The Kentucky Derby prep season is well underway this season, just like every winter and spring, as 3-year-olds from around the country fight for the right to occupy one of the 20 available stalls in the Churchill Downs starting gate for the Run for the Roses. The starters in the Derby will be decided by a points system that puts pressure on hopefuls to win, or at least earn a good finish, in at least one high-profile Kentucky Derby prep race in order to qualify.
Handicappers everywhere will be scrutinizing every piece of information available on every contender leading up to the Kentucky Derby in order to try to separate the contenders from the pretenders. To start the process, the best place to look when gathering your Kentucky Derby information, as always, will be in every runner’s prep races leading up to the First Saturday in May.
These prep races, in addition to being fun betting opportunities at a time of the year when horseplayers are keen on building bankroll in advance of the Kentucky Derby, will also provide handicappers valuable Derby information that should be dissected and studied for the purposes of betting and winning the Kentucky Derby.
Since 2013, a point system in select prep races determines who qualifies to run in the Kentucky Derby. The points the horses earn may or may not end up being relevant, but points aside, the prep race performances obviously mean everything in terms of which horses will advance on the road to the Run for the Roses.
Each year, 20 horses have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to run in the Kentucky Derby. To earn a spot in the starting gate, they must travel along the Road to the Kentucky Derby — formerly called the Kentucky Derby Championship Series — a series of 35 races at tracks across the country have been designated as points races that count toward entry preference in the Kentucky Derby. Points are awarded to the top four finishers in each race on a sliding scale. The 20 horses with the most points will earn spots in the Derby starting gate.
Of the 35 Road to the Kentucky Derby preps, 14 are highly significant events that take place over the 10 weeks preceding the first Saturday in May — plus a smattering of international races in the U.K., Dubai, Japan, and Ireland (hello Mendelsohn, are you listening?).
These races began all the way back in the fall of last year, when Kentucky Derby aspirants were still 2-year-olds. The early races on the schedule (except for the double-points Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) awarded 10 points for first, four points for second, two points for third, and one point for fourth.
The main portion of the Derby prep race schedule is getting going right now with a bunch of 50-20-10-5-point Kentucky Derby prep races that started with the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 17 and continues in upcoming races such as the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Gotham Stakes, Tampa Bay Derby, Rebel Stakes, San Felipe Stakes and Sunland Derby.
The final round of major Derby prep races is obviously the most important and, therefore, they award the most points on a scale of 100-40-20-10. This includes U.A.E. Derby in Dubai and, of course, the big six prep races — the Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby.
Two other preps are also included in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series at a lower point importance (20-8-4-2), including the Jeff Ruby Steaks Spiral Stakes and the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. These could become relevant this year due to the increased points, which might be enough for one late, desperate Derby hopeful to get into the field.
In the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series, wins and places in this last round of races will be crucial for horses to be able to work their way into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.
As of Saturday, Feb. 24, the current leaders in the points standings are Risen Star Stakes winner Bravazo (54 points), Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic (24), Champagne Stakes winner Firenze Fire (24), Risen Star runner-up Snapper Sinclair (22), Sham Stakes and Los Al Futurity winner McKinzie (20) and Lecomte Stakes winner Instilled Regard (19). Several horses are close behind with 14 points, including Bolt d’Oro, Free Drop Billy, Catholic Boy and Solomini.
The next race on the prep schedule will be the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, with a 50-20-10-5 points rundown to the top four finishers. Following the Fountain of Youth, there will be at least one major prep race every weekend until the Arkansas Derby and Lexington Stakes wrap up the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series on April 14. The date of this year’s Kentucky Derby will be May 5 — as always, the first Saturday in May.
Kentucky Derby Road: Where Things Stand
Originally published on Feb. 23, 2018
Handicappers and horse racing fans are stuck in a holding pattern with just a little more than two months to go until the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. Derby watchers are playing a waiting game on two fronts:
1) We are still waiting for last year’s top juveniles to make their 3-year-old debuts.
2) We are waiting for new major contenders to emerge from the pack with big efforts in key races that might propel them to spots in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
The 2018 Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday, May 5, and the current favorites in the race are still the same as they were months ago when GOOD MAGIC won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the multiple-stakes-winning 2-year-old leader up until that point, BOLT D’ORO, finished third after a troubled break. The wait for both of these horses to make their sophomore debuts is finally almost over. Bolt d’Oro’s connections are targeting the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita on March 10 for the colt’s return, while trainer Chad Brown will have Good Magic ready to go a week earlier at Gulfstream Park in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth (G2).
While we’ve been waiting for the de facto 3-year-old leaders to re-emerge for their seasonal debuts, very little has happened in terms of the emergence of other major challengers in the three months since the Breeders’ Cup. The one notable exception, however, has been the Bob Baffert-trained MCKINZIE, who has reeled off graded wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in the last couple months, beating good horses such as SOLOMINI and INSTILLED REGARD (who returned to win the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds) in the process. If he stays in SoCal, McKinzie will be on an early-season collision course with Bolt d’Oro in the Fan Felipe. Otherwise, McKinzie is likely to ship to Baffert’s home-away-from-home for Derby preps — Oaklawn Park — for the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 17.
Speaking of Oaklawn Park, the Southwest Stakes on President’s Day featured several up-and-coming Derby hopefuls, including the 1-2 finishers of the Smarty Jones Stakes, MOURINHO and COMBATANT. Neither took a step forward, however, with Mourinho not handling the wet track and Combatant solid and workmanlike as ever, but unspectacular.
The race did serve as a useful return prep race for Grade 1 Hopeful winner SPORTING CHANCE, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who finished third. All were beaten by the Keith Desormeaux-trained and Kent Desormeaux-ridden MY BOY JACK, who previously had finished seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and, then, third behind McKinzie in the Sham Stakes.
The Sham is beginning to look like a key race, but the ultimate key race up to this point has been, surprisingly enough, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. From the Juvenile Turf, in addition to My Boy Jack, fourth-place finisher CATHOLIC BOY returned to win the Grade 2 Remsen in his next start and then returned to run second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa behind FLAMEAWAY, who finished eighth in the BC Juvenile Turf. Catholic Boy, who likely used the race solely as a prep, narrowly lost and should quickly make amends next time, probably in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Even SNAPPER SINCLAIR, who finished 12th in the Juvenile Turf, got into the act when coming back to finish second by a nose at 41-1 in the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, beating a long list of hopefuls including Lecomte runner-up PRINCIPE GUILHERME, highly-regarded Todd Pletcher Gulfstream allowance winner NOBLE INDY and the aforementioned Instilled Regard.
By the way, if you were wondering, the winner of the BC Juvenile Turf was MENDELSSOHN, trained by Aiden O’Brien. Mendelssohn is back in Ireland and has never run on dirt, but O’Brien has indicated he believes the horse will be equally as good on dirt and has expressed interest in pointing him to the Kentucky Derby. Based on the results of the other horses exiting the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, you would certainly have to stamp the horse as a legit contender if he does, in fact, point for the race.
Back to the Risen Star results, the winner of the race was BRAVAZO, who previously had finished second in last fall’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Along with Sporting Chance, Bravazo gives Lukas two strong Kentucky Derby candidates heading into the next round of prep races in March. That is also when we’ll get to see the much-anticipated returns of the top Kentucky Derby contenders, Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic, giving horseplayers much to look forward to in the coming month leading up to the Run for the Roses.
Follow this space regularly for plenty more information and handicapping leading up to the 2018 Kentucky Derby, and much more.
Noel Michaels’ Derby Top 5
(as of Feb. 23)
- Good Magic
- Bolt d’Oro
- Catholic Boy
- Sporting Chance