Two more Kentucky Derby prep races are on the menu this Saturday in the South with the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
The Florida Derby will see Forte, the likely Kentucky Derby favorite, look to win his second three-year-old start in as many starts against 11 rivals. A win will all but solidify him as the odds-on choice for the Kentucky Derby, but it won’t be easy.
Forte will break from the far outside, the 11th of 12 runners, in the Florida Derby, a 1 1/8-miles contest around the Gulfstream main track of the same distance. It’s just a sixteenth-mile run from the starting gate to the first turn, which means Forte will likely be fanned very wide and lose ground to his rivals.
According to the Daily Racing Form, in the 49 1 1/8-miles races run with 11 or more horses since the main track’s reconfiguration in 2006, just two runners have won from the 11 post. Tough odds for anyone, let alone a prospective Kentucky Derby favorite.
On paper, no one else in the field comes close to Forte in terms of talent. The closest are Cyclone Mischief, who was well beaten by Forte while third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes; Fort Bragg, an intriguing California runner looking to clinch a spot in the Kentucky Derby; and Dubyuhnell, winner of last December’s Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct who laid an egg in his only other start since then, the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February.
But like Forte, they too occupy the outside posts. Every runner in the 1-8 posts has morning line odds of 10-1 or better.
Forte’s task in the Florida Derby will be a test of his talent and mettle, but the overall soft field means he should be able to pass it even with an outside trip; anything worse than a second-place effort from him would be concerning.
Fort Bragg looks like the only runner talented enough to beat Forte, but he was a well-beaten fifth in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park. The change of scenery should do Fort Bragg some good; he has no excuses to finish less than third in this field.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Derby is shaping up to be Reincarnate’s race to lose. A tough-luck third-place finisher in the Rebel Stakes last out, he demonstrated he has tactical speed; traditionally a front-runner, he broke slowly on the wet track but weaved his way from the back of the field under jockey John Velazquez to hit the board.
While Red Route One, the second-place Rebel finisher, figures to get plenty of attention from bettors, two shippers will likely be Reincarnate’s biggest threat: Rocket Can, runner-up to Forte in the Fountain of Youth Stakes; and Angel of Empire, the Risen Star Stakes winner.
Of the two threats to Reincarnate, Angel of Empire has the best chance of springing the upset. He’s improved and grown faster with every start, and his closing ability makes him a serious threat. A win or second-place showing will certainly drop his Derby Day odds.
Florida Derby picks: Forte, Fort Bragg, Jungfrau
Arkansas Derby picks: Reincarnate, Angel of Empire, Rocket Can
• Watch out for Two Phil’s, the dominant winner of the Jeff Ruby Steaks (sic) at Turfway Park on March 25. He demolished a soft field but ran fast on the synthetic track, garnering a Beyer speed figure of 101, the best of any horse on the Kentucky Derby trail thus far. Last year’s Jeff Ruby Steaks produced Rich Strike, who parlayed his third-place finish in the race into a shocking 81-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby. Two Phil’s has previous experience running at Churchill Downs, having won the Street Sense Stakes as a two-year-old last fall. Could be a wiseguy horse on the first Saturday in May.
• Kingsbarns clinched his spot in the Kentucky Derby with a front-running score in last Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. That stands out in a year where prep race front-runners have often collapsed in the last half-mile, and closers have dominated. Kingsbarns had it his own way, controlling the pace for the last seven furlongs of the contest and lulling most of the field to sleep — including Instant Coffee, who turned out too weak for Derby contention. It’s hard to imagine Kingsbarns getting anything close to a soft opening pace in the Kentucky Derby, but he’s got a shot at wiring the field if he somehow manages to control the tempo like he did last week. The only other Louisiana Day runner positioned to win the Kentucky Derby, however, is Disarm, the fast-closing runner-up. Consider that Disarm is owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds, trained by Steve Asmussen and ridden by Joel Rosario — the same connections behind Epicenter, last year’s Louisiana Derby winner who finished a tough-luck second in the Kentucky Derby. Maybe they’re destined for redemption on Derby Day 2023 after disappointment last year?
• Horses based in Japan have ruled the roost thus far in international racing. The two richest races in the world this year were won by Japanese-bred thoroughbreds: the Saudi Cup with Panthalassa and the Dubai World Cup with Ushba Tesoro. At least one Japanese horse figures to run in the Kentucky Derby this year: Derma Sotogake, the impressive winner of the UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup undercard on March 25. No horse bred in Japan has ever won the Kentucky Derby, and two such runners entered in last year’s Kentucky Derby — Crown Pride and Summer is Tomorrow — were soundly beaten. Derma Sotogake will go off at a big price, and the six-week turnaround from running in Dubai to Kentucky is often too difficult for most thoroughbreds to run at their best. Still, should Derma Sotogake repeat his UAE Derby performance at Churchill Downs, it might be enough continue Japan’s hot streak in major races across the globe.