Kentucky Derby Report: Fields sets for opening round of major qualifiers

March 23rd, 2023

The spotlight shines on Kentucky Derby contenders over the next three weeks as the final round of prep races get underway.

Eight major qualifiers remain in the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, and the action starts Saturday with the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2), $700,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway Park, and $1 million UAE Derby (G2) in Meydan. The top five finishers earn points on a 100-40-30-20-10 scale toward a berth in the $3 million Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 6.

Outside of the prohibitive early favorite, champion juvenile and Fountain of Youth (G2) romper Forte, who is targeting the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park on April 1, the 2023 Kentucky Derby picture remains in flux. Contenders will sort out their hierarchy over the final round of prep races.

Louisiana Derby

Twelve are set for the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby, for which Instant Coffee has been pegged as the 2-1 morning line favorite. Winner of a pedestrian Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill last fall, Instant Coffee moved forward off a winter freshening when returning with a convincing win in the Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds in late January. The Brad Cox-trained son of leading freshman sire Bolt d’Oro registered a 96 Brisnet Speed rating, tied for the top number in the Louisiana Derby field.

Instant Coffee raced closer to the pace in the Lecomte than previous starts, registering 92 E1 and 103 E2 Pace figures, and early positioning appears key give the lack of confirmed speed present. Luis Saez will look to establish another favorable stalking trip from post 2 aboard the dark bay colt, and I respect Instant Coffee’s chances.

Kingsbarns, unbeaten from two starts, invades from South Florida for Todd Pletcher, and the projected frontrunning colt may be the second choice in the wagering, but I’m a little concerned about his Speed ratings dropped to a 91 when stretching to two turns in his second outing.

I’ll mention a pair of intriguing Steve Asmussen-trained sophomores at better value, Shopper’s Revenge (12-1) and Disarm (10-1).

Shopper’s Revenge has broken poorly in two of three starts, rallying from far back for second each time, but the gray Tapit colt recorded a runaway wire-to-wire maiden triumph the lone time he got out of the gate at Oaklawn Park. If he breaks sharply — and Shopper’s Revenge shows a bullet half-mile work from the gate in preparation — he’s eligible to factor on the front end.

Disarm missed the start as well in his lone start versus winners, recording a fine rallying second at Oaklawn last out, and the stalker may appreciate the added ground with new jockey Joel Rosario. I’ll use both in wagers.

Jeff Ruby Steaks

The headliners in the 1 1/8-mile Jeff Ruby Steaks are easy to identify – multiple graded turf victor Major Dude for Pletcher/Irad Ortiz Jr., Lecomte runner-up and Risen Star (G3) third Two Phil’s, and John Battaglia Memorial winner Congruent – and handicappers will have to sort out 12 runners with varying degrees of turf, dirt, and synthetic form over Turfway’s Tapeta track.

Funtastic Again, who exits a pair of convincing wins over the Tapeta for leading trainer Wesley Ward, is my top choice. The chestnut colt led wire-to-wire in both local appearances, including a 3 3/4-length decision in the Jan. 21 Leonatus S., and the Jeff Ruby did not attract any serious speed. Top local jockey Gerardo Corrales should be prominent from the start on Funtastic Again.

UAE Derby

Thirteen will contest the 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby overseas, and Coolmore/Aidan O’Brien are responsible for the expected favorite, Cairo, an Irish-bred son of Quality Road who exits a convincing win in the March 13 Patton S. on a synthetic track in Ireland. The Group 3-winning colt retains the services of Ryan Moore.

The formidable Japanese contingent includes Japanese Derby Road winners Continuar, Derma Sotogake, and Perriere, and UAE Two Thousand Guineas (G3) victor Tall Boy heads a pair of runners for two-time Kentucky Derby winner Doug O’Neill.