2023 Derby Rankings – Week 13

The Top 20 point leaders finally is in place at least for now, so we’re going to do things a bit differently this week. With so many horses about whom we have little to say, we’re going to do a Top 10 followed by several live longshots with good betting angles. And for the brief Knocking on the Door we’ll list the bubble horses who are too good to be left out and appear to be more interesting and talented than those who are in the starting field. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Rankings: April 17, 2023 – Week 13

By Steve Haskin


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

Now that this ship is finally nearing port after eight months of smooth sailing, some people are jumping off and boarding other ships. Yes, you can use his speed figures against him, but after 11 weeks as No. 1, who really looks that much better than him that would make you jump ship now? Who else has won five graded stakes in a row, including four Grade 1’s? Is it possible that he is simply a horse who runs as fast as he has to, and because many of the horses he’s beaten have been slow, that is reflected in his Beyer figures. Rocket Can had never run faster than an 82 Beyer; four of Cyclone Mischief’s five starts had resulted in a 79 Beyer or lower. Mage had only two starts in his life, an 88 and 89 Beyer, finishing almost seven lengths behind Forte, and he surprised everyone with a powerful performance in the Florida Derby that seemed to catch Forte and Ortiz by surprise. But when Forte ran against a fast horse in Cave Rock last fall he got a 100 Beyer. I admit that his stagnant Thoro-Graph numbers since early September and the slight regression in his final prep to a “3 3/4” are concerning and not typical for a Derby favorite, and I understand trying to beat him as a bettor looking for value. But as for rankings, I just can’t drop him after all this time when all he does is win.


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

Meet the new fastest horse in the Derby. After steady progression on Thoro-Graph, he jumped from from a “4 1/2” and “4 1/4″ to a “1” in the Blue Grass Stakes, in which he showed he is tractable enough to make an early move to reach contention, shut it down until it was time to make his final move, and then outgame a dangerous opponent who he very well may not have beaten without making that early move, especially with the runner-up getting a “1 1/2” Thoro-Graph number. In my 24 years doing the Derby Dozen and Derby Rankings I have never ranked a horse as high as No. 7 in Week 2 off a neck maiden victory. I actually had him at No. 5, but felt that was too bold a move. This was strictly a visual move, as I was taken with his overall presence and look of class, the great extension to his stride and how fluid it was, and the grit he showed beating a very gutsy opponent. Now here we are 10 weeks later and he is again winning by a neck after a stretch-long battle. But this time it elevated him right to the top of many Derby rankings. I admit I was tempted to put him at No. 1, especially when the Thoro-Graph numbers came out, but as I mentioned earlier I just couldn’t bring myself to dethrone Forte after being on top since Week 1.


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

There was nothing in the beginning to suggest that this colt would become one of leading Kentucky Derby contenders. Bred in Pennsylvania, and by an unproven freshman sire, he was plucked out of Book 4 of the Keeneland September yearling sale for a mere $70,000 by the Albaugh Family team. They turned him over to Brad Cox, who was starting to have potential Derby horses pouring out of his barn like a broken faucet. So Angel of Empire was sent to Horseshoe Indianapolis Race Course for his debut before being dropped into a 6 1/2-furlong grass race at Kentucky Downs and then returned to Indiana. After more than three months of racing, it became clear that Cox’s rose-colored glasses were looking at other horses and not Angel of Empire. Finally, with 2022 coming to an end, he had no other recourse but to send the colt to Oaklawn Park and join the big boys. With his only two victories in the Hoosier State, he finally opened Cox’s eyes on New Year’s Day when he finished second to one of the trainer’s top 3-year-olds, Victory Formation, in the Smarty Jones Stakes at odds of 18-1. It is 3 1/2 months later, and after victories in the Risen Star Stakes and Arkansas Derby, Angel of Empire is now the head honcho in the Cox barn, as many of the others have fallen by the wayside. His speed figures are on the rise, his Thoro-Graph pattern is as strong as anyone’s, and his scintillating :12 1/5 final eighth in the Arkansas Derby, while blowing away the field, give him a near-flawless resume going into the Derby. I doubt anyone will be underestimating him again.


