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Prepping for the Kentucky Derby

Date: 03/02/2006
Article courtesy of Marc C at www.TheStickHorseRacing.Com

Here we are again. It is almost time for the first jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby. The Triple Crown consists of the Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. A Triple Crown winner is rare, with only 11 horses in history ever winning the treasured prize. However, a Kentucky Derby victory is a special honor of its own.

Not only is the Kentucky Derby the goal of all racing enthusiast dreams, but it marks a true day of Americana. This race embodies America, and until the race is actually run, dreams and imaginations run wild.

Giacomo winning the 2005 Kentucky Derby

There will be many prep races with big name owners and trainers alike, but this race can be won by an unknown or unrecognized horse such as Giacomo last year. However, you would be very foolish not to recognize the big names in the sport and examine their entries very carefully.

Bob Baffert feels that by getting his horses razor sharp before the race is the way to go as part of his program for success. Who can argue with him? Baffert has won three Derbys with Real Quiet in 1998, Silver Charm in 1997, and War Emblem in 2002. In fact, in 1996, Baffert's Cavonnier almost won, but came in second by a nose!

You also have to look very closely at the major prep races that lead to the Kentucky Derby. These races all have ancillary races that lead up to them. Sometimes, horses with troubled trips or distance questions show their true colors, and can help you get an early read on the Kentucky Derby field.

The major prep races for the Kentucky Derby are listed below. They are not in any order or preference. They simply are the final races run in different geographical regions for the top three-year-olds. Missing from the list is the Louisiana Derby which is on hiatus this year due to the damage to the Fair Grounds by hurricane Katrina.

The Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park
This race is a mainstay for Eastern and Southern horses preparing for the Kentucky Derby. With a $1 million purse, it will have a large field much like the Kentucky Derby. Often conditions over the 1 1/8 mile race will mirror the trouble horses will encounter when they face a large field. Many must adjust to not being able to make the lead, and must learn to race off the pace before making a final charge. Others will try to go out on speed missions and ration their power to have something left at the finish. We watched eventual Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos run a very similar race in his victories in both the Florida and Kentucky Derbys.

The Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita
The Santa Anita Derby showcases the finest three-year-olds from California and the West Coast. This race is comparable to the Florida Derby in purse and distance. The main difference, however, is that Santa Anita does have a favorable track bias for horses with good tactical speed. Often, horses that tire at the larger or deeper surfaces of the East, will excel at Santa Anita.

This is not to say that only speed horses come from California. We have seen many powerful closers come from California as well. When looking at the Santa Anita Derby and its ancillary races, look for horses that are able to tuck in and relax behind other horses. Alysheba and Ferdinand come to mind when thinking of powerful California-based horses. However, do not totally dismiss speed horses such as Winning Colors. These horses often are able to transfer their speed to win the Kentucky Derby.

The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course
Watch this prep race very carefully. We will see many three-year-olds from the finest bloodlines in the sport in this prep race. The reason being that Keeneland is in the heart of Kentucky Bluegrass. This means the top sires and their owners are all within a short drive of this track. Believe us, when you watch the Bluegrass, you are watching the power elite of horse racing's owners and connections vie for dominance. Usually horses come out of this race fatigued and will need the full three-week rest before the Derby.

Bellamy Road was a huge winner in the 2005 Wood Memorial but a disappointing 7th in the Derby.

The Wood Memorial at Aqueduct
Notable Derby Winners who won this race include Bold Forbes and Fusaichi Pegasus. The top horses racing in the cold weather of New York will be showcased, and should be respected when you go to the window.

The Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park
Track announcer Terry Wallace can attest to the importance of this Southern prep race for three-year-olds. We all remember Smarty Jones, who swept all the 3-year-old stakes at Oaklawn enroute to an impressive victory in the 2004 Kentucky Derby. This race can be a breather for top-level horses not wanting to clash with the main competition running in the other Derby preps. You might find trainers with other horses aiming for the Derby putting their lighter raced horses in here. Then again, you might find a monster waiting to blow out this field in the stretch. The winner of the Arkansas Derby must be regarded on the First Saturday in May.

