TDN Derby Top 20: Upheaval in the Ranks

Practical Move (right) and Japanese invader Mandarin Hero (left) | Benoit

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A new kingpin graces the No. 1 slot after a wild, final weekend of 100-point preps. The rankings below are independent from the “Road to the Derby” leaderboard Churchill Downs uses to determine starting berths, with several horses included here who are currently below the cut.

 

1) 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: GISW, 7-4-1-2, $884,200. Last Start: 1st Apr. 8 GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. Kentucky Derby Points: 160.

Practical Move leapfrogs into the No. 1 spot because his well-executed GI Santa Anita Derby score (100 Beyer Speed Figure) asserts him as the no-nonsense “momentum” horse heading to Louisville. In winning the strongest of the three nine-furlong preps run Saturday, this son of Practical Joke ($90,000 RNA KEESEP; $230,000 OBSAPR) pressured the field into submission, and he has not yet indicated he is close to bottoming out, stamina-wise. His stay-in-touch stalking style and obvious comfort level at being covered up on the inside are highly desirable traits for a Derby contender.

Practical Move won the two fastest 1 1/16-miles Derby qualifying stakes in 2022-23 (1:41.65 in the GII Los Alamitos Futurity and 1:42.01 GII San Felipe S.). His winning time of 1:48.69 in the Santa Anita Derby is also quickest of all the nine-furlong preps.

Unhurried at the break, jockey Ramon Vazquez secured an inside run behind a blazing :22.30 opening quarter in the Santa Anita Derby. He chipped away at the margin down the backstretch, and for the third graded stakes in a row, Practical Move rode the rail to menace the pacemaker. Seizing the lead while still in hand before the quarter pole, the even-money Practical Move then fended off a determined Mandarin Hero (Jpn) (Shanghai Bobby) to win by a nose while keeping a wide-and-driving Skinner comfortably at bay a half-length back in third.

Practical Move has yet to display an overdriven “Wow!” gear late in the lane. But being able to crank up the torque without being flashy about it can certainly earn a blanket of roses on Derby day.

 

2) 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, 7-6-0-0, $1,833,230. Last start: 1st GI Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream Apr. 1. Kentucky Derby Points: 190.

'TDN Rising Star' Forte ($80,000 KEENOV; $110,000 KEESEP) goes into the Derby as the East Coast kingpin and reigning divisional champ. But while Practical Move ended his prep season with an exclamation point, Forte's final prep resonated more like a question mark, because at 1-5 odds he was expected to deliver a shellacking to s soft-on-paper GI Florida Derby field.

Yes, this son of Violence did win with his ears pricked after giving himself too much work to do. And his loping, 4 ½-furlong move did not come at the expense of jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., having to drill this colt in order to power past the pesky Mage (Good Magic). Five-sixteenths out, Forte looked beaten. But once he got rolling, Forte uncoiled on cue, giving off a “Don't worry, I've got this!” vibe to win by a measured length.

The 20-horse Derby will be different. It was a tactical revelation to hear Ortiz say post-race that “We went to the first turn and those horses cleared me and I said, 'Oh my God.' I thought he could clear them and he didn't do it.”

Forte just might have the most devastating late-race kick in the Derby. But if he can't attain good early positioning, he won't have a stable launching pad to set up his proven far-turn run.

 

3) HIT SHOW (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Actress, by Tapit) O/B-Gary & Mary West (KY); T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-3-1-0, $404,375. Last Start: 2nd in GII Wood Memorial S. at Aqueduct Apr. 8. Kentucky Derby Points: 60.

Three horses were bobbing heads at the wire of the GII Wood Memorial. Although this homebred for Gary and Mary West ended up second, he ran the best race in terms of boosting his chances in the Derby.

This Candy Ride (Arg) colt went off as the 17-10 favorite, and although he didn't challenge for the lead from post 12, he was in the hunt five wide on the clubhouse bend before taking up a stalking spot while fifth, about five lengths off a moderate first two quarters in :24.88 and :24.12.

The cadence quickened through a :23.88 third quarter, and Hit Show was on the prowl three deep through the turn. He was bottled up off the bend, had to be switched off the heels in upper stretch, then both gave and took some light slam-dancing while sparring in the middle of a three-way go through the final furlong.

The hedge here is that this May 9 foal can build off that effort, especially when you consider Hit Show has already won at nine furlongs (in the GIII Withers. S.). In addition, his Beyers show a nice, ascending arc of 60-71-82-91-93 through five career tries.