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

In my 24 years doing Derby Dozen and Derby Rankings I cannot recall the two consensus Derby favorites both regressing on Thoro-Graph in their respective final preps. That is the time to be moving forward, not backwards. I tried to provide some possible explanation for Forte, but of the three horses battling down the stretch in the Santa Anita Derby, Practical Move wound up with the third fastest Thoro-Graph number. Some, however, will be more interested in the fact that he ran his second consecutive 100 Beyer figure. So is he one of the fastest, maybe the fastest, 3-year-old or is his mediocre “4 1/2” Thoro-Graph number in the Santa Anita Derby and never having run faster than a “3 3/4” a truer gauge as to how he stacks up among the others? Welcome to the perplexing world of the 2023 Kentucky Derby. One of the main things Thoro-Graph takes into account is that Practical Move has had two of the most ideal ground-saving trips any trainer could hope for. If you continue to support this horse I believe you can expect a far better price than you might have a couple of weeks ago, as he has never really gotten the respect a horse of his accomplishments deserves. How else can you explain him closing at a preposterous 83-1 in the Future Wager on February 12? Like Forte he knows how to win, is extremely tactical and professional, and remains a very dangerous foe.


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

If you want to know why I lowered him a couple of spots don’t bother to ask, because I have no idea. Perhaps it is because he looks too logical and possibly too good for our horses if that makes any sense. It is looking like the confidence level of bettors and fans for this colt, and even for the Japanese horses in general, is going through the roof. Is Derma Sotogake actually being overhyped based on his impressive victory in the UAE Derby, his “1 1/2” Thoro-Graph number, and the results of previous Japanese invasions around the world in the past few years? I am one of those who got wrapped up in his performances in Japan, Saudi Arabia, and especially Dubai, and how his UAE Derby romp was estimated to be faster than the Dubai World Cup. I don’t really know the quality of the competition at Meydan, but all I know that in the final furlong all you saw were three Japanese hoses with huge gaps between them and not another horse in sight. I also know is that there will be three very good American horses who will not get in the Derby because of this influx of Japanese horses, and whether that is good for the Derby is something Churchill Downs and each individual will have to decide. In the meantime we look forward to seeing Derma Sotogake train and how he flourishes at Churchill Downs. His pedigree is made up mainly of American bloodlines and this could be Japan’s big opportunity to rewrite our most sacred history book with the help of one of our most gifted Derby winners.


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

Imagine you have always been an average “B-minus” student who always passes your exams, but can never get an “A.” Then one day you take a brand new course that that you really love and you ace it with an “A-plus.” Was that a one-shot deal for that one course or does that “A-plus” give you renewed confidence that with harder work you can ace all your exams, especially the big finals coming up? That leaves us with two intriguing questions. Are there now two Phils and you have to keep them separated or is he still one Phil who has found a new lease on life by knocking that latest exam out of the park? That is what we are going to find out on the first Saturday in May. If that is the real Two Phil’s who simply needed a jolt to reach the head of the class, then he is just begging you to believe in him and back him with everything you got. Each of us betting the Derby is going to have to decide whether the Jeff Ruby Steaks was an aberration caused by a switch to a synthetic surface or a new star has been born and this will be our only chance to cash in on it. Looking at the facts, this was as impressive a performance as we’ve seen all year with the speed ratings to prove it. And his Thoro-Graph pattern suggests this was no fluke and we’re about to see another “A-plus” performance. It’s up to you to believe it or not. Yes you can wind up with Tapeta on your face or you can be the hero of your block with Derby bragging rights for a year. If Two Phil’s winds up graduating with honors on May 6 don’t say you weren’t warned.


