amNY at the Track | Five Kentucky Derby contenders with something to prove in last prep races

Raise Cain wins Gotham Stakes on road to Kentucky Derby
Can Raise Cain improve off his Gotham Stakes victory in his next prep for the Kentucky Derby?
NYRA/Walter Wlodarczyk

Saturday marks the top of the stretch on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, with the first of the last few major prep races of the season.

Right now, there appears to be one clear threat to win the Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May: Forte, last year’s juvenile champion and Fountain of Youth Stakes winner in his first three-year-old start. He’ll get his last Kentucky Derby tuneup in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on April 1.

If Forte wins the Florida Derby with ease, he’ll likely be a huge favorite by the time he goes into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on May 6. His 3-1 odds in the Kentucky Derby Future Pool 5 will look like a steal.

But bettors are going to be looking hard over the next three weeks to find a horse who might get the better of Forte in the Kentucky Derby, and go off at a great price to boot. A few horses on the trail have a chance to emerge as Forte’s prime threat with a big step up in any of the upcoming prep races.

Here are five horses with a chance to prove something heading to Louisville.

Instant Coffee, Louisiana Derby, March 25

It’s do-or-die time for Instant Coffee, the Brad Cox-trained colt who won his last two stakes starts: the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last November, and the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January. Though he looked impressive in both races, he wasn’t all that “espresso” — running well enough to win, but not exactly blowing the field away.

Instant Coffee needs to win or finish second in the Louisiana Derby to clinch his spot in the Kentucky Derby, but he also needs to demonstrate a little more perkiness. He must improve on his career-best 92 Beyer speed figure in the Lecomte by at least five points just to get into the range of keeping up with Forte.

Reincarnate, Arkansas Derby, April 1

As we said before, Reincarnate is poised for a big performance after a strong third-place finish in a Rebel Stakes where almost nothing went his way.

The Tim Yakteen colt proved in the Rebel that he can run on a sloppy track and has tactical speed; after breaking slow from the gate, he got a great ride under John Velazquez, who saved ground and wove his way from the back of the pack to get the show spot.

A convincing win in the Arkansas Derby will make him a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender, and possibly the second choice behind Forte.

Hit Show, either the Arkansas Derby on April 1 or the Wood Memorial on April 8

Another Brad Cox-trained horse, Hit Show came off the tough Oaklawn Park circuit in Arkansas and put on a solid effort in winning Aqueduct’s Withers Stakes in February. He overcame a hot pace and drew away from tiring front runners, getting a 91 Beyer figure for the effort.

Clearly, Hit Show has the pedigree and the ability to run farther, and there’s no question he’ll get the classic distance. Like Instant Coffee, however, he needs another prep win, and a quicker one at that, to vault himself into serious contention for the Kentucky Derby.

Personally, Cox would be wise to avoid a tough Arkansas Derby field and keep Hit Show at Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial. He’ll likely be the favorite, and the horse to beat.

Angel of Empire, Arkansas Derby, April 1

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Another Brad Cox-trained horse that needs to pick up his feet in order to show he can contend for the roses in May.

Unlike Instant Coffee or Hit Show, Angel of Empire doesn’t necessarily need to win the Arkansas Derby. He’s got enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby field after his Risen Star Stakes victory in which he picked up the pieces and the victory away from a tired, front-running field.

But in winning the Risen Star, Angel of Empire didn’t demonstrate a lot of speed, garnering an 89 Beyer figure. That may have been good enough to win a Grade 2 race in Louisiana in February, but not enough to win the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby in May.

Again, Angel of Empire’s Derby chances would be greatly improved by hitting the board in the Arkansas Derby with a performance at least 8 points better than his Risen Star win.

Raise Cain, Wood Memorial or Blue Grass Stakes, April 8

Raise Cain shares some similarities with last year’s Kentucky Derby champion, Rich Strike. Both horses’ prep race resumes included efforts in the Gun Runner Stakes at the Fair Grounds and the Leonatus Stakes at Turfway Park, and their first graded stakes wins came from far back in the field – though Rich Strike’s victory in the Kentucky Derby was far more important than Raise Cain’s Gotham Stakes win.

Still, Raise Cain turned in a solid effort on a sloppy Aqueduct track, and he showed that he will likely relish a distance longer than one mile. The question is whether he can improve off the effort against a better field.

When he runs next time out, we’ll need to see Raise Cain raise the stakes — preferably with a faster effort on a fast track. Like Angel of Empire, it’s not a must-win situation for him — but it is a must-improve one.