Road to the Kentucky Derby: Last 3 major preps will provide clarity to Derby field

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The parallels between the NCAA basketball tournament and the Kentucky Derby prep season are unmistakable. We always expect powerhouses like Duke and Kansas to make it to the Final Four, as they did again this year. They have the most touted recruits and most experienced coaches, so it is no surprise when they advance in the tournament.

They are the basketball equivalent of a high-priced 3-year-old from one of the most powerful barns in thoroughbred racing. We expect such horses to advance through the preliminaries and make it into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

But almost every year there is a Cinderella team, as St. Peter’s was this year, and every year unexpected horses make it into the gate in Louisville. How else can you explain White Abarrio, who was originally a $7,500 purchase (later sold for $40,000 as a 2-year-old) and kept on impressing in the preps, leading to his victory on Saturday in the Florida Derby?

Just as St. Peter’s had a young, relatively unknown coach on the rise, White Abarrio is trained by Saffie Joseph, Jr. Trainers of Kentucky Derby contenders are expected to come from traditional racing hotbeds, unlike Mr. Joseph, whose foundation in racing was from his native home of Barbados.

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Just as basketball fans closely follow the conference tournaments and the hoopla of selection day for the tournament, horse racing fans will look forward to this Saturday, when the Derby point totals will be pretty much locked in and we will end up with more clarity regarding who will be the final 20 and who will be on the outside looking in. The prep season will reach its climax on NBC this Saturday beginning at 4:30 pm ET with the running of the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Santa Anita Derby.

Kentucky Derby Preview
Trainer Chad Brown will saddle Zandon in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes and Early Voting in Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial

Since 1980, these three races have produced 366 Kentucky Derby starters and 25 winners. Each race, however, presents its own unique set of variables and has been subject to trends in the racing world.

Take the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct as an example. At one time, the Wood was arguably the most significant Derby prep. In the 1970s, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes and Seattle Slew all had their final prep races in New York before winning in Louisville.

Since 1980, however, only two winners of the Wood have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby (Pleasant Colony in 1981 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000). The last time a horse who ran well in the Wood went on to win the Derby was in 2003, when Funny Cide was 2nd in the Wood.

This year, however, three of the top trainers in the sport have starters in this race, and they all can emerge as major players. Todd Pletcher has Mo Donegal, who won the Remsen Stakes on this track and at the same distance as a 2-year-old. He was 3rd in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream, and the experience of that race and a return to Aqueduct give him a license to improve. Chad Brown will have Early Voting, who is undefeated in 2 starts (both at Aqueduct), including a win in the Withers Stakes in his last start.

And then there is the winningest trainer of all time, Steve Asmussen. While Epicenter has risen to the top of the point standings for the Derby, his “second-string” horse, Morello, has been pointed to this race all along.

He is 3-for-3 lifetime, with all 3 races at Aqueduct, and his most recent win coming in the Gotham Stakes.  This is a deeper field than the Wood Memorial has presented in quite some time.

The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland is a race with a complicated history in terms of producing Kentucky Derby winners. Overall, 23 Kentucky Derby winners had their final prep in the Blue Grass, and 11 of them were Blue Grass winners.

Like the Wood Memorial, this race has an unusual history regarding the Derby. The period from 1959 to 1979 produced 8 horses that won both in Lexington and Louisville. Then, there was a gap in dual winners until Strike The Gold won both races in 1991. Also, the last time a horse that ran in the Blue Grass went on to win in Louisville was in 2007, when Street Sense went from a 2nd place finish in the prep race to winning the Derby.

Horsemen who were prepping Derby horses generally stayed away from the race from 2008 to 2014, when Keeneland had a questionable experience with a synthetic surface that was so tiring that front-runners were at a disadvantage. Since then, some of the top barns have returned to using the Blue Grass as a final prep, and it’s just a matter of time until we have our first dual winner since the Nick Zito-trained Strike The Gold.

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This year, the Blue Grass has a deep field with some highly regarded Derby prospects. Notable among this group is the Ken McPeek-trained Smile Happy. Last November, he was the winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.

In that race, he defeated Classic Causeway and White Abarrio, two horses who are near the top of the Derby point standings. In his only start this year, he was a closing 2nd to Epicenter in the Risen Star Stakes.

With his experience against the best of the 3-year-old crop, Smile Happy is a major factor in the Blue Grass. His major challenger could be the Chad Brown-trained Zandon, who was 3rd in the Risen Star. Last November, he lost by a nose to Mo Donegal in the Remsen Stakes over 9 furlongs at Aqueduct. With only 3 starts, he has proven that he can run with the best of his generation.

Finally, there is the unusual case of the Santa Anita Derby. It is unusual because of the man who isn’t there. The now-suspended Bob Baffert has won this race 9 times, and 5 of those wins have been in the last 11 years.

He has now turned over the best 3-year-old in his barn, Messier, to trainer Tim Yakteen. In order to win, however, Messier will have to get past the Richard Mandella-trained Forbidden Kingdom, who has won the San Vicente Stakes and the San Felipe Stakes in his two starts this year. The combination of these two powerhouses should result in a smaller field but an incredible matchup.

The bottom line is that after Saturday, we should know most of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is the Derby starting gate. If horses have enough points to get into the Derby, then their trainers have 4 weeks to do their magic and get their prospects to peak on the first Saturday in May.  The action will be fast and furious as these three “100-points-to-the-winner” races help to define the ultimate makeup of the Derby field.

Al Bernstein has worked as a statistician on NBC’s horse racing telecasts since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984.