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

With him it’s very simple. Will he be allowed to control the pace, either setting it or stalking it? On paper, there isn’t much speed in the Derby unless the undefeated Kingsbarns pulls a repeat of the Louisiana Derby, but this time with his foot a lot heavier on the accelerator. Sure he can try to dawdle along in 1:14 3/5 again, but you can be sure Verifying is not going to let that happen. He has way too high a cruising speed and can use it on or off the lead. His Beyer speed figure jumped from an 85 in his eventful trip in the Rebel Stakes to a 99 in the Blue Grass, and after having paired up a career-best “5 1/2″ Thoro-Graph number in an allowance race and the Rebel, he jumped to a “1 1/2″ in the Blue Grass, in what was surely a winning effort, finishing almost six lengths ahead of the third horse, who just happened to be Blazing Sevens, the horse who beat him by 3 1/2 lengths in the Champagne Stakes. He not only looks to be a horse on the rise, he possesses dangerous speed, which could prove to be the most potent weapon in this year’s Derby.


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

If you liked Hit Show before the Wood Memorial, you can be disappointed by the turn of events that resulted in him getting beat at 8-5 or you can stick by him and feel good about getting a much bigger price in the Kentucky Derby. No you don’t want to see a big favorite like that get beat, especially being in a three-horse photo with a 59-1 shot and a maiden with only two starts. But there are a number of reasons why you don’t want to give up on him. Post 12 going 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct is a killer; going five-wide into and around the first turn makes a bad situation even worse; getting caught in the middle of a roughly run three-horse stretch battle just keeps adding to an already bad situation. He had to withstand numerous bumps from both sides and just when it looked as if he might squeak out a victory anyway he got whacked pretty good by the winner, almost knocking jockey Manny Franco onto the inside horse Dreamlike. As bad as all this was, you have to add that Hit Show hadn’t started in two months and was shipping back to New York from Kentucky after having shipped there from New Orleans in February. All of that is a lot to ask of a horse who won’t even turn 3 until three days after the Kentucky Derby. I’m not saying he is now about to go back to Kentucky and knock off the entire Derby field, I’m just saying don’t be that surprised if he does.


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

Kingsbarns or Mage? Mage or Kingsbarns? Take your pick. Both are coming into the Derby off only three career starts, 94 and 95 Beyer speed figures, and “3” and “3 3/4″ Thoro-Graph numbers. And neither has shown even the slightest sign of being so inexperienced, having encountered and overcome situations that would have been a challenge for many hardened veterans. In short, both have shown on several occasions they are extraordinary young horses. But what is important is whether they can win in a 20-horse field going 1 1/4 miles. The only horse in history to win the Derby with only three lifetime starts and never having raced at 2 was Justify, who won lapped on the leader the whole way in the slop. That is where Kinbgsbarns might get a slight edge, as he is the only one of the two who has shown he has the speed to wire his field if he is able to slow the race to a crawl. And he did it going 1 3/16 miles. There is no pure speed in the Derby and we know he is at least comfortable being on the lead, even though he is not a true speed horse and his connections would prefer seeing him sit off the pace. As powerful as he looked in the Louisiana Derby, if you want to see the real Kingsbarns watch his career debut. What he did winning that race going a flat mile first time out was very impressive. My feelings about winning the Derby with only three lifetime starts are well documented. It would take a remarkable horse to do it, and we at least know this colt has shown he is pretty remarkable.


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

Although Kingsbarns has the advantage of being undefeated and a Grade 2 stakes winner he wasn’t running twice against the 2-year-old champion and Kentucky Derby favorite…and nearly beating him. He demonstrated some of the attributes that make him special in his most recent work. Going five furlongs in 1:01 is good, but it’s not going to blow you away. It is how he did it. Right from the start you can see how he gets his head down into the bit and just glides along. His rider then took him well off the rail, indicating they didn’t want him working too fast. After changing leads smoothly, he just coasted down the stretch with his rider never moving his hands. After the wire he again was taken wide galloping out into the turn, but still kept going at a strong clip, with his head still down and into the bit. He is a beautiful horse to watch in action and we saw some of the remarkable things he is capable of in the Florida Derby. This colt’s ceiling is so high now nothing does would be amazing anymore. If he and Kingsbarns had even just one more race under them, preferably a start at 2, we’re not talking about No. 9 and 10 anymore. But a number of the horses ahead of them are seasoned, battle-tested colts with proven class who won’t be as easy to deal with in a 20-horse Derby field. The bottom line is that both he and Kingsbarns are rapidly rising stars and we really have no idea what they are capable of.



