This week, March Madness kicks into high gear to captivate college basketball watchers and serve as fodder for countless office bracketology pools – and for passionate horse racing fans, we’re also squarely in the midst of the prep season for the 2023 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
Needless to say, the next six weeks will pump up excitement to the highest level, both on the hardwood and the racetrack.
Since the last edition of this blog one month ago, nine stakes races offering qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby have been held, and the major 200-point preps are just around the corner.
One of the most fun activities during the prep season involves laying down some cash on a future bet pick for the 149th Derby, which will be run under Churchill Downs’ Twin Spires on the first Saturday in May. As we’ve been doing, America’s Best Racing will bring you up to date with the changing odds and notable entries for potential Derby horses at Caesars Sportsbook.
We’ll revisit these odds as the season progresses. With each passing prep race, the number of viable Derby contenders will decrease, and the latest Caesars futures sheet has shrunk considerably from last week’s edition. Still, there are still some relatively unknown horses out there that carry the dreams of owners and gamblers alike to find the Churchill Downs winner’s circle after claiming the first jewel of the Triple Crown – and some of them may not have even started in a points race yet.
Aside from the Las Vegas book, the fifth of six Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools offered by Churchill Downs Inc. will be held from March 10 at noon ET to March 12 at 6:30 p.m. ET. Forte leads the 39 individual horses at odds of 4-1, while “all other 3-year-olds” is listed at 5-1. One prep will be held while the pool is open, on March 11: the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs.
March 5 Caesars Sportsbook Odds Leaders to Win the 2023 Kentucky Derby:
1. Forte (7-2)
2. Arabian Knight (5-1)
3. Instant Coffee (15-1)
3. Practical Move (15-1)
3. Tapit Trice (15-1)
6. National Treasure (16-1)
Notable Changes: Last year’s champion 2-year-old male Forte remained prominent in the Derby futures book over the winter as he prepped for a return in the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and boy, did he not disappoint in his return! The three-time Grade 1 winner from last summer and fall made short work of eight opponents – including runner-up and Holy Bull Stakes winner Rocket Can – once he hit the top of the Gulfstream stretch, and he finished up with plenty left in the tank. Forte earned a 106 Equibase Speed Figure in the Fountain of Youth, and newly minted Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher is renowned for conditioning his Derby contenders to peak at just the right time. That means this Violence colt should continue his progression in his final Derby prep, most likely the Curlin Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream. He’s a clear-cut Derby favorite now, and if he backs up his Fountain of Youth win with another victory in the Florida Derby, the 7-2 odds offered currently by Caesars will be very close to his post-time odds May 6 at Churchill Downs. (Rocket Can ran well to be second in the Fountain of Youth, albeit 4 ½ lengths behind Forte, and is getting 40-1 odds on Caesars’ March 5 book.)
Practical Move also impressed in his first 2023 start, returning after a 2 ½-month layoff to defeat a solid field in the March 4 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park and earn an eye-catching 108 Equibase Speed Figure. The Practical Joke colt had not been seen since winning the Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 17 in an upset over a trio of Bob Baffert trainees, and he defeated Los Al Futurity third-place finisher Fort Bragg and two other former Baffert horses in the San Felipe along with a couple of highly regarded runners trained by Richard Mandella (Geaux Rocket Ride) and John Shirreffs (Skinner), who finished second and third. Trainer Tim Yakteen picked up Fort Bragg and several other Bob Baffert horses to train for the Kentucky Derby while Baffert serves out his suspension by Churchill Downs, including highly regarded Arabian Knight. But Practical Move is one of Yakteen’s own horses, and he gives the veteran Southern California trainer a legitimate shot at racing’s biggest prize. He’s sitting at 15-1 odds on Caesars latest sheet, and Yakteen told Daily Racing Form that he will make his final prep in the April 8 Santa Anita Derby. (Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner both ran well in defeat, and are sitting at odds of 25-1 and 45-1, respectively.)
The March 4 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct drew a 14-horse field, making it seemingly ripe for an upset, and that’s just what happened as 23.50-1 Raise Cain romped in the slop by 7 ½ lengths. This colt had been racing under the radar but had not embarrassed himself in his two route stakes races prior to the Gotham, which was held at a one-turn mile. Now, he’s secured a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate with 54 qualifying points, and he’s booked at 50-1 odds as a potential Derby winner by Caesars. His Equibase Speed Figure came back at 91 for the Gotham, a cut below both Forte and Practical Move – and there’s always the possibility that Raise Cain, like Confidence Game a week prior, elevated his game on an off track. Furthermore, the Gotham was marred by Howgreatisnate tossing his jockey at the break and then leading the field through the turn and into the stretch. The riderless horse crossed the finish just behind Raise Cain and no doubt help set a faster-than-expected pace that compromised several horses. Still, Raise Cain (who is another Derby contender sired by the relatively unheralded Violence) has a classy pedigree with both speed and stamina influences and is an intriguing longshot prospect to keep tabs on going forward.
