In 1939, Winston Churchill referred to the Soviet Union and its motivations as “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The same type of phrase can be used each year to describe the complexity of the Kentucky Derby and its many story lines. So, for those who haven’t looked closely yet at this year’s race, a good starting point might be to summarize some of the key story lines.
1. Todd Pletcher’s three horses
The biggest money-winning trainer in the history of North American racing does not have great percentages in America’s greatest race. From a record 62 entries, he has won twice, finished second twice, and been third four times. It should be noted, however, that many of these horses were longshots that didn’t have much of a chance, and the shortest-priced horse Pletcher has ever entered was his 2017 winner, Always Dreaming, who was a lukewarm favorite at $4.70-to-1.
This year is not a typical year for Pletcher horses in the Kentucky Derby. The leader of his brigade is Forte (#15, ML Odds: 3-1), who is virtually certain to be the favorite, with odds of around 5-2 or 3-1. He’s earned his status, with wins in six of seven races, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Florida Derby. He’s far from a certainty to win, but he is clearly the most accomplished horse in the field, and he overcame a difficult trip to win the Florida Derby. After that race, his multiple-Eclipse Award winning jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., said: “He just keeps coming. I mean it’s his heart. He just likes to win.” That effort is looked on with admiration by some in terms of how he overcame a wide trip from an outside post, but those who look at speed figures do not consider Forte to be unbeatable. They note that he had a higher figure in his final two-year-old race (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) than he did in both of his winning efforts this year.
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A likely second choice in the race is Tapit Trice (#5, ML Odds: 5-1), a $1.3 million yearling purchase who is the most fascinating horse in the race. The big grey with the outstanding pedigree is a horse who takes a while to get going but is running fastest of all in the stretch. He overcame a moderate pace to win the Blue Grass Stakes in a tough stretch battle with Verifying, but his truly breathtaking effort was in the Tampa Bay Derby. In that race, he was in eighth place in the middle of the stretch, about five lengths off the lead. Then, he inhaled the field in the final furlong, going on to win by two lengths. His pedigree and his running style say that the extra distance of the Kentucky Derby is made to order for him, but he will need a fast pace to close into, or he may get shuffled back too far to make up the deficit.
Consider this: Pletcher’s third-string horse in the race is the only undefeated horse in this year’s Kentucky Derby! Kingsbarns (#6, ML Odds: 12-1) is three for three, but no one seems to know how good he really is. His Louisiana Derby win was achieved on the front end because it was one of those races where no one really seemed to want the lead, and jockey Flavien Prat took the initiative and scored from wire-to-wire. However, Kingsbarns seems to be better suited for a stalking trip, and that’s the trip he’s most likely to get in Louisville. Improvement is the key here, as his figures have gotten better with each race, but he will have to run significantly faster than he did in the Louisiana Derby to get the job done.
2. The Brad Cox factor
The Louisville native has taken the industry by storm, averaging over $21 million in purse earnings in the past 5 years. In that span, he has attracted some of the top owners in the industry, and he has clearly produced results for them. He will have four horses in the gate, two of whom are regarded as strong contenders, and two who will be longer prices.
Most notable is Angel of Empire (#14, ML Odds: 8-1), whose win in the Arkansas Derby was considered by many to be the most impressive performance in this year’s Kentucky Derby prep races. He overtook the field with an impressive turn of foot in that race, and his mid-pack running style should work in his favor. Pedigree-wise, his sire (Classic Empire) was fourth in the 2017 Kentucky Derby, and his grand-sire (Pioneerof the Nile) was second in the 2009 edition. He’s shown improvement in each successive race, and if that pattern continues, he should be a major factor in the stretch.
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Also held in high regard from the Cox contingent is Verifying (#2, ML Odds: 15-1), the horse who was a dynamic second to Tapit Trice in the Blue Grass Stakes. A $775,000 yearling purchase, this son of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify seems to be maturing at just the right time. His efforts as a 2-year-old were spotty, including a sixth-place finish to Forte in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he seems to have gained maturity. If he moves forward after his race in the Blue Grass, he could be a winner at a reasonable price on the board.
Another Cox horse who seems to be maturing at the right time is Hit Show (#1, ML Odds: 30-1), who was second by a nose in the Wood Memorial. He has posted improving speed figures in each successive race, but he’s never faced a field like he will face in Louisville. I would not be surprised if he ran well and finished in the top four in the Kentucky Derby.
Finally, Cox has the longshot Jace’s Road (#12, ML Odds: 15-1). He seems overmatched here, but he will be a factor in the early going. If there’s not a fast pace, he could have the ability to stick around in the final stages of the race. He shows four efforts on a fast track, and each time he has finished no worse than third.
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3. What to make of the horses from Japan?
In recent years, Japanese horses have been successful at the Breeders’ Cup, Royal Ascot, and in the Middle East (Japanese horses won this year’s Dubai World Cup and Saudi Cup), and have made no secret of their desire to win the Kentucky Derby.
The key contender in this race is Derma Sotogake (#17, ML Odds: 10-1), whose best race to date was not in Japan, but in the UAE Derby in Dubai. Many experts view this as the fastest of all the Kentucky Derby prep races this year, and his ability to stay on or near the front end makes him dangerous in a race that shapes up with not a lot of speed horses.
