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FINAL DERBY PREP FIELDS NOW TAKING SHAPE

The 141st running of the Kentucky Derby is only about a month away on Saturday, May 2, 2015, and that can only mean one thing at this time of year - Derby prep season is finally ready to reach its peak, and the action is only going to get faster and more furious from here on out pretty much each and every Saturday from now until the first Saturday in May.

The Kentucky Derby prep season is already underway as 3-year-olds from around the country continue to compete for right to occupy one of the 20 available stalls in the Churchill Downs starting gate for the Run for the Roses. The starters in the Derby will be decided by a points system that is in its third year, and puts pressure on hopefuls to win or earn at least a high finish in a race Derby prep race(s) in order to qualify.

This time of year also coincides with the official Kentucky Derby Future Wagers, and the final KDFW is scheduled for the weekend of March 27-29.

The volatility of these prep races was never more apparent than it was on Feb. 21 in the Fountain of Youth, when favorite Upstart won the race but was DQ'd for bothering runner-up Itsaknockout twice in deep stretch. Also, notable shortly after that was the defection from the Kentucky Derby trail of Khozan due to injury. Khozan, a brother to multiple Eclipse Award winner Royal Delta, has begun his career with two eye-popping wins and had appeared to be on his way to the Florida Derby and beyond before the injury.

On March 17, it was announced that Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red, who had returned from foot problems with a promising second in the San Vicente, is officially off the Derby trail with a foot abscess.

Injuries and defections are always a fact of life on the road to the Kentucky Derby every year, and they wreak havoc on the Future Wagers, because you might be betting the best horse, but if he doesn't make it to Louisville in one piece then your Future bets are completely worthless.

On the flip side, however, we not only lose 3-year-old contenders at this time of year, we also gain them. New horses appear on the Derby scene every weekend at this time of year, and old names also re-appear, as happened in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn when 2-year-old monster American Pharoah returned from a layoff for his seasonal debut with a crushing victory in that Grade 2 prep.

In the new road to the Derby "Championship Series" of preps, wins and places in these races will be crucial for horses to be able to work their way into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. This will force horses to enter more preps, and should result in each one of the remaining prep races being even more highly competitive than ever before, especially for hopefuls who end-up short on points heading into mid-April.

There are essentially six major prep races remaining (I'm not counting the UAE Derby in Dubai, which really isn't a relevant race in my book) worth the most points. Those "big 6" preps are the Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, and the Arkansas Derby. There are also two races worth substantial points preceding those races - the Spiral Stakes at Turfway on Saturday, March 21 (Polytrack) and the Sunland Derby on Sunday, March 22. Kentucky Derby points qualifying ends with a very small amount of points to be available for the Lexington Stakes on April 11.

Once again, the Illinois Derby on April 18 has been snubbed as an "official" Derby prep race, and will not be worth any points. That essentially makes the Illinois Derby an unofficial Preakness prep.

One other thing to take note of heading into the nitty-gritty season of Kentucky Derby prep season, is that Keeneland's prep races, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Lexington, are back to being dirt races, of course, and therefore have much more meaning than they've had in the last several years when Keeneland ran on Polytrack.

Here is a list of the top Kentucky Derby points horses, current as of mid of mid-March:

Road to the Derby Points Leaders
(Current as of 3/18)

Rank Horse Points
1 El Kabeir 75
2 International Star 71
3 Dortmund 70
4 Carpe Diem 64
5 American Pharoah 60
6 Itsaknockout 50
7 Upstart 36
8 War Story 24
9 Far Right 22
10 Madefromlucky 20
10t Ami's Flatter 20
10t Prospect Park 20
13 Bold Conquest 17
14 Mr. Z 14
15 Frosted 13
15t Classy Class 13
17 Texas Red (out) 12
18 Keen Ice 11
19 The Truth or Else 11
20 7 horses tied with 10

Below is a list of some of the other Championship Series points races, and some of the horses that are currently pointing for those races. Two highly-regarded horses with Derby potential and aspirations, Daredevil and Materiality, are still undecided for their final prep races.