So are two other unexpected winners of recent Kentucky Derby preps: the aforementioned Confidence Game, who took down Oaklawn Park’s Feb. 25 Rebel Stakes at odds of 18.50-1; and Angel of Empire, who upset the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds at 13.70-1 odds. Both of these colts have very good pedigrees for stretching out (Confidence Game is a close relative to the mighty Zenyatta) and certainly have potential to make further improvement following their breakthrough wins. Confidence Game, who earned high speed figures in the Rebel, is getting 26-1 odds via Caesars, while Angel of Empire is rated at 45-1. Read more about them in Mike Curry’s ABR profiles (Confidence Game here and Angel of Empire here).
Four to watch: As noted above, Caesars’ March 5 Kentucky Derby futures sheet has been narrowed down, but there are still some interesting value plays available. Most of them are horses that showed ability in recent Derby preps but did not win them, and that list begins with Slip Mahoney. This Brad Cox trainee spotted the full Gotham Stakes field several lengths after breaking slowly, but made up a ton of ground with a nine-wide (yes, nine-wide) rally through the sloppy stretch at Aqueduct to nab a clear second behind Raise Cain. The colt had posted two game efforts in maiden races at Aqueduct before then – losing by a neck to Tapit Trice in December and then defeating Crupi by a head in January – and based on his powerful stamina pedigree (by Arrogate and out of Grade 1-winning router Got Lucky) he should relish longer distances. He’ll extend to 1 1/8 miles around two turns in his final Kentucky Derby prep, the Wood Memorial Presented by Resorts World Casino, and his current 60-1 future odds at Caesars are very enticing indeed.
Mage made only his second career start in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and did not embarrass himself at all with a fourth-place finish. It was his first two-turn start after dominating a seven-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream in late January, and the Good Magic colt had a rough start in the Fountain of Youth, hitting the gate and then bumping Blazing Sevens soon after that before being rushed into a stalking spot by Javier Castellano. He continued on well through the stretch and was just a length out of third, good for 15 Derby points. Based on that performance and the expectation that trainer Gustavo Delgado wheels him back in the April 1 Florida Derby, 100-1 odds for this lightly raced colt represents excellent value. Will Mage topple Forte in the Florida Derby should they meet? That’s an April Fool’s thought – but hey, getting second or even third in that race could give him enough points to schedule a trip to Louisville.
Verifying was sent off as the 3-2 favorite in the Rebel Stakes based on his dominant 2023 debut at Oaklawn Park, where he romped by 5 ¼ lengths in a one-mile allowance at Hot Springs. In the Rebel, he stalked a solid early pace and then got caught behind some horses in early stretch, stalling his rally. He finished 5 ¼ lengths behind Confidence Game but deserves a second chance at Derby points in a more cleanly-run race on a fast track. This son of Triple Crown winner Justify is getting 30-1 odds at Caesars. If he rebounds in his final Derby prep, his odds on May 6 will be lower than that.
One horse joined Caesars’ March 5 sheet at 125-1 odds: Henry Q, winner of the Mine That Bird Derby on Feb. 28 at Sunland Park. The Mine That Bird Derby, named after the fan favorite and upset 2009 Kentucky Derby winner, did not offer any qualifying points for this year’s classic, but it is the local prep race for the Sunland Derby on March 26, which offers 100 total points and 50 to the winner. Henry Q dominated seven foes by 14 ¾ lengths in the Mine That Bird Derby, leading from start to finish, and he earned a 97 Equibase Speed Figure. Trainer Todd Fincher assumed supervisory duties for Henry Q after the colt was shipped in from Santa Anita Park, where he won a maiden race on Feb. 4, and transferred from Doug O’Neill’s barn. The Sunland Derby often draws in a couple of quality invaders from California and/or the Midwest, and it would not be a surprise to see one of the former Bob Baffert horses trained by Tim Yakteen or a Steve Asmussen contender show up. But if Henry Q can replicate his recent effort come March 26, this son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame will be Churchill Downs-bound.