Zipse: How many Kentucky Derby starters did we see Saturday?

Zipse: How many Kentucky Derby starters did we see Saturday?
Photo: Liz Lamont / Eclipse Sportswire

On the only day of the year when we see four Kentucky Derby preps run on U.S. soil, I could not help but wonder how many of these horses will make it to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Overall, 44 horses ran in the Fountain of Youth (G2), San Felipe (G2), Gotham (G3), and John Battaglia Memorial Stakes. Let’s take a look, race by race, at how many of these 44 appear to be legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders.

Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth is an obvious place to start. The final prep for the Florida Derby featured the returning champion Forte as he squared off against eight other Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

Trained by Todd Pletcher, the son of Violence was everything his connections could have hoped for in his 3-year-old debut. Comfortable in mid-pack early, it was just a matter of when rider Irad Ortiz Jr. would ask him to go.

Always looking like a winner, Forte raised his career record to 5-of-6 by swinging out wide and blowing by his competition for an easy-as-he-pleased 4 1/2-length win in the Grade 2 affair. In so doing, he clearly established himself as the current Kentucky Derby favorite.


But what of the rest of the field? Blazing Sevens never lifted a hoof. Mage showed talent in his second career start but still has a long way to go to be a Derby horse. Cyclone Mischief improved off his last but was not exactly strong down the lane. Shadow Dragon produced no real rally.

After Forte, only Rocket Can, who kept trying between horses to prove second best, looked like a horse who should be in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

Next is the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe at Santa Anita. Unlike at Gulfstream, where Forte was a big favorite, the California prep was much wider open. The Tim Yakteen-trained Practical Move enjoyed a dream trip when the rail opened up wide for his rail run. The fourth choice took full advantage.


For the son of Practical Joke, out of a stakes-placed Afleet Alex mare, the 2 1/2-length win was a professional performance and was his second straight graded-stakes score. He seems to be getting better with each start and looks legitimate.

Of the rest, all of the former Baffert runners appear to be distance challenged. Skinner made a sustained wide rally but could not quite sustain his momentum late. Geaux Rocket Ride is an interesting one for trainer Richard Mandella. Making only his second start, he stayed on well to finish a clear second.

I’ll be generous and say that both Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner showed enough Saturday to remain as possible Kentucky Derby contenders.

Next is New York’s Gotham. Run on a muddy and sealed track at Aqueduct, the race was a bit ugly. One horse dumped his rider early, and at the finish, one horse was far and away the best.

The unheralded Raise Cain earned the right to move forward on the Kentucky Derby trail with a visually impressive 7 1/2-length romp. Clearly the son of Violence liked the off-track conditions. I will warn, though, that the Gotham was a one-turn race with a fast pace. I have my doubts whether he is a true Grade 1 type.

Slip Mahoney made up plenty of ground in the stretch to be second but still did not run a very good race. Eyeing Clover perhaps deserves another shot after contesting the pace and staying on reasonably well. But really, who were the Kentucky Derby-worthy horses in the Gotham? One of them at best, in my opinion.

Much can be said about the big field in the Battaglia at Turfway Park. Run over its synthetic surface, only Congruent was able to finish full of run. Like Raise Cain, he rolled late and won easily, but he was benefited by a fast early pace.

Visually impressive last night, the son of Tapit will move forward on the trail, but this is a horse who had finished eighth, third, fourth and sixth in his last four stakes attempts before the Battaglia.

Forte was impressive. Practical Move is an interesting Kentucky Derby candidate. But after those two, I am hard-pressed to identify legitimate contenders for the first Saturday in May.

I guess I like Rocket Can third best, and maybe Mage, Geaux Rocket Ride, Skinner, Last Cain and Congruent all earned a shot to prove they belong.

Of 44 hopefuls that ran Saturday, it might be that only two of them are legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders. I hope to see more in the coming weeks.

Meet Brian Zipse

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Justify. Before coming to HRN, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. His racing partnership venture, Derby Day Racing, invites more fans to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership.

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, created the popular racing webcast HorseCenter, and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as hosting HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves on the Board of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars and is a Vox Populi committee member. He is a voter for racing's Hall of Fame, as well as a weekly NTRA poll voter. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.

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