I had 11 horses to rank and rather than add one to make it a Derby Dozen, I decided that Skinner, who was originally scheduled to be ranked anywhere from No. 7 to 10, would get more play having his own category, along with two other longshots who would have gotten lost in the Rankings, which are now geared more toward betting and who is going to get in. From this point on the Derby will be affected only by what happens off the racetrack. So here are three longshots with current odds from BetOnline who have enough angles to be at least considered interesting trifecta and superfecta possibilities.



Right now he is my longshot special and a potential monster overlay. This is going to be a totally forgotten horse who just may be sitting on a big effort. It’s easy to look at the Blue Grass and say he was beaten six lengths by Tapit Trice, who pulled away from him in the stretch. But there is so much more to this horse. First off, he showed in the Blue Grass that his Fountain of Youth was a complete throw out race, and that the Blue Grass was in many ways his first start in five months. He closed in the Future Wager at 46-1, which is a big price for a horse who already is a Grade 1 winner, having easily defeated a horse who was beaten a neck the Blue Grass and is one of the true live contenders in the Derby. Blazing Sevens’ career best Beyer was a 93 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. That is one point less than Angel of Empire’s career best; one point less than Mage’s career best; two points less than Forte’s most recent race; and two points less than Kingsbarns’ career best in the Louisiana Derby. On Thoro-Graph, he went from his aberrant “15 1/2″ in the Fountain of Youth to a “3” in the Blue Grass, and he should actually take another step forward considering he already has a “3” to fall back on in his Champagne victory. One of my longtime betting angles is second race blinkers on, which will apply in the Derby. In the Blue Grass he was four-to-five wide the whole way, and after running his third quarter in a quick :23 4/5 trying to keep up with Tapit Trice’s early move, he made another big move leaving the half-mile pole, flying by horses on the turn to pull right up to Tapit Trice’s flank at the top of the stretch and looked like a legitimate danger to the favorite. Although he could not sustain his run, which wasn’t surprising considering his lack of racing all year, he still dug in and held off two closers for third. Whatever price he goes off at in the Derby, they will be too high considering his back class in Grade 1 company and getting back on an upward trend right before the Derby.


SKINNER (33-1)

I am including him even though he is currently on the outside looking in. But at No. 22 I am thinking optimistically. No matter what the number is I am taking the ‘over’ on how many times Skinner is compared to Giacomo. And one of those times is right now. Giacomo went into the Kentucky Derby with one victory in seven starts, compared to Skinner’s one victory in six starts. In Giacomo’s final prep, the Santa Anita Derby, he rallied and then hung in the final eighth, finishing fourth, beaten 2 1/4 lengths. In Skinner’s final prep, the Santa Anita Derby, he rallied and then hung in the final eighth, finishing third, beaten three-quarters of a length. A horse is more likely to hang in a smaller field than in a 20-horse cavalry charge, where he doesn’t have time to think about hanging. Just watch the difference in Giacomo when he was too busy negotiating traffic looking for an opening. Skinner has strong credentials to fall back on, such as having the fastest Thoro-Graph number of the first three Santa Anita Derby finishers, despite finishing third. He was wide the whole way and probably made his move a bit too soon, making it harder to sustain. After pairing up a career-best “4 1/2” and “4 1/4,” Skinner improved to “2 1/4” in the Santa Anita Derby, putting himself in position for another forward move at Churchill Downs. Shirreffs said Skinner and Giacomo are very similar in that both are “level-headed and don’t worry about things.” He added, “They take everything in stride, and on the track they have the ability to cover the ground effortlessly.” Also, both have had bad trips and have been involved in bumping incidents. Shireffs concluded by saying that Skinner “just needs to reach a little deeper like Giacomo.” If anyone can get him to reach that deep it is Shirreffs.



