This season’s Kentucky Derby trail is nearing the end of the road. And have we said it’s officially serious now?
Serious, as in two of the four biggest prep races/kingmaker events: the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Both are Grade 1 tests—two of the only four Derby trail stops meeting that lofty class status—that send their charges 1 1/8 miles.
Both offer their top five finishers 100-40-30-20-10 Derby points, enough to get the winner and likely the runner-up a spot in the May 6 Kentucky Derby. After last week’s preps, some of those spots are accounted for.
Two Phil’s, who captured the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks on Turfway Park’s synthetic track, holds the top spot on the points ladder with 123 points. Derma Sotogake, who won his fourth race in eight trips with his score in the Grade 2 UAE Derby in Dubai, checks in with 100. So does Kingsbarns, who won the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at 9-2.
Derma Sotogake won’t be the only Japanese horse in the field. Continuar, who finished third in the UAE Derby, earned an automatic spot for amassing 40 points in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. His connections accepted the automatic berth, leaving 19 spots open.
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Forte Favorite at Florida Derby
One of those, ostensibly belongs to the colt who is fourth on the ladder: Forte (90). The Florida Derby’s 4-5 favorite, Forte leads a 12-colt contingent into the Gulfstream Park starting gate Saturday. If all 12 start, it will be the largest field since eventual Derby winner Big Brown took down 11 other colts in the 2008 Florida Derby.
It won’t be as easy as it looks, even for the 2022 Champion 2-Year-Old, who won his last four races en route to a 5-for-6 career record. Forte drew post 11. That is idyllic in a nine-furlong race at Gulfstream because of the location of the start/finish line in the two-turn race. There is a distinct bias against horses starting outside of post 8 in two-turn Gulfstream races.
According to longtime handicapper Ed DeRosa, horses starting from post positions 9-12 in a nine-furlong dirt race are 2-for-54. Horses leaving post 11 are 0-for-10.
That said, Forte is clearly the best colt in the field. He had a 4 1/2-length victory breeze in last month’s Fountain of Youth on this same track. It’s not like he needs the points. Nor is this Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher’s first Florida Derby rodeo. He’s won six of these dating from 2007’s Scat Daddy to 2021’s Known Agenda.
“We love the positioning of the Florida Derby five weeks out. We’re happy about that,” Pletcher said. “The Florida Derby on its own is a very important race. Historically, it’s been a stallion-making race and an important Grade 1 on any horse’s resume.”
Other Florida Derby Contenders
As if the Florida Derby came with a handicap of sorts, the four lowest-price horses hold down the four outside posts. Keeping Forte company are second-choice Fort Bragg (5-1/post 10), Dubyuhnell (6-1/post 12) and Cyclone Mischief (8-1/post 9).
One of the ex-pats from suspended trainer Bob Baffert’s barn, Fort Bragg now runs for Tim Yakteen. After his fifth-place finish in the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita earlier this month, Fort Bragg was scheduled for the Grade 3 Sunland Derby in New Mexico. But Yakteen audibilized, moving the son of Tapit into the deep end of the Derby trail.
Cyclone Mischief rides in off a pace-setting third in the Fountain of Youth. He weakened in the stretch, finishing 5 3/4 lengths behind Forte.
Reincarnate Horse to Beat at Arkansas Derby
One of the horses who reeled Cyclone Mischief in, Fountain of Youth runner-up Rocket Can, is the 4-1 third choice in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby–the fourth and final stop on Oaklawn Park’s branch of the Kentucky Derby trail. Rocket Can, second-choice Red Route One (3-1) and Risen Star winner Angel of Empire (9-2) all find themselves looking to take down favorite Reincarnate (5-2) in the 11-horse field.
The Yakteen charge is favored for good reason. He’s finished in the money in all six starts (2-3-1)–all of which were a mile or longer. That includes his last-out, troubled third in the prep for this race, the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes. The Good Magic progeny figures to be the controlling speed in this field with his long stride.
Before finishing behind Forte in the Fountain of Youth, Rocket Can won the Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. His last four Beyer Speed Figures (78, 82, 82, 91) won’t scare anyone. His finishes in those four 1 1/16-mile routes (1-2-1-2) do make him a player in this field. He’s one of those gritty, never-quit colts who always find ways to hit boards.
Red Route One is 0-for-2 in 2023 and 0-for-5 since breaking his maiden—on turf—nearly seven months ago. He’s never won a dirt race. But he’s sitting 16th on the Derby points ladder. He is considered by some to be a legitimate board-hitter come May 6.
That’s because his closer style combined with his impressive run-out in all his races indicates the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance may be in his wheelhouse. He’s finished second in both Oaklawn preps: the Rebel and the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes.
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