During Kentucky Derby Prep Season, Less is Often More

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

April 16th, 2019

While it used to be common for horses to employ busy prep schedules in advance of the Kentucky Derby, in recent years, Derby winners have been taking a “less is more” approach to their winter/spring racing action.

Gone are the days when a Derby winner might run seven times as a 3-year-old prior to the first Saturday in May, as the great Citation did in 1948. Likewise gone are the days when running in only two prep races before the Derby was a sign of an under-prepared horse.

In this era running in just two prep races could be considered a positive. Heavily raced horses just aren’t succeeding in the Kentucky Derby these days—you have to go back to Smarty Jones in 2004 to find the last Derby winner who made as many as four pre-Derby starts as a 3-year-old.

Eight of the last 12 Kentucky Derby winners—Street Sense (2007), Big Brown (2008), Mine That Bird (2009), Super Saver (2010), Animal Kingdom (2011), I’ll Have Another (2012), American Pharoah (2015) and Nyquist (2016)—were entering the Derby off of just two prep races.

That’s a powerful stat, especially when you consider the four horses who won the Derby off three prep runs during that same time frame—Orb (2013), California Chrome (2014), Always Dreaming (2017) and Justify (2018)—all ran in at least one non-graded stakes races to kick off the season, meaning they found an easier spot to get started rather than utilize deep and competitive Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying races for all three of their prep runs.

Going over the top 25 candidates for the 2019 Kentucky Derby, it’s easy to sort them into a few different categories. Game Winner, Improbable, Roadster, Signalman, Spinoff, Tacitus, Tax and Vekoma are the eight runners with just two prep runs under their belts, so all else being equal, they could be considered the elite Derby contenders from a preparation perspective. The “third off the layoff” angle has long been respected in racing for good reason. It’s often when a horse is ready to fire its best shot.

Nine other runners—Bodexpress, Bourbon War, By My Standards, Code of Honor, Cutting Humor, Haikal, Master Fencer, Maximum Security and Win Win Win—have run three times so far this year, but have contested no more than two graded stakes races, thus matching the second-most dominant Derby preparation profile of the last dozen years.

Two Derby contenders—Plus Que Parfait and War of Will—will seek to emulate the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro by using three graded stakes races to prep for the Derby. And one final group comprised of Anothertwistafate, Country House, Gray Magician, Long Range Toddy, Omaha Beach and Sueno will attempt to shatter the “Smarty Jones Curse” and win the Kentucky Derby off of four 3-year-old prep runs.

Granted, as long as any given horse is coming up to the Kentucky Derby in peak form, it really doesn’t matter whether they used two, three or four prep races to reach that point. But when the Kentucky Derby, it’s useful to have the trends on your side, and the last dozen years suggest any horse making its third start off a layoff in the Kentucky Derby warrants extra respect.