By Noel Michaels
The first Kentucky Derby prep races of the season, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), are in the books. And with a small gap from now until the next round of prep races (the Lecomte on Jan. 16 is next), it’s a good time to review and preview where we stand in the early stages on the road to the Derby on May 1.
The Derby Prep Season (20 races) are the appetizers as 3-year-olds compete for one of the 20 available stalls in the Churchill Downs starting gate. The 147th edition of the Derby is less than four months away.
As we know, qualifying for the Derby is based on a points system. Win or finish in the top 4 in a Derby prep and you’ll earn points. A tiered point system in a series of designated races will determine who gets into the field. Finish the prep season in the top 20, and there’s a space waiting for you on the first Saturday in May.
The road to the Derby began on Sept. 5 with the Iroquois at Churchill Downs – the same day as the COVID-19 delayed Derby was run. The winner back then was Sittin On Go. The preps continue through from late March to mid-April. The series includes 36 races (plus seven European races and four in Japan) – 15 of them highly-significant with a 50 or 100 points to the winner).
The early races through mid-February generally award 10 points for first, 4 for second, 2 for third, and 1 for fourth. The exception was the BC Juvenile, which awarded points on a 20-8-4-2 scale. The Juvenile was won by Essential Quality, owned by Godolphin and trained by Brad Cox. By virtue of that win, the colt is the current points leader with 30 – he also won the Breeders’ Futurity back on Oct. 3.
The most recent prep races were last weekend (Jan. 1-2) — the Jerome (G3) at Aqueduct on Jan. 1, and the Sham (G3) at Santa Anita on Jan. 2. Capo Lane took the Jerome for trainer Harold Wyner to earned 10 points; Life Is Good won the Sham for Bob Baffert to pick up 10 points.
The Lecomte at the Fair Grounds offers 10 points to the winner.
Keepmeinmind, trained by Robertino Diodoro, is second to Essential Quality with 18 points based on a third in the BC Juvenile (4 points), second in the Breeders’ Futurity (4 points) and a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club (10 points).
Next up are two horses with 12 points: Champagne (G1) winner Jackie’s Warrior trained by Steve Asmussen; and Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) winner Spielberg trained by Baffert.
The main portion of the Derby prep race schedule (the Derby Championship Series), when point values increase with a few exceptions to 50-20-10-5 or 100-40-20-10), begins with the Risen Star (G2) at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 13, followed by the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream on Feb. 27.
Fifty-points-to-the-winner races also include the Gotham (G3), Tampa Bay Derby (G2), Rebel (G2), San Felipe (G2), and Sunland Derby (G3). The final round of major Derby preps award the most points – 100 to the winner. The races include the UAE Derby (G1) and the Jeff Ruby Steaks, as well as the big six – the Florida Derby (G1), Louisiana Derby (G2), Wood Memorial (G2), Blue Grass (G2), Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Arkansas Derby (G1).
The preps, of course, are valuable for handicappers to get a better grasp of what each contender is capable of doing against some tough competition. Picking a few prep winners doesn’t hurt the pocketbook, either.
Also, the points system seems to have changed the dynamic of the way the prep races are prepared for by the connections of the horses. Wins in the prep races used to be of secondary importance behind just getting a good, safe, useful seasoning, and foundation into the horses on their way to Louisville. Sure, these are big races and trainers and owners and jockeys always want to win, but the end-game was always having your horse best prepared for a big effort on Derby Day.
This led to a lot of upsets, not only in the preps but also in the Derby, because trainers were not always starting 100% cranked horses all the time in prep races. Sometimes the best horse would lose the prep but then come back and win the Derby, or the Preakness (G1), a few weeks later.
Now, trainers usually want to run their horses twice, maybe three times, from now until the Kentucky Derby. And they definitely don’t want to get stuck in a position where they need to squeeze in a late prep in order for the horse to qualify. That said, now the connections are trying — and in many cases needing – to win as often as possible. This has resulted in a huge drop-off over the past few years in average win prices in the prep races. It has also resulted in the recent trend of favorites winning the Derby.
And let’s note this: Before the points system began in 2013, favorites had a hard time winning the Derby. From 1980-1999, for example, the favorite failed to win the race. Since the points began, the Derby favorite won the first six times; in 2019, second choice Maximum Security finished first but was DQ’d for interference and 65-1 longshot Country House was moved up to first. And in 2020, third choice Authentic beat favorite Tiz the Law.
Here’s the rest of the Derby prep schedule:
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.