HOW HE GOT HERE
King Russell made his way into the Derby field via the defection of Continuar on May 4th. An improving sort, it took King Russell five starts to break his maiden. After two inauspicious outings in Kentucky to open up his docket, he has made all four starts of 2023 at Oaklawn. He ran second in a pair of maiden special weights around two turns, boosting his Beyers from start to start and finishing behind Sun Thunder in the first one. King Russell finally broke through two starts ago in late February, storming from off the pace to win by a neck and raising his best figures again. Trainer Ron Moquett then wheeled him back in the Arkansas Derby [G1], lofty goals for a colt who had yet to face winners and would have to go up against quite a few stakes performers. The public agreed with that sentiment and sent this colt off at 58-1 in that spot, but a bold closing kick saw him fly by graded stakes winners and Derby contenders Rocket Can and Reincarnate to go from maiden winner to Grade 1 placed. Unfortunately for King Russell, the 40 points earned there was not enough to initially make the Derby field. Connections had to sweat it out, but he will ultimately be the last horse in the field and be the first Derby starter to adorn saddle cloth #23.
HOW HE FITS HERE
Big improvement will be necessary for King Russell to be competitive in the Kentucky Derby. The good news is, he has shown that in his last few starts. Going from maiden company to remaining competitive in what was one of the tougher Derby preps should not go unnoticed, but there are plenty of caveats that can still be flagged for his Derby merits. He is the only horse to be entered in the race without a Beyer of 90 or higher going in, and that weakness is backed up by all other figure makers. His deep closing style will likely still be hindered even with the addition of Cyclone Mischief in the group. Even if the pace does become rapid, there are likely better closers to pick up those pieces before him. In addition, we can knock the Arkansas Derby performance given the pace didn’t hold up very well there either.
CONNECTIONS AND PEDIGREE
Ron Moquett makes his return to the Kentucky Derby having not had a runner since 2016. He appeared in back-to-back editions of this race with Far Right in 2015 and Whitmore in 2016. Both were longshots who failed to factor and King Russell fits that profile again. Rafael Bejarano will have his 13th ride in the Kentucky Derby with no in the money finishes across the first twelve mounts. His best performance came when 4th in 2009 on Papa Clem. He has also sneakily acquired three straight Derby mounts, having rode Hidden Stash in 2021 and Happy Jack in 2022.
King Russell is by Creative Cause, who was one of the favorites in the 2012 Kentucky Derby and ran 5th in that event. He has thrown very versatile progeny during his time at stud and very few with distance limitations. The dam side on this colt is very fitting for the setting of this race. He is out of Believe You Will, who is a full-sister to 2012 Kentucky Oaks winner, Believe You Can, so King Russell certainly is bred to succeed on this weekend.
Finally, according to the Kentucky Derby media guide this will be former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones first ever runner in the Kentucky Derby. He is a three-time winning owner of the Kentucky Oaks (Proud Truth – 2008, Believe You Can – 2012, and Lovely Maria – 2015), so it is very cool to see his presence in the Derby with a homebred from a very successful family.
It is tough to envision a way King Russell can win this year’s Kentucky Derby. He has yet to prove his class at this level and the waters only get deeper from his loss in the Arkansas Derby. The one positive he may have over other longshots, however, is that he is certainly on the improve and has plenty of potential, whereas others may have already shown all their cards already. Exotic use at best, if you’re feeling lucky.