Kentucky Derby: Final prep races cut it close

Kentucky Derby: Final prep races cut it close


In 1948, Citation won the Derby Trial on April 27, the Kentucky Derby on May 1, the Preakness on May 15, and – since running in all three legs of the Triple Crown wasn’t quite enough work – the Jersey Derby on May 29 before the Belmont Stakes. He won all five of those races, part of a 19-for-20 campaign that year.

The times, they have a-changed. Not since 1999, when Charismatic won the Derby 14 days after winning the Lexington Stakes, has a Derby winner had his final prep two weeks or less from the first Saturday in May. The record of such horses in the Derby in the years since Charismatic is ugly: 16 starts, just one horse finishing in the money, that being Proud Citizen, who was second in 2002 after also winning the Lexington two weeks out.

That, then, is the uphill burden facing any horse who tries to get into the May 4 Derby via a final prep in either the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on Saturday, or the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs on April 27, the final two races for which points can be earned under the system put in place this year by Churchill Downs.

The points in the Lexington and Derby Trial begin with a mere 20 for first, one-fifth of what was available in recent weeks, including the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass last Saturday. But, owing to injury (Flashback, Hear the Ghost, Ive Struck a Nerve, Shanghai Bobby, and Violence), or poor performance (Uncaptured), several horses who would have had enough points to run in the Derby will miss the race, and the cutoff to make the race has fallen to around 20 points.

Eleven were entered on Wednesday in the Grade 3, $200,000 Lexington, including Cerro and Sunbean, who are still under consideration for the Derby, though earlier this week Barry Irwin, the chief executive officer of the Team Valor International syndicate that owns Cerro, said, “It is more likely, however, that we would consider the Preakness because of the better timing.”

The last two Lexington winners who competed in the Derby – Advice in 2009 and Derby Kitten in 2011 – both finished 13th.

Also Saturday is the Grade 3, $750,000 Illinois Derby, in which 14 were entered Wednesday. But that race offers no Derby points, as it was carved out of the prep schedule by Churchill Downs, which owns Arlington Park in Chicago and competes for racing dates there with Hawthorne, home of the Illinois Derby. Still, a horse could conceivably run in the Illinois Derby and then the Kentucky Derby if the points barrier drops further or if points don’t matter, which would happen if no more than the maximum 20 horses are entered in the Derby.

The Derby Trial last produced a Derby starter in 2005, when Don’t Get Mad won the Derby Trial, then returned a week later to finish fourth in the Derby. This year’s Grade 3, $200,000 Derby Trial is scheduled to include Titletown Five, who worked a half-mile in 47 seconds on Wednesday at Churchill Downs. He is co-owned by, and named for the number worn by, former Green Bay Packer great Paul Hornung, who lives in Louisville.

If Titletown Five wins the Derby Trial, “By the time the horse walks out of the winner’s circle, I don’t think I’ll have to make a decision, because I think the decision will be made for me,” his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Lukas is uniquely qualified to address what it takes to win the Derby on what is considered short rest in modern times, since he trained both Charismatic and Proud Citizen. Of the last nine Lexington winners to compete in the Derby, they are the only two who finished better than sixth.

“The most important ingredient is the product in front of you,” Lukas said. “Charismatic was a big, heavy horse, and what turned him around was tough love. We gave him more things to do, trained him harder, and he responded to that. Coming back in two weeks was tailor-made for him. He fit the mold.

“It’s harder now. Back when Calumet,” Lukas said, referring to Citation’s owner, “would win all those Derbies, they had the best horses, horses would run often on short rest, and the fields were nine or 10. Now you’ve got big fields in the preps, and they run 20 head in the Derby. It’s a whole different ballgame.”

In other Derby developments:

** Goldencents, the Santa Anita Derby winner, worked a half-mile in 48.40 seconds on Wednesday at Santa Anita. He is scheduled to have one more work there next week before flying to Kentucky, a similar schedule used by trainer Doug O’Neill last year when preparing I’ll Have Another for his Derby victory.

** Govenor Charlie, the Sunland Derby winner, was sent to Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic in Lexington, Ky., after arriving in Kentucky from California because, according to trainer Bob Baffert, “We had a hind foot issue a couple days ago, so I want to make sure we didn’t miss anything.”

Early Wednesday evening, Baffert reported, "So far, so good," on the results of the precautionary tests, and said Govenor Charlie was scheduled to return to Churchill Downs on Thursday afternoon to begin final preparations for the Derby.

Baffert said War Academy underwent a similar examination, at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, after being pulled up Saturday in the Arkansas Derby. Baffert said War Academy checked out well and was now at Churchill Downs.

** Frac Daddy, the Arkansas Derby runner-up, arrived at Churchill Downs on Wednesday.

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