2023 Derby Rankings – Week 5

Because of a brain meltdown trying to plod through this crop of 3-year-olds, we’re back to a Top 15. This year so far, the weeks come and go with not too much to get excited about. And then there is the confusion of where the Bob Baffert horses are going and which ones will be leaving. I can’t recall ranking this many graded stakes winners so low or not at all. At least we are down to two weeks before the heavy hitters return on March 4 and hopefully clear up this muddled picture. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: Feb. 20, 2023 – Week 5

By Steve Haskin

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

Pletcher loves the way he’s been progressing, especially his most recent five-furlong work in 1:01 2/5. Before we forget just what this colt accomplished as a 2-year-old, he was able to romp by almost eight lengths going five furlongs in his career debut; win the seven-furlong Hopeful Stakes in the slop by three lengths in a swift 1:22 2/5 beating eventual Champagne winner Blazing Sevens by 12 lengths; stretch out to two turns and win the 1 1/16-mile Breeders’ Futurity in a gut-wrenching stretch battle with the talented Loggins; and finally blow by the undefeated California sensation Cave Rock in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths. So until he makes his long-awaited debut on March 4 you have to ask yourself, is there anything this horse can’t do? He knows how to win big, he knows how to gut it out in a close finish, he knows how to win in the slop, he knows how to run fast times, and he knows how to run on the inside and the outside. And he is bred to run all day. That’s the kind of horse you want to face the many challenges of the Kentucky Derby.


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

Pletcher said his next race is “still to be determined.” Last week I said I was going to discuss Tapit Trice’s broodmare sire Dunkirk. A son of Unbridled’s Song who sold as a yearling for a whopping $3.7 million, he did not race at 2 and then easily won his first two career starts at 3. He was thrown into the Florida Derby and rallied from eight lengths back to be beaten by 1 3/4 lengths by Quality Road in a swift 1:47 3/5. With only three career starts he ran in the Kentucky Derby and had a horrible trip in the slop, stumbling badly at the start and then having to steady, finishing in midpack. He then ran in the Belmont Stakes and set a strong pace, then battled back gamely when challenged in the stretch by Mine That Bird. He never saw the winner, Summer Bird, who rallied out in the middle of the track, and had to settle for second. His performance looked all the more remarkable when he was found to have suffered a condylar fracture to his left hind cannon bone during the race. He never raced again and was retired to Ashford Stud. Tapit Trice is inbred 3 x 4 top and bottom to Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled and 3 x 4 top and bottom to Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner A.P. Indy. His tail-female line traces to Drone, the broodmare sire of two Kentucky Derby winners and an Arc de Triomphe winner who we wrote about last week. Tapit Trice, a gray like Dunkirk, Drone and Unbridled’s Song, reminds me a great deal of all three off these imposing brilliant colts.


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

Baffert is not known for working his top Derby horses three furlongs, but he worked Arabian Knight in :35 3/5 and he’s had only that one short blowout in the past three weeks. Here we are heading to the end of February and we either have no idea where a number of the top-ranked horses are running next or we still have to wait several weeks until their 3-year-old debut. So it is just questions and speculation each week. So where does that leave this colt? I have no idea who will be training him after February 28, but either way I am guessing he will stay in California and point for the San Felipe on March 4 rather than travel cross-county again. But you would think he needs to start putting some serious works. Hopefully in the next couple of days. Right now all we can do is try to figure out if he is as good as he’s looked in his first two starts. Remember, his Thoro-Graph number in the Southwest was a bit slower than his maiden victory, which is not really a bad thing considering what a big number he got in that first race. He is the only brilliant 3-year-old we’ve seen so far so we’ll just stay on the bandwagon…for now.


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

I still can’t believe this colt closed at 83-1 in the most recent Future Wager. He is the only horse in California you could have bet on and he was totally ignored by everyone. Check out his last three works, all at five furlongs — :59, :59 1/5, and :59 1/5. Also, check out his last three Thoro-Graph numbers – 8 1/4, 5 1/4, and 3 3/4. So not only is he training up a storm he is improving at a steady pace. And he is the only horse in California to derail the Baffert Express. He as the speed figures, the running style, the foundation, and the pedigree to be a major player on the Derby trail. Did I mention 83-1? There is no doubt he is sitting on a huge effort in the March 4 San Felipe Stakes. Yakteen, according to the Gotham nominations list, has already received several of Baffert’s horses, but the big names are still in their barn, so he should get a good test, which he will need having only two starts.


