In 1996, Grindstone won the Louisiana Derby (which at the time was a grade III and run in mid-March), prepped for the Kentucky Derby in the Arkansas Derby, and went on to capture the roses by a nose.
Three years later in 1999, Charismatic, who had run in a $62,500 claimer at Santa Anita in February, won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland before shocking the field at 31-1 to win the Derby. Both horses were trained by D. Wayne Lukas but neither were based in Louisiana or Kentucky.
Why are these two wins significant and why do I mention them?
During the past 15 years, they are the only two 3-year-olds to win preps in Louisiana or Kentucky then go on to score the Kentucky Derby.
Three other horses (War Emblem, fifth Lecomte and sixth Risen Star, 2002), Funny Cide (third Risen Star, 2003) and Street Sense (second Blue Grass, 2007) made stops in Louisiana or Kentucky prior to their Derby victories, but none of them won those preps.
Here are the tracks the last 15 Derby winners prepped at as 3-year-olds:
1996: Grindstone--Santa Anita, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn
1997: Silver Charm--Santa Anita (3 races)
1998: Real Quiet--Golden Gate, Santa Anita (2)
1999: Charismatic--Santa Anita (5), Bay Meadows, Keeneland
2000: Fusaichi Pegasus--Santa Anita (3), Aqueduct
2001: Monarchos--Gulfstream (3), Aqueduct
2002: War Emblem--Fair Grounds (3), Sportsman's Park (2)
2003: Funny Cide--Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Aqueduct
2004: Smarty Jones--Aqueduct, Oaklawn (3)
2005: Giacomo--Santa Anita (3)
2006: Barbaro--Calder, Gulfstream (2)
2007: Street Sense--Tampa Bay, Keeneland
2008: Big Brown--Gulfstream (2)
2009: Mine That Bird--Sunland (2)
2010: Super Saver--Tampa Bay, Oaklawn
While there aren't many strong trends that can come out of the information above, it is certainly worth noting that neither Louisiana or Kentucky have played significant roles in the last 15 Derby winners. In the case of Louisiana, which since the addition of slots-induced purses has been an attractive place to prep for the Triple Crown, there have been several high-profile horses win the Louisiana Derby recently only to falter in the Derby. High Limit, Circular Quay, Pyro, Friesan Fire, and Mission Impazible are the most recent examples. Risen Star winners Dollar Bill (2001) and Lawyer Ron (2006) were also well-backed in the Kentucky Derby but ran poorly.
In the Louisiana Derby's history, only two winners have gone on to score the Derby. Grindstone was one. Black Gold was the other, in 1924. It should be noted that the purse was increased to $1 million for the first time this year. Maybe that will make a difference in attracting more top prospects.
One thing that Fair Grounds did have going for it over the past few years was that the nation's leading trainer, Steve Asmussen, usually kept many of his best 3-year-olds in Louisiana. Though he has never won a Derby, Asmussen obviously gets very strong horses and can never be discounted. But with Asmussen stabled at Santa Anita for the first time, his top 3-year-olds are no longer at Fair Grounds-at least not this year. Sham Stakes winner Tapizar is a prime example. In years past, a horse like that would have likely been based at Fair Grounds.
As for Kentucky, it's a little bit of a different situation because the Keeneland meet doesn't begin until April. Though the data is still incomplete, I think it is clear that the installation of Polytrack in 2006 has hurt its ability to attract top caliber 3-year-olds for its major prep race, the Blue Grass. The Blue Grass was for years, along with the Santa Anita Derby, the top Derby prep race in the nation. Names like Spectacular Bid, Gato Del Sol, Alysheba, Unbridled, Strike the Gold, Sea Hero, and Thunder Gulch jump off the page when mentioning Blue Grass runners that went on to win the Derby. Now, it's become less and less likely that the top Derby contenders will make their final stop at Keeneland. Instead, it's a place where connections go for one last chance to grab Derby earnings for horses on the outside looking in. Trainers just aren't as likely to risk prepping a horse on Polytrack before the biggest race of their life.
Recent trends indicate that the top East Coast horses are going to Florida and staying there. In some cases they will go to New York for the Wood Memorial or to Oaklawn, especially if top trainers want to seperate their best prospects. And with Santa Anita now back to dirt, the West Coast contenders are more likely to remain in California. When it comes time to make a Derby pick, I know they are the places I will be most likely be looking. It won't be in Louisiana or Kentucky.