Keeler Johnson’s Kentucky Derby 149 Selections

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

The field is set, the post positions are drawn, and the 149th Kentucky Derby (G1) is only two days away. After months of analyzing horses on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, it's time to distill all the data and settle on selections for the Run for the Roses itself.

I'm breaking down my preferred horses into two categories: win contenders and exotics contenders. Win contenders are horses I plan on using in multi-race wagers, while exotics contenders are those I'll work in for second, third, and fourth place in trifecta and superfecta tickets.

Without further ado, let's dig in!


#17 Derma Sotogake

You all knew this day was coming. I hinted at it a couple weeks back, when I highlighted the potential for a modest pace in this year's Kentucky Derby and made my case for Derma Sotogake to take advantage. The past two weeks have only strengthened my confidence in Derma Sotogake's chances to become the first Japanese-bred horse and the first UAE Derby (G2) starter to win the Run for the Roses.

Derma Sotogake has long shown talent, but he put everything together in the UAE Derby, which I rank as the single best performance posted by any of the 2023 Kentucky Derby contenders this year. Sent to the lead from post one, Derma Sotogake galloped along at a strong pace before kicking away convincingly down the homestretch to beat Group 1 winner Dura Erede by 5 1/2 lengths.

Even after running fast early, Derma Sotogake finished strongly down the homestretch to record a final time of 1:55.81 for 1,900 meters. Later in the day, older horses required 2:03.25 to complete 2,000 meters in the Dubai World Cup (G1). A strong case can be made that Derma Sotogake ran fast enough to win the Dubai World Cup, which is pretty much unprecedented for a UAE Derby winner.

The best part is, Derma Sotogake isn't a need-the-lead type. Setting the pace in the UAE Derby was a departure from his typical tracking and rallying tactics. Breaking from post 16 (following the scratch of Practical Move) in the Kentucky Derby affords Derma Sotogake with options for working out a perfect trip; if the pace is slow he can seize the lead, or if someone else guns for the front he can settle into a tracking position and pounce when called upon.

It's fair to question whether a son of talented sprinter Mind Your Biscuits can win the Kentucky Derby over 1 1/4 miles. But don't forget, Mind Your Biscuits won the Lukas Classic (G3) over 1 1/8 miles, and he's emerging as a sire of route racers in Japan. Furthermore, the dam side of Derma Sotogake's pedigree is packed with stamina. In my mind, his UAE Derby romp dispels any concerns about distance limitations, and I'm confident Derma Sotogake is capable of making history on the first Saturday in May.

#15 Forte

I have nothing but respect for Forte, the champion two-year-old male of 2022. The Todd Pletcher trainee has rattled off consecutive victories in the Hopeful (G1), Breeders' Futurity (G1), Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), Fountain of Youth (G2), and Florida Derby (G1) to emerge as the Kentucky Derby favorite.

Forte has never been a particularly flashy colt, performing in a more workmanlike manner. When he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 1 1/2 lengths over heavy favorite Cave Rock, Forte stayed out in the middle of the track because—as Pletcher explained post-race—"The last time [in the Breeders' Futurty], he made the lead pretty comfortably, but he got to waiting and laying on the horse next to him, so today if we were lucky enough to get in a position to get [the lead], we wanted to give ourselves plenty of space and not get close to the horse next to him."

Forte's casual nature disguises a remarkably powerful engine under the hood. Race after race, he's shown the ability to make a big move around the final turn and sustain it down the homestretch. In the Florida Derby (G1) last time out, he endured a wide trip from an outside post and had to wait in traffic on the far turn when eventual runner-up Mage blew past on the far outside. But Forte regrouped, followed Mage, and boldly ran him down in the final furlong to win by one length.

The champ has drawn well in post 15 and figures to settle off the pace before unleashing his trademark burst of acceleration around the far turn. The Derby is often won or lost at that juncture, so I expect Forte to be right in the thick of things at the top of the Churchill Downs homestretch, vying for his sixth consecutive graded victory.

#9 Skinner

Although Skinner is listed at 20-1 on the morning line, I have my doubts whether he'll offer that level of value in exotic wagers, because the beautifully bred son of Curlin has emerged as a buzz horse with widely recognized credentials for crashing the superfecta.

It all stems from Skinner's third-place finish in a fast renewal of the Santa Anita Derby (G1). Despite racing wide around both turns, Skinner rallied gamely down the lane to finish third by half a length against the ground-saving winner Practical Move. Ground loss likely cost Skinner first prize.