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

One thing I like about him is not only has his Beyer figures gotten faster with each race they have increased 11 points, 11 points, and nine points. These obviously are consistently big jumps and he has still left himself room to make another significant move forward in his next race. In his allowance victory prior to the Withers his Thoro-Graph numbers jumped from a 10 1/2 and 12 3/4 to a 4 3/4. You might expect a regression off such a big jump or at best to stay around that same number, but he actually took another step forward to a 2, which is the fastest number by a 3-year-old this year. So this colt is ascending rapidly. He likely will have only one more start with a 1 1/16-mile race, a one-mile race, and a 1 1/8-mile race already under his belt, and that should come in a return trip to New York for the Wood Memorial, giving him a two-month layoff between nine-furlong races. Having already run so fast on Thoro-Graph and being on such an upward progression I would imagine one more race should be all he needs to put him in position to peak on Derby Day. And as I mentioned last week he won’t even turn 3 until May 9. So this colt has a lot going for him right now.


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

He stretched out to five furlongs in his works, going an easy 1:02 1/5 at Payson Park. He remains on target for the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes where he will have to take on last year’s champion Forte. Even a fast-closing second or third would be a good first step, but he would have to come back with a huge effort in his final prep. Despite his Champagne Stakes victory in his third career start I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near the best of him, and his fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile may be the best race he’s run considering the trouble he had. All signs point to him improving with every start and I am looking forward to seeing what kind of transition he’s made from 2 to 3. He should also have a good foundation working over the deeper Payson Park surface.


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

His new ranking is mainly in preparation n for a big effort in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes, where he squares off with stablemate Giant Mischief, and if either of these two should win and win impressively then they have to emerge as major Derby contenders. Both colts tuned up for the Rebel with sharp five-furlong works in :59 4/5, and both horses are coming off identical 5 1/2 Thoro-Graph numbers. I like that Verifying came off a six-furlong career debut to finish second in the Champagne Stakes and bounced back from a troubled start in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to win a one-mile allowance race by 5 1/2 lengths with first-time Lasix, easily handling runner-up Gun Pilot and Two Eagles River, who both came back to score impressive allowance victories. It is the form from that race that gives Verifying a slight edge in the Rankings over Giant Mischief. Verifying’s Beyer figures are climbing with every race and he looks like a colt with good tactical speed who can carry it.


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

As mentioned, Cox has two heavy hitters going in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes, with this colt making his 3-year-old debut and Verifying coming off an impressive allowance victory. This will be by far the best field Giant Mischief has faced in is three career starts. He should have won the Springboard Mile, but lost all chance when he broke far behind the field. We know he can gut it out in a stretch battle, even though the horse he beat, Arabian Lion, has turned out to be a big disappointment. But he sure looked like a promising colt going into that race. All I’m looking for from Giant Mischief is to get a clean trip and show that same quick turn of foot he displayed in his previous races, and of course be closing at the end. As I’ve been saying, I’m still not sure how far he wants to go or how he will fare against better quality horses, but this race will show us if he belongs and which direction he is heading. I actually like him slightly better than Verifying as a potential Derby horse because of his style of running, his versatility, and the aforementioned turn of foot. But for now Verifying looks to be the more brilliant of the two and is coming off that formful allowance victory.


9—Cave Rock (Bob Baffert, Arrogate – Georgie’s Angel, by Bellamy Road)

He returns to the Rankings after finally having is first work of the year. Not only did her return after a much-needed three-month freshening for whatever reason, he came back running with a sharp half-mile drill in :47 4/5. I’m not sure if he was intended to go that fast, as he hooked up with another worker at the top of the stretch. But he did everything easily with the rider up in the saddle and never moving his hands. He had his usual smooth low action and was striding out beautifully.  I can pretty much repeat what I wrote about Arabian Knight and where he might wind up and with whom. With him, however, the key word is “when.” We will have to see how many works it is going to take him to get race ready, but we do know he is going to need two starts, and once that big March 4 weekend passes it is going to get petty dicey trying to accomplish that. Let’s not forget how talented and brilliantly fast this colt is and how he dominated all his opponents in Southern California, as Baffert-heavy as they were. I’m giving him a pass in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile because I am convinced he wasn’t right in that race, especially the way he lost his action in the stretch after setting a contentious pace, lugging in and jumping back to his left lead. So we not only need to see the old Cave Rock, we need to see Cave Rock, period. Until then it is more waiting and seeing what develops over the next couple of weeks.


