2023 Derby Rankings – Week 11

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.


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