Early Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby thoughts that just ‘might’ pay off

April 13, 2023

We are less than a month away from the Kentucky Derby. The most exciting two minutes in sports run ‘usually’, barring a pandemic, on the First Saturday in May. Ah, the Run for the Roses, can’t wait.

Photos: Jenny Photog, Ernie Belmonte, Past the Wire

Videography: Jim Gazzale

The best Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby seminar in the game

In this column we’ll take a look at the current state of affairs for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby and see if we can get a leg up on the competition and find some interesting stories to watch play out. Maybe we’ll even spot a winner.

Flavien Prat made his Kentucky Derby decision. He stuck with Angel of Empire over Kingsbarns. Brad Cox or Todd Pletcher must have been a tough decision. Kingsbarns is undefeated but the knock is the lack of experience, the lack of a two-year-old start, and he is slow. I say nonsense to all that. He is lightly raced and improving and eligible to go forward big time in the Kentucky Derby. Bob Baffert taught us all with Justify that whole Apollo thing means nothing when they’re off in the Kentucky Derby. If I was Prat’s agent I would have rode Kingsbarns. I don’t know who Todd Pletcher will give the call to, but if it was me I’d tab none other than Frankie Dettori if I could get him. We know he wants a Derby, ahem Kentucky Derby in what is most likely his final year in the saddle. Frankie told me he was NOT pulling any Brett Farve or Tom Brady moves and this was it. We’ll see as we know how tough it is for athletes to leave while still on top.

Angel of Empire came home the fastest last quarter, 12 seconds I believe as any of the other Derby horses with the exception of Disarm (also has a 12 second final quarter) who is still fighting his way in with a last ditch effort in the Lexington. Does that matter, probably not but it might have weighed in Prat’s decision. This also assumes the fractional times are correct as we know The Sport of so called Kings does not use Rolex, Patek Phillippe, or Richard Mille to time the races. Our TRACKING TRIPS members know we have out-guessed jockeys and their agents many times and profited off it. It reminds me of one of my favorite racing quotes by one of my all time favorite jockeys. Eddie Arcaro was once asked by a reporter what he would have liked to do if he wasn’t a jockey. Eddie thought for a moment and replied:

‘I’d have liked to be the bookie in the jock’s room’

Eddie Arcaro

And there you have it.

It is extremely likely there are a few Kentucky Derbies with Chad Brown’s name on them. Deservedly so. I have never seen horses brought up to race as expertly as Zandon, who was just out-finished but 100% peaked at the right time, and Cloud Computing and Early Voting who strategically passed the race in their best interests only to win The Preakness. Chad is a Hall of Famer and one of the best ever on any surface, distance, or conditions. That is what the greats do, put the horse first. That said, who would have thought he’d breed a Kentucky Derby winner before training one. Probably nobody, but that is exactly what will happen if Practical Move, a leading contender, wins the Run for the Roses. If Blazing Sevens runs and wins, there goes that theory.

Practical Move wins the Santa Anita Derby, Ernie Belmonte, Past the Wire
Practical Move wins the Santa Anita Derby, Ernie Belmonte, Past the Wire

Ah the point system. Does it work? I don’t know.

First, can anyone tell me how and why the Illinois Derby lost out on any points at all? Didn’t War Emblem win that race or something? The UAE Derby has points, come on. In any event if you watched the Santa Anita Derby you had to see that Mandarin Hero belongs in the Kentucky Derby. In my book he would have been a contender for sure. He did not have the best of trips, and was dead game down the lane. He is improving and would be a must consider on the First Saturday in May. His second place finish earned him 40 points, not enough to make the gate this year. Jace’s Road, number 19 on the list of 20 has 45 points and just over 200K in earnings. Mandarin Hero has 339K in earnings. You tell me who belongs in the gate. The points may keep the sprinters out but the pace at times still gets hot. They also keep control of the Derby in the hands of Churchill Downs as theoretically if you wanted ‘your race’ to be the best Kentucky Derby prep, raise the purse enough so the first three finishers are in under the graded stakes earnings system. Mandarin Hero earned a shot and probably won’t get it. Skinner who Mandarin Hero beat is 21st on the list, and has less earnings but gets in before Mandarin Hero. This must be extremely disappointing to the connections including jockey Kazushi Kimura. He thought he was in and had the call. Here is what Kazushi had to say:

This brings me to the exciting prospect Mage. Mage ran huge in the Florida Derby which was only his third start. He did not have the best of trips in the Fountain of Youth or the Florida derby. It took all race favorite and early Kentucky Derby favorite Forte had to beat him. Mage also has to overcome that meaningless Apollo thing and a lack of seasoning. He also loses Luis Saez who telegraphed who his Derby horse was early on when people were still thinking Instant Coffee was a contender despite yours truly stating openly he was not. More on that later. As of now Mage as far as I know is open. I’d tab one of two riders. Kazushi Kimura who rode Mandarin Hero like Laffit Pincay rode Caveat in the Belmont Stakes but that would require some way outside the box thinking and most don’t do that in the Derby. Who would be more motivated that Kimura after the Mandarion Hero fiasco and he is a strong finisher like Saez. Then you have Frankie, you get the best going for the one he wants. Who’s better than you? We’ll probably see a more conventional choice but hey he’s not my horse, only my friends and I did fill his ear. In any event this Good Magic colt can run. Personally I would have given him a confidence boosting win and shot for The Preakness but who can possibly argue with taking a live colt to the Kentucky Derby? Not me.

