HomeThe ShuffleEarly Look at Kentucky Derby Hopefuls

Early Look at Kentucky Derby Hopefuls

The Kentucky Derby isn’t until May but the prep races that will determine the field has begun.

The Kentucky Derby trail isn’t quite at Sig Alert levels yet in terms of prep races. But two Derby constants are ever-present on the minds of horseplayers looking toward the first Saturday in May from the last week of January.

Bob Baffert and future wagering.

On the former front, the Hall of Fame trainer and six-time visitor to the Derby winner’s circle is still persona non grata at Churchill Downs, courtesy of his suspension in the wake of Medina Spirit’s positive drug test after the late colt won the 2021 Derby. He was later disqualified. That means Baffert’s Derby prospects are ineligible from collecting qualifying points toward the 2023 Derby.

This, of course, doesn’t preclude the face of the sport from having his usual armada of Derby contenders—or preclude Derby future bettors from pouncing on members of that armada.

Despite only one race on his resume, Baffert’s Arabian Knight carries the lowest odds on a Derby future board. He’s 8-1 at Caesars, largely on the strength of that one race: a 7 ¼-length dissection of a maiden special weight field on the Breeders’ Cup undercard last November at Keeneland.

Cave Rock, who won his first three races before finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November, is 12-1. National Treasure, who finished 1 ½ lengths behind his stablemate in that BC Juvenile, is 20-1.

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Baffert Horses in the Derby?

The only way you’ll see any of those three enter the Derby starting gate May 6, not to mention Hejazi (50-1), the $3.55 million colt who broke his maiden on fourth ask January 15 at Santa Anita, is if Baffert surrenders training control of his colts to another trainer by Feb. 28, according to David Grening of Daily Racing Form.

Baffert did this last year with two of his charges: Taiba and Messier. They finished 1-2 in the Santa Anita Derby, earning enough points in that Grade 1 prep to earn starting berths at Churchill Downs.

Taiba finished 12th, Messier 15th after both were caught up in a searing speed duel over the first six furlongs. But Baffert had the luxury of waiting until early April to turn his pair over to his former assistant, Tim Yakteen. He doesn’t have that luxury this year.

Moving east from Baffert’s Santa Anita barn, we find the most heralded Derby candidate in the class of 2023 is Forte. He not only leads the points ladder with 40 points, but leads in earnings at $1,545,650. The Todd Pletcher charge is a shoo-in for Champion 2-Year-Old, courtesy of a 4-for-5 record that includes three Grade 1 victories: the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga.

Forte is 10-1 at Caesars. He closed at 7-1 in the third of Churchill Downs’ five Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW) pools that ended last Sunday. Those pools, running roughly once a month, give bettors around the world a Derby future market on 40 colts. While it doesn’t include Baffert’s colts, you can bet them under the “All Other 3-year-Old Colts” option. That closed last weekend at 6-5.

Forte Favorite for Derby Win

Before you rush in and tell your favorite future market to shut up and take your money on Forte, one caveat that goes beyond taking him at 10-1 three-plus months out from the Derby. Champion 2-Year-Olds don’t always translate into Champion 3-Year-Olds—or Derby winners.

The last Champion 2-Year-Old to win the Derby was Street Sense in 2007. The last one before that? Spectacular Bid in 1979. The 2021 Champion 2-Year-Old, Corniche, didn’t even make the starting gate for the 2022 Derby due to injuries and falling form. The 2020 Champion, Essential Quality, finished third in the 2021 Derby.

What about the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner? What about them? The only two BC Juvenile winners to win the Derby this century were Street Sense and 2015 BC Juvenile winner Nyquist, who won the 2016 Derby.

Brad Cox, the 2020 and 2021 Eclipse Award winner for Best Trainer, has three contenders among the top 10 on the points ladder: Instant Coffee (32), Jace’s Road (13) and Victory Formation (10). Instant Coffee instantly vaulted to the No. 2 spot with his 2 ½-length score in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds last Saturday. He’s 20-1 at Caesars.

Jace’s Road (60-1) hasn’t run since dismissing the Gun Runner field by 5 ¼ lengths at Fair Grounds December 26. He’s expected to run in the lone Derby points prep this weekend at the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Victory Formation, unbeaten in three starts with his last score coming New Year’s Day in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park, is 50-1.

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Beware of Tempting Odds

Yes, those odds look juicy and eye-opening—for a reason. Betting Derby futures is one of the highest-risk, highest-reward wagers in horse racing. Most of the Las Vegas boards open their future wagering the previous November, adding and subtracting horses as they enter and exit the Derby trail.

But there’s an inherent risk in accepting low odds (anything below 40-1) on a horse this early on the trail. There’s too much time for too many things to happen between now and May 6. And all future wagers are action. You don’t get your bet back if your horse fails to start.

After this weekend’s Southwest Stakes, the Derby trail traffic gets busier the following weekend with three preps: the Withers at Aqueduct, the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park and the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita. All three are Grade 3s offering 20-8-6-4-2 points to the top five finishers.

Déjà vu All Over A
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