September 29, 2023

Derby Trail: Who’s Hot and Who’s Not

Churchill Downs twin spires secnic Nelson

by Noel Michaels

We’re seven weeks out from the Kentucky Derby, and one of biggest weekends of the season so far with three major Kentucky Derby prep races – the March 9 Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct, Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) – is in the books.

The winners of those races, and the two divisions of the March 16 Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park, will go a long way to clarifying the list of contenders pointing to the Kentucky Derby, to be run on May 4 at Churchill Downs.

But first, let’s get caught up with the set of Derby preps that have been run through March 2. So, who’s hot and who’s not?


CODE OF HONOR: Defeated a loaded field in the March 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) after slipping under the radar somewhat at 9-1 odds. Looked very good as a two-year-old after a runner-up finish in Belmont Park’s Champagne Stakes (G1), but was all but forgotten by some after a fourth-place finish in a strangely-run Mucho Macho Man Stakes, where he broke bad, rushed up into a four-way duel, and then faded as a result of those early efforts. He certainly made up for that debacle with a strong Fountain of Youth victory for trainer Shug McGaughey, which puts him back on track for Derby contention. Going to either March 30 Florida Derby (G1) or April 6 Wood Memorial (G2) next.

SPINOFF: Todd Pletcher three-year-old returned from a layoff with an 11 3/4-length allowance romp on February 22 in first start back since Saratoga last year. Seems poised to win a graded contest next out after looking better than ever in return from the six-month layoff. Leads a group of potential Pletcher emerging contenders along with Intrepid Heart at Oaklawn and Soldado at Gulfstream all looking for upcoming graded spots to launch them into the Derby picture.

MUCHO: Trainer Bill Mott suffered a setback at Gulfstream on Saturday with Hidden Scroll’s fourth in the Fountain of Youth, but this Derby contender cruised to a nice win in a six-furlong allowance at Gulfstream one day earlier. Was second in the Hopeful (G1) as a two-year-old, and needs to hurry to make the Derby, but the sky is the limit because this horse has talent.

WAR OF WILL: Currently on a roll for Mark Casse via the Louisiana route to the Derby with three straight victories, including back-to-back scores in the Lecomte (G3) and Risen Star (G2). Perhaps the most experienced of the main group of Derby contenders with three wins and seven starts already on his resume. Undefeated since switching to the dirt.

GALILEAN: Keeps beating up on Cal-breds for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, most recently in the California Cup Derby on February 18 (a prep used by California Chrome). Hard to knock his winning record (4-3-1-0) and he’ll be tough to ignore on March 16 in the first division of the Rebel.


HIDDEN SCROLL: Earned a giant BRIS Speed figure (102) in his career debut going a mile at Gulfstream in January, but it was in the slop. He could not repeat that effort on a fast track when setting the pace and fizzling out to fourth in a disappointing Fountain of Youth loss.

KNICKS GO and SIGNALMAN: The second- and third-place finishers from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), and also the top two finishers in last fall’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, both suffered really bad defeats in their three-year-old debuts, with Knicks Go fading to fifth in the Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs and Signalman running a brutally bad seventh in the Fountain of Youth.

NOLO CONTESTO: Maybe it’s not a total killer for this horse, but the odds-on allowance/optional claiming loss at Santa Anita on March 1 certainly doesn’t bode well for his Derby chances despite all the hype for this John Sadler-trained maiden winner.

GLOBAL CAMPAIGN: Another hype horse who fizzled, this colt was high on a lot of lists but could not deliver in the big leagues when off-the-board and badly beaten in the Fountain of Youth. Has not lived up to expectations (slow BRIS Speed figures) now in two tries at 1 1/16 miles for trainer Stanley Hough.

Southwest Stakes Disappointments: A lot of horses had a chance to take steps forward in the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn on February 18, but none of them did, losing to 62-1 shot Super Steed (paid $126.60 to win). The list of disappointments include Gray Attempt, Bankit and Cutting Humor.