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.

RELATED: How to watch Kentucky Derby 2022: TV channel, start time, live stream online, full race schedule

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.

RELATED: What to know about the 2022 Kentucky Derby

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.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Qatar Prix de Arc de Triomphe
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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.