TDN Derby Top 12: Forte Vs. Everyone Else

Forte | Sarah Andrew

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Only one contender within the Top 12 was in action last week. But Sunday's news about 'TDN Rising Star' Arabian Knight (Uncle Mo) being declared off the GI Kentucky Derby trail left a void within the top tier that widens the gap between the juvenile champ and a cast of aspirants aiming to define themselves at longer distances.

1) FORTE (c, Violence–Queen Caroline, by Blame) 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable; B-South Gate Farm (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $80,000 Wlg '20 KEENOV; $110,000 Ylg '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt, MGISW, 6-5-0-0, $1,833,230. Last start: 1st GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Mar. 4. Kentucky Derby Points: 90.

Forte is the kingpin as we edge toward the seven-week mark to the Derby. We would have to see a vibrantly unexpected stakes performance from some other contender(s) between now and Apr. 8–the last of the nine-furlong points preps–in order to trigger a significant shake-up atop the current rankings.

Strong challengers emerging from the pipeline aren't outside the realm of possibility–plenty of Derby winners bloom late. But with so many horses on the Derby trail light on overall experience, any big, unforeseen upsetter in a late-season prep would likely head to Louisville with the public having doubts about their true position in the pecking order. Conversely, even if Forte doesn't shine in his final prep, he will still be given a measure of respect by bettors based on his overall body of work.

This 'TDN Rising Star' has only one loss in six starts, and you have to go all the way back to last July to find it (fourth as the beaten fave in the GIII Sanford S. at Saratoga). Since then he's done nothing but win graded stakes, at seven furlongs (GI Hopeful S.) and three times over 1 1/16 miles, including the GI Breeders' Futurity S., GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and in his 3-year-old return, the GII Fountain of Youth S.

Forte's lanky athleticism, stalking prowess, and far-turn blast-off ability have been on full display in each of his two-turn races, and trainer Todd Pletcher is leaning toward the Apr. 1 GI Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream as Forte's final tightener.

One quirk, though: All three of Forte's route wins have come on tracks with short-stretch configurations that end at or just beyond the sixteenth pole. Will roughly an extra half a furlong in the home straight make any difference? Probably not based on the way Forte has authoritatively uncoiled through the lane. But a good chunk of the Top 12 contenders ranked beneath him are off-the-pace closers who figure to improve at nine and 10 furlongs, and that sort of multi-attack, firing-line stretch fight is something Forte has yet to encounter.

2) PRACTICAL MOVE (c, Practical Joke–Ack Naughty, by Afleet Alex) O-Leslie & Pierre Jean Amestoy & Roger Beasley; B-Chad Brown & Head of Plains Partners (Ky); T-Tim Yakteen. Sales history: $90,000 RNA yrl '21 KEESEP; $230,000 2yo '22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 6-3-1-2, $434,200. Last Start: 1st GII San Felipe S. at Santa Anita Mar. 4. Kentucky Derby Points: 60.

Practical Move's decisive win in the GII San Felipe S. (100 Beyer Speed Figure) was a huge coming-out party considering the race was his 3-year-old debut and his juvenile form was built around him inheriting a maiden win via DQ and a GII Los Alamitos Futurity score when this colt was a 10-1 outsider against four foes of dubious quality.

Apparently, I misread the tea leaves prior to the San Felipe. But now, looking at Practical Move's overall juvenile season, I can see a developmental arc that is more positive than I initially gave him credit for. (Yes, hindsight is the great friend of all Derby prognosticators.)

For starters, this son of Practical Joke packed in five starts in roughly a four-month span, which, although they did not produce breakthrough results at the time, should provide a stable foundation that will aid him in the long run.

He also ran into a combination of hot horses and bad trip luck–second behind the highly hyped 'TDN Rising Star' Cave Rock (Arrogate) in his 24-1 debut; some bumping and rough-housing in starts two and three, and then being outgunned by one-turn specialist and subsequent Grade II stakes winner Havnameltdown (Uncaptured) in the seven-eighths GIII Bob Hope S. at Del Mar. Yet in none of his adversity-tinged defeats at age two was Practical Move worse than third.

Last week on “At the Races with Steve Byk,” trainer Tim Yakteen described him as a big, “very straightforward” colt who never gets discouraged.

“It's very likely that I'll come back with Practical Move in the [Apr. 8 GI] Santa Anita Derby,” Yakteen said. “He's run well on the track, and that will probably be the best scenario for us. But I didn't want to etch anything in stone and [instead I'll] leave myself the options. Because fortunately, there are a number of options that we can take advantage of. It's just a matter of how many weeks I want [between starts] and where I want him to be. But ideally, I'll run him out of his own stall.”

