Ranking the final 2023 Road to the Kentucky Derby preps

April 24th, 2023

There were eight races in advance of the 2023 Kentucky Derby in which the winning horse received 100 qualifying points toward the Run for the Roses. It is usually from this group that we not only find the eventual Derby winner, but also the placed runners.

Ranking these eight races in order of likely importance is clearly a subjective exercise, but one worth doing now that we are less than two weeks away from the first classic of the season.

8. Wood Memorial (G2)

For the second time in three years, the Wood Memorial produced a winner that returned more than $100 to win. That doesn't necessarily flatter the winning Lord Miles nor the favored Hit Show, who had every chance to assert his class superiority but settled for second between Lord Miles and the maiden Dreamlike.

Overall, this looked like another uninspiring renewal of the Wood.

7. UAE Derby (G2)

Derma Sotogake is arguably the most impressive winner of this race since the unlucky Mendelssohn, but there remains the fact that no winner of this race has ever gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, nor has any Derby winner run in the Meydan feature.

Japan-based runners have been doing so well internationally that Derma Sotogake is a horse difficult to completely ignore, but there's plenty of history going up against him as no horse has won the Derby off of a non-U.S. prep since 1971.

6. Jeff Ruby (G3)

Rich Strike famously exited the 2022 Jeff Ruby on his way to posting the biggest Kentucky Derby upset in modern times. Keep in mind, though, he was a dirt horse (a Churchill Downs lover especially) struggling to run his very best on a synthetic surface.

Jeff Ruby winner Two Phil's is no slouch on dirt himself, but the son of Hard Spun clearly thrived a lot more on the Tapeta when airing by more than five lengths and earning a 107 Brisnet Speed rating. The concern is that a reversion to the dirt form we've seen from him so far will keep Two Phil's out of the Derby frame.

5. Louisiana Derby (G2)

Kingsbarns has come a long way in a short amount of time, but this edition of the Louisiana Derby will be remembered as a race he basically stole on the front end while setting pedestrian fractions. The form hasn't exactly held up, either.

Kingsbarns enters with only three starts, just like Triple Crown winner Justify (another who was unraced at two), but no one should confuse the two quite yet.

4. Arkansas Derby (G1)

Angel of Empire perhaps is the most overachieving of the main Kentucky Derby contenders, having won this Oaklawn feature impressively after also taking the Risen Star (G2) in a bigger upset.

A handy individual who can find a good position from which he can produce a strong turn of foot into contention, Angel of Empire has plenty of assets. The main drawback is that neither of his prep wins came against rivals considered top tier Derby contenders.

3. Florida Derby (G1)

The connections of Derby favorite Forte certainly weren't looking to squeeze the lemon dry in his final prep, but the juvenile champ had the unfavorable 11-post at Gulfstream's 1 1/8-mile start and made work of getting past the more lightly-raced Mage while winning his fifth in a row.

Forte remains the horse to beat and has proven he can run faster. But to those looking for reasons to potentially take a stand against him at a short price, this effort was arguably his least inspiring since the Breeders' Futurity (G1).

2. Blue Grass (G1)

On the one hand, enduring a taxing stretch duel in your final prep might not be the best thing in the world. On the other, a tough race can be beneficial if needed. I'll side with the latter view that this effort helped the two protagonists. 

Both Tapit Trice and runner-up Verifying needed to show a little more on their way to Churchill Downs, and I think both delivered while putting themselves in the upper echelons of Derby contenders. 

1. Santa Anita Derby (G1) 

As a tough race arguably benefited the top two in the Blue Grass, the feeling is similar regarding the Santa Anita Derby. After an ideal trip and performance in the San Felipe (G2), Practical Move had to dig a lot deeper to win this event over a couple of serious competitors in Mandarin Hero and Skinner. 

As good as this prep seemed to be, both on paper and visually, there are some caveats. Practical Move showed signs of potential distance limitations, while Mandarin Hero and Skinner at this writing remain on the outside looking in as far as making the final field of 20.