wait a second, how about fourth-place finisher Tapit’s Conquest, who went from a 10 to a 7 to a 6 1/2 to a 3. As we said earlier, these big jumps defied what most everyone saw with their eyes and even the Beyer figures. Thoro-Graph doesn’t throw out numbers like that haphazardly, so is it possible that this race was far better than people think? Just what we need, more contradictions and questions on this year’s Derby trail. Although Sun Thunder took the inside route and was outrun by the winner he rallied from 12th to pull on even terms at the eighth pole, which I loved to see, and it was a big improvement from his fourth in the Southwest, which actually wasn’t that bad a race in the slop against the runaway winner Arabian Knight. What first caught my eye with this colt was the turn of foot he showed in his 6 1/2-length maiden score going a mile. Even though his Beyers haven’t broken a 90, I do like the progression (69, 77, 81, 89). He will run next in the Louisiana Derby, which will be his fifth different distance in five races, so we have progression there as well.


15—Skinner (John Shirreffs, Curlin – Winding Way, by Malibu Moon)

Taking a big shot with him, in good part because of his trainer, who gave me the longest and most detailed report on a horse I have ever been given. Skinner has competed in two Grade 1 stakes as a maiden, which is uncharacteristic of Shirreffs. He did manage a well-beaten third behind Cave Rock in the Del Mar Futurity, but showed little in the American Pharoah Stakes. He dropped back into a maiden race in his 3-year-old debut and was visually impressive, showing great extension to his stride and being perfectly in sync with his rider. When asked to make his run on the far turn he put in a powerful move around horses and drew off with complete authority to win by 3 1/4 lengths in 1:36 3/5 for the mile and coming home his final quarter in about :24 2/5. This is a colt who also gallops out strong in his races. So are we seeing a different horse this year? Said Shirreffs, “We have really worked on him finding his stride in the morning and building repartitions — standing, jogging, and galloping. He Is a strong colt with a great shoulder and hind end. His mind is now adapting to racing and he has matured physically into a solid athlete, knowing where to put his feet for a strong stride. Yesterday (Feb. 23) he really worked well (5f in 1:01) on a very torn up track showing just how strong he is. Hopefully with a little more time he will accept the unexpected.”  That was just a small part of his comments, so how can I not put him in the Rankings.



Holy Bull Stakes winner ROCKET CAN turned in a sharp five-furlong work in  1:01 3/5 at Payson Park for the Fountain of Youth Stakes. With him getting his third straight 8 on Thoro-Graph in the Holy Bull and only an 82 Beyer, which was his career high, he has a long way to go to prove he is a legitimate Derby horse. And this is the spot as he takes on much tougher horses. His half-length defeat to Rebel winner Confidence Game in an allowance race moves him up a bit, even though he couldn’t get by him the length of the stretch after pulling on even terms at the quarter pole. For what it’s worth he is improving and the horse who finished second to him in the Holy Bull, Shadow Dragon, looks like a very nice horse. So we’ll just have to see if he can continue improving on Saturday.

Baffert Part Two. Mike Pegram has been with Baffert since the beginning, so considering that CAVE ROCK has not gone to another trainer yet, one can only assume with the colt’s late start that he will stay put with perhaps the Preakness as the target. It makes no sense to rank him at this late date unless  something to the contrary is announced  and there is actually a plan to get two races in him before the Derby.

As we head into the serious Derby preps, here are several under the radar horses with a lot to prove, but who might be sleepers to keep an eye on. We gave all the positives to be taken from DISARM’S second place finish in his return and we see a big move forward in his next couple of races. He had a lot going against him in that race and was running on well at the end with no chance to catch a good horse who set an easy pace and came home his final two eighths in a rapid :24 1/5 and :24 flat. For him to match those closing fractions off such a long layoff was pretty impressive. His pedigree says he is going to improve as the distances stretch out, but he has to really improve off his “9” Thoro-Graph figure, which is several points slower than his maiden victory. His 84 Beyer figure also was slower than his maiden victory. But I know the stable is pretty high on him and I did like his last race from a visual standpoint and those fast late fractions. I still believe a big move forward is imminent. It’s just a question of whether it will be big enough and fast enough to make him a serious Derby contender with just one more start.

