Picture: Angel of Empire won the Arkansas Derby and is one of the horses to beat in the Kentucky Derby. (Coady Photography)
The 149th running of the $3 million Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve drew a field of 20, plus three also-eligibles which may run if any of the first 20 withdraw by 9 a.m. ET on the morning of Friday, May 5. This is what happened in 2022, allowing eventual upset winner Rich Strike to run.
Angel of Empire ticks all the boxes to be a win contender in this year’s Kentucky Derby. In the first race of his career back in August 2022, Angel of Empire showed a lot of talent by winning at the distance of one mile on dirt and around two-turns, which is no easy task as horses normally need to work up to a race of a mile or more with a shorter one-turn race first. After a totally irrelevant race where he tried running on grass, Angel of Empire returned to the dirt and dominated by 6 1/4 lengths over the runner-up. Next tried in a stakes race for the first time this past January, Angel of Empire finished second, once more at a mile. When asked to run a mile and one-eighth for the first time in February in the important Risen Star Stakes, Angel of Empire showed a big burst of speed when making up four lengths with a quarter mile to run, also going from seventh to third while racing wide on the far turn, then was drawing off at the end to win by a length. Bettering that once more in the Arkansas Derby on April 1, Angle of Empire once again showed a tremendous response when asked to quicken his stride as he went from sixth with a quarter mile to run, three lengths behind the leader, to first within an eighth of a mile, then drew off by 4 1/4 lengths. That fast acceleration on the turn occurred while the colt was racing four paths wide as well. Throughout his three year old campaign, Angel of Empire has run faster, as evidenced by Equibase Speed Figures (which normalize for things we can’t see) of 80, then 92, then 96, then a 106 figure which is the highest (fastest) last-race North American figure in the field. A quick burst of speed like the one this colt possesses is often the key to Kentucky Derby success as it allows a horse to move by many horses in a short time on the far turn, at the same time many are figuratively hitting the wall. Getting in front in the stretch in the Derby with that kind of acceleration can make it difficult for other horses to pass in the late stages and that could be the key to Angel of Empire succeeding in the 149th Kentucky Derby. Angel of Empire is trained by Brad Cox, who also trains Hit Show, Jace’s Road and Verifying. Cox trained Mandaloun and Essential Quality, who finished second and fourth, respectively, in the 2021 Derby (Mandaloun was later awarded the win via disqualification).
Tapit Trice lost the very first race of his career back in November and is undefeated in four races since then. Like Angel of Empire, Tapit Trice has improved in his last few races, going from a 96 figure in February, to 98, then to 103 in his most recent race. That recent win came in the Blue Grass Stakes and in that race Tapit Trice showed a lot of mental toughness as he had to battle head-and-head with Verifying for the length of the stretch. At one point during that battle Verifying was in front by a head but Tapit Trice refused to yield and prevailed. Although that effort didn’t show the quick acceleration Angel of Empire displayed in the Arkansas Derby, Tapit Trice did demonstrate a big burst of speed one race before last in March when winning the Grade 3 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, in which he moved from eighth to first in the final eighth of a mile. Just like Angel of Empire, Tapit Trice is on a pattern of improvement which suggests he can peak in this race and that makes him a formidable contender. Tapit Trice is trained by Todd Pletcher, who won the 2010 Derby with Super Saver and the 2017 Derby with Always Dreaming. Pletcher also saddles two other contenders in Forte and Kingsbarns.
Forte will likely enter the gate for the 149th Kentucky Derby as the betting favorite and for good reason as he has won six of seven career races including five in a row. He scored a 100 on every test starting with the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes last summer, then the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and Fanduel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance last fall. Given three months off to grow up physically, Forte returned in March as if he had never been away from the races when easily winning the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes by four lengths. Next, Forte then won the Florida Derby in April. The 102 speed figure Forte earned last October in the Futurity, followed by a 105 figure in the Breeders’ Cup, were exceptional for a 2-year-old, so it was a bit of a happy surprise when he returned with a 106 figure effort in the Fountain of Youth. It was not a surprise, and of no real concern, when Forte earned a 104 figure in the Florida Derby because historically horses can run just a tad slower in their last prep before the Kentucky Derby and still win, as occurred with Derby winners I’ll Have Another, California Chrome and eventual Triple Crown winner Justify. Similar to the late kick Tapit Trice demonstrated in the Tampa Bay Derby, Forte put in a big kick in the stretch of the Florida Derby when going from fifth to win by a length in the final eighth of a mile. Although I am ranking Forte slightly below Angel of Empire and Tapit Trice on my list of win contenders, this is only due to the tremendous talent and strength among this year’s Derby field.
