Derby Prep Season Is Here

DERBY POINT SERIES PUTS PRIORITY ON PREP RACE WINS

Handicappers Need to Follow Preps Closely for a Chance at Derby Success

The Kentucky Derby prep season is already underway. Each winter and spring, 3-year-olds from around the country fight for the right to occupy one of the 20 available stalls in the Churchill Downs starting gate for the Run for the Roses.  The starters in the Derby will be decided by a points system that puts pressure on hopefuls to win, or earn at least a high finish, in at least one high-profile Kentucky Derby prep race in order to qualify.

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.

These prep races, in addition to being fun betting opportunities in their own rights at a time of the year when horseplayers are keen on building bankroll in advance of the Kentucky Derby, will also provide handicappers valuable Derby information that should be dissected and studied for the purposes of betting and winning the Kentucky Derby.

Since 2013, a point system in select prep races determines who qualifies to run in the Kentucky Derby. The points themselves that the horses earn may or may not end up being relevant, but points aside, the prep race efforts that horses run obviously determine everything in terms of which horses will advance onward on the road to the Run for the Roses.

Each year 20 horses have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to run in the Kentucky Derby. To earn a spot in the starting gate, they must travel along the Road to the Kentucky Derby. What that means in terms of the "Kentucky Derby Championship Series," is that a series of 35 races at tracks across the country and around the world have been designated as points races that count toward entry preference in the Kentucky Derby. Points are awarded to the top four finishers in each race. The 20 horses with the most points will earn a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
The Kentucky Derby Championship Series includes 35 total races, of which 16 are highly-significant events that take place over the 10 weeks preceding the first Saturday in May. A sliding scale of points will be awarded to the Top 4 finishers in each of the 35 races, to determine preference for the eventual 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.These 35 races began all the way back in the fall of last year when Kentucky Derby aspirants were still 2-year-olds. The early races on the schedule, designated as "First Leg" races, generally award 10 points for first, 4 points for second, 2 points for third, and 1 point for fourth. The exception is the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which awarded double points on a 20-8-4-2 scale.

The main portion of the Derby prep race schedule really began in late January. Right now in late February is when it really kicks it up a notch with eight Championship Series second-tier Kentucky Derby prep races starting with the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on February 25. These races will be assigned points on a 50-20-10-5 scale from first- to fourth-place. This includes races such as the Fountain of Youth, Gotham, Tampa Bay Derby, Rebel, San Felipe, Spiral Stakes, Sunland Derby, etc. (see the following detailed list).

The final round of major Derby prep races are obviously the most important, and therefore award the most points on a scale of 100-40-20-10. 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.

 

KENTUCKY DERBY CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES PREP RACES
(February thru April 15, 2017)


Prep Race

Track

2017 Date

Points

Holy Bull

Gulfstream Park

Feb. 4, 2017

10-4-2-1

Withers

Aqueduct

Feb. 4, 2017

10-4-2-1

Robert B. Lewis

Santa Anita Park

Feb. 4, 2017

10-4-2-1

Sam F. Davis

Tampa Bay Downs

Feb. 11, 2017

10-4-2-1

El Camino Real Derby

Golden Gate Fields

Feb. 18, 2017

10-4-2-1

Southwest

Oaklawn Park

Feb. 20, 2017

10-4-2-1

Risen Star

Fair Grounds

Feb. 25, 2017

50-20-10-5

Fountain of Youth

Gulfstream Park

March 4, 2017

50-20-10-5

Gotham

Aqueduct

March 4, 2017

50-20-10-5

Tampa Bay Derby

Tampa Bay Downs

March 11, 2017

50-20-10-5

San Felipe

Santa Anita Park

March 11, 2017

50-20-10-5

Rebel

Oaklawn Park

March 18, 2017

50-20-10-5

Spiral

Turfway Park

March 25, 2017

50-20-10-5

Sunland Derby

Sunland Park

March 26, 2017

50-20-10-5

[UAE Derby]

Meydan Racecourse

March 25, 2017

100-40-20-10

Florida Derby

Gulfstream Park

April 1, 2017

100-40-20-10

Louisiana Derby

Fair Grounds

April , 2017

100-40-20-10

Wood Memorial

Aqueduct

April 8, 2017

100-40-20-10

Blue Grass

Keeneland

April 8, 2017

100-40-20-10

Santa Anita Derby

Santa Anita Park

April 8, 2017

100-40-20-10

Arkansas Derby

Oaklawn Park

April 15, 2017

100-40-20-10

Lexington

Keeneland

April 15, 2017

10-4-2-1

In the Derby Championship Series of preps, wins and places in these races will be crucial for horses to be able to work their way into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. No matter what a horse has or hasn't done from last fall all the way up through now, it will be the later major Kentucky Derby prep races which are worth so many points that will decide who secures a spot in the starting gate for the Run for the Roses.

There are essentially six major final prep races for the Kentucky Derby. I'm not going to count the U.A.E. Derby in Dubai, which isn't a relevant Kentucky Derby prep race in my book (a foreign-prepped horse hasn't ever been able to make a dent in the Kentucky Derby without at least one U.S. prep race as a 3-year-old).  Keep in the mind that the U.A.E. Derby is open to southern hemisphere 3-year-olds, which are considered 4-year-olds in the United States.  This means that the winner and/or other top finishers in the race may not even be eligible for the Kentucky Derby. The winner and second horse in the U.A.E. Derby will certainly have enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby field if they choose to try (if they are eligible), but in most instances the horses that run in the race aren't even pointing to the Kentucky Derby anyway, so it is difficult to take the race seriously as a Derby prep no matter how many points it awards.

Kentucky Derby qualifying ends with a very small amount of points to be available for the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. The race could become relevant by awarding enough points for perhaps one desperate Derby hopeful to get into the field thanks to its 10-4-2-1 points structure.

The front-runners in the race to the starting gate for the Derby, at this stage of the game, are led by Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner CLASSIC EMPIRE, with 32 points.  History generally has not been kind to Juvenile winners in the Derby, however, and Classic Empire has already finished a disappointing third to begin his 3-year-old campaign in the Holy Bull. The other current point leaders - each with 20 points - are Jerome and Withers winner EL AREEB, Sham Stakes winner GORMLEY, and Sam F. Davis Stakes winner MCCRACKEN.  More contenders will emerge the next could weeks in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate, the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, and in the big-points Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

In terms of handicapping, the Kentucky Derby Championship Point Series definitely has changed the dynamic of the way the Derby prep races are prepared for by the connections of the horses.  Wins in the prep races used to be secondary in importance behind just getting safe, useful seasoning, foundation, and preparation into the horses on their way to Louisville. The races are technically "preps," after all.  Sure, these are big races and trainers and owners and jockeys always want to win, but these races were still preps with the end-game object being to have the best possible chance on the First Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

Now, however, trainers don't want to run their horses more than twice or perhaps three times after January 1 in prep races before the Derby, and they definitely don't want to get stuck in a position where they NEED a late prep win or top finish in a major race in order to secure a spot in the starting gate.  Thereby, all of the horses appear to be "trying" 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 winning win prices in all of the prep races.  Whereas the preps used to be prime handicapping opportunities to look for, and find, longshots, now these prep races are ruled by the favorites and upsets are much more rare.

Therefore, you have to use the favorites in your betting in the prep races. It might not be sexy or glamorous, but will be difficult to nail 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.

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 out the horses to beat 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.

By Noel Michaels

26
Apr

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