With 100 days left before the gates open to start Kentucky Derby 135, there are so many issues that need to be discussed. The first time out do you start your charge in a prep race for sprinters, or do you send your horse to run in a two-turn route race. The second time out do you look for a 1 mile race or longer, and then there is the question of whether or not to prep in a third race. But the most discussed aspect is does the distance of the race matter. Most horseman and analysts would say yes, the distance of the prep race does matter, why though does it matter. Well let’s break it down and look at the way that each track sets up their prep races with regard to distance. We will take a look at: ,
Gulfstream Park – Hutchenson (7f) or Holy Bull (1 1/8 m), Fountain of Youth (1 1/16 m), Florida Derby (1 1/8 mile)
Aqueduct – Whirlaway Stakes (1 1/16 mile), Gotham Stakes (1 1/16 mile), Wood Memorial (1 1/8 mile)
Fairgrounds - Lecomte Stakes (1 mile), Risen Star (1 1/16 mile), Louisiana Derby (1 1/16 mile)
Santa Anita – Robert B. Lewis (1 1/16 mile), San Felipe Stakes (1 1/16 mile), Santa Anita Derby (1 1/8 mile)
Oaklawn Park – Southwest Stakes (1 mile), Rebel Stakes (1 1/16 mile), Arkansas Derby (1 1/8 mile)
The fact is there are so many preps that if you are thinking about prepping your horse at a certain track you have to take into consideration spacing the races out. Usually the best prep program would have each race spaced out 1 month apart so that the horse would be able to recover from each race. Looking at the way that the majority of the tracks set up the final prep theses races are all at (1 1/8 mile) or 9 furlongs. The length of the final prep prepares the horse to run in the Derby a stepping stone per say to the longest race that most 3 year olds will run in up to this point.
With the exception of the Louisiana Derby which is run at (1 1/16 mile) most connections want to see their horse run in a race that is at (1 1/8 mile). The Louisiana Derby though is a race that is ran in March, therefore many connections like to use the L.D. as a stepping stone to a race in April. It is important to again realize that the turnaround for a horse coming off of this race would have to be thought out very carefully. The race is ran in Mid March so races early in April would most likely not match up with the recovery time that most connections want for their colts. A race during the second week of April would most be more conducive to a colt coming out of the Louisiana Derby.
The stepping stone to a (1 1/8 mile) race is just as important as the final prep itself. Many connections focus on the historically significant tracks and races in preparing for the Kentucky Derby. Some don’t really worry about the location as they will ship their horses. Horses like Street Sense and Hard Spun were legitimate travelers, Street Sense prepping in Florida and Kentucky and Hard Spun prepping in Arkansas and Kentucky. These horses didn’t follow a traditional schedule, both connections had to call audibles after circumstances dictated this to occur. Hard Spun’s schedule change due to his not taking a liking to the track at Oaklawn Park, and Street Sense’s change due to the fact that his connections decided to get him a synthetic prep, therefore allowing for a workmanlike effort but at the same time not taking too much out of him and allowing the horse to not have to deal with the rigors of another Dirt prep before the derby. T his worked out quite well for SS’s connections, not so for the connections of Pyro and Visionaire, both of these horses prepped on a synthetic surface and fared horribly. Some say this caused the horse to regress after the polytrack effort and they both ran dismal Derby races.
The gradual progression in the length of the prep race is quite a factor in the development of a 3 year old colt. Running a horse at the same distance twice in preparation for the Kentucky Derby is detrimental in some people’s opinion. Others state that the length of a prep does not matter at all and that it is truly the best horse on the day that wins the race. But when looking at the results of the major contenders that move forward towards the Derby after their prep races, it would seem that the stepping stones provided by the Oaklawn Park Series. The SouthWest Stakes at 1 Mile, the Rebel Stakes at 1 1/16 mile, and the Arkansas Derby run at 1 1/16 mile, has been the springboard for a number of Eclipse award winning race horses in the last 5 years. This series has established itself as a major series of preps leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Horses like Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin have all come out of the Arkansas series, and have a major effect on the Triple Crown. Remember also that Lawyer Ron ran in the Oaklawn prep series in 2006, he went on to be the Eclipse award winning Older Horse that year. Bob Holthus Todd Pletcher both agree that the foundation that Lawyer Ron developed during his time of racing at Oaklawn Park. D. Wayne Lukas has said many times that there is no program like the program at Oaklawn due to the fact that the races are spaced perfectly and the movement in distance a 1/16th of a mile longer for each race gives the horse the ability to learn how to deal with longer distances and stretching out.
Another aspect of how to deal with prep races is the travel that is involved, as I stated earlier many times a trainer will want to use different venues to prep, to get his horse used to different circumstances. Barclay Tagg for one likes to prep his horses at Gulfstream and then move them along to the Louisiana derby and then up to Aqueduct to run in the Wood Memorial. He considered his route to be one that helps his horse deal with a good racing schedule and at the same time face stiff competition so he will know what he would need to do to prepare his horse for the Kentucky Derby. Todd Pletcher also is a huge shipper also, due to the fact that he has a number of horses in his stable, he moves some back and forth across the country. Steve Asmussen is totally different, although he has a large number of horses he likes to put his horses in a situation where they become acclimated to the location and comfortable with their surrounds. He wants the horse to be used to the track and the area so that he can give his best effort. The fact is each connection has to do what they feel is right for the horse and sadly some feel its all about winning, and although there is a realization that winning is the first and foremost thing, the horses well-being is important also. Appreciate has to be shown to those connection who realize that putting the horse first is always the best policy.
So does distance matter, many say yes, others say not at all, while others feel its just a matter of how a horse trains leading up to the Derby. Whatever your feeling realize that precedent says that a fresh horse with correctly spaced races can lead to a Derby winner. The main idea though is to do what’s best for your horse and make sure to get the horse safely to the starting gate to start in the Derby.. In our next article, we will look at the theory of the “Pletcher Syndrome”. Every connection wants to win, but a horse can’t put forth his best efforts every time out, do you focus on the win or do you focus on the prep aspect of the race, you prep for the Derby you don’t run in the Derby a month before that race.