Kentucky Derby: who are the early front-runners for America’s most … – Thoroughbred Racing Commentary

Kentucky Derby: who are the early front-runners for America’s most …  Thoroughbred Racing Commentary

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Forte is likely to reappear in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Photo: Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire / Breeders Cup / CSM

Leading US handicapper Richard Eng has a look at the three-year-olds currently at the centre of conversations ahead of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 6, 2023

USA: The Kentucky Derby is America’s most famous horse race. The limit for starters is 20 so I will mention my top 20 horses in total – the top 12 plus eight more who are ‘bubbling under’.

With the exception of the Breeders’ Cup winner Forte, one thing becomes obvious straight away: any list of early contenders will be dominated by two trainers, namely Brad Cox (six horses listed) and six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert (eight).

However, there remains a major caveat attached to any potential Derby contender currently trained by Bob Baffert because he is still suspended by Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) for the drug violation with Medina Spirit, who finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby but was later disqualified. So Baffert is barred from the 2023 Derby and Oaks, as was also the case in 2022.

When Baffert horses race in the various Kentucky Derby prep races, they are ineligible to earn any Derby points. In fact CDI went one step further last weekend, when they announced that any Baffert horses must leave his barn no later than February 28 or they will be ruled ineligible for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks.

As soon as they are transferred to another trainer they immediately become eligible for Derby points, so we can expect some movement pretty soon.

Last year, Baffert was the original trainer of both Taiba and Messier, who officially ran in the name of Baffert’s Californian-based colleague Tim Yakteen when they finished 12th and 15th behind shock winner Rich Strike.

Yakteen was also the trainer on the previous outing, when they earned a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate with a one-two in the Santa Anita Derby. They went back to Baffert for their races after the Kentucky Derby.

This situation is well worth following to see what unfolds in the coming weeks.

1. FORTE  trained by Todd Pletcher

dk b c Violence – Queen Caroline (Blame)
Odds generally available (UK bookmakers): 12-1f

A fairly modest buy at $110,000 as a yearling for owners Mike Repole and St. Elias Stable, Forte is sure to be named America’s champion two-year-old of 2022 at the Eclipse Awards after winning consecutive G1s in the Hopeful (Saratoga), Breeders’ Futurity (Keeneland), and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Keeneland).

Sired by Violence, who is a son of Medaglia d’Oro, a proven stamina stallion. Thus his ability to win over a distance of ground should not be an issue.

Reportedly came through his first published workout of the season in good order on Saturday [Jan 21] at Palm Beach Downs and set to take the Florida route to Churchill Downs, starting in the G2 Fountain of Youth on March 4 at Gulfstream.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Kentucky Derby twice with Super Saver (2010) and Always Dreaming (2017); Hall of Famer has started a record 59 horses.

Obvious favorite at this early stage and was shortest-priced individual horse in Pool 3 of the ‘Future Wager’ at 7-1. By the way ’all other colts and geldings’ (i.e. those not individually named) remained favorite in this latest pool on the 2-1 mark.


b c Uncle Mo – Borealis Night (Astrology)
Odds 16-1

Believe it or not the most talked about horse on Breeders’ Cup Saturday – outside of Classic winner Flightline, of course – was this colt, who made his career debut in the Race 1 at Keeneland that day. His ability was confirmed as he won by seven lengths as an odds-on favorite in maiden special weight company, going all the way under John Velazquez.

Always carried a sky-high reputation, dating back to when Zedan Racing Stables bought the son of Uncle Mo for $2.3 million at the Ocala Breeders Sales. Uncle Mo’s lone win around two turns was in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Great horses can outrun their pedigree and no one knows that better than Bob Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby six times: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002). American Pharoah (2015), Justify (2018), and Authentic (2020). Plus, of course, controversial Medina Spirit, who passed the past first in 2021 before the contested DQ.

With Baffert, though, comes the proviso that he is barred from having runners, so this colt will need to transfer stables to get in the field. He’s been working steadily at Santa Anita ahead of his second career start.


dk b c Bolt d’Oro – Follow No One (Uncle Mo)
Odds 25-1

$200,000 purchase at Keeneland September Yearling Sales who confirmed his credentials when he returned to action with easy win in the G3 Lecomte on three-year-old debut at Fair Grounds last weekend [Jan 21]. He was drawing away late as if the longer he runs, the better he’ll like it.

