The Kentucky Derby is by far the biggest performance of a young horse’s life, and as such it requires a lot of preparation on and off the racetrack. Horses also must now earn points in order to qualify for a spot in the gate on the first Saturday in May.
In the coming weeks, we will see a slew of races worth 100 points to the winner, guaranteeing a Derby start. Inevitably, the Derby winner will come out of one of these races- but which one?
Let’s take a look at the prep race paths of the last ten Derby winners, as well as the two horses who crossed the line first but were later disqualified. Can the prep races influence the 2022 Kentucky Derby odds by TwinSpires?
Blue Grass Stakes
Prior to 2005, when the Florida Derby was run in mid-March, many horses used that race as a stepping stone to the Blue Grass; now that the Florida Derby is close enough to serve as a final Derby prep, Blue Grass fields have suffered. Consequently, none of this decade’s Derby winners have contested the Blue Grass; indeed, the last to do so was Street Sense in 2007.
Similar to the Blue Grass Stakes, the Wood Memorial has had surprisingly little influence on the Kentucky Derby over the last decade, perhaps feeling the same loss from the rescheduling of the Florida Derby. The “gutsy gelding” Funny Cide in 2003 was the last Kentucky Derby winner who prepped in New York.
The Louisiana Derby has also undergone changes in scheduling and distance, changing from 1 ⅛ miles to 1 3/16 miles in 2019. This makes it an attractive target for Derby prospects, being only a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby itself.
Mandaloun, last year’s official Derby winner (upon the disqualification of Medina Spirit), made his final prep in the Louisiana Derby, although he certainly did not appear to have Derby luster on him with a dull sixth-place finish as the favorite. He took a massive leap forward to run a half length behind Medina Spirit at Churchill Downs.
The Arkansas Derby received a huge burst of prestige in 2004, when the popular Smarty Jones took the 2004 edition. Since then, the race has become a popular testing ground for horses based both in the West and the East and, in the last decade, has seen two Derby winners in their final preps.
American Pharoah’s easy victory in the 2015 Arkansas Derby set the stage for his epic Triple Crown triumph later that spring. Four years later, Country House sneaked into the Derby gate with a third place Arkansas Derby finish. His backers were handsomely rewarded when the stewards’ decisions awarded Country House the official Derby win at the astronomical odds of 65-1.
The Florida Derby has been a proving ground for three-year-olds for more than a half-century, but since 2005, it has become one of the most important final Derby preps. Since 2012, four Derby first-place finishers have raced in- and won- the Florida Derby.
Disqualified Derby first-place finisher Maximum Security remained undefeated in the 2019 Florida Derby, reportedly surprising his trainer, Jason Servis. There was no such surprise for Todd Pletcher, though, when his Always Dreaming took the race in 2017 with a confident stretch run. Two-year-old champion Nyquist proved his grit in 2016 and remained undefeated, and Orb repelled all challenges to secure a Florida Derby win for Shug McGaughey in 2013.
Santa Anita Derby
The Santa Anita Derby has long been the choice Derby prep race for Western-based three-year-olds, serving as a prep for no fewer than five of the last ten Derby first-place finishers.
This makes it the most likely race to produce a Derby winner in the last decade. However, the last three Derby winners that prepped in California have come from the barn of Bob Baffert, and any Baffert-trained horse is currently ineligible for entry into the Kentucky Derby.
Disqualified Derby first-place finisher Medina Spirit took second in last year’s Santa Anita Derby behind Rock Your World, unable to secure the win after stalking the pace throughout. Undefeated Triple Crown winner Justify took the 2018 edition in his stakes debut, winning easily in only his third career start.
Art Sherman’s California Chrome took the 2014 edition, a victory that must have felt nostalgic as Sherman served as exercise rider to 1955 winner Swaps. I’ll Have Another was a surprise winner of the 2012 Santa Anita Derby who proved his 43-1 upset was no fluke, taking not only the Kentucky Derby but the Preakness as well. Finally, Authentic took second to Honor A.P. in 2020, but thanks to COVID-19 moving that year’s Derby to September, Authentic’s final prep was actually his victory in the Haskell Stakes.
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