The Only Kentucky Derby Prep Race that Matters

(Photo via

(Photo via

The Kentucky Derby is only five weeks away.  Racing fans who pay little attention to pedigree the rest of the year, are consumed by the all-important question: “Can he get the distance?”

As a pedigree handicapper, I’m asked that question a lot. It is always followed up by, “So who do you like to win?” Everyone waits for a snappy comeback. They normally get one… but not the answer they’re expecting.

While other writers start to compile their top-ten lists in January and change them every week, I observe the early prep races with mild interest.  Yes, the contests from January to March are important for the colts to rack up those crucial Derby qualifying points.  But ultimately, except for a way to earn a step forward into the Kentucky Derby starting gate, these preps don’t really count for much from a Kentucky Derby handicapper’s perspective.

The final prep race is the only one that matters. Twenty-four of the last thirty Kentucky Derby winners won or placed in their previous start.  In the last fifteen years, only two anomalies didn’t fit this profile, and they lit up the tote when the classic race fell apart.

Where the determining contest takes place is also a factor.  As I mentioned in “How to find a Kentucky Derby Winner,” over the last fifteen years, the most formative preps have been the Florida, Arkansas and Santa Anita Derbies.

So the pool of possible Derby champs can be winnowed from the top two horses in each of the three concluding qualifying races, right?  Maybe.  Anyone who automatically bet the top six exiting the Florida, Arkansas and Santa Anita Derbies could boast that they picked the last four Kentucky winners, two of them favorites.  Selecting the winners from previous years wasn’t so simple.

Five factors to ponder before making your winning Kentucky Derby bets are pedigree, running style, foundation, heart, and how well — or not — the horse completed his final prep race.

The pedigree key that twelve of the last fifteen Kentucky Derby winners have in common is that either the sire or damsire, in some cases both, have sired previous stakes winners at 1 ¼ miles.  The exceptions were horses sired by stallions with less than three crops to race, and/or a young damsire with few producing daughters.

Running Style
Is that front runner a legitimate high cruiser out-performing the competition or just cheap speed that will back up or hang in the Kentucky Derby?  Contenders who led at the first call of their last prep race but didn’t win, or who stayed on but lost ground in the stretch, inevitably fade in the stretch of the Derby.  The exception to this rule is the front-end horse on cruise-control, losing ground in the last furlong while not being extended or asked for his best.

Pace pressers who can’t catch the speed and either hang or lose ground in the stretch will face the same scenario in the Derby. They’ll be up close early and fade like a bad spray tan when the real running begins.

Bringing up the field are the mid-pack runners and one-run closers who linger at the back of the pack waiting to deliver a closing punch. These horses look better visually than they do on paper. If the horses in front of them are staggering home like drunks after a pub crawl, the one-run closers can look like the second coming of Secretariat.

The internal race fractions for each contender behind the front runner will show the true story. Any second- through fourth-place finisher gaining ground and running its last 1/8-mile at least 2/5 second faster than the winner is a serious horse to consider for the Kentucky Derby.

Try this simple method to calculate individual times for the final 1/8 mile: Using the final internal fractions, if a horse lost ground, add 1/5-second per length. Conversely, if a horse gained ground, subtract 1/5-second per length. (Note: Fractional lengths greater than ½ count as a full length. For example, a gain/loss of 2 ¾ lengths should be rounded to 3/5 of a second.)

Every year, someone drags out the tired, old fact that no Kentucky Derby winner since that horse in the 18th century has won the Kentucky Derby without having started as a two-year-old.  That brings us to early foundation.  As I also mentioned in “How to find a Kentucky Derby Winner,” our heroes won their maiden race between August and November and often participated in a juvenile stakes race.

Three-year-olds without the experience and physical toughness gained as 2-year-olds generally don’t do well in the Kentucky Derby.  The least number of total preps by a Kentucky Derby winner was recorded by Big Brown, who started once at two and twice as a three-year-old. He was also on steroids when he did it.  More commonly, our Derby champ has a total of four to seven races under his girth before tacking the classic race.

This is a hard factor to quantify. You won’t find it staring at the past performances.  It takes experience to know how to watch a race and pick up on the physical cues. Some horses are very competitive and don’t like to lose. These are the ones who win the head-to-head battles or find another gear in the stretch.  Those are the easy ones to figure out — Nyquist, American Pharoah, Shared Belief, California Chrome, etc.

The more difficult contenders are those who seemingly have talent, but just can’t get it together to win, or are continuously on the losing end of the photo finish.  These horses are talented, but they don’t have that “killer instinct.”  Sure, they’ll earn the odd victory here and there, but their overall record will contain a greater number of second and third place finishes.  Frosted, Ride On Curllin and General A Rod come immediately to mind.  So do the maidens who have qualified for this year’s Kentucky Derby.  These horses prefer running with other horses and are best used in the exotic wagers.

The one-run closers can fit into two categories: 1) Those with a strong turn of foot who take aim on the leaders and 2) Those one-paced types who pass tired horses, but have no particular drive to win. The former include superstars like Secretariat and Zenyatta and Derby hero Street Sense.  The latter includes Giacomo, Commanding Curve and Golden Soul.

Final Prep
When viewing the videos of Kentucky Derby contender’s final preps, watch the races three or four times. Look at how the winner ran his race. Was it a strong finish or a stagger fest?  How about the horses behind the winner?  Were they gaining ground with conviction or just running around and passing tired horses?

All of these factors, plus a few more, such as track surface, trainer/jockey stats and morning works come into play when deciphering the Kentucky Derby.  This race is unlike any other.

Astute handicappers who do their research will often be rewarded with high payouts.

Laurie Ross
Laurie Ross is a handicapper, pedigree consultant and published author. She is also a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association. Laurie maintains her pedigree website Iron Maidens Thoroughbreds and pedigree handicapping blog, IMTBreds, where she focuses on two-year-olds and maidens through the Triple Crown Trail.

Since 2008, Laurie has been a featured writer and pedigree analyst with Horse Racing Nation. Laurie’s yearly publications contain tremendous insight and value for bettors and horsemen. The Freshmen Sire Guide has received accolades from leading trainers and handicappers. Her Triple Crown e-books continue to be a best-selling feature. Laurie’s work has been featured on numerous websites and she is a recurring guest on sports radio programs.

Laurie has been around horses for most of her life, working in racing stables as a hot walker and exercise rider in her teenage years, and later as a volunteer with rescued and retired racehorses. She attends thoroughbred auctions year round on behalf of clients and manages the breeding operations for a racing/breeding syndicate.

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