Road to the 2023 Kentucky Derby – The Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby – By Eric Solomon

The only stop in New Mexico on the 2023 Kentucky Derby Trail is the Sunland Park Derby, which is the highlight of the biggest day of racing this year at Sunland. While this race only offers 100 points toward entry into the Derby, as opposed to the 200 point races at other tracks this time of year, the winner could earn 50 points, which is enough to get them into the starting gate. 

The morning line favorite is the only runner in the field that is not eligible to run in the Derby, Hard to Figure, for Bob Baffert. Horses that he train must have been transferred to another trained before 2/28 in order to maintain their eligibility for the Derby. However, this could easily be a prep for the Preakness for this son of Hard Spun, who sired the runaway winner of the Jeff Ruby Steaks (Two Phils) yesterday.

Low Expectations joins him in shipping here from Southern California. Henry Q shipped here last month and was dominant in the local prep, the Mine That Bird Derby. They’ll be the main opposition to the favorite here, especially with the scratch of Fort Bragg, who will opt to ship to Florida for the Grade 1 Florida Derby next week. Post time for this race is 4:45 (MT).

Sunland Park, Sunday 3/26/23, Race 10: The Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby

100 Total Derby points (50/20/15/10/5)

1 – How Did He Do That (9-2 ML): Steve Asmussen trains this son of Good Magic that sat out the Mine That Bird Derby last month in favor of this spot. He tried two turns for the first time in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on New Year’s Day where he finished 5th, behind Victory Formation and next out graded stakes winner, Angel of Empire. He was a close second behind One in Vermillion, who also returns today. I haven’t seen enough improvement at two turns to get excited to back him in this spot. He’ll likely be a shorter price than he should be, seeing as how he’s trained by Asmussen. I’ll pass.


2 – Low Expectations (6-1 ML): Two time Kentucky Derby winner, Mario Gutierrez comes in to ride this son of Nyquist, who is a perfect 2-2 on the main track since switching to the main track for trainer Antonio Garcia. After going winless as a trainer in 2022, this horse have provided Garcia with his first two wins since December of 2021. This is a big step up in class, and there’s other speed for him to contend with. However, it’s worth noting that this track historically can be very glib and speed favoring on these big race days. He has inside position on both One in Vermillon and Hard to Figure, which could prove to valuable. I think he is a contender to pull off a mild upset. 


3 – Fort Bragg (4-1 ML, 100-1 Circa): SCRATCHED


4 – Henry Q (3-1 ML, 45-1 Circa): He certainly earned some national attention when he embarrassed the Mine The Bird Derby field last month, winning by 14 lengths on the wire. There wasn’t much early pace signed on that afternoon, so he took full advantage of that in his first try around two turns. Todd Fincher is a great trainer in New Mexico, winning at a 23% clip in 2022, with most of his runners in this part of the country. He took over the training from Doug O’Neill when this relocated from Southern California after breaking his maiden in a maiden/optional claiming race at Santa Anita in February. He has shown he is comfortable rating off the early speed, so he may find himself in perfect striking position behind the early speed. I think he has a huge chance to win again. 


5 – One in Vermillion (6-1 ML): This son of Army Mule used his early speed as a weapon when he won the Riley Allison Derby going one mile at the end of January. He also bypassed the Mine That Bird Derby in favor of this spot, where he appears to be sandwiched between two other speed horses. I don’t think he’s fast enough to keep up and looking at his pedigree, I think the nine furlongs is going to prove to be too far for him. 


6 – Hard to Figure (2-1 ML): While it’s certain that this Bob Baffert will not be going to the Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert may very well be using this Grade 3 contest as a prep for the Preakness. He made his first start as a three year old in the all-Baffert, Bob Lewis Stakes in February. He pressed the pace that day and hung on gamely for second, as Newgate bested him that afternoon. It’s hard to gauge how strong that race was or was not, as I don’t believe that his three other competitors were necessarily racing against him in that race. He put up huge figure increase, earning a 100 Beyer, which is better than the majority of his contemporaries have earned up to this point. Eleven though the ownership group is different, I am curious about the scratch of Fort Bragg, who was a former Baffert trainee, who will run in the Florida Derby on Saturday. He’s a player in this race for sure, as there really are only two other horses that seem to have a reasonable chance of winning this race. However, the price will be too short for my liking. 


7 – Wild On Ice (20-1 ML): He was beaten a combined 45 lengths in the Riley Allison Derby and the Mine That Bird Derby and now he’s facing tougher company today. He feels like filler in this race and despite the small field, him winning this race would be as shocking as Mine That Bird winning the Derby in 2008.



The Verdict: 4-2-6

Any value that may have been available while wagering on this race, seemingly went out the door when Fort Bragg defected from this race. If the goal was to get into the body of the field for the Derby, I would think that one had a better chance of winning this race than finishing second from Post 10 in that race next weekend. That being said, the door is open for Henry Q (#4) to make his case to be a late nomination to the Triple Crown races. He ran a monstrous race when going two turns for the first time for Todd Fincher. He may like the course and even if he won;t get the same easy frontrunning trip, I think he’s perfectly capable of stalking the leaders and making his run in the stretch.


Low Expectations (#2) has been a different horse since getting off the turf and moving to the main track. He feels a bit like a need the lead type, and he has inside position to work out that trip. I do worry that the pace may be too aggressive for him, but this is not a deep field and this track can play very kindly to speed on big days. 


Hard to Figure (#6) could be using this race to springboard himself into the Preakness, where he could be a major player, assuming that he’s able to pass this test. With the scratch of Fort Bragg, I see him going into the gate at odds of 4-5 or lower, which is way too low for me. I do think he may have to go three wide early, which is not ideal, especially if Maldanado can work out a successful stalking trip with Henry Q. He may prove to be simply better than these, but at short odds, I’ll try to beat him. 


We’ll have coverage of every North American Derby Points Race, along with plenty of coverage leading up to the 149th Kentucky Derby on May 6th, 2023. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.

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