The Path the Contenders Will Take to Louisville
by Tom Carley
With apologies to Robert Frost, this week we will look at the path the Derby horses will take to Louisville. This is an often overlooked aspect of the preparation the horses make for the Kentucky Derby. While it is not as dramatic as Kenyan marathon runners moving to the mountains to train in the thinner air, certain trends have emerged over the last 20 years which should not be ignored.
While in most sports, teams have a “home” field/city in which they are based, that is not true in horse racing. That is because in horse racing the participants (both human and horses) travel around the country to different racetracks throughout the year. This occurs because each racetrack only runs for a portion of the year. The time that each racetrack is running races is called a meet.
As winter approaches, many horses go south to escape the cold weather so as not to miss any days of training due to snow, ice and the cold. Trainers used to give horses as many as 7 “prep” races before the Derby in the horse’s 3-year-old year. They could use the races as tools to build a horse’s stamina. Over time, horses have begun to run less, and many of the 2020 participants will only run three times in 2020 prior to the Derby. This has placed much emphasis on a horse’s training and workout schedule his three year old year.
The Kentucky Derby is run in the first week of Churchill Downs’s Spring Meet. This means that as a 3-year-old no horse there will have run at Churchill Downs before the Kentucky Derby. With racetracks varying in circumference, tightness of the turns and composition of the racetrack surface, some horses like or dislike Churchill Downs more than the racetracks on which they have previously raced. By composition of the racetrack surface, I am referring to the mixture of dirt, sand, and other materials in the track’s surface. A racetrack with more sand will provide more cushion for horses, but will also be more tiring and yield slower times. Churchill Downs is less tiring than other tracks based on its composition. Churchill Downs also drains exceptionally well, thus minimizing the effects of sudden spring rainstorms that occur the first week in May. Most horses still developing physically prefer to run on dry dirt surfaces as they sense losing their footing on a muddy racetrack and their mind focus shifts from that of running to simply caring about not falling down.
Avoid thy stablemate
Further confusing to the path horses take to the Derby is the fact that many of the larger stables have more than one Derby contender looking for Derby points. Therefore, in order to avoid having his horses face each other (and upsetting owners) as well as maximize the potential number of horses the trainer has in the Derby, a trainer will often ship his horses to other racetracks to run in Derby Prep races. An example of this is trainer Todd Pletcher. While he is based in New York most of the year, he ships his higher quality horses to Gulfstream Park (in Miami) during the winter. A few years back, he identified five 3-year-olds in January that he thought were Derby contenders. In order to avoid having his five horses compete against one another in the Derby preps, he raced one horse at Gulfstream and shipped one horse to each of the following racetracks: Tampa Bay Downs, Fairgrounds (New Orleans), Oaklawn (Hot Springs), and Sunland Park (New Mexico) for their Derby preps. This allowed Pletcher to have each of his horses earn Derby points without having to face another horse from the same barn.
Not all preps are created equally
Some final prep races are identified as being better Prep races than others. No horse has ever won a Derby prep race in Dubai and run well in the Kentucky Derby. Horses that have run well in the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby have done well in recent Kentucky Derbies. There is a new crop of 3-year-old horses every year and mathematicians will tell you that what occurred in prior years should have no effect on the current year. However, the patterns can’t be ignored. While New York is a major racing circuit, New York’s Derby prep race, the Wood Memorial, has not produced a Kentucky Derby winner since 2000. In contrast, during the same time frame the winner of the Florida Derby also won the Kentucky Derby winner in 2017, 2016, 2013, 2008, 2006 and 2001.
The role of the calendar in training
Another thing to consider when looking at final Derby prep races is how close they are to the Kentucky Derby. Trainers vary in how much time they want a horse to have off coming into the Kentucky Derby. Some trainers want their horse well rested and fresh on Derby Day. Other trainers want their horse to have its last tune up race close to the Kentucky Derby to serve as a “dress rehearsal” for the performance known as Derby day. It is easier for a horse to maintain his fitness and running quality than try to dramatically improve in the time from the last Derby prep to the Derby.
The following is a list of final Kentucky Derby Preps (all worth 100 Points to the Winner) and the time from Derby Day in which they are run:
6 Weeks before Derby Louisiana Derby
5 Weeks before Derby Florida Derby, UAE Derby
4 Weeks before Derby Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby
3 Weeks before Derby Arkansas Derby
Last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Country House, raced in both the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby. He did not do this by design, but raced consecutively on three weeks as he needed to earn points in the Arkansas Derby to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Trainers have shied away from the Louisiana Derby as a last prep as most feel six weeks is too much time off between races. No horse has won the Derby after winning the Louisiana Derby since 1986. Most trainers look for that 4 to 5 week window between the last prep and the Derby.
