Top 3-year-olds Separated from Pack in 2015 Derby Preps

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International Star winning the Louisiana Derby. - Order This Photo
Photo by Hodges Photography/Lou Hodges

When 2-to-1 favorite International Star edged Stanford by a neck in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) March 28, he would prove to be the longest shot to win any of this season’s biggest Triple Crown prep races.

Looking at the six U.S. races this year that the Road to the Kentucky Derby awards 100 points to the winner, four were won by favorites. Of the six races, International Star delivered the largest win payout at $6.60, a return that would have been the smallest from these six races if it had come in 2011.

Three of this year’s four favorites--Carpe Diem in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), Dortmund in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I)--won their respective races at odds below even-money. In the four years before this season, only two horses had captured one of these six Derby preps at odds lower than even-money: California Chrome in last year’s Santa Anita Derby and Eskendereya in the 2013 Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I).

The average win odds in this year’s six races, which also included Materiality’s victory in the Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) and Frosted in the Wood Memorial, was just 1.2-1, or 6-5.

Even the single 100-point race offered overseas, the U.A.E. Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (UAE-II)at Meydan, fell in line as favorite Mubtaahij rolled to victory. In international pools, he returned just $4.40 for a $2 win bet.

Looking at the same six Derby prep races from the past five seasons, this year’s domination by favorites comes after four individual seasons in which not more than two prep-race favorites won. In 2011, not a single favorite won any of the six big prep races. In three of the past five years, at least one horse has won one of these Derby preps at odds of 25-1 or higher.

Some reasons for this year’s domination by the favorites?

First of all, of course, we have a very talented group of 3-year-olds this season at the top of the class. They have consistently delivered to put some distance between themselves and their rivals.

How dominating have they been? In the first two years of the Road to the Kentucky Derby system, Orb and California Chrome each earned 150 points to lead their respective seasons. This year four horses have secured more than 150 points with International Star leading the way with 171, Dortmund with 170, Carpe Diem at 164, and American Pharoah at 160.

Dortmund - Photo by Benoit Photography

Zayat Stables’ homebred American Pharoah has won four straight races, including three grade I scores during that stretch. He is pointing to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) off back to back graded stakes wins at Oaklawn Park.

Kaleem Shah’s Dortmund is undefeated in six career starts, including three graded stakes wins this season in Southern California.

WinStar Farm and Stonestreet Stable’s Carpe Diem has won four of five career starts, that one “blemish” being a runner-up finish in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). He is pointing to the Kentucky Derby off two graded stakes wins this year.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s International Star has won three straight graded stakes this year at Fair Grounds.

Besides what appears to be some very talented runners at the top of this class, there are some other factors that explain the domination by the favorites this year.

This year’s estimated North American foal crop of 23,500 3-year-olds is the smallest since the 1968 racing season, when there were 22,910 3-year-olds. This year’s six 100-point races in the U.S. drew an average field size of 7.83 horses, nearly two fewer starters than just a year ago when an average of 9.7 starters contested each of these races. The 7.83 starters this year is down 32.4% from the 10.37 starters in these races from 2011-2014.

Because of scheduling and training approach, many top 3-year-olds are not facing one another during the prep season. This year the Blue Grass was moved from three weeks before the Derby to four weeks out, following the trend of other major prep races closest to the Derby. Meanwhile Derby preps like the Florida Derby that had been contested on a date far enough from the Derby to allow horses to make one more prep start, have been moved closer to the Louisville classic in recemt years, making it possible for trainers to use them as their final prep race.

Carpe Diem winning the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. - Order This Photo
Photo by Anne M. Eberhardt

Where it used to be common to see Florida Derby horses show up at Keeneland for the Blue Grass or Aqueduct Racetrack for the Wood Memorial, this week just one week separated the Florida Derby from those two races.

Besides the foal-crop impact and timing of races, some trainers likely assessed the talent level of this year’s top 3-year-olds and chose not to take a shot.

In recent years these prep race scheduling changes and changes in training have led to top 3-year-olds typically not facing each other much until the Derby. That trend continued this year. International Star has won three graded stakes this year, all at Fair Grounds. He has not faced any other 3-year-old among the top 10 Road to the Derby points leaders. That’s not a knock on him, it’s more of an overall trend that the top sophomores don’t face each other much until the Triple Crown races.

The most recent Derby winner to start at more than one track as a 3-year-old before the Derby was Animal Kingdom, who in 2011 started at Gulfstream and Turfway Park. In 2014 California Chrome started three times at Santa Anita Park before winning the Derby. In 2013, Orb made three starts as a 3-year-old before winning the Derby, all at Gulfstream Park. I’ll Have Another started twice in 2012 before that year’s Derby, both at Santa Anita.

Also Keeneland’s move from Polytrack to dirt saw just eight Blue Grass starters this year in a race that averaged 13.25 starters the previous four years. The Polytrack race seemed to attract some trainers taking a shot with different horses, for instance 3-year-olds who had raced well on turf or synthetic surfaces.

Of course the dominating horses from the prep races are on a collision course for Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), where they can’t all win.

American Pharoah running in the Arkansas Derby.
Photo by Coady Photography

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