Which Derby Prep Races Are the Most Successful?

Which Derby Prep Races Are the Most Successful?

© Benoit Photo

Although there are many major prep races on the road to the Kentucky Derby, there’s no question that some have had more success than others in producing Derby winners, particularly in recent years. Races like the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Wood Memorial (gr. I), and Louisiana Derby (gr. II) always draw a great deal of attention in the weeks before the Run for the Roses, but if you’re trying to uncover the winner of the Derby, it can be helpful to use historical trends to determine which prep races to focus on in your handicapping.

To that end, I have compiled a chart of the last ten Kentucky Derby winners, along with their finishing positions in their respective final prep races:

2015: American Pharoah–1st Arkansas Derby (gr. I)
2014: California Chrome–1st Santa Anita Derby (gr. I)
2013: Orb–1st Florida Derby (gr. I)
2012: I’ll Have Another–1st Santa Anita Derby (gr. I)
2011: Animal Kingdom–1st Spiral Stakes (gr. III)
2010: Super Saver–2nd Arkansas Derby (gr. I)
2009: Mine That Bird–4th Sunland Derby
2008: Big Brown–1st Florida Derby (gr. I)
2007: Street Sense–2nd Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I)
2006: Barbaro–1st Florida Derby (gr. I)
2005: Giacomo–4th Santa Anita Derby (gr. I)
2004: Smarty Jones–1st Arkansas Derby (gr. I)

As we can see, the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, and Arkansas Derby have had remarkable success during the last twelve years, producing three Kentucky Derby winners apiece and nine of the twelve winners overall. During that same time frame, such respected preps as the Wood Memorial and Louisiana Derby have not produced any Derby winners.

But keep in mind that this data applies only to horses that won the Kentucky Derby–all bets are off when it comes to the exotics! For example, take a look at this second chart, which shows the last ten Kentucky Derby runner-ups, along with their finishing positions in their respective final prep races:

2015: Firing Line–1st Sunland Derby (gr. III)
2014: Commanding Curve–3rd Louisiana Derby (gr. II)
2013: Golden Soul–4th Louisiana Derby (gr. II)
2012: Bodemeister–1st Arkansas Derby (gr. I)
2011: Nehro–2nd Arkansas Derby (gr. I) (also finished 2nd in Louisiana Derby)
2010: Ice Box–1st Florida Derby (gr. I)
2009: Pioneeerof the Nile–1st Santa Anita Derby (gr. I)
2008: Eight Belles–1st Fantasy Stakes (gr. II)
2007: Hard Spun–1st Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II) (now known as the Spiral Stakes)
2006: Bluegrass Cat–4th Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I)
2005: Closing Argument–3rd Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I)
2004: Lion Heart–2nd Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I)

Viewing this data, we still see a good level of success for the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, and Arkansas Derby, but also a dramatic increase in the success of the Louisiana Derby–three of the last five Kentucky Derby runner-ups hit the board in Fair Grounds’ biggest Derby prep.

But again, notably absent from the list of successful prep races is the Wood Memorial. The fact is, during the last 35 years, only two Wood Memorial winners (Pleasant Colony in 1981 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000) have come back to win the Kentucky Derby, and during the last twelve years, no horses that ran in the Wood Memorial has placed higher than fourth in the Kentucky Derby (although Wood Memorial runners have finished fourth in three straight Kentucky Derbies from 2013-2015.)

The conclusion from this data? It’s wise to pay extra attention to horses coming out of the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, and Arkansas Derby, as well as the Louisiana Derby if you’re looking for horses to round out the exotics. However, the Wood Memorial has been a race best avoided during the last decade, so keep that in mind when handicapping this year’s Derby.

Still, as we all know, anything can (and does!) happen in horse racing, and current trends could be rendered obsolete in the blink of an eye. Above all, stick with the horses you like best, and if they comply with the historical data, all the better! And if they don’t… you can keep the data in mind for next year. :) Best of luck in handicapping the Derby!

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Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin's quest to become North America's richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the Bloodhorse.com blog Unlocking Winners.

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