TDN Derby Top 12: Final Fireworks Before the Caravan Rolls On

We’re approaching the edge of the GI Kentucky Derby abyss. Three final 100-points prep races Saturday, followed by four weeks of microscopic analysis and animated speculation. Bring it on!

1) FORTE (c, Violence–Queen Caroline, by Blame) ‘TDN Rising
Star‘. O-Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable; B-South Gate Farm (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $80,000 Wlg ’20 KEENOV; $110,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt, MGISW, 7-6-0-0, $1,833,230. Last start: 1st GI Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream Apr. 1. Kentucky Derby Points: 190.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Forte has made it through his two-race prep campaign still perched atop the Top 12. But it’s now an open question as to how strong his grip is, considering the scare he gave backers at 3-10 odds when flying home with a belated rush to nail the GI Curlin Florida Derby by a length.

What we saw was an athlete so far ahead of his peers, that, even though he was tactically disavdantaged by leaving himself so much work to do, Forte was able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat without fully extending himself. A few desperate moments for sure, but no true panic.

Still, the not-fully-cranked Florida Derby win exposed vulnerabilities. Forte registered a 100 Beyer Speed Figure when he won the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he regressed to a 98 when winning the GII Fountain of Youth S. That number dipped again, to 95, in the Florida Derby. If you’re an improving divisional champion and formidbale Derby favorite, those Beyers should be going in the opposite direction.

Forte is a stalker at his best and a very capable closer from farther back when circumstances dictate. But the Derby has not recently been kind to horses who make sustained far-turn moves. In eight of the last nine Derbies, the first horse under the wire has raced either on the lead or just off it. Forte will be up against the grain of that winning profile in 4 1/2 weeks.

Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., said he had to resort to Plan B when Forte couldn’t clear the field into the first turn in the Florida Derby like he thought he would. Ortiz had to urge the champ before settling into a more rhythmic beat down the backstretch.

Forte edged up incrementally, but still looked beaten at the five-sixteenths pole. He hesitated momentarily before responding nimbly to Ortiz’s hand commands off the turn, and it took mild left-handed encouragement and the length of the stretch to reel in his target in measured fashion.

Yet Forte finished with his ears pricked after making the lead in the final few jumps to the wire, a subtle, positive sign that he can handle more.

2) PRACTICAL MOVE (c, Practical Joke–Ack Naughty, by AfleetAlex) O-Leslie & Pierre Jean Amestoy & Roger Beasley; B-Chad Brown & Head of Plains Partners (KY); T-Tim Yakteen. Sales history: $90,000 RNA yrl ’21 KEESEP; $230,000 2yo ’22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 6-3-1-2, $434,200. Last Start: 1st GII San Felipe S. at Santa Anita Mar. 4. Kentucky Derby Points: 60.

Practical Move owns the two fastest final times among the 16 points-earning Derby qualifying stakes run at 1 1/16 miles in 2022-23. He ran 1:41.65 when winning the GII Los Alamitos Futurity and 1:42.01 when he tallied in the GII San Felipe S. For perspective, no other horses in that series of stakes have clocked below 1:43.06.

Based on how impressively this Tim Yakteen trainee orchestrated that San Felipe score, Practical Move seems well equipped to handle a stretch-out to nine furlongs and beyond.

Inside runs have evolved as the strong suit for this son of Practical Joke, who has enough tactical speed to stay in touch with brisk paces and enough late-race oomph to see his jobs through.

Should he win Saturday’s GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby while putting up a second consecutive triple-digit Beyer, Practical Move would head to Louisville with a touch of swagger–and maybe enough gravitas to challenge Forte for favoritism.

3) TAPIT TRICE (c, Tapit–Danzatrice, by Dunkirk) ‘TDN Rising
Star‘. O-Whisper Hill Farm LLC and Gainesway Stable (Antony Beck); B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds Ltd. (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $1,300,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 4-3-0-1, $100,150. Last start: 1st GIII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs Mar. 11. KY Derby Points: 50.

Tapit Trice will headline the field when entries are drawn Wednesday for the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland. This Todd Pletcher-trained gray is on a roll with three straight victories following a very useful third in his Nov. 6 debut.

This colt himself probably doesn’t need much shoring up in terms of confidence. But bettors leaning toward backing this son of Tapit in the Kentucky Derby are going to want more assurance he can get out of the gate capably.

