Racing Roundtable: New Year's weekend and beyond in 2023

January 3rd, 2023

The Racing Roundtable kicks off 2023 with a look back at the action over New Year's weekend and a look ahead to the upcoming season.

How do you rate Victory Formation as a Kentucky Derby (G1) contender?

James Scully: A promising type who must run faster. Stretching out to a two-turn mile, Victory Formation recorded a convincing wire-to-wire win in the Smarty Jones S. to remain unbeaten in his third start, but netted only an 89 Brisnet Speed rating. That's a big decline from his sprint starts (95 and 93 figures), which is never an encouraging sign, but Victory Formation wasn't seriously tested and still has upside for Brad Cox. His Speed ratings remain eligible to increase significantly over the next few months, and Victory Formation will look to emulate Orb, who earned only an 89 Speed rating when opening his three-year-old season with a 1 1/8-mile allowance win and went on to win the 2013 Kentucky Derby.

Kellie Reilly: It's always good to see a speedy sophomore pass the two-turn test, even though in Victory Formation's case, pedigree was a strong hint in that direction. His way of going is another plus, as he looks like one who can settle into a comfortable rhythm and just keep on galloping. Yet the acid test will come versus better rivals who can push him out of that comfort zone. While his Churchill allowance win two back proved his heart and determination, we'll learn more in deeper spots. After all, the Smarty Jones historically hasn't had as big of an impact on the trail as Oaklawn's later preps. Even its best winner, champion Will Take Charge (2013), was beaten double-digits in all three jewels of the Triple Crown before coming on in the second half of the season.

Vance Hanson: I view Victory Formation's win in the Smarty Jones much as I do stablemate Jace's Road's score in last week's Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds. Both were decent efforts, albeit against suspect fields. Favored at 3-5, Victory Formation had the run of the race and won convincingly. However, like many editions of the Smarty Jones over the past decade, there are doubts about the overall substance of the opposition. Still undefeated, Victory Formation is certainly eligible to keep improving down the road, but my initial gut reaction is that there are more formidable classic prospects in the Brad Cox stable.

What else caught your eye over New Year's weekend?

JS: Skippylongstocking, who appears set for an impactful four-year-old campaign following a comeback win in the Harlan's Holiday (G3) at Gulfstream. The Saffie Joseph-trained colt ascended up the three-year-old ranks last spring/summer, recording thirds in the Belmont (G1) and Wood Memorial (G2) before breaking through with a convincing win in the West Virginia Derby (G3), but earned time off after failing to fire in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1). Skippylongstocking looked like a horse with more to offer on Saturday, registering a 103 Speed rating for the comfortable two-length score, and I expect a strong showing in the Jan. 29 Pegasus World Cup (G1).

KR: The runners-up in both of Gulfstream Park's turf stakes last Saturday deserve a mention, for different reasons. Decorated Invader lost the luster from his juvenile and sophomore campaigns, and that decline was reflected in the fact that he was relegated to the also-eligible list in the Ft. Lauderdale (G2). But the Christophe Clement veteran drew into the field, showed more tactical ability than typical by tracking the pace, and held second. Perhaps the six-year-old can regain his status as a divisional player, after racing only twice in the spring of 2021 and resurfacing in the fall of 2022. In the Suwannee River (G3) for distaffers, Lady Rockstar resumed her upward trajectory with a solid comeback effort for Brendan Walsh. The daughter of Frankel appeared bound for bigger things after back-to-back allowance romps, only to disappoint in last summer's Matchmaker (G3). Lady Rockstar figured to find the one-mile Suwannee River shorter than ideal, and she was indeed beaten for finishing speed late. But she made a strong move off the five-month layoff, setting herself up for bigger targets.

VH: A throwback in the truest sense of the word, Beverly Park notched his 15th win of the 2022 season on Dec. 31 at Fair Grounds. Competing primarily in $5,000 starter allowances the past couple seasons, Beverly Park has now won 24 of his past 40 starts, with seven seconds and three thirds. Beverly Park started a whopping 30 times in 2022, or 10 times more often than presumptive Horse of the Year Flightline. I don't know what the secret is, but the overall health of the sport would be stronger if there were many more horses as sound and durable as Beverly Park competing on bread-and-butter cards throughout the year.

Which horse are you most looking forward to following in 2023?

JS: I'm excited  to see Cody's Wish target major two-turn events at age five. Bred for longer distances, late-developing Cody's Wish didn't make his stakes debut until last March, and Bill Mott raced him primarily at one-turn distances, including a notable victory over Jackie's Warrior in the seven-furlong Forego (G1) at Saratoga. The versatile colt earned his first two-turn win in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) at Keeneland, outslugging Cyberknife by a head. Cody's Wish will aim for the 2023 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita, and two of the last six Classic winners (Gun Runner and Knicks Go) captured the Dirt Mile the year before.

KR: I've discussed 12 horses of interest elsewhere on the Edge, generally of the outside-the-box variety instead of the obvious ones, so here I will be more conventional and name Taiba. His trajectory is reminiscent, to some degree, of sire Gun Runner โ€” prominent at three, but especially on the upswing late in the year. If the pattern holds, Taiba will carry that form into a stellar 2023. With the retirements of Flightline and Epicenter (sadly due to his injury in the Breeders' Cup), Taiba is eligible to take control of the older male division if he stays sound and healthy.

VH: I'll look overseas and tab Tahiyra as one of the potential superstars of the next European flat season. Put away for the year after a devastating score in the Moyglare Stud (G1) at the Curragh Sept. 11, the Aga Khan homebred could make her reappearance in the 1000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket on May 7. The sky appears the limit for the newly turned sophomore trained by Dermot Weld.