The Kentucky Derby Championship Series – Part 1

Back in the olden days of horse racing – before 2013 – the Kentucky Derby chose its field of up to 20 horses based on their earnings at graded stakes races. There were well over 150 such races from which to choose; the most prestigious Kentucky Derby prep races also had the largest purses, thus drawing the best thoroughbreds on the circuit.

The prestige is still there, but now the incentive is points instead of cash. The Road to the Kentucky Derby has been narrowed down to 36 graded stakes for 2012-13 with the possibility of more races in the future. The points go up as Derby Day approaches. Winning an event that’s part of the Kentucky Derby Prep Season will earn a horse 10 points. That rises to 50 points for the first leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, and 100 points for the second leg.

Naturally, the races that have been traditionally viewed as the most important prep races for the Kentucky Derby are now included in the Championship Series. The more you know about these races, the better prepared you will be to bet on the Kentucky Derby. So let’s take a closer look at the home stretch of the Road to the Kentucky Derby, starting with the race that made Street Sense a leading Derby favorite.

March 9: Tampa Bay Derby (1 1/16 Mile, Dirt, Tampa Bay Downs)

The Tampa Bay Derby has been run since 1981; it earned grade 3 status in 2002 and was promoted to grade 2 in 2011. It was in 2007 that the Tampa Bay Derby had its breakthrough moment. Going into that race, Street Sense was one of the more compelling Kentucky Derby contenders after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by an impressive 10 lengths. However, no Juvenile winner at that time had gone on to win the Run for the Roses, and Street Sense was the second favorite at 6-5 behind Any Given Saturday at 3-5.

This was also Street Sense’s first race as a 3-year-old. He only ran two Derby prep races after his juvenile season, which was again unusual – most winning horses put in three preps before the big race. The previous two Kentucky Derby winners with only two prep races under their saddles were Sunny’s Halo in 1983 and Jet Pilot in 1947.

In the end, Street Sense and Any Given Saturday battled down to the wire, with Street Sense winning by a nose. The winning time of 1:43:11 is still the time to beat at the Tampa Bay Derby, not to mention the track record for any graded stakes race at 1 1/16 miles. Street Sense went on to finish second at the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes before winning the Kentucky Derby.

As we go to press, it appears that Uncaptured will be part of the field for the 2013 Tampa Bay Derby. Purple Egg is also being considered after going 3-for-3 in his juvenile campaign.

March 9: San Felipe Stakes (1 1/16 Mile, Dirt, Santa Anita)

Even if we knew how to teleport, thoroughbreds need time in between races to rest, recover and prepare. So trainers have to make a decision between the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes. It’s a decision that’s based partly on geography and partly on competition; horses that have been spending most of their time on the California circuit will naturally be drawn to Santa Anita.

The San Felipe Stakes began life in 1935 as a six-furlong sprint called the San Felipe Handicap, and was originally limited to colts and geldings 3 years old and up. The distance grew over the years, and in 1952, the race was set at its current 1 1/16 miles for all 3-year-old horses. In 1954, Determine became the first horse to win the San Felipe Stakes and the Kentucky Derby – as well as the first gray horse to win the Run for the Roses.

Things were relatively quiet at the San Felipe Stakes for the next 25 years. There was 1964 winner Hill Rise, who was favored at the Kentucky Derby but finished second to Northern Dancer. However, it wasn’t until 1978 that Affirmed arrived in town, winning the San Felipe in his first ever graded stakes appearance. Affirmed continued his winning ways, taking the Santa Anita Derby and the Hollywood Derby prep races, and then upsetting Alydar at the Kentucky Derby en route to claiming the Triple Crown.

The other San Felipe Stakes winners to become Kentucky Derby champions were Sunday Silence in 1989 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. It appears likely that Goldencents will make an appearance at the 2013 race after winning the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on January 5, beating Den’s Legacy and Manando over one mile.

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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