Jon White: Updated Top 10 for 2024 Kentucky Derby

There was big Kentucky Derby news on Wednesday when Churchill Downs announced that the purse for the 1 1/4-mile classic has been raised substantially this year to $5 million. This makes it the second-richest race in the country, topped only by the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Kentucky Derby had a $1 million purse from 1996-2004, $2 million from 2015-18 and $3 million from 2019-23.

The date for this year’s 150th running of the Kentucky Derby is May 4.

In terms of my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week, Muth moves up three notches to No. 4 after winning Santa Anita’s Grade II San Vicente Stakes last Saturday (Jan. 6). That victory came a few hours after it had been revealed that Muth was one of three finalists for a 2023 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male.

The other two finalists for champion 2-year-old male of 2023 are Fierceness and Locked. Fierceness is No. 1 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10, while Locked is No. 5.

Below is a horse-by-horse look at my current Kentucky Derby Top 10:

1. FIERCENESS (pictured above). Trainer Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher.

Fierceness is odds-on to get the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male of 2023. Pegged at 6-1 on my morning line, he won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita by 6 1/4 lengths in a 16-1 upset on Nov. 3. The Kentucky-bred City of Light colt recorded a 105 Beyer Speed Figure in that 1 1/16-mile contest.

Not only was Fierceness’ 105 Beyer the highest figure by a 2-year-old during 2023, only five BC Juvenile winners have received a bigger figure in the 40-year history of the Breeders’ Cup.

Below are the Beyers of 105 and higher by BC Juvenile winners:

113 War Pass (2007)
109 Success Express (1987)
108 Uncle Mo (2010)
108 Street Sense (2006)
106 Chief’s Crown (1984)
105 Fierceness (2023)

I ranked Fierceness’ win in the BC Juvenile at No. 9 on my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during 2023.

You can view Fierceness’ win in the 2023 BC Juvenile on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call).

Fierceness kicked off his racing career at Saratoga on Aug. 25. Drawing off in the stretch, he won a six-furlong maiden sprint by 11 1/4 lengths in the mud and was credited with a 95 Beyer.

In between Fierceness’ debut score and BC Juvenile triumph, he ran a clunker. He finished seventh as a 1-2 favorite in the Grade I Champagne Stakes on a sloppy track Oct. 7 at Aqueduct. His Beyer Speed Figure was a paltry 57.

Since the Breeders’ Cup, Fierceness has had four published workouts in Florida at Palm Beach Downs. Most recently, he worked five furlongs in 1:01.34 last Thursday (Jan. 4). He evidently worked in company with Locked, who was given the exact same clocking for a five-furlong drill there that same day.

2. NYSOS. Trainer Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

Television commentator Andy Serling said recently on Fox’s America’s Day at the Races that as of right now, Fierceness is No. 1 among the 3-year-old males and “then there is a big drop-off to everyone else.”

On Steve Byk’s SiriusXM radio program At the Races this week, Serling elaborated on his view of Fierceness early in 2024 vis-a-vis the other 3-year-old males.

“Fierceness lives on an island right now in the now 3-year-old male division,” Serling said. “Based on his Breeders’ Cup race, he’s dramatically superior to anybody we’ve seen.”

Superior? Maybe. Dramatically superior? Maybe not.

Nysos has run up the score in his only two starts so far to win by 10 1/2 and 8 3/4 lengths. I can’t blame you if you think that’s Justify-ish. Justify won his first two races by 9 1/2 and 6 1/2 lengths for Baffert before becoming this country’s 13th Triple Crown winner in 2018.

Kentucky-bred Nysos has recorded Beyer Speed Figures of 96 and 97. His sire, Nyquist, won the 2016 Kentucky Derby.

I, for one, am not ready to say Nysos isn’t on that island with Fierceness, so to speak. We really don’t know how good Nysos is at this point.

On Sunday (Jan. 7) at Santa Anita, Nysos worked five furlongs in company with Coach Prime. Each was timed in :59.00. You can view the workout on XBTV.

Coach Prime, donning blinkers, is on the inside in this team drill. Nysos, sans blinkers, is on the outside. The pair hit the finish together. And then, interestingly, Coach Prime actually gallops out better.

And while Serling is of the opinion that Fierceness “lives on an island right now in the now 3-year-old male division,” with respect to whether or not he goes on to win the Kentucky Derby, I feel compelled to bring up the fact that only two of the 40 BC Juvenile winners -- Street Sense in 2006-07 and Nyquist in 2015-16 -- have gone on to win the Run for the Roses.

3. NASH. Trainer Brad Cox.

I had Nash ranked No. 1 until he ran third as a 1-2 favorite in Fair Grounds’ Gun Runner Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on Dec. 23, a race won by 9-2 Track Phantom.

Nash recorded an 84 Beyer for his Gun Runner performance. The Kentucky-bred Medaglia d’Oro colt showed he’s capable of doing much better than that when receiving a 97 Beyer for his 10 1/4-length win in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Churchill Downs on Dec. 23.

Nash returned to the work tab with a four-furlong Fair Grounds move in :49.20 on Jan. 5 at Fair Grounds.

Daily Racing Form’s Mary Rampellini did a good job this week of getting an update on Cox’s army of 3-year-olds.

“I don’t know who’s going to end up where right now,” Cox said Tuesday (Jan. 9) to Rampellini. “We’ll put everyone where we feel like they have the best opportunity to move forward.”

Rampelli wrote that Nash “is a candidate for either the Lecomte [Jan. 20 at Fair Grounds] or the Southwest [Jan. 27 at Oaklawn Park]. Cox said the same is true of Lightline, Ethan Energy and Awesome Road.”

Post positions for the Lecomte will be drawn this Saturday (Jan. 13).

Prior to Nash’s defeat in the Gun Runner last month, the DRF’s Marcus Hersh had quoted Cox as saying “he’s the best [2-year-old] I got for sure.”

Cox’s high opinion of Nash was one reason why I felt that the colt’s effort in the Gun Runner was so disappointing. But as I’ve said before, one should not judge a horse too harshly for just one disappointing performance. An excellent example of that is Fierceness rebounding to win the BC Juvenile after having run such a bad race in the Champagne. Heck, come to think of it, at least Nash’s three-length loss in the Gun Runner was nowhere close to as bad as Fierceness’ 20 1/4-length defeat in the Champagne.

Keep in mind that Timberlake, Catching Freedom, Drum Roll Please and Lightline were among the 2-year-olds of 2023 considered by Cox to take a back seat to Nash, based on the trainer’s comment to Hersh.

Timberlake, winner of the Grade I Champagne Stakes, finished fourth in the BC Juvenile in his final start as a 2-year-old.

Rampellini reported this week that Timberlake could make his first start as a 3-year-old in the Grade II, $1.25 million Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 24, according to Cox.

“He got a little time after the Breeders’ Cup,” Cox said Tuesday to Rampellini. “He deserved it. He had a full 2-year-old campaign, pretty much traveled from coast to coast.

“We’re excited about getting him back rolling -- getting back on the work tab in the very near future. He’s on the Derby trail. He’s got points, and we hope he continues to accumulate points.”

Catching Freedom won Oaklawn’s Smarty Jones Stakes on Jan. 1.

Drum Roll Please won Aqueduct’s Jerome Stakes last Saturday.

Lightline finished second to two-for-two Carbone in an Oaklawn allowance/optional claiming race at one mile on Dec. 31.

Cox is represented by 20 -- yes, 20! -- on the list of early nominations to the Grade II, $1 million Louisiana Derby, which will be run at 1 3/16 miles on March 23.

What if it turns out Nash is the best 3-year-old of all 20?

4. MUTH. Trainer Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

Even though Muth looked good winning the seven-furlong San Vicente by 2 3/4 lengths, his best Beyer Speed Figure is the 95 he received in the BC Juvenile. His San Vicente performance resulted in a 91 Beyer.

No. 1 Fierceness, No. 2 Nysos and No. 3 Nash all have recorded a higher Beyer than Muth.

As mentioned earlier, Fierceness’ best Beyer is 105, while Nysos has figures of 96 and 97. Nash has a 97 Beyer to his credit.

Even though Muth does not have a Beyer higher than 95, he certainly is a quality 3-year-old. He was headstrong in his first two career races, but in three subsequent starts, he’s been perfectly willingly to sit close to the early pace while winning the Grade I American Pharoah Stakes, finishing second in the BC Juvenile and winning the San Vicente.

5. LOCKED. Trainer Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher.

After winning Keeneland’s Grade I Breeders’ Futurity on Oct. 7, Locked finished third as the 2-1 favorite in the BC Juvenile. It appeared to me that the Kentucly-bred Gun Runner colt was spinning his wheels in the early furlongs when toward the back of the pack among the nine runners. He did improve his position in the final quarter, but found his best stride too late and finished 6 3/4 lengths behind Fierceness.

