2023 Derby Rankings – Week 12

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

Derby Rankings: April 10, 2023 – Week 12

By Steve Haskin

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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