Byron King's Derby Dozen for Jan. 25

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Horses pass the grandstand during the early stages of the Jan. 21 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. (Eclipse Sportswire)

BloodHorse news editor Byron King presents his inaugural Derby Dozen for 2023, with a look at his leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 6.

The Road to Derby 149 is in full swing as January draws to a close. Last week, Instant Coffee won his second qualifying points prep for the Derby by taking the Lecomte Stakes Jan. 21 at Fair Grounds. On Jan. 28, Oaklawn Park hosts the second of four points preps during its meet, the Southwest Stakes, which has drawn a field of nine Derby hopefuls.

Check out America's Best Racing's Triple Crown page to keep up to date with stories and statistics on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Eclipse Sportswire

1. Forte 

The FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by TAA winner breezed for the first time as a 3-year-old Jan. 21 with an easy three furlongs in :38.38 at Palm Beach Downs. Later this week the colt is near certain to receive a championship for his 2022 achievements at the Eclipse Awards ceremony Jan. 26. Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher reports he is pointed toward the March 4 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He rates on top in the Derby Dozen, being battle tested as the only current 3-year-old male with a pair of two-turn Grade 1 victories on dirt.

Coady Photography

2. Instant Coffee  

This colt began his 3-year-old season auspiciously, rallying from last to defeat fellow graded stakes winner Two Phil’s in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. In advancing from sixth to first, he picked up the leaders more quickly than he had in winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last year, albeit against a scratch-depleted Grade 3 lineup. Instant Coffee would appear to have the stamina to relish the Derby’s 1 ¼ miles, but his late-running style leaves him with a lot of horses to pass, a tricky proposition in a 20-horse Derby field.

Coady Photography

3. Verifying 

This colt’s progress was apparent in his season debut Jan. 14 at Oaklawn Park. Settling just off the early leader, he drew away for a dominant victory, earning a 99 Equibase Speed Rating. Toss in his stakes experience at 2, running second in the Champagne Stakes and sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and it is obvious this half-brother to filly champion Midnight Bisou has a bright future.

Keeneland/Coady Photography

4. Arabian Knight 

Although Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is barred by Churchill Downs Inc. from competing at its tracks through mid-2023, and his horses cannot earn qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby, he and other leading Baffert trainees land in the Derby Dozen given they could eventually amass enough points to qualify if they are eventually transferred into other stables. (Messier and Taiba did so in 2022.) A blowout first-out winner Nov. 5 at Keeneland, this son of Uncle Mo and $2.3 million juvenile purchase gets his initial stakes test in the Southwest Stakes Jan. 28 at Oaklawn against a trio of Brad Cox prospects, among other talented runners.

Eclipse Sportswire

5. Faustin 

He did not run like a typical debut winner, lagging in the rear of the pack over the first furlong of a six-furlong race Dec. 26 at Santa Anita Park. Urged into action by Ramon Vazquez, the Curlin colt moved into fifth, then fourth – an early move that can lead to flattening out late. But this colt instead just kept finding more, angling out from behind the leaders and drawing away by 2 ¾ lengths in a final time of 1:10.08. Impeccably bred, he should benefit from this experience and additional distance.

Lou Hodges, Jr. /Hodges Photography

6. Corona Bolt 

This 2-for-2 colt ranks as one of the quickest members of his class, having scored a first-out victory in November at Churchill Downs, followed by an easy victory in the Dec. 26 Sugar Bowl Stakes at the Fair Grounds. In that six-furlong race, he shot to the front and quickened away with a final quarter mile in :24.04 to finish in 1:09.96. A gauge of his route potential is forthcoming in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest.

BENOIT photo

7. Cave Rock 

Prior to Cave Rock’s second as the favorite to Forte in the Breeders’ Cup when caught late, he scored three wins in as many starts, including in the American Pharoah Stakes and Runhappy Del Mar Futurity. He would rank higher in the initial Dozen rankings, except he has laid low this winter without having recorded a workout. Every other horse on this list has at least one breeze or a race in 2023.

Eclipse Sportswire

8. National Treasure

His stalking trip was less than ideal when third in the Jan. 8 Sham Stakes, as he was without clear sailing until angled out for the stretch run. He lost by a couple of necks to stablemates Reincarnate and Newgate, regressing somewhat off his show effort against a better field in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He needs better than what he showed in Sham if he is to close the gap with the elite in the division.

Eclipse Sportswire

9. Hejazi 

High expectations have long followed this $3.55 million juvenile buy. He lost his initial three starts at 2 before picking up his maiden diploma in his first start as a 3-year-old, blitzing 6 ½ furlongs Jan. 15 at Santa Anita in 1:14.58. That earned him a 104 Equibase Speed Figure, the highest by a 3-year-old this year. He also picked up a Grade 1 placing as a juvenile at 1 1/16 miles when he showed in the American Pharoah Stakes.

Eclipse Sportswire

10. Blazing Sevens 

A top-level winner at age 2 when he defeated the promising Verifying in a sloppy renewal of the Champagne, he closed out his freshman campaign with a fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Impeded at the start, he gained ground late on the second turn to go from seventh to fourth, only to have his rally stall. He was three lengths by victorious Forte when that one raced in second at the eighth pole and was 5 ¼ lengths behind him at the finish. He recorded his first workout of the winter Jan. 21 at Payson Park with three furlongs in :38.20.

Coady Photography

11. Victory Formation 

Speed, determination, and consistency are traits this Tapwrit colt has in abundance. After winning two sprints in Kentucky – withstanding a taxing speed duel in the second of those – he was in control throughout in the Jan. 1 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn, prevailing by three lengths. Those chasing him in the Smarty Jones did not appear stellar – runner-up Angel of Empire’s two wins came at Horseshoe Indianapolis and third-place Denington was subsequently fourth in the Lecomte.

Keeneland/Coady Photography

12. Curly Jack 

Bottled up in a congested Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Nov. 26, he did well to grab second once finding daylight – a performance that looks even better than it even did a couple of months ago. First-place Instant Coffee returned to win the Lecomte, and seventh-place Cyclone Mischief  took a first-level allowance optional claimer by 5 ¾ lengths Jan. 8 at Gulfstream Park. In other route efforts last fall, this colt also took the 1 1/16-mile Iroquois Stakes and was fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

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