Saturday will mark the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby — a.k.a. the biggest day on America’s horse betting calendar — at Churchill Downs in Louisville. While there is a clear favorite, Forte, in this year’s race, he’s hardly a prohibitive one, giving bettors lots of viable options as they cast their eyes down the odds board.
As has become tradition here at US Bets, we have gathered our slender and esteemed horse racing bureau to separate the wheat from the chaff in this year’s Run for the Roses.
Mike Seely: It’s hard to imagine a horse having a more impressive resume than Forte heading into the Kentucky Derby. Does it surprise you that this particular favorite’s morning line odds aren’t shorter than 3/1? If so, what do you think it is that’s giving oddsmakers pause about this Todd Pletcher-trained colt?
Matt Rybaltowski: Not to be a contrarian, but I think that’s a fair price for Forte on the morning line. Last year, Zandon went off as the 3/1 morning line favorite, even though Epicenter became the top choice at post time. To me, Epicenter had a more impressive resume than Forte in the run-up to the Derby.
While Forte posted a career-best 100 Beyer speed figure in November’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the son of Violence has recorded declining Beyers in each of his last two starts. Forte overcame an outside post in the Florida Derby, where he had dirt kicked into his face throughout. Still, Forte needed considerable urging from Irad Ortiz Jr. to sprint past Mage at the wire. Neither Ortiz nor owner Mike Repole anticipated such a close finish.
— Horse Racing Nation (@HR_Nation) April 1, 2023
Had Forte produced a more visually impressive effort, oddsmaker Mike Battaglia might have given him odds closer to 9/5 or 2/1 for Saturday’s first jewel of the Triple Crown.
MS: You make some great points, Matty. Forte has yet to really blow the doors off a race as a 3-year-old, but he seems to find a way to win against the classiest of competition. Two Phil’s is a horse that intrigues me. He’s made a nice jump as a 3-year-old and gets better with just about every race.
That’s the type of horse I like to bet in the Derby, although I wish his showcase victory (the cheekily named Jeff Ruby Steaks) came over dirt instead of Turfway’s all-weather surface. I also wish he was priced fatter than 12/1, though he also seems like the type of colt who will go off at longer odds in light of his no-name connections. (Is Jareth Loveberry a jockey or a Disney prince?)
In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Skinner, priced at 20/1 on the morning line, wound up going off closer to 12/1, while Two Phil’s went off closer to 20/1.
MR: Before I reply in full, I wanted to get your thoughts, Seels, on the Hawaiian-style shirt of the historic first turn of Churchill. What do we need to do to convince the designers to outfit us in these shirts for next year’s Derby preview?
Great call on Skinner. He seems like the wise-guy pick after the defection of Wild On Ice. If we count Mandaloun (12/1) as the winner of the 2021 Derby, five of the last 12 winners have gone off with double-digit post-time odds.
Two longshots stand out for me in this year’s field: Disarm and Mage. In 28 of the last 32 Derbies, the winner in his most recent outing has run 13.0 seconds or under in the final furlong or 38.0 seconds or under in his final three furlongs. Disarm (30/1) has a field-best time of 12.0 seconds in the final furlong, as well as a final three furlong time of 36.0 seconds. Mage (15/1) came a length away from upsetting Forte in the Florida Derby. Disarm is a deep closer that will benefit from a hot pace.
I’m not saying that Disarm or Mage will win on Saturday, but both should receive consideration underneath.
MS: Mahalo for letting me know of the existence of these wicked awesome shirts, Ribs! Yes, I’d like one, but if Churchill Downs was serious about expanding its fan base in the 50th state, they’d require the jockeys — or at least the trainers — to wear these. I’d love to see Pletcher forced to ditch his race-day suit for once.
Getting back to the Derby, probably the biggest letdown in this field is the fact that Mandarin Hero won’t be in it unless there are a pair of late scratches. I really think his connections screwed up royally by shipping him in so late and making the Santa Anita Derby an all-or-nothing affair.
That being said, there are two remaining Japanese horses in this race, one of whom — the UAE Derby champ Derma Sotogake (10/1) — could finish in the money. Do you think this is finally the year a Japanese horse could make a really strong showing? And what sort of trends do you see in the horses Japanese barns are shipping to race on U.S. soil?
MR: I loved Derma Sotogake’s effort in the UAE Derby. Breeders in Japan are increasingly importing speed from the U.S. with stamina on the dam side. Mind Your Biscuits, his sire, won the 2017 Dubai Golden Shaheen, one of the world’s top sprint races. On the same track, Derma Sotogake wired the field in the UAE Derby, winning easily by five lengths.
DERMA SOTOGAKE meaning
"DERMA" = Dermatology. Owner Hiroyuki Asanuma a Dermatologist, all his horses race with the prefix "DERMA"
SOTOGAKE = Sumo manoeuvre. Place one foot on the outside of the opponent's leg and break center of gravity to knock him downpic.twitter.com/n0yOQwhLne
— Graham Pavey (@LongBallToNoOne) March 30, 2023
Owner Hiroyuki Asanuma is a dermatologist by trade. Asanuma uses “Derma” as a prefix for all of his horses. Sotogake, meanwhile, is a sumo wrestling maneuver, perfected by a combatant when he wraps a leg around his opponent as a way to trip him. My money is on Derma Sotogake to trip up the field with a decisive move at the top of the stretch.
One concern, however, is his outside post, as the horse will break from the No. 17 spot. Jockey Christophe Lemaire will need to break well and duck inside to enter the turn with the first pack. If he received an inside post, I’d feel more confident, but I’m still taking Derma on top in my Superfecta wheel. He represents the best chance to give Japan its first Derby winner.
MS: What we’re both getting at, I think, is that this is a pretty wide open — and maybe not a historically strong — field. Even Pletcher’s third-best entry on paper, the undefeated (in just three tries) Kingbirds, has to be considered a legitimate threat to take a step forward in his fourth race and win with Jose Ortiz aboard. There aren’t a lot of horses you can just toss — not because the lower half of the field is especially good, but because the top half has been far from dominant.
But if Forte wins, we should be prepared to eat those words. And, of course, he should win — but, taking value into account, my money will be on Two Phil’s to make it two years in a row where a jockey-trainer (Larry Rivelli) duo that’s made its bones far from the bright lights of Churchill will enter its winner’s circle.
MR: As the past few years indicate, a wide-open field in the Derby is becoming a prevailing trend. Jeremy Balan, a racing savant and our former colleague, was pumped for last year’s Derby because of the strong possibility for high payouts. As it turned out, Rich Strike shocked the racing world by winning at 80/1.
I think it’s critical for the sport to have a viable Triple Crown candidate every year. With viewership down, the sport needs superstars. When American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes in 2015, he became the first horse to pull off the feat in 37 years. Racing fans only had to wait three more years before Justify became the 13th horse ever to capture the Triple Crown.
Entering the Derby, Forte has odds of +1200 to join the exclusive club. Four others — Tapit Trice (33/1), Derma Sotogake Practical Move (40/1), and Angel of Empire (50/1) — have odds of 50/1 or below to win all three. Since Justify’s win in the Belmont, 12 different horses have won the last 12 Triple Crown races. Unfortunately, there is a high likelihood that the streak will extend to 15 after this year’s Belmont.
Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images