Which Races Have Been Best Springboards to Kentucky Derby Success?

Justify used the Santa Anita Derby as a springboard to winning the 2018 Kentucky Derby, above, on his way to a Triple Crown sweep. (Eclipse Sportswire)

At the end of seven months and 35 U.S. prep races, the field of 20 for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve has finally taken shape.

As usual, it is filled with the cream of the 3-year-old crop. The winners of the seven 100-point prep races will be on hand May 4 as handicappers will face the challenge of deciding what will happen when talented horses from the Northeast, South, Midwest, Southwest, and West meet, often for the first time.

2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming also won the Florida Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The long, 145-year history of the Kentucky suggests the Florida Derby has the prep race that has produced the most Kentucky Derby winners. Yet, let’s be frank, does a path to Churchill Downs followed by a horse in 1950 have any relevancy in 2019?

Like so many other things in life, the Kentucky Derby is indeed a “what have you done for me lately” event.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at what has happened in recent years to find out which preps have been the best springboards to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

As a measuring stick, we’ll use data from the last 10 editions of the Kentucky Derby, giving 5 points to the prep that produced the winner, three for the runner-up, and one for the third-place finisher.

We’ll also look at the results in two separate time frames. The first is the full 10 years. The other is just last four years, the period when the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes was contested on a dirt track. During the first six years of the study, the Blue Grass took place on a synthetic, all-weather surface.

Let’s start with the last four years.

From 2015 through 2018, the Florida Derby was the best vehicle with 11 points, followed by the Santa Anita Derby with 10 and the Arkansas Derby with eight. After that, there was a dropoff to the Blue Grass and Sunland Derby with three and the Louisiana Derby with one.

Yet when you use the full 10-year period, it puts the Santa Anita Derby on top with 23 points. The Arkansas Derby was next with 20 and the Florida Derby third with 19. After that came the Louisiana Derby with nine points, the Sunland Derby with eight, and the Blue Grass and Jeff Ruby Stakes with five.

What does all of that prove?

That the preferred route is indeed the Santa Anita Derby, which makes sense because that race will generally a horse trained by two-time Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert.

This year, you can choose between two Baffert runners from the Santa Anita Derby in the victorious Roadster and the runner-up Game Winner.

It also shows that the Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and Florida Derby have been a cut above the others and from a historical perspective they deserve the most attention from handicappers.

Interestingly, during the last 10 years, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, and Florida Derby have formed the trifecta in the run for the roses only once, in 2017. Yet that trio of preps has produced two of the top three finishers in each of the last five runnings.

Will those trends continue in 2019?

We’ll find out on the first Saturday in May.

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