Road to Kentucky Derby: Louisiana Derby, Jeff Ruby Steaks

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Road to Kentucky Derby: Louisiana Derby, Jeff Ruby Steaks
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It’s post time for the most points-rich 2023 Kentucky Derby horse race betting prep races.

The Louisiana Derby and Jeff Ruby Steaks on Saturday are the first of eight 200-point preps. The winners receive 100 points and automatic entry into the Kentucky Derby starting gate. The 40 points awarded to the runners-up are likely also enough to gain a spot at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

A third maximum points race, the UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, is also set for Saturday. The weekend’s final prep is Sunday’s Sunland Derby, which awards 40 points to the winner.

The Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans offers a $1 million dollar purse and is run over 1- 3/16 miles, the longest of the U.S.-based prep races, only one-sixteenth shorter than the Kentucky Derby. The Louisiana Derby drew a large field of 12, including 2-1 morning-line favorite Instant Coffee, who won the Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds on Jan. 21.

A field of 12 will also contest the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park in Kentucky, The $700,000 Jeff Ruby is run over a synthetic racing surface at Turfway Park, which is a significantly different surface than U.S. dirt tracks, such as Churchill Downs.

The road to the Derby began in September 2022 and continues through April 15. The top 20-point qualifiers earn automatic entry into the 149th Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs.

Current 2023 Kentucky Derby Qualifier Standings

Rank HorsePoints Earnings
1 Forte 90 $1,783,730
2 Practical Move 60 $372,000
3 Confidence Game 57 $610,480
4 Angel of Empire 54 $287,000
5 Raise Cain 54 $204,750
6 Tapit Trice 50 $210,000
7 Rocket Can 40 $227,150
8 Red Route One 33 $398,375
9 Instant Coffee 32 $385,065
10 Classic Car Wash 26 $100,000
11 Sun Thunder24 $115,250
12 General Banker 24 $84,000
13 Two Phil’s 23 $235,850
14 Congruent 20 $211,585
15 Hit Show 20 $137,500
16 Geaux Rocket Ride 20 $80,000
17 Slip Mahoney 20 $60,000
18 Classic Legacy 19 $45,000
19 Curly Jack 17 $348,120
20 Blazing Sevens 16 $411,000

Louisiana Derby

Date: Saturday, March 25, 2023

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

Purse: $1 million

Position HorseTrainer RiderOdds
1 Shopper’s Revenge Steve Asmussen Ricardo Santana Jr.12-1
2 Instant Coffee Brad Cox Luis Saez 2-1
3 Curly Jack Tom Amoss Edgar Morales 12-1
4 Sam Thunder Kenny McPeek Brian Hernandez Jr. 5-1
5 Disarm Steve Asmussen Joel Rosario10-1
6 Kingsbarns Todd Pletcher Flevin Prat 6-1
7 Cagilostro Cherie DeVaux Cristian Torres12-1
8 Single Ruler J. Keith Desormeaux David Cohen15-1
9 Tapit’s Conquest Brad Cox Manny Franco10-1
10 Denington Kenny McPeek Junior Alvarado12-1
11 Jace’s Road Brad Cox Florent Geroux12-1
12 Baseline Beater Neil Pessin Corey Lanerie20-1

Louisiana Derby Analysis

Trainer Brad Cox won the first three Louisiana-based Kentucky Derby preps and has three chances to sweep all four, including morning-line favorite Instant Coffee.

Instant Coffee has three victories in four-lifetime starts, winning each by rallying from well off the pace. Cox also entered Jace’s Road, who won the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds late last year and Tapit’s Conquest, the fourth-place finisher in the Risen Star Stakes.

Trainers Steve Asmussen (Shopper’s Revenge, Disarm) and Kenny McPeek (Sun Thunder, Denington) each have two entries in the race. Asmussen won the 2022 Louisiana Derby with Epicenter, who went on to finish second as the Kentucky Derby betting favorite.

Despite the large field, this isn’t a race loaded with early speed, meaning pace and jockey tactics will play a big factor here. So will the race’s extra distance and the demanding Fair Grounds stretch, the longest on the U.S.-based Derby trail.

Louisiana Derby Selections

1. Curly Jack was inexplicably dull in the Risen Star Stakes, finishing a well-beaten eighth with no visible excuses. Perhaps he needed the race after a three-month layoff. If willing to draw a line through that race, Curly Jack offers double-digit value if he can regain his 2-year-old form, when he won the Iroquois Stakes and finished only a length behind Instant Coffee in the Kentucky Jockey Club. With more aggressive handling and a more forward early position, Curly Jack is an intriguing long shot.

2. With three victories in four-lifetime starts, Instant Coffee has the most impressive resume in the field. His victory in the Lecomte looks even better after third-place finisher Confidence Game came back to win the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. But Instant Coffee’s late-running style makes him somewhat pace dependent in a race without a ton of early speed. Bettors will have to decide if he’s worth backing at even money or so.  

3. Jace’s Road won the Gun Runner Stakes in wire-to-wire fashion two races back and will try to do the same here. His three efforts on fast tracks — two wins and a third — were all solid. His two poor performances were over sloppy tracks.

Louisiana Derby Betting Strategy

Straight bets on Curly Jack. Exacta box of Curly Jack and Instant Coffee and key both over Jace’s Road and Single Ruler. For trifectas, add Tapit’s Conquest and Sun Thunder at the bottom.

