2023 Kentucky Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for Jan. 31

Racing
Arabian Knight improved to 2-for-2 in his career with a dominant win in the Southwest Stakes Jan. 28 at Oaklawn Park. (Coady Photography)

This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the 2023 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve are not quite as strong as they were a few weeks ago.

In the second edition of this blog for the 2023 run for the roses, the focus was the previous two weeks of racing that featured two Kentucky Derby qualifying races: the Lecomte Stakes Jan. 21 at Fair Grounds and the Southwest Stakes Jan. 28 at Oaklawn Park.

Look for this column to appear every other week moving forward to analyze to biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown. For now, let’s take a look at what has changed over the last couple of weeks on the 2023 Triple Crown trail.

Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard

THREE HEATING UP

Eclipse Sportswire

1. Arabian Knight

This $2.3 million auction purchase as a 2-year-old in training essentially seized the top spot for this week’s blog by default as the other winner Derby prep winner (Instant Coffee, see below) had already established his class on the Triple Crown trail. Arabian Knight dazzled many observers with his 5 ½-length romp in the $750,000 Southwest Stakes, which followed a 7 ¼-length runaway in his career debut last November at Keeneland on the Breeders’ Cup Saturday undercard. The bay Uncle Mo colt trained by Bob Baffert was already highly supported in Las Vegas on Caesars Sportsbook’s Derby Future odds and dominated from start to finish on a sloppy track at Oaklawn to clear a pair of hurdles: winning his first race against stakes competition and navigating two turns. He improved his Equibase Speed Figure by eight points to a 106 and essentially paired his Beyer Speed Figure, which dipped one point to a 96. He’s clearly a very nice colt, but unlike many other observers I’m skeptical. His left front leg paddles noticeably in the stretch and that type of inefficiency typically is more challenging to overcome as races get longer (thinking about Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma on the 2019 Derby trail). He’s also never been seriously challenged for the lead and his lone start around two turns and in stakes competition came on a sloppy track. Sure, he might be a rising star, but I want to see him handle early pressure and win a stakes around two turns on a fast track before I start thinking about May 6 at Churchill Downs. There is also the Baffert factor to consider. Arabian Knight is ineligible to earn qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby because of Baffert’s two-year suspension by Churchill Downs that stems from Medina Spirit being disqualified from a 2021 Kentucky Derby victory because of a medication violation. He would need to be transferred to a different trainer to qualify for the race, and in my mind that is not an insignificant factor when evaluating his Derby chances. Arabian Knight looked terrific in winning the Southwest, but I’ll need a clearer picture before I buy any significant stock, which is on the rise.


2. Instant Coffee

With only two Kentucky Derby races to choose from over the last 14 days, it was slim pickings for the most part as evidenced by a 13-10 favorite winning the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes and taking up the second slot in the heating up section. Yet I do think Gold Square’s Instant Coffee significantly bolstered his status at Fair Grounds as one of the top second-tier contenders early on the Triple Crown trail with his second straight graded stakes win. The early pace was quite strong for a two-turn race at Fair Grounds — the second quarter-mile went in :22.99 – which almost certainly benefitted Instant Coffee who closed from last of six to win by 2 ½ lengths. While he did not finish as fast as he had in winning the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Nov. 26, 2022, at Churchill Downs, he did earn a new career-best 98 Equibase Speed Figure (a four-point jump) and 92 Beyer Speed Figure (a seven-point increase). In a profile I wrote about Instant Coffee last November, I mentioned that elite connections (trainer Brad Cox, jockey Luis Saez) plus a solid pedigree for two-turn racing gave me hope that Instant Coffee could improve, and I feel like he did just that in his 3-year-old bow.


