Use Prep Results To Narrow Derby Contenders

USE PREP RACE RESULTS TO NARROW DOWN DERBY CONTENDERS

By Noel Michaels - OTB LeariningLabs.com

The 139th running of the Kentucky Derby is just weeks away, and handicappers everywhere will be scrutinizing every piece of information available on every contender in the 20-horse field from now until Derby Day in order to try to separate the contenders from the pretenders.  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.

What should you be looking for in a Derby contender's prep races?  What is important and what isn't?

Everyone likes to see horses romping home in their final prep race for the Kentucky Derby, but the fact remains that a horse does not need to win its final prep in order to be a prime win candidate to win the Kentucky Derby.  For every example you find of a horse exiting a win in its final prep like undefeated Big Brown, Barbaro, and Smarty Jones did, as did the last two Derby winners, Animal Kingdom and I'll Have Another, there is another example out there of a horse that lost his final prep race leading up to the Kentucky Derby, such as Super Saver in 2010, Mine That Bird in 2009, Street Sense in 2007 and Giacomo in 2005.

Going back 36 years, 16 of the last 36 Kentucky Derby winners (44.4%) won their last prep race while 20 lost their final preps (55.6%). That's much better than a 50-50 proposition for last-prep losers, as opposed to last-prep winners going on to win the Kentucky Derby.

When talking about final prep race losers, it is also extremely important to take note of how a horse lost and by how much. In other words, a horse may not have to win its final prep, but if it loses, it's preferable that the horse was at least second.

Looking at the results of the last 24 Kentucky Derbies, it's worth noting that 19 of the 24 winners (79.2%) finished at least second in their final prep race. Beyond that, it is an absolute must that a horse finishes no worse than fourth in its final Kentucky Derby prep race in order to be considered a legitimate contender. Every Kentucky Derby winner for 56 years, since Iron Liege in 1957, has finished no worse than fourth in its final Derby prep race. Therefore, when handicapping the Kentucky Derby you must look only for horses that finished in the superfecta in their final Derby prep, while also realizing that 4 out of every 5 Derby winners will be exiting an in-the-exacta finish in their last race.

Last Pre-Derby Start of Eventual Kentucky Derby Winners (1989-2012)

Year

Derby Winner

Final Prep

Finish

2012

I'll Have Another

Santa Anita Derby

Won

2011

Animal Kingdom

Spiral Stakes

Won

2010

Super Saver

Arkansas Derby

2nd

2009

Mine That Bird

Sunland Derby

4th

2008

Big Brown

Florida Derby

Won

2007

Street Sense

Street Sense

2nd

2006

Barbaro

Florida Derby

Won

2005

Giacomo

Santa Anita Derby

4th

2004

Smarty Jones

Arkansas Derby

Won

2003

Funny Cide

Wood Memorial

2nd

2002

War Emblem

Illinois Derby

Won

2001

Monarchos

Wood Memorial

2nd

2000

Fusaichi Pegasus

Wood Memorial

Won

1999

Charismatic

Lexington

Won

1998

Real Quiet

Santa Anita Derby

2nd

1997

Silver Charm

Santa Anita Derby

2nd

1996

Grindstone

Arkansas Derby

2nd

1995

Thunder Gulch

Blue Grass

4th

1994

Go For Gin

Wood Memorial

2nd

1993

Sea Hero

Blue Grass

4th

1992

Lil E. Tee

Arkansas Derby

2nd

1991

Strike the Gold

Blue Grass

Won

1990

Unbridled

Blue Grass

3rd

1989

Sunday Silence

Santa Anita Derby

Won

Certainly you wouldn't knock a horse for coming into the Derby off a win, especially if the horse is coming into the Derby undefeated, as is the case this year with Kentucky Derby morning-line favorite Verrazano. However, one thing is for sure. If the horse you like in the Derby comes into the race off a prep race loss, that horse will almost always pay a much bigger price than a horse that comes into the Derby off a prep race win.