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

He finally returned to the work tab after a month and now is likely to make his next start in the Louisiana Derby. Even though he seems to be back on track after taking a mini vacation, despite having only four career starts, he will have only one race in 14 weeks going into the Kentucky Derby. I don’t know if Cox is a speed sheets follower, but Instant Coffee’s Thoro-Graph numbers did jump from an 8 1/2 to a 2 1/2 in the LeComte, so is it possible that is what contributed to him skipping the Risen Star, to prevent a “bounce” or regression and give him more time to recover from such a big leap forward? The LeComte runner-up Two Phil’s did come back in the Risen Star and finished a rather lackluster third, tiring in the final furlong in a race that got only an 87 Beyer speed figure. Or was this Cox’s plan along? Let’s face it, we know most horses now hardly race, with the days of two and three weeks between races long gone, but we will just have to see if such a light campaign and so little racing leading up to the Derby proves successful, whether it was originally intended or not. His record shows he belongs among the top-ranked horses, even though the two horses who finished second to him in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and LeComte have not exactly set the world on fire since. But give him credit at least for winning two stakes in a row and three of four lifetime and always giving 100 percent.


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

He was entered in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes under trainer Tim Yakteen’s name as the exodus continues. He worked six furlongs in company with National Treasure with both going in 1:11 4/5. Reincarnate sat off his stablemate’s flank, pulled on even terms nearing the quarter pole but couldn’t get his head in front down the stretch and on the gallop-out. When the roles were reversed in the Sham Stakes it was National Teeasure who couldn’t get past Reincarnate. We should know more about him after the Rebel Stakes, as he makes is first start back east and under a new trainer and faces his toughest field so far. We know this colt is strong and tough and has learned how to win his races after starting his career on the grass. And he should have the stamina to carry his speed. So far, Yakteen has been able to keep his new Baffert horses away from his own star, Practical Move.


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

Because of his victory at seven furlongs not many are looking at him as a major Derby contender or even a Derby contender period. Churchill Downs has declared sprints persona non grata when it comes to the Derby. But he doesn’t run or look like a sprinter, McGaughey has already trained a Derby winner, Into Mischief has already sired a Derby winner, Curlin is a Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, he has already won at 1 1/16 miles twice, and his female family is inundated with stamina influences. To me his 51-1 odds in the Future Wager look pretty appealing for those who decided he could be a Derby horse. McGaughey as usual thought of the horse first and felt the sprint was the best place for him, points or no points. We should know a lot more after his next start in the Gotham Stakes, which could lead to the Wood Memorial.


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

Well, he did win the Risen Star Stakes, the first 50-pointer, and he did turn the tables on his Smarty Jones Stakes conqueror Victory Formation. But other than that the quality of the Risen Star remains open to question. After five starts he hit his high Beyer figure, but it was only an 87, which leaves him a lot to do before being considered one of the top Derby contenders. His first three starts were run at Horseshoe Indianapolis (formerly Indiana Grand) twice and Kentucky Downs so he is pretty much just beginning his climb up class ladder, and he hasn’t done badly at all with a stakes placing at Oaklawn Park and a stakes victory at Fair Grounds. In any event, the Cox deluge continues and we have no choice but to stuff the Rankings with them until the big-name horses show up.


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

He breezed an easy half in :50 4/5 at Oaklawn Park in preparation for Saturday’s Rebel Stakes. I can see this colt moving up in the Rankings after this race despite the high level of competition expected. In short I expect him to be closing at the end no matter how the race shapes up and who wins. He is a lot better than his record might indicate and he surly has the foundation and the experience with six lifetime starts, all at a mile or longer. And as I have mentioned he is bred to run all day. I am still convinced he would have won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes if he didn’t have such a horrible trip. He could turn out to be quite an overlay in the Future Wager at 58-1.


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

Even though he was outrun and beaten fair and square by Angel of Empire in the Risen Star Stakes, I liked the way he rebounded off his fourth-place finish in the Southwest Stakes in the slop and the way he was striding out in the stretch of the Risen Star after closing from 10th to be beaten a length. Yes, he needs to improve his speed ratings but at least they have been getting better with each race. He just needs to start picking it up and repeat that explosive move his showed in his maiden victory.



I can’t remember so many horses looking like potential Derby contenders one day and looking like non contenders the next. But horses keep plummeting off the Rankings, with VICTORY FORMATION and BANISHING being the latest to disappoint, along with the established CURLY JACK and to a lesser degree TWO PHIL’S and TAPIT’S CONQUEST, who didn’t run badly in the Risen Star, but didn’t run that well either. And the first two finishers, Angel of Empire and Sun Thunder, showed they still have a ways to go before being considered serious Derby contenders. That is how it has gone this year, which is why we are reaching into allowance races. But as Banishing and several others have shown, even that hasn’t worked out very often.