3) TAPIT TRICE (c, Tapit–Danzatrice, by Dunkirk) 'TDN Rising Star' O-Whisper Hill Farm LLC and Gainesway Stable (Antony Beck); B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds Ltd. (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $1,300,000 Ylg '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 4-3-0-1, $100,150. Last start: 1st GIII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs Mar. 11. KY Derby Points: 50.

Did you come away with a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” vibe after watching 2-5 favorite Tapit Trice snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a last-to-first run in the GIII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby?

This son of Tapit's habitual slow-to-go style (fourth flat-footed break in as many races) almost cost him dearly. But the pace was fast and the competition was notches below what this 'TDN Rising Star' will encounter in Louisville, enabling him to pass every horse in the field of 12 with a nine-wide rush while encountering little serious resistance.

Yes, Tapit Trice got the job done by overcoming some self-created trip adversity. But the visual of jockey Luis Saez having to hustle and pump on Tapit Trice at multiple points in the race will linger when assessing his chances in the 20-horse Derby, where positioning is crucial. You don't necessarily have to be winging it on the front end, but the Kentucky Derby has been won by speed-centric, forwardly placed types in eight of the last nine years.

Tapit Trice's Tampa Derby grade rates as an “incomplete” in terms of overall progression. But this long-striding colt's first three races were so replete with eye-catching, positive attributes and an unruffled, confident demeanor that it doesn't make sense to dock his chances too severely because he didn't win a March prep with astounding dominance.

And hearing trainer Todd Pletcher say in the aftermath of the win that the colt will likely get a nine-furlong try in the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. is certainly more reassuring than hearing that Tapit Trice would spend eight weeks training up to the Derby.

Speed-figure gurus might not be too enthused about the 88 Beyer (four-point regression) Tapit Trice posted, and that's a valid concern. But this colt hit his best stride through a closing sixteenth in :6.14, and that's the fastest final-half-furlong clocking from 16 Derby qualifying points stakes run at 1 1/16 miles in 2022-23.

4) GEAUX ROCKET RIDE (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Beyond Grace, by Uncle Mo) O-Pin Oak Stud LLC; B-OXO Equine LLC (Ky); T-Richard Mandella. Sales history: $350,000 yrl '21 FTKJUL. Lifetime Record: GSP, 2-1-1-0, $120,200. Last Start: 2nd GII San Felipe S. at Santa Anita Mar. 4. Kentucky Derby Points: 20.

In just his second career start and first around two turns, Geaux Rocket Ride was narrowly favored in the betting for the San Felipe S., closing at 2.7-1 odds.

That respect on the tote board said a lot about this speed-oriented son of Candy Ride (Arg). But it also spoke volumes about the public's confidence in trainer Richard Mandella, who is known for his judicious approach with young horses.

Although Geaux Rocket Ride finished second, without question he turned in the best runner-up effort we've witnessed in any 2023 Derby prep. He forced the issue on the front end of a robust tempo yet still managed to finish with purpose behind the much more experienced Practical Move. That combination of early torque matched with still-developing staying power is an attribute you don't see often in second-time-starters.

Jim and Dana Bernhard, who in autumn took over as the new owners of Pin Oak Stud, confirmed in a Twitter post four days after the San Felipe that the Santa Anita Derby will be next for their top sophomore.

Since 1900, 25 horses have attempted to win the Derby off exactly three lifetime starts. Only three have won: Justify in 2018, Big Brown in 2008, and Regret in 1915. Beyond those three, only one of the remaining 22 managed to hit the board (Curlin, third in 2007).

5) ROCKET CAN (c, Into Mischief–Tension, by Tapit) O-Frank Fletcher Racing Operations Inc.; B-Woodford Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Bill Mott. Sales history: $245,000 RNA Ylg '21 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: 5-2-1-0, $249,738. Last Start: 2nd GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Mar. 4. KY Derby Points: 40.

Rocket Can, an Into Mischief gray with six starts, turned the corner on Oct. 30 when first tasked with two-turn races. Yet both his trainer, Bill Mott, and jockey, Junior Alvarado, have acknowledged this colt still has some maturing to do.

Alvarado said Rocket Can got upset for unknown reasons in the post parade of the Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream prior to running a decent second, 4 1/2 lengths behind Forte.

Mott concurred in the post-race interview.

“He broke awfully sharp,” Mott said. “He was a little geared up in the post parade. He was a little more wound up than I actually like to see him. I was hoping he wouldn't get too excited, but he still looked like he ran his race.”