 

4) VERIFYING (c, Justify–Diva Delite, by Repent) O-Westerberg, Mrs John Magnier, Jonathan Poulin, Derrick Smith & Michael Tabor; B-Hunter Valley & Mountmellick Farm (Ky); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $775,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISP, 6-2-2-0, $489,900. Last start: 2nd GI Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland Apr. 8. Kentucky Derby Points: 54.

Verifying ($775,000 KEESEP), a Justify colt who will not hit his third birthdate until five days after the Derby, picked a stellar time to run his breakthrough “coming out” race when second, beaten a nose, in the GI Blue Grass S.

A half-brother to 2019 champion older dirt distaffer Midnight Bisou, Verifying broke forwardly but conceded the lead to an 86-1 sacrificial pacemaker. Tyler Gaffalione let that long shot roll onto the back straight while sitting second with his 2.3-1 mount, then tightened that open-length gap 5 ½ furlongs out.

Cognizant of 'TDN Rising Star' and 1.2-1 favorite Tapit Trice (Tapit) making a bold move to his outside, Verifying took control at the five-sixteenths pole. Gaffalione braced for the quarter-pole challenge of Tapit Trice by deftly floating that favorite out to the five path.

The two then threw down in a length-of-stretch slugfest that included some inconsequential bumping and brushing, with Verifying twice clawing back the lead before Tapit Trice snatched it away by a neck at the wire. The two co-earned 99 Beyers.

Verifying has won twice, but never at the stakes level. He had enough speed to break his maiden over six furlongs at the Spa last summer, and also took down a key-race allowance going a mile at Oaklawn in January, out of which the second- and  third-place horses came back to win their next starts as favorites.

 

5) 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: GISW, 5-4-0-1, $100,150. Last start: 1st GI Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland Apr. 8. Kentucky Derby Points: 150.

Tapit Trice would not be denied in the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. | Coady Photography

There's a good chance 'TDN Rising Star' Tapit Trice is evolving into a powerhouse with a knack for extricating himself from tight predicaments and finding a way to win at all costs.

But his slow-to-go nature marks this son of Tapit as a “heart attack” type of horse who scares the daylights out of his backers by constantly having to be pumped on for run by rider Luis Saez before he accomplishes his task by only as much as it takes to win narrowly.

That was the way Tapit Trice scored in the GIII Tampa Bay Derby (a crew that will not yield any other Kentucky Derby qualifiers), and it was a similar story in Saturday's tougher Blue Grass S.

After hustling this burly gray from the one post, Saez had to throttle back before the field passed the mile marker. The colt settled to seventh entering the backstretch, got guided outside, and was already on the march six furlongs from the wire.

Tapit Trice was jointly third by the half-mile pole, and as the lead changed in front of him, he went relentlessly after Verifying off the turn. They raced in lockstep while exchanging love taps and the lead, but Tapit Trice had more at the finish.

Despite the victory, the overall takeaway is that Tapit Trice's loop-the-group tactics simply don't align with the profiles of recent Derby winners. Eight of the last nine Derbies have been won by horses racing either right up front or just off the lead. Thus, despite winning his last two stakes in respectable, off-the-tailgate fashion, Tapit Trice takes a haircut in the rankings, dropping from third to fifth.

 

6) KINGSBARNS (c, Uncle Mo–Lady Tapit, by Tapit) O-Spendthrift Farm; B-Parks Investment Group (KY); Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $250,000 yrl '21 FTSAR; $800,000 2yo '22 FTMAR. Lifetime Record: 3-3-0-0, $657,300. Last Start: 1st GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds Mar. 25. Kentucky Derby Points: 100.

This 3-for-3 son of Uncle Mo ($250,000 FTSAUG; $800,000 FTFMAR) led at every call through moderate fractions to win the GII Louisiana Derby (95 Beyer) by 3 ½ lengths.

Although light on experience race-wise, Kingsbarns is developing a businesslike, no-drama demeanor. Ranked by foaling date (Jan. 17), he's also the oldest of the Top 20 competitors.

This colt doesn't necessarily need the lead. But this Todd Pletcher trainee is in his comfort zone either setting the pace or forcing the issue from just behind the leaders.

