2023 Kentucky Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for March 29

Derma Sotogake, Japan, Kentucky Derby, UAE Derby, Christophe Lemaire, Kingsbarns, Two Phil’s
Japan’s Derma Sotogake, shown winning the UAE Derby March 25 at Meydan Racecourse, plans to ship from overseas to start in the Kentucky Derby on May 6. (Eclipse Sportswire)

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


Eclipse Sportswire

1. Derma Sotogake

I’ve long admired from afar the Japanese breeding and racing programs as a huge fan of 1989 Horse of the Year Sunday Silence, a breed-shaping Japanese sire, and thus have often backed Japan runners shipping to international events inside or outside the U.S. with significant bets. The notable exception has been the Kentucky Derby as I’ve always favored the more traditional routes to Louisville and avoided international runners, specifically those coming out of the United Arab Emirates Derby. That could change this year as I view Derma Sotogake as a significantly better Japanese win candidate than Crown Pride was a year ago, or Lani in 2016 or Master Fencer in 2019, and one of the most appealing UAE Derby winners to make (or at least planning to make) the trip from the Middle East to Kentucky. Derma Sotogake led from start to finish in a powerhouse 5 ½-length win in the $1 million UAE Derby Presented by Atlantis the Royal March 25 on the Dubai World Cup undercard. The chestnut colt by Mind Your Biscuits won three straight dirt races in Japan to close out his 2-year-old season, all from off the pace, after starting out his career on turf. The winning streak was capped by a head victory in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, a Kentucky Derby points race, when he prevailed in the closing strides after finally switching leads late in the race, something he showed vast improvement with in the UAE Derby. Derma Sotogake finished a nonthreatening third in his 3-year-old debut in the $1.5 million Saudi Derby Presented by Boutique Group. Perhaps, he needed the race or did not relish the surface because he took a huge step forward in the UAE Derby, albeit against a suspect field, to improve to four wins and two seconds in six races on the main track. He has three wins at 1 1/8 miles or longer, a terrific foundation, and the versatility to set, press, or stalk the pace. Derma Sotogake looks like a legit win candidate.

Lou Hodges, Jr. /Hodges Photography

2. Kingsbarns

Kingsbarns made his stakes debut in the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds after posting a maiden win in January at Gulfstream Park and a 7 ¾-length romp in his second career race at Tampa Bay Downs in February. Both wins, the first at one mile and the second at one mile and 40 yards, were impressive and the Uncle Mo colt generated significant buzz among Kentucky Derby Future Wager bettors. Kingsbarns was the second betting favorite at 9-2 odds March 25 at Fair Grounds despite stretching out to 1 3/16 miles and trying stakes competition for the first time. He aced the exam in the Louisiana Derby by leading from start to finish in a 3 ½-length victory in which he was not really challenged in the stretch. The 100 points Kingsbarns earned guarantee his spot in the Kentucky Derby with an unbeaten 3-for-3 record for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. There was much to like and Kingsbarns is sure to gain support leading up to the May 6 first jewel of the Triple Crown, but he also already has his skeptics that argue he was allowed to set a dawdling pace through three-quarters of a mile in 1:14.89 with a slow final time of 1:57.33. He did finish well with a final three-sixteenths of a mile in 18.20 seconds, which followed a solid quarter-mile in 24.44 seconds. He earned a new career-top 95 Beyer Speed Figure (a 10-point improvement) and 98 Brisnet speed rating (a three-point increase), and he matched his best Equibase Speed Figure (100 in his previous start), so there is some disparity there. He only needs to stretch out an extra sixteenth of a mile in the Kentucky Derby, although the pace will surely be much faster, and broodmare sire Tapit helps that cause. There is much to like with Kingsbarns but it is very hard to trust the result from a strangely run race with such a slow pace.

