Four Promising Derby Contenders to Watch This Winter

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Since this week is a quiet one in terms of major racing action, let's take advantage of the lull to examine four up-and-coming three-year-olds that could be poised to make some noise on the road to the Kentucky Derby this winter....

Ax Man

Trainer Bob Baffert has won three of the last five renewals of the Sunland Derby (or its equivalent), and Ax Man appears to be the type of colt that could thrive in Sunland's nine-furlong Kentucky Derby prep race. Following an impressive series of workouts at Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, culminating with a sharp breeze in company with the Grade 1 winner McKinzie, Ax Man debuted in a six-furlong maiden race on January 1st at Santa Anita and absolutely crushed the field. With Drayden Van Dyke in the saddle, Ax Man carved out fractions of :21.73 and :44.64, then pulled away strongly to win by 9 ½ lengths in the time of 1:09.43, good enough for a 96 Beyer.

As a son of Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner Misremembered out of a mare by Flying Chevrons-himself a two-time graded stakes winner going a mile or farther-Ax Man has the pedigree to stretch out to at least a mile, even though his most accomplished half-sibling is the top sprinter Indian Blessing. Only time will tell if he's up to staying the ten-furlong distance of the Kentucky Derby, but nine furlongs over the speed-favoring track at Sunland could be perfect for him.

Don Fortis

If you've looked up Don Fortis on Equibase and can't find his profile, never fear-he's not listed on Equibase because he's been racing in Japan. The son of Henny Hughes finished third in his debut at Chukyo during the summer, then rattled off three straight wins at three different tracks while stepping up in distance from six furlongs to seven furlongs and then nine furlongs.

Having earned a reputation as a very promising colt on the basis of these eye-catching and decisive victories, Don Fortis was among the favorites in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki, an official Japanese prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Despite a troubled trip that cost him momentum at a key point in the race, Don Fortis rallied strongly over the six-furlong bullring racetrack to finish second behind the talented Le Vent Se Leve.

Since Le Vent Se Leve has been dealing with a leg issue, Don Fortis now looms as the prospective favorite for the February 18th Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo, the race that will determine which Japanese horse receives an invitation to compete in the 2018 Kentucky Derby. Only time will tell if Don Fortis proves talented enough to be a factor in the Derby, but at the very least, he appears to have a clear path to earning a spot in the starting gate.

Magnum Moon

This Todd Pletcher-trained colt wasn't overly hyped before his debut on January 13th at Gulfstream Park, a race in which he was sent off as the second choice at just over 7-2. But after tracking an opening quarter-mile in :22.51, Magnum Moon took command through a stiff second quarter-mile in :22.99 and then drew off in the homestretch to win by 4 ½ lengths while stopping the clock for six furlongs in a quick 1:10.03.

That time was good enough to earn a 94 Beyer, and the best part is that Magnum Moon isn't bred to be a sprinter. As a son of Malibu Moon-the sire of Orb, Declan's Moon, Carina Mia, Life At Ten, Gormley, Devil May Care, Ask the Moon, Malibu Prayer, Funny Moon, Moonshine Memories, Eden's Moon, and Heavenly Love, all Grade 1 winners going a mile or farther-Magnum Moon is bred to go longer and could thrive when stretched out in distance. Given the success Pletcher has had winning the Florida Derby (gr. I) with lightly-raced horses-Always Dreaming, Materiality, and Constitution all come to mind-it wouldn't be a surprise to see Magnum Moon progress along a similar path and win a major Kentucky Derby prep race, earning a ticket to Churchill Downs.


Although he's had trouble putting everything together thus far, it's possible that Nero could be among the most promising three-year-olds in trainer Bob Baffert's barn. Sold for $950,000 as a yearling, the son of Pioneerof the Nile generated plenty of buzz prior to his debut at Del Mar last summer, in which he set a fast pace, opened up a clear lead under a hand ride in the homestretch, and then dramatically lost focus to concede his advantage and lose by a nose.

Given a bit of rest following that race, Nero returned to serious training in October and posted a dozen workouts-many of them from the starting gate-before returning to the races in a 5 ½-furlong maiden race on January 13th at Santa Anita. Once again, Nero tracked a fast pace while racing very wide and was given a careful, conservative ride by jockey Victor Espinoza to win by a nose over stablemate Curly's Rocket. The final time of 1:04.40 wasn't overly fast, translating to a Beyer speed figure of 78, but I got the impression that Nero had more to offer than he displayed on the track.

Espinoza subsequently told TVG that Nero is a tricky colt to ride because he attempts to slow down in the homestretch, as he did in his debut. But assuming Nero eventually puts his unpredictability behind him, I think he's got the talent to be something special.

Now it's your turn! Which up-and-coming Derby contenders have caught your eyes?


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for the fourth consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the contest page. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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