By Dick Jerardi
Todd Pletcher, the trainer who has made an art form of winning the most significant Kentucky Derby prep races, outdid even himself this year. The man who has won the Wood Memorial and Florida Derby seven times each, the Tampa Bay Derby Derby six times, the Arkansas Derby five times, and the Blue Grass Stakes four times, will arrive at Churchill Downs with the winners of half of the “Final Six Majors” the Florida Derby (Forte), Blue Grass (Tapit Trice) and Louisiana Derby (Kingsbarns). Forte and Tapit Trice also won “Sweet 16” races in the Fountain of Youth and Tampa Bay Derby.
Forte, the 2-year-old champion, is, without much argument, the most accomplished horse Pletcher has ever brought to the Derby with those two wins in Florida this year to go along with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Breeders’ Futurity and Hopeful last year. That’s four Grade I wins and a Grade II, a serious resume heading to May.
But it’s not all Pletcher as the top 3-year-olds begin to congregate in Louisville.
Armony’s Angel never won a race in eight starts for trainer Kenny McPeek, but that won’t matter when her Pennsylvania bred son of Classic Empire named Angel of Empire takes his spot in the Derby starting gate. The powerful winner of the Arkansas Derby and Risen Star has four wins in five main-track starts and has improved his Beyer figure in each of his starts for trainer Brad Cox.
No Bob Baffert for one more Derby, but the west coast has another very serious contender in Santa Anita Derby winner Practical Move. The colt has been perfect with blinkers, winning the Los Alamitos Futurity and San Felipe before holding on to win the SA Derby by a nose for trainer Tim Yakteen. It is unclear if second place finisher Mandarin Hero will make the field because he is so far down the points list, but his huge effort flattered the form of fellow Japanese horse and UAE Derby winner Derma Sotogake.
Historically, horses coming directly from Dubai have been Derby throwouts. But as it’s becoming more clear just how advanced Japanese horses and training methods are, the Dubai thing may be less relevant. Derma Sotogake looks like a serious contender.
The same cannot be said of 59-1 Wood Memorial winner Lord Miles. The colt had been badly beaten in the Holy Bull and Tampa Bay Derby. The Wood was slowly run, and there is also this – there have been 40 Derby horses that started in the Wood over the last 20 years, and none has finished better than fourth.
So, Forte, Tapit Trice, and Kingsbarns for Pletcher, along with Angel of Empire, Practical Move, and Derma Sotogake, would be among the most serious contenders. I would add Blue Grass second Verifying to the mix. A year after, there was a Derby meltdown pace that set it up for 80-1 Rich Strike, Forte, Tapit Trice, Angel of Empire and Practical Move are closers or mid-pack runners. Horses like Verifying, Kingsbarns, and Derma Sotogake, with the speed to stay out of the traffic, could be more dangerous in the kind of scenario where the pace is not so hot.
Bottom line, 50 years after Secretariat won what remains the fastest Derby ever run, we have no 3-year-olds that are going to be breaking any track records. We do have an evenly matched, consistent group that should make for a fascinating run up to and running of Derby 149.