Rocket Can was credited with a 91 Beyer, which, in theory at least, turns down the heat on some of the criticism this colt faced for running back-to-back 82 Beyers and not advancing, numbers-wise, between a second-place try in a Nov. 26 allowance at Churchill and winning the GIII Holy Bull S. at Gulfstream Feb. 4.

But speed figures never tell the entire story. Rocket Can gave up real estate on both turns of the Holy Bull while always within striking distance of the leaders, and the stretch runs in all four of his two-turn races have been characteristically strong (two wins, two seconds, never shying from engagement).

6) RED ROUTE ONE (c, Gun Runner–Red House, by Tapit) O/B-Winchell Thoroughbreds, LLC (Ky); T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: GISP, 7-1-2-1, $492,575. Last Start: 2nd in Feb. 25 GII Rebel S. Kentucky Derby Points: 33.

Although trainer Steve Asmussen said after Red Route One ran second in the GII Rebel S. that he was toying with the idea of stretching out his son of Gun Runner to 1 3/16 miles in the Mar. 25 GII Louisiana Derby, owner Ron Winchell confirmed to TDN via text message Saturday that the nine-furlong Apr. 2 GI Arkansas Derby is the more likely landing spot.

Red Route One, who just turned three Mar. 12, has twice run second in Oaklawn prep stakes this season, earning his two best lifetime Beyers in the slop (87 then 92). His lone victory came back on Sept. 5 over the Kentucky Downs turf course.

Can a Derby contender who's never won on dirt still be considered a realistic threat in mid-March? In 2023, the answer appears to be yes, because anything unconventional seems to be a “go” these days on the Derby trail, whether it's race spacing getting stretched beyond historic norms or horses with just a couple of starts being regarded as adequately seasoned.

So you can take your pick among horses who've won over dirt but have just had two, three or four lifetime starts. Or you can try your luck (at far higher odds) with a deep closer like Red Route One, who has never tasted victory on dirt but whose fairly sturdy base of races includes seven lifetime starts, all at a mile or longer.

7) INSTANT COFFEE (c, Bolt d'Oro–Follow No One, by Uncle Mo) O-Gold Square LLC; B-Sagamore Farm (Ky); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $200,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 4-3-0-0, $442,815. Last Start: Won Jan. 21 GIII Lecomte S. at Fair Grounds. Kentucky Derby Points: 32.

Instant Coffee, by Bolt d'Oro out of an Uncle Mo mare, will target the Mar. 25 GII Louisiana Derby off a 63-day layoff. According to DRF's Formulator, trainer Brad Cox over the last five years has won at a 23% clip (from 193 starts) with all layoff returnees between 60 and 70 days. His strike rate is also 23% (40 starts) when the filter is set to show the same layoff parameter for only his graded stakes starters.

For 3-year-olds coming back in the 60- to 70-day range at any class level, Cox's win rate is 20% (51 starts). The much narrower filter of 3-year-old 60- to 70-day layoff males in graded stakes dips to 1-for-9 (11%), and that lone winner was in a 2018 Grade III grass stakes at now-defunct Arlington.

This $200,000 KEESEP colt is an overland closer with a 3-for-4 record, and Cox has described this Grade II and III winner as being a light-on-his-feet type whose body language and stride suggest he can get 10 furlongs.

Instant Coffee's Beyers are a touch unpredictable (85-81-82-92 pattern), with that curious dip after his seven-furlong debut win at Saratoga being followed by a 10-point jump in his first sophomore start in New Orleans.

Still, Instant Coffee manages to finish most of his races by posing for a picture in the winner's circle, so he must be doing something right. His only defeat was five months ago against the eventual divisional champ, Forte.

8) CONFIDENCE GAME (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Eblouissante, by Bernardini) O-Don't Tell My Wife Stables; B-Summer Wind Equine, LLC (Ky); T-J K Desormeaux. Sales history: $25,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-3-1-2, $785,525. Last Start:  Won Feb. 25 GII Rebel S. at OP. Kentucky Derby Points: 57.

Trainer Keith Desormeaux told DRF.com last week that the upsetter of the Rebel S. is in “steady light training” at Fair Grounds while he mulls options for the colt's next start. The Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass S., and even just training straight up to the Derby are all under consideration for Confidence Game. That last option would mean a 10-week gulf between starts.

Desormeaux told DRF that it took Confidence Game “a little longer than usual to recover from that race,” noting that having to ship from cool weather in Hot Springs back to 80-degree days in New Orleans didn't help the post-race recovery process.

Confidence Game, an efficient-striding son of Candy Ride (Arg), sports a seven-race foundation that includes five routes.

The 94 Beyer he earned in the slop at Oaklawn was a 14-point leap off his previous effort, and Confidence Game capitalized by closing from mid-pack into a too-hot pace.