That was Instant Coffee’s second graded-stakes success, having ended last season with victory in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club (at Derby venue Churchill Downs) for trainer Brad Cox, who has a mighty flotilla of Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

Both those graded stakes were around two turns, which should dispel any doubt about his ability to go long. Stamina pedigree is one thing; proving your stamina on the racetrack is something else, and a vital factor in the Kentucky Derby, where the mile and a quarter offers a serious test.

4. FAUSTIN  Bob Baffert

gr/ro c Curlin – Hard Not To Like (Hard Spun)
Odds 16-1

When a colt like Faustin is the talk of the backside, they get bet in their career debut. If the talent is there, they run like it too. He won his maiden special weight over six furlongs on opening day [Dec 26] at Santa Anita as 9-10 favorite. The winning margin was two lengths but could have been more.

What is more, he has an impeccable pedigree by dual Horse of the Year Curlin out of G1 turf winner Hard Not to Like, which means he has the bloodlines to run all day.

This colt has been working steadily at Santa Anita and I surmise Baffert would prefer to race in a first-level allowance race to give the colt more experience before trying stakes competition. Like his other possibles, though, he’ll have to move barns before Churchill Downs can come into play.

5. CAVE ROCK  Bob Baffert

dk b c Arrogate – Georgie’s Angel (Bellamy Road)
Odds 16-1

Yet another one for Baffert, who also trained his brilliant sire, the ill-fated world champion Arrogate, who died prematurely at the age of seven.

Three out of four at two, where he was overwhelming favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before forfeiting his unbeaten record at Keeneland to Forte, who ran him down in the stretch.

Before the Juvenile, $550,000 purchase was a clear-cut winner of the Del Mar Futurity and the American Pharoah at Santa Anita. Has already won around two turns and his pedigree suggests distance will not be an issue; yet to have a published workout this season as of January 23.


dk b c Good Magic – Trophy Girl (Warrior’s Reward)
Odds 33-1

Although Chad Brown is better known for his turf stakes prowess, recently the top New York handler has developed some nice colts that have done well on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. One of them, Good Magic, ran second in the 2018 Kentucky Derby and he is the sire of Blazing Sevens.

Blazing Sevens has gotten better as he goes longer distances. He won the G1 Champagne (Belmont Park) and then was a good fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He had his first workout of the season at Payson Park on Saturday [Jan 21].

He was purchased for $225,000 at the Fasig Tipton Saratoga August sales. His owner is Rodeo Creek Racing.

7. CORONA BOLT  Brad Cox

b c Bolt d’Oro – Stormbeforethecalm (Quiet American)
Odds 33-1

$225,000 purchase at the Keeneland November Mixed sale is by Bolt d’Oro, who won several big races (Del Mar Futurity, FrontRunner, San Felipe) in southern California before being beaten only by subsequent Triple Crown hero Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. Bolt d’Oro was sired by Medaglia d’Oro so a solid stamina influence is there.

Corona Bolt has won both his career starts including the ungraded Sugar Bowl (Fair Grounds) on December 26, since when he has been working regularly at the New Orleans venue.

A logical assumption suggests he will take the Fair Grounds route to the Louisiana Derby and then on to the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Brad Cox has so many Kentucky Derby hopefuls that his main issue will to keep his three-year-old colts apart so they don’t run over the top of one another.

8. REINCARNATE  Bob Baffert

gr/ro c Good Magic – Allanah (Scat Daddy)
Odds 33-1

Despite his suspension, Baffert has more Derby hopefuls than he knows what to do with. Another such prospect is Reincarnate, who went wire-to-wire to win the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on January 8, beating a pair of more highly regarded stablemates in Newgate and National Treasure.

The Sham was Reincarnate first stakes start and thus he was overlooked at 16-1 odds but what I like about him is his last two starts have been his best. He is something I call a ‘light bulb’ horse. That means the light has gone on in his head as he figures things out. Another plus is that the sire of this $775,000 yearling is Good Magic, who has numerous colts on this Derby watch list.

9. LOGGINS  Brad Cox

b c Ghostzapper – Beyond Blame (Blame)
Odds 16-1

Another of the Brad Cox cohort as the trainer bids for a second Kentucky Derby success (after Mandaloun’s promotion to first place following the DQ of Medina Spirit in 2021).

A $460,000 Fasig-Tipton yearling, Loggins finished second by a neck to Forte in the G1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, after which Cox opted to bypass the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Forte went on to win that championship event, so the earlier form was greatly boosted.

Sired by 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, he has a well-balanced pedigree to excel in two-turn distance races. No published workout yet this season as of January 23.

