Racing Roundtable: 2023 Kentucky Derby weekend

May 9th, 2023

James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson recap the events of Kentucky Derby weekend in this edition of the Racing Roundtable.

What are your main takeaways from the Kentucky Derby?

James Scully: Mage took advantage of a hot and contested pace, closing boldly to win going away by a length, and his progression for Gustavo Delgado has been remarkable. From the first crop of Good Magic, Mage made his career debut only 99 days earlier, recording his lone win from three previous starts in a seven-furlong maiden special weight. The lightly-raced chestnut shipped outside Gulfstream Park for the first time, registering a career-best 103 Brisnet Speed rating in the Kentucky Derby.

He’s an exciting up-and-comer, and gate issues are the biggest concern presently, failing to break promptly for the third consecutive start. Mage will be more formidable when he learns to get away from the starting gate, but slow starts are a potential vulnerability in races without a favorable pace scenario.

Two Phil’s ran huge for second considering how close he was to the early pace, only 1 1/2 lengths back of dueling frontrunners Verifying and Kingsbarns through an opening half-mile in :45.73. Mage, third-place Angel of Empire and fourth Disarm were all far back at the same point, outside the top 11 runners. Similar to Epicenter last year, Two Phil’s surged to a clear lead in upper stretch only to be run down late.

Kellie Reilly: Since I offered five takeaways right after the Derby, this answer will focus on why I whiffed on Mage. Readers may remember my glowing review of Mage in our post-Florida Derby (G1) roundtable. Considering his substantial improvement from the Fountain of Youth (G2) to the Florida Derby, it was logical to conclude that here was a rapidly progressing colt with a chance to upset Forte in their rematch. Yet the historical obstacles put me off; as much raw talent as Mage had, I couldn’t see him repeating his Florida Derby in the hurly-burly of the Run for the Roses.

Not only was he an unraced two-year-old who entered the Derby with three starts, but Mage didn’t have as much qualitative experience as Kingsbarns. Although Kingsbarns had to defy the same stats, he at least had shipped and won over different tracks. Mage had raced exclusively at Gulfstream Park. Also unlike Kingsbarns, Mage was still on a learning curve, and I thought the Derby would be too much, too soon. As it turned out, he handled the Derby crucible far better than Kingsbarns, whose pace-forcing tactics proved utterly misguided. I’d expected a trip more like the one that runner-up Two Phil’s got.

Vance Hanson: Mage ran a terrific race, far better than what I would have expected from a horse without any two-year-old foundation. The history and percentages were against him in that respect, but it's evident that, moving forward, a more flexible approach to handicapping the Derby will continue to be required.

Two Phil's arguably ran the best race, hanging tough until the very end after racing so close to that hot pace. And Angel of Empire's performance was no disgrace either, given this was a much sterner test of class than the Arkansas Derby (G1). I look for all three to play major roles as the race for division honors continues this spring and summer.

Thoughts on the Kentucky Oaks (G1)?

JS: The connections of Pretty Mischievous felt she lost focus after driving to a clear lead in upper stretch of the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), giving way to finish second that afternoon, and trainer Brendan Walsh equipped the Into Mischief filly with blinkers for the Kentucky Oaks. And the equipment change worked to perfection.

After rallying to a clear lead off the far turn, Pretty Mischievous kept trying hard all the way to the wire, withstanding a strong late kick from Gambling Girl to prevail by a neck. Tyler Gaffalione also delivered a perfect ride, avoiding trouble on the first turn by hustling Pretty Mischievous forward into an up-close stalking trip from post 14.

KR: The blinkers-on move for Brendan Walsh struck again as Pretty Mischievous put it all together, reminding everyone why she was Godolphin’s top hopeful before Wet Paint emerged. Pretty Mischievous deserves extra credit for overcoming a wide trip from the far outside post 14, and gamely lasting down the length of the Churchill Downs stretch. Indeed, the others in proximity to the pace all retreated, in a race that set up for the closers.