He's also already checked the “overcomes adversity” box. As the 3-1 favorite in his one-turn-mile Gulfstream debut, Kingsbarns was unbothered by being smothered at the rail in tight quarters on the turn. He later got blocked badly at the head of the lane before coming up with a decisive, punch-through run that resulted in a 1 3/4-length victory (74 Beyer).

Race number two didn't require as much effort, but it was useful. In a mile and 40 yards first-level allowance at Tampa, Kingsbarns let a 37-1 shot open up a long lead, then reeled him in with ease to finish 7 ¾ lengths ahead of the pack (85 Beyer).

 

7) 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 & GISP, 6-2-3-1, $231,900. Last Start: 3rd in the GI Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Apr. 1. Kentucky Derby Points: 45.

Reincarnate hasn't been to the winner's circle since his Jan. 8 GIII Sham S. score, and his Beyers are drifting in the wrong direction at age three (95-90-86). But I wouldn't discount him as a rebounding, front-end factor in the Derby.

This large-framed, long-striding $775,000 KEESEP colt by Good Magic has never been off the board from seven starts, all at a mile or longer.

Reincarnate has twice flown to Oaklawn since Feb. 25 rom his Santa Anita training base, running third in both the GII Rebel S. (with a troubled trip) and the GI Arkansas Derby (ideal stalking setup but failed to fire).

At somewhere in the 25-1 range, I'd have a hard time excluding Reincarnate from Derby exotics, although his lack of a positive-momentum final prep precludes keying on him to win.

 

8) DISARM (c, Gun Runner–Easy Tap, by Tapit) 'TDN Rising Star'. O/B-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: GSP, 4-1-2-1, $290,350. Last Start: 2nd GII Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds Mar. 25. Kentucky Derby Points: 40.

'TDN Rising Star' Disarm is the highest-ranked Top 20 contender who is outside looking in, points-wise. He's currently parked at No. 26 on the qualifying list with 40 points and needs help from defectors.

This Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred rates so highly because it's unlikely we've seen his best effort at age three. Whether his prime-time bust-out comes 3 ½ weeks from now in the Derby or 3 ½ months from now as a later developer is the question.

Remember, his sire, Gun Runner, ran third as the 2016 Derby, finished on the board in a series of graded stakes into the summer and fall, but didn't burst onto the scene until after the Breeders' Cup, when he won the GI Clark H. (and seven of his eight final races against top-class competition).

Disarm has been at a tactical disadvantage trying to pull back lone-speed pacemakers twice in 2023, first in an allowance at Oaklawn Feb. 19, and again, with inside trip trouble, in the Louisiana Derby.

9) ANGEL OF EMPIRE (c, Classic Empire–Armony's Angel, by To Honor And Serve) O-Albaugh Family Stables LLC; B-Forgotten Land Investment Inc & Black Diamond Equine Corp (PA); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $32,000 RNA wlg '20 KEENOV, $70,000 yrl '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 6-4-1-0, $1,069,375. Last Start: 1st in the GI Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Apr. 1. Kentucky Derby Points: 154.

Angel of Empire dominated the GI Arkansas Derby | Coady Photography

Angel of Empire (Classic Empire) sails into the Derby off back-to-back, come-from-behind wins at nine furlongs in the GII Risen Star S. (89 Beyer) and Arkansas Derby (94 Beyer). This two-time sales entrant ($32,000 RNA KEENOV; $70,000 KEESEP) will seek to become the third Pennsylvania-bred to win the Derby, after Lil E. Tee (1992) and Smarty Jones (2004).

“I think he's capable of winning [the Derby],” trainer Brad Cox said on the Apr. 6 TDN Writers' Room podcast. “We have to get better and we may have to have Forte stub his toe in order to beat him. But 20-horse field, it's a demanding, challenging race, bottom line. If you make the field that's why you go, so many things can happen.”

 

10) TWO PHIL'S (c, Hard Spun–Mia Torri, by General Quarters) O-Patricia's Hope LLC and Phillip Sagan; B-Phillip Sagan; T-Larry Rivelli. Sales History: $150,000 RNA Ylg '21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 8-4-1-1, $683,450. Last start: 1st GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Mar. 25. Kentucky Derby Points: 123.

If you discount his rough-trip fifth debuting at five furlongs way back on June 23 and his seventh behind Forte in the key-race GI Breeders' Futurity S.(when Two Phil's got bounced around at the break), this is a colt with four wins (two at Grade III) and a second and third in two other graded stakes.

