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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Monday, January 7, 2019 at 12:53 PM

PREP RACE WINS ARE A PRIORITY ON ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY

The first Kentucky Derby prep races of the season are already in the books, and now with a small gap until the next round of prep races heats up, this seems like the time to review and preview where we stand right now in the very early stages on the road to the First Saturday in May.

The Kentucky Derby prep season is underway as 3-year-olds begin the fight for the right to occupy one of the 20 available stalls in the Churchill Downs starting gate for the Run for the Roses. This year’s 144th running of the Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday, May 5 – almost exactly four months from the date this blog is being written.

The starters in the Kentucky Derby will be decided by a points system that puts pressure on hopefuls to win, or at least earn high finishes in high-profile Kentucky Derby prep races in order to qualify. For the sixth straight year, a tiered point system in a series of designated races at tracks across the country (and around the world) will determine who gets into the Derby. Points are awarded to the top four finishers in each of the prep races. The 20 horses with the most points who are still left standing at that point in the season will earn spots in the starting gate.  The points themselves may or may not end up being relevant, but points aside, it is the contenders’ prep race efforts that obviously determine everything in terms of which horses will advance onward on the road to the Triple Crown.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby, formerly known as the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, began back on Sept. 15 with the Iroquois at Churchill Downs and will continue on through the major final prep races from late March to mid-April. The series includes 35 races (plus 7 European races and 4 in Japan), of which 14 are highly-significant events that take place over the 11 weeks preceding the first Saturday in May. The early races on the schedule up through mid-February generally awarded/will award 10 points for first, 4 points for second, 2 points for third, and 1 point for fourth. The exception was the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which awarded double points on a 20-8-4-2 scale. The Juvenile was won by Game Winner, the current points leader as of Jan. 5 with 30 points.

The most recent prep races were the Jerome at Aqueduct on January 1, won by G1 Hopeful winner Mind Control to garner 10 points, and the Sham at Santa Anita on January 5, won by Gunmetal Gray, previously fifth in the BC Juvenile, who also earned 10 points. The Mucho Macho Man stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 5 won by Mihos was not part of the points series.

With those races in the books there will now be a gap until January 19 when the next prep race is run, the G3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds with 10 points to the winner. As it stands, after Game Winner, the next two highest-point horses are BC Juvenile second- and third-place finishers Knicks Go and Signalman, each with 18 points (Knicks Go was also second in the Champagne and Signalman won the Kentucky Jockey Club), followed by the aforementioned Gunmetal Gray with a total of 14 points.  Then there are six horses with exactly 10 points earned from an early prep race win, including Iroquois winner Cairo Cat, Champagne Stakes winner Complexity, Remsen winner Maximus Mischief, Los Alamitos Futurity winner Improbable, Springboard Mile winner Long Range Toddy, and the previously-mentioned Mind Control.

The main portion of the Derby prep race schedule, when point values increase with a few exceptions to 50-20-10-5 or 100-40-20-10 (essentially all win-and-you’re in races) begins with the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on February 16 and the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream on March 2. The 50-point-to-the-winner races also include the Gotham, Tampa Bay Derby, Rebel, San Felipe, Spiral Stakes, and Sunland Derby. The final round of major Derby prep races is obviously the most important, and therefore award the most points with 100 to the winners. This includes U.A.E. Derby in Dubai, and of course the big 6 prep races – the Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby.

Of course, these prep races are not just important for the horses and their connections, they are also valuable for handicappers as well. The Kentucky Derby prep races, in addition to being fun betting opportunities in their own right, will also provide handicappers valuable information that should be dissected and studied for the purposes of betting on the Kentucky Derby and trying to pick the winner.

In terms of handicapping, the Road to the Kentucky Derby Point Series definitely seems to have changed the dynamic of the way the prep races are prepared for by the connections of the horses.  Wins in the prep races used to be of secondary importance behind just getting a good, safe, useful seasoning, foundation, and preparation into the horses on their way to Louisville. The races are technically "preps," after all, and that’s what prep races are for.  Sure, these are big races and trainers and owners and jockeys always want to win, but the end-game objective was always having your horse best prepared for a big effort on the First Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, no matter if the horse won or lost in his preps. This led to a lot of upsets, not only in the preps but also into the Kentucky Derby, because all of the trainers were not always trying all of the time in the prep races. Sometimes the best horse would lose because he wasn’t being fully cranked for the prep, but then come back and win the Kentucky Derby, or Preakness, next out.