But what about horses already familiar with the Churchill Downs surface' What about a prep race against some of his competitors to see if he or she can run with best?

Remember Arazi, the Breeders' Cup juvenile winner a few years ago? He won as a two-year-old in 1991 when the Breeders' Cup was run at Churchill Downs. You should always be wary of any horse coming into the Derby on a light training schedule. Arazi spent much of his time in Europe, and did not run in any of the major prep races in the United States

Horses preparing for the Kentucky Derby are subject to many demanding preparatory races leading up to the Run for the Roses. When looking over the potential field for the Kentucky Derby, always check if a horse has been rested or pushed through those prep races. A good example of a horse trying to do too much, too soon would be Pulpit.

Heading into the final weeks prior to the Derby, Pulpit was very well regarded and lightly raced. His connections took a gamble by racing him in multiple grade one stakes competition within a short time period of only two weeks. While the connections had the highest hopes for their horse, they simply raced him too much prior to the Kentucky Derby.

Pulpit was retired to stud after his 4th place finish in the Derby.
In hindsight, Pulpit needed more time to develop, and those demanding simply took too much out of him. An argument could be made that a developing horse should be given his shot at fame, especially since the opportunity to win Kentucky Derby only comes once in a horse's lifetime. It is important to notice the horses coming into the Derby fresh and the horses making a late charge. Fresh horses will always have an advantage.

Did Alydar and Affirmed ever get placed over their heads? Were they rushed into the Derby? No, they ran a complete two-year-old season. Did Secretariat run in the Derby off three or four races? What about 1979 champion Spectacular Bid, who lost the Belmont after winning the Derby and Preakness? They all had complete seasons and were primed and ready for the Derby.

Anything can and usually does happen in the Derby. X-Factors such as racing traffic and large noise from a big crowd should be considered when picking a winner. Be smart and look at the owners, trainers and jockeys who have been here before and know how to win.

Carefully examine who is training each horse. D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, Nick Zito, Claude "Shug" McGaughey and John Ward should all be respected.

Take note of the riders. Well-known masters like Edgar Prado, John Velasquez, Jose Santos, Corey Nakatani, Patrick Valenzuela, and Kent Desormeaux have proven themselves in classic races like the Kentucky Derby.

Problems to Overcome

Crowd Noise
If you think it sounds loud on television, try Churchill Downs in person! I know Belmont from the stands shaking and the people yelling so loud you cannot hear anything but a roar. At Belmont, the infield is Churchill it is full! Knowing how a horse handles the throng can give you an advantage.

Traffic Problems
If you don't know about finding the right hole at the right time, you only have to look at a replay from Real Quiet's 1998 win. If you miss your opportunity to go through the hole on the rail or split horses in a blind switch, you will not finish well.

While many handicappers will tell you about post positions for this race, we at "The Stick" feel it is meaningless due to the distance, traffic problems, crowd noise not to mention the annual mistakes, miscues and timing errors that always occur. It seems that only horses on the rail suffer from any serious disadvantage. If a rail position does not have enough speed, the horse could get buried into the first turn. Horses on the outside have more than enough time to find a spot to drop in for the first turn.

Also, remember that at Churchill Downs both stretches are extremely long. Remember this! It allows for big closers. However, in the last few years, horses on or near the lead at the 1/8th pole tend to hold on. Every year, whoever closes into second, third or fourth place is touted as a Belmont favorite, but never, ever do they win the Belmont Stakes. Belmont winners are built with pure stamina and strength.

If you feel the task of selecting the winner for this year's Kentucky Derby is too daunting, or you simply want us to give you the winner, come visit our Web site or send us e-mail. We welcome all horse racing fans at our Web site. Marc Cohen is the CEO of The Stick Horse Racing.

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