I especially feel it’s appropriate to move Muth above Locked on my Kentucky Derby Top 10. Muth finished a half-length better than Locked in the BC Juvenile.

As mentioned earlier, Locked worked five furlongs in 1:01.34 last Thursday (Jan. 4), likely in company with Fierceness, who was given the exact same clocking for a five-furlong drill there that same day.

6. BORN NOBLE. Trainer Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher.

Pletcher for a number of years worked as an assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, told me years ago that he believed that seven furlongs was the toughest distance for a horse, especially a first-time starter.

Despite racing greenly in the stretch, Born Noble kicked off his racing career by winning a seven-furlong maiden race by 5 1/2 lengths on a wet track rated “good” on Dec. 30 at Gulfstream Park. The Kentucky-bred Constitution colt was sent away as a 13-10 favorite.

“The word was out early on the 2-year-old colt Born Noble, another member of Todd Pletcher’s annual juggernaut,” Steve Haskin wrote this week for

Haskin wrote that Born Noble, purchased for $725,000, “is owned by Vinnie Viola’s St. Elias Stables and West Point Thoroughbreds, which has a knack in recent years for partnering up on top-class horses.”

One of those top-class horses West Point partnered up on was the great Flightline, who was elected the 2022 Horse of the Year.

Haskin also noted that Born Noble’s third dam, “is a half-sister to the $3 million earner and Hall of Famer Silverbulletday, winner of such major races as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes.”

Additionally, Haskin pointed out that Born Noble’s fifth is dam is Rokeby Venus. By Quadrangle, who won the 1964 Belmont Stakes in which Northern Dancer finished third when seeking a Triple Crown sweep, Rokeby Venus “happens to be a half-sister to Arts and Letters,” Hasken wrote. Arts and Letters, one of the best racehorses of the 1960s, was voted 1969 Horse of the Year.

7. EL CAPI. Trainer Rick Dutrow Jr.

Similar to Nysos, how good is El Capi? Again, at this point one can only wonder after El Capi looked terrific when winning his only start to date in the mud on Dec. 2 at the Big A. And as in the case of Born Noble, El Capi’s first start came in a seven-furlong maiden race. El Capi won in front-running fashion by 9 1/2 lengths and was credited with a robust 99 Beyer Speed Figure.

8. SIERRA LEONE. Trainer Chad Brown.

A $2.3 million auction purchase, Sierra Leone won a one-mile maiden race by 1 1/4 lengths when unveiled at Aqueduct on Nov. 4. The Kentucky-bred Gun Runner colt then lost Aqueduct’s Grade II Remsen Stakes by a nose on a muddy track when he finished second in the 1 1/8-mile contest on Dec. 2.

After Sierra Leone’s 71 Beyer Speed Figure in his first career start, he soared to a 91 in the Remsen.

According to Equibase, Sierra Leone worked four furlongs in :48.40 at Florida’s Payson Park last Saturday (Jan. 60).

9. DORNOCH. Trainer Danny Gargan.

Will full brothers win back-to-back renewals of the Kentucky Derby? It’s certainly far from being impossible.

Mage won the roses last year. His full brother Dornoch, who was game when victorious in Aqueduct’s Grade II Remsen Stakes by a scant nose on a muddy track Dec. 2, is getting plenty of respect in Las Vegas future wagering.

As of Sunday night (Jan. 7), Dornoch was the 12-1 favorite in Kentucky Derby future wagering at Circa, according to’s Ron Flatter. Dornoch was the co-second choice with Fierceness at Caesars Sports Book, which had lowered Muth to 12-1 favoritism.

10. CATCHING FREEDOM. Trainer Brad Cox.

The DRF’s Rampellini reports that Cox said “plans for Catching Freedom are to be determined” after the Kentucky-bred Constitution colt won Oaklawn’s 1 1/16-mile Smarty Jones Stakes going away by 2 1/2 lengths on New Year’s Day. It was Catching Freedom’s third victory from three career starts.

“He came out of the race great,” Cox said to Rampellini. “He’ll be nominated to the Southwest. He could possibly show up, but we’re probably looking to give him more time [and] wait for the Risen Star or Rebel.”