Avoid a dominant horse
If a dominant horse is located at one racetrack, the local trainers will ship to other racetracks to race in derby preps to avoid a local dominant horse. This has been seen in California in recent years. Different Bob Baffert horses have established themselves late in the 2-year-old season as being a dominant California horse. Due to the depth of talented horses in his barn, many California trainers have opted to train in California, yet travel (ship) to Oaklawn Park in order to race in the early Derby prep races as well as the Arkansas Derby and have the best chance to earn Derby points.
The Last Chance Derby
The Arkansas Derby has also gotten popular as the last chance Derby prep. With being run only three weeks before the Derby while still providing enough points for the winner, runner up and possibly third place runner to get enough points to qualify for the Derby, trainers have begun to look at this race as the race to enter in a last ditch effort to earn qualifying points. This was not only demonstrated last year when Country House needed a minimal amount of Derby points, but also in 2012 as Todd Pletcher shipped and entered an unknown horse named Danza from his barn (with zero points) who had trained well in the mornings to the Arkansas Derby. Danza went off at odds of 40 to 1, but won the race by five lengths thus earning 100 points and a berth in the Derby.
While a trainer can combine the Derby preps in any sequence, there are a few major paths to the Derby.
Because of the warmer weather, many trainers ship to Florida in the winter. This minimizes the days horses lost to bad weather. The volume of top trainers that winter in Florida all but guarantee the crop of Florida 3-year-olds will be strong each year. The Florida prep race schedule is highlighted by the Florida Derby. This race has proved a key derby prep producing numerous Derby winners in the last decade. Trainers also can ship cross state to Tampa Bay Downs to run in two Derby prep races that award a modest level of qualifying points.
California provides another circuit with the recent success in the Derby, including producing two triple crown winners (technically American Pharaoh ran his last prep in the Arkansas Derby) in the last four years. Points for prep races in California actually start late in the crop’s 2-year-old season. Because of this, the major California contenders start their 3-year-old season later than in other regions as they already have Derby points.
Big name trainers such as Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neil (2 Derby wins since 2010) vie for the Derby points awarded for the major preps. However, the earlier, lower point prep races of the 3-year-old season are typically won by other trainers while the name trainers save their horses for the later preps. Then the trainers who earned points early in the 3-year-old season ship to other tracks to avoid the established Derby winning barns seeking the remaining needed points. The recent wet California winters have led to trainers shipping earlier. Last year a writer referred to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas as Santa Anita East as not only Bob Baffert, but also Richard Mandella shipped Omaha Beach as well as Doug O’Neil and Jerry Hollendorfer shipped to Oaklawn.
Because of the weather and potential missed training days most of the country’s best 3-year-olds ship away from New York. However, the points awarded in the Wood Memorial and other preps assure at least two horses from the circuit can qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Recent Derby performance of New York horses has not been well, but last year Bill Mott did ship Tacitus to New York. The winter preps are run at the circuit’s less renowned racetrack, Aqueduct.
The racetrack in New Orleans, the Fairgrounds, is owned by Churchill Downs Inc. and in many ways resembles the Louisville racetrack that hosts the Derby. The racetrack has the second longest stretch in North America. The weather is humid all winter long and there is little missed training. Louisiana has three Derby prep races with the points awarded increasing in value the closer to May you get. A trend that has emerged over the last 10 years is that one horse will win all of the Louisiana prep races. As mentioned above the timing of the Louisiana Derby in relation to the Kentucky Derby has possibly played a role in the lack of success among the Louisiana Derby participants.
There is only one racetrack in Arkansas: Oaklawn Park. Oaklawn actually has four Derby prep races, but Derby points are only awarded for the last three races. Horses that train in Arkansas are typically later developing than horses that train elsewhere. Because the racetrack is located in a state park, only water can be added to the racetrack where other racetracks can add some fluids to keep the track from freezing. This leads to more missed training days at Oaklawn than anywhere else on the Derby trail. Horses in Arkansas do not reach peak fitness until shortly before May leading the major Arkansas prep race to be run only 3 weeks before the Derby.
As you can see there is not one clearly defined sequence of races that guarantee Derby success. Trainers have to consider many factors where to run each horse’s prep races. This is something that I do take some time early in Derby week and examine for each contender. Feel free to keep this column handy to use as a reference tool as we get closer to May.
This concludes the foundation part of the column. Next week we will dive into the Derby crop with both feet and begin discussing the class of 2020.
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