Kentucky Derby Reflections by John Mucciolo

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May 11th, 2023

The 149th Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs didn’t disappoint with a huge crowd on hand, a massive viewing audience from afar, and a thrilling race with a great storyline, too. It’s simply hard to beat the excitement and drama that the Run for the Roses always provides us with. Below are a few of my takeaways from the historic race.

The Race Was Mostly Formful

Mage was not the most surprising winner in the field, despite his lack of experience and the fact that he was unraced as a juvenile. I didn’t fancy him from a betting perspective personally, but the Good Magic colt tipped his hand with an excellent second in the Florida Derby (G1) in just his third career try, and he figured to be in the top flight of finishers with improvement off of his Gulfstream Park performance. Congratulations to everyone involved with the colt, and to those who successfully tabbed the Kentucky-bred.

Two Phil’s was very live in the betting and it’s obvious as to why, as the Larry Rivelli trainee ran a winning race in defeat beneath Jareth Loveberry. The colt gave an indication that he might be a major contender in the Derby when annihilating a talented field at Turfway Park in his previous showing.

The Arkansas Derby (G1) romp by Angel of Empire was obviously no fluke, as the Keystone State-bred ran his race when a closing third beneath the Twin Spires. Trained by Brad Cox, the hard-trying three-year-old was outmoved by Mage approaching the turn for home, but he stayed on through the wire and gave a fine account of himself in the Derby.

I could say with a small level of confidence that the top-eight finishers ran about how they could have been expected to, in the estimation of many handicappers. Disarm, Hit Show, and Derma Sotogake each performed at a very good level, in my opinion, perhaps running as well as they could at the respective stages of their development.

And even Grade 1 hero Tapit Trice, to a level, put in an effort that wasn’t overly surprising when seventh. The Todd Pletcher pupil is always at an early disadvantage due to his slow-starting ways, so it was certainly possible that the gray would be too far back to make a major impact in the Derby. While I did think that he had a chance to be a force on Saturday with some racing luck, he has ultimately looked more like a serious Belmont Stakes type of colt to me.

I can also say that the performance put in by Raise Cain, who finished an even eighth, can also be viewed as a positive result for the Ben Colebrook trainee.

Forte, What If

The reigning juvenile Champion was scratched in the hours leading up to the race, and after witnessing the winning run by Mage, who Forte soundly defeated twice in South Florida this campaign, one can only wonder what if? The Pletcher pupil had reportedly been giving a good account of himself on the grounds leading up to the contest, so it’s entirely possible that the Violence colt would have been hard to defeat on Saturday. We will obviously never know.

Horses to look forward to in the Belmont

I’m bypassing the Preakness analysis until next week, but I always love trying to identify Belmont runners for the Test of the Champion. A trio of horses coming out of the Derby top the list, led by the aforementioned Tapit Trice. He has Belmont written all over him, and I expect the colt to be pointed toward the race and to be a menacing figure over Big Sandy.

Hit Show navigated a nice trip from the rail, and that type of showing will make him a Belmont contender with improvement going forward. The Cox trainee has the quality and one-paced style that might translate well to the grueling 1 1/2 miles at Belmont Park. And third-place finisher Angel of Empire is another Cox pupil that might perform well at 12 furlongs, too. I personally think that he will do good things at nearly any distance.

I’m not as confident that Mage, Disarm, et al.’s, from the Derby cast will do their best work at 1 1/2 miles in early June. The former is obviously a fantastic animal and wouldn’t be a shock with his versatile running style, but I’m not enamored with his chances at the tri, personally. And as much as I like Disarm, in general, he has had a busy early portion of the season, and to see him peak in the Belmont Stakes would be a surprise to me.

My Derby Wagers

I put all of my eggs in the respective baskets of Angel of Empire at 4-1 odds and Disarm at 27-1 odds in the vertical and horizontal pools, where I needed either one of them to win, or both of the duo to finish in the top three. While I was relatively close and pleased that I did a reasonably good job with my handicapping for the contest, I learned once again just how difficult it is to cash a healthy ticket on the first Saturday in May. But, I am already looking forward to the same challenge in 2024.