The road to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) changes from time to time, and so do the roadmaps printed by the racetracks and used by owners and trainers to get their horses to Churchill Downs in optimum condition on the first Saturday in May.
The one-mile Derby Trial Stakes, inaugurated in 1924 and now run one week before the big race, was the final pit stop for a dozen Kentucky Derby winners. But the last Derby Trial/Kentucky Derby winner was Tim Tam in 1958. No serious Kentucky Derby contender runs in the Derby Trial these days.
It wasn't long ago that Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes was run on a Thursday nine days before the Kentucky Derby. The close proximity to Derby day wasn't a problem until the late 1980s, when many horsemen said they preferred a longer gap between a horse's final prep and the Derby. Until then, the Blue Grass was a steppingstone for numerous Derby winners, including Spectacular Bid in 1979 and Alysheba in 1987.
Keeneland switched the date of the Blue Grass in 1989, putting it three weeks before the Derby. But the damage was done, as reflected in the data used by the Graded Stakes Committee. Overall field quality had declined, and the race was downgraded from grade I to grade II for 1990. Eventually, the new schedule and an increased purse helped, and the Blue Grass regained its grade I status in 1999.
Aqueduct's Wood Memorial also has gone through a transition. Preferred by some horsemen because it requires all runners to carry the same 126-pound impost as the Derby, the Wood Memorial for many years was scheduled two weeks before the Derby. Secretariat was upset in the Wood before he captured the 1973 Triple Crown. Seattle Slew used it for his final springboard to sweep the series four years later.
A growing number of trainers of Derby contenders thought it was asking too much of a horse to race nine furlongs in the Wood, then go 10 furlongs in the Derby two weeks later, 1 3/16 miles in the Preakness (gr. I) two weeks after that, and 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont (gr. I) three weeks after the Preakness. They liked the new three-week-out schedule of the Blue Grass and began to avoid the Wood.
Just as Keeneland had done, New York Racing Association officials moved the Wood to three weeks prior to the Derby beginning in 1993. But, again, the Graded Stakes Committee dropped the race from grade I to grade II in 1995, based on data showing a decline in quality. With its new schedule and a bigger purse, the Wood got its grade I ranking back in 2002.
This year, NYRA officials moved the Wood back another week, putting it on the calendar the same day as the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), the West Coast's primary prep, run one month before the Kentucky Derby.
The Florida Derby has been a grade I race since 1973, when the grading system was instituted, but for years its running date was dictated by the rotating racing dates involving Gulfstream Park and now-dormant Hialeah Park. Since 1990, when Gulfstream was awarded the prime dates, the Florida Derby was run in mid-March and served as a penultimate prep for horses moving on to the Blue Grass, Wood, or grade II Arkansas Derby (which, like the Blue Grass, is run three weeks before the Kentucky Derby). For the most part, the Florida Derby since 1990 has been an almost obligatory stop on the road to Churchill Downs for East Coast runners.
That was not the case this year, when the Florida Derby date was moved to April 2, five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. It forced horsemen to choose either the Florida Derby or one of the later April races as their final Kentucky Derby prep. Early results suggest the new date may have hurt the Florida Derby as a prestige event. But like everything else on the road to the Derby, that, too, can change.