2023 Derby Rankings – Week 3

It was a strange weekend with the allowance winners taking the spotlight over the stakes winners. As a result we have yet another shakeup to the Rankings and even more confusion in this muddled Derby picture. Hopefully, things will start to clear up when some of top 2-year-olds make their long-awaited debuts. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 6, 2023 – Week 3

By Steve Haskin

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

The New “Yawk” partnership of Vinnie Viola and Mike Repole normally spend big bucks for the majority of their sales horses, especially at the Keeneland September yearling sale, but sometimes they are willing to wait it out and look for an occasional bargain during the later, far less glitzy, part of the sale when thousands of yearlings have already been sold and most of the big buyers are long gone. So it was in 2021 when they waited until Hip#2035 on the last day they bought horses before finding the 2-year-old champion and early Kentucky Derby favorite for a measly $110,000, the fifth cheapest of the 43 yearlings they purchased at the sale. That is quite a difference from the $1.05 million they paid for a son of City of Light earlier in the sale. Now we just wait for the Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4, which seems so far off when looking for new things to say about a horse.


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

My only mistake with this colt was originally having him at No. 5 and moving him to No. 7 at the last minute, feeling I may have gone overboard putting a maiden winner by a neck that high. I’m not making that mistake again. Yes, this was an allowance race, but I haven’t seen a stakes winner so far this year that has impressed me or looked more like a Derby horse than this colt, even Arabian Knight, who still has to show he’s not a one-dimensional speed horse. And raise your hand if you don’t think he would have crushed the field in the Holy Bull Stakes, in which the three-quarters was run in 1:13 3/5 and the mile in 1:38 2/5, while the allowance race was run in 1:11 4/5 and 1:36 2/5. Not only did Tapit Trice win by eight lengths, he opened up the eight lengths in the final furlong and kept going past the wire, galloping out strongly. Credit Luis Saez for getting him off the rail after a slow break and angling him to the far outside where he could use that big stride of his. It takes him a while to build up power so he has to be pushed along early, but once he gets in high gear he is a thing of beauty to watch. As I mentioned last week, he is a visually stunning colt who reaches out with great extension, yet his stride is so fluid it seems effortless for him. Pletcher said it was between the allowance and the Holy Bull, and I was hoping he would go in the Holy Bull. But no way I’m doubting Pletcher. Yes, he has to step up in class and face stakes competition, but from what I’ve seen so far that should not be a problem. When a horse can gut out one race and then win by eight lengths the next race you know he can pretty much do it all.


3—Arabian Knight (Bob Baffert, Uncle Mo – Borealis Night, by Astrology)

Another reason I put Tapit Trice ahead of him is stability, as we still have to find out if this colt will have to be turned over to another trainer on February 28. The word out of the Baffert camp is that he is the “real deal,” but most people already feel that way. There is no use predicting where he will run next because Baffert, if he remains his trainer, is the master of calling audibles at the last minute depending on a how a horse is doing at the time. Most likely it will be a return to Oaklawn for the Rebel Stakes or staying home for the San Felipe. Baffert often will send different horses to Oaklawn for their preps and the fact that he sent Arabian Knight there for an early prep off one maiden sprint he might not want to ship back there, possibly twice. I have mentioned his paddling action and although that shouldn’t affect his performance I have found that it can take its toll at longer distances later on. There aren’t many 3-year-olds that have dazzled us in stakes so far, so when you get one who has you have to take him very seriously. Looking at the other end, we also have to remember that his two main foes in the Southwest Stakes never ran a lick in the slop and the second and third-place finishers had won four of their 14 starts with one six-furlong listed stakes win. Also, his Thoro-Graph numbers regressed from a 2 1/4 to a 3 1/2 in the Southwest. If he stays in California we might not know how good he really is until the Kentucky Derby.


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

He continued his string of sharp works with five-furlong drills in 1:00 1/5 and 1:01 1/5 as he prepares to resume his assault on Baffert and then the Run for the Roses. Is anyone aware that this colt was bred by Chad Brown and Sol Kumin’s Head of Plains Partners? The last time Kumin saw him he was soundly beating two horses who are co-owned by Kumin — Carmel Road and Fort Bragg. So Kumin sold Practical Move for $230,000 and then watched him beat two horses he and his partners paid a total of $1.35 million for. This colt is a true stalker who is always in the hunt, whether they run the half in :44 1/5 or :46 4/5 or if the distance is 6 1/2 furlongs, seven furlongs, one mile, or 1 1/16 miles or if it’s at Santa Anita, Del Mar or Los Alamitos. At the half-mile call he’s been second, third, fourth, and fifth, and other than his career debut when he was four lengths back, he’s never been farther back than 2 1/2 lengths. So all this adds up to a very dangerous battle-tested horse who has excellent tactical speed and can rate off any kind of pace. You would expect nothing less from a horse who is by a Grade 1 winner at seven furlongs and a mile, out of a mare by a Preakness and Belmont winner who came within one length of sweeping the Triple Crown, and probably would have if he didn’t come out of the Kentucky Derby with a minor lung infection.


