2023 Derby Handicapping Analysis

Well, it’s finally the end of the road and for all the questions to be answered…we hope. Here is an overview of what has happened since January and who is left from the hundreds of Derby hopefuls. We will conclude with a feeble attempt to explain our wagers, knowing we are all grasping for straws when it comes to the wild and wacky world of the Kentucky Derby. ~ Steve Haskin

Will Forte or the Gray Make Pletcher’s Day?

By Steve Haskin


There is a lot to cover, so no need for any introductions. Let’s just get right to it beginning with some interesting random notes.


The three oldest horses in the Derby field are all trained by Todd Pletcher. It seems a lot of people have jumped off the Forte bandwagon, whether it’s because they weren’t impressed with his Florida Derby victory, he didn’t wow anyone in his workouts, or that his speed figures have not improved since last year, and in fact have regressed. Could it be that by being the second oldest horse in the field, with a February 3 foaling date and shipping to Pletcher on March 25 last year and debuting in brilliant fashion on May 28, he peaked early and has not been able to improve his form from last summer and fall? It sounds strange considering he hasn’t lost since last July while racking up four Grade 1 victories along the way. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see his stablemate Tapit Trice go off as the favorite or close to it. I feel people still like and respect Forte, but not as the 2-1 or 5-2 and are looking elsewhere for value.

On the other hand, that same statistic, along with a few others have made me do a complete 180 on my handicapping the Derby. Two of the first horses I eliminated were Mage and Kingsbarns because of them having only three lifetime starts and not racing at 2. The only horse to overcome that much history (108 years and 141 years) is Justify and he was special enough to win the Triple Crown. So why do I now believe that Kingsbarns has a very good shot to win the Derby? It is because of stats that you won’t find in the past performances. First off, Kingsbarns is the oldest horse in the field and the only horse foaled in January (Jan. 17). So although he’s had only three starts he likely is more physically and mentally mature than the majority of the field. He just had a few minor issues coming out of the 2-year-old that made his connections take their time with him. But his physical and mental maturity may have been evident when Todd Pletcher decided to start off his career going a flat mile at Gulfstream Park, which is a tough distance in which to debut. Not only did Kingsbarns win, he won like a seasoned professional overcoming major traffic problems at the head of the stretch when he was totally boxed in with nowhere to go.

After winning over the quirky Tampa Bay surface for fun, he was given another tough assignment having to go 1 3/16 miles off only two lifetime starts. Many people dismiss his victory, even though it was by a comfortable 3 1/2 lengths, because of the slow fractions he set. But there are several important points that are being overlooked.

In 2017 I raved about Always Dreaming in my Derby Dozen after a 1 1/8-mile allowance victory and ranked him No. 8 before the Florida Derby even though he had never run in a stakes and people knocked his allowance win because of how slow he went (:51 3/5, 1:16 4/5, and 1:53 4/5 for the nine furlongs). But I used that as a positive because of how fast I knew he was, having run :45 and change opening half-miles sprinting. For a horse that fast to be able to turn off that speed and run that slow when asked showed me this was a push-button horse who will run as fast or as slow as you want him to. We all know what happened with Always Dreaming. Well, with Kingsbarns, he had worked a quarter at the Gulfstream Park 2-year-old over a dead racetrack in an insane :20 3/5. His consignor Tom McCrocklin said to work that fast at Gulfstream was “science fiction.” It’s not supposed to happen. So here we have a horse with tremendous speed who is able to slow down the pace in a 1 3/16-mile race, going in :49 3/5 and 1:14 3/5 only because no one else wanted the lead. What also went overlooked was that, even with the slow fractions, Kingsbarns’ final three-sixteenths in :18 1/5 was remarkable considering Preakness winners don’t come home that fast and he did it on the lead.

So the bottom line is perhaps having only three starts isn’t as much of a negative with him as we think it is. And perhaps he has shown us that what he’s done in those three starts only enhances how special a horse he really is and that his early foaling date shows us he is mature far beyond his years. I went back to Week 1 in the Derby Rankings and this is how I began my comment on his debut: “The horse who really caught my eye, but is not quite ready to be ranked in the Top 12, was the Todd Pletcher-trained Kingsbarns, who debuted at a mile at Gulfstream and got so much out of the race it gave him a lot more experience than other horses with only one start.” So there is my 180 turn and I will live with the historical consequences. In short, I have no idea how good this colt really is and how good he may be. If he wins the Derby watch how many times the words Triple Crown will be used.