Bubbling Under My Top 10 (in alphabetical order): Ari’s Magic, Carbone, Change of Command, Coach Prime, Crimsoan Light, Drum Roll Please, First World War, Honor Marie, Imagination, Knightsbridge, Lightline, Maymun, Otello, Otto the Conqueror, Parchment Party, Pilot Commander, Snead, The Wine Steward, Timberlake, Track Phantom and Wynstock.


I don’t have any selections for this week. I will have picks next week for the aforementioned Lecomte Stakes.

In five of the last seven races for which I’ve made selections for, my top choice has won, as shown below:

Date        Top Pick (Race) Finish

12-09-23  Nothing Like You (Starlet) WON

12-15-23  Otto the Conqueror (Springboard Mile) WON

12-16-23  Coach Prime (Los Alamitos Futurity) 3rd

12-23-23  Nash (Gun Runner) 3rd

12-30-23  Forbidden Kingdom (Joe Hernandez) WON

01-06-23  Drum Roll Please (Jerome) WON

01-06-23  Muth (San Vicente) WON


Joe Cantey, who trained 1980 Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old male Temperence Hill, died on Jan. 5 of mouth and lung cancer in his hometown of Camden, S.C. He was 82.

Cantey conditioned Cox’s Ridge, winner of the Grade I Met Mile and several other graded stakes, for John Ed Anthony’s Loblolly Stable. Anthony nowadays races as Shortleaf Stables.

Another of Cantey’s accomplished trainees was the multiple Grade I winner Majesty’s Prince.

As for Temperence Hill, who like Cox’s Ridge was a Loblolly colorbearer, he began 1980 as a maiden and managed to become the 3-year-old male champion despite losing nine races that year. I guess you could say that Temperence Hill had excellent timing in the sense that he won when it really mattered.

Even though Temperence Hill had been victorious in the Grade I Arkansas Derby, he was virtually ignored by bettors in the Grade I Belmont Stakes, which he won on a muddy track at 53-1. After the Belmont, he proceeded to lose three in a row before winning the Grade I Travers Stakes.

In his next start following the Travers, Temperence Hill ran fifth in the Grade I Marlboro Cup. That was followed by his 5 1/2-length victory in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup, a race in which the 3-year-old colt defeated a mighty tough older foe in the great gelding John Henry.

After the Gold Cup, Temperence Hill was shipped to Louisiana Downs for a new race, the $500,000 Super Derby. That was a huge purse in 1980. In fact, the purse for the inaugural Super Derby in 1980 was much larger than that for the Kentucky Derby ($346,800) and Preakness ($250,000) that year. The first Super Derby was actually the richest race in the world for 3-year-olds at the time.

With such an opulent purse, the first Super Derby was a big deal. I covered the race as a Daily Racing Form writer. That meant conversing quite a lot with Cantey.

After it was announced that Temperence Hill would be coming to the Super Derby, I contacted Cantey by phone at his Belmont Park barn two weeks before the race.

“When I was down there for a visit and saw the track, it was in good shape, except for being pretty hard because of the dry weather,” Cantey told me. “My colt doesn’t like a hard track. I wouldn’t mind it if it rains sometime before the race.”

Temperence Hill arrived at Shreveport Regional Airport two days before the Super Derby. Randy Moss, who for many years has been a network television horse racing commentator, was working in the publicity department at Louisiana Downs back then.

As the van with Temperence Hill in it pulled up to the stakes barn, I was there with Moss. When Cantey was about to bring the colt out of the van and down a ramp, a security guard came running over with a clipboard.

“Who is this?” the security guard asked Cantey.

“This here is Temperence Hill, winner of the Belmont Stakes, Travers Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup,” Cantey said. “He’s here for your Super Derby.”

Cantey then again started to bring the colt down the ramp.

“Hold it. Hold it. Hold it,” the security guard screamed while looking at the sheet on his clipboard. “You can’t bring that horse off that van. That horse isn’t on my list.”

Stunned by what he was seeing, Moss walked over to a nearby pay phone to call the track’s publicity director, Rosalind Muller, to let her know that a security guard was refusing to let Temperence Hill off the van.

As Moss was on his way to the pay phone, I was struck by how calm and composed Cantey was in this situation. Many trainers would have started yelling at the security guard, but not Cantey. He just matter-of-factly told the security guard, “If this horse does not get off this van in the next five minutes or so, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We are going to bring this ramp back up, close the door, go back to the airport and go back to New York. Do you want to take the responsibility for that?”

Just then, Moss yelled out to the security guard, “Sir, you’re wanted on the phone.”