Two former Baffert horses turned over to Tim Yakteen and nominated to Saturday’s Gotham Stakes are HEJAZI and CARMEL ROAD, although Hejazi is entered in the San Felipe. Carmel Road was awesome breaking his maiden at a mile by almost nine lengths eased up the length of the stretch after setting fractions of :21 4/5 and :45 4/5 . In the Breeders’ Futurity he broke from the disastrous post 14, was hung five-wide into the first turn and just stopped abruptly on the far turn, dropping to the back of the pack. That race was too bad to be true and he rebounded off that dismal showing to finish a good second to Practical Move in the Los Alamitos Futurity, finishing well clear of the others. He has been working as impressively as anyone, with five-furlong woks in :58 4/5, :59 1/5, and :59 flat and a six-furlong drill in 1:11 4/5. I love the way he was moving in all of them, in company and by himself, and if he runs to those works he  could jump into the Derby picture on Saturday.

Hejazi began his career with a pair of seconds going 5 1/2 furlongs, actually getting a 100 Beyer figure in his second start. Those were big efforts considering he is bred for stamina. In an audacious move, Baffert, despite having Cave Rock and National Treasure in the field, threw him into the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes as a maiden and off two short sprints and he ran a solid third behind his two stablemates, while finishing 3 1/4 lengths ahead of the fourth-place finisher. Dropping back into a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race and given Lasix for the first time, he wired his field under a hand ride, getting a 99 Beyer. The runner-up in Hejazi’s maiden score, WORCESTER, is another Baffert horse who can run and is going to be heard from down the road.

One of the new tools in handicapping on the Derby trail is Lasix, which is not allowed in stakes anymore. Let’s take five horses who were considered Derby hopefuls. Corona Bolt, a 6 3/4-length winner with first-time Lasix, came off Lasix in his next start and was beaten 15 1/4 lengths. Cyclone Mischief, a 5 3/4-length winner with first-time Lasix, came off Lasix in his next start and was beaten 11 3/4 lengths. Sun Thunder, a 6 1/2-length winner with first time Lasix, came off Lasix in his next start and was beaten 9 1/4 lengths. Harlocap, a 4 1/2-length winner with second-time Lasix, came off Lasix in his next start and was beaten 9 1/2 lengths. Although Determinedly won an allowance race by only a neck with first-time Lasix, he beat a very strong field, but taken off Lasix in his next start, the Risen Star Stakes, he was beaten 42 lengths. Of course there have been several horses who have run well coming off a victory with Lasix, but it is just something to keep an eye on when handicapping the Derby preps. For instance, three horses I am very high on, Tapit Trice, Disarm, and Kingsbarns, will be coming off Lasix in their next start, as they make their stakes debuts.

Jerome winner LUGAN KNIGHT turned in a sharp five furlong work in :59 4/5 at the Churchill Downs training center followed by an easy five furlongs in 1:02 for Saturday’s Gotham Stakes. With CARMEL ROAD, ARCTIC ARROGANCE, SLIP MAHONEY, and the unbeaten RECRUITER and EYEING CLOVER all possible starters, this could be one of the more interesting races of the year. The hard-knocking Arctic Arrogance should give us a line on Hit Show. Following two narrow defeats in the Remsen and Jerome, in which he was out-battled to the wire, he went into the Withers with blinkers added. He ran his race setting all the pace, but Hit Show ran right by him at the eighth pole to win by 5 1/2 lengths. Eyeing Clover ships in for Brad Cox off two impressive six-furlong races at Oaklawn and Fair Grounds. Slip Mahoney is another Cox-trained colt who is based at Belmont and showed his gameness, dropping a hard-fought battle with Tapit Trice and then winning after another gut-wrenching stretch duel, this time with the Pletcher-trained Crupi. If you watch his last two races you will be coming away with great admiration for this son of Arrogate. We also have the unbeaten Recruiter shipping in from Fair Hill following four straight victories at Monmouth, Laurel, and Parx, the last two in stakes races.

