by Noel Michaels
The first Kentucky Derby (G1) prep races of the season are already in the books and, now, with a small gap until the next round of prep races heats up, it seems like a good time to review and preview where we stand in the very early stages on the road to the first Saturday in May.
This year’s 144th running of the Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday, May 4 — almost exactly four months from the date this blog is being written.
The starters in the Kentucky Derby will be decided by a points system that puts pressure on hopefuls to win, or at least place well, in high-profile Kentucky Derby prep races in order to qualify. For the sixth straight year, a tiered point system in a series of designated races at tracks across the country (and around the world) will determine who gets into the Derby.
Points are awarded to the top four finishers in each of the prep races. The 20 horses with the most points that are still standing at that point in the season will earn spots in the starting gate. The points themselves may or may not end up being relevant, but, points aside, it is the contenders’ prep race efforts that determines everything in terms of which horses will advance onward on the road to the Triple Crown.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby, formerly known as the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, began back on Sept. 15 with the Iroquois Stakes (G3) at Churchill Downs and will continue on through the major final prep races from late March to mid-April. The series includes 35 races (plus seven European races and four Japanese events). Of these, 14 are highly significant events that take place over the 11 weeks prior to the first Saturday in May. The early races on the schedule up through mid-February generally awarded/will award 10 points for first, 4 points for second, 2 points for third, and 1 point for fourth. The exception was the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), which awarded double points on a 20-8-4-2 scale. The Juvenile was won by Game Winner, the current points leader as of Jan. 5, with 30 points.
The most recent prep races were the Jerome at Aqueduct on Jan. 1, won by Hopeful (G1) winner Mind Control to garner 10 points, and the Sham (G3) at Santa Anita on Jan. 5, won by Gunmetal Gray (previously fifth in the BC Juvenile), who also earned 10 points. The Mucho Macho Man stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 5 won by Mihos was not part of the points series.
With those races in the books there will now be a gap until Jan. 19 when the next prep race is run — the Lecomte Stakes (G3) at Fair Grounds with 10 points to the winner. As it stands, after Game Winner, the next two highest-point horses are BC Juvenile second- and third-place finishers Knicks Go and Signalman, respectively, each with 18 points. Knicks Go was also second in the Champagne (G1) and Signalman won the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), followed by the aforementioned Gunmetal Gray with a total of 14 points. Then there are six horses with exactly 10 points earned from earlier prep race wins, including Iroquois winner Cairo Cat, Champagne Stakes winner Complexity, Remsen (G2) winner Maximus Mischief, Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) winner Improbable, Springboard Mile winner Long Range Toddy and the previously mentioned Mind Control.
The main portion of the Derby prep race schedule, when point values increase — with a few exceptions — to 50-20-10-5 or 100-40-20-10 (essentially all win-and-you’re-in races) begins with the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds on Feb. 16 and the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream on March 2. The 50-point-to-the-winner races also include the Gotham (G3), Tampa Bay Derby (G2), Rebel (G2), San Felipe (G2), Spiral Stakes (G3), and Sunland Derby (G3). The final round of major Derby prep races is obviously the most important, and therefore award the most points with 100 to the winners. This includes U.A.E. Derby (G2) in Dubai, and of course the big six prep races — the Florida Derby (G1), Arkansas Derby (G1), Wood Memorial (G2), Blue Grass Stakes (G2), Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Arkansas Derby (G1).
Of course, these prep races are not just important for the horses and their connections, they are also valuable for handicappers as well. The Kentucky Derby prep races, in addition to being fun betting opportunities in their own right, will also provide handicappers valuable information that should be dissected and studied for the purposes of betting on the Kentucky Derby and trying to pick the winner.
In terms of handicapping, the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series definitely 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, foundation and preparation into the horses on their way to Louisville. The races are technically preps, after all, and that’s what prep races are for.
Sure, these are big races and trainers, owners and jockeys always want to win them, but the end-game objective is always having one’s horse best prepared for a big effort on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs — no matter if the horse won or lost its preps.
This led to a lot of upsets, not only in the preps but also into the Kentucky Derby, because all of the trainers were not always trying all of the time in the prep races. Sometimes, the best horse would lose because it wasn’t fully cranked for the prep, but, then, it would come back to win the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness next time out.
Now, however, trainers usually only want to run their horses twice or, perhaps, three times post-Breeders’ Cup in prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby — and they definitely don’t want to get stuck in a position where they need to squeeze in late prep races in order to garner enough points to secure a spot in the starting gate. Therefore, it now seems that all the connections are trying and needing to win all of the time in the prep races. In my opinion, this has led to the giant drop-off over the past few years in average win prices in all of the prep races (favorites are winning the preps and payong low prices). It has also directly resulted, in my opinion, in the recent trend of favorites winning the Kentucky Derby. Go back 10 years before the Road to the Derby point series and the favorites almost never seemed to win the Kentucky Derby. At one point, it was even considered to be a curse to be the favorite, because the favorite went more than a decade without a Derby victory.
Here is a look at this year’s Kentucky Derby prep races:
(February 2 thru April 13, 2019)
|Prep Race||Track||2019 Date||Points|
|Holy Bull||Gulfstream Park||Feb. 2, 2019||10-4-2-1|
|Withers||Aqueduct||Feb. 2, 2019||10-4-2-1|
|Robert B. Lewis||Santa Anita Park||Feb. 2, 2019||10-4-2-1|
|Sam F. Davis||Tampa Bay Downs||Feb. 9, 2019||10-4-2-1|
|El Camino Real Derby||Golden Gate Fields||Feb. 16, 2019||10-4-2-1|
|Risen Star||Fair Grounds||Feb. 16, 2019||50-20-10-5|
|Southwest||Oaklawn Park||Feb. 18, 2019||10-4-2-1|
|Fountain of Youth||Gulfstream Park||March 2, 2019||50-20-10-5|
|Gotham||Aqueduct||March 9, 2019||50-20-10-5|
|Tampa Bay Derby||Tampa Bay Downs||March 9, 2019||50-20-10-5|
|San Felipe||Santa Anita Park||March 9, 2019||50-20-10-5|
|Jeff Ruby Steaks||Turfway Park||March 9, 2019||50-20-10-5|
|Rebel||Oaklawn Park||March 16, 2019||50-20-10-5|
|Louisiana Derby||Fair Grounds||March 23, 2019||100-40-20-10|
|Sunland Derby||Sunland Park||March 24, 2019||50-20-10-5|
|UAE Derby||Meydan Racecourse||March 30, 2019||100-40-20-10|
|Florida Derby||Gulfstream Park||March 30, 2019||100-40-20-10|
|Wood Memorial||Aqueduct||April 6, 2019||100-40-20-10|
|Blue Grass||Keeneland||April 6, 2019||100-40-20-10|
|Santa Anita Derby||Santa Anita Park||April 6, 2019||100-40-20-10|
|Arkansas Derby||Oaklawn Park||April 13, 2019||100-40-20-10|
|Lexington||Keeneland||April 13, 2019||10-4-2-1|
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.