Three Weeks to Derby: Fingers Crossed

Three Weeks to Derby: Fingers Crossed

The heavy lifting of the 100-point prep races for the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1) are in the book. One points race is left, Saturday’s Lexington Stakes (G3) at Keeneland. It’s worth a scant 20 points to the winner, and effectively only would allow Disarm to make his way to the Derby fray if he wins.

He’s a likely winner, but it would depend on how he wins as to his chances on the First Saturday in May. In Thoroughbred racing, getting to a race such as the Derby requires planning and luck in scheduling…it’s not ideal to “back your way” into a race of this magnitude. 

In handicapping the Derby, it is helpful not only to locate the most likely winner—or longshot—but to find the strongest prep race. Horses that run 1-2-3 in the strongest of the preps often repeat those efforts in the Derby when there are 20-some horses running.

Last year it appeared that New York’s Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) was the best of the preps, passing the “eye” test and speed test. The winner, Mo Donegal, however, drew the wicked post 1 for the Derby and finished a better-than-it-looked fifth after a circuitous trip at Churchill Downs. The runner-up in the Wood, Early Voting, won the Preakness Stakes (G1), and then Mo Donegal proved he was among the best 3-year-olds of his generation by taking the Belmont Stakes (G1).

Of the five major races over the past two weekends, to me, it appeared the Gulfstream Park’s Florida Derby (G1) was the best of the lot. The winner, Forte, of course, was the pre-Derby favorite prior to the Florida Derby, and he proved his lot by coming with a wide trip to collar Mage late. Forte has done everything by the book so far in 2023, and although it’s not sexy to back the favorite in the Derby, he is the leader of the pack.

Gaining ground in the hunt was Mage, who was 6 ¾ lengths behind Forte in the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) in just his second start, then had the lead before succumbing to Forte in the Florida Derby, missing by a length. It was a strong effort for the colt trained by unheralded Gustavo Delgato, and the chestnut colt is one to take a serious look at once pre-Derby works start to heat up in Louisville. His ownership group shelled out $290,000 for Mage and he looks like a horse moving forward. Mage is a son of Good Magic, the champion 2-year-old male of 2017 and runner-up in the following year’s Derby behind the Triple Crown-winning Justify, and he’s out of a mare by 2009 Derby winner Big Brown. 

Young Derby horses, which for the most part are just barely 3-year-olds, can advance and mature in a hurry this time of year as they transition to springtime in Kentucky. It’s like seeing the teenage kid after summer break. “How much did you grow over the summer?”

The point system for entry to a 20-horse field for the Derby is quite contentious this year, with a lot of horses log-jammed in the “45-40” point range.

To see a “live” list, click here:

With interest from runners in Japan, it appears the cutoff, as of today, is 45 points. There are five horses with 40 points, ranking from 22-26, including Disarm. There will be defections, for sure, as horses in the coming weeks will not appear to be training up to par, or trainers and owners that may seek other options. Between this weekend and the Derby, most runners will have two important recorded workouts, either at their home base or under the Twin Spires.

Make no mistake, nothing can go wrong here in order to make a Derby contender. Every participant will keep their fingers crossed from now until around 7 p.m. May 6.

For Forte, and one of trainer Todd Pletcher’s other Derby options, Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Kingsbarn (he also trains Blue Grass Stakes, G1, winner Tapit Trice), it’s another lap around Palm Beach Downs in South Florida before shipping to Louisville April 16 or so, where they will get two pre-Derby drills.

As for the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, a surprise non-entrant is the Keith Desormeaux-trained Confidence Game, winner of the Feb. 25 Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn. The wily horseman will attempt to win the Derby off a 10-week layoff. That, of course, has never happened. It was just in 2006 when Barbaro won the Run for the Roses off an unheard of five-week rest. Confidence Game is a wild card of unfathomable proportions this year.

Disarm, second in the Louisiana Derby, has the most to win or lose in the Lexington. You would think off that effort, he’d be the favorite, but he’s the second choice on the morning line to the Brad Cox-trained First Mission, who earned an 89 Beyer Speed Figure in a maiden victory March 18 at Fair Grounds. Trainer Bob Baffert will send out Arabian Lion from post 11. Unable to earn Derby points due to a two-year suspension at Churchill Downs, Baffert is clearly using the Lexington as a prep for the May 20 Preakness, as are most of the others. 

Despite the wide draw, his run will be analyzed in the coming weeks to gauge the West Coast contingent of Derby hopefuls against the general population. 

The race following the Lexington, the grade 1 Jenny Wiley for older fillies and mares on the turf has its usual accouterment of runners from top turf trainer Chad Brown. However, keep an eye on the outside runner from post 9 in White Frost (8-1 morning line). Trainer Bill Mott has a Grade 3 winner here that appears capable of moving to the next level. Let’s hope she charges from the off the pace in the lane to make some green.

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