A spectacle like no other, the Kentucky Derby serves as the biggest jewel on the horse racing calendar, and most contenders have one preparatory race left before shipping to Churchill Downs for the May 6 event.
Before examining Kentucky Derby contenders, let’s review some details.
Contested over 1 1/4 miles for three-year-olds, the Kentucky Derby is the only Thoroughbred race in North America to feature a 20-horse field, and spots in the starting gate are determined by a series of qualifying races that award points to the top five finishers in each race.
The final seven qualifiers carry more weight, awarding points on a 100-40-30-20-10 basis, and those begin on March 25 with Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park, Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, and U.A.E. Derby in Meydan. On April 1, the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park will be offered, and the major qualifiers conclude with the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 8.
Three horses are easily identifiable as leading contenders as we approach mid-March
Forte tops the list, returning to the races this year with a sharp 4 1/2-length win in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 4. Trained by two-time Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher, Forte was the top two-year-old of 2022, earning championship honors by sweeping a trio of important races (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Breeders’ Futurity, and Hopeful Stakes), and Forte will be the horse to beat when he lines up for the Florida Derby.
Inexperience will be an issue for Arabian Knight, who will have only three starts if he makes the Kentucky Derby starting gate, but the speedy runner has flashed serious talent, including a romping win in the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn Park on January 28. The exciting performer will stretch out to 1 1/8 miles for his next start in either the Arkansas Derby or Santa Anita Derby.
Practical Move notched his second consecutive stakes win when taking the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 4 by 2 1/2 lengths, and the California-based horse merits serious respect based upon Brisnet Speed ratings, registering 105 and 102 figures in those outings. He’s developed in a major player for trainer Tim Yakteen.
The next tier of contenders is bulky
Angel of Empire (Risen Star Stakes winner), Hit Show (Withers Stakes), and Instant Coffee (Lecomte Stakes) are exiting nice wins for trainer Brad Cox, and the trio will look to bolster their credentials in the final prep.
Keith Desormeaux, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness Stakes in 2016 with Exaggerator, has Rebel Stakes winner Confidence Game targeting the Arkansas Derby. Rebel runner-up Red Route One and third-placer Reincarnate also have something going for them.
Other three-year-olds to watch in the coming weeks include Fountain of Youth runner-up Rocket Can; Sam F. Davis Stakes victor Litigate; Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner, second and third in the San Felipe; Gotham Stakes winner Raise Cain; and Risen Star runner-up Sun Thunder.
Less than two months remain until the Kentucky Derby, and we’ll continue to report on key developments in the build-up to the race.