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2012 Kentucky Derby: The Road To Louisville

For horse racing fans, the change of the calendar from 2011 to 2012 doesn't just signal the beginning of a new year, it signals the start of the road to the greatest thoroughbred race in America, the Kentucky Derby. Over the next three months, we'll preview and review the prep races, analyze the contenders and the pretenders, and publish a weekly ‘Top 10'.

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The path to the 2012 Kentucky Derby on May 5th is a long and arduous one. Horses, like human athletes, are fragile animals that are susceptible to a variety of injuries, illnesses, bumps and bruises that can derail even the most talented thoroughbred on the path to glory (see Uncle Mo). A horse that looks like the next Triple Crown winner in January might be an also-ran in May. A virtual unknown at the beginning of the year could find its best stride on the first Saturday in May.

Three-year-old horses are at a stage of rapid development where a matter of weeks can involve significant improvement in their running ability. The goal of all trainers aspiring to win the Kentucky Derby is to have their horses at their physical and mental best when they step into the starting gate at Churchill Downs. The goal of horseplayers and handicappers is to spot those horses overlooked by everybody else and cash in on Derby day.

For those of you that don't follow horse racing on a day-to-day (or even month-to-month) basis, here are a few things to know about the Kentucky Derby and the road to Louisville:

  • The Derby field is limited to twenty horses determined by the amount of earnings they collect in 'graded stakes' races. Graded stakes races are determined by the industry to be the highest level of racing in the country and, therefore, are assigned one of three grades - Grade 1, Grade 2, or Grade 3. A Grade 1 race is the most prestigious and, many times, carries with it the largest purse. For the Kentucky Derby, money earned in any graded stakes race is treated as the same, regardless of the grade of the race in which it is earned.

    Because graded stakes earnings are the key to running a horse in the Kentucky Derby, it is critically important for aspiring Derby horses to run well in stakes races that lead up to the first Saturday in May. Every year there are horses that aren't able to run in the Derby due to a failure to collect enough earnings during their prep races.
  • Traditionally, the most prestigious Kentucky Derby prep races are the Wood Memorial (Aqueduct, New York), Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita Park, California), Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park, Arkansas), Louisiana Derby (Fair Grounds, Louisiana), Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park, Florida), and the Blue Grass Stakes (Keeneland, Kentucky). All of those races carry a purse of $750,000 to $1 million, which almost guarantees the winner of earning enough graded winnings to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Additionally, the Sunland Derby (a Grade 3 race at Sunland Park in New Mexico) is worth $800,000. While most of the top Kentucky Derby contenders will not run in the Sunland Derby, the large purse puts this race on par with some of the more prestigious prep races in terms of acquiring enough graded stakes earnings to make the starting gate at Churchill Downs.

    The file below provides an overview (and results) of the 2012 Kentucky Derby prep races.

    2012 Kentucky Derby Prep Races

  • A horse only has one shot to win the Derby as the race is restricted to those that are three-years-old. The universal birth date of all thoroughbred horses is January 1st, meaning the year of birth determines the age of individual horses, not the month and day.
  • Fillies are allowed to run in the Derby and are subject to the same graded stakes requirements as the colts.
  • The Kentucky Derby is one of the most difficult races in the world to win due to the field size (most races are limited to 12, not 20, horses), distance and pace. The majority of modern thoroughbreds in America are bred to run at a mile or less, and not at the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter. Furthermore, a three-year-old horse is essentially a teenager still growing into its body; many horses just aren't ready to perform at their highest level that early in their careers. Throw in a typically chaotic pace that punishes all but the fittest of horses, and you have one of the most demanding events anywhere in the world.
  • The winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is usually the winter favorite for the Derby in most Las Vegas future books. However, since the beginning of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, only one horse has won the Juvenile and come back to win the Derby the following spring (Street Sense, 2007). In fact, most Juvenile winners never even make it to the starting gate for the Derby due to minor injuries or simply the failure to develop as fast as their peers during the spring.

Over the next three months, as 2012 Kentucky Derby hopefuls make their way on the path to Louisville, I'll provide a weekly review and preview of key prep races, analyze opportunities in the future books, and publish a Top 10 list of Kentucky Derby contenders.