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

Now that he’s had three works over the deeper Payson Park surface he seems to be coming around as well as Brown could hope for and shouldn’t need a lot of works with his foundation. Looking at his races more closely there is a lot to like about him and I feel he should be moved up in the rankings. I like that he was able to win first time out going six furlongs at Saratoga and doing it eased up. I like that in his first two starts sprinting his Brisnet figures were faster early and slower late, but after stretching out to a mile and 1 1/16 miles they were slower early and faster late, with his last two late pace figures a 98 and 100. I like that his Brisnet and Beyer figures both were faster in his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile fourth-place finish than in his 3 1/4-length victory in the Champagne Stakes the race before. The only reason his Thoro-Graph number went from a 3 to a 5 1/4 in the Juvenile was because of his ground-saving trip. Actually, if Flavien Prat had stayed where he was, a hole opened up right in his path you could have driven a Sherman tank through. Instead he swung about six or seven-wide and was running strongly at the end down the shortened stretch. Also, Verifying, the Champagne runner-up he defeated decisively, looked extremely impressive winning an allowance race in January following a troubled start in the BC Juvenile when he bumped soundly from both sides. So, in summary, Blazing Sevens has the experience in Grade 1 company, has never been off the board, has won on fast and sloppy tracks, and has a pedigree geared toward stamina. Brown has finished a good second (with Blazing Sevens’ sire) and third in the Kentucky Derby, so this could be his year.


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

Although he has done nothing to dazzle you, there is something to be said for professionalism and knowing how to win. He continues to improve with every start, and in his only defeat in the Breeders’ Futurity he was way too far back in a 14-horse field and closed well enough to miss third by a head. He won a strong maiden race in his career debut at Saratoga, running the seven furlongs in 1:22 3/5, so we know he does have brilliance in him, and his Thoro-Graph numbers took a big jump forward in the LeComte Stakes. If you want to feel old, in his tail-female family he has Holy Bull in his fifth generation. The other two fifth generation ancestors in his tail-female family were foals of 1967 and 1969. As I mentioned, he is a complete outcross and could be a throwback to those tough, sound, and consistent horses of the past. He should meet better horses in the Risen Star Stakes, but you always have to feel confident he is going to be right there battling to the end.


7—Giant Mischief (Brad Cox, Into Mischief – Vertical Oak, by Giant Oak)

Even though beating Arabian Lion in that Keeneland allowance doesn’t look as impressive now as it then I still like everything I’ve seen of this colt. Arabian Lion has since come apart at the seams for whatever reason, but he sure looked good going into that allowance race coming off a maiden score in 1:09 3/5. And Giant Mischief ran him down and out-fought him to the wire in 1:22 1/5 for the seven furlongs, getting a 95 Beyer figure and 99 Brisnet figure. I keep mentioning his impressive turn of foot, which will help him get out of traffic problems, so all we can do for now is wait for the Rebel Stakes and see what kind of transition he’s made from 2 to 3. With two of his three starts in Indiana and Oklahoma he has to show what he can do on the big stage when the major points come into play and everyone is on their “A” game. He also has to give some kind of indication that classic distances will not be a problem, as he does have quite a bit of speed on both sides. But all in all, he looks like a quality horse with a bright future.


8—Reincarnate (Bob Baffert, Good Magic – Allanah, by Scat Daddy)

After a closer study of all the Baffert horses I really couldn’t find anything not to like about this colt. Baffert needed to get a race in him in September and had no choice but to start him off on the grass. In his first start going a mile he went to the lead and turned back three separate challenges, then re-rallied when looked in the eye tuning for home, and just got nailed at the wire. He then was entered in the Zuma Beach Stakes on grass, but was scratched after drawing in the also-eligibles in post 13. He drew poorly again in a maiden race, breaking from post 10 and got fanned four-wide into the first turn. He stalked the leader but they came home fast and he couldn’t catch him, falling 1 1/2 lengths short. He was finally put on the dirt at 1 1/16 miles and after going three-wide on the first turn he tracked his stablemate, the 1-5 Fort Bragg, who had already finished first in his previous start before being disqualified. He closed well in the stretch and was getting to Fort Bragg, but was beaten three-quarters of a length. He finally broke his maiden going wire-to-wire at Del Mar and then was 16-1 in the Sham Stakes against his two more highly regarded stablemates Newgate and National Treasure, who had already run well in four grade 1 stakes between them, with the latter placing in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He went to the lead, battled head and head, and gamely dug in to hold off both of them, with his Beyer figure jumping from an 84 to a 95 and Thoro-Graph number from a 9 3/4 to a 2 3/4, one of the fastest numbers of the year. He is a strong, tough colt with a 1 1/16-mile race and four mile races under him already. He is a tough, improving colt and turned in a sharp five-furlong work in :59 2/5.