Now, however, trainers usually only want to run their horses twice or perhaps three times, post Breeders’ Cup, in prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby, and they definitely don’t want to get stuck in a position where they NEED to squeeze in late prep races in order to win enough points to secure a spot in the starting gate.  Therefore, it now seems that all the connections are trying and needing to win all of the time in the prep races.  In my opinion, this has led to the giant drop-off over the past few years in average win prices in all of the prep races (i.e. favorites win the preps and pay low prices). It has also directly resulted, in my opinion, in the recent trend of favorites winning the Kentucky Derby. Go back 10 years before the Road to the Derby points series, and the favorites almost never seemed to win the Kentucky Derby. At one point it was even considered to be a curse to be the favorite because the favorite went more than a decade without a Derby victory.

Therefore, you have to use the favorites in your betting in the prep races. It might not be sexy or glamorous, but you may have a difficult time nailing down more than one or two bombers along the way if you are betting all of the weekly prep races from now until the Kentucky Derby.  Choose your longshots wisely.

 

ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY AMERICAN PREP RACES
(February 2 thru April 13, 2019)

Prep Race Track 2019 Date Points
Holy Bull Gulfstream Park Feb. 2, 2019 10-4-2-1
Withers Aqueduct Feb. 2, 2019 10-4-2-1
Robert B. Lewis Santa Anita Park Feb. 2, 2019 10-4-2-1
Sam F. Davis Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 9, 2019 10-4-2-1
El Camino Real Derby Golden Gate Fields Feb. 16, 2019 10-4-2-1
Risen Star Fair Grounds Feb. 16, 2019 50-20-10-5
Southwest Oaklawn Park Feb. 18, 2019 10-4-2-1
Fountain of Youth Gulfstream Park March 2, 2019 50-20-10-5
Gotham Aqueduct March 9, 2019 50-20-10-5
Tampa Bay Derby Tampa Bay Downs March 9, 2019 50-20-10-5
San Felipe Santa Anita Park March 9, 2019 50-20-10-5
Jeff Ruby Steaks Turfway Park March 9, 2019 50-20-10-5
Rebel Oaklawn Park March 16, 2019 50-20-10-5
Louisiana Derby Fair Grounds March 23, 2019 100-40-20-10
Sunland Derby Sunland Park March 24, 2019 50-20-10-5
UAE Derby Meydan Racecourse March 30, 2019 100-40-20-10
Florida Derby Gulfstream Park March 30, 2019 100-40-20-10
Wood Memorial Aqueduct April 6, 2019 100-40-20-10
Blue Grass Keeneland April 6, 2019 100-40-20-10
Santa Anita Derby Santa Anita Park April 6, 2019 100-40-20-10
Arkansas Derby Oaklawn Park April 13, 2019 100-40-20-10
Lexington Keeneland April 13, 2019 10-4-2-1

 

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 the horse’s past performances, and in particular, in every runner’s prep races leading up to the First Saturday in May.

The most useful thing about the prep races, for handicappers, is to make sure you watch them and their top horses closely as you build your list of prime contenders for the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown.  The individual prep races themselves may or may not offer great betting opportunities in their own right, but they need to be watched in the context of finding the horses to bet in the Run for the Roses.  When you go to fill out your wagering tickets on the First Saturday in May, the prep races will be your key to unlocking the winner and the other horses to beat for the exotics.

Have you spotted your Derby horse yet?  Is it someone listed above, or another 3-year-old old? Maybe the eventual Derby winner hasn’t run yet, such as in 2018 with Justify, who had not yet begun his career a year ago.  It’s still early, but it’s never too early to start searching all sorts of stakes races, allowances, and even maiden races for the next potential Kentucky Derby winner.

Besides the horses already mentioned, some other early contenders include Vekoma, the winner of the Nashua stakes in New York, and Instagrand, the winner of the Best Pal stakes in SoCal. Some people are also high on maiden winners Global Campaign for trainer Stan Hough at Gulfstream, Tacitus for Bill Mott at Aqueduct, Kingly and Magic On Tap for Bob Baffert at Del Mar, and Fortin Hill or Looking at Bikinis for Chad Brown at Belmont.  We’ll see where each of those potential contenders turns up next.

The next prep race will be the Lecomte stakes at the Fair Grounds. Probably runners in that race who could stamp themselves as legit Derby contenders with a win include Plus Que Parfait, who was second in the Kentucky Jockey Club last out, Churchill Downs maiden winner Admire, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile fourth- and ninth-place finishers Mr. Money and Tight Ten.

Good luck as you navigate your way through Kentucky Derby prep season. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

By Noel Michaels

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