SPIRAL STAKES, Turfway, March 21
Kentucky Derby points: 50-20-10-5
Key Probables: Metaboss, The Great War, Imperia, Royal Son
The Spiral Stakes at Turfway is one of the last remaining Kentucky Derby prep races still run on an artificial surface, and therefore the importance of the race in terms of picking the Derby winner is greatly diminished, except in terms of the amount of points the race awards and how important those points are for getting the winner and perhaps the runner-up a spot in the starting gate in the Run for the Roses. This race was part of Animal Kingdom's road to the roses, so it's not impossible, however, the next Derby winner probably is not included in the field for this year's race, which entails a bunch of horses in questionable form or horses that seem meant for turf and/or synthetic. The best possibilities here for handicappers include Metaboss, the winner of the El Camino Real Derby at Gold Gate, also on synthetic, and a pair of local prep race winners, Todd Pletcher's Royal Son who won the Battaglia, and The Great War, who won the 96 Rock Stakes. Of those horses, The Great War seems the most interesting - not for the Derby, but for the Spiral - because he actually ran a solid fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall in his lone stretchout try to date. I think 1-1/4 mile in the Derby would be too long for him, but he's possible in this race at 1 1/16th.

SUNLAND DERBY, Sunland Park, March 22
Kentucky Derby points: 50-20-10-5
Key Probables: Lord Nelson, Firing Line
This race is usually all about Bob Baffert, who annually sends some of the top contenders to the race. Certainly, Baffert is well represented this year with Lord Nelson, a converted sprinter who just finished off the board against much better competition at Santa Anita in the San Felipe. Now he reels right back just two weeks after that race, as Baffert seems determined to prove people wrong about Lord Nelson's distance limitations. We'll see. Either way, the story of this race will be Firing Line, who has suffered two close losses in a row behind the top Kentucky Derby contender Dortmund, both times by a neck. He finally gets away from his nemesis here today - far away - and should be able to win this race comfortably, even if the Kentucky Derby and its 1-1/4 miles will eventually be out of his reach, as well.

FLORIDA DERBY, Gulfstream Park, March 28
Kentucky Derby points: 100-40-20-10
Key Probables: Itsaknockout, Upstart, Frosted
This race is essentially shaping up as a repeat of the Fountain of Youth, with three of the four top finishers from that prep likely to be the favorites in the Florida Derby. This race was supposed to be an interesting showcase for talented 3-year-old Khozan, but that horse is injured and out. The race could pick up an interesting newcomer such as Daredevil or Materiality, who are both considering the race amongst other prep options, but ultimately, this race will probably come down again to the "big three," with Itsaknockout and Upstart looming the most likely winners (I'm not sure Frosted is quite as good). Upstart was the victim of a controversial DQ in the Fountain of Youth for bothering Itsaknockout not once, but twice in deep stretch. Many handicappers think that trouble had no impact on the race, but I tend to differ since I saw Itsaknockout losing all momentum when he still had fight left in him at that point in the stretch run. If strong favoritism goes to Upstart, I would veer toward Itsaknockout. Both are talented horses and you can't really go wrong with either opinion.

LOUISIANA DERBY, Fair Grounds, March 28
Kentucky Derby points: 100-40-20-10
Key Probables: Keen Ice, War Story, Mr. Z, International Star
This race really has not attracted the top rung Kentucky Derby contenders in recent years, and may not be a key prep race again this year the way it is shaping up. Nonetheless, it is a major race with several good horses pointing there, including all of the top three finishers from the local prep race for the Louisiana Derby, the Risen Star Stakes - International Star, War Story, and Keen Ice (in that order). Out of those three horses, I would put International Star at the top of the list of contenders, at least at the Fair Grounds, because he's already won both main Louisiana Derby preps on that track, including also the Lecomte Stakes. Down the line a little further, War Story might be the better Kentucky Derby contender amongst these horses. He's trained by Tim Amoss, and he's been overcoming troubles at the starting gate basically his whole career. If Amoss can ever teach this horse to break better, he might be a completely new and improved horse as a result. The other main contender in here is Mr. Z, who is turning into a bridesmaid type of horse who hits the board but doesn't win.