9—Signator (Shug McGaughey, Tapit – Pension, by Seeking the Gold)

Although there is no work listed for him at Payson Park since January 25, I was sent a video of him working in company in the fog on February 1. He was on the inside and he and his workmate finished on even terms and galloped out strongly together. According to his exercise rider he is “getting better every day.” When asked if he had any races in mind for the colt, McGaughey simply said, “Not yet.” So, like with many others on the Derby trail this year, we just wait and see how he progresses and where he shows up for his 3-year-old debut. He has not raced since October 14 and with only two starts and not having faced winners, the sooner the better, as he needs to improve his speed figures quite a bit. But we know that is not McGaughey’s style. As it looks now he will have to move way up in class from a maiden race while coming off approximately a four-month layoff. That is asking a lot. As you know I really like everything about this colt, but I can’t get too excited until he runs and faces stakes-caliber competition and gets faster.  At this point it looks as if he will have only two starts, so everything is going to have work perfectly for him.


10—Victory Formation (Brad Cox, Tapwrit – Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike)

He turned is a sharp five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5 for his likely debut in the Risen Star or Rebel Stakes. He has won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn, but is stabled at Fair Grounds, so we’ll see what Cox decides to do. He has a classic pedigree, has won by 4 3/4 and three lengths and also in a dogfight by a neck, and has won two races on the front end and one stalking the leader, so he’s pretty much done all that’s been asked of him. He’s been though the sales ring three times as a weanling, yearling, and 2-year-old, so he no doubt is tough mentally. Like so many 3-year-olds this year he has to take another step forward and also pick up his Thoro-Graph numbers. He has improved with each race, but in small increments, from a 9 1/2 to 8 1/4 to 7 1/4, so he still has to make that one good leap to compete with the top horses.


11—Dubyuhnell (Danny Gargan, Good Magic – Wild Gams, by Forest Wildcat)

He breezed a half in :51 1/5 at Palm Beach Downs. What makes one wonder about this work is that his previous works have been at Palm Meadows. So did Danny Gargan pack up and move? He seemed to be ready for a big effort in a weak Holy Bull Stakes, but looks to have opted  for Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay, which also looks to be a good spot for him. This could very well be his coming out party with another strong effort.. The big key to him is how he does on a fast track, with both his victories coming on a sloppy track. There is no telling how good this colt is, and let’s remember that he got a rare triple-digit Brisnet figure in the Remsen Stakes and a “1 1/4” Thoro-Graph number, the fastest of any member of this crop. Now let’s see if he is just as fast on a dry track. If he is he should skyrocket up the standings.


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

There’s not much more to say about that wasn’t said last week following his big effort in the Southwest Stakes. He has the experience, he has the closing kick, and he has the pedigree to run all day. I’m not sure he’s the type who can win the Derby, but he looks like the type who often is closing late to pick up a piece of it at a big price. But one of these days these types will fool you and take it all with the right setup. He has been running against top competition and become very dependable, knowing he is going to give his all and will be closing at the end. He has stamina top and bottom, and one name you never see in a pedigree is his dam’s broodmare sire Prized, who had the distinction of beating Sunday Silence in the Swaps Stakes and later that year winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf in his first race on grass.


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

He has been right on the cusp of being ranked, and he made it this week following the allowance victory by Gun Pilot, who he handled easily in an allowance race in January, winning 5 1/4 lengths. That was enough to show that he defeated a good horse and did it impressively. Normally I would be skeptical with him winning that race with first time Lasix and coming off a poor race in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he got creamed from both sides coming out of the gate and then squeezed back in the Juvenile, so he gets a pass on that one. In addition he did break his maiden and finish second in the Champagne Stakes without Lasix, so I’m not going to pay attention to him running a big race on it for the first time. He simply looks like a good horse who is improving, jumping to a 97 Beyer last out and a 95 Brisnet figure. He has shown he can win on the lead or just off it. He is another Cox-trained colt who is stabled at Fair Grounds, where he just worked five furlongs in 1:01 1/5, but shipped to Oaklawn to run, so once again we’ll have to see how Cox divides his forces with big preps coming up.