Still, since the scrappy Gambling Girl came within a neck of winning, wouldn’t her higher-profile stablemate Julia Shining have done even better? But Julia Shining couldn’t draw in from the also-eligible list. A few other talented fillies were missing as well — e.g., Punchbowl lacked the requisite points; Faiza was ineligible as a Bob Baffert trainee; and Merlazza came to hand too late. With that trio, and maybe others coming out of the woodwork, the Oaks form might not hold up through the summer.

VH: It was no surprise at all to see Pretty Mischievous bounce back from her last-out loss in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) to win the Kentucky Oaks, and that the Fair Grounds prep form was generally validated. This was still not a vintage Oaks from a speed perspective, at least compared with the last couple of runnings. Thus, I suspect this group of three-year-olds will be just as vulnerable against the best of the older fillies and mares later in the year in a race like the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1).

What else stood out on Derby weekend?

JS: Cody’s Wish brings out the best in Thoroughbred racing, and he came back strong in the seven-furlong Churchill Downs (G1), launching a last-to-first move to win by about five lengths. He notched his fifth straight triple-digit Speed rating (105), and the five-year-old appears likely to stretch back out to two turns this summer.

Smile Happy appears back on track, and will try to make a serious impact in the older male division, notching a convincing two-length win in the Alysheba (G2). It marked only the eighth career start for the four-year-old colt, and Smile Happy earned a career-best 106 Speed figure.

Unraced since a nice win in the Swale (G3) in early February, General Jim gamely added the Pat Day Mile (G2) laurels, rallying to outfinish Fort Bragg. One-turn distances are a strength presently, and General Jim remains eligible to stretch out as he continues to develop for Shug McGaughey.

And seven-time stakes winner Bango looked better than ever winning the St. Matthews Overnight S. by five lengths off a 3 1/2-month layoff.

KR: Godolphin had a big weekend on both sides of the Atlantic. Aside from the stateside team’s major victories at Churchill Downs by Pretty Mischievous, Cody’s Wish, and Matareya, British trainer Charlie Appleby executed another raid on New York with Ottoman Fleet in Saturday’s Fort Marcy (G2). He also got two of his 2021 classic stars back on track at Newmarket. Adayar tuned up for Royal Ascot with a straightforward reappearance in Sunday’s Gordon Richards (G3) (transferred from Sandown), but the off-form Hurricane Lane had to dispel a lot of questions in Friday’s Jockey Club (G2). Hurricane Lane was back to his best with the addition of cheekpieces, to the huge relief of the Godolphin brain trust that kept him in training after a forgettable 2022.

But the prize for the dearest win goes to little Mawj, who was all heart to stave off favored Tahiyra in the 1000 Guineas (G1). Hitherto known as champion Modern Games’s baby sister, Mawj put senior Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor back in the spotlight. That was almost as poignant as Frankie Dettori winning the 2000 Guineas (G1) aboard Juddmonte’s Chaldean in his final season of riding, a silver lining for the shocking flop by Ballydoyle hotpot Auguste Rodin. Dettori is expected to renew his old association with Godolphin this Saturday at Belmont Park, when he jets in for Appleby’s Warren Point in the Man o’ War (G1).

VH: The other standout performances for me were turned in by Cody's Wish in the Churchill Downs (G1) and Up to the Mark in the Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1). There was more quantity than depth in the Churchill Downs, but Cody's Wish won it the right way for an odds-on favorite and figures to be a serious candidate for champion sprinter honors this season, even if he never races at a distance less than seven furlongs.

Up to the Mark blew away his rivals in the Turf Classic, a strong follow-up to his third-place effort in the Maker's Mark Mile (G1), in which he just missed second behind reigning division champion Modern Games. Up to the Mark has an opportunity to pad his own championship credentials later this summer in races like the Manhattan (G1) and Arlington Million (G1), both over 1 1/4 miles.