Coady Photography

3. Two Phil’s

I’ll admit I was a bit dubious about Two Phil’s entering the Lecomte. His two stakes wins came at three-quarters of a mile at Canterbury Park and on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs and he was absolutely drummed in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity in between. But he showed me something in a runner-up finish in the Lecomte Stakes and I think he’s a legit third-tier candidate for the Kentucky Derby with a real shot to qualify for the race. If you squint hard enough, you can maybe see him rising to the second tier after earning a career-best 96 Equibase Speed Figure and 88 Beyer Speed Figure for his Lecomte second Jan. 21 at Fair Grounds. He did show improvement in his first race since winning the Grade 3 Street Sense Stakes Oct. 30 at Churchill, but he would need to take another sizable step forward to become a Kentucky Derby threat. Distance is a concern as a colt by Hard Spun out of a multiple stakes-winning sprinter, but Two Phil’s has established some proven class.


Honorable mention: Slip Mahoney showed improvement when stretching out in distance for his second career start Dec. 17, 2022, at Aqueduct, where he came up a neck short to Tapit Trice after dueling for the early lead. He gamely held off the late rally of Crupi Jan. 21 at Aqueduct at the same one-mile distance to earn his first career win. With promising speed figures for the win (101 Equibase, 87 Beyer) and a nice stamina pedigree – by Arrogate out of 2015 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes winner Got Lucky, by A.P. Indy – Slip Mahoney looks like he has a bright future for the same owner-trainer tandem as Instant Coffee (Al Gold/Brad Cox). … Red Route One closed willingly to finish a distant second in the Southwest Stakes in his first start since running fourth behind Instant Coffee in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November. He earned a career-best 98 Equibase Speed Figure for the Southwest. While I don’t view him as a serious win candidate for the Kentucky Derby at this point, he’s a deep closer to keep an eye on who keeps on picking up qualifying points and now ranks sixth with 13.

THREE COOLING DOWN

Coady Photography

1. Bromley

A bay colt by Mastery, Bromley entered the Lecomte Stakes with two wins in as many starts, both in sprints with one on dirt and one on a synthetic surface. The 1 1/16-mile race was a distance test for the colt from the barn of Paulo Lobo and I think the results were pretty obvious in the stretch at Fair Grounds, where he faded late after pressing the pace and finished 20 ¼ lengths behind winner Instant Coffee. I think it’s almost always worth taking a chance to see if a lightly raced 3-year-old can handle added distance, but my guess is Bromley will return to sprints post-Lecomte.


2. Corona Bolt

The cooling down section was tough this week in that I’m really not sure how much I can take from the Southwest runners who did not fire on a sloppy track while facing a dominant, lone-speed winner. Jace’s Road did not run a step on a sloppy track in his previous start under those conditions and didn’t run well in the Southwest, so I was a bit more forgiving in his case. For Corona Bolt, the Southwest was both his first try navigating two turns and his initial foray on an off track, and the results were not inspiring as he was sixth as the 2.70-1 second betting choice, 18 ¼ lengths behind Arabian Knight. The bay Medaglia d’Oro colt entered the Southwest off back-to-back open-length wins sprinting in a November maiden race at Churchill Downs and the Dec. 26 Sugar Bowl at three-quarters of a mile Dec. 26 at Fair Grounds. Corona Bolt came up empty in the Southwest and I’m not sure how far he really wants to run, but I’ll give him a second chance to see how he handles two turns on a dry main track before I write him off as a player on the Derby trail.


3. Itzos

Cross-entered in the Lecomte Stakes and the Leonatus Stakes at Turfway Park, both on Jan. 21, trainer Paulo Lobo opted for what looked like an easier spot on the synthetic surface at Turfway, where Itzos had earned his first win in his second career race on Dec. 29. While the Bolt d’Oro colt encountered some trouble early, he just did not fire in the Leonatus and finished a well-beaten seventh of nine, 12 ¾ lengths behind winner Funtastic Again. It’s too quick to write him off long-term as a stakes-quality runner, but you’d like to see more than he showed in the Leonatus when evaluating his chances to make an impact on the Kentucky Derby trail.

Of note: Echo Again was pulled up in the stretch of the Lecomte Stakes by jockey Tyler Gaffalione after setting the pace. He walked off the track after the race and subsequent reports indicate a stifle locked up but he came out of the race in good shape. Positive news about a talented 3-year-old.

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