Top trainers on Road to Kentucky Derby and their past Derby history – Twinspires Edge
With the 2023 Road to the Kentucky Derby just heating up, a handful of three-year-olds have already emerged as promising candidates to make the field on the first Saturday in May. In particular, horses from the barn of Brad Cox have been grabbing headlines along the road to the fastest two minutes in sports, with more than a dozen on the radar for the Run for the Roses.
Below we take a look at some of the top Derby trainers and their horses to keep an eye on in upcoming Derby preps, as well as how those trainers have fared in past Kentucky Derby (G1) races.
Top Derby contender: Forte
Kentucky Derby record: 62-2-2-4
The Hall of Fame trainer saddles the top runner on the Road to the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard with Forte. Bred by South Gate Farm, the Violence colt has four victories from five starts, including a 1 1/2-length win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) most recently. He also earned Grade 1 titles in the Breeders’ Futurity and Hopeful, while his lone career miss came in the six-furlong Sanford (G3), where he placed fourth, more than five lengths behind 8-1 upset winner Mo Strike.
Pletcher has won the Derby twice, with Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017. He saddled four horses in his first Derby appearance in 2000, with Impeachment finishing third to Fusaichi Pegasus, followed by More Than Ready in fourth, Trippi in 11th, and Graeme Hall last of 19.
The Eclipse Award-winning trainer ranks first in all-time Derby starts with 62, 13 more than D. Wayne Lukas, who is second on the list. Pletcher is known to enter multiple runners in the Derby field and is tied with Lukas and Nick Zito for most Derby starters in a single year with five — a feat Pletcher accomplished twice, in 2007 and 2013.
He has also saddled four starters in a single year five times (2000, 2010, 2014, 2018, 2021), and conditioned three starters in 2022, with Mo Donegal (the eventual Belmont S. [G1] winner), Charge It, and Pioneer of Medina.
In addition to Forte, Pletcher has a handful of promising three-year-olds capable of stepping up as the season progresses in Shesterkin, Litigate, Tapit Trice, and Kingsbarns, who closed at 32-1 in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.
Forte was the most-backed individual in that pool, closing at 7-1 odds, while “all other colts and geldings” maintained favoritism at 2-1.
Top Derby contender: Instant Coffee
Kentucky Derby record: 5-1-0-1
Winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby with Mandaloun, who was elevated to first via disqualification of Medina Spirit, Cox has found quick success in the Run for the Roses. With just five starters in his early career, the Louisville native also earned a third-place finish with Essential Quality in 2021, while he saddled Tawny Port (7th), Zozos (10th), and Cyberknife (18th) in the 2022 edition.
This year, Cox is responsible for 11 of the 38 horses in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, with Instant Coffee, his top candidate, closing at 15-1 on Jan. 22.
Instant Coffee currently ranks second on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 32 points, which he collected through victories in the 1 1/16-mile Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds and Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs. The Bolt d’Oro son broke his maiden in September at Saratoga in a seven-furlong sprint, then finished fourth by seven lengths to Forte in the Breeders’ Futurity.
Stablemate Loggins finished a neck second in that 1 1/16-mile event and closed at 16-1 in Pool 3. The Ghostzapper colt impressed on debut in his only other start, in which he romped to an 8 1/2-length win in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill.
Cox said he plans to race Instant Coffee in the Risen Star (G2) and then the Louisiana Derby (G2), but could possibly skip Risen Star to focus on the Louisiana Derby.
Jace’s Road and Corona Bolt, meanwhile, are entered in the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn on Jan. 28. Hit Show was also entered but scratched in order to run in the Withers (G3) at Aqueduct on Feb. 4.
Among other Cox hopefuls are Giant Mischief, second in the Springboard Mile to Wildatlanticstorm; Victory Formation, winner of the Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn; Verifying, a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile also-ran who placed second in the Champagne (G1) to Blazing Sevens; Tapit’s Conquest; Tapit Shoes; and Angel of Empire, second in the Smarty Jones S.
Top Derby contender: Extra Anejo or Disarm
Kentucky Derby record: 24-0-3-2
Arguably the best trainer to never win the Kentucky Derby, Steve Asmussen came closest to the garland of roses in 2022, when Louisiana Derby hero Epicenter finished 1 3/4 lengths in second as the favorite to 80-1 longshot winner Rich Strike.
Asmussen also trained Lookin At Lee, who came home 2 3/4 lengths in second to Always Dreaming in 2017, and Nehro, second to Animal Kingdom in 2011.
His third-place finishers include 2017 Horse of the Year and top sire Gun Runner (2016), and Preakness (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) champ Curlin (2007).
