As we enter into the final stages of the Kentucky Derby trail this spring, thoroughbred racing fans around the country are revving up as post time draws near for the 139th running of America's most prestigious horse race. In a little more than a month, the hopeful masses will be narrowed down to the top 20 thoroughbreds who are fortunate enough to accumulate enough points to qualify for “The Sport of Kings” ultimate prize. Only this upper echelon of horse flesh will have the honor of running for the roses beneath Churchill Downs’ Twin Spires in Louisville, Ky., on the first Saturday in May, this year on May 4th.
A main topic of conversation throughout the prep journey has been on the controversial point system Churchill Downs inaugurated to determine which 3-year olds make the 20-horse cutoff for the Run For The Roses, replacing the graded-stakes earnings standard that’s been used since 1986.
If you have been out of touch with reality, let me bring you up to date. Last June, Churchill Downs, in one of the most essential developments in the storied history of the Kentucky Derby, abandoned the graded stakes earnings criteria it has used to determine which 20 horses get into the starting gate for the 1 1/4-mile classic and instituted a point system to qualify for America's Greatest Race.
Unlike the prior system in which winners of purse-rich races such as the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile and $1 million Delta Jackpot would be guaranteed a spot in the Derby field regardless what they did in their 3-year-old preps, the new approach puts decidedly less emphasis on 2-year-old form, turf and sprint races and awards the most points to the "Big-7" prep races held in the five weeks prior to the Derby. Now, a colt or filly must earn its way in by being a now horse, facing the best of its generation just weeks before one of America's most treasured sporting events.
The new point system -- officially branded as the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" -- is broken down into the “Kentucky Derby Prep Season” and the three-tiered “Kentucky Derby Championship Series" -showcasing 36 stakes races overall, including 17 marquee events for three-year-old Thoroughbreds that comprise a compact, 10-week run up to the first Saturday in May.
Points for the Prep Season — which ran from September 29th to February 18th, and included such major 2-year-old events as the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and important 3-year-old stakes like the Holy Bull, Withers and Robert B. Lewis — were apportioned 10 for a win, 4 for a second-place finish, 2 for a third and 1 for a fourth.
In the first leg of the Championship Series (eight races from February 23rd to March 24th), the point breakdown was greatly expanded to 50-20-10-5. The second leg (seven races from March 30th to April 13th) doubles that to 100-40-20-10. The two races of the “wild card” leg, the Lexington and Derby Trial, are worth 20-8-4-2.
The seven races grouped in the second leg showcase five major contests that historically have paved the road into Louisville: Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes and Arkansas Derby. This final round of prep races carry the most weight in the new points system. Optimistic connections now fantasize that somehow their horse can seize one of these last opportunities to capture a sufficient amount of points. The 100 points for winning any of those races (or the Louisiana Derby or UAE Derby) will be plenty enough to now guarantee a spot in Louisville. This alone will determine who gets in and who is left out of the starting gate for the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”
Becoming familiar with these preliminaries typically enables a horseplayer to assess where the next equine poised to lay claim to the roses might come from. It is important to note that the five major Kentucky Derby preps all share the same distance of a mile and an eighth. The Kentucky Derby itself tacks on another furlong of distance and presents 3-year-old horses with the challenge of lasting a mile and a quarter.
First, let's dissect the traditional five before we look at the other two important prep races in this phase.
Gulfstream Park • March 30th, 2013• Purse: $1,000,000
2012 Winner: Take Charge Indy Distance: 1 1/8 Mile Time: 1:48.79
Triple Crown Results:
Kentucky Derby: 19th
Preakness Stakes: N/A Belmont Stakes: N/A
Since 1952 when it was inaugurated, 12 winners of Gulfstream Park’s marquee event have gone on to glory at Churchill Downs. The most recent Florida Derby winners that have excelled in the Kentucky Derby, were — Big Brown (2008) and Barbaro (2006). All entrants carry 122 pounds in this contest where the total purse has been recently increased back up to $1,000,000 from a scaled back $750,000.
Gulfstream is simply one of the most difficult racetracks to win at consistently. Long shots routinely litter the tote board, and exotic wagers cashed there usually pay handsomely. Enormous recent renovations coupled with the addition of a poker room and slot machines make this strip located in Hallandale, Florida., a premier destination for gaming enthusiasts in the Sunshine State.
When wagering the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, remember that the surface traditionally favors speed, especially on the rail. Of course there are two sides to every story. On a recent visit, I was told by a well-regarded and highly respected trainer that the track slows down and favors closers at low tide. If you believe in this theory, then I suggest you find out the day(s) when this phenomenon occurs.
