Racing Roundtable: Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby

April 4th, 2023

James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson discuss the two major Kentucky Derby (G1) preps of the past week and also a little Kentucky Oaks (G1) talk in this edition of the Racing Roundtable.

What did we learn from the Florida Derby (G1)?

James Scully: Forte's will to win shined Saturday, digging deep to prevail after a wide trip from an unfavorable post, and a tough final prep figures to serve him well for the Kentucky Derby. Forte doesn't have to win by flashy margins to assert his superiority, but early positioning at Churchill Downs will be key for the Kentucky Derby favorite. Forte didn't seem interested until the final furlongs of the Florida Derby, rating well off the pace along the backstretch, but to his credit, the top-class colt has proven far from one-dimensional, displaying more tractability stalking up close to the pace in previous wins.

Kellie Reilly: We learned the most about runner-up Mage, rather than Forte, who reiterated his champion status. Mage had a right to improve from his stakes and two-turn debut in the Fountain of Youth (G2), where he was fourth to Forte, but this was a serious move forward. Even allowing for the fact that the leaders were slowing as Mage circled the field, he packed a real punch from well back. The son of Good Magic appeared to take Forte by surprise as he swept past with his sudden rush. That move caused Forte's jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr., to take off in pursuit. Forte had been farther off the pace early, having to drop anchor from post 11, and left it later than envisioned in a dramatic finish. Yet his past wins suggested that he was capable of just that type of surge in time. After a cakewalk in the Fountain of Youth, this tougher test in the Florida Derby could set him up better for the first Saturday in May than if he'd had two relatively easy preps. Mage's rapid progression makes him a player too, although inexperience can be a bigger liability in the cauldron of Churchill Downs.

Vance Hanson: Forte didn't need to run his best race, or even improve on his Fountain of Youth performance, to win this edition of the Florida Derby. That was evident beforehand, looking at the field on paper. On the other hand, I would have preferred to have seen a faster race. There's no question it was a courageous one. Due to his wide draw, Forte had to concede more position and ground than connections likely wanted to. He had a furlong and a half, at most, where he had clear sailing, and needed nearly all of it to deny a relatively inexperienced but improving rival in Mage.

No trainer obviously wants their best three-year-old to peak in his final prep, but with a five-week gap between the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, I think that fear can be overstated. That's why my view of Forte's Derby credentials is slightly more jaundiced, and I now consider him more vulnerable than I have at any point all season. This performance didn't justify what I suspect will be a short price on Derby Day, and I'm now more likely to try to find an alternative selection.

Has the Arkansas Derby (G1) changed your view of Angel of Empire?

JS: Yes. Angel of Empire offered a sharp turn of foot to blow past rivals on the far turn, striking the front while turning for home, and finished more impressively than in a hard-fought Risen Star (G2) win, drawing off decisively in upper stretch to score by nearly five lengths. The Risen Star's pace collapse, coupled with runner-up Sun Thunder's well-beaten fifth in the Louisiana Derby (G2), left concerns about the quality of Angel of Empire's win, and I thought he kept progressing Saturday. The late runner has come a long way since a non-threatening second to Victory Formation in his stakes debut, the Smarty Jones on New Year's Day.

KR: I'd underestimated Angel of Empire's performance in the Risen Star, viewing it as a case of being best in the circumstances on that particular day, but his Arkansas Derby was convincing. While the closer once again got a favorable pace set-up, he dismissed a few rivals that I'd rated better than those he beat in the Risen Star, and he did so more emphatically. Chief among them was Reincarnate, who wound up a one-paced third in the Arkansas Derby, with no excuse. Rocket Can and Red Route One were others that I expected to show more, and Angel of Empire galloped all over them. He could even end up being Brad Cox's No. 1 Derby contender, pending how his stablemates fare in the final preps.

VH: I appreciate Angel of Empire more coming out of the Arkansas Derby than I did going in. Distance will be no issue at Churchill Downs, he has enough speed to get himself in ideal settling position, responds readily when asked, and has a solid turn of foot to get himself into contention. He still hasn't run especially fast, but that's been an issue for the entire crop and throughout the prep season. At 10-1 or higher, he's a potentially attractive Kentucky Derby prospect.

Will Wet Paint be the Kentucky Oaks favorite?

JS: It appears so. Wet Paint resoundingly passed a key test in the Fantasy (G3), recording her first win on a fast track after racing exclusively on wet tracks, turf and synthetic, and it's difficult to envision the results from this weekend's final round of major Oaks prep races keeping her from favoritism. The Brad Cox-trained filly has dominated the competition in three Oaklawn stakes this year, and Wet Paint will bring a strong closing kick to the May 5 Kentucky Oaks.

KR: Wet Paint is the pro tem favorite after proving her fast-track prowess in the Fantasy, but she has leapt to the forefront amid a vacuum in the division. My hunch is that someone will fill that vacuum in this weekend's races. Friday's Ashland (G1) at Keeneland is the center of gravity. If champion Wonder Wheel bounces back at her favorite track, Julia Shining remembers she's a full sister to Malathaat, or Punchbowl lives up to my possibly extravagant hopes, the Oaks odds forecast is likely to change. Saturday's Gazelle (G3) would also affect the equation, especially if Occult dominates. Given Wet Paint's deep-closing style, an impressive prep winner who promises to get the jump on her can become the new favorite. Perhaps that's too bold an expectation in a pretty muddling season, but now it's crunch time for several of the A-listers.

VH: I think it's a touch too soon to anoint Wet Paint as the likely favorite or the one to beat in the Kentucky Oaks, but she's definitely a primary contender, especially after demonstrating her ability over a fast track for the first time in the Fantasy. I prefer to wait and see how things shake out later this week in the Ashland (I'd be surprised if either the Santa Anita Oaks [G2] or Gazelle yielded an alternative favorite). Keep in mind, too, the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) one-two Southlawn and Pretty Mischievous. Both are legitimate threats and were seemingly battle-tested more facing each other than what Wet Paint beat in Arkansas all winter.