Top 10 angles to watch in 2023 Kentucky Derby

May 6th, 2023

The 2023 Kentucky Derby (G1) offers several intriguing historical angles. As we settle in to enjoy the 149th Run for the Roses, let’s see which come to pass and how many are deferred for another year.

1. Forte aims to expand the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile/Derby club

As the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion, Forte will try to become just the third to follow up with a victory in the next spring’s Kentucky Derby. For more than two decades since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984, no horse was able to turn the double.

The “Juvenile jinx” was finally ended by Street Sense, the 2006 Juvenile winner, in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Nyquist emulated him by sweeping the 2015 Juvenile and 2016 Derby. The most recent to try, Essential Quality, was foiled when third in the 2021 Derby.

2. Pletcher’s three chances at a third Derby win

Forte is one of a three-strong squad for Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, along with Tapit Trice and Kingsbarns. Tapit Trice is eminently logical, but he’s also taken on sentimental appeal. Co-owner Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm just suffered the tragic loss of broodmare Havre de Grace, the 2011 Horse of the Year, and a first Derby trophy would offer a measure of consolation.

Kingsbarns will try to defy the stats against unraced two-year-olds while trying to preserve his perfect record. Only one horse has managed that unique combination of being unraced at two and winning the Derby while undefeated: Triple Crown winner Justify (2018).

If any of his trio can come through, Pletcher would raise his historical profile further with a third Derby win, following Super Saver (2010) and Always Dreaming (2017). He would join the great “Sunny Jim” Fitzimmons and Max Hirsch in a tie for third on the all-time list of Derby trainers.

3. Japanese bid for Derby breakthrough

After Japanese runners have starred on the world stage, not only on turf and but on dirt too, is this the year for a breakthrough Kentucky Derby win? Already this season, Japan has won the world’s two richest dirt races, the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) and $12 million Dubai World Cup (G1).

Derma Sotogake was one of Japan’s three World Cup night winners, when he rolled in the UAE Derby (G2). Past UAE Derby alumni couldn’t deliver in the Kentucky Derby, including two of Japan’s recent hopes, Lani (2016) and Crown Pride (2022). Yet Derma Sotogake might be better.

Mandarin Hero’s near-miss in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) has boosted his profile, beyond anything he’d achieved at home. He just drew in from the also-eligible list, which brings us to the next item to consider.

4. Could an also-eligible ‘Strike’ again?

One year ago, Rich Strike drew in from the also-eligible list to stun the Derby at 80-1. His was a last-minute entrance, with the necessary defection coming at virtually the last minute before scratch time.

This year, three also-eligibles hope to pull the same surprise. Only they didn't have to sweat it out on Friday morning; withdrawals on Thursday afternoon and evening allowed all of them into the field.

Cyclone Mischief, the first to draw in, has a tactical profile. Mandarin Hero will rally from off the pace. The last one in, King Russell, has the deep-closing running style most reminiscent of Rich Strike.

5. Can Asmussen get his Derby win a year later than expected?

Going into the 2022 Derby, much of the focus was on Epicenter, who was favored to give Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen a long-awaited first victory in America’s iconic race. The winningest trainer in North American racing history appeared on the verge of success when Epicenter struck the front, only to be collared by the improbable Rich Strike.

Asmussen had to settle for the Derby runner-up spot, for the third time. He’s also finished third twice, for a total of five placings. A two-time Preakness (G1) winner courtesy of Hall of Famers Curlin (2007) and Rachel Alexandra (2009), and a Belmont (G1) winner with Creator (2016), Asmussen is still looking for that first jewel in the Triple Crown. He was philosophical after Epicenter’s loss, noting that it just wasn’t meant to be.

