So, Keeneland is now back on dirt and that means the Blue Grass Stakes is back to being a major prep for the Kentucky Derby and no longer a haven for grass and synthetic horses looking to back door it into the Run for the Roses.
The first thing Keeneland did was raise the purse to $1 million and move the race up a week to four weeks before the Kentucky Derby. That left the Arkansas Derby as the only remaining major grade I Derby prep run three weeks before the Derby.
This move by Keeneland is typical of the conservative thinking that has pervaded the sport. What is it that makes trainers and racing officials believe that horses need four and five weeks to the Derby? You only have to go back to the 1980s to find the Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby run two weeks before the Kentucky Derby and the Blue Grass run nine days before the Derby. How did we go from nine days to four weeks or two weeks to four weeks? Instead of running in another race after the Florida Derby, as in the past, horses now go straight into the Kentucky Derby off of a five-week layoff.
By moving the Blue Grass up a week, it now competes with the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby the same day and no longer provides an opportunity for horses coming out of the Spiral Stakes or Sunland Derby to come back in three weeks for their final 1 1/8-mile Derby prep and a chance to earn 100 points. To Keeneland’s credit, they at least moved the Lexington Stakes into the Blue Grass Stakes’ old slot, but the Lexington is only 1 1/16 miles and a grade II race and offers only 10 points to the winner instead of the 100 points of the Blue Grass, so that will help very few horses get into the Kentucky Derby. Unlike the Wood and the Santa Anita Derby that are part of a series of preps, the Blue Grass is a lone wolf just sitting out there by itself, hoping to attract random horses and those who pass up the Florida Derby. The attraction of the Blue Grass where it used to be was that it provided horses a little behind who weren't quite ready for the Santa Anita Derby or Wood with an extra week.
The old two-week span between the Wood Memorial and the Kentucky Derby certainly didn’t hurt Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew, nor did the three weeks between the Hollywood Derby and the Kentucky Derby hurt Triple Crown winner Affirmed, who actually ran in the San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby, and Hollywood Derby in a span of four weeks before running at Churchill Downs. That means that Affirmed won those three stakes, plus the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness all in the span of nine weeks.
We’re all aware that no stable has dominated the Kentucky Derby more than Calumet Farm in the 1940s and ‘50s. Do you know what all those Calumet Farm Derby winners, such as Citation, Whirlaway, Ponder, and Tim Tam, had in common? They all ran in the Derby Trial…four days before the Kentucky Derby. Then Ben Jones and Jimmy Jones had the audacity to work them a half-mile two days later -- two days before the Derby. Even Assault ran in the Derby Trial four days before the Derby and 10 days after winning the Wood Memorial and then swept the Triple Crown when it was run in the span of only four weeks instead of five.
Todd Pletcher, king of the new age trainers, prefers four and five weeks to the Derby, even though all his horses to hit the board but one – Super Saver (first), Invisible Ink (second), Bluegrass Cat (second), Danza (third), Impeachment (third), More Than Ready (fourth), and Limehouse (fourth), went into the Derby off “only” three weeks.
So, to go along with the general preferences of the trainers, Keeneland has moved the Blue Grass to four weeks out. And horses certainly have won the Derby off four weeks, but let’s look at the Triple Crown as a whole and the success rate of horses running in the Arkansas Derby “only” two weeks or three weeks before the Kentucky Derby.
In 2014, Danza won the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Kentucky Derby.
In 2014, Ride On Curlin finished second in the Arkansas Derby and finished second in the Preakness.
In 2013, Bodemeister won the Arkansas Derby and finished a close second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
In 2011, Nehro finished second in the Arkansas Derby and second in the Kentucky Derby.
In 2010, Super Saver finished second in the Arkansas Derby and won the Kentucky Derby.
In 2009, Summer Bird finished third in the Arkansas Derby and won the Belmont Stakes.
In 2007, Curlin won the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Kentucky Derby, won the Preakness, and finished second by a neck in the Belmont Stakes.
In 2006, Steppenwolfer finished second in the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Kentucky Derby.
In 2005, Afleet Alex won the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
In 2004, Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby and won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
In 2000, Impeachment finished third in the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Kentucky Derby.
In 1998, Victory Gallop won the Arkansas Derby and finished second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and won the Belmont Stakes.
And of course, we can also go back to 1992 when Lil E. Tee finished second in the Arkansas Derby and won the Kentucky Derby, and Pine Bluff won the Arkansas Derby and won the Preakness and finished third in the Belmont Stakes.
The bottom line is that horses can win the Kentucky Derby regardless if they prep three weeks, four weeks or five weeks out. But in an era when we are starved for a Triple Crown winner and rarely see horses even run in all three Triple Crown races, perhaps it is time to look to the past when horses did win the Triple Crown and did run in all three Triple Crown races.
We shouldn’t be afraid to run these horses and give them the necessary foundation needed to not only win the Kentucky Derby, but make it through the Preakness and Belmont Stakes as well. California Chrome had a four-week gap from the Santa Anita Derby to the Kentucky, but ran 10 times at 2 and 3 prior to the Derby. He was still winning grade I stakes at the end of November.
In most cases, only the strong survive the Derby trail, not counting the inexperienced late starters who are rushed to make the Derby, even though it is not in their best interest in the long run. So when April comes along and you still have a legitimate Derby hopeful with the proper foundation, you want them to get on a roll, and that is why so many Derby winners and horses who run well in the Derby come right back two weeks later in the Preakness and run as well, and often better, than they did at Churchill Downs. They are on a roll; an adrenalin high, caught up in all the excitement and hoopla of the Triple Crown. This is their time to shine, when they go from boys to men, and if given the foundation and toughness to endure this grind, they will perform at their peak.
Who knows, perhaps it is that third week between the Preakness and Belmont when horses start to tail off because they start coming down from that high. In this day and age I’m sure that makes little sense to many.
Hall of Fame trainer Elliott Burch never let them come down. On three occasions, Burch ran horses who had competed in the Derby and Preakness in the Met Mile between the Preakness and Belmont and all three horses – Sword Dancer, Quadrangle, and Arts and Letters – won the Belmont Stakes. In 1948, when the Preakness was run 27 days before Belmont, Ben Jones had to run Citation in the Jersey Derby Stakes in between, and he won by 11 lengths before sweeping the Triple Crown. When Count Fleet won the Triple Crown, the Preakness was run only one week after the Derby, so trainer Don Cameron had to run Count Fleet in the Withers Stakes between the Preakness and Belmont. It was the same when Whirlaway won the Derby. After winning the Preakness one week later, Jones had to run him in an allowance race before the Belmont.
This, obviously, is all speculation and theory. No one knows for sure the best way to get a horse to the Derby and through the Triple Crown. What we do know is that in the days when horses had no problem running in all three races and horses were sweeping the Triple Crown, they ran anywhere from four days to nine days to two weeks before the Derby and often made an extra start between the Preakness and Belmont.
Those days are long gone, but anyone who thinks the three weeks of the Arkansas Derby is too close to the Kentucky Derby, just check out the history books. For whatever reasons, whether it be medication, conservative training, or other factors, it seems to be the majority opinion that horses today are not as tough as the horses of 40 or 50 years ago. Maybe that’s because we don’t give them the chance to be.