We no longer have Trakus to help us break down the interior parts of a race, but we do now have GPS, which provides us with the number of strides a horse takes and the varying lengths of his stride. So, did Forte get stronger at the end of the Florida Derby or did Mage get weaker? It’s a combination of both, but there is no doubt Mage was shortening stride. Forte’s maximum stride came in his fourth furlong, reaching a whopping 26 feet, 40 inches. He did shorten it to 24.13 at the eighth pole, but picked it up in that furious final eighth, finishing up at 24.27, which was matched only by Tapit Trice’s 25.39 at the finish of the Blue Grass Stakes and Angel of Empire (25.19) in the Arkansas Derby. The latter is the only horse whose stride got progressively longer in the final three furlongs, which is pretty impressive considering distance had no effect on the length of his stride. As for Mage, his stride got progressively shorter, going down to 21.16 at the end, so he no doubt was tiring in the final furlong. One thing that did impress me about Forte was that 26-foot stride earlier in the race and the fact he was able to lengthen his stride at the wire after it appeared as if he was tiring just before that.


Most of us are aware that Churchill Downs, with its clay base surface, is friendly to horses running on grass and synthetic surfaces. If you are in a quandary about whether Two Phil’s moved way up on Turfway’s Tapeta surface in the Jeff Ruby Steaks or he is simply improving at the right time, it really doesn’t matter. It’s probably a combination of both, but even if he mostly improved because of the synthetic surface, coming off it should help him. Animal Kingdom had never run on dirt going into the Derby. Paddy O’Prado was a grass horse who finished third the Derby. Dullahan excelled on grass and synthetic and also finished third in the Derby. Barbaro was a grass horse, who in his first race over a fast dirt track was all out to beat the distance challenged Sharp Humor by a half-length in the Florida Derby before romping in the Kentucky Derby. And of course last year we had Rich Strike coming off a third in the same Jeff Ruby Steaks. So don’t worry about Two Phil’s, who has already won big in the slop at Churchill Downs and placed twice in graded stakes at Fair Grounds. Even if he isn’t as dynamic as he was at Turfway Park he still has the credentials and the speed figures to win on Saturday and could actually move up coming off the synthetic track.


It has been rare for me to rank a horse coming off a maiden victory, especially if the horse broke his maiden in a photo or in a sprint or on a sloppy track. Times obviously are changing so you have to be more flexible and simply go by what your eyes tell you. Are you seeing a horse with star potential who will excel at classic distances? This year in Week 1 back in January I ranked a horse at No. 12 off a maiden sprint victory, who hadn’t run for 4 1/2 months. He had a lot going against him time-wise, but he showed me enough from his mechanics, raw ability and closing punch to suggest he had a bright future and enough time to get in a couple of two-turn races. But it was going to be very tight and everything would have to work out perfectly. And he still needed to show what he could do going two turns.

A week later I added an even more unusual horse to the Rankings and even had the audacity to rank him at No. 7. I originally put him at No. 5 but figured at the last minute that was going a bit too far so I moved him down two places. What made him unusual was that he only won by a neck coming off one third-place finish and it was on a muddy track. To rank him at all was out of the ordinary, but to rank him that high was insane. However, from a visual standpoint he was outstanding, with a magnificent, fluid stride you rarely see in a young horse. Even in a photo finish there was something dominant about him. So there were these two maiden winners with plenty of question marks taking up two spots in the Rankings in Week 2.

Needless to say there is no way I will not be boxing an exacta of Disarm and Tapit Trice in the Derby, especially after they turned in two of the most impressive works I’ve seen all week. Disarm has looked so strong and focused every day and his two works have been so eye-popping I fear he is now a wise-guy horse who will take a lot of money. All I know is that both horses sure have come a long way.


Here are the horses I feel are on the strongest Thoro-Graph pattern.

Angel of Empire – His first four races were slow, running a career-best 9 1/4 in the Smarty Jones Stakes in his fourth start. Then in the Risen Star Stakes at 13-1 he made a huge leap to a 2 1/4. Many horses will bounce off such a big jump, but he pretty much paired up that number with a 2 in the Arkansas Derby, which means he likely will now make another move forward.

Two Phil’s – Running on all kinds of surfaces at all distances at different racetracks, he was able to remain very consistent with three straight numbers of 7 3/4. When it was time to finally show some improvement he ran a 4 in the LeComte and paired that up with another 4 in the Risen Star. Then came the move to synthetic and he jumped to a 2. That put him in position for another improved performance, and if he is just getting good now he could make a significant jump.

Tapit Trice – His 1 in the Blue Grass Stakes makes him the fastest horse in the field and it followed a 4 1/4 and 4 1/2 pairing, which shows what you can expect when a horse pairs up career-best numbers. The second number validates the first one and then comes the big jump forward.

