The Kentucky Derby Championship Series – Part 5

If you’re training a horse for the Kentucky Derby, do you go for maximum points on the second leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series? That might depend on how well your horse does in the earlier prep races. In theory, you could point your horse at one of the three March 30 events, then come back two weeks later and go for another 100 points at one of the two prep races on April 13. Of course, money also matters – both these races feature very large purses.

This is the first year of the Road to the Kentucky Derby point system, so we’re bound to see a few missteps along the way. Be that as it may, we’re also likely to see some very strong fields going at it as the Championship Series hits the final turn.

April 13: Arkansas Derby (1 1/8 Mile, Dirt, Oaklawn Park)

There’s nothing like a visit to Hot Springs, Ark. in April to get the juices flowing. Horses and horse lovers alike have been coming to Oaklawn Park since it opened in 1905, but it wasn’t until 1936 that the first Arkansas Derby was held with a princely sum of $5,000 (about $80,000 in today’s money) up for grabs. By the end of 1943, the purse was double that. By 1965, it was $50,000, and today, it stands at an even $1 million.

Still not impressed? How about $5 million? In 2004, Oaklawn Park created a special bonus for any horse that could win both the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, and then go on to win the Kentucky Derby. Wouldn’t you know it, Smarty Jones did just that. It was a worthwhile investment for Oaklawn; the interest surrounding Smarty Jones helped lift the Arkansas Derby’s profile to new heights, and even more top Kentucky Derby contenders started coming to Hot Springs. By 2010, the Arkansas Derby was elevated from Grade 2 to Grade 1 status.

Aside from Smarty Jones, the only other Arkansas Derby champion to win the Kentucky Derby was Sunny’s Halo in 1983. However four champions (including Smarty Jones) went on to win the Preakness Stakes, and two Arkansas Derby winners doubled up at the Belmont Stakes. Not only that, but 1994 winner Concern also took the prestigious Breeders’ Cup Classic later that year. The 2012 Arkansas Derby champion, Bodemeister, finished second to I’ll Have Another at both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

Trainer Bob Baffert considers Oaklawn Park to be his second home, so we’re likely to see some of his horses entered into the Arkansas Derby, but which ones? Maybe not Power Broker or Flashback, who are pointed at the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park and might stay there awhile. We could end up seeing one of Baffert’s  lesser-known horses do well enough in the smaller Kentucky Derby prep races to make an appearance at the Arkansas Derby; Rolling Fog, Z Big Apple, War Academy and Super Ninety Nine have all generated some buzz with their early performances.

April 13: Blue Grass Stakes (1 1/8 Mile, Synthetic, Keeneland)

What’s this? Only $750,000 to the winner of the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes? Keeneland needs to get with the program. This race has been run since 1911 and has been an important Kentucky Derby prep race since the beginning – which makes sense, seeing as both Keeneland and Churchill Downs are located in Kentucky. No fewer than 11 horses have won the Blue Grass Stakes and then the Kentucky Derby:

1991: Strike the Gold
1979: Spectacular Bid
1972: Riva Ridge
1970: Dust Commander
1968: Forward Pass
1965: Lucky Debonair
1964: Northern Dancer
1963: Chateaugay
1959: Tomy Lee
1942: Shut Out
1926: Bubbling Over

In addition, another 12 entrants into the Blue Grass Stakes have gone on to win the Run for the Roses. Street Sense was the most recent after finishing second behind Dominican in 2007. However the most successful of them all was Whirlaway, the 1941 Triple Crown champion. He finished second behind Our Boots at the Blue Grass Stakes. Our Boots was the top 2-year-old in 1940, also beating Whirlaway at the Futurity Trial and the Futurity Stakes, but he could only manage eighth place the following year at the Kentucky Derby.

The 2012 Blue Grass Stakes winner was Dullahan, who came in third behind I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister at the Kentucky Derby. As we go to press, it remains to be seen who will wind up in Lexington for the 2013 running; there are only two other races at Keeneland on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, including the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity (already won by Joha) and the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes, which is a “Wild Card” race held the following week. That’s right, the Blue Grass Stakes is not the last stop before Louisville, but it just might be the most important of them all.

About Tennessee Leduc

Born in Summersville Kentucky, Tennessee is an impassioned fan of horse racing, women, civilized debauchery, and... mint juleps. He writes, he reads, he listens, but above all he experiences the world he lives in.

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