Down to the Final Derby Preps

by Ray Wallin

The Kentucky Derby picture is starting to get clearer, but the last round of prep races will define the field. These races often offer strong wagering opportunities for both the casual racing fan, as well as those who make a living playing the races.

A devastating blow was dealt to the West Coast hopefuls when the San Felipe (G2) was postponed due to the track surface issues at Santa Anita Park. Viewed as one of the more important preps to the final prep, this forced many horsemen to rethink their strategy in preparing their charges for the first Saturday in May. Fortunately, the Rebel Stakes was split into two divisions. Heavy Bob Baffert favorites headlined the two divisions, yet weren’t able to get to the winner’s circle.

Only one first-leg prep remains — the Sunland Derby (G3), as we hit the final preps which are worth 100 points to each winner and 40 points to the second-place finisher. Horses that finish in the top two in these races are pretty much guaranteed a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

With one first-leg prep, one wild card, and all seven of the second-leg preps left, what is going to mean the most?

Which final prep races have yielded the most Derby starters and winners?

Of the seven second-leg series preps, three nearly run the table on the Kentucky Derby, amassing 12 of the last 19 winners. The Florida Derby has produced five winners, including two of the last three. The Santa Anita Derby has notched four winners, with three coming since 2012. The Arkansas Derby has three winners going back to Smarty Jones in 2004.

While the Wood Memorial has a respectable three winners out of the last 19, all three came in a four- year stretch between 2000 and 2003. War Emblem won in 2002, exiting the Illinois Derby at the now-defunct Sportsman’s Park.

Surprisingly, the Bluegrass Stakes has produced a whopping 73 Derby starters in the last 19 years, nearly 20% of the overall Derby starters but boasts only one winner, Street Sense in 2007. The Bluegrass produced six Derby starters in 2008 and five Derby starters five other years (2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2017). The next closest Derby runner-producing races are the Arkansas Derby with 55, the Santa Anita Derby with 48, the Wood Memorial with 43 and the Florida Derby with 37.

Of the last 19 Kentucky Derby winners, 13 won their final prep race and all but two finished in the money. Mine That Bird finished fourth in the Sunland Derby in 2009 and Giacomo finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby on 2005. The last Kentucky Derby winner that didn’t win its final prep race was Super Saver in 2010, who finished second by a neck in the Arkansas Derby to Line of David.

Questions will remain even after these final preps are run. Did the cancellation of the San Felipe Stakes due to the track conditions hurt the level of competition in the Santa Anita Derby? Does this lessen the chances of a winner coming out of that race? What does this mean to the other major final preps? Will the Wood Memorial or Bluegrass see horses that were meant for Santa Anita? Will the Santa Anita Derby even be run this year and, if it is, what kind of field will it draw?

The next few weeks will certainly be interesting.

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