Byron King’s Derby Dozen for April 10

RacingContent provided by BloodHorse
Derby Dozen BloodHorse Byron King Kentucky Derby horse racing Fierceness Sierra Leone Forever Young Catching Freedom Mystik Dan Just a Touch Dornoch Just Steel Domestic Product Resilience Stronghold Honor Marie Blue Grass Wood Memorial Santa Anita Derby
Resilience (center, green and blue jockey silks) takes command at the top of the stretch en route to a 2 ¼-length win in the Wood Memorial Stakes April 6 at Aqueduct. (Dom Napolitano/NYRA)

BloodHorse news editor Byron King presents his Derby Dozen with a look at his leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 4.

Last week, Sierra Leone rallied to win the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Resilience took the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct, and Stronghold emerged as the top West Coast Derby prospect with a victory in the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park.

One final qualifying points prep race for the 150th Derby is scheduled for Saturday: the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

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.

Dom Napolitano/Coglianese Photo

1. Fierceness

As well as Sierra Leone ran in winning the April 6 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Fierceness remains on top in the Derby Dozen owing to his speed when he runs to his potential. His maiden win last summer and FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by TAA score last fall were decisive and swift, and he delivered an equally stellar performance in taking the March 30 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm at Xalapa by a record-breaking margin: 13 ½ lengths. He has alternated producing superior efforts with lackluster ones, a pattern critics believe could point to a Derby bounce from the likely post-time favorite. Conditions or trip may also explain the inconsistency, given Fierceness caught a wet track when a non-factor in the Champagne Stakes last fall, and he broke poorly and was rushed up when third in the Holy Bull Stakes to begin his season this winter.

Coady Photography

2. Sierra Leone

Those who backed him in the Blue Grass had a right to grow concerned when he balked at loading in the gate, delaying the start by a couple of minutes, but once the running started, he uncorked a powerful stretch kick to run down Just a Touch and win going away by 1 ½ lengths. Trainer Chad Brown and jockey Tyler Gaffalione attributed the gate antics to being the last to load and getting stirred up in front of the large Keeneland crowd. Now, a crowd of about 150,000 awaits at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. Gate delay notwithstanding, this colt is the real thing with pedigree, looks, performance, and a finishing punch that seemingly makes him a perfect fit for racing 1 ¼ miles. Take note of the quality group he also outran in the Feb. 17 Risen Star Stakes.

3. Forever Young

It has been a sound betting practice in the Kentucky Derby through the years to toss the UAE Derby Sponsored by Atlantis the Royal horses, not only on top but also from the superfecta. Of the UAE Derby’s 19 prior starters, not one finished better than fifth. In addition to facing better in Kentucky, rising from a Group 2 overseas to run into a top-level American classic, such horses are disadvantaged by the long travel and acclimation to the United States after previously racing in Dubai. Still, if a 3-year-old is to break this long slump, Forever Young  would seem to be that horse. He is 5-for-5, seemingly well suited to added distance, and coming off a pair of races in the Middle East that generated striking performance figures. Having already flown from Japan to the Middle East, it would also appear that long travel is something he can handle.

Coady Photography

4. Catching Freedom

Though the Louisiana Derby has produced only five Derby winners, compared to 25 for the Florida Derby and 23 for the Blue Grass, it has become an influential prep of late. Country House, fourth in the 2019 Louisiana Derby, and Mandaloun, sixth in the 2021 Louisiana Derby, captured the Kentucky Derby, both by disqualification. Louisiana Derby winners Epicenter and Hot Rod Charlie also ran well in the Derby to place in 2022 and 2021, respectively. As for this colt, he finished strong to take the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby. Being one of the first to arrive at Churchill Downs, and with experience there (including a maiden win beneath the Twin Spires), he may have a home-track edge over many of his competitors.

5. Just a Touch 

He heads to the Derby without a stakes victory, having been runner-up in the Gotham Stakes and Blue Grass after a debut win at Fair Grounds. It is difficult to run much better in defeat than he did in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass. He pushed splits of :46.48 and 1:10.83 – fractions more than a second and a half faster than the average Blue Grass splits from 2021-23. After taking command in the stretch, he yielded and was caught by Sierra Leone. Inexperience is the chief strike against this one, having made just three starts and only once around two turns.

