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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 is on 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
THREE HEATING UP
I was probably one of the biggest Practical Move skeptics entering the San Felipe Stakes March 4 at Santa Anita Park, but now I have moved him to the top of my list of Kentucky Derby candidates. Not near the top, mind you – the very top. I loved what I saw from the bay Practical Joke colt, who stalked the pace from within 1 ½ lengths after a half-mile in :47.12 and still finished very well with a final sixteenth of a mile in 6.34 seconds and his final five-sixteenths of a mile in about :30.63. He beat what I think is a very talented 3-year-old in runner-up Geaux Rocket Ride by 2 ½ lengths while improving 10 points to a career-best 108 Equibase Speed Figure and 11 points to a new top 100 Beyer Speed Figure. It’s very encouraging that he showed significant improvement in his first start as a 3-year-old and first race in 2 ½ months, and I love that he has tactical speed to stay within striking range and the stamina to finish strongly. Along those lines, I think his pedigree has enough stamina influences to feel good about his chances to excel at 1 1/8 miles and beyond. The 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance will be a question, but the reality is it’s a big hurdle for every 3-year-old. He’s been very impressive in winning the Los Alamitos Futurity and San Felipe Stakes by open lengths in his last two starts and looks poised to be a major factor on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
2. Raise Cain
There is some skepticism surrounding Raise Cain and his 7 ½-length Gotham Stakes win March 4 at Aqueduct, and I get that completely considering the unusual circumstances surrounding the $300,000 race. The track was a sealed-muddy surface, the pace was very fast, and there a was a loose horse for the entire one-turn-mile race after Howgreatisnate unseated his rider at the start. The riderless horse charged ahead to add pace pressure and a bit of volatility to the race that pretty clearly benefitted the runners coming from off the pace. Note that the top three finishers were 11th, last of 13, and 12th after the opening quarter-mile in a sprightly :22.52 while the two leaders faded to 11th and eighth, both beaten by more than 18 lengths. But I can’t just look at a 7 ½-length romp and dismiss it as a fluke, especially given that this colt previously finished second in the Gun Runner Stakes. He no doubt will need to improve his speed figures – 91 Equibase Speed Figure, 90 Beyer Speed Figure, 90 Brisnet speed figure – but Raise Cain is a closer with some longshot upside who has enough points to guarantee a starting spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby Field. Less than two weeks ago, he was 23.50-1 in the Gotham; now he’s a cinch to make the Derby if all goes well. That’s a huge jump.
While I could not justify handing Forte the top spot given he is a returning 2-year-old champion who displayed push-button brilliance in 2022, you’d be hard-pressed to script a better sophomore debut than the Violence colt’s 4 ½-length victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes March 4 at Gulfstream Park. He simply dominated the opposition in his first start off a four-month layoff with an explosive bid on the far turn that was followed by a final sixteenth of a mile in 6.38 seconds. Many elite 2-year-olds need a race or two to regain their form after a lengthy layoff and some never quite get back up to that level because their peers have matured and caught up, but that was clearly not the case with Forte. He earned a new career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure and 103 Brisnet speed rating and was just two points off his top Beyer Speed Figure with a 98 (he earned a 100 for his FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by TAA win). Forte has ripped off four straight wins with three coming in Grade 1 races for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher and looked every bit the serious Kentucky Derby contender in his first start of 2023. It was a “Wow!” race.
Also-Eligible: Tapit Trice held the top spot in the heating up section of this blog a month ago following an eight-length romp in a one-mile allowance-optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park. The Tapit colt further solidified his credentials as a legitimate contender for the 2023 Kentucky Derby with a win by two lengths March 11 as the 1-2 favorite in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. But with another slow start and little improvement in his speed figures, I would not classify him as taking a major step forward. He’s a quality colt and remains a clear top 10 Derby candidate, but he needs to show he can run a faster race to ascend to the top tier. … Geaux Rocket Ride made a really nice impression in his stakes debut as he was dropped in the deep end of the pool coming off a three-quarter-mile maiden win in his first career start. Trying his hand on the Derby trail and stretching out to 1 1/16 miles, the Candy Ride colt ran an exceptional race to finish second by 2 ½ lengths after pressing a strong pace. He improved his Equibase Speed Figure from a 101 to a 104 and his Beyer Speed Figure from a 92 to a 96 and he has plenty of room to improve with just two races under the saddle. … With so many people questioning Raise Cain’s win in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes, it makes sense that distant runner-up Slip Mahoney seems to be sliding under the radar. His speed figures tumbled from an 87 Beyer to a 78 and a 100 Equibase to a 78, so yes, on paper it does not look especially promising. But I do think this colt by Arrogate will be much better suited to a two-turn race and he showed me some determination by closing from last of 13 to finish second. Perhaps I’m alone, but I thought he ran a sneaky solid race.