Coady Photography

3. Two Phil’s

Next stop: Louisville and the Kentucky Derby for Two Phil’s (after a quick two-week detour to the Hawthorne Race Course base of trainer Larry Rivelli). This Hard Spun colt has seemingly danced every dance with five graded stakes starts since October 2022. He enters the first jewel of the Triple Crown off a career-best race when romping by 5 ¾ lengths in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks on March 25 at Turfway Park. He earned new career-best speed figures across the board in his Jeff Ruby runaway victory: 101 Beyer Speed Figure (13-point jump), 97 Equibase Speed Figure (two-point improvement), and a flashy 107 Brisnet Speed Rating (13 points higher than his previous top). On speed figures alone, Two Phil’s looks like a top-flight contender for the 1 ¼-mile classic, but the breakout race came on the synthetic Tapeta Footings surface at Turfway and he has not run that fast (or even close to it according to Beyer/Brisnet) in seven previous races on dirt. Two of the last 12 Kentucky Derby winners (Animal Kingdom, 2011; Rich Strike, 2022) came out of this synthetic prep at Turfway and Two Phil’s had held his own against top 3-year-olds before the Jeff Ruby. He won the Grade 3 Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs and finished second in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes and third in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford, both earlier this year at Fair Grounds. I’m typically pretty skeptical of Jeff Ruby runners in the Derby, but I think Two Phil’s has a chance to run a big race on the first Saturday in May.

Wild On Ice (Coady Photography)

Also-Eligible: Wild On Ice pulled off one of the more unlikely victories on this year’s Kentucky Derby trail when he rallied from off the pace under 60-year-old local legend Ken Tohill to win the $600,000 Sunland Park Derby March 26. Tohill, who has been riding since he was 16 years old and has amassed more than 4,000 career wins, earned the first graded stakes win of his career. Wild On Ice was a late Triple Crown nomination just before the March 27 deadline and now has a guaranteed spot in the starting gate, but he looks a bit overmatched with an 89 Equibase Speed Figure and a 77 Beyer Speed Figure for the Sunland Derby win. … The pace was so slow in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby that it made it extraordinarily difficult for the closers, and the only horse to show much coming from off the pace March 25 at Fair Grounds was runner-up Disarm. He rallied from sixth in his stakes debut and fourth career start to finish a well-beaten second to Kingsbarns in a promising effort for trainer Steve Asmussen. There is a very good chance he should have the necessary qualifying points to make the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, but it would be a tall order for a lightly raced colt who might be better off targeting the Preakness Stakes.


1. Congruent

He closed from 12th to win the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway Park on March 4 and thus was given a very good chance at 6.04-1 odds on the same track in the $700,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks three weeks later. The Tapit colt did not fire his best race in the Jeff Ruby, however, as he never showed much while fading late to finish 13 ¼ lengths behind winner Two Phil’s. Congruent is now outside the top 20 on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, and with his fastest races on paper coming on synthetic or turf surfaces he would be very tough to support should he find his way into the starting gate May 6 at Churchill Downs.

Eclipse Sportswire

2. Instant Coffee

Lecomte Stakes winner Instant Coffee could still qualify for the 2023 Kentucky Derby with 32 points, but his sixth-place finish in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby was not a prep race that inspired much confidence. He entered the race as one of the more well-regarded 3-year-olds following back-to-back wins in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November at Churchill Downs and the Grade 3 Lecomte in January in his 3-year-old debut. Because of the dawdling pace, the Louisiana Derby did not set up – at all – for closers, so there is a reasonable excuse for Instant Coffee’s disappointing race as the 3-2 favorite. But a 3-year-old really needs to be clicking on all cylinders entering the Kentucky Derby to have a real chance in a 20-horse field against the best competition of his life on the first Saturday in May, and that is not the case with Instant Coffee.

3. Cairo

Cairo, we hardly knew ye. The Ireland-based Quality Road colt, who won the Patton Stakes on a synthetic track to bank 20 points toward qualifying on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, faded badly in the United Arab Emirates Derby Presented by Atlantis the Royal March 25 on the Dubai World Cup undercard. He finished 10th at Meydan, distanced by winner Derma Sotogake, and it would be hard to justify making the trip to the U.S. for the Kentucky Derby off a race like that. He’s a Group 3 winner on grass in Ireland for elite trainer Aidan O’Brien, so Cairo has a very bright future, but the Kentucky Derby Dreams dissolved in Dubai.

Of note: Shortly after the previous edition of this blog was published March 15, news came that Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Litigate had suffered a setback in training and was off the Kentucky Derby trail. Centennial Farms’ Blame colt has two wins and a second in three starts, so hopefully this promising 3-year-old can return later this season for some of the big races in the summer and fall.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!