Tapit Trice has been lethargic off the mark in all four lifetime starts. Yet his raw talent, assertive nature, and ability to reliably fire down the lane have been enough to overcome any self-imposed disadvantages so far.

The Kentucky Derby is going to be different. The multiple waves of attackers will definitely not be of the lower-caliber variety like those Tapit Trice manhandled in the GIII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. The desperate image of jockey Luis Saez imploring Tapit Trice for run at multiple points in that race still resonates, even though the result was a win.

These lead-in stakes to the Derby are called “preps” for a reason. Tapit Trice is safely 11th with 50 points on the Derby leaderboard.

Still, a Blue Grass victory with a more adept start would go a long way toward solidifying his status as a major threat in Louisville.

4) GEAUX ROCKET RIDE (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–BeyondGrace, by Uncle Mo) O-Pin Oak Stud LLC; B-OXO Equine LLC (KY); T-Richard Mandella. Sales history: $350,000 yrl ’21 FTKJUL. Lifetime Record: GSP, 2-1-1-0, $120,200. Last Start: 2nd GII San Felipe S. at Santa Anita Mar. 4. Kentucky Derby Points: 20.

Geaux Rocket Ride, celebrating his third birthday Apr. 4, will enter Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby stretching out from a 92-Beyer sprint debut win and a very encouraging 96-Beyer, pace-pressing second in the 1 1/16-miles San Felipe S.

Trainer Richard Mandella told Daily Racing From last week this son of Candy Ride must either win or “have a good reason for not winning” to merit an attempt in the Kentucky Derby.

That pragmatic approach underscores why the Hall of Fame conditioner rarely makes the trip to Louisville unless he’s confident he has a colt with a realistic shot.

Should he win Saturday, Geaux Rocket Ride will head to Kentucky with a perfect 3-for-3 record. Comparisons to recent 3-for-3 Derby winners Justify (2018) and Big Brown (2008) would ensue. Who knows? Those lofty appraisals just might be warranted.

5) DISARM (c, Gun Runner–Easy Tap, by Tapit) ‘TDN RisingStar‘. O/B-Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: GSP, 4-1-2-1, $290,350. Last Start: 2nd GII Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds Mar. 25. Kentucky Derby Points: 40.

One metric certain to percolate over the next month is trainer Steve Asmussen’s 0-for-24 record in the Derby, a vexing statistical shadow that the Hall-of-Fame conditioner has publicly dealt with in good humor as that number has edged upward over the past several seasons.

Objectively though, his record has to be considered skewed by the large number of “just take a shot” Derby starters Asmussen has saddled over the decades.

When you drill down the list to Asmussen’s best-intended Derby entrants, none of them have ever been off the board. Curlin (third in 2007) and Gun Runner (third in 2016) later blossomed spectacularly despite not peaking on the first Saturday in May. And last year’s Derby fave, Epicenter, looked home free before an 80-1 shot relegated him to second in the final jumps.

This handsome, sturdy son of Gun Runner (out of a Tapit mare) won’t be a top-tier betting choice. He closed at 33-1 in Pool 6 of the Derby future wager last Saturday.

But look out for this ‘TDN Rising Star’ and Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred, who has put together two better-than-they-look routes since stretching out off an August  layoff. Both off-the-pace efforts were against the biases of speed-favoring tracks.

Disarm closed for second in a Feb. 19 Oaklawn allowance behind a wire-to-wire winner on an afternoon when horses racing on the lead or just off it won seven of nine races. And he was second (with minor trip trouble) in the Mar. 25 GII Louisiana Derby when trying to pull back another frontrunner who set a slow tempo on a day when 10 forwardly placed horses scored in 11 dirt races at Fair Grounds.

6) ANGEL OF EMPIRE (c, Classic Empire–Armony’s Angel, by To Honor And Serve) O-Albaugh Family Stables LLC; B-Forgotten Land Investment Inc & Black Diamond Equine Corp (PA); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $32,000 RNA wlg ’20 KEENOV, $70,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 6-4-1-0, $1,069,375. Last Start: 1st in the GI Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Apr. 1. Kentucky Derby Points: 154.

After a 94-Beyer win in the GI Arkansas Derby, Angel of Empire rates as the only Top 12 contender with two wins at nine furlongs.

