We are smack in the middle of the Kentucky Derby Prep Season, and the excitement is mounting!
Kentucky Derby Prep Races are races where points are awarded to horses in specific races across the country. Only the top points winners gain entry to the Kentucky Derby. A total of forty-five races are contested from September to April and thirty-three of these have already been run, however, most of the major, more heavily weighted races will occur over the course of the next 4 weeks. What’s at stake is nothing less than a chance to be a part of the most exciting two minutes in sports and a possible share of the two-million-dollar prize money.
The points accrual system that determines the Kentucky derby field is officially called ‘The Road To The Kentucky Derby” or more affectionately, The Derby Trail, and it has been in place for the past 7 years. Prior to that, it was total earnings in prize money that was the determining factor. The prep races award points for finishing from first to fourth with the minor races awarding 20-8-4-2 points to the top finishers respectively. The later Championship Series Races, as they are called, award either 50-20-10-5 or 100-40-20-10 to the top finishers. Last year’s top points earner was Magnum Moon, with 150 points. Instilled Regard snuck into the Derby with only 29 points, and the eventual winner, Justify, qualified with 100 points. That means that the winners of the final major races are virtually assured a place on the starting line.
If you are a casual fan of horse racing, or maybe only take an interest when The Kentucky Derby comes around, this is a great time to raise your interest level and become more aware of the process and the horses. At the very least, your friends will drop their Mint Juleps when they hear you talk about the horses’ past performances and spout the names of the jockeys and trainers. If you’re a more engaged fan, or want to be, this is the time to pick your favorite and maybe even win some money of your own.
For me the fun begins by placing some early wagers on these early prep races so that come Derby Day I have some interest and knowledge of the horses that are running. I’m more of a casual fan myself, so I won’t know every horse, but I’ll have placed some bets and picked some favorites long before the morning of the race. This doesn’t have to be a full-time process, and in fact, an hour or two on a Saturday morning will do it. There may be a race near you – and there is nothing like being there live. You can find the list of races and locations here.
If you can’t make it to any of the races, open a betting account at one of the many available online betting sites. Two dollars is all it takes to bet on the race – just to make it interesting – as they say! Online betting rules vary by state, but you can research sites at Legal Sports Report. Other online resources are listed at the end of this article for those interested. I live in NJ so I use 4njbets.com.
Handicapping is the process of researching and picking your horses. Now if you pick your favorite numbers or the name of a horse because it reminds you of your grandmother, it’s technically not handicapping – but it’s fun and it works. To be a true handicapper, you may want to study the history of the horse’s races, otherwise known as Past Performances. This can be found on any number of websites or in the daily racing form that you get at the track. It doesn’t hurt to learn the name of the jockeys and trainers, and as you see or hear their names mentioned repeatedly, you’ll begin to get a feel for who the top jockeys and trainers are.
The official prep season starts in September with the Iroquois at Churchill downs, but I don’t really start my ‘research’ until February when the first of the 50-point races begin. The Risen Star is run in mid-February at The Fairgrounds in New Orleans. That’s followed by The Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida. In this year’s Fountain of Youth Race, I placed a $5 bet on Bourbon War – because I like bourbon. My place bet would win whether my horse won the race or came in second. It didn’t look good for Bourbon War at the beginning of the race, as it faded to 7th place and Hidden Scroll took the lead! Around the far turn Code of Honor challenged the leader, and as it got to the stretch, took the lead and headed for victory. Suddenly, Bourbon War makes a late run from the back of the pack to overtake 6 horses including Hidden Scroll and almost pass Code of Honor, but he ran out of track and came in second. I won $12.50 in an exciting race and had my first favorite Kentucky Derby contender. Had the race been 3/16th of a mile longer, like the Kentucky Derby, Bourbon War would have won.
One week later I find myself at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, NY for the running of the Gotham, a Grade III race with a $300, 000 purse, but more importantly, 50 points to the winner on The Derby Trail. This time I put $5 on Much Better at 6 to 1 odds because I liked that it was trained by Bob Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer and ridden by Mike Smith, otherwise known as Big Money Mike, another Hall of Famer. Coincidentally, not only did they pair up to win the Kentucky Derby last year with the fabulous colt Justify, but all three went on to win The Preakness and the Belmont. Together they won the coveted Triple Crown of Horse Racing – a feat so rare, it has only been done 13 times in the 150-year history of American Horse Racing. Unfortunately winning The Gotham was not to be, as Haikal, at 5 to 1, rallied to win the race. Mind Control came in second, and favorite Instagrand third. Much Better did come in fourth, however, and earned 5 points. This past weekend also saw the running of the Tampa Bay Derby, another 50-point prep race at Tampa Bay Downs. The San Filipe Stakes at Santa Anita was cancelled due to track conditions. This Saturday brings The Rebel at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas and the following week, on March 23rd, is the Louisiana Derby at The Fairgrounds in New Orleans, the first of the 100-point races. Then the season kicks into high gear with 6 more races that award 100 points to the winner, virtually assuring the top horses a place in the Kentucky Derby. They are the UAE Derby in Dubai and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 30. The Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Kentucky and the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita in California on April 6th. Finally, you have the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 13th, the final major prep race of the season. After April 13th, it’s time to rest as the derby is only 3 weeks away.
So far, my Derby favorite is Bourbon War, second place finisher to Code of Honor in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and 7th in ranking by points. More important than the win however, was the way Bourbon War ran down the other horses in the final stretch – a closer – my favorite running style in a horse, and a style that makes for a strong contender in the Derby where a fast early pace can tire out the leaders and the stalkers. The other leaders in the qualifying race, as of today, is War of Will with 60 points, followed by Code of Honor with 54, Haikal with 50, Tacitus also with 50 and Game winner at 30 points. Bourbon War has 21 points. For the full list go to kentuckyderby.com/horses. For tickets and experiences contact VIP Hospitality or search our Event Calendar and Business Directory.
Horse Racing Information:
Information on ‘The Road To The Kentucky Derby:’
Handicapping Statistics and information: