2023 Kentucky Derby: Five Takeaways You Need to Know After Mage's Win in 149th Race

May 7th, 2023

Mage’s victory as a 15-1 chance in Saturday’s 149th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1) will leave plenty of food for thought in the coming days. For the moment, here are five instant takeaways.

1. Old Derby prerequisites no longer apply

Mage defied two of the historical stats that long told against Derby hopefuls: he was unraced at two, and he was making just his fourth career start. Although these trends have been busted in recent years, those “trend-busters” had looked like forces of nature.

Justify (2018) famously became the first horse since Apollo (1882) to win the Derby after going unraced as a two-year-old. And he had just three career starts going into the Derby, an inexperienced profile that only the Hall of Fame filly Regret (1915) and Big Brown (2008) had overcome at Churchill Downs.

But both Justify and Big Brown burst onto the scene, suddenly, as dominant characters bestriding the division. Mage, whose dam is by Big Brown, was totally different. The Gustavo Delgado pupil was on an upward trajectory that left room for improvement, but so did a lot of other Derby rivals that he outperformed on Saturday.

If a colt like Mage can jump on the first Saturday in May, without looking like a phenom beforehand, then Derby handicappers can no longer rely on historical filters to find the winner.

2. Agonizing what-if for Forte

The Saturday morning scratch of longtime Derby favorite Forte was a crushing blow to connections, Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable and Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. His was the last, and biggest, in a flurry of defections that had begun Thursday. A total of five entrants got ruled out, the first time since 1936 that the Derby field had shrunk by a quintet.

Forte’s setback, a bruised foot, was especially tough for co-owner Mike Repole. Not only is Repole still looking for his first Derby, but he likely felt a pang of déjà vu. He had to scratch another Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion trained by Pletcher, Uncle Mo, from the 2011 Derby.

Yet the result of Derby 149 must have been salt in the wound, for Forte had beaten Mage in both of their Road to the Kentucky Derby races at Gulfstream Park this season. Forte had left rookie Mage well back in fourth in the Fountain of Youth (G2). Although Forte needed to pull out more to catch the improving Mage in the Florida Derby (G1), Mage paid him a hefty compliment in the Run for the Roses.

Based on their prior meetings, wouldn’t a healthy Forte have won, or gone very close, on Saturday? Hopefully we’ll get a rematch, either in the May 20 Preakness (G1) or down the line.

3. Two Phil’s monster effort in second

The scorching early pace in the Derby set it up for a closer. Mage deserves full credit – along with Hall of Fame rider Javier Castellano, who was winning his first Derby in his 16th attempt – for being the one to capitalize on that scenario.

All the more, then, should runner-up Two Phil’s be praised for nearly winning, despite racing close to the unsustainable pace. Indeed, everyone near him through the opening quarter in :22.35 retreated from the scene. Two Phil’s was just a shade over three lengths behind the leader in fifth, and 1 1/4 lengths back in fourth at the torrid half in :45.73.

When the rail opened for Two Phil’s on the far turn, and the leaders were giving way, regular rider Jareth Loveberry sent him through into the lead. Two Phil’s valiantly tried to hold on down the stretch, and he went down fighting by just a length.

Two Phil’s was emulating his sire Hard Spun’s runner-up effort in the 2007 Derby; Mage was going one better than his sire, Good Magic, did in 2018. In the process, Two Phil’s proved that his breakout performance in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) wasn’t just a matter of thriving on the Turfway Park Tapeta. Like Hard Spun, Two Phil’s will be a divisional player all season.

4. Follow Angel of Empire, Disarm, Tapit Trice

A few other beaten rivals are worth noting. Angel of Empire, who inherited the favorite’s mantle from Forte, ran very well to rally for third, a half-length off Two Phil’s. The Brad Cox pupil arguably lost the race in the fourth quarter, the six-furlong to one-mile stage. Until that point, Angel of Empire and Mage were in proximity near the back of the pack. But Castellano got Mage rolling into sixth by the mile mark, a jump on Angel of Empire that proved decisive. Had “Angel” sprouted his wings sooner, he would have had a better chance of Derby glory

Disarm finished a respectable fourth after playing catch-up on the trail all spring. The closing runner-up in the Louisiana Derby (G2), who wheeled back to collect more Derby points with a third in the Lexington (G3), had been touting himself in his works of late. By Gun Runner out of a Tapit mare, Disarm has every right to improve from this effort.

Tapit Trice, the slight second choice at 4.53-1, churned on for seventh after lagging in last in the 18-horse field early. The Pletcher colt’s running style, of building relentless momentum, is tailor-made for the Belmont (G1). Hit Show, who ran a fairly one-paced fifth in the Derby, is another likely to find the Belmont conditions more congenial.

5. Back to the drawing board for Japan

Sixth-placer Derma Sotogake officially equaled the best finish for a Japanese shipper in the Derby, although he did so by actually crossing the wire in that position. In 2019, Master Fencer was promoted to sixth upon the disqualification of Maximum Security.

Yet hopes were higher for Derma Sotogake in the wake of his brilliant UAE Derby (G2) victory. Once again, the form from Dubai World Cup night at Meydan did not translate at all to the Kentucky Derby.

Compatriot Mandarin Hero had taken a different approach to Churchill Downs, punching his ticket with a near-miss in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). He did not run back to that effort when 12th in the Run for the Roses.

Whether it’s the inherent challenges of traveling young sophomores at this stage of development, or just not the right horses for the race, it’s back to the drawing board for Japan’s quest for the Derby.