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.

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Courier Journal/USA TODAY Sports
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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.