The second Japanese runner is Continuar (#20, ML Odds: 50-1), from trainer Yoshito Yahagi, who won two races in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup. He has been beaten four times by Derma Sotogake, most recently losing by 10 lengths to him while finishing third in the UAE Derby. He seems to be overmatched here.
4. The Asmussen drought
This February, Steve Asmussen became the first North American trainer to post over 10,000 career wins. However, the Kentucky Derby has been a problem for him, as he has never won the race. His overall record is 24 starters, no wins, three seconds (including Epicenter in 2022), and two thirds.
This year, Asmussen presents Disarm (#11, ML Odds: 30-1), who has a pedigree that screams for the Derby distance, being by Gun Runner from a Tapit mare. He seems to be a closing sort who needs a fast pace, and he ran into slow to moderate fractions in each of his last two starts. If he shows improvement and gets a good pace to run into, Disarm could be a longshot to fill out someone’s superfecta ticket. If he wins, expect an emotional winner’s circle with the Asmussen family and friends.
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5. John Shirreffs repeats a pattern
When the John Shirreffs-trained Giacomo was the 50-1 winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby, he entered the race with one win in seven starts. His last two efforts before he went to Louisville were a fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby and a third-place finish in the San Felipe Stakes.
This year, he presents another late-closing horse in Skinner (#9, ML Odds: 20-1). Skinner enters with a record of one win in six starts. His most recent efforts were third place finishes in the Santa Anita Derby and the San Felipe Stakes.
Frankly, I don’t know what to make of the prep races that were run in California this year. Practical Move (#10, ML Odds: 10-1), who won the two prep races that Skinner was in, is a solid and consistent horse, but I don’t feel his usual race will make him a winner in Louisville. Skinner, however, fits the profile of a late-maturing closer who might relish the extra distance of the Kentucky Derby. I rate him ahead of Practical Move, but I don’t know if he’s as strong as some of the other top horses in the field.
6. Finding a “live” longshot
The most likely longshot to draw attention will be Mage (#8, ML Odds: 15-1), from the barn of the always dangerous trainer Gustavo Delgado. This horse finished second in the Florida Derby, defeated by Forte by one length. In the Kentucky Derby, Forte is the likely favorite, while the lightly-raced Mage will be around 15-1 or 20-1. Players looking for value will see Mage as a horse who is clearly worth spending on in their wagers.
The other horse I am considering in this category is likely to go off at a huge price, and his name is Raise Cain (#16, ML Odds: 50-1). If you are curious about him, I recommend viewing his last two races. In the Gotham Stakes, he came from far back on a sloppy track and blew away the field, winning by over seven lengths. In the Blue Grass Stakes, he faced major adversity and still was closing at the end to finish fifth. The chart notes on his race read as follows: “Raise Cain brushed with an outer rival at the start, raced far back two wide, attempted a five wide gain outside of foes around the far turn, fanned to the seven path entering the lane, and moved up.” A lesser horse would not have had the class to continue forward, and I feel that this horse could be sitting on a big effort. His trainer, Ben Colebrook, is one of the rising trainers in the sport, and he has shown an ability to score with “under-the-radar” horses of this type.
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7. Who can’t win the race?
The hardest part of betting a 20-horse field is eliminating half of them, at the least. In 2019, I tried to bet a $1 exacta box of 10 horses, which cost me $90. The last horse I eliminated from my bet was the 65-1 shot Country House, who ended up winning on the DQ of Maximum Security. It was a result that made a bundle of money for some friends of mine and left me kicking myself. In alphabetical order, here are some of the horses who won’t be on my tickets:
Confidence Game (#4, ML Odds: 20-1), Continuar (#20, ML Odds: 50-1), Hit Show (#1, ML Odds: 30-1), Jace’s Road (#12, ML Odds: 15-1), Lord Miles (#19, ML Odds: 30-1), Reincarnate (#7, ML Odds: 50-1), Rocket Can (#18, ML Odds: 30-1), Sun Thunder (#13, ML Odds: 50-1), and Two Phil’s (#3, ML Odds: 12-1). How I will break down the puzzle from there will require further deliberation.
Finally, you might wonder who I think are the true top contenders? I begin with Forte, who the late, great Pete Axthelm would’ve referred to as a MOTO, which stands for “master of the obvious.” He is simply the most accomplished horse in the race and cannot be ignored on any ticket. Next is Tapit Trice, who might be the most talented horse here, but he needs the right pace scenario. Angel of Empire’s final prep race and the final prep race of Derma Sotogake were both outstanding, and I would not be surprised if either horse won. Of the remaining group, Verifying is maturing and has the style and pedigree to get the job done.
The Kentucky Derby is a race that is designed for us to bet more heavily than we usually do and have fun doing it. If your calculations give you a nice winner, throw a party for your friends. On the other hand, if you don’t cash a ticket, you are in good company, so move on and wait for the first Saturday in May of 2024.
How to Watch the 2023 Kentucky Derby
NBC is home to the 149th Kentucky Derby, providing comprehensive race coverage and analysis live on TV and streaming on NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock before, during and after. The 2023 Kentucky Derby will air on May 6th from 12 to 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and will also be available for live stream on Peacock, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.
NBC will also broadcast the 2022 Kentucky Oaks, Preakness Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup.