2023 Kentucky Derby Hopeful Snapshots: Victory Formation

Victory Formation, with Flavien Prat up, won the Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1 at Oaklawn Park and earned 10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby. (Coady Photography)

Welcome to 2023 Kentucky Derby Prospect Snapshots, where we’ll take a look each week at a recent winner on the Triple Crown trail, usually from the Road to the Kentucky Derby schedule from which the racehorses earn points toward qualifying.

The 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will be held May 6, 2023, at Churchill Downs.

This week, we’ll take a closer look at Victory Formation, winner of the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Victory Formation earned 10 points toward qualifying for the 2023 Kentucky Derby with his win in the Smarty Jones, his third in as many career starts. He currently is ranked sixth on Churchill Downs’ Derby Leaderboard.


Bay Colt

Sire (father): Tapwrit

Dam (mother): Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike

Owners: Spendthrift Farm and Frank Fletcher Racing Operations

Breeder: Gainesway Thoroughbreds (Ky.)

Trainer: Brad Cox

Racing Résumé: Victory Formation was one of the 2-year-old standouts at Keeneland’s fall meet, making short work of a full field in his 6 ½-furlong debut Oct. 21. The Tapwrit colt broke from post position 3 against 11 opponents and was sent to the lead by jockey Luis Saez, setting sensible fractions while receiving modest pressure to his outside. He shook clear in early stretch, drawing off to an impressive 4 ¾-length victory while being kept to task by Saez. Returning five weeks later in a six-furlong allowance on Churchill Downs’ “Stars of Tomorrow II” card Nov. 26, Victory Formation was send off as the 1.37-1 favorite, again with Saez aboard. This time, he took a lot more early pressure and as a result set fast fractions for the quarter- and half-mile while dueling for the lead. He took a short lead wheeling into the stretch, but a contender rallying from third moved up with a furlong to go and appeared to have all of the momentum. Racing on the rail, Victory Formation responded when headed and fought back gamely to win by a neck. It was an admirable effort from a colt making only his second career start and coming off of such an easy debut win.

Placed on the Kentucky Derby by trainer Brad Cox, Victory Formation was bet down to 3-5 against seven opponents in the Smarty Jones, and he also picked up a new jockey in Flavien Prat. Breaking from the outside post, Prat was aggressive with the colt right out of the gate and pushed him to the front before angling to the inside in order to save ground. After that, Victory Formation set moderate fractions in the one-mile, two-turn Smarty Jones and was never seriously challenged. He was three lengths clear of the field at the top of the stretch and maintained that margin to the finish, extending his unbeaten streak. 

Speed Figures: This colt has shown a steady progression in both Equibase Speed Figures and Beyer Speed Figures over his three starts. He earned an Equibase Speed Figure of 92 in his debut at Keeneland, bumped it up to a 96 in his hard-fought allowance win, and then charted a 102 in the Smarty Jones, which places him in the neighborhood of divisional leaders Forte and Cave Rock, who have eclipsed the triple-digit mark twice and three times, respectively. His Beyer string of 81-85-91 over the three races is likewise encouraging.

Running Style: Victory Formation has either set or pressed the pace in all three of his wins, and displayed a relaxed cruising speed when stretched out in the Smarty Jones. As mentioned in earlier Kentucky Derby profiles, that running style has been utilized by the majority of Derby winners so far this century, last year’s shocker Rich Strike most certainly excepted. Cox was satisfied with his charge’s improvement on New Year’s Day and told Oaklawn media that the colt has a lot of attributes already in place for a Kentucky Derby contender.

“He’s a nice horse. This horse has a great mind,” Cox said. “He doesn’t overdo it in the morning. He settles and I think the farther the better. He’s got a lot of natural speed. He’s able to put himself in good position and he was able to turn off and settle and finish up with good strides there.”

Connections: Spendthrift Farm and Frank Fletcher Racing Operations bought Victory Formation for $340,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale of 2-year-olds in training last May. Spendthrift, founded by the late B. Wayne Hughes, is one of the leading Thoroughbred operations in North America and co-owned 2020 Kentucky Derby winner Authentic, who is now a young stallion at the farm north of Lexington, Ky. Frank Fletcher is a businessman based in Little Rock, Ark., who has had success in manufacturing and with auto dealerships, steakhouses, and hotels. He became involved with racing in the late 1980s and is known for using the word “Rocket” when naming many of the horses he owns, honoring his dog. His best horse to date is four-time graded stakes-winning mare Frank’s Rockette.

Brad Cox, a Louisville, Ky., native, paid his dues in the claiming ranks for several years before emerging as one of the top trainers in North America in the late 2010s, winning the Eclipse Award in 2020 and 2021. He’s firmly established as a go-to trainer for Kentucky Derby prospects, and became a winner of America’s most famous race almost a year ago when his 2021 runner-up Mandaloun was declared victor of the 147th run for the roses due to Medina Spirit’s disqualification for a banned medication positive. Cox also won the 2021 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets with eventual 3-year-old champion male Essential Quality.

As noted above, Luis Saez rode Victory Formation for his first two wins and Flavien Prat flew to Hot Springs for the Smarty Jones assignment. Prat also earned his first Kentucky Derby win by disqualification, as his longshot Country House was declared winner in 2019 over demoted first-place finisher Maximum Security – who was ridden by Saez. Prat also has a win in the 2021 Preakness Stakes aboard Rombauer.

Pedigree Notes: Victory Formation is from the first crop of 2017 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner Tapwrit, and he is the first stakes winner for the stallion, who stands at Gainesway Farm in Lexington. Tapwrit is one of four Belmont winners sired by Tapit, a major source of stamina in contemporary Thoroughbred breeding. 

Victory Formation’s dam (mother) is Smart N Soft, by Smart Strike. The late Smart Strike is another sire who often gave stamina to his foals, notably two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and turf champion English Channel. Smart N Soft was a sprinter who won once in 11 starts, but she has produced Victory Formation’s half-sister Bellamore, a winner at a mile and 1 1/8 miles who also ran second in a 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 stakes and third in a 1 ¼-mile Grade 1 stakes last year, both on turf. Victory Formation’s second dam (maternal grandmother) is Softly, who won six of 16 starts. That mare won the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Distaff Handicap at a mile and also won a listed stakes at a mile and an eighth. Some other notable family members are route graded stakes winners Coragil Cat, Conquest Big E, Til Forbid, and Hold Old Blue. 

Derby Potential: A week ago, I profiled Jace’s Road, a Brad Cox-trained Kentucky Derby contender who earned 10 qualifying points by winning an early-season prep wire-to-wire, in his case the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds. Victory Formation is now squarely in the picture for Cox thanks to his similar win in the Smarty Jones – and currently he shapes up as a more exciting Kentucky Derby prospect than his stablemate due to his higher speed figures and better stamina pedigree. The trainer is also represented by Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes winner Instant Coffee and Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity runner-up Loggins (currently sidelined), and there’s a good chance we’ll see another two or three talented prospects emerge from his barn in the weeks ahead.

Cox told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Victory Formation would probably bypass Oaklawn’s next Kentucky Derby points prep, the Southwest Stakes on Jan. 28, but said the subsequent 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes on Feb. 25 at Oaklawn was an option for his next start. This colt has already shown enough ability to secure a spot in the handful of leading Kentucky Derby contenders at this early point on the calendar, and it will be interesting to see how he handles pace pressure similar to what he experienced in his Churchill Downs win, but this time in a two-turn race, as the prep assignments get tougher going forward.

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