The road to the Kentucky Derby has no official starting point. Some may say it begins at birth for a Thoroughbred, while others will argue it doesn’t truly begin until late winter/early spring of their 3-year-old seasons when the distances of the prep races are lengthened and the purses increased.
Virtually every major racetrack in the country that holds a winter/spring meeting will have a series of three or even four races restricted to 3-year-olds whose sights are set on making the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Typically, the series will start with a sprint race, sometime after the start of the new year for these developing Thoroughbreds, and will continue with races every four to six weeks that gradually increase in distance. The series’ typically culminate with a race at 1 1/8-miles, which is an eighth of a mile shorter than the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby.
This final round of Kentucky Derby prep races are by far the most important on the road to the Triple Crown and are usually held anywhere from three to six weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby. Below is a look at the three Grade 1 prep races for the Kentucky Derby that are held on a dirt track.
In New York, the final major Kentucky Derby prep race is the Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. While this has historically been one of the most productive Kentucky Derby prep races, recently things haven’t gone so well for the Wood Memorial winner. The three previous winners of the Wood-Toby’s Corner (2011), Eskendereya (2010), and I Want Revenge (2009)–all missed the Kentucky Derby because of injuries suffered between the two races. The 2012 Wood Memorial will be on April 7.
In Florida, the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park caps off the Kentucky Derby prep season. This has undoubtedly been one of the top Kentucky Derby prep races since its inaugural running in 1952 and recent history has been no different. Since 1995, four winners of the Florida Derby went on to win the Kentucky Derby. That group consists of Thunder Gulch (1995), Monarchos (2001), Barbaro (2006) and Big Brown (2008).
In California, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby takes center stage. This race has helped to sort out the contingent of West Coast contenders every year since 1935. Recent winners of the Santa Anita Derby have done little damage in the Triple Crown series, but that could at least partially be because it was run over a synthetic track for several years. Santa Anita has since replaced its main track with traditional dirt and that could lead to better performances from California-based horses in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs .
In Arkansas, the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park has become one of the nation’s premiere Kentucky Derby prep races. A major catalyst for that was the success of Smarty Jones in 2004. The extremely popular Smarty Jones swept the Oaklawn prep series that year, culminating in the Arkansas Derby, then went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before a heartbreaking defeat in the Belmont Stakes. Since then, stables from all across the country have been shipping in to Oaklawn for their Kentucky Derby prep races.