Speaking of allowance races, all that TWO EAGLES RIVER needed apparently was an easy uncontested lead from the rail to put it all together, as he ran off with a one-mile allowance race at Oaklawn Sunday, winning by four lengths and coming home is last two eighths each in a quick :12 1/5 while striding out beautifully in the stretch. This was a big improvement off his well-beaten third to Verifying in a strong allowance race. This could be a breakout race for the son of Cloud Computing, who already has a strong victory and second at Churchill Downs. Do not dismiss the runner-up DISARM, who will move way up off his second-place finish. The son of Gun Runner hadn’t run since early August, was making only his third career start, was stretching out to two turns for the first time, and had to run hard all the way and then try to catch the loose on the lead winner off those fast last fractions. He still was able to distance himself from the rest of field and was finding his best stride in the final furlong. This colt was ranked early on because of his potential and that potential is still there.

Are we seeing a new weird trend on the Derby trail that we have never seen before? First we had Maximum Security running in a $16,000 claiming race and winning by almost 10 lengths, then finishing first in the Kentucky Derby. Then we had Rich Strike running in a $20,000 claiming race and winning by 17 1/4 lengths, then winning the Kentucky Derby at 80-1. Now we have AIRTIME running in a $50,000 claiming race and winning by 10 1/4 lengths, then coming right back and beating the 3-2 favorite SHOPPER’S REVENGE in an allowance race, which put him on the Derby trail. In the last two races we mentioned, both horses were claimed out of that race. Is this a case of trainers and owners misjudging the talent of their horses, or horses just making huge improvement, or simply that there isn’t that much difference between the so-called good horses and bad horses? From a history standpoint, when Charismatic, who ran in a $62,500 claiming race, won the Kentucky Derby he became the first former claimer to win the Derby since Dust Commander nearly 30 years earlier.

Going back to the spacing of Instant Coffee’s races leading up to the Derby, I am going to interject a memory/history lesson. In 1969 most everyone feared that the Derby favorite Top Knight was not right because his trainer Ray Metcalf said he was not going to run the colt in the five weeks between the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. That was pretty much unheard of back then. As it turned out Top Knight was not right and was never the same horse. There was no other reason to wait five whole weeks. Now we have Oaklawn Park changing the date of the Arkansas Derby from three weeks out, where it had good success, to five weeks out. The Blue Grass Stakes had great success when it was run nine days before the Derby. Now it is four weeks out and the last Blue Grass winner to win the Derby was Strike the Gold over 30 years ago. Is anyone aware that Triple Crown winners Citation and Whirlaway and most of the Calumet Farm Kentucky Derby winners ran in the Derby Trial four days before the Derby… and they all had a workout in between? Do you think the training game, and perhaps the Thoroughbred, has changed?

One horse whose two-turn debut should be very revealing is the Baffert-trained FAUSTIN, who blazed five furlongs in :58 4/5. We could see him in the San Felipe, as well as the recent impressive maiden winner SKINNER, trained by John Shirreffs.

Others to watch in the Rebel Stakes are the aforementioned allowance winner GUN PILOT and the Southwest third-place finisher FROSTED DEPARTURE.

Getting back to the Gotham Stakes nominations, three of the colts nominated, HEJAZI, CARMEL ROAD, and ARABIAN LION, all formerly trained by Baffert, are now listed under the name Tim Yakteen. Hejazi, the $3.55 million 2-year-old purchase, and Carmel Road, second in the Los Alamitos Futurity to Practical Move, both worked five furlongs in :59 1/5 and would seem to fit very well in the Gotham. Another former Baffert colt, FORT WARREN, a well-beaten third in the San Vicente Stakes, is on the Gotham nominations list with trainer Brittany Russell.

In other works of note, Holy Bull Stakes winner ROCKET CAN breezed a half in :49 4/5 at Payson Park, and at Turfway Park, Leonatus Stakes winner FUNTASTIC AGAIN worked a strong five furlongs in 1:01.

As if Brad Cox doesn’t have enough 3-year-olds to keep track of, watch out for the undefeated EYEING CLOVER in the Gotham Stakes, which is looking like a very live race. The son of Lookin At Lucky has won a pair of six-furlong sprints, the last a 9 3/4-length romp at Oaklawn. He is bred to go long, so if he runs a big race in the Gotham he likely will return to Oaklawn and point for the Arkansas Derby.

Another Baffert horse, WORCESTER, a son of Empire Maker who finished third in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes as a maiden, is headed for the UAE 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.


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