14—Gun Pilot (Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner — Bush Pilot, by Smart Strike)

As you can see I am still looking at the allowance winners and projecting they will turn out to be stakes-caliber horses until the stakes horses show me more. Although the pace and final time of Saturday’s  allowance victory at Oaklawn were slow I believe it made him look more impressive being trapped down on the rail behind horses for most of the race through an agonizingly slow three-quarters in 1:13 2/5. But he bided his time until he was able to ease out for a clear run nearing the top of the stretch. He ran down a pretty good horse in Bourbon Bash, who was coming off five straight stakes races, and powered his way to a two-length victory under a hand ride, coming home his final eighth in :12 2/5 and then galloping out strongly. This was a big step forward being taken back off the pace for the first time and covered up instead of being on the lead where I don’t believe he wanted to be. He is yet another talented colt sired by the still red-hot Gun Runner, and being a grandson of Candy Ride and inbred to Quiet American it means he is inbred three times to Fappiano and has Dr. Fager in his pedigree five times. He has always been highly regarded by owner and breeder Three Chimneys Farm and has required patient handling by Asmussen.


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

Not having run since August and not having run farther than seven furlongs, I can’t remember why I even ranked him. So I watched is maiden win again and again was impressed with what I saw, including beating eventual Holy Bull Stakes winner Rocket Can by 9 1/2 lengths. I guess I also went by his pedigree. With stakes almost every weekend he’s not going to be on the Rankings much longer without running, and there aren’t many options open to him at this late date except the Risen Star and possibly the Rebel, and I’m not sure he’s ready for either one of those races. His last work was a solid five-furlong breeze in 1:01 3/5. It’s time to start looking for him in the entries.



I think ROCKET CAN and SHADOW DRAGON, the one-two finishers in the Holy Bull Stakes both are colts to watch down the road, but as Derby horses they still have a ways to go, and both have to get noticeably faster in a hurry. Shadow Dragon made a big leap forward with his strong late run and not having run since finishing up the track in the Sleepy Hollow Stakes for New York-breds in October. And Rocket Can also moved forward from his game second in a Churchill Downs allowance race in November. But this was a pretty weak field for the Holy Bull, compounded by the dismal performance by the big favorite CYCLONE MISCHIEF, one of several promising horses who have fallen from the Rankings in the past two weeks, showing how easy it is to go from a good race to a bad race when you are dealing young unproven horses. We’ll just wait and see how he came out of his race. Rocket Can and Shadow Dagon have put Bill Mott on the Derby trail in a hurry and that’s always a good thing. Now let’s see where both horses go from here and if they can take another step forward.

It is very rare to have two graded stakes at major tracks with no one making the Rankings. We know NEWGATE is a good horse who, like his stablemate National Treasure, has been knocking on the door. But the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, despite its lofty Beyer figure, bore no resemblance to a stakes race, with all four starters from the same barn. Not only did Arabian Lion run last for the second straight race despite coming off a bullet :58 4/5 work, Newgate, the even-money favorite, had to struggle to beat the 12-1 HARD TO FIGURE by a neck. The last time Hard to Figure ran, in the Bob Hope Stakes in November, he finished 12 lengths behind Newgate. So did Hard to Figure improve that much? Let’s wait to find out if Newgate and some of the others are staying with Baffert or heading to new trainers before we take up another spot in the Rankings. There has been no competition for the Baffert brigade and there won’t be until Practical Move shows up in the San Felipe. By then, Practical Move’s trainer Tim Yakteen might be training several of these Baffert horses.

To give you an idea what kind of warped Derby trail it has been in Southern California, the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, won in the past by the likes of I’ll Have Another, Medina Spirit, Pioneerof the Nile, and Dortmund, drew only four horses, all of them trained by Bob Baffert. Those four horses have lost a total of 12 races in California, and in those 12 races they have finished behind 17 stablemates.

You can sort of understand if some of the good horses not trained by Baffert were nominated for the Lewis and then something came up to prevent them from running. But of the 16 horses nominated, 14 of them are trained by Baffert, which is insane. You can’t blame Baffert for having a lot of good 3-year-olds, but it is apparent that something is wrong out there.

Everything I’ve heard so far indicates it is going to be very difficult getting CAVE ROCK to the Derby. Watching him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, it is possible something happened to him the way he ducked in sharply after turning for home for no apparent reason and being on his wrong lead. That is pure speculation, but the fact is there has been no word on him. At this point it is not worth taking up a spot with him. It is a lot easier to put him back if he should start training up a storm.

