Road to the Kentucky Derby: How important is the final prep?

March 9, 2023

Making his 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth last Saturday, Forte will need a race or two before his Kentucky Derby start (Coglianese)

By Ashley Tamulonis

Once the $400,000, Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby is in the books this Saturday, March 11, the Road to the Kentucky Derby will officially enter its final stages. Most races from that point onward will be worth a total of 200 points, awarded on a 100-40-30-20-10 scale to the top five finishers of each race. The exceptions to this are the Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes at Kempton Park in England (20-8-6-4-2), the Fukuryu at Nakayama in Japan (40-16-12-8-2), the Sunland Derby at Sunland Park (50-20-15-10-5), the Cardinal Condition Stakes at Chelmsford City in England (30-12-9-6-3), and the Lexington at Keeneland (20-8-6-4-2). 

At this point in the season, most Kentucky Derby contenders will have one final tune-up for the Big Dance at Churchill Downs. There is time for two final preps, especially for those still trying to qualify to run, however, this would be the exception and not the norm. With 13 official prep races remaining, 14 if you include this weekend’s Tampa Bay Derby, which are the key races to consider, and just how important is winning that final tune-up?

The below chart goes back to 2000, and for the sake of covering all my bases, I included both the disqualified winner and the promoted winner for 2019 and 2021, giving a total of 25 winners. Of those 25, fifteen won their final prep race. Another five winners were 2nd in their previous race. Only Mandaloun was outside the superfecta prior to running at Churchill Downs, and he was declared the winner after Medina Spirit was disqualified due to a race-day medication infraction.

*Winner via disqualification
+Triple Crown winner

Since 2000, the Florida Derby has been the most successful final prep race, producing 6 winners. Interestingly, it did not produce either Triple Crown winner. Instead, the Santa Anita Derby, with 5 winners, and the Arkansas Derby, with 4 winners, were the final stops for Triple Crown winners Justify and American Pharoah.

We often speak about how the perceived best colt, or favorite, doesn’t always win the Kentucky Derby. With the big 20-horse field, how well you draw, how well you break, and the trip you get can make or break your chances. Take last year’s winner Rich Strike, for example. The son of Keen Ice had just a maiden claiming victory to his name when he entered the Churchill Downs starting gate, but he caught a suicidal opening half-mile and closed from the back of the field to catch favored Epicenter, who had been close to the early pace, at the wire.

Brackets indicate post-time favorite
*Winner via disqualification
+Triple Crown winner

From 2000 to 2012, only four post-time favorites won the Kentucky Derby. This was under the old, graded stakes earnings system, which began in 1986, where the top 20 horses by graded stakes earnings made the field. For those fans that only tune in for the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, this method was vague and difficult to understand. It also gave equal weight to juvenile and sprint races, and even turf races, meaning that some colts that participated in the Kentucky Derby had peaked as a 2-year-old, were pure sprinters, had upset one high-dollar race, or had never run on dirt prior to the first Saturday in May.

In 2012, Churchill Downs opted to toss the graded stakes earnings criteria in favor of a new points system. Under the official moniker “Road to the Kentucky Derby,” sprint races were excluded, and emphasis was placed on later races, or those that traditionally serve as the final prep for the Kentucky Derby. The result has been a complete change in pace scenarios and fields in which the post-time favorite typically wins. From 2013 to 2018, the favorite won every year, and that streak included the two modern-day Triple Crown winners. 

The post-time favorites have been on a cold streak since 2018, however, with four of the six “winners” triumphing at double-digit odds. There have also been extenuating circumstances as two of the last four Kentucky Derbies have been marred by controversy. In 2019, favored Improbable crossed the wire in 5th but was promoted to 4th after second choice Maximum Security was disqualified to 17th for interference in the stretch. 65-1 longshot Country House, who ran 2nd, was declared the winner. Two years later, Essential Quality was caught wide and finished just a length back in 4th as the 3-1 favorite. Nearly a year later, Medina Spirit was posthumously disqualified following drawn-out litigation, resulting in Essential Quality being elevated to 3rd. 27-1 Mandaloun was then given the victory after initially running 2nd

We’re 3-4 weeks away from the three big races to keep an eye on: the $1,000,000, Grade 1 Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream Park, the $1,250,000, Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 1 at Oaklawn Park, and the $750,000, Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 8 at Santa Anita Park. San Felipe winner Practical Move will remain in California to headline the Santa Anita Derby under the tutelage of Tim Yakteen. The son of Practical Joke is currently second on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard and vaulted to number three on NTRA’s Top 3-Year-Old Poll after his emphatic victory this past weekend. 

Likewise, champion Forte, winner of Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth, will make his final prep at the South Florida track in the Florida Derby for trainer Todd Pletcher. The son of Violence sits atop both the Kentucky Derby leaderboard and the NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll after solidifying his championship status with an explosive stretch run last Saturday.

Arabian Knight weathering the slop to win the Southwest at Oaklawn (Coady Photography)

Exciting, undefeated Southwest winner Arabian Knight, who is now with Tim Yakteen after being transferred from Bob Baffert’s barn, is possible for either the Santa Anita Derby or the Arkansas Derby. Though the son of Uncle Mo is currently the second-ranked 3-year-old in the country according to the NTRA poll, he does not have any Kentucky Derby points. He ran his last race, the Southwest, in Baffert’s name, making him ineligible to receive the points he otherwise would have earned for his victory in Hot Springs. Whichever Derby he starts in in the upcoming weeks will be his first start for Yakteen, and thus his first opportunity to earn points, making it crucial that he either wins or runs second.

Since the inception of the points system, winning the final prep, particularly if it is the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, or Arkansas Derby, has become key to winning the Big Dance. Should Yakteen decide to run Arabian Knight back in the Arkansas Derby rather than in the Santa Anita Derby, it is highly likely that we will see Practical Move, Forte, and Arabian Knight all win their final tune-ups. Given that they will be running in the most successful Kentucky Derby preps, should all three win, they will be the top colts to keep an eye on come the first Saturday in May. 

Prep Races in the Championship Series

Kentucky Derby Leaderboard as of March 5

Contributing Authors

Ashley Tamulonis

Ashley Tamulonis

Ashley has been an avid horse racing fan since she was introduced to the sport through the Joanna Campbell series "Thoroughbred." As a Georgia native...

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