2023 Derby Rankings – Week 8

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.


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