The TDN Derby Top 12: Forte Crowns Himself The New Kingpin

A trio of graded stakes preps in Florida, California and New York yielded a reshuffled deck this past weekend as we edge within the two-month mark for the May 6 GI Kentucky Derby.

1) FORTE (c, Violence–Queen Caroline, by Blame) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Repole Stable & 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, 6-5-0-0, $1,833,230. Last start: Won GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Park Mar. 4. KY Derby Points: 90.

‘TDN Rising Star’ and juvenile champ Forte muscles into the top spot for the first time based on his overall, six-race body of work as much as the powerhouse performance he delivered when romping in his first sophomore start, the GII Fountain of Youth S.

If you liked his athletic, win-from-any-spot tactics and head-of-the-stretch blast-offs at age two, you had to love the way this son of Violence prowled around the short-stretch 1 1/16-mile configuration on Saturday, giving the impression he had the field at his mercy the entire trip while never being over-ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr.

From a numbers perspective, Forte’s 98 Beyer Speed Figure does represent a two-point regression from the 100 he earned when winning the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile four months ago. But the visual image of this colt soaring home while geared down and never fully extended should trump any by-the-numbers concerns about whether he’s moved forward since November.

Trainer Todd Pletcher had stated before the start of 2023 that Forte would likely take a two-prep path to Louisville, with the second race being either the GI Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream or the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland. Forte is now undefeated over both of those surfaces, lending an additional edge, although trainer Todd Pletcher told Daily Racing Form on Sunday that he is leaning toward the Florida Derby as his preference.

2) ARABIAN KNIGHT (c, Uncle Mo–Borealis Night, by Astrology) ‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Zedan Racing Stables, Inc.; B-Corser Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Tim Yakteen. Sales history: $250,000 Ylg ’21 KEESEP; $2,300,000 2yo ’22 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: GSW, 2-2-0-0, $544,275 Last start: 1st GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn Park, Jan. 28. KY Derby Points: 0.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Arabian Knight is one of three horses ranked within the Top 12 to have only two starts by the first week in March. But unlike the other two colts ranked deeper down the list, his whopping auction price ($2.3 million OBSAPR sales topper after initially selling for $250,000 at KEESEP), two scintillating wins and outsized public expectations will put quite a bit more pressure on him to win the Derby off a schedule that trainer Tim Yakteen said will only include one more prep.

The race spacing will be additionally unconventional, because if Arabian Knight starts next in either the GI Santa Anita Derby or the GI Arkansas Derby as expected, that will leave him with a base of just three lifetime races spread relatively far apart (November, January, April) before attempting 10 furlongs on the first Saturday in May.

The question will come down to whether his raw talent can overcome what looks like a very narrow foundation. But right now, if you lined up the dozen horses on this list in the gate, you wouldn’t get much argument against Arabian Knight being the “speed of the speed.” And considering that speed-centric horses who raced either on the front end or just off it have won eight of the last nine Derbies, that trend tilts the tactical advantage in this colt’s favor.

After unseasonably wet weather delayed Arabian Knight’s training for more than 2 1/2 weeks, he was back on the Santa Anita work tab Saturday for the first time since Feb. 13, with a five-eighths move clocked in :59.20 (3/71).

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: 3-2-0-1, $100,150. Last start: 1st GP Allowance/Optional Claiming, Feb, 4. KY Derby Points: 0

   ‘TDN Rising Star’ Tapit Trice looms as the legit favorite when entries get drawn on Wednesday for Saturday’s GIII Tampa Bay Derby.

This $1.3 million KEESEP son of Tapit brings an upward- trending 73-87-92 Beyer progression into his first two-turn try after eye-catching wins in two of three one-turn-miles at Aqueduct and Gulfstream. But he’ll have to come off Lasix (used once, in his most recent Feb 4. Start) as he ventures into stakes company for the first time.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Tampa Derby five times, and it’s also of note that despite having two horses ranked on this list who have already won over the Tampa surface this meet (Nos. 10 and 11), he is instead aiming them both for the GII Louisiana Derby in deference to sending Tapit Trice to Tampa.

