Derby Fever and Derby Preps

Kentucky Derby fever engulfs the Sport of Kings each year around February or March, and with it comes the Kentucky Derby prep races. I imagine if you have a two-year-old or three- year old that looks to be Derby quality, the fever can set in earlier.

Even with the Breeders’ Cup, Dubai World Cup, Pegasus World Cup and many other great races and programs, the Run for the Roses remains the anchor of our game and as they say, “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” It is one of the few times in today’s landscape horse racing crosses over and becomes mainstream.

Picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby is challenging, exciting, and financially rewarding for us bettors. Most of us start watching the contenders early. Many contender lists are compiled early, with none more popular than Steve Haskin’s Derby Dozen. What I always found to be a flaw in these early lists was how people, both writers and handicappers included, look at the Derby preps.

Not surprisingly, most of the lists have the same horses, albeit in different order, but the same horses who are usually the recent winners of the prep and relatively new point system races. I think that is a mistake. While the new point system has changed things a tad, in that as a trainer you almost have to tip your hand at least once to make sure you have the necessary points to make the gate, you’ll also have to have your horse peak again the first Saturday in May. The Derby is the goal, and the trainers that win it usually know how to point for a race and have their horse peak on that particular day. That does not always equate with winning big in the preps and I tend to look for horses a bit under the radar that are likely to emerge. I will get into that in a moment, but first let’s look at how I fared in some recent Kentucky Derbies.

2017- Always Dreaming – didn’t have him.

2016- Nyquist – liked him, respected him, but didn’t really have him good.

2015- American Pharoah – had him but so did everybody else.

2014- California Chrome – didn’t have him, but everyone else did.

2013- Orb – loved him and had him good. (Shug is a master at getting a horse to peak when he wants, his Florida Derby was a progressive race, not a peak one)

2012- I’ll Have Another – loved him and had him good. (Another that was coming to a peak)

2011- Animal Kingdom – really loved him, great day at the windows. (Showed his athleticism at Turfway park and his work coming in along with his sire said dirt would be no problem)

2010- Super Saver – not for me.

2009- Mine That Bird – not for me.

2008- Big Brown – had him.

2007- Street Sense – loved him and had him. (His Blue Grass might be the best Derby prep I ever saw)

2006- Barbaro – loved and had him. (Was standing by the rail on the apron at the old Gulfstream when he and Sharp Humor passed me, my first thought was Derby winner and maybe more)

That puts me at 7 of the last 12 with two very nice prices in Animal Kingdom and I’ll Have Another. A big part of both those selections along with Street Sense was watching replays and analyzing the preps. Everyone can see the obvious, and everybody knows who won the preps, what I like to do is see who looks like they are progressing and coming to a peak.

Before getting into exactly what I look for let’s talk about American Pharoah as he was an obvious winner, and on top of many people’s lists, but there is something about his Derby win that rarely gets talked about except by the most astute students of the game. American Pharoah was so good he won the Kentucky Derby a short horse. Yes, you read that correctly. If anyone can train up to a race Bob Baffert can, but you can’t ever get out of a workout what you do from a race. The Kentucky Derby is a grueling race at a distance longer than almost all the horses have ever run before. American Pharoah prepped for the Kentucky Derby at Oaklawn Park and was so superior to everyone he faced he ran about 100 yards combined in all his preps. That is all he had to run. He just toyed with the competition and could not have gotten much out of those races. Sure, Bob’s training helped come May, but did you before or after the Kentucky Derby, ever see Victor Espinoza use the stick on American Pharoah like he did that day. That wasn’t coincidence, and if American Pharoah wasn’t immensely talented he would not have overcome the lack of seasoning.

Another one I’d like to mention is Street Sense and his Blue Grass. If you really want to see what a perfect Kentucky Derby prep looks like watch that race. You can see Calvin Borel measuring his horse against the rest of the field and saving his horse for when it counted. All you have to do is watch Calvin closely in the last furlong, and you will know both he and Carl Nafzger had a different race in mind.

We saw a few Derby preps this weekend in the Holy Bull, the Withers, and the R.B. Lewis. Personally, I don’t think the horse that will emerge as the best three-year-old was in any of those races. Maybe he was in a maiden race and didn’t win it.

The horse that caught most people’s eye and picked up a bandwagon and a spot on most people’s early Derby lists was Audible in the Holy Bull. He didn’t wind up on my Derby Radar.

Audible ran very good in the Holy Bull and drew away from a nice-looking field in his two-turn debut. While he drew a lot of raves, and not to take anything away from him, I looked at it differently. I saw a Todd Pletcher horse run big at Gulfstream. We should all be used to that and that is not intended to take anything away from Todd. I saw a fast horse win in a short stretch race with the finish line at the sixteenth pole. I saw a horse with recent races beat horses coming in off layoffs. None of that jumps out and screams Kentucky Derby to me.

Again, I look for horses who are improving. Horses who look like they will want more distance. I look for athleticism and the ability to take dirt in your face, go wide or face some other adversity and still show guts. I look for heart. I don’t look for easy winners per se, not that they can’t or don’t win, but when trying to find those Animal Kingdom’s and I’ll Have Another’s you have to look outside the box and the obvious. You also do not need a lot of them for it to pay off. I like to focus on trainers who point for races and get their horses to peak for those races.

The horse who caught my eye this weekend was Once on Whiskey. This may not have been an official Derby prep, as it was only a maiden race, but this horse showed me what I like to see in a Derby contender. He obviously needed his first start, which came against a fast sprinting type named Curly’s Rocket, who also happens to be trained by Bob Baffert. Curly’s Rocket lost by a nose to the well-regarded Nero, also trained by Bob in his last start. Once on Whiskey was making his debut. So, while Curly’s Rocket ran away and hid, Once on Whiskey went wide, finished strong and full of run looking like he was crying for two-turns and more distance. He galloped out well and looked like he got a lot out of the race.

Timing wise it might be tough for Once on Whiskey to make the Derby, as he would have to likely break his maiden next out, win a prep and then be doing good enough for Bob to send him to Louisville. That may be just a bit too much to ask for, but if anyone can do it Bob Baffert can. If Once on Whiskey is in the gate for the Kentucky Derby, Apollo should be watching with concern. If not, he might be making a lot of noise down the road.

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Jon Stettin

Since childhood, Jon has always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. His years of experience have earned him a well respected spot in the industry as a handicapper. He now is a frequent contributor to AmWager as well as writing for his own site.

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