March (and April) Derby Madness

March 20, 2023

2022 Louisiana Derby champ Epicenter. (Lou Hodges, Jr./Hodges Photography)

College Basketball isn’t the only exciting sport on TV right now. Thoroughbred horse racing will showcase their own version of the ‘Elite Eight’, with point totals doubling in the next two weeks. 

By Nick Costa

The arrival of March means springtime, with longer days and warmer temperatures. But for many of us, the month also ushers in the NCAA Tournament and the Final Leg of the Championship Series on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

There’s plenty of action on the courts as college basketball narrows down to its ‘Elite Eight’ this weekend and then onward to the ‘Final Four’ before a champion is crowned on April 3rd in Houston.

Also, this weekend and extending into April, the world of Thoroughbred racing will showcase their own version of the ‘Elite Eight’, with point totals doubling as horses look to confirm their spot in the 148th Kentucky Derby where an equine champion will be crowned on May 6th in Louisville. 

The eight races of this final leg offer 100-40-30-20-10 points to the top five finishers. Wins and places are crucial for horses to work their way into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. No matter what a horse has or has not done from the previous fall all the way up through the spring, these major Derby prep races are worth so many points that it would take only a win or a second-place finish to secure a spot in the Derby starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Also, finishing third, fourth or fifth in one of these major races could also propel a horse into the Derby depending on how many previous points a horse accumulated in prior preps.

Over the past decade, the elite eight preps listed below, (with this year’s calendar date), indicate horses that used each prep race as a final stop and how they fared in Louisville. In the ‘Unplaced in Derby’ category, those horses either finished first, second or third in their final listed prep race, but finished out of the top three in the Kentucky Derby.

Horses listed in bold type are Triple Crown winners.

UAE DERBY – March 25
Kentucky Derby Winners: (0)
Kentucky Derby Tri Finishers: (0)
Unplaced in Derby (9): Crown Pride, Summer is Tomorrow, Plus Que Parfait, Gray Magician, Mendelssohn, Thunder Snow, Lani, Mubtaahij, Lines of Battle.

LOUISIANA DERBY – March 25
Kentucky Derby Winners (1): *Mandaloun. 
*In February of 2022, Medina Spirit, who crossed the finish line first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby, was disqualified following a positive drug test, thereby, runner-up, Mandaloun, was named the winner.
Kentucky Derby Tri Finishers (6): Epicenter, Hot Rod Charlie, Gun Runner, Commanding Curve, Golden Soul, Revolutionary.
Unplaced in Derby (15): Zozos, Pioneer of Medina, Midnight Bourbon, O Besos, By My Standards, Spinoff, Lone Sailor, Noble Indy, Girvin, Patch, Tom’s Ready, War Story, Intense Holiday, Vicar’s in Trouble, Mylute.

Rich Strike famously winning the 148th Kentucky Derby. (Coady Photography)

JEFF RUBY STEAKS – March 25
Kentucky Derby Winners (1): Rich Strike
Kentucky Derby Tri Finishers: (0)
Unplaced in Derby (7): Tiz the Bomb, Like the King, Sainthood, Fast and Accurate, Oscar Nominated, We Miss Artie, Giant Finish

FLORIDA DERBY – April 1
Kentucky Derby Winners (3): Always Dreaming, Nyquist, Orb
Kentucky Derby Tri Finishers (2): Code of Honor, Audible
Unplaced in Derby (17): White Abarrio, Charge It, Simplification, Greatest Honour, Known Agenda, Soup and Sandwich, *Maximum Security, Bodexpress, Hofburg, Gunnavera, State of Honor, Majesto, Upstart, Materiality, General a Rod, Wildcat Red, Itsmyluckyday
*Disqualified from 1st to 17th in 2019 Kentucky Derby

ARKANSAS DERBY – April 1
Kentucky Derby Winners (2): *Country House, American Pharoah.
*Finished second in the 2019 Kentucky Derby and placed first via disqualification.
Kentucky Derby Tri Finishers (2): Lookin at Lee, Danza.
Unplaced in Derby (15): Cyberknife, Barber Road, Super Stock, Improbable, Magnum Moon, Solomini, Classic Empire, Suddenbreakingnews, Creator, Whitmore, Mr. Z, Far Right, Ride on Curlin, Overanalyze, Frac Daddy.