Aqueduct Park • April 6th, 2013 • Purse: $1,000 ,000
2012 Winner: Gemologist Distance: 1 1/8 Mile Time: 1:50.96
Triple Crown Results:
Belmont Stakes: N/A
Many historians will argue that “The Wood” is the most prestigious stepping stone toward the Kentucky Derby. The race is named in honor of Eugene D. Wood, who was the founder of the now defunct Jamaica Racetrack where the Wood Memorial was run until 1960. Aqueduct Park in Queens, N.Y., currently hosts the race. This year’s 89th running offers a purse of $1,000,000 with all contestants required to carry 123 pounds.
It is hard to argue with the historical importance of this race, being that 11 winners of “The Wood” have moved on to capture the Kentucky Derby. Six of the 11 Triple Crown winners have also contested “The Wood,” with four of them winning it. Interestingly enough, the 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat only managed a third-place finish in this race.
Recent success has eluded conquerors of “The Wood” who moved onto the Kentucky Derby, with Fusaichi Pegasus being the last Wood Memorial winner to wear the roses in 2000. The last horse who raced in the Wood Memorial and won the Kentucky Derby was the gelding Funny Cide, who came in second in 2003.
In handicapping “The Wood,” avoid entrants who have never raced or worked over Aqueduct’s surface. Many a short-priced invaders with no experience over this strip have failed miserably. The speed bias at Aqueduct can change in a moment’s notice, so unless you are extremely confident, I'd advise playing light at the mutuel windows
Santa Anita Derby
Santa Anita Racetrack • April 6th, 2013 • Purse: $750,000
2012 Winner: I'll Have Another Distance: 1 1/8 Mile Time: 1:47.88
Triple Crown Results:
Kentucky Derby: 1st
Preakness Stakes: 1st Belmont Stakes: N/A
The major Kentucky Derby prep race held in the western United States was established in 1935. Nine champions of the Santa Anita Derby have gone on to capture the roses. Santa Anita Racetrack is located in Arcadia, California, where patrons are treated to breathtaking views of the San Gabriel Mountains while they enjoy the live racing.
Last year's winner, I'll Have Another, was the first Santa Anita Derby winner to go on to smell the roses since Sunday Silence accomplished the feat in 1989. Recent memory recalls fourth-place Santa Anita Derby finisher Giacomo barreling home first in the 2005 Kentucky Derby at a whopping 50-1. All runners must carry 122 pounds for this race, and $750,000 in total purse monies is awarded.
Santa Anita’s one mile dirt oval is, in fact, a dirt oval – sand and loam, to be specific. Earlier experiments with the Cushion Track in 2007 and the Pro-Ride surface in 2008 failed to perform as advertised and were abandoned because of several problems, imcluding poor drainage. Santa Anita returned to the traditional dirt in 2010. Horseplayers were delighted for the most part; synthetic tracks are generally more difficult for handicapping because they “level the field” and reduce the opportunities for sharp bettors to find advantages related to the surface.
Store away this bit of information: A sort of Tylenol for horses called “bute” is legal to administer in the Santa Anita Derby but is outlawed for runners competing in Louisville. Many Kentucky Derby contenders have traveled east and failed miserably without taking their bute. Look for a Santa Anita Derby contender that has had quality works or a promising race over the strip
Blue Grass Stakes
Keeneland Racetrack • April 13th, 2013 • Purse: $750,000
2012 Winner: Dullahan Distance: 1 1/8 Mile Time: 1:47.94
Triple Crown Results:
Kentucky Derby: 3rd Preakness Stakes: N/A Belmont Stakes: 7th
This Kentucky Derby prep race dwarfs all others in regards to pure length of existence. Since 1911, when it was held at the Kentucky Association Racetrack, the Blue Grass Stakes has been a springboard to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. Keeneland Racetrack, located six miles west of Lexington, Ky., adopted the race in 1937 and has hosted it ever since.
Twenty-three past Kentucky Derby champions have used this race as their final Kentucky Derby prep, with 11 equines turning the Blue Grass Stakes/Kentucky Derby double. All runners carry 123 pounds, and $750,000 in purse money is up for grabs.
The Blue Grass champion has suffered recently moving on to Louisville. A Blue Grass winner hasn’t gone on to capture the Kentucky Derby since Strike the Gold turned the trick in 1991. The last horse to compete in the Blue Grass and win the roses was Street Sense, who placed second at Keeneland in 2007 before achieving immortality in the Kentucky Derby. Before him, Thunder Gulch (1995) and Sea Hero (1993) both contested the Blue Grass before securing the roses, but each could only manage a fourth-place finish in the Blue Grass.
