Top trainers on Road to Kentucky Derby and their past Derby history

January 28th, 2023

With the 2023 Road to the Kentucky Derby complete, a handful of three-year-olds have emerged as promising candidates for the first Saturday in May. In particular, horses from the barns of Brad Cox and Todd Pletcher have been grabbing headlines along the road to the Run for the Roses.

Below we take a look at some of the top Derby trainers and their horses to keep an eye on in the Kentucky Derby (G1), as well as how those trainers have fared in past Derby races.

Todd Pletcher 

Top Derby contender: Forte
Kentucky Derby record: 62-2-2-4

The Hall of Fame trainer saddles the top runner on the Road to the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard with Forte. Bred by South Gate Farm, the Violence colt has six victories from seven starts, including victories in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and Florida Derby (G1) most recently. Forte also earned Grade 1 titles in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Breeders’ Futurity and Hopeful, while his lone career miss came in the six-furlong Sanford (G3), where he placed fourth, more than five lengths behind 8-1 upset winner Mo Strike.

Pletcher has won the Derby twice, with Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017. He saddled four horses in his first Derby appearance in 2000, with Impeachment finishing third to Fusaichi Pegasus, followed by More Than Ready in fourth, Trippi in 11th, and Graeme Hall last of 19.

The Eclipse Award-winning trainer ranks first in all-time Derby starts with 62, 13 more than D. Wayne Lukas, who is second on the list. Pletcher is known to enter multiple runners in the Derby field and is tied with Lukas and Nick Zito for most Derby starters in a single year with five — a feat Pletcher accomplished twice, in 2007 and 2013.

He has also saddled four starters in a single year five times (2000, 2010, 2014, 2018, 2021), and conditioned three starters in 2022, with Mo Donegal (the eventual Belmont S. [G1] winner), Charge It, and Pioneer of Medina.

In addition to Forte, Pletcher has two other leading candidates in the form of Blue Grass (G1) winner Tapit Trice and Louisiana Derby (G2) hero Kingsbarns. Both closed at 11-1 in the sixth and final pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, with Forte the 5-2 favorite.

Brad Cox

Top Derby contender: Angel of Empire
Kentucky Derby record: 5-1-0-1

Winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby with Mandaloun, who was elevated to first via disqualification of Medina Spirit, Cox has found quick success in the Run for the Roses. With just five starters in his early career, the Louisville native also earned a third-place finish with Essential Quality in 2021, while he saddled Tawny Port (7th), Zozos (10th), and Cyberknife (18th) in the 2022 edition.

This year, Cox was responsible for 11 of the 38 horses in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. With the prep races complete, Cox appears likely to have four Derby contestants: Angel of Empire, Hit Show, Jace's Road, and Verifying.

Angel of Empire finished third on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 154 points, which he collected through victories in the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds and the Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park. He earlier finished second to stablemate Victory Formation in the Smarty Jones S.

Verifying is a strong second-string for Cox who's not without a winning chance himself following his tough second-place finish to Tapit Trice in the Blue Grass (G1). Hit Show earned himself a Derby start by winning the Withers (G3) and finishing second in the Wood Memorial (G2), both at Aqueduct, while Jace's Road scraped into the field after winning the Gun Runner S. and taking third in the Louisiana Derby (G2).

Steve Asmussen

Top Derby contender: Disarm
Kentucky Derby record: 24-0-3-2

Arguably the best trainer to never win the Kentucky Derby, Steve Asmussen came closest to the garland of roses in 2022, when Louisiana Derby hero Epicenter finished 3/4 lengths back in second as the favorite behind 80-1 longshot winner Rich Strike.

Asmussen also trained Lookin At Lee, who came home 2 3/4 lengths in second to Always Dreaming in 2017, and Nehro, second to Animal Kingdom in 2011.

His third-place finishers include 2017 Horse of the Year and top sire Gun Runner (2016), and Preakness (G1) and Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) champ Curlin (2007).

Asmussen ranks sixth all time in Kentucky Derby starts (24) and could see a couple of his trainees earn a spot in this year's Derby field. His most talented prospect on paper looked to be Extra Anejo, a dominant debut winner in a $100,000 maiden special weight at Keeneland in October, but the colt underwent surgery for a bone chip and hasn't raced as a three-year-old.

He also had another early prospect in the form of Red Route One, a son of Gun Runner who earned points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby in five consecutive races, but a below-par effort for sixth in the Arkansas Derby (G1) in which he missed out on qualifying points meant he didn't make it into the field for the first Saturday in May either.

Asmussen's sole Derby starter will therefore be another Gun Runner son, Disarm. He was second to Kingsbarns in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and then picked up just enough qualifying points to earn a Derby start when finishing third in the Lexington (G3).

Kenneth McPeek

Top Derby contender: Sun Thunder
Kentucky Derby record: 8-0-1-0

One-time Preakness and Belmont winner Kenny McPeek has hit the board once in eight lifetime tries in the Kentucky Derby, with his best finish coming with his first Derby starter when Tejano Run placed second to Thunder Gulch in 1995.

Last year he saddled two starters, Smile Happy (8th) and Tiz the Bomb (9th). In 2023, he has a few runners on the radar, including Sun Thunder, a 10-1 morning line choice in the Southwest, and stablemate Frosted Departure, a 15-1 choice in the Oaklawn feature.

Sun Thunder was a distant third to Determinedly on debut in a seven-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26, but relished the stretch out to a mile in his second start, winning a $90,000 maiden special weight at Oaklawn by 6 1/2 lengths.

The Into Mischief colt, who is out of a Medaglia d'Oro dam, found his way into the Derby field with four solid efforts, the best of which was a second-place finish to Angel of Empire in the Risen Star.

Other horses of note

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is suspended from racing at Churchill Downs through the conclusion of the 2023 Spring Meet. Thus, horses under his care are ineligible to earn qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby and were required to be transferred to a non-suspended trainer by Feb. 28 in order to be eligible.

The only Baffert transferee to make the Derby field was Reincarnate, who won the Sham (G3) for Baffert in January. Switched to Tim Yakteen, he scraped into the field by finishing third in both the Rebel (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1).

Yakteen also has a strong prospect that he's had throughout its racing career in the form of Practical Move. He's been the best three-year-old so far this season in California, winning the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), San Felipe (G2), and Santa Anita Derby (G1).