Ridden by Florent Geroux, who got dumped in the post parade, Cyberknife won the 2022 Arkansas Derby for trainer Brad Cox. (Coady Photography) 

BLUE GRASS – April 8
Kentucky Derby Winners (0) 
Kentucky Derby Tri Finishers (4): Zandon, Essential Quality, Mr. Big News, Good Magic.
Unplaced in Derby (19): Smile Happy, Highly Motivated, Win Win Win, Vekoma, Flameaway, Free Drop Billy, Practical Joke, McCraken, Irap, Brody’s Cause, My Man Sam, Carpe Diem, Danzig Moon, Ocho Ocho Ocho, Dance with Fate, Medal Count, Charming Kitten, Palace Malice, Java’s War.

WOOD MEMORIAL – April 8
Kentucky Derby Winners: (0) 
Kentucky Derby Tri Finishers (1): *Tacitus. Finished fourth in 2019 Kentucky Derby and placed third following the disqualification of the winner.
Unplaced in Derby (16): Mo Donegal, Bourbonic, Dynamic One, Tax, Vino Rosso, Enticed, Irish War Cry, Outwork, Trojan Nation, Frosted, Tencendur, Wicked Strong, Samraat, Normandy Invasion, Verrazano, Vyjack

SANTA ANITA DERBY – April 8
Kentucky Derby Winners (3): Authentic, Justify, California Chrome.
Kentucky Derby Tri Finishers (3): Battle of Midway, Exaggerator, Dortmund.
Unplaced in Derby (12): Taiba, Messier, Happy Jack, Rock Your World, Game Winner, Roadster, Bolt d’Oro, Gormley, Mor Spirit, Bolo, Candy Boy, Goldencents.

Note: In the pandemic year of 2020, Authentic finished second in the Santa Anita Derby, but his final prep was in the Haskell Stakes in July at Monmouth Park before winning the Kentucky Derby which was moved to September.

Over the past decade, not all eight preps have been productive when it comes to success on Derby Day.

The U.A.E. Derby is certainly one the big races lacking in the productivity category. In my opinion, the race isn’t a relevant Derby prep, as no horse has made any impact in the Kentucky Derby without at least one U.S. prep race as a 3-year-old. 

The Wood Memorial has produced only one horse to get a placing in the Derby and that came in 2019 via a disqualification.

Animal Kingdom and John Velazquez were victorious by 2-1/4 lengths in a gritty Kentucky Derby run. (Churchill Downs Photo)

As for the Jeff Ruby, which is now in its third year as a 100-point event, the race is not contested on conventional dirt, but rather over a synthetic surface at Turfway Park, but it did produce last year’s shocking Kentucky Derby winner in Rich Strike. Back in 2011 when the Jeff Ruby was known as the Spiral Stakes, there was no point qualifying system, but rather horses earned a berth into America’s biggest race based on graded stakes earnings. The winner that year, Animal Kingdom, went on to capture the ‘Run for the Roses’. The Jeff Ruby has undergone several name changes through the years since the race was inaugurated in 1972, and it also has seen changes in its point values. When the point system was instituted in 2013, the race distributed 50-20-10-5 to the top four finishers. In 2018, the points were reduced to 20-8-4-2. Upping the points for the Jeff Ruby indicates Churchill Downs, who owns Turfway Park, wants to restore the race to a prominent stepping-stone before the Derby that it once enjoyed. That would certainly be a logical and practical reason.

Whether or not the Jeff Ruby as a lucrative 100-point event produces future Kentucky Derby winners, or at least horses who can finish second or third, remains to be seen. 

Horses that finished first, second or third in the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial have combined to finish out of the money 35 times on the first Saturday in May. However, on a positive note, horses exiting the Blue Grass have helped fill out the Derby trifecta the last three consecutive years.

Although, the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial have not produced a single horse over the past ten years that has gone on to Derby glory, both races are well represented in terms of past winners in Derby history. The Blue Grass has had 23 horses exit the race and go on to win the Kentucky Derby, while the Wood Memorial can boast of 13 former runners to eventually wear the Derby roses, including Secretariat who finished third in the 1973 Wood. 

Three of the major races have consistently yielded positive results as a final Kentucky Derby prep. Since the implementation of the points system, the Santa Anita Derby and Florida Derby are tied with three Kentucky Derby winners each and have combined to boast 11 horses with a top three placing in the Kentucky Derby. The Louisiana Derby alone has seen seven graduates grab a top three spot in Louisville.

So, when making your Kentucky Derby picks this year, carefully consider where a horse made its final prep. It might give a good hint as to how it will fare on the first Saturday in May.

An amazing article. Well done @jonathanstettin #ruffian twitter.com/jonathanstetti…

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