Keeler Johnson's Top 5 contenders to watch for the 2023 Kentucky Derby

April 25th, 2023

Keeler Johnson tells the top Kentucky Derby contenders he's watching

Less than two weeks out from the 2023 Kentucky Derby (G1), the field is coming into focus and the key contenders are established.

While final workouts and the post position draw can still change the Kentucky Derby picture, it’s never too early to start strategizing selections. Here’s where I’m currently leaning with my top five Kentucky Derby contenders:

5. Angel of Empire

Jockey: Flavien Prat

Angel of Empire has improved with every race he’s run on dirt and enters off stretch-running triumphs in the Risen Star (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1). In the latter race, Angel of Empire unleashed an impressive turn of foot to crush the competition by 4 1/4 lengths, earning a powerful 108 Brisnet Speed rating. A similar finish in the Kentucky Derby will make Angel of Empire a formidable threat down the homestretch.

4. Skinner

Jockey: Victor Espinoza

If you like Santa Anita Derby (G1) hero Practical Move, then you have to like Skinner, who finished third by half a length in the Santa Anita Derby after racing wider than the winner. Skinner is progressing in the right direction and boasts improving Brisnet Late Pace ratings of 104 and 107 from his last two starts, suggesting this stoutly bred son of Curlin has upset potential for trainer John Shirreffs, who saddled Giacomo to spring a 50-1 surprise in the 2005 Kentucky Derby. However, Skinner is currently ranked #21 on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard and needs one defection in order to qualify.

3. Practical Move

Jockey: Ramon Vazquez

If any horse can handle the traffic and chaos of the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, it’s probably Practical Move, who has employed rail-skimming tactics to win the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), San Felipe (G2), and Santa Anita Derby in succession. Practical Move doesn’t mind racing in traffic and owns a trio of triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings, stamping him as a top-three Kentucky Derby win threat.

Practical Move and jockey Ramon Vazquez win the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park. (Photo by Benoit Photography)

2. Forte

Jockey: Irad Ortiz

2022 champion two-year-old male Forte is by far the most accomplished horse in the Kentucky Derby field, having rattled off consecutive victories in the Hopeful (G1), Breeders’ Futurity (G1), Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Fountain of Youth (G2), and Florida Derby (G1). He had to work hard in the latter race, but didn’t get the best trip from an outside post and nevertheless rallied strongly late to win by one length. Forte’s trademark move is a sweeping rally around the far turn, which is often where Kentucky Derbys are won or lost.

1. Derma Sotogake

Jockey: Christophe Lemaire

The prospective Kentucky Derby field doesn’t contain much pace on paper, setting the stage for Derma Sotogake to receive a perfect trip. While the Japanese-bred colt is versatile in terms of running style, he set a fast pace in the UAE Derby (G2) and still drew off strongly down the homestretch to dominate by 5 1/2 lengths. Derma Sotogake’s final time of 1:55.81 for 1,900 meters (about 1 3/16 miles) looks terrific compared to the 2:03.25 required by older horses to complete the 2,000-meter Dubai World Cup (G1) on the same day. If Derma Sotogake sets or presses a modest pace in the Kentucky Derby, he can kick on down the lane and become the first Japanese winner of the Run for the Roses.