Cox, Pletcher preparing deep rosters for Kentucky Derby qualifiers

January 17th, 2023

Kentucky Derby (G1)-winning trainers Brad Cox and Todd Pletcher are in familiar territory at this time of the year, orchestrating plans for a large contingent of prospects.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby series gathers steam this weekend, as point values increase for the Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds, and I’ve highlighted more than 20 three-year-olds who could be in the Derby mix over the next couple of months for the Cox and Pletcher barns.


Victory Formation established himself as a major player for upcoming Oaklawn stakes, rolling to a convincing wire-to-wire win in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park on New Year’s Day. The Feb. 25 Rebel (G2) is likely next for the unbeaten Tapwrit colt.

Instant Coffee overcame a slow pace and tough trip to win the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) going away by 1 1/2 lengths, netting triple-digit Brisnet Late Pace numbers in both career wins, and the Bolt d’Oro colt will head Saturday’s Lecomte.

Loggins commands respect, winning his debut by 8 1/2 lengths before recording an excellent neck second to Forte in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, but he’s been sidelined since the latter. Cox expects to have the Ghostzapper colt back by the end of January, and time remains for a Kentucky Derby bid, but Loggins will be on a tight schedule when he returns to the worktab.

Jace’s Road turned things around with a 5 1/4-length victory in the Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds on Dec. 26, rebounding from a poor showing as the favorite in the Street Sense (G3) over a sloppy track, and displayed improved speed leading wire-to-wire. By Quality Road, Jace’s Road will aim for the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn on Jan. 28.

Verifying appears ready to show more against stakes competition as a sophomore, returning with a sharp 5 1/4-length win over allowance rivals at Oaklawn on Jan. 14. Runner-up in the Champagne (G1) and sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), the Justify colt is a half-brother to champion and $3.9 million earner Midnight Bisou.

Corona Bolt smoked rivals by nearly 10 lengths in the six-furlong Sugar Bowl S. at Fair Grounds on Dec. 26, netting a 99 Brisnet Speed rating. Unbeaten from two starts, the Bolt d’Oro colt will stretch to two turns for the Southwest.

Giant Mischief attracted notice when opening his career with a pair of wins, including a well-rated allowance win on the Breeders’ Cup Friday undercard at Keeneland, and the son of two-time Kentucky Derby-winning sire Into Mischief will look to rebound from a runner-up at odds-on in December’s Remington Springboard Mile.

Hit Show has been favored in all three starts, sandwiching convincing maiden and allowance wins at Keeneland and Oaklawn around a fourth-place effort, and the gray Candy Ride colt appears headed to stakes.

Tapit Shoes will face allowance foes at Fair Grounds Saturday after romping from off the pace in a Fair Grounds maiden in his second start. The chestnut son of Tapit is bred to be a good one.

Angel of Empire, a bay colt by Classic Empire, will continue along the Kentucky Derby trail following a non-threatening second in his stakes debut, the Smarty Jones.

Wadsworth broke through the fourth time out on Turfway Park’s Tapeta, generating a 90 Speed rating for a 10-length maiden win. His future may be on turf, but the regally-bred son of Quality Road figures to get a shot at a Derby qualifier. Last year, Tawny Port broke his maiden and finished second in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway before a seventh in the Kentucky Derby for Cox.

Willakenzie graduated at first asking by a 3 3/4-length margin at Fair Grounds on Jan. 5, taking an off-the-turf maiden at 1 1/8 miles. The War Front colt is out Road to Victory, winner of the 2017 Golden Rod (G2) on the main track at Churchill Downs.


Forte established himself as the top two-year-old male in 2022, concluding the season with wins in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Breeders’ Futurity, and Hopeful (G1). The Violence colt is targeting the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park on March 4.

Expect More remains promising despite still being a maiden, disqualified from a first-place finish in a two-turn Gulfstream maiden special weight the second time out in late December. If the City of Light colt becomes more professional, especially from the starting gate, Expect More looks poised to make an impact in the stakes ranks.

Point Proven thrived stretching out to two turns at Churchill Downs in late November, rolling to a five-length maiden win at 1 1/8 miles, and the son of Gun Runner is gearing up for his 2023 opener.

Kingsbarns established himself as one to watch when being unveiled on Jan. 14, rallying to win going away by nearly two lengths at a one-turn mile, and the exciting Uncle Mo colt received a 95 Speed rating. It will be interesting to see where he heads next.

Shesterkin made a good impression when opening his career in a seven-furlong maiden at Gulfstream on Dec. 31, dueling through quick splits before drawing off to a 2 1/4-length decision, and the son of Violence is bred for longer distances on the female side. Pletcher could opt for an allowance before trying stakes.

Tapit Trice overcame a bad start to win his second outing at Aqueduct in mid-December, earning a 96 Speed rating over the muddy track, and the gray colt could return to New York for the Withers (G3) on Feb. 4.

Litigate won at first asking at Aqueduct in mid-November, and the late-running son of Blame exits a decent second against allowance rivals at Gulfstream.