On the Derby's Coattails

Every owner's dream is to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). In the last few years, the next best thing to running in the Kentucky Derby is running a horse on Kentucky Derby Day. Since 1998, the total purses offered on Derby day have increased nearly $300,000, from $1,917,300 in 1998, to $2,207,400 last year, and accordingly, a number of races run on the Derby undercard have increased in importance.

The biggest example of growth is in the former Early Times Turf Classic Stakes (gr. IT), now known as the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes. The race has been a grade I event since 1998, but its purse jumped from $250,000 in 1998, to $300,000 in '99-2001, to $400,000 last year. It continues to draw some of the best turf runners from across the country. The top two finishers in the 2002 edition, Beat Hollow and With Anticipation, both competed in Breeders' Cup races later in the year. This race has also stayed put on the Derby Day card and been run just prior to the Derby for the last five years, while other stakes races have been moved around a bit.

One race that has grown in value and prominence is the seven-furlong Humana Distaff Handicap. It is for fillies going seven furlongs on the dirt, and for the last five years, has been run just before the Early Times Turf/Woodford Reserve. In 1998 the race was worth $100,000 and carried a grade III designation. It has gradually attracted a higher-quality field, and in turn jumped to a grade II for 1999-2001. During those years the purse was $150,000. In 2002 Churchill Downs added another $50,000 to the purse, and the race garnered a grade I standing.

A few horses have competed in undercard events, then jumped to the feature the following year. The WHAS-11 Stakes, now known as the Three Chimneys Juvenile Stakes, became known as a showcase of young 2-year-old talent. In 1999 More Than Ready won the WHAS. He finished fourth in the following year's Derby.

One race, the Churchill Downs Handicap, has had the same conditions for the last five years, and year after year attracts a quality field. The Handicap's first year as a grade II, which is still carries, was in 1998. For all five years from 1998-2002 its purse was $150,000. This year it has jumped to $200,000. Past winners of the race include Distorted Humor, Rock and Roll (who won the 1999 event after competing in the 1998 Derby), Straight Man, and D'Wildcat.