His 101-Beyer score in the GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks was a sizable 15-point jump off his previous effort in the Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds. That's a stout number, but it's so far removed from his normal range that it leads to speculation about whether triple digits on the Beyer scale are sustainable for Two Phil's.

Versatility and a “do your job” attitude are the twin strengths of Two Phil's. He's won sprinting and routing over fast dirt, slop and now Tapeta, and you have to admire how he's been in it to win it at least until the upper stretch every time he's raced.

 

11) MANDARIN HERO (JPN) (c, Shanghai Bobby–Namura Nadeshiko {Jpn}, by Fuji Kiseki {Jpn}) O-Hiroaki Arai; B-Hirano Bokujo (Jpn); T-Terunobu Fujita. Lifetime Record: GISP, 6-4-2-0, $386,854. Last start: 2nd GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. Kentucky Derby Points: 40.

Mandarin Hero (Jpn) (Shanghai Bobby), victorious in four of five starts in Japan (only loss by a neck), popped with an impressive 8-1 runner-up try in the Santa Anita Derby. But the 40 qualifying points he garnered (24th) are still shy of a certain Derby berth.

His sharp United States debut would have been good enough to win the Santa Anita Derby in most years. Mandarin Hero broke fifth, tucked into the two path around the first turn, then had to wait for room into the far turn. Committed to inside passage by jockey Kazushi Kimura, he patiently waited some more, then dove through at the fence off the turn.

In upper stretch Mandarin Hero had his momentum briefly stalled as Kimura repositioned him off the favorite's heels. But Mandarin Hero still maintained his focus on Practical Move even while a fresh rival, Skinner (Curlin), was bearing down outside. This colt was getting to the winner; they were separated by a nose and co-earned 100 Beyers.

 

12) MAGE (c, Good Magic–Puca, by Big Brown) O-OGMA Investments, LLC, Ramiro Restrepo, Sterling Racing LLC and CMNWLTH; B-Grandview Equine (KY); T-Gustavo Delgado. Sales history: $235,000 yrl '21 KEESEP; $290,000 2yo '22 EASMAY. Lifetime Record: GISP, 3-1-1-0, $247,200. Last Start: 2nd GI Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream Apr. 1. Kentucky Derby Points: 50.

The eye-catching, far-turn move by Mage ($235,000 KEESEP; $290,000 EASMAY) was slightly premature in the Florida Derby. But it catapulted him to the lead, and he showed he knew what to do to defend his position once he hit the front, sharply repulsing a bid from the more experienced Cyclone Mischief (Into Mischief).

All the while Forte was taking dead aim. Even though this son of Good Magic had little left to stave off the 1-5 fave, Mage's effort still rates as impressive considering his lack of seasoning (just three races) and the fact that that no horse has finished that close to the champ in three other races over the last six months.

If a Forte-vs.-Mage rivalry continues to percolate, you can trace it back to a grudge match their dams started. Mage is out of the Bill Mott-trained Puca, who won her only stakes race in a $75,000 turfer at Suffolk Downs in 2017. She scored by 1 ¾ lengths over the Michael Matz-trained Queen Caroline, who would go on to foal Forte.

 

Potentially Rounding Out the Starting Gate..

13) Skinner (Curlin)
Skinner ($40,000 KEESEP; $510,000 OBSAPR) stamped himself as an outside Louisville threat who figures to be flying under the radar, odds-wise. In the Santa Anita Derby, this noticeably maturing son of Curlin broke well but was asked to settle second from last by Victor Espinoza. Skinner started to pick off midpack targets with a purposeful move three-eighths out, then swung four wide for the drive. He briefly brushed with a tiring 54-1 shot, dug in, and stayed on decently. Skinner ended up beaten half a length by Practical Move and Mandarin Hero, earning a 99 Beyer that leaves room for improvement. Trainer John Shirreffs orchestrated Giacomo's 50-1 Kentucky Derby win in 2005 off a fourth-place try in the Santa Anita Derby. At No. 21 on the qualifying list, Skinner needs one defection to make the cut.

 

14) Lord Miles (Curlin)
Lord Miles outran his 59-1 odds in a shocker of a score in the Wood Memorial. Is he a one-race wonder, or just starting to blossom? He broke forwardly, pressed the pacemaker, then backed off to fourth on the back straight. It looked for a few strides like he was starting to lose touch into the far bend, but Paco Lopez got him going again, and by the head of the lane this Vesgo Racing Stable homebred was hunkered down and not at all deterred by the rambunctious jostling of a furious three-way stretch battle. He won the bob at the finish by a nose, and the win represented a 14-point Beyer jump from 79 to 93. Realistically, this year's Derby projects to require a triple-digit Beyer to win, meaning Lord Miles must deliver another lifetime best against the toughest competition and over the longest distance of his career.

