The Kentucky Derby Championship Series – Part 6

After all the major Kentucky Derby prep races have been run, there will be two more chances for horses to collect points and qualify for the Run for the Roses. The new points system includes a “Wild Card” round; horses who win either of the following two races will earn 20 points, with eight points for second place, four points for third and two points for fourth.

This brings some interesting scenarios into play. Most of the top Kentucky Derby contenders will already be locked in by the time the Blue Grass Stakes are over. It’s been decades since the top thoroughbred horses were put on the track with so little time in between races. Trainers and handicappers alike prefer that horses get 3-4 weeks of rest before the Kentucky Derby. However for the third-tier contenders, a handful of points could be the difference between making it into the Derby and going home.

Desperate horses call for desperate measures. Our look at the Road to the Kentucky Derby concludes, fittingly enough, in Kentucky.

April 20: Lexington Stakes (1 1/16 Mile, Synthetic, Keeneland)

When Keeneland first opened in 1936, one of the first races on the card was the Lexington Stakes, then a six-furlong sprint open to 2-year-olds. Two years later, it became a simple overnight handicap race at 1 1/4 miles – no frills, no hype. There was even a period between 1973 and 1983 when this event was an overnight allowance race, albeit a fairly important one, called the Calumet Purse. It wasn’t until 1984 that the Lexington Stakes were reborn, earning Grade 3 status in 1986. From 1988 through 2010, this was a Grade 2 stakes race before reverting to Grade 3, where it remains today.

The purse for 2013 stands at $200,000, probably not enough to draw any contenders that aren’t on the Kentucky Derby bubble. The purse was as high as $350,000 before falling to its current level in 2011, prompting the demotion to Grade 3. Last year’s Lexington, won by All Squared Away, didn’t draw any Kentucky Derby starters. However the change in qualification from purse money to points may bring in some better competition this year.

Only one horse has ever won the Lexington Stakes and then the Kentucky Derby. That was Charismatic in 1999; he shattered the modern-day race record at an even 1:41. No other horse has managed to finish the Lexington in under 1:42. Charismatic had finished fourth behind General Challenge at the Santa Anita Derby and was a 31-1 long shot to win the Kentucky Derby, but he beat Menifee by a head, and he beat him again at the Preakness Stakes before breaking his leg just as he was about to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the Triple Crown.

Charismatic finished third and had successful surgery, so there was something of a happy ending to what the National Thoroughbred Racing Association called the “Moment of the Year” for 1999. Perhaps the Lexington can help produce another magic moment in 2013.

April 27: The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial (1 Mile, Dirt, Churchill Downs)

The Road to the Kentucky Derby finally ends at Churchill Downs with the Derby Trial Stakes. It’s the main event of the Opening Night card at Churchill Downs, a Grade 3 stakes race since 2000, and like the Lexington Stakes, it carries a purse of $200,000. Also like the Lexington Stakes, the Derby Trial couldn’t draw any Kentucky Derby contenders last year because of the relatively small prizes and the very small rest period in between.

The big difference between the two is the rich heritage behind the Derby Trial Stakes. It started back in 1924 when Black Gold won the inaugural Trial the week before claiming the 50th anniversary running of the Kentucky Derby. Citation won this race in 1948 en route to the Triple Crown. Hill Gail (1952), Dark Star (1953) and Tim Tam (1958) were all double champions at Churchill Downs.

This was back when the Trial was held the Tuesday before the Kentucky Derby, not the Saturday before. The switch was made in 1982, but by then, modern training methods had made this concession moot. It’s been nearly 40 years since a horse won the Kentucky Derby with just a week in between races – that was Cannonade in 1974.

So why would any top thoroughbreds bother signing up for the Derby Trial? They just might because it’s become a very useful prep race for the Preakness, which takes place exactly three weeks later, and is also the shortest of the Triple Crown races at 1 3/16 miles. Although the Trial hasn’t produced a Preakness winner since making the switch to Saturday, it has produced three second-place finishers: Alydeed (1992), Cherokee Run (1993) and Macho Again (2008).

Even better, the Derby Trial has produced two Belmont Stakes champions: Caveat (1983) and Creme Fraiche (1985). Don’t overlook this somewhat hidden gem of thoroughbred racing. Plus, you get an extra week to try out your mint julep recipe before you throw that Kentucky Derby party.

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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