One Baffert colt I really like is FAUSTIN, but I am reluctant to rank him because Baffert decided to sprint him again in the San Vicente against his fastest 3-year-old, Havenameltdown, rather than stretch him out two turns in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes against three stablemates who appear to be inferior to him. So I am thinking that perhaps he is looking at Faustin more as a one-turn horse. Why else would he not stretch him out in what looked to be an ideal spot?

Saturday’s seven-furlong Swale Stakes was won by the consistent and hard-knocking GENERAL JIM, who was dropping back to a sprint after four straight distance races at a mile and 1 1/16 miles, just like the old days when all good horses hit the Derby trail sprinting. What was impressive about his victory was the way he chased down the 4-5 favorite Super Chow, winner of five of his six starts and last four. Super Chow had opened a four-length lead and looked home free around the turn, but General Jim, wearing blinkers for the first time, kept coming and was relentless in the stretch, winning by a length, with an 11-length gap to the third horse. General Jim’s two victories had come on the grass, but he most likely would have won the Mucho Macho Man Stakes last out if not for an absolutely disastrous trip. By Into Mischief, out of a Curlin mare, his tail-female line is inundated with stamina through Relaunch and Temperence Hill all the way to Nashua and Nasrullah. I can’t wait to see him stretch out again, possibly in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.

BANISHING not banished after all. I had originally wrote “with no works yet from BANISHING since being scratched from an important allowance race after suffering cuts in his stall we have no idea of the severity of his wounds and again can only wait to see if he shows up on the work tab and in the entries in the near future. He is another who will return to the rankings with anything positive to report.” But I just saw this morning he worked five furlongs in 1:01 and it’s too late to put him back, so he will likely be ranked again next week. I was happy to see him come back with a sharp five-furlongs, so all looks good.

Speaking of Banishing, to demonstrate the importance of several promising horses’ next start, Banishing, SHOPPER’S REVENGE, and Hit Show are just some of the horses who won big last out with the addition of Lasix for the first time and will now have to race without it when they step into stakes competition. Hit Show did break his maiden without Lasix, but finished out of the money two starts back without it when facing winners for the first time. So we’ll give these horses one more race. If they run big next time without Lasix then they become legitimate Derby contenders.

With the sub-zero temperatures forcing the cancelation of the Withers Stakes we have to wait a week to see the hard-knocking Remsen and Jerome runner-up ARCTIC ARROGANCE defend his home turf against the aforementioned Oaklawn invader HIT SHOW, who indicated he was razor-sharp for last Saturday with a bullet five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5. Brad Cox said he will re-enter the colt and stick to his original plan. He has plenty of ammunition at Oaklawn heading for the Rebel and Hit Show should relish the mile and an eighth of the Withers. With the race canceled, Arctic Arrogance worked on Friday, breezing an easy five furlongs in 1:03 1/5. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does with blinkers on for the first time. He has shown he’s a warrior, but just needs something to reverse those photo finishes. A good race by either of these two will catapult them onto the Rankings, as they both appear to have bright futures.

One horse flying way under the radar is the Saffie Joseph-trained PRAIRIE HAWK, who will be trying for his third staight victory at Tampa Bay Downs in Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes. He showed how sharp he is right now with a sizzling half-mile work in :46 2/5 at Gulfstream. Another horse I’ll be watching in the Sam Davis,  if not for now then later, is the lightly raced LITIGATE, trained by Todd Pletcher. The son of Blame has a pedigree inundated with stamina and tons of class, and he is only going to keep improving as the distances stretch out. Watch out for this guy down the road. How far down the road we’ll see on Saturday.

Continuing on the Brad Cox front, Smarty Jones Stakes runner-up ANGEL OF EMPIRE worked five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 at Oaklawn Park. The son of Classic Empire has won both his starts with Lasix and lost both his starts without Lasix, so his next race will be important. Another Cox horse, TAPIT’S CONQUEST, who is improving and maturing with every start, breezed a half in :48 4/5 at Fair Grounds. There are only so many races for all these Cox horses to race and they most likely are going to have to weed themselves out.

Another horse who is sharp right now is Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up CURLY JACK, who drilled five furlongs in a bullet :59 4/5 at Fair Grounds, as he prepares for his 3-year-old debut in the Risen Star Stakes. He is another who easily could have been ranked, but after six starts his speed figures are still pretty slow, so he is another who will remain on the watch list for now.

One New York defector, LUGAN KNIGHT, gutsy winner of the Jerome, breezed a half-mile in :50 4/5 at of all places the Churchill Downs training center.

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.


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