Luis Saez, who has ridden Tapit Trice only once–in the colt’s most recent start–will be aboard. To keep the mount, Saez had to make the difficult decision to vacate the same-day call this coming Saturday aboard the returning GI Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath (Arrogate) in Oaklawn’s GII Azeri S., a filly he has ridden in her last six races.

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

Practical Move ($90,000 RNA KEESEP; $230,000 OBSAPR) executed the biggest leapfrog of the season by emphatically winning Saturday’s GII San Felipe S., going from unranked to No. 4 on this list.

Have to admit I wasn’t initially wowed by his 10-1 win in the Dec. 17 GII Los Alamitos Futurity (88 Beyer) because that race gave off an aberrational vibe–the 2-5 favorite abruptly dropped back and finished last after an ideal stalking trip, and this son of Practical Joke scooted up the inside to pass a drifting, tiring pacemaker. But three months later, we saw a sturdier, more confident colt who looked dialed in the entire trip.

After minor brushing and bumping leaving the gate, jockey Ramon Vazquez carved out a sweet stalking spot, and Practical Move was unbothered by a rank horse to his outside on the first turn before responding to a rating hold, biding his time behind legit splits. He edged up incrementally to jointly attain second, but on the far bend, Practical Move was briefly hemmed in with nowhere to go at the fence and he lost momentum for several strides, regressing to fourth.

Vazquez remained patient and committed to his spot, and when the tired pacemaker drifted out to the four path at the quarter pole, Practical Move quickened on cue to win by 2 1/2 lengths with another inside stretch run (100 Beyer). This one, though, looked stronger and better composed than his previous winning move.

There have been 15 Derby qualifying stakes at 1 1/16 miles on dirt so far in 2022-23. Practical Move now owns the two fastest clockings–1:41.65 in the Los Al Futurity and 1:42.10 in the San Felipe.

5) GEAUX ROCKET RIDE (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Beyond Grace, 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: 2-1-1-0, $120,200. Last Start: Second in the GII San Felipe S. at Santa Anita Mar. 4. Kentucky Derby Points: 20

Geaux Rocket Ride broke running and hounded the pacemaker through brisk fractions nearly every step of the trip in the San Felipe S. on Saturday. Despite having to shift inward and off the heels of tiring leaders at the head of the homestretch, this $350,000 FTKJUL son of Candy Ride (Arg) still finished resolutely at the rail to end up 2 1/2 lengths behind winner Practical Move and 1 1/4 lengths ahead of the third-place horse.

He was credited with a 96 Beyer for his stakes and two-turn debut, four points higher than his blitzing MSW win over six furlongs back on Jan. 29.

Trainer Richard Mandella told Daily Racing Form on Sunday that the Santa Anita Derby is likely next. “On the path we’re talking [about], everything would have to be perfect, but he’s a pretty good horse,” the understated Hall-of-Fame conditioner said.

6) ROCKET CAN (c, Into Mischief–Tension, by Tapit) O-Frank Fletcher Racing Operations Inc.; B-Woodford Thoroughbreds LLC (KY); T-Bill Mott. Sales history: $245,000 RNA Ylg ’21 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: 6-2-2-0, $326,538. Last Start: Second GII Fountain of Youth S. Mar. 4. KY Derby Points: 40

This Into Mischief gray ($245,000 FTSAUG RNA) broke fluidly from post seven in the Fountain of Youth S., conceded the lead, then was a close-up fourth while three wide into the clubhouse turn. He methodically kept advancing his position while tucked between rivals on the backstretch, then was second out from the rail when the field fanned out four across the track at the top of the stretch.

Rocket Can got a touch tired but never stopped grinding away, and although no one in that stakes was in the same league as the winner, Forte, this colt landed second while upping his GIII Holy Bull S. winning Beyer by nine points, from 82 to 91.

“It was a good trip. I ended up where I wanted to be,” said jockey Junior Alvarado. “The only thing was on the backside we were putting a little bit of pressure. From [:24.05] the first part we had to speed it up to [:23.60] the second quarter. Normally we do that the other way around, but he was there.

