Courtney and ABR ambassador Victoria Garofalo at last year's Preakness Stakes. (Photos courtesy of Acacia Courtney)
This time of year is a very exciting one. We can now see the prep races along the road to the Triple Crown mapped out so clearly in front of us. While winter is still holding on with its icy grasp (depending on what part of the country you’re in, that is – I’m in the Northeast and it’s not fun), the eternal promise that spring is really right around the corner keeps us going. The first Saturday in May is so close we can almost see the roses and taste the mint juleps.
In truth, there is a lot yet to unfold before the Kentucky Derby takes place at Churchill Downs on May 2. First of all, there are many opportunities to follow those horses on the “Derby Trail.” These highly anticipated contenders will, in the coming months, perform well enough to make the cut, disappoint in a number of ways, or succeed beyond all expectations. It’s an exciting, at times stressful (especially when there’s money on the line) roller coaster that makes the actual Triple Crown that much more fun. I find that I enjoy races so much more when I have watched a particular horse progress and feel emotionally invested in the race.
Regardless of where a horse actually finishes in the Derby, sometimes making it to Kentucky is the hardest part. Each specified Derby prep race will find the connections of every entered horse biting on whatever finger nails they have left as they watch their hopes and dreams carried on the back of a flying Thoroughbred.
In the event that more than 20 horses are entered in the Kentucky Derby, the final lineup will be determined by the number of points that each entrant has accumulated in the months leading up to the big race. Starting in September, the top four finishers in the designated races earn points toward the run for the roses. Before you can compete for Miss America, you must first win your local and state pageants. The concept is quite similar for Thoroughbreds.
Although I don’t think anyone is really concerned with how a horse looks in a swimsuit. In this case, talent may be the only important phase of competition.
Which races you decide are your “favorites” is, of course, completely up to you. What’s also up to you is how you watch these races. You cannot go wrong with a well-executed watch party. Invite all of your family and friends, even (and perhaps especially) those who don’t normally follow horse racing. Get some good snacks, hats and/or t-shirts if you’re feeling adventurous, and make it into a healthy competition between your guests so you can yell at the TV with even more gusto as the 3-year-olds cross the finish line.
COURTNEY AND FRIEND POSE WITH WINNING FLORIDA DERBY "TICKETS"
Prefer to travel around the country for the big races instead? Go for it! Please do send me some postcards. I like the horse ones best.
My favorite Kentucky Derby prep races still to look forward to:
1) Florida Derby – March 28
Maybe it’s because one of my favorite memories from last year was watching Constitution win the Florida Derby. Maybe it’s because around the end of March I’m really ready for Florida weather. Either way, this Gulfstream Park race is sure to excite, earning the winner 100 Derby points.
2) Louisiana Derby – March 28
The same day as the Florida Derby, and also awarding 100 Derby points to the winning horse, this race offers an excellent opportunity for a double whammy at your watch party. It’s a go big or go home shot if I’ve ever seen one. This Fair Grounds race is not to be missed.
3) Gotham Stakes – March 7
Many people know that I love Aqueduct race track, and many people disagree with me. I think that it is charming, in its own special way. Perhaps not the most fancy track, I still think that there is something magical about this little place in the middle of Queens, N.Y. It’s tough. Although offering just 50 points for a win, Batman says watch the Gotham (see what I did there?).
4) Wood Memorial – April 4
Again, I’m partial to Aqueduct. But, I really do think that the Wood Memorial is a great race. It takes place on April 4, one of the last days to earn Derby points. There’s a little bit of added desperation in the air as all of the connections realize that time is running out. This is a 100-point race.
5) Santa Anita Derby – April 4
Last but certainly not least, the Santa Anita Derby is another special race. One year ago, California Chrome crossed the Santa Anita Park finish line before any of the other horses, earning himself 100 Derby points and turning many heads. It was here that people really began to wonder even more if this was the elusive Triple Crown winner we’ve all been waiting for. One can only wonder what this year’s Santa Anita Derby will bring.