Forte may not have been fully cranked for the Florida Derby. He drew a wide post and was already in the Kentucky Derby. He was still able to run down Mage but how much did that race take out of both horses and which is likely to go forward? Mage’s trainer Gustavo Delgado has a history of his horses performing well at big prices and Pletcher is simply one of the best. As for who goes forward I would have to give the head bob to Forte, but it’s just a bob.

I think the Louisiana horses on the Road to the Derby were overrated with the exception of Kingsbarns who toyed with them. I said that while everyone touted the Louisiana path. You can bet one for sure now in the Derby.

I love what Ramon Vazquez said about his ride on Practical Move who slowly but surely won me over to him being a legit contender. He said he was holding him and not opening up when he could have to school him, teach him to re-break and take some dirt in the face. this is a smart underrated rider who likely helped his chances in the big dance.

Ramon on Practical Move after the San Felipe and before the Santa Anita Derby:

The distance is the biggest. question in my mind. It would also be I don’t know ironic or something if Tim Yakteen wins the race with ‘his horse’ as opposed to one of the ones transferred from Bob Baffert.

Practical Move wins the Santa Anita Derby on the way to the Kentucky Derby, Ernie Belmonte, Past the Wire
Practical Move wins the Santa Anita Derby on the way to the Kentucky Derby, Ernie Belmonte, Past the Wire

Tapit Trice is a fighter. I like fighters especially in a race like the Derby. When everyone said if he breaks slow he has no chance in the Blue Grass and Kentucky Derby I said nonsense. The Derby is one of the most trip and pace dependent races in the sport. Rich Strike was coming up the inside while Mo Donegal was close to the apron leading to a major wager for me on Mo Donegal in the Belmont Stakes. Nobody knows how the Derby unfolds. There is always a figure horse who just doesn’t fire. There is always a horse who gets a terrible trip. There is always a horse who has the seas part. Being a fighter is good in any of those situations. Luis Saez showed his hand when he took off Secret Oath telling Wayne Lukas he did not want to take a chance at Losing Tapit Trice by allowing someone else to ride him in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Derma Sotogake will try and be the first Japenese and UAE Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby, but there is another Japanese horse set to run also. I don’t think this is their year unless somehow Mandarin Hero gets to run.

Let’s talk a little about Bob Baffert. He may not be in the Kentucky Oaks or Kentucky Derby despite the KHRC suspension being over, but he is absolutely in the race. This is the final year of the Churchill Downs imposed house ban from the Oaks and Derby. He sits in a very unique position. I believe with everyone at their best, Arabian Knight is as good as any of the three-year-olds. Baffert has plenty of other three-year-olds still developing and a few that will return to his barn. If things go right he can wind up with the three-year-old champ without running in the Kentucky Derby. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is going to be run at Santa Anita this year. Bob does OK at that track and in that race.

Faiza is undefeated and who would not want to see her have the lead turning for home in the Kentucky Oaks and Wet Paint have to run her down? Just one single person I believe, Flavien Prat, who was gifted with not having to make a choice on who to ride. I think Wet Paint is a monster filly, and have since I first saw her run. She comes from pretty far back though and Faiza would get the jump on her and nobody has been able to out run her to the wire yet. Racing needs those types of rivalries and match ups. I’ll state the obvious. Bob Baffert is in a position to win the three-year-old filly championship without running in the Kentucky Oaks. That in itself is an accomplishment regardless of how things play out. A testament to his horsemanship and also resiliency. Imagine if he wins both. If anyone can it is Bob.

Faiza gallops in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks but will pass the Kentucky Oaks, Ernie Belmonte, Past the Wire
Faiza gallops in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks but will pass the Kentucky Oaks, Ernie Belmonte, Past the Wire

Hoosier Filly and Wonder Wheel both look like they did not progress from two to three. The connections of both should put me on the stake list if they win. I don’t come cheap either. Guns and Graces might not get in or run in the Oaks but she has a very big race in her at some point. I can see and smell it.

Ladies first. The Oaks top filly Wet Paint runs a lot faster than paint dries. Without Faiza in there she’ll be a handful but at a short price she will have a lot of work to do. You have to look hard at the alternatives under those conditions. If there isn’t one there isn’t one. We’ll see when we do our homework.

In the Derby I don’t think we see a Mind That Bird or Rich Strike type of year. I was looking for someone knew and under the radar to emerge but it didn’t happen. The top three or four horses seem to outclass the rest and one of them likely fires and gets the trip.

Don’t look at how they ran, look at how they’ll run. We want someone moving forward in both races. Peaking horses win big races.

Jonathan Stettin

For someone who is going to have one and maybe two big under card days, well you’ll have to grab a spot at our annual seminar for that!

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Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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