“Every time I ride him, he’s a different horse in the post parade, a different dimension. We’re trying to figure it out. I just think he hasn’t matured yet. He comes here and he’s very playful. I don’t think he’s put it all together. I take that as a good thing. Hopefully when he puts it together we can gain a few more lengths,” Alvarado said.

7) RED ROUTE ONE (c, Gun Runner–Red House, by Tapit) O/B-Winchell Thoroughbreds, LLC (Ky); T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: GISP, 7-1-2-1, $492,575. Last Start: 2nd in Feb. 25 GII Rebel S. Kentucky Derby Points: 33.

Red Route One still has to work on his lead-changing skills and he drops frighteningly far back off the pace. He’s also never won on dirt. But you can see flashes that this still-learning chestnut “gets it” based on his last two races, which were runner-up efforts behind the Nos. 1 and 9 horses on this list in January and February stakes on the Oaklawn prep path.

With seven starts, experience over varied types of wet and dry footing, and a fairly obvious “longer-the-better” development arc, trainer Steve Asmussen said after the GII Rebel S. that Red Route One might try the 1 3/16-mile GII Louisiana Derby in his next race.

A Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred by Gun Runner out of a full-sister to Untapable, he’s already racked up enough points to be seventh on the qualifying list. So long as he keeps coming close in major stakes, Red Route One wouldn’t even have to win a sophomore prep to emerge as a plausible long shot in Louisville.

Like any deep closer, he’d be at the mercy of the pace and the luck of the trip. But it’s not too hard to envision this colt getting completely ignored in the Derby betting, building momentum from far back, and storming down the Churchill Downs stretch with abandon at something like 40-1.

8) INSTANT COFFEE (c, Bolt d’Oro–Follow No One, by Uncle Mo) O-Gold Square LLC; B-Sagamore Farm (Ky); T-Brad Cox. Sales history: $200,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 4-3-0-0, $442,815. Last Start: Won Jan. 21 GIII Lecomte S. at Fair Grounds. Kentucky Derby Points: 33.

Instant Coffee has put together a commendable four-race progression that includes a win sprinting seven furlongs at Saratoga first time out at 14-1 odds, plus two scores over 1 1/16 miles in which he’s taken the overland route from far back to win as the favorite in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. and the GIII Lecomte S.

Nestled in between his maiden victory and those stakes tallies is a fourth-place try in the GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity S. that shouldn’t be overlooked, because that Keeneland stakes was the deepest, most productive 2-year-old race from last autumn (five next-out winners, including four in stakes).

This son of Bolt d’Oro ($200,000 KEESEP) will next target the Louisiana Derby, and you’d think the long Fair Grounds stretch would benefit his off-the-tailgate style.

But just two preps at age three? From 2017 through 2022, horses with only two sophomore starts prior to the Kentucky Derby are a collective 0-for-34. However, that two-at-three template worked much better over the previous decade, producing eight Derby winners between 2007 and 2016.

9) CONFIDENCE GAME (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Eblouissante, by Bernardini) O-Don’t Tell My Wife Stables; B-Summer Wind Equine, LLC (Ky); T-J K Desormeaux. Sales history: $25,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-3-1-2, $785,525. Last Start:  Won Feb. 25 GII Rebel S. at OP. Kentucky Derby Points: 57.

What a great story line it’ll be if an unheralded colt with a royal pedigree makes it into the gate for the Derby. Confidence Game, the 18-1 upsetter of the Rebel S., cost just $25,000 as a late-sale KEESEP bargain despite his dam, Eblouissante (Bernardini), being ‘TDN Rising Star’ half-sister to Hall-of-Famer Zenyatta (Street Cry {Ire}).

Beyond the underdog appeal, let’s not forget that blue-collar steals been very real Derby threats in recent years. Three of the last four horses to cross the finish wire first in the Derby were sold (or offered for sale) comparatively cheap: the DQ’d Maximum Security in 2019 (ran for a $16,000 maiden-claiming tag); the DQ’d-but-under-appeal Medina Spirit in 2021 (sold for $1,000 and then $35,000 at auction), and Rich Strike in 2022 (claimed for $30,000 at age two).

