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Breeders' Cup 2017

Kentucky Derby Winners: The Best Preps

Nyquist cruises home in 2016 Florida Derby
Photo: Gulfstream Park

When it comes to Kentucky Derby prep races, one of the most influential prep races has been the Florida Derby. The race has produced seven Kentucky Derby winners in the last 25 years, including Nyquist in 2016 and Barbaro in 2006. The 2017 edition seems as if it will procure another strong contingent of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, with Irish War Cry, Gunnevera, and Classic Empire, the top three from the Holy Bull Stakes, all possible for the big Florida prep.


The California preps can’t be forgotten either. The lead prep, the Santa Anita Derby, has produced six Kentucky Derby winners, the most recent being California Chrome (2014). The San Felipe Stakes has also rolled out its fair share of Kentucky Derby winners, with five going on to win the Run for the Roses. The last three Kentucky winners have all been based out of California, and the state is strongly represented this year by Gormley, Mastery, American Anthem, and Royal Mo.


Not only have Florida and California produced, but so has Oaklawn Park. The Arkansas Derby has sent five runners on to win the Kentucky Derby. The most recent is 2015 Triple Crown hero American Pharoah. Smarty Jones, who was a length short of winning the 2004 Triple Crown, also took a similar route. Both horses won the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby before shipping to Churchill Downs. Heading up Arkansas this year is Uncontested, who won the Smarty Jones Stakes in gate-to-wire fashion last out.


The last Kentucky Derby winner to come out of a New York prep race was Funny Cide in 2003. El Areeb has been dominating Aqueduct’s Kentucky Derby preps this year, taking both the Jerome Stakes and the Withers Stakes, but may not stay in New York for the Wood Memorial. The Wood has produced four Kentucky Derby winners in the last 25 years, but it is desperate to see another one.


During the same timeframe, the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Blue Grass Stakes have each seen three Kentucky Derby winners. Orb came out of the Fountain of Youth in 2013, while the Blue Grass has not produced a Kentucky Derby winner since Street Sense in 2007. None of the three Blue Grass contenders won the prep race either. The chances of a Blue Grass horse going on to win the Kentucky Derby could be even more slim this year, since the race has been downgraded from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2.


While the Fair Grounds prep races have not produced many Kentucky Derby winners, the fields are packed with potential. Only two horses from the Louisiana Derby have won the Kentucky Derby in the last 25 years, and only one horse has won from the Risen Star Stakes. Leading Louisiana hopefuls right now are 2017 Risen Star contenders Guest Suite and Mo Town.


The Tampa Bay Derby has also produced two Kentucky Derby winners. If undefeated McCraken remains at Tampa Bay Downs for his Derby preps this year, the race has potential to add a third horse to that list.


Although Kentucky Derby winners have come out of more obscure prep races, such as Animal Kingdom in the 2011 Sprial Stakes and Mine That Bird in the 2009 Sunland Derby, the races known to produce are getting closer. Eyes will be glued to Florida, Arkansas, and California, but it’s not impossible for an unforeseen winner, from another prep race, to be wearing the roses on the first Saturday in May.


By Christine Oser


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