Skinner has repeatedly shown a quick turn-of-foot, and he enters the Derby off fast-finishing six-furlong workouts at Santa Anita. His form is reminiscent of Giacomo, who capitalized on a hot pace to spring a 50-1 upset in the 2005 Kentucky Derby for the same trainer (John Shirreffs) as Skinner.

If a modest pace unfolds at Churchill Downs this Saturday, a minor award might be the ceiling for Skinner's potential. But if the early pace gets hot, I can envision Skinner capitalizing with a homestretch rally that carries him all the way to the winner's circle.

#14 Angel of Empire

Rounding out my list of Kentucky Derby win contenders is the rapidly improving Angel of Empire, a deep-closing colt with four wins from five starts on dirt. The Brad Cox trainee has been on fire in recent months, surging from behind a quick pace to win the Risen Star (G2) by one length before trouncing the Arkansas Derby (G1) by 4 1/4 lengths.

The Risen Star unfolded in a fast early/slow late fashion that saw speed horses melt and closers sweep the top five finishing positions, but the same can't be said of the Arkansas Derby. In the latter race, Angel of Empire made his move around the far turn and was in front by 2 1/2 lengths passing the eighth pole, a visually stunning performance that left no doubt about his superiority.

According to GPS data from Equibase, Angel of Empire ran the final three furlongs of the Arkansas Derby in a terrific :36.86, one of the strongest closing fractions belonging to any horse in the Kentucky Derby field. He's improved by leaps and bounds this season, and I wouldn't dare leave him out of multi-race wagers.


#22 Mandarin Hero

If you like Skinner, then you have to check out Mandarin Hero, who finished second in the Santa Anita Derby. Racing in tight quarters between rivals down the homestretch, Mandarin Hero battled tenaciously and failed by just a nose to catch Practical Move.

Mandarin Hero had previously won four of his five starts in Japan, missing by a neck in his lone defeat. He finished fast in the Santa Anita Derby (running the final three furlongs in :37.12 and the final furlong in :12.75 per the Equibase GPS chart) and earned a sharp 100 Beyer speed figure, stamping Mandarin Hero as one of the fastest horses in the Kentucky Derby field. He has a good chance to factor in his second U.S. start.

#5 Tapit Trice

Generally speaking, I'm a fan of Tapit Trice. I liked his strong finish to win the Tampa Bay Derby (G3), and his follow-up score in the Blue Grass (G1) was both tenacious and fast on the Beyer and Brisnet speed figure scales.

But I'm concerned about Tapit Trice's post position. The son of Tapit likes to race off the pace, and it takes him a while to get into top gear. Breaking from post five, I'm worried Tapit Trice is going to get buried in traffic and shuffled too far off the pace in the Kentucky Derby. He strikes me as a colt better-suited to racing 1 1/2 miles against a smaller field in the Belmont (G1) five weeks from now.

#3 Two Phil's

I'll admit, I'm not sure what to make of Two Phil's. His form racing on dirt during the winter at Fair Grounds was decent but not especially remarkable; he ran second in the Lecomte (G3) and third in the Risen Star (G2), losing the latter race by 2 3/4 lengths to Angel of Empire.

But Two Phil's improved sharply in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) on Tapeta at Turfway Park, sweeping from seventh position to dominate by 5 1/2 lengths with powerful Beyer and Brisnet speed ratings. Was it the result of the surface switch, or is Two Phil's getting better? It could be one or both, but Turfway's relatively new Tapeta track seems to play a bit more like dirt than the old Polytrack course, so I'm inclined to view Two Phil's performance in a positive light.

Two Phil's has trained strongly on dirt in preparation for the Kentucky Derby and is a wildcard I'm unwilling to dismiss from exotic wagers.

#7 Reincarnate

While it's hard to endorse Reincarnate off his weakening third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby, I hesitate to completely dismiss the son of Good Magic. Under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez (who has led the Derby from start to finish aboard Authentic and Medina Spirit), I view Reincarnate as the most likely pacesetter in Saturday's field.

This is significant since Reincarnate is a neck away from being 3-for-3 setting the pace, whereas he's 0-for-4 employing tracking and rallying tactics. A blazing half-mile workout in :46 2/5 at Santa Anita last week may have signaled Reincarnate's Derby strategy: use his speed to get out in front and take the field as far as he can. As mentioned previously, I believe the Derby pace will be modest, so I can envision a scenario where Reincarnate gets brave up front and hangs around for a top-four finish.


1st: Derma Sotogake
2nd: Forte
3rd: Skinner
4th: Angel of Empire

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the 2023 Kentucky Derby?


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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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