 

15) Derma Sotogake (Jpn) (Mind Your Biscuits)
Derma Sotogake wired the G2 UAE Derby. But that doesn't necessarily mean this ¥18,000,000 JRHJUL yearling will be committed to seeking the lead in the Derby. “We didn't exactly plan to go straight to the lead but he broke well,” said trainer Hidetaka Otonashi. Added jockey Christophe Lemaire, “He can break a little slowly [but he] travelled nicely on the lead and he relaxed for me down the backstretch. He was still moving smoothly for me as we came into the home stretch and once I pressed the button he was very impressive and I could enjoy the finish on him.” The first four horses across the finish barely changed positions for the bulk of that race, although Derma Sotogake cracked them all while still in hand before widening his margin under light encouragement.

 

16) Confidence Game (Candy Ride {Arg})
This $25,000 KEESEP colt whose dam, Eblouissante, is a half-sister to Hall-of-Famer Zenyatta is listed as “possible” by Keeneland for the GIII Lexington S. on Saturday. Confidence Game does not need qualifying points to attain a Derby berth, so the 1 1/16-miles prep would serve as a true tune-up effort. Otherwise he'd be heading to Louisville off a 10-week gap since his 94-Beyer win in the Rebel S., a wide-and-driving score that was aided by a pace meltdown.

 

17) Rocket Can (Into Mischief)
This Into Mischief gray ($245,000 FTSAUG RNA) safely qualifies with 60 points  and is already stabled at Churchill, but his Derby status hasn't been solidified. He was a punchless fourth as the beaten fave in the Arkansas Derby, after which trainer Bill Mott said Rocket Can “gives you the feeling there's a little more there, but he's just not quite giving it all to you yet.” This colt proved late at age two and early into his sophomore season that he can capably stalk to stay within striking distance of leaders, and he doesn't shy from stretch fights. After winning the GIII Holy Bull S. back on Feb. 4, Rocket Can was a best-of-the-rest second behind divisional champ Forte. But he still hasn't made the convincing leap in Beyers, regressing from a 91 in the GII Fountain of Youth S. to an 86 at Oaklawn.

 

18) Sun Thunder (Into Mischief)
This late-running Into Mischief colt ($400,000 KEENOV; $495,000 RNA FTSAUG) has a second, two fourths, and a fifth in graded stakes this year, and his 54 qualifying points are enough for a Derby berth. But trainer Ken McPeek was undecided on his starting status as of Sunday, the day after Sun Thunder ran 6 ½ lengths off the winner in the Blue Grass S. Sun Thunder still hasn't won beyond the maiden ranks, but his Dec. 31 Oaklawn score was a capable effort despite minor trip trouble. His company lines aren't soft either; he caught some peaking horses earlier in the winter and was up against the grain of a speed-rewarding track on Louisiana Derby day.

 

19) Jace's Road (Quality Road)
'TDN Rising Star' Jace's Road barely makes the cut as one of three horses currently tied with 45 qualifying points. He enjoys a $25,850 advantage in non-restricted stakes earnings, which is the tiebreaker. A $510,000 KEESEP son of Quality Road, he faded to third in the late stages of the Louisiana Derby after pressing (but never truly threatening) all-the-way winner Kingsbarns. He took moderate pressure without any quit when wiring the Dec. 26 Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds, but has been winless in two starts since.

 

20) Continuar (Jpn) (Drefong)
The 2-for-5 Continuar (Jpn) accepted an invitation to Churchill for earning 40 points in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby series when he won the Cattleya S. at Tokyo last Nov. 26. At age three, this ¥70,000,000 JRHJUL yearling was fifth in the G3 Saudi Derby. He then improved to third in the UAE Derby, but he was still beaten 10 lengths by winner Derma Sotogake after stalking that pacemaker until the home straight. Trainer Yoshito Yahagi is best known stateside for his two winners in the 2021 Breeders' Cup at Del Mar: Marche Lorraine (Jpn) at 49-1 in the GI Distaff and Loves Only You (Jpn) at 4-1 in the GI Filly and Mare Turf.

 

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