Kentucky Derby 138 Basics

Handicapper Art ParkerBy ART PARKER

[This article is probably of little value to the seasoned, experienced horse player].

Coming soon is the race of the year, The Kentucky Derby. The race and the entire day at Churchill Downs in Louisville are very good for racing. It’s a lot of fun even if you watch the event on television from home. To many of the everyday horse players, especially those with a respectable amount of experience, the Derby is either a race to watch or a race upon which to throw a couple of bucks at a long shot and not worry about the outcome. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Derby and the excitement and I would like to share the special day with everyone. But as a race the Derby is so far removed from everyday racing that almost no comparison can be made of it to a normal race.

The first thing that makes the Derby different is that a large number of the horses do not belong in the race. To get into the race a horse must be in the top 20 of qualified entrants in the category of graded earnings, which is the amount a horse has earned in graded stakes races since the start of the horse’s career. Some horses are entered because they meet the earnings requirement but have no business being in the race. Many owners fail to be honest about their horse’s competitive level, and their horse is entered because the owner wants to be in the Derby. Some horses win one big race as a two year old and they manage to get into the Derby based upon the earnings of that one race even though their three year old form is very suspect.

The Derby allows a maximum of 20 runners to leave the gate and this is too many in my opinion. Too many horses can cause safety problems and creates too much traffic. It is often said that you need a lot of luck to win the Derby. It’s true and the oversize field is one reason why. It has also been said that the best horse doesn’t always win the Derby and that is true, much more often than not, and the oversize field is one reason why. But Churchill Downs has the final call on the size of the field and for now it will stay at 20 runners.

The race is also limited to 3 year olds and that itself, is not unusual, but 3 year olds running 1 ¼ miles is. It is an extreme rarity if a horse has run that far prior to the Derby. If a horse has run that far he/she is probably a European-based horse shipping into America.

The race is run in front of the largest racing crowd assembled every year. Too many humans hanging around is not the everyday custom for a thoroughbred. Furthermore, young horses have never been faced with that many people who are screaming and hollering, creating a noise level that is unbearable for many humans (If you ever want to see why Derby Day is so different just go to an amazing place called The Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs if you are ever in Louisville).

I could go on and on about how the Derby is different, instead let’s look at one thing about the Derby that is similar to everyday racing, as far as horse selection is concerned. Good horse players will tell you the importance of form. The last few races and the last few months a horse has been active mean a great deal. When one searches for a Derby winner, top form is critical and that top form should be reflected in the most competitive races.

About late January every year the “Prep” season begins. Graded Stakes races that are limited to three year olds are usually called Derby Preps because that is where you usually find Derby prospects. These races are not tied to the Derby in that they are a preliminary or required to gain entry into the Derby, yet they are opportunities to compete at the highest level of three year old racing and to accumulate the all important graded earnings required to gain entry.

Every now and then a Derby winner will buck the trend, but the big majority of Derby winners will either win or run second in the most important preps. These key prep races are: The Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park in Florida), The Wood Memorial (Aqueduct Race Course in New York), The Spiral Stakes (Turfway Park in Kentucky, formerly called The Jim Beam Stakes and The Lane’s End), The Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park in Arkansas), The Louisiana Derby (Fairgrounds in Louisiana), The Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita Park in California) and The Blue Grass Stakes (Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky).

Let’s examine the last 20 years and see how the prep races have done. Races producing Kentucky Derby winners (Derby winners ran first or second in one of these specific prep races).

Florida Derby: 1995 Thunder Gulch, 2001 Monarchos, 2006 Barbaro and 2008 Big Brown.

Wood Memorial: 1994 Go for Gin, 2000 Fusaichi Pegasus and 2003 Funny Cide

Spiral: 1992 Lil E Tee and 2011 Animal Kingdom

Arkansas Derby: 2010 Super Saver, 2004 Smarty Jones

Louisiana Derby: 1996 Grindstone

Illinois Derby: 2002 War Emblem

Santa Anita Derby: 1997 Silver Charm and 1998 Real Quiet

Blue Grass: 2007 Street Sense

In the last 20 years only four Derby winners failed to run first or second in any of the specified races. Two of those four Derby winners were beyond any logical predictably (Giacomo 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009-complete and total flukes in my opinion). A credible performance in at least one of the most difficult races is important. In the last 20 years 80% of the Derby winners finished either first or second in one of those top prep races.

So, where does that leave us? Here are the winners and second place finishers in the critical prep races in 2012:

Florida Derby: Take Charge Indy (Winner) Reveron (Second)

Wood Memorial: Gemologist (Winner) Alpha (Second)

Spiral: Went the Day Well (Winner) Holiday Promise (Second)

Arkansas Derby: Bodemeister (Winner)  Secret Circle (Second)

Louisiana Derby: Hero of Order (Winner) Mark Valeski (Second)

Illinois Derby: Done Talking (Winner) Morgan’s Guerilla (Second)

Santa Anita Derby:  I’ll Have Another (Winner) Creative Cause (Second)

Blue Grass: Dullahan (Winner) Hansen (Second)

Here are the top 30 horses in terms of graded earnings. The field is limited to the top 20 that are entered to run.

  1. Hansen … $1,550,000
  2. Daddy Long Legs … $1,284.030
  3. Union Rags … $1,170,000
  4. Dullahan … $855,000
  5. Creative Cause … $836,000
  6. Gemologist … $703,855
  7. Sabercat … $701,429
  8. Take Charge Indy … $698,400
  9. Bodemeister … $660,000
  10. Hero of Order … $615,500
  11. I’ll Have Another … $601,000
  12. Daddy Nose Best … $545,558
  13. Liaison … $393,000
  14. Alpha … $380,000
  15. Prospective … $367,327
  16. Trinniberg … $324,500
  17. Done Talking … $311,000
  18. Went the Day Well … $282,000
  19. Rousing Sermon … $270,000
  20. Mark Valeski … $260,000
  21. El Padrino … $250,000
  22. Reveron … $220,000
  23. Isn’t He Clever … $191,333
  24. Optimizer … $184,708
  25. Castaway … $162,000
  26. Currency Swap … $150,000
  27. The Lumber Guy…$150,000
  28. My Adonis … $140,000
  29. Brother Francis … $135,000
  30. Howe Great…$112,500


Naturally there is always a unique situation that arises regarding the prep races. Two of the top money earners of 2012 did not finish first or second in one of the top prep races, Daddy Long Legs and Union Rags. Daddy Long Legs is that high on the list because he won the UAE Derby in Dubai, which has yet to be a significant factor in Derby history. But Union Rags is another story. Union Rags may well be the favorite on Derby Day and has been labeled the best three year old by many for quite some time. Union Rags finished third in the Florida Derby by a “neck” after he experienced a little difficulty with his trip. If there is an exception to the “Prep Race” rule in 2012 it is Union Rags.

The 2012 Kentucky Derby will be a treat for those that are not everyday or seasoned players. I firmly believe we will have a terrific Kentucky Derby this year. Furthermore, I believe we have a field that is limited with the number of pretenders and full of contenders. If the weather is not good the number of contenders will diminish by just a few instead of many, which is the normal case.

However you decide to enjoy the Kentucky Derby do just that- enjoy it for what it is…one of the truly great moments in sports.