Recently, Derby longshots like Mine That Bird and Giacomo and Funny Cide, as well as plenty of others, lost their final Derby preps before turning the tables a few weeks later in the big race at a big price. Recent losers are always overlay prices in the Derby when scores and scores of weekend bettors hop into the betting pool and onto the bandwagons of recent winners. Bettors have short memories, and what they remember best sometimes is a horse's loss in its most recent race - especially if that loss came as the favorite.

This is a scenario where seasoned horseplayers have a big advantage against the masses, who might be more apt to toss out a horse due to just one high-profile loss before the Derby.

Never has there been a better example of this than with Thunder Gulch, who won the Derby and paid $51 in 1995 due to just one sub-par effort in the Blue Grass Stakes after he had rolled over the competition at Gulfstream Park in the Florida Derby, (Keeneland's old, speed-biased dirt track hurt his chances that day).

In Thunder Gulch's case, as in the case of many other Derby winners, you DO want to see a big stakes win when evaluating a contender leading up to the Kentucky Derby. However, it just doesn't need to have happened in the horse's last race. Thunder Gulch had won the Florida Derby in the race before. Street Sense lost the Blue Grass, but he won the Tampa Bay Derby in the race before. Monarchos lost the Wood Memorial, but he won the Florida Derby in the race before. Grindstone lost the Arkansas Derby but he won the Louisiana Derby in the race before.  You get the idea.

There are lots of reasons why a "live" Derby horse might lose its final prep race or at least one of its final prep races. Among these reasons could be bad trips, track biases, and trainer intent. Simply put, certain trainers are more concerned with getting their horses "cranked" for Derby Day and put a priority on "leaving something in the tank" for the big race rather than firing their best shots to win the preps. Keep in mind, that a prep is exactly that - a prep - and it should be treated accordingly when evaluating Derby contenders.

A key contender in the 2013 Kentucky Derby field that this might apply to is Verrazano, who may or may not have been fully asked for his best effort when winning the Wood Memorial. His victory has been panned by a lot of racing writers, you have to ask yourself, was he asked to do just barely enough to win while still making sure he left enough gas in the tank for Derby Day?  Plus, let's face it, Verrazano's prior win in the Tampa Bay Derby now looks a heckuva lot better now that Java's War, who finished second behind Verrazano at Tampa, came back to win the Blue Grass Stakes.

The relative effectiveness of the various preps is highly cyclical and tends to change back and forth from favoring one prep or another once or twice every decade.  In the late 1990's the best places for a horse to do his final prepping for the Derby seemed like the Santa Anita Derby (Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998) or Keeneland, where Charismatic exited the Lexington in 1999 and Thunder Gulch exited the Blue Grass.

In the early 2000's, the action shifted to New York when Fusaichi Pegasus won the Wood Memorial in 2000, Monarchos was second in the Wood in 2001, and Funny Cide was second in the Wood in 2003.

Then Oaklawn Park became the en vogue place to prep for the Kentucky Derby along with Gulfstream Park. In Oaklawn's case, the Arkansas Derby has been a springboard to stardom in recent years with a parade of big horses taking that route starting with Super Saver in 2010, and Smarty Jones in 2004, plus Derby third-place finisher and Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex in 2005, Derby third-place finisher Steppenwolfer and future Eclipse winner Lawyer Ron in 2006, and Derby third-place finisher, Preakness winner, and Horse of the Year Curlin in 2007.

Gulfstream, too, has now also become a preferred place to prep since Barbaro proved a horse can win the Kentucky Derby off a five-week layoff in 2006 when he used the Florida Derby as his final prep race. Before then, the Florida Derby had been run earlier in March and horses had been required to find another prep in between the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby. After Barbaro paved the way with is 2006 victory, Big Brown followed in 2008, winning the Florida Derby en route to his Kentucky Derby blowout five weeks later.  Ice Box nearly won the Kentucky Derby in 2010 after exiting the Florida Derby, but ultimately had to settle for second.

In 2013, California and Oaklawn Park yielded the 1-2 finishers in both the Derby and Preakness with Santa Anita Derby winner I'll Have Another beating Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister.