Keeneland’s main track is not made up of conventional dirt. The horses run on a substance called Polytrack, a revolutionary new surface the racing industry hopes will reduce equine injuries by providing a softer racing strip. Polytrack is made up of sand, silica fibers and recycled material. It has a wax coating that enables water to drain freely down to the sub layers below, therefore enabling a sloppy surface to dry out quickly.
Handicapping horses on Polytrack is challenging, to say the least, because until they actually run on it, there is no telling how they will adapt. A good rule of thumb on Polytrack is to take a “wait and see” approach on runners making their debut. This is especially true in regards to first-timers with low odds. One method you might use in the Blue Grass is to search for a horse with a turf pedigree. Traditional turf runners seem to fancy Polytrack when they make the switch over from grass.
Oaklawn Park • April 13th, 2013 • Purse: $1,000,000
2012 Winner: Bodemeister Distance: 1 1/8 Mile Time: 1:48.71
Triple Crown Results: KY Derby:2nd Preakness Stakes:2nd Belmont Stakes:N/A
The only undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew put this million-dollar race on the map in 2004. Smarty Jones used Oaklawn Park’s premier event to launch himself into national acclaim and miss the elusive Triple Crown by a single length to a horse named Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes.
Five horses have used the Arkansas Derby as their final prep before winning the Kentucky Derby, with the most recent being Super Saver, who managed a second place finish at Oaklawn in 2010. The only other one beside Smarty Jones to have an Arkansas Derby/Kentucky Derby double on their resume is Sunny’s Halo (1983). The Arkansas Derby is the only major prep race that has the same weight requirements as the Kentucky Derby — 126 pounds for colts and geldings, 121 pounds for fillies.
Oaklawn Park, located in Hot Springs, Ark., has a short homestretch and is no paradise for closers. Look for frontrunners and horses who have the ability to run just off the pace to excel in the Arkansas Derby. Stretch runners that come up short in Arkansas Derby might just flourish in the long homestretch at Churchill Downs.
Fair Grounds Racecourse • March 30th, 2013 • Purse: $1,000,000
2012 Winner: Hero Of Order Distance: 1 1/8 Mile Time: 1:50.13
Triple Crown Results:
KY Derby: N/A Preakness Stakes: N/A Belmont Stakes: N/A
Inaugurated in 1898, this contest is held at the Fair Grounds Racecourse in New Orleans. A purse of $1,000,000 is on the line for horses eager to carry 122 pounds and run 1 1/8 miles in the Bayou. Up until four years ago, this race was seldom the last stop for connections dreaming of Derby glory, because as most will tell you, a two-month layoff dulls a thoroughbred’s conditioning. Then in 2009, the owner of the Fair Grounds, Churchill Downs Incorporated, moved the Louisiana Derby from eight weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby to only five weeks prior. They also announced that the distance of the Louisiana Derby would be increased to 1-1/8 miles and the purse figure would be upped to $750,000. The following year, that figure was bumped up to $1,000,000.
Grindstone (1996) and Black Gold (1924) are the only two Louisiana Derby champions to smell the roses. The most famous Louisiana Derby champion is Risen Star (1988), who came up short in Louisville but redeemed himself by adding the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to his resume.
With 100-40-20-10 points awarded under the new system, a distance of 9 furlongs and a revised time frame making it a better fit as a final prep, the Louisiana Derby nicely fits the criteria as the previous five preps. Given time in the new "Championship Series," the race may prove itself to be a six major contributer.
Meydan Racecourse • March 30th, 2013 • Purse $2,000,000
2012 Winner: Daddy Long Legs Distance: 1 3/16 Mile Time: 1:58.35
Triple Crown Results:
Kentucky Derby: 20th Preakness Stakes: N/A Belmont Stakes: N/A
Now installed as one of the major races on the new Road to the Kentucky Derby. Contested over the synthetic Tapeta surface, the UAE Derby is a Group 2 race held in the United Arab Emirates for three-year-old thoroughbreds run at a distance of 1,900 metres (approximately 9.5 furlongs). It takes place annually during the Dubai World Cup Night in late March. It was first run in 2000 over 1,800 metres (approximately 9 furlongs) and attained Group 2 status two years later. The distance of the race was increased to 2,000 metres (10 furlongs) in 2002, before reverting back to 1,800 metres in 2004, and increased again to 1,900 meters in 2010. The race is open to both Northern and Southern Hemisphere three-year-olds, with the latter group regarded as 4-year olds here and therefore aren't eligible to run in our Triple Crown.
