Byron King’s Derby Dozen for Feb. 1

BloodHorse news editor Byron King presents his latest Derby Dozen, with a look at his leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 6.

Last week, Arabian Knight made his first start since early November in the Southwest Stakes and dominated the race, although the Bob Baffert trainee did not earn any qualifying points for Derby 149 (see below). This Saturday, three more points preps are on the schedule, although the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park will not serve as a prep as trainer Bob Baffert – banned by Churchill Downs in 2023 – has all of the entrants. The two qualifying points preps are the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct.

Check out America’s Best Racing’s Triple Crown page to keep up to date with stories and statistics on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

1. Forte 

The champion 2-year-old male of 2022 clings to the top spot in the Derby Dozen rankings, having won the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. His form has been flattered by subsequent efforts from horses such as Instant Coffee, Verifying, and Curly Jack. Red Route One and Frosted Departure were seven lengths and 23 ¾ lengths behind him in the Breeders’ Futurity, and those same horses were 5 ½ lengths and 7 ½ lengths in arrears of Arabian Knight, respectively, in the Jan. 28 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. He’s aimed at the March 4 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

2. Arabian Knight 

A $2.3 million juvenile purchase last year, he rises to second in the Dozen after splashing to an easy win at Oaklawn Park in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest, a race just as flashy as his successful debut at Keeneland Nov. 5. This uber-talented colt is now favored over Forte in Kentucky Derby future-book wagering in Nevada racebooks despite Churchill Downs Inc. having banned Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert from competing at its tracks through mid-2023, citing medication violations, and also prohibited his horses from earning qualifying points toward the May 6 Derby. Future-book bettors are banking that he could qualify for the Derby with a transfer into another stable, which is how Baffert trainees Messier and Taiba made the 2022 race. Baffert also has a Feb. 2 court date in Kentucky, seeking an injunction that could allow him to participate in the Derby.

3. Instant Coffee

The Jan. 21 Lecomte Stakes winner at Fair Grounds dips a spot, having been passed by Arabian Knight. The lone defeat for Instant Coffee in four starts came when fourth in the 1 1/16-mile Breeders’ Futurity, and that was a tall second-out order after just a debut win at Saratoga Race Course going seven furlongs. Already with 32 qualifying points for the Derby, he is well positioned (as is Forte) to have enough points to make the Run for the Roses, leaving trainer Brad Cox with the option of spacing out the colt’s preps if he so desires.

4. Faustin 

Though beaten by stablemate Havnameltdown in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes Jan. 29 at Santa Anita Park, he lost little in defeat in his second start after a debut maiden victory. Havnameltdown is a three-time graded stakes-winning sprinter. Faustin has a route pedigree, by 2007-08 Horse of the Year Curlin out of multiple Grade 1-winning turf router Hard Not to Like . He just kept coming after his stablemate when second by 1 ½ lengths in the San Vicente, running his final furlong in about :12 2/5.

5. Verifying 

A half-brother to filly champion Midnight Bisou and a $775,000 yearling acquisition, he has been first or second in three of four starts, the exception coming when he was sixth behind Forte in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The colt ran the fastest race of his short career in winning a first-level allowance optional claimer at Oaklawn Jan. 14, and he seemed to exit that race in top condition, returning with a :49 1/5 four-furlong workout at Fair Grounds. The Feb. 18 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford or the Feb. 25 Rebel Stakes would appear next.

6. National Treasure

Baffert trains about 90% of the top 3-year-old males in California, among them this colt. Baffert also plans to have a presence in the Feb. 25 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, where he likes to ship his horses at this time of year when they leave California. National Treasure looks like the type that will benefit from racing. This talented prospect still shows signs of needing seasoning, as reflected by an even-paced third as the favorite in the Jan. 8 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita after rating inside behind the speed until exiting the final turn.

7. Hejazi  

A $3.55 million purchase as a 2-year-old, he ran a 105 Equibase Speed Figure in zipping 6 ½ furlongs in 1:14.58 when breaking his maiden Jan. 8 at Santa Anita – a number that stacks up with Forte’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (105 ESF) and Arabian Knight’s Southwest (106 ESF). Hejazi is bred to stretch out and picked up a top-level placing in his only route when third in the 1 1/16-mile American Pharoah Stakes last fall, but he tired late to run third by 8 ¾ lengths to stablemate Cave Rock.

8. Blazing Sevens 

This one has recorded two works through January, both at three furlongs at Payson Park, with his most recent drill Jan. 28 timed in :38 4/5. A top-level winner at age 2 over Verifying in a sloppy Champagne Stakes, he closed out his freshman campaign with a fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after breaking awkwardly. The jury is still out on his two-turn ability after his success last year came around one turn. He flattened out late when fourth in the Breeders’ Cup, admittedly after playing catch-up from his inauspicious beginning.

9. Cave Rock

He is farther behind others in his training, not having worked in 2023, but he is galloping – leaving the Derby still in play if he can come around quickly. But he has less margin for error than others and can ill afford even a minor setback, hence his placement in the bottom half of the Dozen. On pure talent, he is a top-three prospect. After winning his first three starts, including the Runhappy Del Mar Futurity and American Pharoah Stakes, he was hammered to less than 1-2 odds when second to Forte in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

10. Victory Formation 

Perfect in three starts, this speedy colt will likely receive his first graded test in February. He has victories in a maiden race and allowance optional claimer in Kentucky, plus a three-length score in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on New Year’s Day. Coming in the middle of the winter, the Smarty Jones typically does not draw the cream of the division, and that again seemed the case this year. Third-place Denington was a next-out fourth in the Lecomte.

11. Curly Jack  

Commenting on this colt’s second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs, jockey Edgar Morales said his mount “had nowhere to go, so I just had to wait for something to open, and when it did, he came back to (Instant Coffee), but I was too late… If something opened a little earlier, he should have won the race.” Not as fast on speed figures as others, but a candidate for a forward move after winter development. He’s posted two works in January at Fair Grounds.

12. Worcester 

A twice-sprinted maiden, this up-and-comer lands the final spot in the ‘Dozen’. (Others considered included Banishing, Cyclone Mischief, Dubyuhnell, Giant Mischief, Practical Move, Shopper’s Revenue, and Tapit Trice.) The reason for the optimism with Worcester? His last-race speed figure, a 102 ESF (among similarly lofty figures from other number providers) for his runner-up finish to Hejazi Jan. 8. Baffert exhibits confidence by running him Feb. 4 in the 1 1/16-mile Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, where the trainer is represented by the entire field…of four.