Since starting this Pennsylvania-bred’s career at Horseshoe Indianapolis last summer, trainer Brad Cox has brought along this son of 2017 Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire in patient fashion, all the way praising Angel of Empire’s unruffled demeanor and keen mind.

“He’s not blessed with a tremendous amount of speed,” Cox said Sunday at Oaklawn. “He just kind of breaks. And he’s not void of speed, but he kind of finds his way and they get away from him a little bit. But he settles. He’s a very smart horse.”

While Angel of Empire’s late-run win in the GII Risen Star S. on Feb. 18 was aided by a pace meltdown, his no-nonsense score in the Arkansas Derby resonated more along the lines of him purposefully cracking the leader while blowing by the two favorites. A nicely torqued far-turn bid put him over the top at the quarter pole, then he freewheeled into another gear that didn’t suggest this colt was scraping bottom, stamina-wise.

It’s only a small sample of six races, but Angel of Empire’s final furlong at Oaklawn (:12.12) is the fastest so far among the 1 1/8-miles preps in 2022-23. He also closed into the second-fastest final furlong (:12.95) in the Risen Star.

7) TWO PHIL’S (c, Hard Spun–Mia Torri, by General Quarters)O-Patricia’s Hope LLC and Phillip Sagan; B-Phillip Sagan; T-Larry Rivelli. Sales History: $150,000 RNA Ylg ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 8-4-1-1, $683,450. Last start: 1st GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Mar. 25. Kentucky Derby Points: 123.

The company lines for Two Phil’s, the 101-Beyer winner of the GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks, upticked over the weekend when two horses who beat him in recent months–Angel of Empire and Forte–both won Grade I stakes.

If this Larry Rivelli trainee is being molded to follow the career path of his sire, Hard Spun, that would be a worthy aspiration. Hard Spun also won the version of Turfway’s premier stakes in 2007 (when the Jeff Ruby was known as the GII Lane’s End S. and run over Polytrack). That win vaulted Hard Spun to 2-3-4 finishes in the three Triple Crown races and a second-place try later that season in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Hard Spun carved out a reputation as a reliable, determined runner who could handle any type of distance or surface. Two Phil’s, with wins both sprinting and routing over fast dirt, slop, and now Tapeta, is similarly evolving as a colt who goes out and executes, no matter what assignment he is tasked with. He’s an overachiever who could make an outsized impact in the Derby.

8) MAGE (c, Good Magic–Puca, by Big Brown) O-OGMA Investments, LLC, Ramiro Restrepo, Sterling Racing LLC and CMNWLTH; B-Grandview Equine (KY); T-Gustavo Delgado. Sales history: $235,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP; $290,000 2yo ’22 EASMAY. Lifetime Record: GISP, 3-1-1-0, $247,200. Last Start: 2nd GI Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream Apr. 1. Kentucky Derby Points: 50.

Mage is an eye-catching chestnut, but he sparks interest as a Kentucky Derby “dark horse” after his last-to-first slingshot move on the far turn of the Florida Derby. The only foe capable of running him down was the vastly more experienced divisional kingpin, Forte.

Mage broke toward the back and was slow to settle on the first turn, eventually dropping out last. Jockey Luis Saez didn’t rush him, and instead let Mage find his stride, coaxing the colt to uncoil 4 1/2 furlongs out.

A commanding burst of acceleration in the five path gave Mage an unexpected far-turn jump on Forte, who had yet to ramp up into a higher gear. That big move might have been a tad premature, but it propelled Mage to the lead at the head of the homestretch. And once he hit the front he confidently repulsed a long drive from another better-seasoned colt, the third-place finisher Cyclone Mischief (Into Mischief). Mage yielded to the more powerful Forte in the final strides, but held second without quitting.

“He might have gotten tired but, remember, it’s still his third race,” said assistant trainer Gustavo Delgado, Jr. “How many races did it take for Forte to get to the level he is?”

9) KINGSBARNS (c, Uncle Mo–Lady Tapit, by Tapit) O-Spendthrift Farm; B-Parks Investment Group (KY); Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $250,000 yrl ’21 FTSAR; $800,000 2yo ’22 FTMAR. Lifetime Record: 3-3-0-0, $657,300. Last Start: 1st GII Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds Mar. 25. Kentucky Derby Points: 100.

The 3-for-3 Kingsbarns, who wired the GII Louisiana Derby in his most recent start, got pounded to 11-1 second favoritism in Pool 6 of the Derby future wager that closed last Saturday.