THREE COOLING DOWN
The bay Uncle Mo colt improved to 2-for-2 with a 5 ½-length runaway victory in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes Jan. 28 on a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park. Arabian Knight earned a 106 Equibase Speed Figure and a 96 Beyer Speed Figure for that win, proving that the victory was as impressive on paper as it was to watch. However, last weekend owner Amr Zedan announced that the talented 3-year-old had been removed from consideration for the 149th Kentucky Derby due to an undisclosed issue. Zedan Racing Stables posted on social media that trainer Tim Yakteen “wasn't happy with his last work and we feel it's in Arabian Knight's best interest not to rush and allow him more time to develop.” Plans call for his connections to pump the brakes for now, and Arabian Knight will instead be pointed to a summer and fall campaign.
There were high expectations for Blazing Sevens in his 3-year-old debut after he won the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes as a 2-year-old and closed out his season with a fourth-place finish in the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by TAA. His return from a four-month layoff in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes March 4 at Gulfstream Park was somewhat overshadowed by the presence of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and reigning champion 2-year-old male Forte. While Forte perhaps exceeded expectations with a 4 ½-length win in his comeback race, Blazing Sevens struggled to an eighth-place finish, beaten by 26 lengths. The Fountain of Youth was, by a considerable margin, the worst race of Blazing Sevens’ career. One bad race certainly does not mean doom and gloom for the Good Magic colt, but on the Derby trail time is of the essence and every workout and every race need to be productive steps toward the first jewel of the Triple Crown to have a realistic shot in the Derby. This obviously wasn’t a positive start to Blazing Sevens’ 3-year-old campaign and it figures to be an uphill climb from here to get back in the Derby picture.
3. Lugan Knight
Lugan Knight won the Jerome Stakes on an “off” track at Aqueduct so it was fair to reason that he probably would handle the muddy track there March 4 in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at the same one-mile distance. I’m not sure if it was the wet track or trouble midway through the race, but Lugan Knight faded after a stalking trip and finished seventh, beaten by 15 ¼ lengths by winner Raise Cain as his Equibase Speed Figure dipped 31 points from a career-top 96 in the Jerome to a 65 in the Gotham. I already had some questions about his pedigree for 1 ¼ miles, so this was not the type of performance I was looking for to boost my confidence in this Goldencents colt’s Kentucky Derby chances. I’m still a fan of Lugan Knight and I think he has a promising future, but it’s tough to see a logical path for him to reach the winner’s circle in the Kentucky Derby.
Of note: I don’t think Hejazi ran a bad race, at all, when fourth behind Practical Move in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes March 4 at Santa Anita Park. However, I was skeptical about his chances to thrive as the distances got longer on the Kentucky Derby trail, and fading after setting an uncontested pace in the San Felipe did little to assuage my stamina concerns. He’s very fast but perhaps sprinting might be a better long-term path to success for this Bernardini colt. … National Treasure was scratched from a planned start in the San Felipe with a bruised foot. The Quality Road colt returned to the workout tab with a promising three-quarter-mile drill in 1:11.80 on March 14. Perhaps he is back on track after his first workout in 3 ½ weeks, but every misstep on the Derby trail makes winning the race more difficult and, with 0 points toward qualifying for the run for the roses, National Treasure’s next start is an all-or-nothing race. He placed in a pair of Grade 1 races as a 2-year-old and opened his 3-year-old season with a third-place finish by a length in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes, so National Treasure has the talent, but he's short on time to qualify for the 2023 Kentucky Derby.