The top three finishers in the Preakness Stakes were making their 10th or 11th career starts — it’s been a while since anything like that’s happened in a Triple Crown race, as Superterrific confirmed by compiling 2007-2013 results. What will be interesting to see, going forward, is how this year’s classic contenders perform over the next few months (will they stick around for fall campaigns?), and if this is the beginning of a trend toward more starts for classic prospects.
Twenty days and counting: Prep season is over, even if there are still two races on the calendar that offer small Kentucky Derby points (also good for the Kentucky Oaks, which is why Pure Fun will start in the Lexington). Here’s the full Kentucky Derby point race schedule, with charts, replays, and winning Beyer Speed figures, and the official list of Kentucky Derby prospects in order of points as of April 14 from Churchill Downs (PDF). Noted — not one of the top 23 on that list started in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Java’s War is #4 in points after winning the Blue Grass Stakes with a last to first move that seemed all the more impressive because he broke slowly from the gate (and not for the first time). “I wasn’t worried,” said trainer Ken McPeek after. “He’s not a horse that’s quick out of there.” If you like him for the Derby, you should be worried — it’s an unforgiving race. Jon White has his strikes (explained) — one of mine is that a horse can’t have a penchant for creating its own trouble. “[T]his colt can’t expect to spot 19 stronger Derby opponents a head start and still win,” observes Mike Watchmaker. “He’s not that good.”
Strike the Gold (1991) was the last Blue Grass winner to go on and repeat in the Kentucky Derby. None of the next fifteen dirt or six Polytrack winners went on to Derby success.
Two Derby winners came out of those final fifteen Blue Grass Stakes run on dirt. Sea Hero (1993) and Thunder Gulch (1995) finished out of the money at Keeneland, perhaps victimized by the speed bias, before going on to Derby glory.
Polytrack runnings of the Blue Grass have been similar. Street Sense was narrowly-beaten in that 2007 Blue Grass, then went on to dominate the Kentucky Derby. Since then the Derby winner has come from other venues and Blue Grass graduates have not been a factor.
Matt Gardner, looking at Blue Grass results in the Polytrack era, found that “the top 3 finishers in the Blue Grass are 13-1-0-2 in the Derby since 2007.”
Compare that to the Santa Anita Derby over the same years: The top three Santa Anita Derby finishers are 13-1-1-0 since 2007. Or the Florida Derby: 9-1-1-0. If there’s an irrelevant Kentucky Derby prep lately, it’s the Wood: The top three finishers out of Aqueduct are 10-0-0-0 since 2007.
I’m not saying Verrazano is going to win the Kentucky Derby, and I’m not about to dissect his performance in the Wood other than to say he did show a new dimension regarding the ability to settle off the pace, and he did come home in splits of :23 4/5, :24, and :12 3/5, which not only are strong, but are fractions you see from late closers.
You can say the same about Vyjack, as Superterrific pointed out to me:
While Normandy Invasion was flashing a little more speed than either at the end, the winner and the show horse ran the same final fraction.
That fewer Kentucky Derby prospects are earning 100+ Beyer speed figures in preps hasn’t gone unnoticed (see: Trending Down, 2011; Mike Watchmaker 2012), but it’s still a little odd to realize that not only did the last four Kentucky Derby winners not post a single triple-digit figure in their two-prep campaigns, but hadn’t done so in their entire pre-Derby career. Since 2009, only one starter with a 100+ Beyer as a 3-year-old (out of 13) has even finished in the money (Bodemeister, 2012).
With two significant preps remaining, the four highest winning Beyer figures of the Derby points races so far belong to Goldencents (Santa Anita Derby, 105), Itsmyluckyday (Holy Bull Stakes, 104), Verrazano (Tampa Bay Derby, 101, down from his previous high of 105), and Super Ninety Nine (Southwest Stakes, 101). The winning Derby Beyer has gone down by a point or two every year since Mine That Bird’s 105 in 2009, with I’ll Have Another getting 101 last year. Will the winner this year make like Giacomo and get 100?