2023 Kentucky Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for March 1

Horses break from the starting gate in the 2022 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. This year's Fountain of Youth is set for Saturday, March 4. (Ryan Thompso/Coglianese Photo)

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 third edition of this blog for the 2023 run for the roses, the focus was the previous two weeks of racing that featured five Kentucky Derby qualifying races.

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


Coady Photography

1. Confidence Game

While several factors helped Confidence Game in his one-length victory at 18.50-1 odds in the $1 million Rebel Stakes Feb. 25 at Oaklawn Park – specifically a strong pace and a sloppy track – this was a terrific breakout performance. In fact, the Candy Ride colt even surprised his trainer, Keith Desormeaux, a bit after he got very wound up by the crowd when being saddled before the race. Confidence Game stalked a swift pace set by Powerful and with one sweeping rally on far turn and a strong stretch drive he went from out of the top 20 to the very top spot on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with 57 points. Coming off a well-beaten third in the Lecomte Stakes, Confidence game took a giant leap forward in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel in earning a career-best 104 Equibase Speed Figure and a new top Beyer Speed Figure of 94. Stamina should not be an issue judging by how Confidence Game galloped out after the Rebel combined with a solid distance pedigree: sire Candy Ride was a record-setter at 1 ¼ miles and dam (mother) Eblouissante is a half-sister to Hall of Famer Zenyatta. There is simply a lot to like in Confidence Game as a Derby hopeful with seven races of experience/foundation, a couple of wins on the main track at Churchill Downs, and improving speed figures for a quality trainer.

2. Angel of Empire

Like Confidence Game, Angel of Empire earned a spot on the heating up list via a double-digit upset victory from off the pace in a key prep race on the Kentucky Derby trail. The bay colt by Classic Empire closed from ninth at 13.70-1 odds to win the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford by a length Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds. In earning 50 points for the Risen Star win, Angel of Empire held the top spot on the Road to the Derby Leaderboard for a week with 54 points total before Confidence Game overtook him. That said, his total should very likely be sufficient to guarantee Angel of Empire a spot in the 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby, and there were a couple of key positives to pull from that win. First, the victory came at 1 1/8 miles despite racing five wide on the final turn, supporting his connections’ pre-race expectations that the longer the distance, the better for Angel of Empire. Removing one unplaced finish in a turf race from the equation, Angel of Empire has shown a steady improvement when measuring by speed figures: 58-80-92-96 Equibase Speed Figures for his four dirt starts and 58-70-85-89 Beyer Speed Figures. He will need to continue to improve in his final Derby prep but he can definitely build upon those incremental gains for 2020 and 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox. This is an improving colt who should excel at 1 ¼ miles.

Coady Photography

3. Sun Thunder

After a disappointing stakes debut on a sloppy track in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes Jan. 28, Sun Thunder looked much more the part of a Kentucky Derby hopeful in his second start of the year. He closed from 12th in a 14-horse field to post a runner-up finish in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford that I believe is a much better indicator of his true ability than his previous race. Although he was outfinished by Angel of Empire in deep stretch at Fair Grounds, Sun Thunder improved to a career-best 94 Equibase Speed Figure for trainer Ken McPeek, who said he has been really pleased with how the Into Mischief colt has matured with time and experience. Make no mistake, he still needs to improve in a significant way to be a bona-fide Kentucky Derby win candidate, but the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby March 25 will be only his fifth lifetime start and he is eligible to improve off the Risen Star second-place finish.

Red Route One (Coady Photography)