The San Felipe will be headed by proven stakes horses Practical Move, National Treasure, and Chase the Chaos, but one potential breakout star to watch is maiden winner GEAUX ROCKET RIDE. He has had only one six furlong race, and trained by the ultra conservative Dick Mandella, he wouldn’t seem to be a Derby horse. But this is an uncharacteristic leap in class for Mandella. The son of Candy Ride, out of an Uncle Mo mare, was nothing short of brilliant in his first start, winning on the front end by 5 3/4 lengths in a sharp 1:09 2/5. He is coming into the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe off a strong six-furlong work in 1:12 4/5, so we’ll see if he can make the stretch-out against top-class horses with only one sprint under his belt.

Something very similar is happening in Florida for the Fountain of Youth Stakes. If you want to know what confidence in your horse is, just take a look at trainer Gustavo Delgado putting his Good Magic colt MAGE in against the champ Forte as well as the Champagne winner Blazing Sevens off one seven-furlong maiden victory. Granted Mage was brilliant, rushing to the lead and running his opponents into the ground, winning by almost four lengths in a swift 1:22 2/5. If you want to know whether he can stretch out, in just his first two generations are stallions who won three classics (a Kentucky Derby and two Preaknesses) and placed in three classics (two Kentucky Derbys and a Belmont).

Sam F. Davis winner LITIGATE, who should only keep improving the farther he goes, breezed a half in :50 2/5. Pletcher likely will wait for the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby with him, along with his undefeated KINGSBARNS, who has looked great in his two career starts. But going into the Kentucky Derby with only three career starts has not been a formula for success. Litigate’s speed figures in his three starts have been pedestrian without any improvement shown, but that could change once he goes 1 3/16 miles and farther, as his pedigree in inundated with stamina, which doesn’t translate to speed at these shorter distances. But he really needs to improve in his final Derby prep.

If you’re in a forgiving mood, you might want to consider CYCLONE MISCHIEF as a bounce back candidate in the Fountain of Youth following a disappointing performance in the Holy Bull. I like the way he’s been working and he’s shown he has ability. I am going to assume that coming off Lasix in the Holy Bull after a big win in allowance company was not a factor in his subpar effort, and he should be a big price on Saturday to possibly sneak into the exotics.

The late-running DENINGTON, a son of Gun Runner who closed fast to win a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Fair Grounds last week in his eighth career start, getting a 91 Beyer speed figure, will join his stablemate Sun Thunder in the Louisiana Derby. All eight of his starts have been at a mile or longer. He is inbred three times to Fappiano though his sons Unbridled, Quiet American, and Cryptoclearance.

If there was any Kentucky Derby horse to come out of the Saudi Derby it was the Japanese horse DERMA SOTOGAKE, who finished a fast-closing third and had already earned 20 Derby points. Although he is by the good U.S. sprinter Mind Your Biscuits, who actually has plenty of stamina in his pedigree, his female family is loaded with stamina. His broodmare sire is a son of Sunday Silence and his second dam is by Arc de Triomphe winner Tony Bin. He also is inbred top and bottom to major class and stamina influence Hail to Reason through his sons Stop the Music and Halo. Finally, his third dam is by Wood Memorial winner Dike, who was a close third in the Kentucky Derby and whose sire Herbager is one of the great stamina influences. We’ll see if he comes back in the longer UAE Derby, where he could face Hyacinth Stakes winner PERRIERE, who he defeated with a big late run in the Zennippon Nisai Yushun. Both colts are nominated to the Derby.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.