Handicapping the First 2023 Kentucky Derby Prep

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

How time flies! It's hard to believe, but the 2022-23 Road to the Kentucky Derby is about to begin.

The first official stop on the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail is Saturday's $300,000 Iroquois S. (G3) on opening day of the Churchill Downs September meet. Inaugurated 1982, the Iroquois has yet to produce a Kentucky Derby winner, but the 1 1/16-mile prize has churned out nine Derby starters since 2010, including 2017 Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee.

It won't be a shock if the 2022 Iroquois produces a Derby starter or two. The nine-horse field is packed with promising names, including the undefeated #3 Damon's Mound.

If accomplishments were the only criterion for determining betting favoritism, Damon's Mound would be an odds-on choice to win the Iroquois. After all, his form lines are impressive. Did you see Damon's Mound's debut at Churchill Downs, when he smashed a six-furlong maiden special weight by 12 1/2 lengths? Or his 3 1/4-length romp in the Saratoga Special S. (G2) traveling 6 1/2 furlongs at Saratoga?

You might be thinking, "Damon's Mound probably beat easy competition," but that isn't the case. He defeated 10 rivals in his maiden score, a performance flattered when third-place finisher #8 Confidence Game came back to trounce an identical maiden sprint at Churchill by five lengths. And in the Saratoga Special, Damon's Mound got the better of Gulfport and Super Chow. The former entered off a 12 1/4-length victory in the Bashford Manor S. and later ran second in the Hopeful S. (G1), while the latter came back to win an allowance optional claimer at Pimlico.

Damon's Mound is a serious contender to win the Iroquois, but you know what? It's possible he won't start as the favorite, because #9 Echo Again might be even more talented.

Certainly Beyer and Brisnet speed figures suggest Echo Again is the horse to beat in the Iroquois. When Echo Again debuted in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga last month, he led all the way to trounce his pursuers by 6 3/4 lengths in the excellent time of 1:15.89. That final clocking produced a 99 Brisnet Speed rating (the highest in the Iroquois field by six points) and a 94 Beyer (the highest in the Iroquois field by eight points).

From a pedigree perspective, Echo Again is cut out to be something special. He's a son of 2017 Horse of the Year and red-hot young sire Gun Runner out of a mare by three-time leading North American sire Tapit. Gun Runner's first crop of foals has produced champion Echo Zulu, Preakness S. (G1) winner Early Voting, and Grade 1 winners Cyberknife, Taiba, and Gunite, while Tapit's numerous top-level winners include Belmont S. (G1) heroes Tonalist, Creator, Tapwrit, and Essential Quality.

Clearly there's an abundance of stamina in Echo Again's pedigree, so stretching out over 1 1/16 miles for the Iroquois should only help his chances. With hot jockey Joel Rosario in the saddle for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, Echo Again looks ready to make his second start a winning one.

#6 Jace's Road is another Iroquois entrant with talent and potential. The son of four-time Grade 1 winner Quality Road made a nice impression in his debut sprinting six furlongs at Ellis Park, casually tracking the early pace before surging clear to win by 6 1/4 lengths. This $510,000 yearling acquisition is conditioned by two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox, and since Cox trainees often improve second-time out, Jace's Road is eligible to fire a big shot in his stakes and route debut.

If you want to throw a longshot into the mix for exotic wagers, #7 Honed might be worth a try. The Kenny McPeek trainee didn't run especially fast in his July 10 debut racing one mile at Ellis Park, but he showed some determination to rally and win by a head. McPeek strikes at only a 9% rate with first-time starters, but his success rate with last-out maiden winners jumps to 19%, so Honed figures to move forward off his debut. It's worth noting the third-place finisher from Honed's maiden victory came back to win his next start, quietly flattering Honed's performance.


1st: Echo Again
2nd: Damon's Mound
3rd: Jace's Road
4th: Honed

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Iroquois?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.

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