In a year filled with synthetic surface preps and extended layoffs between races, most of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) contenders are looking to break some kind of trend.
However, the Derby wouldn't be the Derby without looking at what has worked in the past. Scheduling is a key component of any horse's Triple Crown bid, and different races have been more successful than others in producing winners.Click here to view interactive Trail to the Kentucky Derby (1990-2007)
In the past 10 years, the most successful Derby preps have been the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Wood Memorial (gr. I, gr. II 1995-2001), with three winners a piece. Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet(1998) finished second in the Santa Anita Derby while Giacomo ran fourth in 2005. His half-brother, Tiago, was victorious in the race this year.
The winner of the Wood has only gone on to win the Derby once in the past decade, and that was done by Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. However, Monarchos and Funny Cide finished second before taking the roses in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
The remaining Derby winners of the past decade all found different paths to victory, including the Florida Derby (gr. I), Arkansas Derby (gr. II), Illinois Derby (gr. II), and Lexington Stakes (gr. II). Perhaps the most unlikely Derby prep came from Charismatic, who won the 1999 Coolmore Lexington Stakes to stamp his ticket to the Derby. The only other horse to use the Lexington as a successful springboard was Swale, who finished second in 1984.
Of course, Barbaro also bucked tradition when he came into the Derby off of a victory in the Florida Derby and a five-week layoff. Monarchos also won the Florida Derby en route to the first Saturday in May, but ran in the Wood in between.
Smarty Jones used the Arkansas Derby in 2004 and joined Fusaichi Pegasus as the only favorites to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979. The last time the Arkansas Derby was used as a final prep prior to Smarty was Grindstone, who finished second in the 1996 running before wearing the roses.
Last but not least, War Emblem copied his front-running victory in the 2002 Illinois Derby and was successful the first Saturday in May. In doing so, he became the only Derby winner to use the Illinois Derby as a prep and the first wire-to-wire winner since Winning Colors in 1988.
The most popular Derby prep since 1980, the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I, gr. II 1990-98), has provided 102 Derby starters in that time, but has failed to produce a Derby winner since 1995. Thunder Gulch did not place in the Keeneland's signature spring race but went on to win the Derby. However, the Blue Grass did provide five winners in a nine-year span starting in 1987. With the addition of Polytrack, it will be interesting to see how future Blue Grass runners do in the Run for the Roses.
The Santa Anita Derby has been the second most successful prep for getting a 3-year-old into the Derby starting gate, with 89 starters, and the Florida Derby is not far behind with 88.
Every year it seems the Derby winner finds a slightly different path to success. Smarty's success in Arkansas has led to an increase in popularity there, while the old standards still draw serious contenders. Only time will tell if a new tradition is in the making courtesy of this year's Derby victor.