Key contenders for the 2013 Kentucky Derby exiting the Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and Florida Derby - which recently have been trending as the most prominent Derby prep races - are Goldencents, Overanalyze and Orb, respectively.

Not only does the relative strength and weakness of individual prep races change, but another thing that changes is the prep races, themselves. For years, the Spiral Stakes at Turfway (also known as the Jim Beam Stakes, Lane's End, etc.) was run on dirt, but is now run on Polytrack (this worked fine for Animal Kingdom in 2011). The same switch happened at Keeneland. Both the Blue Grass Stakes and the Lexington were historically on dirt, but now both are run on Polytrack.

The Santa Anita Derby is an extreme case. Traditionally it was always a dirt prep, then switched surfaces to synthetic tracks in 2009-2010, and then returned to dirt for 2011 to present.

Since artificial tracks are a relatively new phenomenon on the road to the Triple Crown and to the Kentucky Derby in particular, it is worth taking a closer look at how horses have performed that have made their final pre-Derby preps on artificial tracks.

The results so far are pretty good.  First, Street Sense won the 2007 Kentucky Derby after prepping in the Blue Grass on Polytrack, but he was an odd case because he already not only was already proven on dirt, but he was also already proven on dirt at Churchill Downs, where he had won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile the fall before.

Then in 2011, Animal Kingdom won the Spiral Stakes on Polytrack at Turfway en route to his Kentucky Derby win, and he was a unique case because he had never run on dirt once before stepping foot on the Churchill Downs dirt on the first Saturday in May, 2011.

Pioneerof the Nile also acquitted himself quite well in 2009 when coming off an artificial track for his final pre-Derby prep race in the Santa Anita Derby (then a synthetic Pro-Ride surface).  He went on to finish second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

Most recently, the 2012 Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Dullahan exited a Polytrack effort in his final Derby prep, having just won the Blue Grass Stakes.

My best advice to readers when it comes to artificial surface is to side with horses with good dirt races in their past performances, but not to totally discount horses for the sole reason that their final Kentucky Derby prep race came on an artificial track. This is especially true if the horse has some kind of good prior form on dirt.

Other preps can be important on the road to the Triple Crown, too, but they tend not to be a horse's final Derby prep. These races include the San Felipe, the Fountain of Youth, the Tampa Bay Derby, the Rebel Stakes, and the Louisiana Derby. This year, however, the Louisiana Derby will in fact serve as the final Derby prep for a couple of contenders, Revolutionary and Mylute.

So with everything taken into account and based on the most up-to-date information, what should handicappers look for in terms of prep races heading up to the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May? We have come up with the following four prep race Rules for Kentucky Derby contenders:

1) Every Kentucky Derby winner for 56 years, since Iron Liege in 1957, has finished no worse than fourth in its final Derby prep race, so look only for horses that finished in the superfecta in their final Derby prep.

2) It has become increasingly important for handicappers to look for horses that finished first or second in their final Kentucky Derby prep race, based on the statistics that 19 of the 24 Derby winners (79.2%) finished at least second in their final prep.

3) Look for colts and geldings exiting one of the "big seven" Kentucky Derby prep races, the Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Florida Derby, Illinois Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial, plus the Spiral Stakes. The only two Derby winners in the past 29 years not to exit one of these races were Mine That Bird in 2009 and Charismatic in 1999.

4) A horse doesn't need to have won its final prep race, but you do want to see a horse with a win in one of the season's prep races along the way on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Wins in prep races such as the San Felipe, the Fountain of Youth, the Tampa Bay Derby, the Rebel Stakes, the Louisiana Derby, not to mention many other races, are valuable, too.

The best places to look when gathering your Kentucky Derby information are the prep races in each horse's past performances leading up to the Run For the Roses.  Watch the replays, study the past performances, and most of all, don't downgrade horses for losing their final preps, as long as they turned in a good effort. Remember, the eventual Derby winner is just as likely to have lost its final prep than won it, and the value odds usually can be found on the prep race losers who ran well in defeat.

Best of luck, and enjoy the Kentucky Derby!

21
Aug
22
Aug

Today’s Hot Plays