Coady Photography

6. Mystik Dan

With 46 qualifying points, the Arkansas Derby show finisher currently has just enough to gain entry into the May 4 run for the roses, though he could be passed by horses competing in the April 13 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Even if that occurs, history suggests he will gain a starting spot. There are usually at least several defections in the lead-up to the race. Trainer Kenny McPeek, a Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes-winning trainer who is 0-1-0 with nine starters in the Derby, has more than a fighting chance with this nimble colt, who flashed his off-track ability in romping in the Southwest Stakes this year.

Coady Photography

7. Honor Marie 

The Louisiana Derby runner-up, not known as a particularly flashy work horse, outfinished his company, stablemate and Turfway Park maiden winner Anthem King, with an encouraging half-mile breeze in :47.80 at Churchill Downs April 7. He ran well in two starts at Fair Grounds, running fifth in the Risen Star Stakes before the Louisiana Derby, but it would seem that this late runner has an affinity for the Churchill Downs track. He has two wins from three starts locally, including a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall.

8. Dornoch 

He was a nose superior to Sierra Leone in the Dec. 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct, but in the five months since, Sierra Leone has moved forward while Dornoch has not. Dornoch was hard-ridden to defeat a scratch-reduced field in the Coolmore Fountain of Youth Stakes to kick off his season and was an even fourth in the Blue Grass. Perhaps an inside trip until the stretch compromised him a bit, but once angled out, would have liked to have seen him pass 51.37-1 longshot Epic Ride to show. So this full brother to 2023 Derby winner Mage descends into the bottom half of the Dozen rankings. Connections are hopeful he can secure a path clear of dirt coming back in his face in the Derby, and with a middle to outside post, he might be able to carve out such a trip with his positional speed.

Coady Photography

9. Just Steel 

Horses are running far less often than in the past, making Just Steel a bit of a throwback. He has raced 11 times for Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Derby winner, including four times in preps this year. He has not won any of the four but he was second three times this year, including most recently in the Arkansas Derby. He was just two lengths behind Muth, who, if he were eligible for the Derby, would likely be among the top four favorites. According to Lukas, this is a solidly built colt who benefits from training and racing. Just Steel won the Ed Brown Stakes at Churchill Downs last year.

Chelsea Durand/NYRA

10. Resilience

Following an encouraging fourth in a productive Risen Star Stakes, he added blinkers and convincingly won this past weekend’s Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, though over questionable competition. The two favorites in the Wood, Deterministic  and Tuscan Sky, never fired and were unplaced, and Resilience rolled over horses finishing in the 2-3-4 positions that were respectively odds of 106.75-1, 38-1, and 80-1. The Risen Star result suggests Resilience is legitimate. He finished 3 ½ lengths behind victorious Sierra Leone  and 1 ¾ lengths behind third-place Catching Freedom.

BENOIT photo

11. Stronghold

Often, the Santa Anita Derby winner is a top-five Kentucky Derby prospect. Not this year. Though Stronghold was game in outrunning Imagination in the 1 1/8-mile race this past Saturday, it was not a vintage renewal of the Santa Anita Derby. Maymun, who likely would have been the public choice, was notably absent from the entries, and finishing third was E J Won the Cup, a horse not nominated to the Triple Crown who has won a maiden race and the Turf Paradise Derby. Stronghold is an honest competitor who won the Sunland Park Derby this winter, but others seem faster and classier. This colt has a win at Churchill Downs, having begun his career in Kentucky before heading to the West Coast.

12. Domestic Product

Sierra Leone is undoubtedly trainer Chad Brown’s best hope for winning his first Derby, but this colt has quality, too. He accelerated to rally to victory in a slow-paced Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby that unfolded like a grass race: slow early and fast late. He should benefit from the distance of the Derby and from a faster pace. Less enthusiastically, the Tampa Bay Derby has produced only two Derby winners, the last of which was Super Saver in 2010 (he had finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby). Since then, only one participant from the race, victorious Tacitus, has finished in the Derby superfecta (third in 2019). This year’s Tampa Bay Derby also appeared lighter in quality relative to other Derby preps.

Note: Due to Churchill Downs Inc.’s continued ban of trainer Bob Baffert from racing at its tracks and of his horses from earning Kentucky Derby qualifying points, none of his top 3-year-olds, including Muth, are in the Derby Dozen. Barring a successful legal challenge by Zedan Racing Stables that would allow that colt and perhaps other Baffert runners to compete, look for Baffert in the Triple Crown starting with the May 18 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.

newsletter sign-up

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

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Instagram TikTok YouTube
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Instagram TikTok YouTube