Asmussen ranks sixth all time in Kentucky Derby starts (24) and could see a couple of his trainees earn a spot in this year’s Derby field. His most talented prospect on paper is Extra Anejo, a dominant debut winner in a $100,000 maiden special weight at Keeneland in October. The Into Mischief three-year-old won by a whopping 9 1/2 lengths at seven furlongs while recording a 95 Brisnet Speed rating, but the colt underwent surgery for a bone chip and only recently rejoined Asmussen’s stable at Fair Grounds.
Also on the Derby radar from Asmussen’s barn is Gulfport, who won back to back by a combined 19 lengths in a five-furlong maiden and the six-furlong Bashford Manor S. at Churchill Downs last summer. He followed up those performances with a pair of second-place finishes in the Saratoga Special (G2) and Hopeful, then placed third in the Champagne in his first try at a route distance.
Gun Runner colt Gun Pilot closed at 103-1 in Pool 3 of the KDFW, while another Gun Runner son, Disarm, and Tapit colt Shopper’s Revenge were bet down to 58-1 and 56-1, respectively.
Echo Again has also been in the Derby conversation, but the gray colt is likely best suited for sprint distances. Since romping to a 6 3/4-length win at 6 1/2 furlongs, he finished far back in seventh in the 1 1/16-mile Iroquois (G3), was 4 1/4 lengths behind in third in the Springboard Mile, and did not finish the 1 1/16-mile Lecomte.
Gun Runner son Red Route One is a 10-1 morning line choice in the Southwest at Oaklawn on Jan. 28. His only win came on turf, however, in a one-mile maiden special weight at Kentucky Downs, and he failed to finish better than third in his last three on dirt, all at 1 1/16 miles.
Top Derby contender: Sun Thunder
Kentucky Derby record: 8-0-1-0
One-time Preakness and Belmont winner Kenny McPeek has hit the board once in eight lifetime tries in the Kentucky Derby, with his best finish coming with his first Derby starter when Tejano Run placed second to Thunder Gulch in 1995.
Last year he saddled two starters, Smile Happy (8th) and Tiz the Bomb (9th). In 2023, he has a few runners on the radar, including Sun Thunder, a 10-1 morning line choice in the Southwest, and stablemate Frosted Departure, a 15-1 choice in the Oaklawn feature.
Sun Thunder was a distant third to Determinedly on debut in a seven-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26, but relished the stretch out to a mile in his second start, winning a $90,000 maiden special weight at Oaklawn by 6 1/2 lengths. The Into Mischief colt is out of a Medaglia d’Oro dam and faces steep competition in the upcoming Derby prep, which will award points to the top finishers on a 20-8-6-4-2 scale.
Frosted Departure has yet to prove himself at a route distance. The son of Frosted won by a head in the six-furlong Renaissance S. last out, but in his two tries beyond a mile he finished 10th and seventh by a combined 51 lengths when running 8 1/2 furlongs in the Breeders’ Futurity and Street Sense (G3). He’s a 15-1 longshot in the Southwest.
Top Derby contender: Blazing Sevens
Kentucky Derby record: 7-0-1-1
Two-time reigning Preakness winner Chad Brown has hit the board three times in the Kentucky Derby, beginning with his first career runner, Normandy Invasion (fourth in the 2013 running). In 2018, he earned his best finish with Good Magic, who came home 2 1/2 lengths in second behind Triple Crown winner Justify.
Last year, Brown saddled third-place finisher Zandon, winner of the Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland.
His best shot at finally reaching the Derby winner’s circle this year is with Blazing Sevens, a Good Magic son who scored a Grade 1 win in the Champagne, beating Verifying by 3 1/4 lengths, and finished a good fourth in his last start, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, after getting bumped at the start.
Currently, Blazing Sevens ranks fourth on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 16 points and put in his first work on the season at Payson Park training center on Jan. 21.
A longer shot to make the Derby field is Neural Network, who won by five lengths on debut in a seven-furlong sprint, then finished far back in fourth to Lugan Knight in the Jerome S. at Aqueduct. Owned by Klaravich Stables, Neural Network is a son of Cloud Computing, who won the 2017 Preakness for Brown.
Other horses of note
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is currently suspended from racing at Churchill Downs through the conclusion of the 2023 Spring Meet. Thus, horses under his care are ineligible to earn qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby and must be transferred to a non-suspended trainer by Feb. 28.
Among the top horses in his stable are Arabian Knight, a dominant maiden winner entered in the Southwest; Cave Rock, winner of the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and American Pharoah (G1) and second-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; Sham (G3) winner Reincarnate; and Bob Hope (G3) and Best Pal (G3) winner Havnameltdown, who competes in the San Vicente (G2) on Jan. 29.