It would be one of those ironic twists if it’s meant to be this year, with an under-the-radar colt in Disarm. A Winchell Thoroughbreds colorbearer like Epicenter, Disarm is by Gun Runner, who was third for Asmussen and his Winchell co-owners in 2016. And Disarm’s broodmare sire is the Winchells’ celebrated stallion Tapit, who also failed in his Derby quest. Were the Derby fates waiting for all the stars to align for Asmussen and the Winchells, so that they could win with a homebred heir of Gun Runner and Tapit?

Disarm works at Churchill Downs 2023 (Photo by Coady Photography/Churchill Downs)

6. Winners via DQ want to win outright

Trainers Bill Mott and Brad Cox, and jockeys Flavien Prat and Florent Geroux, are all official Derby winners. But their victories were awarded via disqualification, not achieved by crossing the wire first.

Mott and Prat teamed up with Country House (2019), who elevated when Maximum Security was demoted for interference. At least they got the traditional winner’s circle ceremony, unlike Cox and Geroux, who became Derby winners long after raceday. Their colt Mandaloun was promoted upon the eventual disqualification of Medina Spirit (2021), who tested positive postrace.

Mott relies on Rocket Can this year, while Cox has four chances to celebrate a Derby win on the racetrack: Angel of Empire, Prat’s mount; Jace’s Road, Geroux’s mount; Verifying; and Hit Show, who represents connections on the opposite side of a Derby DQ, as described below.

7. Demoted connections try again

Hit Show is a homebred for Maximum Security’s owners, Gary and Mary West. They would love to savor an official Derby victory after feeling like winners at the finish line.

So would the jockey who rode Maximum Security, Luis Saez. He’ll try to win the trophy with Tapit Trice.

Medina Spirit’s rider, Hall of Famer John Velazquez, was already a three-time Derby winner courtesy of Animal Kingdom (2011), Always Dreaming (2017), and Authentic (2020). The disqualification prevented him from reaching even loftier status in the record book.

If Velazquez can score an official fourth win aboard Reincarnate, he’d tie the legendary Willie Shoemaker for second on the all-time Derby list. The record of five wins is held jointly by Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack. 

Hit Show trains at Churchill Downs (Photo by Coady Photography/Churchill Downs)

8. Reincarnate the avenger of Holy Bull?

Reincarnate is a storyline all his own. He’s named for his resemblance to ancestor Holy Bull, who flopped as the 1994 Derby favorite before going on to become Horse of the Year and a Hall of Famer.

In his career-best victory in the Sham (G3), Reincarnate channeled the high cruising speed and determination of Holy Bull. If the beautifully-spotted gray can do the same in Derby 149, he might hold on for a long way. 

9. Desormeaux has ‘Confidence’ to go in fresh

Confidence Game, who is out of a half-sister to Zenyatta, sports two smart wins at Churchill as a juvenile. But he hasn’t raced since his career-best victory in the Feb. 25 Rebel (G2). On paper, trying to win the Derby off that long a break appears daunting.

Yet trainer Keith Desormeaux trusts his intuition as an old-school horseman from Cajun country. His instinct has worked well to buy bargain-basement yearlings and turn them into major winners, including Exaggerator, his 2016 Derby runner-up who captured the Preakness and Haskell (G1). If Desormeaux can find gems like Confidence Game, a $25,000 yearling, why can’t he finesse their training, regardless of what the stats say? If so, he’ll rewrite the Derby preparation talking points.

Confidence Game training at Churchill Downs 2023 (Photo by Coady Photography/Churchill Downs)

10. Justify, Into Mischief, Tapit among Derby sires

Justify could join the exclusive club of Triple Crown champions to sire a Derby winner, if Verifying succeeds on Saturday.

Perennial leading sire Into Mischief is seeking a record-equaling third winner. Both Rocket Can and Sun Thunder will add blinkers, and now Cyclone Mischief gives him a third chance. The great Tapit hopes that Tapit Trice can finally give him an elusive Derby trophy.

For much more on the sires, broodmare sires, and female lines of the 2023 Kentucky Derby entrants, see the “Pedigree fun facts” on

Happy Derby!