WOOD MEMORIAL, Aqueduct, April 4
Kentucky Derby points: 100-40-20-10
Key Probables: El Kabeir, Far From Over, Classy Class, Tiz Shea D (not nominated)
This race could shape-up as a battle between the top finishers from the Gotham - El Kabeir, Tiz Shea D, and Classy Class (in that order), and Far From Over, the winner of the Withers Stakes trained by Todd Pletcher. The big name here is El Kabeir, who not only won the Gotham but also the Jerome and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, but keep in mind that his recent loss came against Far From Over in the Withers in what was only Far From Over's second career start. In addition, Far From Over overcame a bad stumble at the start of that race which appeared to cost him his best chance in the race. Based on that, plus the Pletcher factor, I would say Far From Over wil be the horse to beat.

SANTA ANITA DERBY, Santa Anita, April 4
Kentucky Derby points: 100-40-20-10
Key Probables: Dortmund, Prospect Park, Bolo, Ocho Ocho Ocho
Dortmund is the current leader of the 3-year-old division and will headline the Santa Anita Derby, perhaps on his way to favoritism in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. Dortmund remained undefeated - a perfect 5-for-5 - when he was the easiest kind of winner in the San Felipe. He added that win to his wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity and the Robert Lewis Stakes, as well. Prospect Park and Bolo chased him home in the San Felipe, and Ocho Ocho Ocho was further behind. However, Ocho Ocho Ocho might end up being the main challenger in this final West Coast prep, because he needed his past race off a layoff and should be better prepared this time around. His late 2-year-old season win in the Delta Jackpot over Mr. Z and eventual Southwest Stakes winner Far Right points him out as a horse to fear as Dortmund basically steamrolls his way to Churchill Downs.

BLUE GRASS STAKES, Keeneland, April 4
Kentucky Derby points: 100-40-20-10
Key Probables: Carpe Diem, Ami's Flatter, Frammento, Unrivaled
Hallelujah, the Blue Grass is back on the dirt, and it is once again the major Kentucky Derby prep race it was always meant to be. This year's race is expected to attract the top two finishers from the Tampa Bay Derby, including winner Carpe Diem, who is considered to be one of the main contenders for the Kentucky Derby come the first Saturday in May. Carpe Diem, trained by Todd Pletcher, was the runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and also owns a win last fall at Keeneland (dirt) in the Breeders' Futurity. Clearly he'll be the horse to beat. Other horses pointing to the Blue Grass include Ami's Flatter, who will have his hands full trying to turn the tables on Carpe Diem after losing to him at Tampa, and Frammento, a late runner who got up for third in the Fountain of Youth ahead of Frosted. One final interesting contender looks like Unrivaled, a fast winner from Parx owned by Team Valor.

ARKANSAS DERBY, Oaklawn, April 11
Kentucky Derby points: 100-40-20-10
Key Probables: American Pharoah, Far Right
This race probably will have a full starting gate, but really it is shaping up to become a battle royale between two of the top contenders on the Kentucky Derby trail - American Pharoah and Far Right. American Pharoah looks like the real deal. He was projected to be the favorite and horse to beat in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile before bowing-out with an injury, but now he's come back with a crushing victory in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn and seems to be picking up right where he left off as a 2-year-old for trainer Bob Baffert. Far Right should, however, be a formidable challenger. He exits back-to-back Oaklawn stakes wins in the Smarty Jones and the Southwest, and still seems to be improving with every race.

LEXINGTON STAKES, Keeneland, April 11
Kentucky Derby points: 10-4-2-1
Key Probables: To be determined
The Lexington Stakes - Keeneland's other Derby prep - offers almost no points for Derby qualifying and is more or less an afterthought for horses on their way to Churchill Downs, however, the race could play a very significant role in filling out the starting gate in this year's Run for the Roses. First off, the race has been moved from two weeks before the Kentucky Derby to three weeks before, which makes it a viable option for more horses. And second, even with only 10 points to the winner, the race could end up being the lynchpin for whether or not a late hopeful gets into the Derby starting gate or not. Therefore, I would expect a few also-rans from each of the Spiral Stakes, the Florida Derby, and the Louisiana Derby to run in this race to take a last-ditch shot at earning enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. It should be an interesting scenario.

It figures to be a great prep race season on the road to the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 2. Watch close throughout these final prep races as the contenders begin to sort themselves out from the pretenders. Good luck, and I hope you enjoy a profitable prep season!

By Noel Michaels: OTBLearningLabs.com


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