Winners of this lucrative event have faltered badly under the Louisville Twin Spires on Derby Day. Of five previous winners of the UAE Derby, Curule (2000) has managed the best showing, finishing 6th. The losing pattern has become all to familiar: Express Tour (2001) 8th: Essence Of Dubai (2002) 9th: Regal Ransom (2009) 8th and of course last years winner, Daddy Long Legs, who finished last in Kentucky. Lead by Sheikh Mohammed, the powerful Godolphin Stable, owner of the first four horses mentioned above, have also been represented in the Kentucky Derby by Wordly Manner (1999), China Visit (2000), Desert Party (2009) all top notch horses who ran well at home, but they all failed the test at Churchill, finishing 7th, 7th and 14th respectively.
Godolphin is hardly alone in the international shippers category. Indeed, in 138 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, only one horse has shipped in from abroad to win -- the Venezuelan-based Canonero II in 1971. Over the past 40 years, globalization has made its mark on the Derby, as with so many other facets of life. Horses have come from Europe and as far as Japan to try the Derby, without success. Among these are the Irish invaders representing Coolmore, Sheikh Mohammed's arch rivals on the world stage. Coolmore's principal trainer, Aidan O'Brien, has failed with Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo (2002) and Master of Hounds (2011), and Daddy Long Legs last year.
Given the fact that no UAE Derby horse has even hit the board in the Kentucky Derby, and that some older horses are eligible, makes me wonder why the race is worth 100 points to the winner - same as the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby etc, and worth 10 times the points given the winner of the of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
I'm quite aware that it's really the only springtime overseas opportunity, but it's just really bizarre to have a points race that actually has different eligibility than every other race in the Churchill points system.
Running well in any of the traditional final prep races remains critical for a horse's chances to make the Derby starting gate. It is very unusual for a horse to win the Kentucky Derby off a finish worse than third place, and since 15 of the last 17 Kentucky Derby champions came home first or second in their final start before the Run for the Roses, it is imperative to record the names of the top few finishers in each of these major prep races. So beware of "wise guy" picks who don't have these credentials.
Interestingly enough though, some past Kentucky Derby champions have found success on the road less traveled. Two additional preliminaries, or "Wild Cards" worth (20-8-4-2) offer last chances to earn sufficient points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby and must be taken into consideration for the horse player to be confident that they have turned over every stone in their search for the next immortal equine.
Keeneland Racetrack • April 20th, 2013 • Purse: $200,000
2012 Winner: All Squared Away Distance: 1 1/16 Mile Time: 1:42.55
Triple Crown Results:
Kentucky Derby: N/A Preakness Stakes: N/A Belmont Stakes: N/A
Keeneland Racetrack hosts this 1 1/16-mile contest with a purse of $200,000 just two weeks before the Derby. The 14-day turnaround is not ideal, but a horse named Charismatic (1999) nearly captured the Triple Crown after a victorious Lexington.
Churchill Downs • April 27th, 2013 • Purse: $175,000
2012 Winner: Hierro Distance: 1 Mile Time: 1:35.27
This G3 1-turn mile event on the opening night of the spring Churchill Downs meet is the absolute final test on the 2013 Road to the Kentucky Derby. The name of the race has been reverted back to its origin following the conclusion of a sponsorship agreement. In year's past, this was the premiere Derby prep for every Kentucky Derby each season as the best 3-year olds in the land would preview their assests for the Churchill faithful to whet their Derby appetites.
Five horses have won the Derby Trial/Kentucky Derby, but no horse has the accomplished the feat since 1958. Why? Run one week before the Derby, the timing of the race makes it virtually impossible for a horse to pull off the Trial/Derby double. More importantly, times are different now, the gradual trend in training has been toward giving KY Derby contenders fewer prep races and more time between them. Each of the 20-Derby starters are precious cargo for their owners, who want to save them for the big $2,000,000 run each first Saturday of May.
The almost-an-afterthought Derby Trial, misnomer that it has become, is more likely to serve as a prep for the Preakness Stakes three weeks later. In 2013, it will be in its 89th year of running.
Thus, one can readily see the need for proper planning by trainers in spring campaigns, both in terms of race spacing and dodging other logical contenders. But the beauty of the new system lies in the fact that at some point before the Derby, you must prove yourself against the core of the division to prove your worthiness to race in the Run for the Roses. In my opinion, that's how it should be and may the best horse win!