Verifying – He is on a similar pattern as Tapit Trice, going from a 5 1/2 pairing to a 1 1/2, but is not as sure a thing to improve going another quarter of a mile. If he does he will be dangerous.

Skinner – I love his pattern. Once again we have a horse making a huge leap from a 17 to a 4 1/2 and then pairing up that number to validate it. Although he then finished third in the Santa Anita Derby, his 2 1/4 number was faster than the winner and the runner-up and was another example of a horse making a significant move forward after pairing up career-best number. The extra furlong should help him improve once again.

Derma Sotogake – After the UAE Derby I considered moving him into the Top 3 and then when he was given a 1 1/2 Thoro-Graph number following a 6 1/2 and 6 3/4 pairing to back it up I was tempted to put him No. 2 or even No. 1. His UAE Derby figure, and his projected Beyer, make his stirring victory faster than the Dubai World Cup, and that makes him a serious horse.

I also have to say that the two lightly raced horses, Kingsbarns and Mage, are in very similar steadily improving patterns they still need another jump of about two to three points. Kingsbarns has run a 9 1/2, a 4 1/2, and a 3, due in part to the pace, so who knows how much of an improvement he has in him?


It’s still early but let’s look at the horses who have made the best impression in the morning. There is no doubt that Disarm heads this list with his powerful gallops and two picture-perfect works. This colt has thrived since the unscheduled Lexington Stakes, coming back with a monster work just nine days later following several gallops in which he was really in a zone with his head down into the bit and his neck arched. What stood out in his two works was the way he was extending himself, reaching out with powerful strides, while doing everything on his own. The mile and a quarter should only help him.

Although Confidence Game had a stunning work, just floating over the ground, and is putting a lot of bottom under him with strong gallop-outs, I still can’t ignore the fact he is coming off a 10-week layoff. It just hasn’t been done and I can’t project it happening now. More important, I don’t want it to happen. These horses are too lightly raced already and we really have no idea who they are. I barely remember Confidence Game, it’s been so long since he raced.

Tapit Trice had a simple, but powerful half-mile work, in which he demonstrated how easily he can do things while showing off that big stride of his and how strong he is on the gallop-out. When this horse fully matures he is going to be a beast. Will it happen on Saturday? Post 5 might be a little too far inside for him, as he is more comfortable outside of horses and he is one horse you don’t want to get stopped. He just has no speed out of the gate and doesn’t have the maneuverability of some of the others. But we know he can make more than one run and there is no one I’d rather have on his back than Luis Saez. This horse doesn’t just outrun you, he steamrolls you.

One horse who is constantly improving in everything he does is Angel of Empire. His :36 4/5 final three-eighths and :12 1/5 final eighth in the Arkansas Derby were powerful and he keeps making great strides at the right time. He did everything easily in his half-mile breeze in company with Jace’s Road, even throwing in an :11 flat eighth and then galloping out like a powerhouse, opening up a 10 to 15-length advantage down the backstretch.

Two Phil’s’ five-furlong work in :59 at Hawthorne was a thing of beauty. He did everything so easily with the rider’s elbows extended, but when he moved his hands just a little, the colt dropped down and opened five lengths on his workmate in a flash.

The forgotten horse, who also might be sliding in popularity, is Practical Move. Like Forte, all he does is win, perfect trips or no perfect trips. He also has sneakily been working lights out. In his last work he somehow was able to go five furlongs in :59 even with his rider standing straight up in the saddle trying to keep him from hooking up with another worker in the stretch who was under a drive. Every one of his works has been spot on, going fast under no urging with the rider way up in the saddle.

I loved Derma Sotogake’s last work, the way he settled down and how he was getting over the ground once the rider let up on the reins and gave him his head. This is a horse who wants action.

Two longshots who have looked good working are Hit Show and Sun Thunder. The latter will be getting blinkers, as will Rocket Can. I’m not a fan of equipment changes for the Derby, but both colts seem much more focused with them, and Rocket Can’s last work was exceptional. Hit Show showed great improvement settling in his work compared to his prior headstrong gallops.


This race is way too complicated with too many mysteries to get too creative and go overboard. I am quickly going to mention one of those mysteries and that is pace. Will it be Kingsbarns, Verifying, Jace’s Road, Derma Sotogake? The fact is that Reincarnate has more natural speed than any of them. He doesn’t want to pass horses after sitting just off the pace, but when he’s in front he won’t let horses pass him, so I fully expect John Velazquez to send him and outrun everyone. Even in the Arkansas Derby when he stalked the leader and was passed by Angel of Empire, he dug in and wouldn’t let horses pass him for second until King Russell came flying out in the middle of the track where he couldn’t see him. No one will pay any attention to him on the lead, so don’t be shocked if he and Johnny V pull off another Medina Spirit.

