Byron King’s Derby Dozen for Feb. 15

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

Last week, new Derby contenders emerged in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, and the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. This Saturday, Feb. 18, 14 more prospects square off in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford at Fair Grounds.

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 2-year-old champ of 2022 has been steady, though not fast, in his training this year, capped by a slow five-furlong workout Feb. 11 in 1:03.48. All of his breezes came at Palm Beach Downs, where the surface is not as quick as at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. Expect Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher to dial up something more demanding this weekend toward the colt’s intended return in the March 4 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream. Works aside, this colt notched three Grade 1 wins last year at 2, topped by the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.

2. Arabian Knight 

As of Feb. 14, no decision had been rendered by a judge in Kentucky related to Bob Baffert’s request for a preliminary injunction that could allow the Hall of Fame trainer to run horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby. He is currently barred by Churchill Downs Inc. from running at its tracks through early July, an action taken by the track operator after Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone in the 2021 Derby. This 2-for-2 colt, winner of the Jan. 28 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, recently recorded an effortless three-furlong breeze in :35.60 at Santa Anita Park Feb. 13. Should Baffert lose in court, his horses would need to start for another trainer by the end of February to earn points and qualify for the May 6 Run for the Roses.

3. Instant Coffee  

After this colt won the Jan. 21 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, trainer Brad Cox decided to give him a little break, not only skipping the Feb. 18 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford there but also not working him for an extended period. Already having 32 qualifying points for the Derby, he is a favorable position to make the May 6 classic. Having a late-running style well suited to the long stretch at Fair Grounds, the March 25 Louisiana Derby at the New Orleans track would appear a likely next stop.

4. Faustin 

The San Vicente Stakes runner-up and Baffert trainee was given a stiff drill Feb. 12 at Santa Anita in which he and workmate Jackstown were credited with the co-fastest half-mile time of the morning, timed in :46.40. This gray came under a bit more pressure in the joint breeze, but even in his races, he seems like the type that needs a little encouragement to deliver his best. By Curlin out of multiple Grade 1-winning grass mare Hard Not to Like, look for him to relish a stretchout to a route.

5. Verifying 

Mentioned as a possibility for this Saturday’s Risen Star, he is instead expected to race in the Feb. 25 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. By running there, he will return to a surface on which he won an allowance optional claiming race Jan. 14. Midnight Bisou’s little half-brother was a little chilly in betting in the most recent Kentucky Derby Future Wager, closing at 34-1 odds, though he has been out of sight and perhaps therefore out of mind over the past month.

6. National Treasure

He and Sham Stakes winner Reincarnate  breezed in tandem Feb. 12 at Santa Anita, with both timed in 1:11.60 for six furlongs while under urging. This colt has yet to win a stakes race but has placed in all three of his stakes attempts, twice in Grade 1s, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He is one of many 3-year-olds Baffert could put on plane for a trip to Arkansas for the Rebel.

7. Blazing Sevens 

Like those from Forte, his workouts do not leap out as he readies for his 3-year-old bow, but that is not atypical for a Chad Brown trainee. His horses tend to work under a hold. Curious to see what the Champagne Stakes winner can do around two turns this year, as he still needs to prove himself a bit under such conditions after his rally flattened out late when a slow-starting fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall at Keeneland.

8. Tapit Trice 

He looks like a more talented version of Litigate, with whom Pletcher won the Feb. 11 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. A stakes start is on deck for him, likely in a month or so, after he won an allowance optional claiming race at Gulfstream Feb. 4, an eight-length victory so impressive that he was bet down to 15-1 odds in the latest Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool.

9. Victory Formation 

The 1 1/8-mile Risen Star should be telling, both from a class and distance perspective, illustrating whether he is a leading Derby threat or more of a high-class sprinter/miler type. After winning two sprints in Kentucky, he led wire to wire in the Jan. 1 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn in a mile race that began and ended at the sixteenth pole. Now he races an extra furlong, faces speed to his inside, and must try to fend off the closers over the approximate quarter-mile stretch at Fair Grounds.

10. Curly Jack 

With only four works this year, he does not appear fully cranked for his Risen Star return, though a strong effort is still anticipated. He won fresh on debut last year for trainer Tom Amoss. Two of six returnees from the Nov. 26 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs came back to immediately win their next starts (Instant Coffee, Cyclone Mischief), and this colt had a troubled, bottled-up trip in finishing second.

11. Cave Rock 

He rejoins the Dozen after returning to the work tab with a four-furlong breeze in :47.80 Feb. 13 at Santa Anita. Fresh in his first breeze of 2023, he tugged at his rider to catch a horse breezing in front of him on the turn, and the two finished down the stretch together. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up and winner of two Grade 1 races needs to have all go right this winter and spring to get sufficient fitness and racing before the Derby. Alternatively, the May 20 Preakness Stakes could become more of an attainable target.

12. Reincarnate 

With his Sham form validated by the next-out success of Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Newgate, he edges out fellow graded stakes winners Practical Move, Rocket Can, Litigate, and Hit Show for the final spot in the rankings. This quick-working colt seems to be in a developing pattern, having won two in a row after runner-up finishes in his initial three starts.