The field enters the first turn in last year’s Kentucky Derby (Coady Photography)
By Ashley Tamulonis
This weekend is jampacked full of graded stakes action from coast to coast, including four domestic Road to the Kentucky Derby preps. On the docket are Aqueduct’s $300,000, Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at one mile, Gulfstream Park’s $400,000, Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at 1 1/16-mile, Santa Anita’s $400,000, Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16-mile, and Turfway Park’s $150,000 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at 1 1/16-mile on its all-weather track.
Though each race is an official points race that carries qualifying points to the top five finishers, not all graded stakes are cut from the same cloth. You can see that as easily as looking at the points offered for each race. The Gotham, Fountain of Youth, and San Felipe all offer points on a 50-20-15-10-5 scale while the John Battaglia Memorial offers just 40 total points (20-8-6-4-2). Aside from the points value assigned to them, each race’s recent success in producing legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders speaks for itself.
The John Battaglia Memorial is a complete toss. In the last ten years, only one winner has gone on to even start in the Kentucky Derby. That honor goes to last year’s John Battaglia victor Tiz the Bomb, who finished ninth in the Run for the Roses. Astonishingly, this same race did produce the eventual Kentucky Derby winner. Fourth-place John Battaglia finisher Rich Strike stormed to a historic upset on the first Saturday in May off five straight losses. The only other time the John Battaglia produced a Kentucky Derby starter in the last ten years was in 2013 when runner-up Giant Finish ran 10th at Churchill Downs.Aqueduct’s Gotham Stakes has not fared much better. In the last decade, four Gotham winners participated in the Run for the Roses, with Samraat’s 5th-place finish in 2014 being the best of the bunch. In 2021, Highly Motivated ran 3rd in the Gotham en route to a 10th place finish in the Kentucky Derby. In 2020, Necker Island settled for 5th in the Gotham before finishing 9th in the Kentucky Derby. The 2018 Gotham produced two other Derby starters along with Enticed, Free Drop Billy (16th) and Firenze Fire (11th). In 2015 Tencendur was off the board in both races, in 2014 Uncle Sigh was 2nd in the Gotham and 14th in the Derby, and in 2013 Overanalyze was off the board in both races.
Aqueduct’s Gotham Stakes has not fared much better. In the last decade, four Gotham winners participated in the Run for the Roses, with Samraat’s 5th-place finish in 2014 being the best of the bunch. In 2021, Highly Motivated ran 3rd in the Gotham en route to a 10th place finish in the Kentucky Derby. In 2020, Necker Island settled for 5th in the Gotham before finishing 9th in the Kentucky Derby. The 2018 Gotham produced two other Derby starters along with Enticed, Free Drop Billy (16th) and Firenze Fire (11th). In 2015 Tencendur was off the board in both races, in 2014 Uncle Sigh was 2nd in the Gotham and 14th in the Derby, and in 2013 Overanalyze was off the board in both races.
Only one colt has completed the Fountain of Youth/Kentucky Derby double in the last ten years, and that was Orb in 2013. Since then, the best Kentucky Derby finish by a Fountain of Youth winner was Code of Honor’s 2nd place finish after the disqualification of Maximum Security in 2019. Vekoma, who was 3rd in the Fountain of Youth behind Code of Honor in 2019, then ran 13th at Churchill Downs. In 2018, Good Magic turned a 3rd place finish at Gulfstream into a runner-up finish behind eventual Triple Crown winner Justify in the Kentucky Derby. Practical Joke was 2nd and Irish War Cry was 7th in the 2017 Fountain of Youth before running 5th and 10th respectively under the Twin Spires. In 2015, Upstart was disqualified to 2nd in the Fountain of Youth before finishing 18th and last in the Kentucky Derby, and 3rd-place finisher Frammento and 4th-place finisher Frosted were 11th and 4th, respectively, on the first Saturday in May. In 2014, General a Rod (2nd, 11th), Medal Count (5th, 8th), and We Miss Artie (8th, 10th) competed in both races.
In terms of the winner keeping their form through the Kentucky Derby, the San Felipe is tops. Both California Chrome in 2014 and Authentic in 2020 notched victories in both races. In 2015, Dortmund finished 3rd behind eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby after sweeping the major Californian preps. In 2021, Medina Spirit finished 2nd in the San Felipe and won the Kentucky Derby but was subsequently disqualified months later due to a medication infraction. In 2020, Honor A. P. and Storm the Court finished 2nd and 3rd respectively in the San Felipe before running 4th and 6th in the Kentucky Derby. In 2018, Bolt d’Oro won the San Felipe via the disqualification of McKinzie for interference in the stretch and then ran 12th at Churchill Downs. In 2017 Gormley finished 4th in the San Felipe and 9th in the Kentucky Derby. Mor Spirit and Exaggerator finished 2nd and 3rd respectively in the 2016 San Felipe en route to 10th and 2nd place finishes under the Twin Spires. 2015 San Felipe 3rd-place and 8th-place finishers Bolo and Ocho Ocho Ocho ended up 12th and 14th respectively on the first Saturday in May. Goldencents finished off the board in both races in 2013.
In the last decade, the San Felipe and Fountain of Youth have turned out numerous Kentucky Derby prospects while runners from the Gotham and John Battaglia Memorial rarely make an impact at Churchill Downs, if they even produce Derby runners. The slight nod goes to the San Felipe in regard to which of these four races is the most significant Kentucky Derby prep.
Two winners have completed the San Felipe/Kentucky Derby double, while another winner hit the board in the Derby. Two other San Felipe runners hit the board in the Run for the Roses, though Medina Spirit was disqualified. One additional San Felipe starter rounded out the superfecta in the Derby. Conversely, the Fountain of Youth has just one colt that completed the Fountain of Youth/Kentucky Derby double, while one winner hit the board and another two winners filled out the superfecta at Churchill Downs. One additional Fountain of Youth runner hit the board and another finished 4th at Churchill Downs. That gives both the San Felipe and the Fountain of Youth six total top-four finishes in the Kentucky Derby, though the San Felipe drops to five overall with the disqualification of Medina Spirit.
An additional key takeaway is that these four races all fall in the mid-season range on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. These are races that, while it would be nice to win them, are not necessarily the target. Trainers don’t want their charges peaking too early and falling flat in the Kentucky Derby, so a win or a loss here does not make or break a season. Trainers are typically more concerned with winning their final prep, and this quartet of races is not typically the final tune-up for the big dance in May.