Tuesday, May 2, 2023

An Angelic 2023 Kentucky Derby?

(Updated 5/6/23, 930a ET for scratches of Practical Move, Lord Miles, Continuar, Skinner and now Forte)

Kentucky Derby analysis is as much a crapshoot as predicting the NFL draft. 

Much as the Houston Texans destroyed months or even a year of "experts" 2023 NFL mocks by first drafting a QB and then trading up to the No. 3 pick, a lot can happen once those Churchill Downs gates just before 7 p.m. ET this Saturday to destroy overprognostication. 

It's best to take each of those distinct events for the entertainment value...and with a grain of salt. The same goes for consuming my analysis, though to me this feels a lot like 2007, one of my more successful Derby forays. 

Toss reason out the window and recognize the Run for the Roses is a one-off crapshoot of up to 20 starters, many with no shot and merely vehicles to fulfill some thoroughbred owners' dreams to say they had a Derby starter. Sure, 80-1 Rich Strike got extremely lucky last year, but he went 0-5 in subsequent stakes starts and his jockey is back to riding the lesser racing circuits. 

There are a lot of similar types entered this Saturday, but I suppose that's what makes it fun.

Now, I'm still a little bitter about Rich Strike running down my horse (Epicenter) in the stretch last year AND about top selection Maximum Security's DQ from first in 2019 but will give it another try in picking a winner. 

This year I give the slight edge to Angel of Empire over Forte. Both will be prominent on my tickets and likely paired with Tapit Trice and a few long-shots "underneath" as part of the trifecta box.

I'm not saying those horses will amount to 2007's top three -- Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin; all legends -- but much as two-year-old champ Street Sense was let go 16 years ago at almost 5-1, there are similarities to Forte, who is the 3-1 favorite but has more than his fair share of doubters. I speculate you could see 4-1 or 9-2, which is worthwhile as a win-bet proposition.

Here's how I rank the field, with thoughts on each horse. The pace may not be as testy as in years past, considering there doesn't seem to be need-the-lead types who'll set blistering fractions or elite speed runners like Justify. I see this as a more grind-it-out where my top three could outlast the field.  


#14, Angel of Empire (8-1): Trainer Brad Cox bring a runner with humble beginnings (maiden debut win at Indiana Grand last August, followed by two allowance races) but which has greatly matured with impressive back-to-back wins in the Risen Star and Arkansas Derby. Flavien Prat was his 5th jockey in six starts for the last victory and rides again. Gets decent enough post, has won on dry and wet surfaces and has been dismissed in his last three races (18-1, 13-1 and 9-2). Don't sleep on this one.

Trifecta Prospects

#5, Tapit Trice (5-1): This is the consummate Todd Pletcher horse -- get easy wins under a horse's belt at Aqueduct, Gulfstream (optional claimer on Feb. 4) and Tampa Bay Downs (Grade 3 on March 11) to build confidence ahead of running for the roses. Can run all day, but more of a "B" selection considering recent competition. Really had to grind out Toyota Bluegrass win at Keeneland in April vs. Verifying, who's in the Derby but is way too short at 15-1 for a runner whose ceiling is an optional claiming win. I wouldn't be shocked if Tapit Trice wins, but this $1.3 million buy may go off as the favorite with top rider Luis Saez. Using in trifecta box for sure but not as a top-choice winner.

#22, Mandarin Hero (20-1): Well, got second horse (Lord Miles) to scratch in order to reach the starting gate. I'll sprinkle into trifecta and superfecta wagers as, to me, it takes a lot to ship from Japan to the U.S. in a five-week stretch and be as game as he was finishing second by a nose in the Santa Anita Derby to Practical Move. Might be the best Japanese horse of the bunch, despite Derma Sotogake's gaudy UAE victory.

#17, Derma Sotogake (10-1): Begrudging underneath play on tris and supers, but won't back Japanese horses winning the Derby until I see it. Always a lot of hype that day will come, yet winning preps like the UAE Derby don't mean much for my money. Being a pacesetter could help chances.

Egregious Longshot to Use Underneath

#13, Sun Thunder (50-1): A horse with blinkers the first time in a Kentucky Derby seems strange, but not an act of desperation if you watch replays (my primary source of handicapping the Derby) and notice that no horse has been ridden worse than this guy. Closer types don't often suit the Derby and help to explain this one's trouble lines the past three ; but to me there's enough to go on here to at least use this bomber in my trifecta and superfecta plays. Finished 2nd to Angel of Empire in the Risen Star, where he got stuck behind foes before making a nice move in the stretch before getting passed late. The Louisiana Derby a month later saw similar as jockey Brian Hernandez again ran the horse into traffic before finishing fifth. Just sense Hernandez has to get lucky at some point, just not enough to win. 

