amNY at the Track | Kentucky Derby trail looks very murky and incredibly slow

Kentucky Derby contender Hit Show
Hit Show, trained by Brad Cox, won the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 11, but only got a 91 Beyer speed figure in doing so.
Walter Wlodarczyk/NYRA

Welcome to the return of amNY at the Track, our weekly look at thoroughbred racing in and around New York City — from the Triple Crown trail to Saratoga, and beyond! 

The Kentucky Derby is still eight weeks away, but usually around this time, racing fans have a good idea about the quality of the generation of thoroughbreds vying to make the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

This year, it would seem that the quality of three-year-old colts running in the major Kentucky Derby prep races is not as good, nor as fast, as more recent generations have been. 

Anything can happen over the next eight weeks; maybe a superstar horse will emerge from the lot. But if three recent prep races are any indication, things aren’t looking very promising.

For starters, the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 was a wide-open affair, but the heavy favorite Cyclone Mischief was a well-beaten 7th behind the winner Rocket Can. The winner, however, didn’t exactly run everybody off their feet; Rocket Can put up a Beyer speed figure of 82 – the slowest Holy Bull winner in more than a decade.

A week later, Dubyunell, who decisively won the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct last November, ran a dud in the Feb. 11 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The winner of the race, Litigate, got a Beyer speed figure of just 77 – a performance so lackluster that the Daily Racing Form doesn’t even include Litigate in its weekly Derby Watch of the top 20 contenders.

Then on Feb. 18, the Risen Star Stakes at the New Orleans Fair Grounds saw the big favorite, Victory Formation, go down in ignominious defeat.

Angel of Empire won the race and gained 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, almost guaranteeing he’ll make the Derby starting gate – but his Risen Star performance earned him a dull 87 Beyer figure; by contrast, last year’s Risen Star champion, Epicenter, had a 98 Beyer figure.

Other Derby stakes winners have had similarly slow Beyer figures – including Withers Stakes winner Hit Show (91), El Camino Real Derby champion Chase the Chaos (83), and Lecomte Stakes winner Instant Coffee (92). 

Even though the Derby trail seems mired in mediocrity, there are a few rays of hope.

The brightest ray is Arabian Knight, who impressed in the Southwest Stakes with a dominant victory on a sloppy Oaklawn Park track in just his second career start. Arabian Knight, now trained by Tim Yakteen after being transferred from Churchill Downs persona non grata Bob Baffert, won the Southwest with a 97 Beyer figure, and flashed near-unlimited potential.

Another ray of hope comes in the form of Forte, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and two-year-old champion, who makes his 3-year-old debut on March 5 in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt showed superstar potential in his juvenile career, and according to DRF, has been training well in the weeks leading up to his return to the races.

And, despite their slow performances early on the Derby trail, three Brad Cox-trained horses who’ve won prep races thus far – Angel of Empire, Hit Show and Instant Coffee – have tremendous upside. In their victories, each of them exhibited signs that they can get the classic Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles — a trait that isn’t always common for the modern thoroughbred.

This Saturday, Feb. 25, another Derby contender will emerge at Oaklawn Park in the $1 million Rebel Stakes. Cox has two more potential Derby prospects in Verifying, the morning line favorite at 2-1, and Giant Mischief, the second choice at 5-2.

Reincarnate, who won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park for Baffert and is now trained by Yakteen, could solidify himself as a serious Derby threat with a Rebel score. 

With any luck, someone from the Rebel field will emerge as a genuine contender. Of course, nobody’s expecting a Secretariat to emerge from that race, or any Derby prep, for that matter.

But so far this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s historic Triple Crown sweep in 1973, no horse has even pretended to move “like a tremendous machine.” Hopefully, racing fans will get to see more than one speedy Derby contender who’ll add some excitement to the Derby trail.

Kentucky Derby top 10
Odds courtesy of Churchill Downs