Kentucky Derby Report – Forte rallies dramatically, Angel of Empire soars

April 6th, 2023

Kentucky Derby favorite Forte saved his best for the stretch drive, closing past rivals to prevail in the Florida Derby (G1), and Angel of Empire continued his progression with an authoritative win in the Arkansas Derby (G1).

Three major qualifiers in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series remain this Saturday. Nine are set for the Santa Anita Derby (G1), which has produced four Kentucky Derby winners in the last 11 years. Eleven are set for the Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland and 12 for the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct.

Two international runners (Continuar and Derma Sotogake) with guaranteed berths are making travel plans, and if new shareholders are found for a third (Brave Emperor), he could also make the journey. That would leave 17 spots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate, and the points threshold may be the highest since the system was implanted in 2013. The lowest total needed so far, 40 points (Spinoff), came in 2019.

None of the Wood runners are in the main body of the field on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. Practical Move (60 points) in the Santa Anita Derby, and Raise Cain (54) and Tapit Trice (50) in the Blue Grass, are the only horses competing this weekend who appear safe.

In the Florida Derby, Forte had to drop in behind horses to avoid being caught extremely wide into the first turn from post 11, and he rated further back than normal in ninth as the field made its way down the backstretch. Irad Ortiz Jr. was asking him by the far turn, but Forte made only slight progress until swinging wide for the stretch, suddenly discovering his best stride as he put his body down and began to advance from fifth.

The Todd Pletcher-trained Violence colt rolled home, overcoming fast-closing Mage to score going away by a length, and Forte recorded his fifth consecutive stakes win. His season opener, a near five-length romp in the March 4 Fountain of Youth (G2), was one of the fastest preps of the year, as Forte netted a 103 Brisnet Speed rating, and while he earned only a 100 figure in the Florida Derby, Forte gained valuable battle toughness that may serve him well for a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.

It’s easy to envision Ortiz being more aggressive from the Churchill Downs starting gate, seeking to establish better positioning so Forte doesn’t leave himself too much to do in the final stages.

In the Arkansas Derby, Angel of Empire rated closer to the pace than he did recording a hard-fought length win in the Feb. 18 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, and he launched an eye-catching turn of foot on the far turn to inhale rivals and blow into the lead entering the stretch. The Brad Cox-trained son of Classic Empire drew away nicely through the stretch, netting a 108 Late Pace rating scoring by 4 1/2 lengths, and he earned his first triple-digit Speed number (101).

Flavien Prat picked up the mount on the progressing colt, and the Kentucky Derby-winning jockey captured the Louisiana Derby (G2) a week earlier with Kingsbarns. Prat also rides Geaux Rocket Ride in the Santa Anita Derby, and he’ll have a decision to make in the coming weeks.

Blue Grass

Tapit Trice broke slowly in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), closing from the tail of the field to win by two lengths, and the 5-2 morning line favorite must work out a trip from the rail a Blue Grass field without an abundance of speed entered. Verifying opened his sophomore season with a sharp frontrunning allowance score at Oaklawn, but he faltered when stalking the action as the favorite in the Rebel (G2). He projects to show speed from post 3 with Tyler Gaffalione, and I’ll tab the Brad Cox-trained Justify colt on the front end.

RELEVANT: Tipsheet: 2023 Blue Grass Stakes

Santa Anita Derby

Practical Move has run faster than rivals, and he projects to sit another favorable up-close stalking trip in the Santa Anita Derby. I’m not keen on National Treasure returning from a freshening, and while San Felipe runner-up Geaux Rocket Ride figures to receive plenty of support, I’m dubious of his chances on the stretch out to 1 1/8 miles. I’m intrigued by late-running Skinner, who didn’t break well and got involved too late finishing third in the San Felipe. The Curlin colt may continue to show more, and I will include Skinner on any multi-race tickets with Practical Move.

RELEVANT: Tipsheet: 2023 Santa Anita Derby

Wood Memorial

Hit Show must work out a trip from post 12, but the Wood lacks an abundance of early types and Manny Franco will have the chance to angle over into decent positioning if Hit Show can avoid a slow start, racing within a few lengths of the pace in a convincing Withers (G3) victory. The Candy Ride colt doesn’t appear to face the deepest competition, and Hit Show looks capable of advancing with a strong showing for Brad Cox.

A longshot of interest, Uncle Jake, exits an impressive wire-to-wire maiden win at Laurel Park in his second career start. The Medaglia d’Oro colt has trained forwardly since for Brittany Russell, and the speedster is listed at 20-1 on the morning line with Carlos Olivero, who won the Tom Fool (G3) with Little Vic at Aqueduct last month. I’ll use Uncle Jake in some vertical wagers with Hit Show.

RELEVANT: Tipsheet: 2023 Wood Memorial Stakes