Jeff Ruby Steaks

Date: Saturday, March 25, 2023

Distance: 1 1/8 miles

Purse: $700,000

Position HorseTrainer RiderOdds
1 Major Dude Todd Pletcher Irad Ortiz Jr.5-2
2 Scoobie Quando Ben Colebrook Luan Machado 15-1
3 Event Detail Paulo Lobo Walter Rodriguez 15-1
4 Futuristic Again Wesley Ward Gerardo Corrales 6-1
5 Master’s Candy Michael Maker Umberto Rispoli12-1
6 Baby Billy Norm Casse Joe Talamo 30-1
7 Bluebirds Over Saffie Joseph Jr. Edgard Zayas15-1
8 Congruent Antonio Sano Sonny Leon5-1
9 Escapologist Kenny McPeek Alex Archard30-1
10 Two Phil’s Larry Rivelli Jareth Loveberry7-2
11 Wadsworth Brad Cox Chris Landeros8-1
12 Point Proven Todd Pletcher John Velazquez15-1

Jeff Ruby Steaks Analysis

Many Kentucky Derby handicappers downplay the Jeff Ruby Steaks because of the surface switch. Horses that run well over Turfway’s tapeta surface may not run well over dirt tracks and vice versa. Yet last year, Rich Strike finished third in the Jeff Ruby, which helped him scrape up enough points to gain entry into the Derby, where he delivered a shocking 80-1 upset.

This year’s field of 12 is an eclectic group — six have won stakes over synthetic, dirt or turf. The 5-2 morning-line favorite is Major Dude, who has won a pair of graded stakes on turf and is trying synthetic for the first time. Trainer Todd Pletcher has won this race three times, but not since 2014.

Trainer Mike Maker has won this race a record six times — four times since 2016 — and is back with long shot Maker’s Candy, who steps up in class from New York-bred races.

Congruent and Scoobie Quando, the top two finishers of the Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park three weeks ago, are also in the field. So is Two Phil’s, second choice on the morning line and 13th on the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard, who has proven dirt form but is attempting synthetic for the first time.

Jeff Ruby Steaks Selections

1. Funtastic Again obviously likes Turfway Park, winning his two races there by more than nine lengths in wire-to-wire fashion without taking a deep breath. This is a big step up in class and he hasn’t proven he can rate behind horses. But if able to secure an uncontested early lead, he’s capable of stealing this.

2. Turf form generally translates well to synthetic, which makes Major Dude the logical favorite. He won the Kitten’s Joy Stakes on the Gulfstream Park grass last month, finishing seven lengths ahead of Congruent, who came back to win the Battaglia Memorial. With top rider Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard, all systems go.

3. Scoobie Quando ran a better-than-it-looked second in the Battaglia. He was pinned down in close quarters most of the way before finding room late and finishing full of run. Big odds make him attractive underneath in exotics.

Jeff Ruby Steaks Betting Strategy

Straight bets on Funtastic Again if anything close to his 6-1 morning-line odds. The deep and contentious field could result in some high-paying exotics. If putting Funtastic Again or Major Duke on top, consider using Scoobie Quando, Maker’s Candy, Congruent, Two Phil’s and Wadsworth somewhere underneath.

Sunland Derby

Date: Sunday, March 26, 2023

Distance: 1 1/8 miles

Purse: $600,000

Position HorseTrainer RiderOdds
1 How Did He Do That Steve Asmussen Alfredo Juarez Jr.9-2
2 Low Expectations Antonio Garciz Mario Gutierrez 6-1
3 Fort Bragg Tim Yakteen Juan Hernandez 4-1
4 Henry Q Todd Fincher Edwin Maldonado 3-1
5 One in Vermillion Esteban Martinez Harry Hernandez6-1
6 Hard to Figure Bob Baffert Flavien Prat 2-1
7 Wild On Ice Joel Marr Ken Tohill20-1

Sunland Derby Analysis

The Sunland Derby is a minor Derby prep, though its 40 points to the winner should be enough to punch a ticket to Louisville, Ky.  Though no winner of the New Mexico race has ever won the Kentucky Derby, Mine That Bird finished fourth in the 2009 Sunland Derby and shocked the world by winning the first jewel of the Triple Crown at 50-1.

The field of seven includes several Southern California shippers, including morning-line favorite Hard to Figure, trained by Bob Baffert. Since Baffert is suspended from Churchill Downs, Hard to Figure is not eligible to receive Derby points. Fort Bragg, a former Baffert horse, was transferred to trainer Tim Yakteen and is eligible to collect points.

Henry Q started his career at Santa Anita, then shipped to Sunland Park and won the Mine That Bird Derby by a whopping 14 lengths on Feb. 28. One in Vermillion showed some grit to win the Riley Allison Derby at Sunland Park in his last start.

Sunland Derby Selections

1. Though he has just one win in five-lifetime starts, Fort Bragg has been facing tougher competition in Southern California. Last time out he raced wide in the San Felipe Stakes and weakened late to finish fifth. This is an easier spot and his stalking style should suit him well here.

2. With Baffert still the trainer, Hard to Figure is not on the Derby trail and appears to have distance limitations anyway. He’s an obvious contender here and his speed figure last time out is the highest in the field. 

3. Henry Q was visually impressive in the Mine That Bird Derby, romping by more than a dozen lengths in fast time. But that was on an uncontested lead over a soft field. This will be tougher.  

Sunland Derby Betting Strategy

With a relatively small field and low potential exotic payoffs, the betting strategy here is straight bets on Fort Bragg.

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Chet Fussman

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