Derma Sotogake is one of two likely Derby entrants who were born and raised in Japan. He is a grandson of 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence, who was sold to Japanese interests in 1991 and who has become one of the dominant sires in that country. Now Sunday Silence is a grandsire, and his genes continue to create great horses. Derma Sotogake won a very important race in Japan last November at the distance of one mile and one eighth, on the same week Forte won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at one mile and one sixteenth. Derma Sotogake ended his 2-year-old season by beating 13 other horses then took three months off to mature. Shipped to Saudi Arabia, Derma Sotogake finished third of 13 in the $1.5 million Saudi Derby then one month later when sent to Dubai the colt crushed a field of 13 in the United Arab Emirates Derby. In that race Derma Sotogake established the lead from the start and after taking on some challengers early drew off to win by five lengths while geared down in the final stages, earning a very strong 116 figure in the process. Although he led from the start in that race, Derma Sotogake put in a very strong late kick to win his final start of 2022 so it appears no matter the pace scenario in the Derby this colt could be a big threat to succeed.
Kingsbarns, yet another Todd Pletcher trainee, is one of the most lightly raced horses in the field, having run just three times. He’s undefeated to date and it must be noted that among 34 horses to enter the gate in the Kentucky Derby undefeated, nine exited the gate in the same fashion. That warrants tremendous respect, as does the fact Kingsbarns won the first two races of his career while sitting in third or fourth position early, while in his most recent victory in the Louisiana Derby, he led from start to finish and didn’t give any of the other 11 competitors a chance in the stretch while coasting to an easy win. Even though the time was slower than average, the fact is that Kingsbarns actually ran faster in the last eighth of a mile than many of the other entrants in this year’s Derby and that’s notable. Having improved from an 84 figure in his debut to 100 figures in his last two races, and being as lightly raced as he is, there is a lot of upside for Kingsbarns to take a big leap forward and to post a mild upset to win this year’s Derby.
Skinner rounds out the group of six that I feel have the best chance to win, but he appears less probable than any of the previous five mentioned. However, his high odds will make up for that, so don’t hesitate to bet him given the return potential for the risk. Unlike the previous five contenders I talked about, Skinner hasn’t won any of the fall or spring prep races for the Derby, and he was not scheduled to ship from trainer John Shirreffs home base in California unless one more of the main 20 horse likely to run withdrew from consideration, which happened earlier this week. Shirreffs saddled Giacomo to a $102 payoff winning the 2005 Derby. Giacomo had finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby prior to the upset win and similarly Skinner finished third in the 2023 Santa Anita Derby in his most recent race. Although Skinner has just one win to his credit in six lifetime races, only the three this year are notable, and in those races, he’s run faster and faster, from a 94 speed figure in February (following four months off), to 103, then to 104. So, although the third-place finish isn’t as good as the wins the top five contenders all have coming into this race, the 104 figure compares favorably with the 100 to 106 figures as those other horses. Skinner is a son of Curlin, who finished third in the 2007 Derby, and whose son Good Magic finished second in the 2018 Derby. With the breeding to run the Derby distance of a mile and one-quarter and with a bit of a pattern similar to the trainer’s huge upset in the 2005 Derby, Skinner is an interesting longshot we may want to bet so we are not found kicking ourselves after the race has been run.
The rest of the Kentucky Derby field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures is Confidence Game (104), Continuar (102), Cyclone Mischief (101), Disarm (95), Hit Show (99), Jace’s Road (101), King Russell (99), Lord Miles (100), Mandarin Hero (105), Mage (102), Raise Cain (93), Reincarnate (103) Rocket Can (99), Sun Thunder (94), Two Phil’s (97), Verifying (102).
Win contenders in preference order:
You can get Ellis’ full card detailed analysis (about 10 pages in all), including more detailed comments on Kentucky Derby entrants, as well as and betting recommendations for all the races at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, Saturday May 6, at Equibase.com.