This efficient-striding son of Candy Ride (Arg) capitalized off an ideal speed setup for his 94-Beyer Oaklawn victory, and you can expect handicappers will hold that against him next time out. They will argue that Confidence Game had everything his own way, pace-wise, then benefitted from taking a wide path to victory while the inside contenders were mired in a muddy traffic jam.

Those skeptics just might be right. But this is what overachievers do–they exceed expectations when odds are stacked against them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Confidence Game has another big race in him yet.

10) KINGSBARNS (c, Uncle Mo–Lady Tapit, by Tapit) O-Spendthrift Farm LLC; B-Parks Investment Group LLC (Ky); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $250,000 Ylg ’21 FTSAUG; $800,000 2yo ’22 FTFMAR. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $57,300. Last start: Won allowance/optional claimer at Tampa Feb. 12. KY Derby points: 0

Kingsbarns ($250,000 FTSAUG; $800,000 FTFMAR) energetically tracked a hot pace in his one-turn-mile debut at Gulfstream Jan. 14 as the 3-1 favorite. This son of Uncle Mo was “on hold” but not bothered by being covered up at the rail in tight quarters on the turn, then got boxed and blocked even worse at the top of the stretch before punching through with a professional late run that resulted in a 1 3/4-length victory (74 Beyer).

Next time out on Feb. 12, trainer Todd Pletcher spotted him in a mile and 40 yards first-level allowance at Tampa, and Kingsbarns conceded a long lead to an intemperate 37-1 shot who quickly backpedaled through the pack. Kingsbarns dispatched him with ease and fended off all comers to draw away by 7 3/4 easy lengths (85 Beyer).

This colt doesn’t have a flashy way of going and his speed numbers aren’t eye-popping. But he has a level-headed, adaptable approach and a measure of confidence that should aid his chances as the competition toughens and the distances increase. The Louisiana Derby is next.

11) LITIGATE (c, Blame–Salsa Diavola, by Mineshaft) O-Centennial Farms; B-Nursery Place, Donaldson & Broadbent (Ky); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales history: $370,000 yrl ’21 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 3-2-1-0, $182,590. Last Start: Won Feb. 11 GIII Sam F. Davis S. Kentucky Derby Points: 20.

Litigate’s 1 1/4-length win in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. at Tampa looks slow based on his 77 Beyer and :7.05 final sixteenth, but those numbers don’t reflect that the race was run under sudden downpour conditions even though the track remained rated “fast” for the Equibase chart.

This $370,000 KEESEP colt by Blame broke well but Luis Saez opted not to engage the leaders through a :46.94 half-mile. Litigate had good far-turn punch, but did require aggressive handling through the lane to sustain his bid ahead of two longshot closers.

Next up is the Louisiana Derby.

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

Slip Mahoney was slow from the gate in the one-turn-mile GIII Gotham S., had to be ridden cautiously to steer clear of a loose horse, dropped far behind through a quick :45.53 half-mile, then unwound with a prolonged far-turn bid.

But this $150,000 KEESEP gray still had only one horse beaten at the top of the stretch in a field of 14. Fanned way out wide in the 11 path, he dug in under Trevor McCarthy, uncorking a furious late rally that earned second under the wire behind a 7 1/2-length, 23-1 upsetter Raise Cain (Violence).

Trainer Brad Cox said he “never expected him to be that far back” and that “hopefully he gets a little better trip and a little better position” when he goes next in the GII Wood Memorial Apr. 8.

The added furlong should suit this colt, with stout A.P. Indy and Seattle Slew influences anchoring the bottom of his pedigree. His dam, Got Lucky, was a six-time victress with all of her wins at a mile or longer, the most prominent being a nine-furlong score in the 2015 GI Juddmonte Spinster S. at Keeneland.

Owner Al Gold’s stable, Gold Square Racing, now has two contenders with the Top 12, as New York-stabled Slip Mahoney joins the New Orleans-based Instant Coffee.

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