Forte is Derby favorite, but don't count out Tapit Trice, Angel of Empire, Verifying


Tapit Trice has won four in a row, Angel of Empire has push-button acceleration and Verifying was a neck short in the Blue Grass. How Dan Wolken would wager the Kentucky Derby:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On paper, there is only one horse among the 19 entered in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby that would seem to have the potential for greatness. 

But Forte, who has won six-of-seven starts and was named last year’s 2-year-old champion, has not commanded the same respect as previous favorites with similar résumés. Whether it’s his off-the-pace running style, the difficulty he had in winning the Florida Derby or two relatively slow workouts since arriving at Churchill Downs, Forte has become a horse that the experts and sharp handicappers will try to beat Saturday. 

It’s possible Forte, at this point, has become a tad underrated. He could very well prove the best of this crop, delivering trainer Todd Pletcher a third Derby win and owner Mike Repole his first after spending tens of millions of dollars pursuing this race over the last 15 years.

But it’s just as likely that Forte was an early developer and his peers have caught up this spring. The speed figures suggest that plenty of horses in this race can beat Forte, and if he runs into any traffic trouble — a plausible scenario given that he’ll be launching a rally from the middle or back of the pack in the final half-mile — he may not be good enough to overcome it. 

If you want to make money on the Derby, you have to either take a stand with the favorite or against him. There are enough knocks on Forte — and good betting opportunities with other horses — that our money is going to be spent elsewhere. 

But where? 

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On sheer numbers, there’s a good chance the winner will come out of either Pletcher or Brad Cox’s barn. Between them, they will saddle seven of the race’s 19 starters. Pletcher’s second-stringer, Tapit Trice, has won four in a row including the Blue Grass Stakes. His third horse, Kingsbarns, is 3-for-3 lifetime and was impressive going wire-to-wire in the Louisiana Derby.

Luis Saez piloted Tapit Trice past Tyler Gaffalione aboard Verifying to win the Blue Grass Stakes on April 8.

Cox won the Arkansas Derby with Angel of Empire, a horse that seems to have push-button acceleration around the final turn. Perhaps the biggest endorsement of his ability came when Flavien Prat, arguably the top jockey in the country at the moment, chose to ride Angel of Empire instead of Kingsbarns. Cox’s second-best chance is likely Verifying, who came up just a neck short to Tapit Trice in the Blue Grass. 

Every year at the Derby, there are always a group of horses that impress the clockers with the way they look on the track during their morning gallops. At the head of that group is Confidence Game, a horse that hasn’t run since Feb. 25 when he won the Rebel Stakes at 18-to-1. Trainer Keith Desormeaux would be bucking a lot of historical trends if he wins the Derby off a 10-week layoff. 

The other difficult element in handicapping this Derby is the lack of true early speed. It would be a surprise if this Derby has the kind of hot pace that set things up for Forte or other late runners. 

Because of the uncertain pace scenario, the horses that will be forwardly placed early will dictate how the race is run. 

One horse that’s a good bet to be on or near the lead is Kingsbarns. The regally-bred son of Uncle Mo, who was purchased for $800,000 last year, easily handled the Louisiana Derby field March 25 in just his third career start but was able to run a leisurely early pace. He won’t get away with that Saturday, and the question is whether he has enough experience to relax and carry his speed when pressured. 

As the horses turn for home Saturday, it’s easy to envision Kingsbarns emerging with the lead while other speed horses like Derma Sotogake, Reincarnate and Jace’s Road start to fall back. The second flight of horses, which likely includes Rocket Can, Disarm, Tapit Trice and Two Phil’s, will start pushing to move forward. Angel of Empire will likely be closing ground on the outside, with Forte trying to follow in his path. Any deep closers with something left in the tank will try to pick up the pieces as tired horses stagger home.

Kentucky Derby contender Verifying shows his teeth while getting bathed Friday morning.

Who’s going to be left at the end?

At 15-to-1 on the morning line, Verifying is going to be worth a shot. A $775,000 yearling purchase, Verifying ran a very fast mile at Oaklawn Park in his 3-year-old debut, then suffered a terrible trip on a sloppy track next out in the Rebel Stakes in a fourth-place finish that was better than it looked on paper. Though Tapit Trice nipped him by a neck in the Blue Grass, Verifying fought impressively in the stretch and did not give up the lead easily.

Coming out of the No. 2 post position, jockey Tyler Gaffalione is going to have him in a good position near the lead and saving ground on the rail. If Verifying moves forward off the Blue Grass, it’s easy to envision him passing Kingsbarns in the stretch and then trying to hold off the late comers. 

If Angel of Empire runs his race, he has a great chance to get up for second place, giving Cox a 1-2 finish. Mage, who finished a very good second to Forte in the Florida Derby, is an impressive physical specimen with lots of upside. His finishing kick could get him into the trifecta or superfecta at a nice price. Forte, Confidence Game and Rocket Can should also be included in the exotic bets. 

This isn’t an easy Derby to handicap. But if Verifying wins, our $100 bankroll could be pretty big by the end of the day. Here’s how I plan on spending it:

$20 win on Verifying

$10 exacta box, Verifying-Angel of Empire

$10 exacta box, Verifying-Mage 

$10 exacta box, Verifying-Confidence Game 

$1 trifecta Verifying over Angel of Empire and Mage over Angel of Empire, Mage, Forte, Confidence Game and Rocket Can. 

$1 trifecta Angel of Empire over Verifying and Mage over Verifying, Mage, Forte, Confidence Game and Rocket Can. 

Good luck!

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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