Although the prospect of an undefeated colt is always tantalizing, that mutuel seems underlaid with respect to what price Kingsbarns will actually be on Derby day.

The plot for this Uncle Mo colt also thickened over the weekend in terms of who will ride him in the Derby. With the win by Angel of Empire in the Arkansas Derby, jockey Flavien Prat now has potentially competing calls aboard last-race winners Kingsbarns, Angel of Empire and Geaux Rocket Ride.

10) SLIP MAHONEY (c, Arrogate–Got Lucky, by A.P. Indy) O-Gold Square LLC; B-Hill ‘n’ Dale Equine Holdings & Philip Steinberg (KY); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $150,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSP, 4-1-2-0, $126,100. Last Start: 2nd in GIII Gotham S. at Aqueduct Mar 4. Kentucky Derby Points: 20.

It was a nice bit of value handicapping if you locked in 130-1 odds on the vastly overlooked Slip Mahoney in Pool 6 of the Derby future wager that closed Apr. 1.

This Arrogate colt out of an A.P. Indy mare is bred to run all day. He exits a dismal trip when second and closing with a big rush over a muddy track in the GIII Gotham S., and is likely going to be the favorite or second choice in the GII Wood Memorial S. this Saturday (entries Wednesday). Should he run big at Aqueduct, that juicy futures ticket could represent roughly five to seven times his starting price come Derby day.

This $150,000 KEESEP colt has only won once, but Slip Mahoney’s first two losses at the MSW level came at the expense of No. 3-ranked Tapit Trice and the formerly Top 12-ranked Litigate (Blame), who subsequently won the GIII Davis S. at Tampa, but is now off the Derby trail.

Note that the Gotham (and Slip Mahoney) got a boost this past Saturday when the fourth-place finisher out of that one-turn mile, Eyeing Clover (Lookin At Lucky), came back to win Oaklawn’s $200,000 Hot Springs S.

11) HIT SHOW (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Actress, by Tapit) O/B-Gary & Mary West (KY); T-Brad Cox. Lifetime Record: GSW, 4-3-0-0, $126,100. Last Start: 1st in GIII Withers S. at Aqueduct Feb. 11. Kentucky Derby Points: 20.

Hit Show, a Candy Ride (Arg) colt who won’t technically turn three until three days after the Derby, has Saturday’s Wood Memorial circled as his chance to leapfrog into Derby relevancy from his current 27th spot on the qualifying list.

A homebred for Gary and Mary West, Hit Show has already won over nine furlongs, having scored in the GII Withers. S. at Aqueduct back on Feb. 11. He made a rail run to gradually grind down the leader with incremental, focused gain. No one was firing at him in the stretch, so he was able to pad his lead inside the final furlong to open up by 5 1/2 lengths at the wire.

Coming off an eight-week layoff, he’ll spar for favoritism in the Wood with fellow Brad Cox stablemate Slip Mahoney while trying to add to an ascending Beyer pattern of 60-71-82-91 from four lifetime starts.

12) REINCARNATE (c, Good Magic–Allanah, by Scat Daddy)O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert Masterson, Stonestreet Stables LLC, Jay Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital LLC & Catherine Donovan; B-Woods Edge Farm (KY); Tim Yakteen. Sales history: $775,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-2-3-1, $231,900. Last Start: 3rd in the
GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn Feb. 25. Kentucky Derby Points: 15.

Reincarnate had a no-excuse stalking trip in the Arkansas Derby, forcing the issue on the front end. He was second and bearing down on a sacrificial speedster, but Angel of Empire blasted off to his outside turning for home and this colt never mustered any true response to match that winning move. Reincarnate held on for third.

Right now he’s ranked 13th for eligibility with 45 qualifying points. Expectations were high going into the Arkansas Derby because Reincarnate had persevered through a difficult trip when third in the GII Rebel S., and he figured to be rounding into the type of Derby contender who might be dangerous because of his lead-seeking tendencies and long, strong stride.

This $775,000 KEESEP grad has never been off the board from seven starts, all at a mile or longer. But his most promising effort (a 95-Beyer GIII Sham S. win back on Jan. 8) is now three months in the rearview mirror. A turnaround is not out of the question, but Reincarnate must aim for several notches of improvement without the benefit of positive last-race momentum.

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