Kenneth Strong’s Top Picks and Betting Strategies for the 149th Kentucky Derby

by | Last updated May 6, 2023 | Horse Betting

Japanese Invaders the Play in 149th Derby, Mage a Live Longshot
Kentucky Derby Picks
Churchill Downs, Race 12, Saturday, May 6, 2023

  1. Mandarin Hero
  2. Derma Sotogake
  3. Forte
  4. Mage

Crazy days leading up to the 149th Kentucky Derby. Favorite Forte galloping with a 3/4 shoe on Friday and four late scratches that included two of our favorite horses. There are still lots of long shots to pick from, but we’re going in heavy on the Japanese runners.

Forte (3-1) is the logical morning-line favorite based on five straight graded stakes wins going all the way back to the Hopeful Stakes (G1) in September at Saratoga, a streak that also included the Breeders Cup Juvenile (G1) and most recently the Florida Derby (G1).

Two-time Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher and top jock Irad Ortiz, Jr. also add luster for the Forte crowd, who will likely bet him into underlay status at post time. If Forte gets a decent trip, he should win, but he does have a few knocks against him. His Beyer Speed Figures are going the wrong way, and he took a bad step (shared in a video on Twitter) while training at Churchill Downs.

Is that enough to get him beat? Who knows, but it’s certainly enough to go looking for a better price.

We originally liked tough guy Practical Move and the improving Skinner off their first and third-place finishes in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), but both of those horses were scratched due to elevated temperatures. The fortune cookie bonus is that the horse who finished second by a nose in the Santa Anita Derby, Mandarin Hero (20-1), now draws into the field and he’ll be our top pick.

After years of trying, the Japanese runners finally broke through the North American high-class win barrier in 2021 with a pair of Breeders’ Cup wins. More recently, Japanese horses finished 1-3-4-5 in the $20 million Saudi Cup and won both the $12 million Dubai World Cup and the $6 million Dubai Sheema Classic. They also won the $1 million UAE Derby (G2) in March with Kentucky Derby entrant Derma Sotogake.

Think they’ve figured out how to win the big races yet? You bet they have.

Only four Japanese horses have ever run in the Kentucky Derby, and they have yet to make a dent, with their best finish being 6th with Master Fencer in 2019. Last year their Crown Pride finished 13th. But this year, they’re not only building on recent international successes, they’re also bringing better horses to the show.

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Derma Sotogake (10-1) has won four of his last five, including his second start off the layoff in the UAE Derby (G2), going 1 3/16 miles in front-running fashion. He’s also been working enthusiastically at Churchill Downs. The female side of his pedigree says he’ll get the distance, and he doesn’t necessarily need the lead to win.

Jockey Christoph Lemaire, who won the UAE Derby aboard Derma Sotogake, was aboard Crown Pride in last year’s Derby and got cooked in a vicious speed duel. Lemaire should have learned from that experience, and he’s on a better, more versatile horse this time. Breaking from post 15 almost assures he’ll be sending to some degree, and if he does happen to clear early, he might just go all the way.

If he can’t win it, fellow Japanese runner Mandarin Hero, who drew in off the also-eligible list, will have to work out a trip from post 18. A neck and a nose away from being undefeated in his six-start career, Mandarin Hero had legitimate excuses for his narrow losses. In his fifth lifetime start on February 23 in Japan, going 1 1/8-miles off a three-month layoff, he came flying home late to get beat a neck.

Shipped to North America for the Santa Anita Derby on April 8, Mandarin Hero was sent off at 8-1 and missed by a desperate closing nose between horses after finding just enough traffic trouble to get beat. That earned him one of only three-triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in this year’s Kentucky Derby field, equalled only by Forte (100) and bettered by Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) winner Two Phil’s (101).

Mandarin Hero’s strong effort in the Santa Anita Derby fits one of our favorite angles in the Derby, that of a horse coming off a tough race that increases their level of fitness to Charlie Whittingham-level. His main challenge will be his wide post.

Mandarin Hero’s grinding effort in the Santa Anita Derby is in sharp contrast to some of the other lower-priced ralliers in the Derby, who have made long swooping moves to win their races, really having to run only the last quarter mile. If they get a hot pace in the Derby, they can win with the swoop move, but without it, their chances are downgraded.

The only other horses we’ll mention in this year’s Kentucky Derby are Rocket Can (3-1) and Mage (15-1).

Rocket Can gets blinkers on for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and has been working well at Churchill Downs. He’s a total flyer longshot, as his numbers don’t measure up in his previous races, but his trainer makes him an inclusion in exotic wagers.

Mage is much more interesting.

Very short on seasoning, Mage finished an improving second to Forte in the Florida Derby in only his third-lifetime start. He broke slowly in that race and made a nice move to wear down the leader before being caught late. In his start before that in the Fountain of Youth, he also broke slowly before finishing fourth. His numbers are on the improve, and he may be one or two races from his best, but he showed good courage in the Florida Derby, and an improving horse coming into the Kentucky Derby is always dangerous.

Forte galloped fine with a 3/4 shoe on his right front foot on Friday, and trainer Todd Pletcher was confident he would run well, according to the Daily Racing Form, but this is the Kentucky Derby we’re talking about. No missteps allowed.

Could Forte win? Yes. He could. But we’re going to wheel the Japanese horses Mandarin Hero (22), Derma Sotogake (17), and the improving Mage (8) together in all three spots in the trifecta as follows: 8-17-22 with 8-17-22 with ALL, 8-17-22 with ALL with 8-17-22, and ALL with 8-17-22 with 8-17-22.

We’ll also bet all three to win and wheel them up and down to the board in $1 exactors and combine them in some additional exotics, including superfectas and multi-race wagers. Hopefully, the hype of Forte and some of the more heralded swoopers will steal enough of the betting thunder away from our choices to leave us with juicy long shots.

And Sushi for all!

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