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Winning A Final Prep: Derby Glory or Derby Curse?

If Itsmyluckyday, winner of the January Holy Bull Stakes, reigning juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby, runner-up in the aforementioned stakes, or Fountain of Youth conqueror, Orb, should win Saturday's Florida Derby, the colt will likely be considered one of the betting favorites for the Kentucky Derby on May 4th. 


But here's an early Derby betting tip: Don't put to much emphasis on who wins the preps. 


Though winning one of the final major prep races- Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes-is often considered a gigantic step toward a win at Churchill Downs, the numbers suggest otherwise. In the last 20 years, only 7 of the winners of one of those races have gone on to Derby glory-while 64 runners from those final preps finished off the board completely in the Run for the Roses. Last year was the first time since 2008 that a major prep winner, I'll Have Another (Santa Anita Derby), basked in glory in Louisville. 


Holy Bull (1994), Unbridled's Song (1996), Harlan's Holiday (2002) and Empire Maker (2003) actually won two of the five major preps heading into the Derby. All four were post-time favorites in the Derby. All four lost. In addition, Captain Bodgit (1997) was also a two-time Derby prep winner. He too lost in Louisville. 


There's no requirement that horses must run in one of the five major preps, but 18 of the last 20 Derby winners have done so. Two of the last four Derby winners, Animal Kingdom and Mine That Bird, had their final tuneup in other prep races. 


So what do these recent trends suggest? One theory is that prep-race winners overexert themselves on the Derby trail. If that holds true, the best bet may be to focus on horses that have shown consistent promise and are improving or rounding into peak shape for the big race. Any horse that can get within a few lengths in a key prep race for the Derby deserves a second look, especially if the horse made a bid to win the race. A decent late rally without winning an important prep could mean the horse is perfectly suited to the longer distance of the Derby. Even better is a horse that makes a strong stretch bid to win their prep race, only to tire late. These genuine types are sometimes overlooked in the betting and can improve on Derby day. Focus on the major Derby prep races to identify these horses. Remember, horses don't need to win their final prep race to win the Kentucky Derby, but they do need to run well and should have the look of a horse who is improving. Also, a strong showing at a mile and an eighth at some point prior to the Derby is a must. 


Don't let the preps fool you: How the winners of five major races have done in the Kentucky Derby since 1993. 


Prep Race Win Place Show Off The Board Didn't Run In Derby Recent Winner 

Fla Derby     4       3        0            12                 1                  Big Brown '08

S.A. Derby   1       2        2            14                 1                  I'll Have Another '12

Wood Mem.  1       2        1            10                 6                  Fusaichi Pegasus '00

Ark. Derby   1       2        2             12                 3                  Smarty Jones '04

Blue Grass   0       2        2             16                 0                  Strike The Gold '91


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Older Comments about Winning A Final Prep: Derby Glory or Derby Curse?...

I see now>>11 didn't run, the other 18 ran 2nd or 3rd.
Good statistical point, Kristen>>Is it true that 29 final prep winners didn't start in the Derby?
Seems the trend might be more to losing the final prep race. Was Sunland Derby final prep for Mine That Bird? Funny Cide, Silver Charm, Go For Gin, Monarchos(Wood Memorial, I think?), Giacomo, Street Sense, are a few that, I believe lost their final prep. Seems odds are nicer based on that fact(last race a loss).
Of final prep winners in the past 20 years, only 7 have won the Kentucky Derby, while 64 did not win the Kentucky Derby. It sounds staggering, but you have to remember... even in a year when one of the final major prep winners wins the Kentucky Derby, there's still 4 that didn't. So that statement is heavily weighted towards non-winners.
I've often enjoyed betting on horses in the Derby coming off the right type of loss ... Unbridled comes to mind.
You know most horses in the truest sense are accelerating (CHANGING velocity over time) but 95% are decelerating notably.
One year does not a trend make
The top 3 finishers in last year's Derby were all winners of their final major Derby prep: IHA (SA Derby), Bodemeister (Ark Derby), Dullahan (Blue Grass)
I think you are dead on. I like to see a great bid in the final prep that shows the horse is moving forward toward the wire with more acceleration than others bidding late. They don't have to win to show that effort and stamina.

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Meet Nick Costa

Nick became instantly hooked on horse racing when his father first took him to the racetrack when he was 5-years old. As a racing fan, he's attended several Kentucky Derbys, Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cups, and has visited several racetracks throughout the United States and Canada.

Back in the year 2000, Nick became a licensed owner and is currently still involved with the sport in that honored capacity. In 2010, Nick added another dimension when trying his hand at writing about horse racing for Horse Racing Nation, and thanks its readers for their support.

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