It has been a bizarre week in Louisville, and those that follow the sport are aware of all that has happened. And be it good or bad, thoroughbred racing takes the international spotlight Saturday at Churchill Downs.
More than 150,000 people are expected to attend the 149th Kentucky Derby while millions more watch the race on a national television broadcast in the U.S. and through other outlets worldwide.
The $3 million, Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, held at 1 ¼ miles on dirt, is the first leg of the Triple Crown for U.S. horse racing.
The three races are restricted to 3-year-old Thoroughbreds, which literally makes Winning the series a once in a lifetime opportunity for each horse and its owners.
The Triple Crown is the marquee event of the sport in America, and since it’s the opener of the series, the Kentucky Derby is the most important, and prestigious, race.
It appears to the Daily Racing Blog that this year’s edition of the Derby is a wide open affair, in which any number of horses could be the one to wear the Roses.
After the scratches and also eligible horses inserted to replace them, the field is down to nineteen entrants. Here then is our top five in order of Post Position.
2. VERIFYING [ML 15-1] Jockey: Tyler Gaffalione. Trainer: Brad Cox. One of the best-bred runners in this year’s Kentucky Derby, he has been highly regarded since his debut last summer, when he was favored at 3-4 odds in a sprint race at Saratoga Race Course and Won by 1 ¾ lengths. Since then, he’s been handled patiently and comes into the Derby off of an encouraging runner-up effort to TAPIT TRICE in the Blue Grass Stakes April 8th, where he pressed the early pace and then dueled with the Winner all through the stretch before yielding late.
Prior to the Blue Grass effort he had a sneaky good race in the Rebel Stakes where he was held up in traffic for several strides entering the stretch but still finished 4th. If he can improve slightly on his speed figures from those two starts and an earlier Win this year in an Allowance race, VERIFYING can hit the board Saturday and possibly pull the upset.
He’s got a forwardly-placed running style that Gaffalione will probably use immediately breaking from an inside post position. That speed should help him against a Derby field that is largely comprised of stalkers and closers and, as mentioned, he’s got a fine pedigree. VERIFYING is the first horse sired by 2018 Triple Crown Winner JUSTIFY to start in the Kentucky Derby, and he is a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire) to 2019 Champion dirt female and $7.4 million dollar earner MIDNIGHT BISOU, who excelled racing around two turns.
5. TAPIT TRICE [ML 5-1] Jockey: Luis Saez. Trainer: Todd Pletcher. He enters the Kentucky Derby on a four-race Winning streak, and figures to be a popular betting choice based on several factors. He’ll get a lot of love from the general public based on his physical appearance – the colt is a gorgeous gray who sold for $1.3 million at auction as a yearling, and he’s angling to become the first gray or roan horse to Win the Kentucky Derby since GIACOMO. His pedigree indicates him being able to handle the 1 ¼-miles, using a sustained, powerful running style. He’s a come-from-behind horse and may not be able to recover if he has to pause and change course due to traffic during the Derby.
14. ANGEL OF EMPIRE [ML 8-1] Jockey: Flavien Prat. Trainer: Brad Cox. c One of four Kentucky Derby contenders trained by Cox, he should receive a lot of support from bettors based on his encouraging pattern of improvement. He started off his 3-year-old season with a solid runner-up effort in a Derby prep at Oaklawn Park, and then Won two consecutive prep races with visually impressive off-the-pace rallies: the Risen Star Stakes and the Arkansas Derby. In the April 1st Arkansas Derby, he powered through the stretch to Win by 4 ¼ lengths over a tough field and appeared to have plenty left in reserve at the end. Earlier this year, Cox speculated that this colt would relish racing 1 ¼ miles in the Kentucky Derby, and his pedigree is solid in terms of stamina. Like all closers in the crowded Kentucky Derby, ANGEL OF EMPIRE will need a solid (not blistering) pace to run into and some racing luck to help him navigate through the field, but if he gets a clear path in the stretch look for him to be making up ground fast under Prat and putting his trainer’s confidence to the test in a bid for a career-defining Victory.
15. FORTE [ML 3-1] Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr. Trainer: Todd Pletcher. This colt racing for top-level connections enters the Kentucky Derby as the deserving favorite. He’s 6-for-7 in his career and 2-for-2 at age 3 this year, coming back in excellent form after Winning the Eclipse Award as Champion 2-year-old male of 2022. That said, there are a couple of minor concerns: in terms of final race times and speed figures, FORTE does not tower over the Kentucky Derby field, and in fact he has maintained – but not improved upon – his numbers from last season. Plus, he had to muster every bit of energy to rally late and defeat MAGE by a length in the Florida Derby on April 1st- his final prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Regardless of that, this colt will be hard to beat if he gets a good pace to run into and a clean trip in the Derby. He drew a Post Position that should serve his stalking running style well, and Ortiz should have him situated in mid-pack through the Churchill backstretch before angling him out and giving him his cue on the far turn.
17. DERMA SOTOGAKE [ML 10-1] Jockey: Christophe Lemaire. Trainer: Hidetaka Otonashi. An interesting discourse for this year’s Kentucky Derby centers around the Win chances of this Japan-bred and -based horse who comes into the race off of an impressive score in the UAE DERBY March 25th. That race was held at Meydan Racecoursein Dubai, and DERMA SOTOGAKE easily defeated international field that included three U.S.-based runners. He did so by moving to the lead immediately after breaking from the starting gate under Lemaire and then controlling the pace throughout before opening up in the stretch to Win handily. His final time in
the UAE Derby is competitive with the best times in major Kentucky Derby preps run in the U.S. this spring. Prior to the UAE
Derby he Won three out of seven starts in his native Japan, and showed versatility in doing so- he does not need the lead. This year’s Kentucky Derby field is comprised mainly of horses that prefer to stalk the pace or race from even farther back, so it may be in the best interest of Lemaire and Otonashi to replicate the UAE Derby strategy and attempt to Win the Kentucky Derby on the front end.
DERMA SOTOGAKE drew the rail post position in the UAE Derby, and Lemaire got him out of the gate without incident and then let him use his cruising speed to secure the lead. Now, horse and rider have drawn a post to the outside of 16 horses, and it will be interesting to see how forceful Lemaire is with his reins coming out of the gate and where he places his ride during the first run through the stretch. History does not favor UAE Derby Winners, as zero have hit the board in the Kentucky Derby to date, nor has any Japan-based horse – and to top that off, no horse breaking from post position 17 has ever Won the Derby (the only post between 1 and 20 without a Win). This colt, a son of excellent U.S. sprinter-miler MIND YOUR BISCUITS, represents Japan’s best chance at achieving Derby glory.
The 2023 Kentucky Derby will be broadcast live on NBC as part of a 7 ½-hour program and will also be livestreamed on PEACOCK. Post Time is scheduled for approximately 6:55 p.m. ET.
Best of luck with all your plays on Saturday, have some fun, and make some bank.