And I must mention the question of Skinner possibly being a hanger who doesn’t finish off his runs. Giacomo, like Skinner, had only one maiden win to his credit and had been a notorious hanger who couldn’t finish off his run. But John Shirreffs uses preps as preps and has his horses learn from each one with the goal being to peak on Derby Day. The truth is horses don’t hang in the Derby. They have too much on their mind in a 20-horse stampede. Giacomo was more intent on finding a hole to get through in the stretch to think about hanging. Once he stormed through his momentum and 150,000 cheering fans got him to the finish line first. You might bring up Zandon last year, who could not get by Epicenter. But he was not hanging, he simply was being outrun by the best 3-year-old in the country. So don’t even give hanging a second thought.

With all that said I feel in the end the Derby could very well come down to the three best horses – Forte, Tapit Trice, and Angel of Empire, with a sprinkling of price horses to back them up. But that’s not why I’m here. If I was a big bettor and looking for value among the favorites I would consider making my big win bet and key my exotics with Angel of Empire on top. While Forte and Tapit Trice have had their moments of concern in their recent races Angel of Empire has done everything perfectly, in the afternoon and morning, and is moving forward faster than anyone. And what you are looking for are horses getting good quickly this time of year. Angel of Empire fits that bill. I don’t know if he can duplicate his Arkansas Derby win against far better horses. My gut feeling is that he will run another big race, but a lot of it will depend on the pace.

Putting everything together and looking for big prices because of my tiny budget I was leaning toward a $1 trifecta box with Two Phil’s, Angel of Empire, Tapit Trice, Skinner, and Disarm. But after my late Kingsbarns revelation I may have to go with a .50 cent six-horse box instead. I hate not using my No. 1 ranked horse, Forte, but I can’t use a horse with such low odds whose Thoro-Graph numbers have remained stagnant for so long.  But it sure wouldn’t surprise me if he won, because that’s what he does.

I definitely will throw in win bets on price horses Two Phil’s, Disarm, and Skinner. And I have to add Derma Sotogake. I would rather bet him and lose than not bet him and have him make history after I was so high on him following the UAE Derby. Maybe the stars are aligning for him. Not only would he make history by winning, how appropriate would it be for him to become the first horse to win the Derby from post 17, the only post that has not produced a Derby winner. This is not your typical Japanese Kentucky Derby horse. This horse has a legitimate shot to win without it being even a mild surprise.

Those are my bets on Wednesday evening. But as we know, things can change, especially after seeing the live odds on Derby Day. Two win bets I have in my back pocket are on bombs Reincarnate and Hit Show if their odds draw me in. I don’t trust Johnny V and Reincarnate not to pull off another theft. And I have had Hit Show ranked high most of the year and won’t hold his Wood Memorial against him. He’d been traveling back and forth from Louisiana to New York and hadn’t run in two months. He is the second youngest horse in the field and won’t even turn 3 until three days after the Derby, and he really got battle-tested after being roughed up from both sides the length of the stretch in the Wood. He has settled in nicely the longer he’s been at Churchill and might be sitting on a big race even from the dreaded rail post. It all depends on his odds.

And finally what to do about Kingsbarns? Again it will all be about his odds at post time and how much I’m willing to bet. Right now I’m content to add him to my trifecta box, but I just may splurge if he keeps growing on me and his price is enticing enough. I am also looking for 12-1 to 15-1 on Practical Move hoping he will be the forgotten horse, as I had him ranked second most of the year, and his mainly unnoticed works stamp him as a serious contender. That’s all I needed was another dilemma. I will let everyone know where I stand with these extra win bets in the comments on Saturday afternoon or as an addition at the end of this column.

So in summation, I have my (now) six-horse trifecta box, three definite win bets, a saver on Derma Sotogake, and of course my Tapit Trice – Disarm exacta box for fun. And I am holding Reinarnate, Hit Show, and especially Kingsbarns in my back pocket until closer to post time. But I doubt I will do much with them if anything. Kingsbarns could turn out to be the smartest play of them all. He will turn out to be either just another three-career-start loser or racing’s next superstar. If it’s the latter you might want to hop on for the ride. But then what do I know?

****LATE BETS AFTER SCRATCHES. My .50 cent six horse trifeicta boxes aee now — Angel of Empire, Disarm, King Russell, Two Phil’s, Kingsbarns, and Reincarnate and another box substituring Angel of Empire with Tapit Trice. Dont want the two favotites in the same box. Win prices are now terrible 60-1 shots are 30-1.

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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