9) KINGSBARNS (c, Uncle Mo–Lady Tapit, by Tapit) O-Spendthrift Farm; B-Parks Investment Group (Ky); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $250,000 yrl '21 FTSAR; $800,000 2yo '22 FTMAR. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $57,300. Last Start: 1st AOC at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 12. Kentucky Derby Points: 0.

Considering he's 2-for-2 and was well-regarded at the sales, Kingsbarns is an under-the-radar sort. Part of that perception has to do with his trainer, Todd Pletcher, having three other horses ranked within the current Top 12, including at the Nos. 1 and 4 spots with Forte and Tapit Trice.

This son of Uncle Mo (out of a Tapit mare) will attempt to parlay a Gulfstream MSW mile win and a Tampa allowance score over one mile and 40 yards into a points-garnering performance in the Louisiana Derby, which will likely be his only crack at a Derby qualifying stakes.

He's had the benefit of reeling in overly ambitious pacemakers in both his tries, but Kingsbarns looked very comfortable when covered up at the fence in his debut before slicing through with a capable late kick that belied his relative inexperience.

10) LITIGATE (c, Blame–Salsa Diavola, by Mineshaft) O-Centennial Farms; B-Nursery Place, Donaldson & Broadbent (Ky); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $370,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $182,590. Last Start: 1st in Feb. 11 GIII Sam F. Davis S. Kentucky Derby Points: 20.

The thinking with Litigate is that the long Fair Grounds stretch in the Louisiana Derby is going to play to his stalking strengths and his Blame (over a Mineshaft mare) pedigree.

This $370,000 KEESEP buy won at first asking sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs at Aqueduct Nov. 19, reeling in two horses inside the final furlong over what was arguably not his ideal distance. Additional real estate in the form of a Gulfstream one-turn mile Jan. 8 resulted in a second-place allowance try in which Litigate led between calls five-sixteenths out.

Start number three, the GIII Sam F. Davis S. at Tampa, was notable for Litigate being able to clear the field from post 10, responding to rating, then punching home with a far-turn bid during a driving rainstorm.

The Massachusetts-based partnership Centennial Farms has a decades-long track record of not rushing young prospects. The syndicate's teaming with trainer Todd Pletcher is relatively new, starting with Litigate himself.

Litigate does need to improve his Beyers (76-80-77) to be considered a true Derby contender. His company lines also have looked soft over time, with the horses from all three of his races running an aggregate 1-for-18 in next-out races.

11) SLIP MAHONEY (c, Arrogate–Got Lucky, by A.P. Indy) O-Gold Square LLC; B-Hill 'n' Dale Equine Holdings & Philip Steinberg (Ky); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $150,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSP, 4-1-2-0, $126,100. Last Start: 2nd in GIII Gotham S. at Aqueduct Mar 4. Kentucky Derby Points: 20.    Slip Mahoney required three tries to break his maiden, but he's been quietly rounding into form at Aqueduct this winter.

He won the “race within the race” when slow from the gate and second best with a big late burst behind a 7 1/2-length winner in the GIII Gotham S., and he lost two of his MSW starts despite decent efforts behind No. 3-ranked Tapit Trice and No. 10-ranked Litigate.

Trainer Brad Cox said after the Gotham that the GII Wood Memorial Apr. 8 would be next.

This $150,000 KEESEP buy is one of four gray horses currently classified in the Top 12.

Since 2005, 36 consecutive grays/roans have gone to post and lost the Derby since the last gray, Giacomo, roared home at 50-1.

12) REINCARNATE (c, Good Magic–Allanah, by Scat Daddy) O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert Masterson, Stonestreet Stables LLC, Jay Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital LLC & Catherine Donovan; B-Woods Edge Farm (Ky); Tim Yakteen. Sales history: $775,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-2-3-1, $231,900. Last Start: 3rd in the GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn Feb. 25. Kentucky Derby Points: 15.

Reincarnate has never been off the board from six starts, all at a mile or longer.

His GIII Sham S. win (95 Beyer) back on Jan. 8 was a good example of his evolving force-the-issue tactics on the front end. A large-framed colt with a long stride, Reincarnate waited on horses, but dug in and fought back once company came calling.

Last time out, in the Feb. 25 Rebel S., this $775,000 KEESEP colt shipped to Oaklawn from his Southern California base and caught a sloppy, sealed  track for the first time. Reincarnate got shuffled back at the break, advanced into contention mid-race, then lost momentum late when checking out of a tight spot. Still, he managed third (90 Beyer).

A return trip to Hot Springs for the Arkansas Derby looms as Reincarnate's likely next start.

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