10. EXTRA ANEJO  Steve Asmussen

b c Into Mischief – Superioritycomplex (Hard Spun)
Odds 20-1

Lone career start was a maiden special weight win at Keeneland on October 13, when he scored by nine lengths as a strong favorite over seven furlongs.

This Winchell Thoroughbreds representative cost $1.35m at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He was sired by Into Mischief, the world’s #1 dirt sire according to Thoroughbred Racing Commentary’s Global Rankings and leading sire in North America in 2019, 2020 and 2021. He sired Authentic who won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2021.

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen boasts a glittering resumé as the all-time winningest trainer in North America – but so far the Kentucky Derby has eluded him.

11. DUBYUHNELL  Danny Gargan

ch c Good Magic – Wild Gams (Forest Wildcat)
Odds 33-1

Won the G2 Remsen at Aqueduct, which historically is a productive prep race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. He has been working regularly at Palm Meadows training center but a logical path for him would be to eventually ship north from Florida to New York and point for the Gotham and Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He has two lifetime wins and both came over the Aqueduct main track.

Dubyuhnell was purchased for $400,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. His sire is the aforementioned Good Magic, who was second to Justify in the 2018 Kentucky Derby. He won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2017 and the Blue Grass and Haskell the following season at three. A distance of ground, therefore, should not be an issue. Indeed, he has already won around two turns in the Remsen.

His trainer Danny Gargan was a former jockey turned trainer. He has had much success on the New York Racing Association circuit. While he is not well known by the general racing public, he is well respected by his peers.

12. HAVNAMELTDOWN  Bob Baffert

b c Uncaptured – Ashley’s Babe (Put It Back)
Odds 20-1

As Baffert-trained colts go, he was bought for a modest price tag of $200,000 at the Ocala Breeders Sales; his owners are Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. His sire Uncaptured was precocious as a two-year-old in winning six of seven starts (all at Woodbine and Churchill Downs). However, he won only one more race as an older horse thus was considered a cut below the top horses of his generation.

Havnameltdown shone as a two-year-old in winning three out of four, including the Best Pal and Bob Hope, both G3s at Del Mar. In between, he was second to Baffert-trained stablemate Cave Rock in the G1 Del Mar Futurity.

It was surprising Baffert did not race him in the American Pharoah or the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the fall. Maybe he was taking the conservative route to protect him from being asked to do too much, too soon.

Bubbling under …

Brad Cox’s team is bolstered by a plentiful amount of hopefuls including Giant Mischief, Verifying, and Victory Formation. Giant Mischief had a difficult trip in the 2022 Remington Park Springboard Mile but overcame a poor start and traffic issues to rally for second. Verifying opened his 2023 season with a confidence-building allowance win at Oaklawn Park. He was thought enough of last year to run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile where he ran sixth. Victory Formation was a decisive winner of the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn and looks firmly set on the Arkansas Derby route to Kentucky.

You can’t get away from Baffert, who always dominates the Kentucky Derby conversation this time of year. As well as the horses already mentioned, he has Hejazi, National Treasure and Newgate warming up in his bullpen. Hejazi, who cost $3.55m, finally broke his maiden at Santa Anita on January 15; the Saudi Derby has been mentioned as a possible target for the expensive son of Bernardini.

National Treasure has been a nibbler with in-the-money finishes in the American Pharoah, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Sham Stakes. Newgate ran second in the last-named event and is still highly regarded.

Before the Kentucky Derby points system began, it was easier for a filly to face the colts but nowadays they must run in Derby preps to earn points. That is the conundrum facing the undefeated Hoosier Philly. Her trainer Tom Amoss does not have Derby fever yet, but the filly is getting bet like it in Derby future books.

Godolphin homebred Banishing is another to note. Trained by Brendan Walsh, he broke his maiden on Decemeber 26 over a mile and a sixteenth at the Fair Grounds by more than eight lengths. His pedigree is special, by Ghostzapper out of an A.P. Indy mare.

Richard Eng is the author of Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies (2nd Edition) and retired turf editor/handicapper with the Las Vegas Review-Journal

• Visit the Kentucky Derby website

Epsom Derby dozen: who are the early front-runners for the premier Classic?

Flightline: ‘A Halley’s Comet of a racehorse’ – Jay Hovdey pays homage to an equine great

Pegasus wings are clipped but, y’know, it’s doin’ all right … – Nicholas Godfrey on the Florida feature

View the latest TRC Global Rankings for horses / jockeys / trainers / sires