The Kentucky Derby Championship Series – Part 2

Our look at the biggest prep races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby continues with the final three races on the first leg of the Championship Series. Each of these races will hand out 50 points to the winning horse. We begin in Arkansas, where trainer Bob Baffert has enjoyed plenty of success in recent years.

March 16: Rebel Stakes (1 1/16 Mile, Dirt, Oaklawn Park)

Oaklawn Park is a great place for trainers who have several potential Kentucky Derby contenders on their hands – like Baffert, for instance. The Grade 2 Rebel Stakes is the second of a series of three Derby preps at Oaklawn, starting with the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes and finishing with the prestigious Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. If you can make it through all three races, you’re well on your way to Churchill Downs.

That’s a big if. Baffert-trained horses have won each of the last three Rebel Stakes; Lookin at Lucky was the most successful, taking the 2010 Rebel before winning the Preakness Stakes and earning Horse of the Year honors. However, Lookin at Lucky only ran one other Kentucky Derby prep, finishing third at the Santa Anita Derby and settling for sixth at the Run for the Roses. The Factor (2011) was not entered into the Kentucky Derby after a disappointing seventh at the Arkansas Derby. Secret Circle (2012) had to miss the Kentucky Derby after coming down with sesamoiditis following his second-place finish behind Bodemeister – another Baffert horse – at the Arkansas Derby.

This year, “Bullet Bob” has a number of fringe Kentucky Derby contenders on his hands. It’s possible that Den’s Legacy will make an appearance at the Rebel after finishing third to Violence at the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity and second to Goldencents at the Grade 3 Sham Stakes.

March 23: Spiral Stakes (1 1/8 Mile, Synthetic, Turfway Park)

Now we’re getting serious. Starting with the Spiral Stakes, every race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby is at least 1 1/8 mile. Front-running horses that don’t have the stamina to compete at this distance will be weeded out. This Grade 3 event (downgraded from Grade 2 in 2011) has produced two Kentucky Derby champions: Lil E. Tee in 1992 and Animal Kingdom in 2011.

The most impressive winner at the Spiral Stakes, however, was 1991 champion Hansel. He set the track record for 1 1/8 miles of 1:46.6, then went on to win both the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes on his way to Horse of the Year honors. Hansel was the favorite at the 1991 Kentucky Derby, but seemed to have trouble with the distance and finished 10th.

Other horses that won a Triple Crown race after taking the Spiral Stakes: Summer Squall, who won the 1990 Preakness after finishing second to Unbridled at the Kentucky Derby, and Prairie Bayou, who did the same in 1993 behind Sea Hero. Serena’s Song was the first filly to win the Spiral Stakes in 1995; she also won the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, the female counterpart to the Preakness.

It remains to be seen as we go to press which horses will attend the 2013 Spiral Stakes, but we do have early word that Rydilluc (trained by Gary Contessa, ridden by Edgar Prado) could make an appearance after winning an allowance race at Gulfstream Park on January 5.

March 24: Sunland Derby (1 1/8 Mile, Dirt, Sunland Park)

Sunland Park in New Mexico is a great place for jockeys to get their start, too. Pat Valenzuela earned his first career win here before riding Sunday Silence to victory at the 1989 Kentucky Derby. After that, Jerry Bailey was a two-time Kentucky Derby winner; in 1993 aboard Sea Hero and again in 1996 aboard Grindstone. Miguel Hernandez will try to add his name to the list this year. Sunland Park’s top-earning jockey for the past two seasons had to settle for sixth place at the 2012 Sunland Derby as Tequila Factor finished well behind Daddy Nose Best. Show Some Magic could do just that in 2013 after winning the Riley Allison Futurity on December 23.

The Sunland Derby has only been around since 2003 and first became a grade 3 stakes race in 2010, so there isn’t much in the way of history for horseplayers to use in their Kentucky Derby betting. Thor’s Echo was the most notable winner; he took the Sunland Derby in 2005 for trainer Doug O’Neill, and then proved to be a champion 4-year-old sprinter, winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint as well as the Frank J. DeFrancis Memorial Dash. Daddy Nose Best never won again after taking last year’s Sunland Derby, finishing 10th behind I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister at the Kentucky Derby and ninth behind the same two horses at the Preakness.

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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