Also-Eligible: I could very easily have given the final heating up spot to Red Route One, but I think entering the Rebel Stakes most people already had a pretty good idea of who he is as a 3-year-old contender. He’s a deep closer capable of a big race under the right circumstances. He got them in the Rebel and closed powerfully for second to earn a career-best 102 Equibase Speed Figure and 92 Beyer Speed Figure. … Following two runner-up finishes in sprints, Register broke through with a nose victory in a one-mile maiden special weight race Feb. 18 at Aqueduct, holding off a game Asmodeus after an exciting battle in the stretch. Register earned a 103 Equibase Speed Figure and a 93 Beyer Speed Figure, indicating this half-brother to graded stakes winner High Oak might be a 3-year-old to watch. … Likewise, keep an eye on the top-two finishers from a Feb. 18 maiden special weight race at Fair Grounds. Winner Bishops Bay and runner-up First Mission both ran very well in their respective debuts and, while it’s almost certainly too late to make an impact on the 2023 Kentucky Derby, the Brad Cox stablemates could show up in key races in late spring and early summer. …  As most readers know, the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes this Saturday marks the return of both 2022 champion 2-year-old male Forte for trainer Todd Pletcher and 2022 Champagne Stakes winner Blazing Sevens for Chad Brown. Very exciting to see how they perform in their first start of the year.


Coady Photography

1. Victory Formation

He entered the Feb. 18 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford unbeaten in three starts and coming off a three-length romp in the Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1 at Oaklawn Park. Unable to set or press the pace in the 1 1/8-mile race at Fair Grounds, Victory Formation was a nonfactor while fading to ninth as the 9-5 favorite, beaten by 15 ½ lengths. In fairness, Victory Formation faced a daunting task from post-position 13 that was made even more difficult by a solid pace through a half-mile in :47.50. He was taken out of his game (racing on or near the lead) early and turned in a career-worst performance. It’s a reminder that racehorses are not machines. My guess is Victory Formation had an off day and will regain his top form in the near future; however, from a Derby prospect perspective the timing was terrible. Three-year-olds with viable Kentucky Derby aspirations are almost always improving at this time of year, not trying to rebound from a bad start.

2. Loggins

Time is not on this Ghostzapper colt’s side, it would appear, as one of the most eye-catching 2-year-olds of 2022 is now out of the running for Kentucky Derby consideration. Trainer Brad Cox told the Fair Grounds media team: “He’s off the Derby trail. … He’s in light training. At this point it’s too late in the season to bring him here [Fair Grounds]. We will get more serious with him when we get back to Kentucky.” Loggins won his career debut by 8 ½ lengths Sept. 17 at Churchill Downs and then ran second by a neck to eventual champion 2-year-old male Forte in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity. Given some time off after that race with an injury that did not require surgery, Loggins has not yet been able to start increasing his activity enough to make the run for the roses. Hopefully, we’ll see this talented colt later in the spring or early summer.

BENOIT photo

3. Cave Rock

A large group of 3-year-olds, male and female, has moved from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert to the care of other trainers in recent days and weeks to prepare for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and Longines Kentucky Oaks. Baffert was banned from competing at Churchill Downs through the conclusion of the 2023 spring meet following a positive drug test by Baffert-trained Medina Spirit in the days after finishing first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. In order to be eligible to earn 2023 Derby/Oaks qualifying points in prep races, Baffert’s horses had to be transferred to a new barn unrelated to the trainer’s operation by Feb. 28. Conspicuous in his absence among the horses transferred was multiple Grade 1 winner Cave Rock, who has had only two timed workouts on the comeback trail in preparation for his first start since a runner-up finish in the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance last November. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots and guess that Cave Rock was simply not going to be ready to compete in the Derby so Baffert will keep him in his care and instead perhaps target the Preakness Stakes or another major race later in the spring/summer.

 Of note: Hoosier Philly was nominated to the Triple Crown and there was significant excitement building around the filly and her chances to compete against males after she began her career with three straight wins for trainer Tom Amoss. However, those Derby dreams took a significant hit when Hoosier Philly finished a distant third against 3-year-old fillies Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds in the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra Stakes presented by Fasig-Tipton. …  Extra Anejo opened some eyes with a 9 ½-length debut runaway victory Oct. 13, 2022, at Keeneland Race Course. A $1.35 million purchase by Winchell Thoroughbreds at the 2021 Keeneland September yearling sale, the Into Mischief colt subsequently was sidelined with a hind ankle injury and looks like another 3-year-old running short on time. “Everything depends on when we can start working him,” David Fiske, racing manager for Winchell Thoroughbreds, told BloodHorse. “I would say the Preakness is probably a better opportunity than the Kentucky Derby right now.”

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