There are almost as many handicapping angles as competitors-cubed in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands, but one that has remained pretty consistent over the last 30 years has been prep races. While individual races have ebbed and flowed in their ability to produce a Kentucky Derby winner, a group of five races have been dominant in creating winners and runners alike on the first Saturday in May.
Since 1980, of the 521 horses that have started in the Derby, 468 of them (89.83%) made their last start in the Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby or Wood Memorial, all grade 1 races. During that time only Kentucky Derby winners Spend A Buck (1985), War Emblem (2005) and Mine That Bird (2009) (photo) made their last start outside of the Big 5 prep races. Mine That Bird and War Emblem were both long shots at 50-1 and 20-1 coming from the Sunland and Illinois derbies respectively. Spend A Buck was the second choice at 4-1 behind Chiefs Crown at 8-5 in 1985.
Spend a Buck prepared for the Derby at Garden State Park winning the Cherry Hill Mile and Garden State stakes while chasing a $2 million bonus offered to any horse who could win those two races, the Kentucky Derby and the $1 million Jersey Derby Preakness week. He won all four races and his owners collected the bonus.
However apparent, this angle perhaps becomes more important in 2010, a year in which Derby contenders Mission Impazible and Discreetly Mine come out of the Louisiana Derby (gr. 2); Endorsement and Conveyance the Sunland Derby (gr. 3); American Lion the Illinois Derby and Homeboykris an allowance race. Should trainer Todd Pletcher run the filly Devil May Care, she obviously would not have started in any of the Big 5 prep races, coming out of the Bonnie Miss (gr. 3) for fillies at Gulfstream Park.
To add even more to the qualification quirkiness of this year's Derby, two potential starters run Saturday in the grade 3 Derby Trial at Churchill Downs in an effort to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Pleasant Prince, second to Ice Box in the Florida Derby before throwing a clunker in the Blue Grass, must win the Derby Trial in order to make the Derby roster. Aikenite would have the needed graded earnings to get into the Derby with a Derby Trial victory or second, but his connections have said they have no plans to run the colt back in one week. With $120,000 in graded earnings, Bay Shore Stakes (gr. 3) winner Eightyfiveinafifty, needs a win and some help.
Since 1980, six Derby Trial winners have come back to run in the Kentucky Derby with the most recent being Don't Get Mad who finished fourth in 2005. The most successful Derby Trial winner to come back in the Kentucky Derby during that span was Caveat, third in the Run for the Roses after winning the Derby Trial in 1983. The last Derby Trial winner to come back and win the Kentucky Derby was Tim Tam in 1958.
Adding to the irony of the prep race angle, perhaps the most impressive of the non-Big 5 races was the Sunland Derby, which last year produced long shot Mine That Bird. Graded for the first time in 2010, the race was won by WinStar Farms' Endorsement who defeated the previously undefeated Conveyance, also a Derby contender.
In fact, many believe the Sunland Derby may have been the third strongest Kentucky Derby prep race behind only Eskenderya's Wood Memorial and Sidney's Candy in the Santa Anita Derby. The derbies in Florida, Arkansas and the Blue Grass in Kentucky all were won by longshots. Ice Box won the Florida Derby at 20-1, Line of David won in Arkansas at 17-1 and Stately Victor was 40-1 in Lexington.
This year's Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby also have interesting similarities. In both races, the winner looked good with a daylight victory and triple digit Beyer Speed Figures. In both races the second-place finishers, Jackson Bend in the Wood and Setsuko at Santa Anita, are on the outside looking into the Kentucky Derby in terms of graded earnings. And both third-places finishers encountered considerable trouble.
Lookin at Lucky was bounced off the inside rail by jockey Victor Espinoza and Who's Up while making his move around the far turn in California while Awesome Act was stumbling at the start and loosing a shoe in the Wood.
Another interesting phenomena this year is the dominance of trainer Todd Pletcher (photo) and his army of 3-year-olds. Pletcher trainees won the Lexington Stakes, Wood Memorial, Louisiana Derby, Sam F. Davis, Fountain of Youth, and Risen Star Stakes this spring. Nobody has dominated the Spring 3-year-old scene like that at any point in the last 30 years and probably before.
Certainly Eskendereya has done everything right leading up to the Derby and he deserves to be the heavy favorite. In fact, I am the only line maker in the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance Morning Line to have him below 2-1. I have him listed as the 9-5 favorite. But a macro look at the races leading up to the May 1 Kentucky Derby - from California to New York - might tell you something just as wacky may happen at Churchill Downs.