“I’m busy,” the security guard snapped.

“I think you had better take this call,” Moss said. “It’s the publicity director.”

Hearing that, the security guard started walking over to the phone, but not before telling Cantey that he “better not let that horse off the van.”

I watched the security guard reach the pay phone. Moss handed it to him. In just a few seconds, I saw the security guard holding the receiver away from his ear. He obviously was being loudly chewed out by the publicity director. The security guard then hung up the phone, walked back over to the van and said, “Okay, go ahead, let this horse off the van.”

The next day, Friday, it rained, with the main track becoming a sea of slop. Cantey had Temperence Hill blow out for the race by breezing an easy three furlongs.

“If the track dries and it quits raining and the track is slow tomorrow, that would be good,” Cantey told me in the press box between races that Friday afternoon. “But if it’s sloppy like this -- it’s probably really hard out there -- I don’t think that would be a good thing.”

Not long after my chat with Cantey, the rain did stop, which allowed the track to start drying out, just as the trainer had wanted.

It was during the week of the Super Derby that I first met Joe Hirsch, who was Daily Racing Form’s executive columnist. Hirsch became a mentor to me.

The night before the race, track management hosted a Super Derby party to honor the participants.

At one point, Hirsch said to me, “Let’s get some dessert.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll pass.”

“No, you will not,” Hirsch said sternly. “You must have dessert. It wouldn’t hurt a baby.”

And so I accompanied Hirsch to the dessert tray. Looking it over, he said, “Oh, my. Look at that cheesecake.”

“I’ve never eaten cheesecake,” I said.

“What?” Hirsch said, astonished. “Well, you are going to have some now.”

And that was how the legendary Joe Hirsch introduced me to cheesecake at the 1980 Super Derby party.

Cantey attended the party, but he didn’t stay long. He mingled a little, ate a little, then departed for the barn to check on Temperence Hill.

“I’ve got a horse to look after,” Cantey told me just before he exited.

The morning of the Super Derby, Cantey was smoking a cigarette while grazing his pony by the name of Buck on a patch of grass next to the barn. The sky was filled with clouds that were pregnant with rain.

A few minutes later, I accompanied Cantey as he walked to the track to check it out. He stepped across the wet surface, stopping here and there while occasionally poking his pocketknife into it.

Cantey then walked off the track.

“It doesn’t seem to have much cushion,” he said. “My knife went down about two inches before I got to the base. I don’t like it, but at least it won’t be sloppy, unless it rains again.”

Cantey looked up to the sky.

“I really don’t think we’re going to get more rain,” he said. “I think it’s going to clear up.”

I wasn’t so sure that the rain was done. But as if the weather gods were granting Cantey’s every wish, a couple of hours later almost all of the clouds were gone.

In the afternoon, after Cantey saddled Temperence Hill in the paddock, I asked him yet again for his thoughts on the condition of the wet main track, now listed as “good.”

“Well, I still don’t like it,” he said. “Frankly, I’m worried. If he doesn’t handle it, he might finish last. But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Actually, Cantey did do something about it. He decided to have Temperence Hill shod with mud caulks. The colt had raced with mud caulks when he won the Belmont Stakes on a muddy track.

“They’re very modified stickers,” he told me. “I kept checking the track all afternoon. In fact, I got a headache from checking the track so often. At the last minute, I realized the track was not going to completely dry out, so I had my horseshoer, Jim Bayes, put the modified stickers on him.”

I stood alongside Cantey as he watched the Super Derby next to the winner’s circle. Temperence Hill did not run last, as the trainer had feared. With Eddie Maple in the saddle, the colt won by a widening 5 1/2 lengths as the 1-2 favorite while sewing up an Eclipse Award.

I truly appreciated how helpful Cantey had been to me for the first Super Derby. He was such a class act. It turned out that the job I did in covering such an important race played a major role in my being promoted to being a DRF writer on the Southern California circuit the following year.

Temperence Hill had flown from New York to Louisiana on Thursday, breezed an easy three furlongs on Friday, won the Super Derby on Saturday, then jetted back to New York on Sunday.

The day after the Super Derby, I was at the Louisiana Downs stakes barn and witnessed Temperence Hill being loaded onto a van for his ride to the airport. There was not a security guard hassle this time. I asked Cantey once again what his thoughts were regarding the track condition for the Super Derby.

“Well, now that Temperence Hill won the race, I guess I’d have to say I liked it,” Cantey said with a great big grin.