How Keeler Johnson will play the 2023 Kentucky Derby

May 6th, 2023

Less than 48 hours removed from the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs, I’ve settled on one of the main bets I plan to play.

I’m feeling confident in my top choices for the Run for the Roses. I’ve already outlined my case for #17 Derma Sotogake (10-1) off his blowout win in the UAE Derby (G2), and I plan to bet him on top of vertical exotic wagers. Arkansas Derby (G1) hero #14 Angel of Empire (8-1) is the main runner I’ll use underneath.

Please note: This story has been updated to reflect also-eligible entrants Mandarin Hero and King Russell drawing in due to scratches.

The problem with vertical exotics is the wide-open nature of this Kentucky Derby. Brisnet Speed ratings suggest the field is evenly matched for the most part, and longshots won’t need to improve much to get in the hunt. While I’m confident in my top four choices, I also recognize that a major longshot could snatch second or third place and spoil all my tickets in the blink of an eye.

That’s why my best Kentucky Derby bet isn’t a vertical exotic; it’s a multi-race wager. Specifically, the all-stakes Pick 4 ending in the Derby.

The sequence kicks off in Race 9, the American Turf (G2) for three-year-olds racing 1 1/16 miles on grass. A deep field has entered, and there are many viable win contenders. But I’m going to take a stand and single the undefeated #2 Far Bridge (7-2). He launched a terrific stretch rally to win his debut over the highly regarded #11 Carl Spackler (3-1), and he followed up with an eye-catching Gulfstream Park allowance score in which he burst through the pack to dominate by 3 1/2 lengths. I believe Far Bridge is a future Grade 1 winner in the making, and I expect him to deliver a powerful performance in his stakes debut.

Race 10, the seven-furlong Churchill Downs (G1), offers another logical single. #7 Cody’s Wish (4-5) is 4-for-4 at Churchill Downs and wrapped up his 2022 campaign with stretch-running victories in the Forego (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). He’s the class of the field, and Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott wins at a 21% rate with horses returning from layoffs of 90 days or more, setting the stage for Cody’s Wish to secure a third consecutive Grade 1 victory.

Race 11 is the Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1) taking place over 1 1/8 miles on turf, and I’m willing to take another stand with #5 Up to the Mark (4-1). After launching powerful stretch rallies to win back-to-back Gulfstream allowances, the improving four-year-old stepped up in class for Keeneland’s Maker’s Mark Mile (G1) and rallied to finish third in a fast race. Up to the Mark missed second by only a neck against reigning Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) winner Modern Games, and a repeat of that performance at Churchill Downs should be sufficient to deliver victory under four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz.

This brings me to the Kentucky Derby. Having found singles in the first three legs, I can spread deeper in the Derby, using Derma Sotogake, Angel of Empire, Blue Grass (G1) winner #5 Tapit Trice (5-1), Santa Anita Derby (G1) runner-up #22 Mandarin Hero (20-1), and Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) winner #3 Two Phil's (12-1) in equal strength. Best of all, I can play the ticket for a $5 base instead of the minimum 50 cents, increasing by 10 times the potential payoff.

  • $5 Pick 4: 2 with 7 with 5 with 3,5,14,17,22 ($25)

Good luck!