Mudder Prospects to Consider If Track's Sloppy

#3, Two Phil's (12-1): Won the Street Sense Stakes stylishly (say that 3x fast) as two-year-old on sloppy going at Churchill Downs late last October. Failed to progress much first two tries in three-year-old campaign but ran Jeff Ruby Steaks field off its toes at Turfway Park on March 25 and should be near the early pace. Might have seen the best of him that day, but the combination of synthetic and wet surface wins makes him a consideration if Churchill's a messy surface on Saturday.

#16, Raise Cain (50-1): Dusted the field in the Gotham on March 4 at Aqueduct on a sealed muddy track against weak competition but clearly loved the wet going. Pass if Churchill is fast.

#4, Confidence Game (20-1): Seems like a one-turn (mile distance or less) horse to me but relished the slop in winning the Rebel. Yet hasn't seen the track since that Feb. 25 victory and he's a cut below.

Taking a Pass

#1, Hit Show (30-1): Draws dreaded rail. Stalker and second-tier Brad Cox horse who needed to show something in the Wood Memorial on April 8 and got outgamed by a 59-1 shot to the finish line.

#2, Verifying (15-1): Morning line is way too low. See notation above. Yet to win stakes race.

#6, Kingsbarns (12-1): Later-starting 3-year-old for Todd Pletcher. Is 3-for-3 lifetime including Grade 2 Louisiana Derby win but, again, another you might want to bet this summer rather than now.

#7, Reincarnate (50-1): Needed 4 races to break maiden at Del Mar in late November under trainer Bob Baffert. This guy hasn't done much for new trainer Tim Yakteem. Looks like one-pace filler.

#8, Mage (15-1): Will be wiseguy horse on the TV broadcasts for good second vs. Forte in Florida Derby, but loses top current jockey and I think was ridden hard that race and still couldn't prevail. Sense you're getting underlay (between 9-1 and 12-1), which isn't worth it in 20-horse field.

#11, Disarm (30-1): Nothing stands out. Alarmingly needed six months off after two-year-old win at Saratoga. One-paced runner. Of course I've been beaten a bunch by Winchell Thoroughbreds-owned runners from the sire Gun Runner, but I'll stand against.

#12, Jace's Road (50-1): A very hard-ridden third in the Louisiana Derby to secure this entry. Not a sharp gate-breaker. Can see getting beat to the punch by Practical Move among early pace then quitting.

#18, Rocket Can (30-1): Little to suggest more than a midpack finish. Confidence Game showed more guts when head-to-head in stretch of late-November race, and I thnk the Holy Bull win that followed in early February was a bit of smoke and mirrors, struggling to hold off second- and third-place finishers that went off at 34-1 and 58-1. Looked standing still vs. Forte in Fountain of Youth. Love trainer Bill Mott but not here.

#21, Cyclone Mischief (30-1): Earns spot in starting gate by virtue of Practical Move's scratch due to minor illness. Ceiling is optional claiming win in early January, the one time he got Lasix. Some early lick, but not much else.

#23, King Russell (50-1): Third alternate enters after Continuar's trainer scratched his horse, citing dissatisfaction with fitness. Not using.

Scratches (as of 5/5/23, 10a ET)

#9, Skinner (SCR): Is 1-for-6 lifetime and grinding out enough points for connections to say they attended the 2023 Kentucky Derby. Lost to Practical Move twice when looked in the eye. Why would Saturday be any different?

#10, Practical Move (SCR): Not enamored with some of the tin cans he beat in California, but advantage here is his ability to break sharply. Knock is inexperienced Derby rider Ramon Vasquez, yet if he gets out of the starting gate clean and works toward the lead, I've seen enough to suggest Practical Move is a determined sort who won't quit. Held off Japanese shipper and Derby second alternate Mandarin Hero, who I think is sneaky good and a play underneath if drawn into the field. Love the determination from Practical Move, but more of a "B" or "C" type pick in my plays.

#15, Forte (SCR): Five-race win streak started with the Hopeful last Labor Day weekend at Saratoga and included the Breeders Cup Juvenile championship in November, then he started the 3-year-old campaign by romping in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on March 4. Analysts shouldn't dismiss his next-out win in the Florida Derby, which many criticized as not the most stylish. Yet the horse didn't need to win that race to enter the Derby starting gate and still won with a wide late run and not tons of prompting. Edge vs. Angel of Empire to his inside from the starting gate, but I sense you'll see Prat track jockey Irad Ortiz's flank on Saturday and have a bit more late. Expect 1-2 finish.

#19, Lord Miles (SCR): Excited for Monmouth Park's top jockey Paco Lopez and hope he doesn't ride reckless. Should be in the mix early from wide post but seems a cut below. 

#20, Continuar (SCR): Japanese import who finished far behind Derma Sotogake in UAE Derby. 

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