I was disappointed in his Arkansas Derby performance, mainly because he had no closing kick after a perfect stalking trip. And right now I have very little confidence he can win the Derby or even be a serious factor. So what is he doing here? He does have two interesting angles and if he can pull one of them off there is a possibility we could see a different story on Derby Day. It seems fairly obvious by now that Reincarnate does not like to pass horses in deep stretch. At least that’s what he’s been showing us. Three times he’s been a length or two back in the stretch and all three times he couldn’t or wouldn’t pass the horse in front. Three times he worked in company with National Treasure and each time Reincarnate, who took back, failed to get his head in front of him. I have found that often with hangers they don’t want to pass horses, but if they are in front they don’t want horses passing them. In Reincarnate’s maiden victory and his Sham Stakes victory he was sent to the front and battled back in the stretch refusing to be passed. We have established there is little speed in the Derby. Kingsbarns has only been on the lead when no one wanted it and he was allowed to crawl out there by himself. He is not a natural frontrunner. And then there is Verifying, who has never been on the lead and is more comfortable sitting just off it. And that’s it. So why not just send Reincarnate, let him settle into that big stride of his and see what he can do when he’s challenged in the stretch? What is there to lose? The only other way he can win is break slowly, drop far back in the pack, and then come flying late as he did in the Rebel Stakes. By the time he gets to the leaders he will have passed so many horses and will be on such a roll, hanging will be the last thing on his mind. So put him on the lead or take him way back. That’s your only two choices.



No one is knocking harder than those sitting just outside the Top 20, and that even includes the aforementioned SKINNER, as well as other legitimate Derby contenders JACE’S ROAD, CYCLONE MISCHIEF, MANDARIN  HERO, and KING RUSSELL, the last three having placed in Grade 1 stakes and Jace’s Road having placed in a Grade 2. At least a couple of these horses should get in, but there is no certainty. And if they don’t this could be a wake-up call to our trainers that if you can’t get in with 40 points because of the foreign road to the Derby, the UAE Derby, and the Japanese now willing to come here in advance, then perhaps our horses are going to have to be raced a bit more aggressively to accumulate as many points as possible. Having only two starts could get kind of dicey.

The one horse who leapfrogged all these horses this past weekend was one of our favorites all year, DISARM, who did so with a fairly lackluster third in the Lexington Stakes. Even if they were just trying for a place or a show without knocking the colt out, he had little or no punch when he was asked for his run. He was, however, dropping back to 1 1/16 miles from 1 3/16 miles and was dealing with a short stretch, so I can neither knock his race nor say anything good about it because I don’t know what was behind it and it did get him in the Derby. Once you race at 1 3/16 miles you’re not supposed to race again before the Derby. So to Asmussen’s credit he had to run him and have him competitive enough to at least finish third while handling the whole situation with kid gloves. A wrong move in one direction and you don’t get in the Derby and a wrong move in the other direction and you take too much out of your horse. So in that sense he nailed it.

Once again, the elusive CONFIDENCE GAME was a teaser for a big race and once again didn’t show up. He obviously is telling Keith Desormeaux he’s good enough to turn in solid works, but he’s not ready mentally for the stress of competition. He has been called hot-headed by his trainer, which does not explain much and does not bode well for the Derby. What makes this all the more strange is that his hot-headed nature did not prevent him from running in July, August, September, October, November, January, and February. So whatever has been bugging him since the Rebel Stakes, he supposedly is going into the Derby off a 10-week layoff and dealing with mental issues. Good luck with that. He is a very nice horse and very talented and whatever his problem is we wish him the very best.

If there is one horse who came close to making the longshot list it is another Rankings staple RAISE CAIN. But he requires a longer look, as his Blue Grass was not all that bad. I just can’t decide yet how I feel about his chances.


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